Archive for the ‘cult’ category

The Return of the Living Dead

August 24, 2020

rotld

It doesn’t feel right, somehow, for a punk, gory, young and snarky thing like The Return of the Living Dead to be 35 years old. But here we are (it was released August 16, 1985). Though writer-director Dan O’Bannon was a busy screenwriter in the ‘70s and ‘80s (Alien, Total Recall) and directed one other film (1991’s The Resurrected), Return feels like a one-off, almost the Never Mind the Bollocks of ‘80s horror — fast, furious, and farcical. It’s a mammoth amount of fun, with a sharp trashy punk/new wave soundtrack and a trio of perfect performances by middle-aged actors in the midst of posturing, attitudinizing youth. It’s the three older guys, I think, who make Return not just great crappy fun but just plain great.

To give you an example of the level of acting craft: there’s a scene between Clu Gulager, as the owner of a warehouse, and Don Calfa, who runs the mortuary across the way, and I would put it up against any scene anywhere. Gulager wants to use Calfa’s crematorium. Why? Well, because he has several garbage bags full of writhing undead human body parts, and he needs to incinerate them. Calfa takes one look at the bags and says, what the hell? Gulager says, “…Rabid weasels.” The exchange gets weirder and weirder, and Gulager and Calfa effortlessly find the hilarious reality in it, and I’m serious, acting gets no finer than this. And this in what’s designed to be a throwaway zombie flick for bored ‘80s teens. Which it also is, but brilliantly.

Return was O’Bannon’s firecracker rewrite of a script by Night of the Living Dead’s Russell Streiner and John Russo, who’d envisioned it as a serious sequel to that George Romero classic. O’Bannon made it more of a riff; Night is referenced but not named, as a movie that was loosely based on events in Return’s universe. Tanks of toxic guck sit in the basement of Gulager’s warehouse, operated by James Karen, the third middle-aged guy, who accidentally punctures one of the tanks when showing the ropes to new hire Thom Matthews. Karen, one of the great That Guy character actors, expertly sets the film’s irreverent tone. He’s every older guy who showed you around on your summer job, coming off as a know-it-all but actually just as dumb as anyone. Truly punk, Return of the Living Dead has little respect for humans as a self-preserving species.

The body parts go up in flames; the smoke commingles with gathering storm clouds, and re-animating rain falls on the nearby cemetery. A small group of punks hang out there, waiting for their friend Matthews. The burning rain falls on them too, and soon re-awakened corpses are chasing them all over, craving their brains. Punks in 1985? Well, the movie is set in Kentucky; maybe they’re Kentucky punks who took a while to get the memo. (The post-punk delight Repo Man had opened a year and a half earlier, and yet the two movies seem a natural double feature.) Strangely, the girls (Linnea Quigley, Jewel Shepard, Beverly Randolph) come across more vividly than do the young guys, who all seem temperamentally interchangeable except maybe Suicide (Mark Venturini), who gets a tombstone-grandstanding speech (“Nobody understands me, you know that?”) that links him with the whiny crime-doing punks in Repo Man.

I have affection and respect for all of George Romero’s zombie films, but Return of the Living Dead occupies a particularly fond piece of my heart. It’s edited (by Robert Gordon, beautifully) for comedic timing, not horror, and mostly acted that way, too. By the time we get to Colonel Glover (Jonathan Terry), who authorizes the ultimate solution in a Lynch-like deadpan over the phone (“I see. And what did you do then? … And what did they do?”), we can add Bob Newhart to the list of influences on this sarcastic, winking apocalyptic cartoon that proves the utility of paramedics once and for all. 1985 was a great year for party movies. Return of the Living Dead goes that one better, asking you if you wanna party, and then giving it to you. It is, after all, party time.

Undercover Vice: Strapped for Danger Part II

July 19, 2020

undercover vice 1At a moment when protesters are being taken away in unmarked vans by feds in camo, it’s a goofy relief to see cops doing nothing more terrible than posing as gay porn actors in Undercover Vice: Strapped for Danger Part II (premiering on Facebook July 31). In the world of Rhode Island director Richard Griffin (Before the Night Is Over), sex levels everything; sex makes everyone ridiculous but also hot. Griffin’s latest is no different. Don’t be thrown by the tongue-in-cheek subtitle: although it shares one character, Piñata Debris, played by drag queen Ninny Nothin, it’s more a spiritual than literal sequel to Griffin’s 2017 Strapped for Danger. So Undercover Vice can be watched and enjoyed without having seen the earlier film, though I recommend both.

I’m not even sure if Piñata is the same character (in the first film she was a hostess at a strip club, here she directs gay porn) — more like the same fact of life, the genderfluid constant catering to ticklish and giggly impulses. Ninny Nothin (aka Johnny Sederquist) embodies either/or, neither/nor, the Venn diagram of male/female/gay/straight. Drag queens aren’t just camp denigrations of women any more (if they ever were, or at least if done disrespectfully). Griffin loves women, though — he wants to show them being happy and funny and ludicrous. So the movie isn’t entirely taken over by sweaty testosterone; Griffin brings in ringers like Sarah Reed, Samantha Acampora, and Victoria Paradis and encourages them to go huge.

Reed’s and Acampora’s big sex scenes are completely about what makes a woman hum — forget the males who happen to be physically facilitating it. (Fantasizing aloud, and loudly, Acampora’s character — a cop’s soon-to-be-fiancée — essentially gives us an imaginary sex scene overlaying the one we’re watching, which links this film with one of the few films to pull this off successfully, David Cronenberg’s Crash.) Undercover Vice, written (like Strapped for Danger) by Duncan Pflaster, concerns two detectives — sorta straight but bicurious Andy (Sean Brown) and damn straight Kevin (Chris Fisher) — who are ordered by their chief (the splenetic Paradis) to go undercover as gay-porn actors to infiltrate a blackmail organization. Griffin enjoys playing in the very small sandbox of this sub-subgenre of cops going undercover gay, which in the past has yielded such disparate efforts as Cruising (1980), Partners (1982), and Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch (1991). Ultimately those movies failed or hardly tried to do what Griffin does, which is to use the trope to show straight folks how it feels to have to play-act as another sexuality to survive.

But Griffin isn’t here to lecture us (not in a movie with that title); as usual with his comedies, he just wants to throw a party and invite everyone — and he will have dancing, dammit, even if it means a random Bollywood what-the-hell-was-that scene. (It’s like that joke about Christians fearing that sex leads to dancing.) We get to know the “criminal” porn actors (Alec Farquharson, Ricky Irizarry, Anthony Rainville), who all have their own quirks and kindnesses. The bad guys, if anyone, are the police chief and her two hee-hawing minions, who think the detectives being forced to be gay for pay is the funniest thing in world history. Griffin and Pflaster also know that stories about cops going undercover — being actors — allow for some nice character shading. Does the cop come to feel bad about busting his new companions? If so, why? If not, why not? These stories can get to the very heart of identity and its discontents, and we ruminate upon that, and then a naked ass gets spanked. That’s the Griffin touch.

Peeping Tom

May 3, 2020

peeping tom Perhaps the most shocking thing about Michael Powell’s notorious Peeping Tom, sixty years now after its premiere in England, is that it looks respectable and classical and almost sedate — until it doesn’t. The movie genuinely appalled critics of its day, who must have assumed they were getting a delectable, harmless thriller from the director who, solo or with Emeric Pressburger, had presented many of England’s most prestigious films. (Critics already knew pretty much what to expect when Alfred Hitchcock unveiled his near-contemporaneous Psycho.) But no. Peeping Tom, written by Leo Marks, may look and play “normal” but is drenched with the flop sweat of sexual mania. I think if it had been made by anyone else, possibly in America, in the poverty-row style of something like The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, it might still have kicked up a fuss, but not as much rage.

Peeping Tom turned out to be part of a wave of thrillers in the ‘60s, including the better-known Psycho but also movies like William Castle’s Homicidal, that focused on a killer’s psychological damage inflicted by cruel parents. Here, our subject is Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm), who acts as a focus puller on movies and takes naughty photos for a local bookshop. He also has an elaborate fetish involving women looking frightened. He films them at the moment they realize they’re going to die, and he adds a vicious touch that should remain unspoiled for newcomers to the movie, though the most horrifying moment in Kathryn Bigelow’s 1995 Strange Days owes most of its punch to it.

Mark has been doing his thing unimpeded for a while now — in the opening scene, he disposes of a prostitute, who screams in her room though nobody cares enough to look in until he is long gone — but when he meets Helen (Anna Massey), a tenant in the building Mark inherited from his father, his thing deflates a bit. He shows the kindly Helen footage his demented shrink father (Powell himself) shot of himself tormenting the young Mark at night. She feels for him, and part of him responds to her sympathy. He promises he will never photograph her. He seems to want to cordon his psychosis off from her, but we and he know that’s not going to work. He has a run-in with Helen’s blind mother (Maxine Audley), who senses what he is but can’t do much about it. Helen, who has just turned 21, may be falling for Mark precisely because of his pain.

I imagine part of the vehemence of the response to the film was due to Powell’s pre-punk indifference to what his more monocle-dropping viewers would think. For instance, Powell takes Moira Shearer, beloved star of his The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffman, and contrives an undignified fate for her comparable to Janet Leigh’s. Yet always, the filmmaking is smooth, assured, suffused with cinematographer Otto Heller’s sumptuous palette. Powell shows us pretty pictures but uses them to lure us into a dark, seedy alley where two-quid whores loiter and warped men get them alone. It’s a classic bait and switch, and the trope of the voyeuristic beast locked in the city with his own misery until a beauty comes along may have informed Taxi Driver, directed by Martin Scorsese, whose reverence for Powell almost matched his reverence for Christ.

We also sniff a Scorsesean element in the finale: a beauty cannot redeem the monster; only submission to the same treatment he has given his victims might do that. Roger Ebert mused that Peeping Tom’s real crime in the eyes of its early haters was that it implicates the viewer — it uses its own medium to wrench us into complicity with a killer. It wasn’t the first film to pull this rug, but it did it with such blunt-force trauma that it has been called the first slasher film. I don’t know about that; proto-slasher, maybe, or even proto-giallo — it predated Mario Bava’s seminal The Girl Who Knew Too Much by three years. In any event, Peeping Tom survived its initial shower of spit and rotten tomatoes — largely due to Scorsese, who spent some artistic capital to restore and re-release it in 1979 — to become a feverish cult object among horror acolytes and classic film buffs alike.

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover

April 5, 2020

cook thiefThirty years ago this month, we in America began to hear of something dark and alluring, a British film with a title worthy of Grimm: The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. Those of us who caught it in an art-house theater, with an actual audience, remember the hushed noises around us. It was a weird crowd. Viewers accustomed to rather more genteel and artsy fare were confronted with images of sex and violence; viewers with a thorough grounding in exploitation flicks were confronted with allusions to great painters and dramatists. Either way it was a confrontation. Does it say anything today, though? And really, did it ever?

I’m not a Cook, Thief hater. Its creator, writer-director Peter Greenaway, crafted an extraordinary — and extraordinarily memorable — fable about art and love adrift in a cruel world of … of what? Consumerism? Capitalism? Thatcherism? Cook, Thief can be an attack on whatever you want it to be an attack on. But is it really an attack? Certainly the second character in the title — the thief, crude gangster Albert Spica (Michael Gambon) — seems meant to stand in for ugliness and brutality wherever we may find it. Spica sits in his favorite restaurant, which he has also bought, and spews about disgusting topics as though he were a naughty little boy testing the patience of his elders. But no one dares to push back at him; doing so may get you stabbed in the face with a fork, or taken out to the parking lot and smeared with dog excrement.

Whatever narrative tension there is in Cook, Thief derives from Spica’s abused and soul-tired wife Georgina (Helen Mirren), who loathes Spica and has her eye on a literally bookish man, Michael (Alan Howard). Michael comes to the restaurant each night, reading about the French Revolution over the meals prepared by the head chef, Richard Boarst (Richard Bohringer), who also hates Spica. If Cook, Thief belongs to anyone other than Greenaway, it’s Mirren, who wrestles the movie away from Greenaway’s often pompous clutches and invests it with recognizable human emotion — even during a late scene that goes on forever and spoils what might be, in a “lesser” film by Greenaway’s lights, the big twist. If you’ve never seen the movie or haven’t for years, you will come away from it with an even deeper-seated respect for Mirren, who does her damnedest in a largely unwritten role. Greenaway, it seems, doesn’t do humans any more than his opposite number — say, Michael Bay — does.

Yet it’s this very tension between humanity and the film’s rigorous scheme — between life and art — that digs its hooks into our memories. The lurid cruelties that Greenaway lingers over, out of perhaps some disdainful conviction that this is what the mass audience wants, help to file the movie on a rarefied art-exploitation shelf alongside, say, Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant or Darren Aronofsky’s mother!. I don’t mind Greenaway’s fixation on art. I actually prefer his Belly of an Architect, made two years before Cook, Thief, and not just because Brian Dennehy dominates it brilliantly. There’s a compassion, a generosity of spirit, in it that’s missing from Cook, Thief. But by the time Greenaway made this film, he’d been in the business and dealing with money men for enough years that his experience, I suspect, informed the Juvenalian satire here.

Cook, Thief was the first film by Greenaway distributed in America by Miramax, which at that point was building a reputation as a tony studio specializing in prestigious works from the indie scene and from abroad. After the movie’s success — driven by all the buzz about its ghastly content — Miramax got into the Greenaway business briefly, with Prospero’s Books and Drowning by Numbers. Nowadays, of course, Miramax is associated with far more sinister things than a movie featuring vomit and shit and corpse-munching. The bearded, balding Albert Spica, with his potato face, his violently menacing swagger, his ferocious misogyny, and his deafening contempt for anything uppity while conspicuously consuming fine food (art food!) only to shit it out later, strikes me in 2020 as nothing so much as Greenaway’s prescient portrait of Harvey Weinstein. Viewed as a metaphor for Greenaway the cook’s hatred of the slimy vulgarians he had to prepare exquisite dishes for in order to continue to cook at all, Cook, Thief takes on considerable thematic weight. And who among us can object to the way Greenaway deals with his Weinstein, by putting the means of revenge not in the cook’s hand, finally, but in the wife’s?

Monty Python and the Holy Grail

March 30, 2020

holygrailFor all the talk about Monty Python and the Holy Grail being the Python troupe’s first “proper” movie — with a narrative and everything, unlike their previous film, the sketch assortment And Now for Something Completely Different — it is still, in large part, a sketch assortment. The film turns 45 this month, and in the intervening years, its bits of business have become every bit as iconic as the boys’ greatest hits from Flying Circus. “Bring out your dead.” The Knights Who Say Ni. The Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch. And so on. The movie’s anarchic, shambolic nature (and the abruptness of the troupe’s desire to get on with it and get out of a bit) will shock a string of laughs out of the first-time (like-minded) viewer, but past a certain point, as it did this most recent time I sat with it, it becomes simply a warm bowl of comfort food. The film’s world of amiable nonsense looks so much better than the world of frightening nonsense we now occupy.

The filmmaking duo of Python, the two Terrys (Jones and Gilliam), cut their teeth here. Having no idea how to make a film, they taught themselves how to make a film by making this film. It shows, though charmingly. Occasionally there is a striking image that links Holy Grail to Gilliam’s Jabberwocky, Time Bandits and so forth, but largely it’s a slovenly piece of work directorially, though not necessarily in a bad way. The Pythons, after all, were thumbing their noses at the very concept of films, or epic films. As a film artist, Terry Gilliam grew astronomically in the ten years between Holy Grail and Brazil. Terry Jones, bless his soul, did not improve. The Jones-directed Life of Brian, naggingly funny as it often is, is as crude as the crudest parts of Holy Grail, and he continued to prove in such uneven attempts as Erik the Viking that filmmaking was not his strength. (I would say that aside from performing, Jones excelled as a writer and historian, which is certainly nothing to sneeze at.)

None of this is to throw shade at the film as a cult object and cultural going concern (even though the lucrative spin-off musical Spamalot ended up costing the boys 800,000 pounds in legal fees and royalties). We settle into the film’s ramshackle absurdity very quickly, as soon as the credits start being subtitled in increasingly baffling “Swedish.” We all agree to accept the “story” of King Arthur (the perfectly cast Graham Chapman) assembling his knights in search for the Grail, though usually the agreed-upon illusion of this as a story we’re being told doesn’t last long. There’s just too much meta-commentary for that illusion to hold firm. I don’t remember, say, Airplane! even at its most chaotic calling its own structure and credibility as a movie into question the way Holy Grail does. I think it was Danny Peary in Cult Movies 2 who floated the notion that we may as well be watching an asylum escapee who thinks he’s King Arthur, and the assorted goofs and loons accompanying him. Like Life of Brian, this film has little respect for mob illogic; a straight line could be drawn from the “Burn the witch” bit to the easily gulled crowds of followers in Brian.

I’ve seen Holy Grail on cable, on video, on the big screen (possibly a 20th-anniversary showing at the Coolidge Corner), and now on Netflix. All the things I appreciate in it — its restless, reckless imagination and its insistence on using its budgetary limitations for comic effect — are still there. Much as I love Python, I find a little of them goes a long way for me, and my watch beckoned a couple of times here, as it does during all their other feature-length romps. (It’s possible that their cinematic swan song, The Meaning of Life, has held up the best solely by virtue of not having been quoted to death.) Still, Holy Grail has a rumpled, unpretentious quality that ties it to other well-loved British cult films like Withnail & I and much of Edgar Wright’s output. It is the very definition of “right, boys, let’s go putter around these Scottish castles and see what we come back with.” The comedy may be harsh at times — its quantity of (glaringly fake) gore may raise eyebrows among parents who take its PG rating on faith — but its impulse to entertain via what amounts to a clothesline of blackout sketches is reassuringly human.

For Madmen Only: The Stories of Del Close

March 22, 2020

for-madmen-only-185820The current situation being what it is, I have no idea when you’ll get to see For Madmen Only: The Stories of Del Close — it was supposed to premiere at the cancelled SXSW festival last week — but you should keep an eye out for it. It’s as worthy of its subject as any movie that isn’t completely shambolic and unconventional can be. The improvisational-comedy master Del Close, who died in 1999 five days shy of his 65th birthday, is probably better known for the comedians he taught and/or inspired than for his own performing. Anyone who was anyone on Saturday Night Live (from the Belushi years to the Fey years), SCTV, and more passed through the turbulent gates of Close’s cracked guidance and wisdom. A guru to hundreds, he was also a self-destructive, self-mythologizing flaming wreck of a human, one who burned bridges while still standing on them.

For Madmen Only combines the usual talking-heads approach with tongue-in-cheek re-enactments. The skilled comedian James Urbaniak steps in as Close in the latter segments; it must have been as daunting a task as Michael Chiklis wandering into enemy fire to play Belushi in the awful Wired, but in this case it pays off — Urbaniak has a strong resemblance to Close in the first place, so he’s free to play an idiosyncratic but occasionally successful collaborator. The segments have to do with Close’s late-period project Wasteland, a short-lived cult comic book from DC, and that’s where I first heard of Close and the many tales, tall or otherwise, about him — his various drug trips, his brushes with Hollywood, his beginnings as a carny performer, or just surreal reveries with himself and sometimes his writing partner John Ostrander as hosts.

Around that same time (the late ‘80s), Close was wandering into major films — you may have seen him in The Untouchables, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, or the remake of The Blob. Once seen, he’s not easily forgotten; he had a leonine, authoritative presence. More and more over the years, though, he used that presence not to hit his own marks on the stage but to make a mark as a behind-the-scenes Svengali, directing youngsters like Stephen Colbert or Mike Myers to reach inside themselves, connect with their stagemates, and produce … well, laughless crap, some of the time. Some of the time, the result was brilliance you couldn’t tap into any other way. Forming his own theater, with longtime creative partner Charna Halpern, Close seasoned his students with a decades-old improv technique he’d developed and insisted on, known as “the Harold.” Despite reading about it on several occasions and hearing about it anew in the movie, I still don’t quite understand the Harold’s intricacies, but then I’m not an improvisational comedian. A comics and sci-fi reader, Close probably enjoyed a concept that enabled extended fantasizing within a context of rules; in that sense, he was the Gary Gygax of comedy, the dungeonmaster.

Close never rose to the level that many of his students felt he wanted to. He had the mind of a teacher but the soul of a performer, a renegade artist. If you know him, it’s from that brief window when directors like Brian De Palma and John Hughes were hiring him. That was him, probably, at his most presentable, the wizard a movie director could wheel out for hipster cred (and to add a few volts to a scene — Close brings avuncular menace to his reading of “You fellas are untouchable, is that the thing?”). Mostly, though, he was simply too unstable for even the unconventional employment of an actor. What this documentary underlines is that Close found his métier as a prophet and visionary, touching the faithful on their fevered foreheads and dispensing grace.

closeuntouchThe shots of Close’s cluttered, dilapidated ashtray of an apartment square with the portrait I remember from the best two books about him, The Funniest One in the Room by Kim “Howard” Johnson and Guru by Jeff Griggs. In person, I gather, Close was the classical irascible old genius with an appetite for stimulation. This was a man capable of telling an interviewer (Bob Odenkirk) that he’d kicked cocaine and heroin, but of course still smoked weed and had a few hallucinogenic trips a year (“Those are health drugs!”). The movie’s mix of anecdotes, dramatizations and animation points up the subtitle — the stories of Del Close. For certainly such a crowded house of a man would not have only one story. We finish with a pair of debunkings of Close legends, and Charna Halpern refers to the “jerky reporter” who broke one of them — the one about Close bequeathing his own skull to play the role of Horatio in future productions at a Chicago theater. Well, as the saying goes, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

Before the Night Is Over

January 26, 2020

before night is overIf there’s anything you can be sure of, it’s that any film offering a clip from the indescribable silent oddity Dementia/Daughter of Horror has its cult-flick priorities squared away. That was true of The Blob back in 1958, and it’s true of Before the Night Is Over, the new horror film by Rhode Island director Richard Griffin (Flesh for the Inferno, Code Name Dynastud). There’s a bit when confused protagonist Samantha (Samantha Acampora) sits in the living room of an all-male bordello, watching Dementia on an old Sylvania TV, and she is joined by one of the house’s studs (Ricky Irizarry), who puts his silk bathrobe on her. Since this is also an erotic mood piece, wherever you think this act leads is probably correct.

Dementia is in there, I think, because it proceeds almost entirely through stark image and twisty dream logic, and that seems to be the direction Griffin increasingly wants to go. Before the Night Is Over is chockablock with more mystery and heavy breathing than anything this side of a David Lynch thriller, and I think I need to see it again to catch some of the plot. Or do I? The story here is not nothing — it’s firmly in the tradition of southern gothic, with intimations of the inferno — but I suspect Griffin tells the story as much because of the eerie tone it affords as anything else. It’s possibly no coincidence that many of the men who live in or frequent this house are contending with the shame of the closet in various ways. When one of the young studs goes missing, so does everything in his closet, as if…as if he’d never existed (spooky laughter).

What’s real in the movie and what isn’t? If you need that nailed down for you, I’m not sure this is your cup of mint julep. The movie’s influences include ‘70s made-for-TV horror, but it feels to me like the sort of R-rated ‘70s horror film you used to see on TV in the afternoon (on Dialing for Dollars, say), cut for time and content. Before the Night Is Over runs just 73 minutes, including credits, and I wonder if it could’ve stood to be a reel or so longer, if only to luxuriate in the morbid decay of the setting, with its locked rooms and peeling wallpaper. Samantha Acampora makes a solid, wide-eyed navigator through the sinister goings-on, and when the madams of the house start cooing over an imminent guest by the name of Wheatstraw, we have a better idea where we are. This bordello is a place of shadows where secrets — sexual or homicidal — squirm and fester. There’s a whiff of the eternal here, as in The Shining, and it seems as though the houseful of figurative vampires and zombies are here solely for Samantha.

The rare filmmaker equally indebted to Lucio Fulci and James Baldwin, Griffin has, in recent years, felt himself pulled towards more queer-positive subjects, in answer to the current regime. The horror in Before the Night Is Over, as in William Friedkin’s Cruising, has less to do with gayness than with the type of violence to body and soul that a closeted atmosphere makes possible. The movie is set in 1973, and well-to-do men show up at the door to scratch an itch they can’t legally scratch out in the world (sodomy laws were big and bad in the ‘70s, especially down south). There may or may not be a murderer picking off studs and clientele, and the house itself may or may not be a limbo for the unquiet dead, but all of the narrative uncertainties drive towards the subtext of secrets guarded with steel and blood. This is the sort of gothic that, back in old Tennessee Williams’ prime, might have been coded so that the hot action was nominally hetero but in spirit very much not. Griffin gets to promote the subtext to text and empty the closets.

Paradise Hills

November 3, 2019

paradisehillsEvery shot of Paradise Hills is otherworldly in its beauty. I’m not sure how it “reads” as a narrative, but as a visual work of art, a tone poem, and a riff on some familiar but evergreen themes it makes one stand and applaud. The 29-year-old director, Alice Waddington, hails from Spain and first made her mark with the eleven-minute short film Disco Inferno in 2016. The short is worth the 99-cent rental on Amazon; its story is a little baffling — it has to do with a “minion of hell,” dressed like a masked and sinuous spy out of Georges Franju’s Judex, trying to rescue an ingenue destined for demonic soul enslavement, or something — but it plays like a surreal silent film (except when it doesn’t), and it’s good preparation for the elliptical, allusive sights and sounds of Paradise Hills.

We wake up along with the confused Uma (Emma Roberts) in a remote island stronghold, a cross between a palace and a well-appointed girls’ prison. Young women, it seems, are sent here to be trained out of their troublesome quirks and habits. The society that produces these women — including Chloe (Danielle Macdonald), sent to become more skinny, and Yu (Awkwafina), sent to become less Awkwafina — is some sort of post-war Hunger Games dystopia/utopia, depending on whether you’re an Upper or a Lower (as in class). Uma wants out of the island paradise; she has a like-minded friend in pop star Amarna (Eiza González), who’s here apparently because she started making personal music frowned on by those in charge. Standing in her and everyone’s way is the Duchess (Milla Jovovich), whose habit of snipping thorns off rose stems is a bit too tidy a metaphor for her supervision of the girls’ re-education.

But honestly the plot (by Waddington and Sofía Cuenca, worked into a script by Nacho Villalongo and Brian DeLeeuw) is entirely irrelevant to the pleasures here. Paradise Hills is about creamy pink interiors and sun-dappled exteriors, all cloaking something immeasurably darker and uglier. It’s about the masochistic female fantasy of being persecuted for being oneself and shipped off to a strange place with other women, who together will rise as a sharp-toothed sisterhood against the oppressors. (There’s some of that, but not too much; as it is, the movie is never less exciting than when it tries to gin up excitement via chases, sneaking around, etc.) It’s also about loving ancient gothy films so much it hurts. It’s every bit as gleaming an act of cinema worship as Anna Biller’s odious The Love Witch, except that Waddington actually finds things to say about the things whose surfaces she and cinematographer Josu Inchaustegui photograph so indelibly. I can see Paradise Hills becoming a cult favorite among a certain type of dramatic teen — its sensibility is authentically female in every frame, asserting the power of its girls and women from the start, and denying that the structure of the patriarchy (and the women complicit in it, like the Duchess) has anything to offer them but chains. The movie doesn’t hate men, but it sure doesn’t have a lot of love for them either.

To which I say, good. A movie whose identification is completely with women and their experiences is particularly welcome now, not to politicize overly what should be a timeless empowerment fable and a grab bag of brightly-hued confections. The performances, I have to say, lean towards the artificial — common among directors with strongly visual instincts — save for Awkwafina, who is always radiantly, daffily herself, even in a more solemn context like this. But there’s literally always something great to look at; Waddington seems to have walked on set for each shot, tweaked the colors and decor 75%, and then called action. Most people will see Paradise Hills at home or even on their phone, not on the big shiny screen its visuals demand, and that’s a pity.

But the eye and the sensibility on view in Waddington’s work (I hope Disco Inferno comes as an extra on the eventual Paradise Hills Blu-ray) are not to be discounted. The movie is a glimmering calling card showing deep-dish promise; whoever scouted the amazing locations deserves a case of beer, and overall this is the most pictorially arresting sci-fi debut feature since Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca. As for the animating story, I acknowledge that I’m not its ideal audience, though even some women, like Vulture’s Alison Willmore, have pooh-poohed it — “a dystopian princess fantasy,” she called it, with perhaps some unconscious racism under its hood. (Why isn’t Awkwafina the lead in this?) I am probably more forgiving and sentimental about the movie’s narrative and complaints than that. It works as a lavishly crafted daydream shading into nightmare. It started to lose me around the climax, but when it had me, it had me.

3 from Hell

October 20, 2019

3fromhellSo it turns out that Sid Haig’s Captain Spaulding was the corroded soul of Rob Zombie’s “Firefly” films. Haig, who went to the great grindhouse theater in the sky this past September 21, was front and center, a leering psychotic ball of greasepaint and rage, in Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses (2003) and The Devil’s Rejects (2005). In the new, much-belated third film, 3 from Hell, Haig has one vehemently defiant scene early on, and then ol’ Captain Spaulding gets the death penalty. (Haig was supposed to have a much bigger role, of course, but his health forbade it.) Although the striking Richard Brake takes over what would have been Spaulding’s grisly activity and is perfectly fine at it, Haig is dearly missed.

Given the choice of having Haig for a matter of minutes or not doing the film at all, I don’t know which I would have chosen (nor do I know if Zombie had the option to pull the movie’s plug). I do wonder, though, why 3 from Hell was made, because the rotgut masterwork Devil’s Rejects was a perfect, hard, diamond-like finish to the story of the Firefly family, rounded out by Spaulding’s daughter Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie), who makes Mallory Knox look like Mallory Keaton, and her hellbilly adopted brother Otis Driftwood (Bill Moseley). At the end of Devil’s Rejects, it certainly seemed as though Zombie had given them a Viking funeral and Peckinpah send-off all in one, but they survived the police onslaught (“twenty bullets in each body,” we’re told here), and Baby and Otis spend ten years in prison.

Cut to 1988. Baby is up for parole (hilariously) and Otis is sprung from a road crew by his half-brother Foxy (Brake). Soon enough, the three are on the lam, menacing enemies and strangers alike, and we get the depressing feeling we’ve seen this before. Baby does her drifty, swaying-cobra routine that snaps into lethal focus, and Otis drops pompously demonic pronouncements like a dinner-theater Manson. The usual gnarly sadism, vintage needle-drops, language that would make a Marine blush, and rather offensively offhanded nudity follow. (I am not as convinced as Rob Zombie apparently was that a Firefly victim, courageously played by Sylvia Jefferies, needed to be stripped naked and then be knifed to death in that state on someone’s front lawn in pitiless daylight. The death, and her suffering, would have had equal impact if she’d been allowed to stay clothed.)

I’ve only seen the unrated cut of 3 from Hell, so I’m not sure what bits of grue (a gory woman blubbering while her flensed face hangs on a tree; intestines out where we can see them; the results of arrows, machetes, and bullets versus flesh) made it into the R-rated version — but who, given the choice, is going to opt for watered-down Rob Zombie, anyway? The thing is, Zombie has already freaked us out with most of this violence before; even the bit with the disembodied face is a variation on a much stronger scene in Devil’s Rejects. Zombie probably wanted to get the old gang back together for one last bloody ride, and that’s understandable (as long as it is a last ride and we don’t see another of these goddamn things in 2025). Zombie has gifts; he really does. And I’d rather see him using them with fresh material than repeating himself, which is what he did to some extent in 2016’s 31 and also here.

Zombie, 54, will probably never change. If he lives to be 80 and he’s still able, he’ll still be making second-generation grindhouse fare in his jittery greasy-grimy-gopher-guts aesthetic — I don’t expect to see Zombie’s Ikiru or Fanny and Alexander. But B-movie integrity can be as much of a trap as insincere Hollywood romps; past a certain point, both approaches start to feel inorganic. The Devil’s Rejects felt like a story Zombie just had to tell, and a story that nobody else could tell so sharply. 3 from Hell doesn’t. Again, it seems to have no urgent reason to exist, except perhaps to give us a last glimpse of Captain Spaulding (if not Sid Haig, who will still appear posthumously in two more films by other directors). So, hooray for Captain Spaulding. The rest of these motherfuckers, not so much.

Midsommar

October 13, 2019

midsommar Whether it was curiosity or masochism that led me to Midsommar, the second feature by Ari Aster, I’m grateful to whichever it was. I more or less hated Aster’s debut, the high-pitched horror Hereditary, but this one’s the real deal — it sets a brittle but menacing tone early on and sustains it for well north of two hours. Midsommar feels like a hard shot from the source of terror — an allusive work of art, admittedly built out of earlier art. It will be (already has been) debated and discussed in perpetuity, and it’s the sort of film as comfortable on the front cover of Fangoria magazine as it will be as an eventual spine number in the Criterion Collection. When you hear Martin Scorsese or someone else going on about cinema, Midsommar is what they mean. It doesn’t just shock or spook. It unsettles.

The set-up is almost comically thorough and bleak. The leads, Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor), are in a relationship that looks to be circling the drain. Something traumatic happens that makes sure they stay together (thinking back on it now, I wonder who or what is ultimately responsible for the tragedy), and they find themselves accompanying a friend back to his home turf in Sweden, specifically a remote commune where dwell an ancient band of pagans called the Hårga. The Hårga are awfully sunny and polite and friendly, and if we’ve seen more than one movie before we mistrust them on sight. But as directors as disparate as Robin Hardy (The Wicker Man) and Ruggero Deodato (Cannibal Holocaust) knew, the horror doesn’t only lie in the “foreigners” our onscreen avatars find themselves among; it’s also in how “we” change, or don’t, in relation to them or in response to them.

It is true that Midsommar gets a couple of mean creepy moments out of a disfigured boy, the result of inbreeding in the Hårga clan, but he doesn’t do anything bad — he’s elevated as an oracle in the society. Besides, Aster has louder and wetter disturbances in store. I should probably say that the reported level of violence and perversity in Midsommar — likely from viewers who don’t see many horror movies — has been overstated. When it comes, though, it’s a sharp jab in the chops, all the more ghastly for unfolding in broad, shadowless daylight. At certain points some of the characters take psychedelic drugs, which in the world of the Hårga is really gilding the lily. Pugh and Reynor add a prickly, precarious vibe to the festivities; they’re neither good nor bad but realistically flawed, and they don’t always act nobly or wisely.

If we “liked” any of the protagonists in a simplistic manner, it’d be harder to see what Aster is truly going for. At many points, we have a god’s-eye vantage point on the action; the script keeps us in the dark about the Hårga and their motives, while the filmmaking (cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski deserves awards) is all blue skies and open air. The camera eye is neutral, showing us the primal, alien rituals without editorializing. Even the Dani’s-eye, psilocybin-soaked visions are like, hmm, that’s odd. (There’s actually a character named Odd.) At one point the outsiders loudly berate the Hårga for “just watching” as gore makes rainbows in the sunny air. We agree, yet we’re also just watching, and this is what we came to watch, whether or not we knew it.

Midsommar is an immersive and illogical experience. There’s a director’s cut, for now available exclusively from Apple, that runs 171 minutes and fleshes out more of the relationship between Dani and Christian. It’s not necessary, though, for us to see ourselves in them or vice versa. We identify with the outsiders only sporadically (especially not the idiot who accidentally micturates on a sacred dead tree), and the minds of the Hårga are as obscure to us as the mind of a spider. Ari Aster has a distinct voice — he seems to take for granted that people are invariably going to be difficult and self-defeating — though maybe not the most steady control of his effects yet. There are still, as in Hereditary, a few too many moments wherein we’re not sure if we should laugh, or whether Aster means us to laugh. Consistency may never be his strong suit. But he has delivered, in this cult epic, a powerfully paranoid mood piece. Time will tell whether Aster can function without hellish covens and nightmarish attempts to re-assert gender primitivism, but I’m certainly ready to tag along with him and find out.