Wednesday, October 30, 2013


Wisconsin lunatic Ed Gein (1906-1984) remains horror cinema's gift that keeps on giving.  The Plainfield Ghoul's grotesque legacy can be traced through such pictures as Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), William Girdler's Three on a Meathook (1973), Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), and Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs (1990), as well as those thrillers' various and sundry sequels and/or remakes.  Steve Railsback portrayed the killer in Chuck Parillo's 2002 Spanish-Portugese import In the Light of the Moon (quite sensibly retitled Ed Gein for U.S. and Australian audiences), but my favorite of all the movies inspired by the Mad Butcher is Alan Ormsby and Jeff Gillen's Deranged (1974), which stars character actor Roberts Blossom (resembling the unholy offspring of William Burroughs and John Cazale) in a superb performance as Gein surrogate Ezra Cobb.  The film follows Gein's story fairly closely--"Only the names and the locations have been changed," we are assured before the titles--and it abides, even at the distance of four decades, as both a viscerally frightening and a truly heartbreaking viewing experience.

Deranged is narrated onscreen by fictitious newspaper columnist Tom Sims (Les Carlson), who claims to have "covered firsthand" the weird tale of the "Butcher of Woodside."  Sims serves as the film's chorus, breaking the fourth wall from time to time in an occasionally awkward but oddly effective structural device, watching us as we watch him.  Cobb's life and crimes constitute, as Sims asserts in the best ballyhoo fashion, "a human horror story of ghastly proportions and profound reverberations.  But because it is human, perhaps we can learn something from it.  Something of ourselves, of our own fears and needs."  This, of course, is also in the best ballyhoo tradition, as we innocent viewers prepare to plunge ourselves into all that ghastliness purely in the interests of enlightenment and moral instruction.  Let us proceed.

Cobb lives--or, more precisely, exists--on a Midwestern farm with his fanatically fundamentalist Christian, paralyzed-from-the-waist-down mother Amanda (Cosette Lee), who teaches her son to despise and avoid the fair sex.  (I am reminded here of H.L. Mencken's amusing definition of a misogynist as "a man who hates women as much as women hate one another.")  Cobb's father died when the boy was ten; fifteen years later, Amanda suffered a stroke, and her dutiful son has looked after her for the last dozen years.  "To his neighbors," Sims intones, "he was a devoted son.  But that devotion masked a growing psychosis which came to the surface when his mother died."  Indeed, Amanda expires in the film's first few minutes, but before she goes gentle into that good night, she urges Cobb to contact her friend Maureen Selby (Marian Waldman) if he needs help.  "Maureen's the only woman I ever did trust," she explains.  "She's fat, that's why.  A big heffer.  But she's the only goodhearted woman I ever knew."

Amanda fervently maintains that the rest of the female population is nothing more than "a lot of filthy black-souled sluts with pus-filled sores."  Furthermore, she fears that "some money-stealing bitch is gonna come along and try to take advantage of" her precious Ezra, whom she worries, rather late in the game if you ask me, that she has perhaps "sheltered...too much."  She implores him to remember that "the wages of sin is gonorrhea, syphilis, and death," and that women will "steal your life and your soul....Most of 'em are filled with diseases that tick!"  The dying creature, clutching the Good Book, becomes positively ecstatic as she waxes apocalyptic: "God'll wash 'em away, like he did in the time of Noah.  'God looked upon the earth and behold! it was corrupt.  For all flesh had corrupted His way upon the Earth.  Then God said unto Noah, The end of all flesh has come before Me.'"  It's high time for another Great Flood, she reckons, regretting that she won't be around to witness Jehovah's cataclysmic wrath.

A year after Amanda's death, we find Ezra unable to move on, obsessively visiting her grave and even arranging an artificial version of "Mama"--consisting of a black dress, purse, shoes, and a black-and-white head shot of the woman--to lie as if sleeping on her bed.  (Every time I see this image, I'm reminded in the best Freudian fashion of the monochrome cardboard cutout of a topless Jane Asher that John Moulder-Brown moons over in Jerzy Skolimowski's Deep End [1970].)  Cobb faithfully cleans Amanda's room and keeps the home fires burning for her, imagining that his mother is "only away on a trip," even writing the dead woman letters.  He stops farming altogether and works as a handyman for his childhood friend, avid hunter Harlan Kootz (Robert Warner), all the while retreating into insanity.  Desperately lonely in their old frame house in the spider's web of winter, he tells his departed mother that "there's nothing but snow and snow and snow.  And the wind blows and blows and blows.  And it's so cold.  And I miss you with all my heart."

Suddenly, Amanda answers him in Cobb's voice as he closes his anguished eyes.  "If you miss me so much," she demands, "why don't you come and bring me home?  You should be ashamed of yourself, leaving me here."  The next thing you know, Cobb is humming "Rock of Ages" as he motors to the cemetery and digs Amanda up, hallucinating that she looks like her old self again.  Reality intrudes in the form of rotting flesh, but Cobb hugs Amanda to him regardless and promises her that he is indeed taking her home.  The local sheriff (Robert McHeady) stops him for speeding on the way back to the farm (Cobb stashes the corpse down in the floorboard and covers it with a blanket), but, leaning into the vehicle to smell the ghoul's breath, the lawman is repulsed by the strong smell, which Ez assures him is "just a hog I butchered, is all."  (He subsequently apologizes to Amanda for his irreverence.)

The sheriff lets him go, and Cobb sets about reconstructing his mother, boning up, as it were, on embalming and taxidermy.  At first he attempts to repair Amanda with fish skin, then he advances to wax and any substance suggesting human flesh, before Ez finally decides to employ the genuine article, courtesy of Miss Johnson (Arlene Gillen), a recently-deceased spinster whose newspaper obituary Kootz's wife Jenny (Marcia Diamond) innocently shows him.  Thus inspired, Cobb exhumes his and Kootz's old Sunday school teacher (whom they affectionately used to call "Miss Flannel Face"), placing her skull on Amanda's bedpost so that his mother will have a visitor.  Soon she will have plenty of company as Ez commences to dig up the countryside.

Jenny, however, worries that Cobb is always alone, so she and Kootz convince him to get out and meet a woman.  Ez is initially resistant ("I don't trust 'em"), but decides that he can in fact trust his mother's friend the widowed Maureen because she is, after all, fat.  (Kootz even suggests that Cobb can help her shed some pounds, nudge-nudge-wink-wink.)  The duded-up necromaniac visits Maureen at her apartment, and the sex-starved woman is immediately drawn to him.  Although she and Amanda were "once as close as two webbed fingers," Cobb's mother "always had a grudge going against somebody" and the ladies stopped speaking to each other.  When Maureen learns that Cobb talks to Amanda, she at first assumes that he is mocking her, because she speaks to her late husband Herbert (who perished in a car crash) all the time.  When she realizes that Ez is sincere, she suggests they conduct a seance the next time they meet, to which Cobb reluctantly assents.

Back at home, Cobb informs Amanda's corpse that, although he is attracted to Maureen (whose legs are "big and round, like big old drumsticks"), he worries that the widow isn't exactly "all there.  In upstairs."  Nevertheless, Ez joins Maureen for her ritual, bringing a pistol along for the date.  In a hilariously campy counterpoint to Cobb's own contrasexual channeling, the woman pretends to speak in Herbert's voice as she unbuttons her night gown and urges him to "feel how soft she is."  They retreat to the bedroom, but Ez flashes back to Amanda's wages-of-sin soliloquy, and--suitably chastened--he covers Maureen's face with a pillow and shoots her.

Cobb now begins to frequent Goldie's Tavern, fixating on flirtatious cocktail waitress Mary Ransom (Micki Moore), who, Sims reports, "was thirty-four years old, and if truth were told, a little over the hill."  Several nights later, after staking out the bar, Cobb slashes one of Mary's tires just before closing time, and offers the distressed woman a ride home.  He takes her to his house instead, leaving her to wait in his pickup while he supposedly searches for a spare tire inside.  When Cobb doesn't return, she enters the darkened house where Ez, disguised in a corpse's skin and hair, patiently waits with Amanda and her companions.

Cobb strips Mary to her underclothes so she won't escape, and ties her to a chair in the kitchen where the bodies are assembled around the dinner table.  He confides to his prisoner that his mother and her friends believe that she'll make him "a fine wife," whether she's a little over the hill or not.  Ez attempts to demonstrate his do-it-yourself artistry by plucking a tuneless, homemade guitar ("That ain't catgut"), and banging on a bellyskin drum with a leg bone.  Cobb tells Mary that he loves her, untying her so she can caress him.  When she attempts to escape, however, after smashing a bottle over his head, he bludgeons her to death.

Cobb next sets his sights--literally--on Sally (Pat Orr), the delicate girlfriend of Kootz's son and fellow hunter, Brad (Brian Smeagle).  The lass, who's uncomfortable with the very idea of hunting, works in a hardware store where Kootz and Brad pop in for supplies before terrorizing the local deer population. Cobb, who has also turned up at the shop on the pretext of buying antifreeze, loads a display rifle that Kootz has earlier admired ("You just snuggle up to that, Ez"), and shoots Sally when the pair depart, knocking her out.  She regains consciousness in the back of Cobb's truck and escapes, hysterically dashing through the snowy woods, but snags her ankle in a deer trap set earlier in the picture by none other than Kootz and Brad.  Cobb tracks and kills her.

Returning to the hardware store and discovering the bloody mess, Kootz and Brad (who, despite Harlan's protestations, immediately suspects Ez) contact the police.  The men arrive with the sheriff at Cobb's farm, where the fiend has strung up and gutted Sally's naked corpse in the barn--an act that causes the killer to once again flash back to Amanda's wages-of-sin warning.  He retreats to the house, emitting a horrible moaning laugh/laughing moan as the film frame freezes.  "Several nights later," Sims concludes, "a group of townspeople, lead by Harlan Kootz, under cover of night, burned the Cobb farm to the ground."

This is disturbing stuff, and it's appropriately set in a wasteland worthy of a Fisher King.  The soundtrack's perpetually wailing winds reinforce the barrenness of wintry Woodside, well-rendered as it is by Jack McGowan's deliberately washed-out cinematography, in which Ontario masquerades for tax purposes as the American Midwest.  The film's religious framework is relentlessly negative:  Carl Zittrer's score incorporates ironic organ renditions of "Rock of Ages" and "The Old Rugged Cross," while the spiteful zealotry of Amanda Cobb is so oppressive that it looms over the narrative like the wrathful God of the Old Testament Himself.  Cobb's first name, of course, comes from the Bible, and he functions here as an obscene Christ figure, resurrecting Lazarus over and over--most pointedly, one of his resurrectees is none other than his former Sunday school teacher.  His desire for wedlock with promiscuous Mary (who wears a cross necklace, which does her no earthly good) parodies the myth of Mary Magdalene.  The murder of Sally, meanwhile, is tantamount to the death of a Grail maiden and represents Deranged's single most devastating moment.

Sexuality is, obviously, a complete wasteland.  Domineering Amanda is physically and spiritually paralyzed from the waist down, as symbolically deformed as any character in a Tod Browning film; for all intents and purposes, her son is, too.  Amanda's end-of-all-flesh mania burlesques the true believer's hatred of matter for its imprisonment of the soul, while Cobb's robbing of womblike graves is the violation of (Mother) Earth.  Cobb's greatest love is for Amanda; he even croons "Girl of My Dreams" to her corpse as he transports it back to the farm.  Ez may well be physically drawn to Maureen's chubbiness, but he would also "hate to be stuck in all that fat and not be able to get out."  His protection is not a condom but a firearm; the fatal gunshot is a surrogate ejaculation in which feathers spurt like semen from Maureen's pillow.  Cobb's evisceration of Sally constitutes a surgical rape, while his wearing of the skins and hair of his female victims is an act of shamanic transvestism.  The psychosexual bleakness of the entire scenario is perfectly summarized by one of the tavern regulars, a bitter and impotent old man (Jack Mather) who tells Cobb that "Life's a pain and God's a sadist."

The friendship of Cobb and Kootz is the most interesting "normal" relationship in Deranged for both the parallels and the differences between the two men, who have known each other for twenty-five years.  The childlike Cobb cannot let go of Amanda's memory, while the more adult Kootz calls his wife "Mother."  Where Cobb kills women, Kootz exhibits a chauvinistic attitude towards them, referring to Mary as "that dang-fool barmaid" and being a bit condescending to the sensitive Sally (telling her, "Honey, if we didn't shoot 'em [i.e., deer], they'd starve to death.  Got to keep that balance, you know?").  He hunts four-legged beasts, while Cobb stalks the two-legged kind.  Kootz inadvertently gives his friend the idea for digging up fresh corpses, and sets with his son the trap that ensnares poor Sally.  He is also unswervingly loyal to Cobb until the climax of the picture.  When Ez tells him that Mary isn't really missing, that she's at the farm with Amanda and Miss Flannel Face, Kootz, believing his simpleminded friend to be making a tasteless joke, urges him to "cut out that kinda talk" or he might wind up in jail.  But he doesn't take him seriously, any more than the rest of the townspeople do.

Reporter Sims, repeatedly popping up in the first half of Deranged a la Rod Serling submitting something for our approval in an episode of The Twilight Zone, adds a documentary flavor to the film.  (At one point, Sims even enters the frame and talks to us while Cobb sits with Amanda's exhumed corpse, which must have stupefied the few grindhouse audiences who were fortunate enough to see the movie during its brief release.)  Actor Carlson's line readings are sometimes unintentionally comical--he tends to pause where he really shouldn't--but his Sims is as much a character in this picture as Cobb himself; in fact, I can scarcely imagine it without him, and by the picture's end I was lamenting his onscreen absence.

Deranged is impeccably edited, particularly in the sequence where Mary first enters the room of corpses;  the quick shock cuts as she realizes what she's actually seeing convey the mounting horror of her predicament, battering the viewer like blows to the solar plexus.  Filmmakers Ormsby and Gillen had previously collaborated on the Night of the Living Dead-inspired Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things (1972)--one of the most traumatic films of my childhood--as well as the superb Deathdream  (1973), which transposed W.W. Jacobs' classic tale "The Monkey's Paw" to Vietnam-era America.  Gillen was primarily an actor; Deranged was the only picture he directed.  Ormsby later wrote the screenplay for Paul Schraeder's 1982 Cat People remake, but will forever be remembered for creating Kenner's Hugo, Man of a Thousand Faces doll in the mid-Seventies.  (I received one for Christmas 1975.)  Bob Clark, who directed both Children and Deathdream, co-produced the film but was uncredited.  A young Tom Savini contributed to the picture's marvelous makeup effects.

Deranged was shorn of nearly two minutes by distributor American International, but the film was released on cassette in a complete, eighty-two minute Director's Cut by Moore Video in 1993.  The restored footage consists of a queasy sequence in which Cobb removes the top of Miss Johnson's skull and scoops out her brain and eyeballs, marking the first time that audiences could view Ormsby and Gillen's film the way it was intended to be seen.  The Moore tape, which was letterboxed at 1.55:1 and contained as a supplement Richard Sarno's lurid twenty-three minute documentary, Ed Gein: American Maniac (1981), is long out of print.  Alas, MGM utilized the eighty-one minute theatrical cut for its 2002 Midnite Movies double feature DVD, making me grateful that I have held on to my old cassette.  (The film is fittingly paired with Kevin Conner's Grand Guignol farce Motel Hell [1980].)  MGM's anamorphic rendition is matted at 1.85:1 and is of superior quality to Moore's worn-looking transfer.  The Director's Cut was also released in Germany in 2004 by Legend Home Entertainment and Universum Film, but I've not seen this version.  The Midnite Movies disc offers sixteen chapter stops, optional subtitles in English, French, and Spanish, and contains the film's hair-raising theatrical trailer, which you can enjoy below.  Happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 3, 2013


MGM's Lionpower (1967) is the type of promotional reel the big studios don't make any more (to my knowledge, at least), and it's a crying shame.  The twenty-seven minute short was originally intended to dazzle film distributors and exhibitors with the studio's upcoming releases for 1967 and '68, many of which, alas, turned out to be commercial and critical duds.  The reel promised not four but five seasons of excellence, a laughable overestimation of things to come, particularly in light of the fact that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was in dire financial straits and would actually be sold--twice--in 1969.  These problems led to the studio's traumatic downsizing, which involved the sale of everything from Dorothy's ruby slippers from Victor Fleming's The Wizard of Oz (1939) to a significant portion of its back-lot property; meanwhile, the MGM record label was unloaded on Polygram.  Lionpower has resurfaced as an intriguing artifact, one given new life (and, considering the studio's recent financial woes, new relevance) by its frequent appearances through the years as between-films filler on Turner Classic Movies.

The reel recycles David Raskin's marvelous theme from John Sturges's The Magnificent Yankee (1950), and features plenty of bombastic narration by the likes of Karl Weber, Fred Foy, and Bob Marcato.  Fall 1967 is the Season of Suspense, featuring clips from John Boorman's brilliant Point Blank, Roman Polanski's flawed gem The Fearless Vampire Killers, Or: Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck (a retitling and--to the director's disgust, reediting--of his Dance of the Vampires), and Jack Clayton's creepy Our Mother's House.  There's also entertaining fluff in the form of Don Taylor's Jack of Diamonds, and not-so-entertaining fluff in the form of Francesco Rosi's More Than a Miracle.

Winter '67-'68 is primarily one of discontent, beginning with Peter Glenville's fatally flawed adaptation of Graham Greene's great novel The Comedians, Brian G. Hutton's Sol Madrid (in which Man From U.N.C.L.E. co-star David McCallum did not make the successful leap to big-screen stardom), and Kenn Annakin's imbecilic caper comedy The Biggest Bundle of Them All (redeemed only by female lead Raquel Welch's loveliness and Riz Ortolani's score).  There's also John Frankenheimer's barely-released megabomb The Extraordinary Seaman, Richard Rush's you've-got-to-be-kidding-me ersatz 007 halllucination A Man Called Dagger (featuring Jan Murray, of all people, as the film's supervillain, making this required viewing for psychotronic cinephiles), and Jack Cardiff's terrific Congo Crisis actioner Dark of the Sun.

Next is MGM's "spring into Spring" with George Pal and Byron Haskin's much-underrated The Power, and the inevitable Herman's Hermits misfire Mrs. Brown, You've Got a Lovely Daughter.  Then the studio "roars into Summer in high gear" with Norman Taurog's Elvis Presley vehicle Speedway, Brian G. Hutton's superb Where Eagles Dare (unfortunately, we see artwork in lieu of actual film footage), Hy Averback's New York blackout comedy Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?, Robert Aldrich's fascinatingly trashy The Legend of Lylah Clare, and John Sturges's Ice Station Zebra, which is best remembered today for being the favorite film of the reclusive Howard Hughes, who allegedly watched it one hundred and fifty times, which is one hundred and forty-eight more times than I have sat through it.

MGM's magical Fifth Season is represented by clips from such "roadshow attractions" as John Schlesinger's Far From the Madding Crowd and Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick's monumental 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Although we see only a portion of the psychedelic Star-Gate that astronaut Keir Dullea enters while racing towards his rendezous with the mysterious Monolith, those astonishing Cineramic slit-scan images of multicolored chemicals in a cloud tank are potent enough to communicate that Something Big is soon to unfold on the silver screen.  (Incidentally, 2001 is the first theatrical release that I can recall seeing.  What an extraordinary introduction to the world of cinema that was!)

We are next presented with artwork for movies which were then in development at the studio as MGM, in the process of "surging into the future on film," promotes upcoming projects.  Three of these were never realized (The Tower of Babel, The Chinese Visitor, and an adaptation of Cornelius Ryan's World War Two history The Last Battle), while others wouldn't materialize until many years later (James Fargo's 1978 film of James Michener's novel Caravans--actually released by Universal Pictures--and Daryl Duke's 1986 version of James Clavell's Tai-Pan, which was distributed by De Laurentiis Entertainment Group).  The hushedly reverent description of Michael Anderson's Cold War melodrama The Shoes of the Fisherman ("In Rome, against the splendor and spectacle of the Ecumenical Council," etc.) is a real hoot.

MGM experienced more economic difficulties, to the tune of five billion dollars, over the last several years, but finally emerged from bankruptcy in late 2010.  I savor the relentless corporate propaganda of Lionpower, I'm nostalgic for the films and the time period they span, and I'm reassured to know that studio mascot Leo is still roaring--even if, these days, it's only for a mere four seasons a year.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013


Ah, the neverending delights of YouTube.  For many years, ever since I read about the film in Denis Gifford's A Pictorial History of Horror Movies (one of the seminal books of my boyhood), I've yearned to see Walter Lantz's 1933 King Klunk, which marvelously lampoons Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack's same-year masterpiece King Kong.  Now, praise the gods, here it is online.  This nine-minute Universal cartoon was the first animated picture to receive an "A" (for Adult) Certificate in the United Kingdom, a country whose British Board of Film Classification enjoyed--and, alas, continues to enjoy--periodically banning horror movies, such as Tod Browning's Freaks (1932) and Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), outright.  (An "A" rating, in case you're curious, required that all children under sixteen had to be accompanied in the cinema by an adult; meanwhile, films receiving this rating were "notified to the Home Office as being, in the Board's opinion, horrific in character."  An "H" [for Horrific] Certificate was instituted in 1937; it was changed to a more tantalizing "X" in 1951.  Klunk, incidentally, was one of five 1933 films to be "awarded" an "A.")

This little gem is the twelfth of thirteen Pooch the Pup shorts produced by Lantz, only two of which have made it to home video.  Klunk appeared on Disc One of Universal's 2007 three-disc The Woody Woodpecker and Friends Classic Cartoon Collection, and I am deeply grateful to the kind soul who posted it on the Internet.  The plot follows Kong's storyline fairly closely, as intrepid cameraman Pooch and his female coonhound companion sail to Africa in search of Klunk, "the 6 7/8 Wonder of the World."   There they encounter the "Hotcha" chimpanzee tribe, Klunk himself (who, pierced by Cupid's arrow, falls passionately in love with the lady hound), and a sea serpent.  A crashing blow from the serpent's fist knocks Klunk into orbit around the old Universal globe logo, but he literally squashes his opponent when he plummets back to Earth.  The gorilla, after being immobilized by the yolk of a giant dinosaur egg, is brought in chains to New York, where he escapes to wreak havoc.  He scales the Broken Arms Apartments, a structure which appears to be as every bit as tall as the Empire State Building, and is finally toppled by fighter pilot Pooch to his doom, winding up on the pavement as a colossal skeleton (which must certainly have startled the sensitive souls on the British Board).

The picture is a joy to watch, especially in this pristine print.  Its slapstick tone actually anticipates the "serio-comic phantasy" of Schoedsack's The Son of Kong sequel (also 1933) in what was a memorable year for silver screen simians.  I sincerely hope, dear reader, that King Klunk will bring you as much pleasure as it has brought me.  Goona-Goona!


Gifford, Dennis.  A Pictorial History of Horror Movies.  London: The Hamlyn Publishing Group Limited, 1973.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013


The Silver Screen lost one of its greatest magicians yesterday with the death of animator Ray Harryhausen.  He was the master of stop motion visual effects.  When I was a lad, I pestered my father into taking me to see a theatrical reissue of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and the first run of The Golden Voyage of Sindbad (1974); those two screenings are among my fondest childhood memories.  The artist's 1955 thriller It Came From Beneath the Sea was the first film my parents allowed me to stay up late to watch on WGHP's Shock Theatre, and it's safe to say that by that time I was utterly in awe of Harryhausen's wondrous creations.  My favorite of his works remains Jason and the Argonauts (1963), whose climactic battle sequence with Jason and his men swordfighting the skeletons sown from the Hydra's teeth still leaves me breathless.  I'll take Dynamation over CGI any day of the week.  Hail and farewell to a cinematic wizard!

Thursday, January 31, 2013


Halloween, 1977.  A blonde-haired man in a suit walks through an airport corridor.  He is alone, and for almost the entire length of this particular shot, there are no other people in the frame.  He's the anomic Aryan protagonist of Amos Poe's Kafkaesque The Foreigner (1978):  a German terrorist, Max Menace (Eric Mitchell), arriving in Manhattan on a mission.  What this mission is, he doesn't know, and he doesn't even have a contact.  Thus begins the No Wave auteur's exploration of "the foreigner who doesn't make it" in what the Israeli emigre filmmaker has called "the other side of the American dream."  The last thing this country needs, of course, is more imported terrorism; thus, I'm particularly pleased that Mr. Menace doesn't make it in Poe's elliptically intriguing pre-9/11 underground effort (which, incidentally, contains several striking shots of the Twin Towers).  The Foreigner is, nevertheless, the best film ever made for a mere five thousand dollars, and I can't seem to get it out of my head.

The well-dressed Mr. Menace--who, let the record show, seems harmless enough, and not entirely unsympathetic--wanders bemusedly through Soho and the West Village, encountering various unpleasant characters, all of whom are portrayed by the filmmaker's friends.  (Poe himself, whose bio reports that he was expelled from Ohio University in the late Sixties "for participating in burning down the administration building during a sit-in," and who is probably best known for directing Animotion's 1984 "Obsession" video, cameos here as someone named Amos Nitrate.)  Menace holes up in the Chelsea Hotel, where, in a salutary example of reflexive synchronicity--Poe, after all, co-directed the first punk documentary, The Blank Generation [1975], with musician Ivan Kral--he watches an alarmist television program, featuring the Damned in concert, on the nascent UK punk movement, whose narrator laments that the genre's "fans have rejected all values" and "are anti-everything," and worries about such nihilism spreading to the United States, which plainly has enough nihilism of its own.  "If they can't do anything else," the narrator despairs of these musical malcontents, "they can destroy.  They count it as an accomplishment."  The cultural gauntlet has been thrown.

Menace is trailed by sundry goons, as well as by martini-sipping private investigator Fili Harlow (the buxom Patti Astor), who's been hired for the entire price of The Foreigner's budget by dominatrix-suited Doll (the late Anya Phillips, manager/girlfriend of No Wave alto saxophonist James Chance).  No one else wants anything to do with him, however, so he spends a fair amount of time recording his gloomy thoughts, which include quotations from Novalis and Herman Hesse, on a portable cassette player.  "I had nothing before I got here," Menace complains.  "Now I have delusions.  I seem to be surrounded by events to which I am only a spectator."  He sinks into solipsism:  "I'm so wrapped up into myself that I hardly listen to anything.  I skew over all the sensations and feelings I have--except the one of being lonely, in which I seem to be taking pleasure."  Such, alas, are the sorrows of the Terrorist in Autumn.

Attempting to pull himself out of his stupor, Menace rides a tourist boat past the Statue of Liberty, where Harlow observes him being harassed by two goons.  He's subsequently picked up by a schizoid woman named Zazu Weather (Terens Severine) who imprisons and starves him in her apartment.  ("You're filthy," she tells him.  "I like that.")  The demented creature even ties him up so tightly that he passes out, but she is unexpectedly shot to death, not a moment too soon for my taste, by a Mysterious Someone--we glimpse only the killer's gloved hand--and Menace manages to free himself when he regains consciousness.  He journeys through the city's grindhouse district to encounter Blondie's Deborah Harry in an alley; her character, Dee Trik, warbles Marlene Dietrich tunes auf deutsch for the price of cigarettes.  Later, Menace is whipped and slashed by thugs (impersonated by the great psychobilly band the Cramps) at CBGB while the Erasers belt out Iggy Pop and David Bowie's "Funtime."

The injured and now intoxicated terrorist, his nice suit in shreds, seeks shelter at the Hotel Providence, a ludicrously-misnamed fleapit.  Harlow, meanwhile, ventures into Doll's office building, only to discover her client's corpse on the floor.  The same gloved hand delivers a karate chop to the back of her neck; when she finally comes to, Doll's body is gone.  The investigator writes her telephone number on a slip of paper and slides it under the door of Menace's room, telling him "I don't know what you're up to, but I'm the only one who can get you out of this mess."  Menace doesn't respond, but before you know it he's frantically dashing through the streets while more goons pursue him in their car.  He finally calls Harlow from a cafe, declaring he's "at the end of my rope," then hightails it to Battery Park.  There two gunmen--one of them gloved--await him, shooting him multiple times in the back as he runs past the East Coast Memorial eagle statue.  Menace, having failed to integrate into the country's "jungleland" (the director's term, not mine), staggers forward to die hanging on a rail facing New York Harbor with Lady Liberty in the symbolic distance.

Poe accurately described The Foreigner as "an anti-homage" to the Nouvelle Vague, "tel[ling] a story by leaving out the facts."  He enthusiastically deconstructs the noir and spy genres, much as Jean-Luc Godard did to the science fiction film with his dystopian Alphaville: A Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution (1965).  From a purely visual standpoint, The Foreigner seems to inhabit Forties, Sixties, and futurist cinemascapes simultaneously.  Attitudinallly, it's an entertaining, sometimes exasperating, document of its day--a post-punk time capsule--made just before the Cinema of Transgression kicked into high gear with such misfit artistes as Nick Zedd and Beth B.  The acting is largely amateurish, innocent bystanders gape at Chirine El Khadem's camera, and an extended sequence of several leather-jacketed goofballs assembled while their ringleader recites pornographic gibberish temporarily grinds the film to a halt.  Khadem's black-and-white lens occasionally wobbles in the wind, but even so it captures many arresting images:  Menace taking a taxi through the antiseptically-lit Holland Tunnel; the haloed blur of streetlights and car headlamps; a steaming manhole lid; and the Twin Towers themselves, which when filmed from below paradoxically resemble colossal subway grates--in fact, Manhattan is photographed in such a fashion that, patrolling at street level, its citizens appear to inhabit the floor of a jungle.  There are stylistic nods to Jules Dassin's neorealist police procedural The Naked City (1948), as well as a tiny exploding firecracker in someone's belt loop which comically recalls the Roman candle phallus in Kenneth Anger's Fireworks (1947).  The film was shot in sequence because actor Mitchell possessed only one suit, and the Cramp's Lux Interior really did slash him at CBGB, but fortunately no buildings were burned down in the process.

The Foreigner was released on DVD by Eclectic in 2001, though I've not seen that edition, autographed copies of which are available for purchase at Poe's website.  TCM recently aired the one-hundred-and-one minute picture as part of its Underground series, where I gratefully recorded it.  The fullscreen sixteen-millimeter print is scratched and grainy, and will never look like a penny more than the five grand that Poe repaid, at a monthly rate of $129, to Merchants Bank of New York.  (The bank refused to loan him money for the project, so he borrowed funds for a $5000 car instead.)  The sound is primitive, but Kral's richly minimalist score, incorporating Ry Cooder-ish slide guitar and icy electronic ambience, is well-recorded; it merits a release of its own.  "'When we dream that we dream,'" Menace channels Novalis in voice-over, "'we are beginning to wake up.'"  Poe's film is every bit as self-referential as any dream, but The Foreigner's peculiar strength is that it doesn't awaken.  It's a slumbering punk princess of a picture, a movie made for midnight.  Here's the trailer.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013


David Bowie has emerged from his long musical exile with a haunting new single, "Where Are We Now?", which the artist unleashed on an unsuspecting world today on the occasion of his sixty-sixth birthday.  The song, a preview of his upcoming album The Next Day, is an elegiac ballad with subdued piano chords largely recalling Bowie's so-called "Berlin Trilogy" with recording technologist Brian Eno (Low [1977], "Heroes" [1977], and Lodger [1979]).  The lyrics reference specific parts of the German capital city, while the accompanying video, directed by multimedia and installation artist Tony Oursler, contains footage shot by Bowie during his tenure in Berlin, where the formerly "zonked out of my mind" musician had temporarily relocated from Los Angeles to live above an auto repair shop, "[become] a person again," and compose absolutely stunning work in the process of healing himself.  The Next Day marks Bowie's first album in the decade since 2003's Reality, and is produced by that record's Tony Visconti, who also toiled on the aforementioned trilogy and is arguably Bowie's greatest producer.  It's an unexpected pleasure to see this titan making music again.  A Very Happy Birthday to one of my cultural heroes, with or without quotation marks.