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.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


I don't visit cinemas in my curmudgeonly middle age as much as I did in my curmudgeonly youth, but a new James Bond film will always find me, at least as long as I remain ambulatory, in a theatre seat on its U.S. opening day.  The next-to-last time I saw Daniel Craig as 007, alas, he was in drag, appearing in an asinine two-minute short commemorating the centenary of International Woman's Day.  (The last time I saw him, of course, his and Queen Elizabeth's stunt doubles were jumping out of a helicopter and parachuting into London's Olympic Stadium.)  Looking vaguely like the grotesque Linda Tripp of Monica Lewinsky infamy, the planet's most celebrated superspy stands dejectedly silent in the short as the current M, Dame Judith Olivia Dench, harangues him from offscreen about the Deplorable State of Women, what with all that income disparity (which, contravening gender feminist doctrine, has been thoroughly debunked; see, for example, here and here), domestic violence (reconsidered here), sexual abuse, and enforced illiteracy.  The last two problems in particular form an integral part of the savage way certain non-Western countries operate, although the multicultural mandarins behind this agitprop do not address that fact, doubtless for fear of upsetting the Diversity-at-all-costs applecart (of which a glaring example remains the "institutionalized political correctness" that facilitated the recent Rotherham atrocities).  This hysterical--in the archaic medical sense of the word--short was, to absolutely no one's surprise, written and directed by two aggrieved women (Jane Goldman and Sam Taylor Wood, respectively).  The invisible M informs Bond that "facing up to gender issues and the sometimes covert nature of sexism in the Twenty-First Century is something that we all have to recognize, confront, and challenge."  Tell it to the Taliban, ladies.  I find the mistreatment of women as abominable as the next fellow, but give me the machinations of Auric Goldfinger or Ernst Stavro Blofeld over this miserable misandry any day.

I frankly despair to see poor Bond in anything so aesthetically risible, but 007 has certainly proven himself resilient through the years.  That's why it's more than a little satisfying for me to see M get her belated comeuppance in Sam Mendes' magnificent Skyfall (2012).  Don't misunderstand, dear readers: I adore Dame Judith, and have generally enjoyed the gender conflict between Bond and his battleaxe boss since Pierce Brosnan assumed the role in Martin Campbell's Goldeneye (1995).  Bond may well be, in M's words, "a sexist, misogynist dinosaur" and "Cold War relic," but he's by far the best sexist, misogynist dinosaur and Cold War relic she and MI6 have, and she bloody well knows it.  (Ironically enough, in Skyfall's progressive Britain, M herself is considered a relic of "the golden age of espionage.")

Craig's first 007 outing, Campbell's Casino Royale (2006), energetically revised the long-running series while coming as close to a faithful adaptation of an Ian Fleming thriller as we are likely ever to encounter.  Marc Forster's Quantum of Solace (2008), although less spectacular, picked up immediately after the previous picture ended (a franchise first), and was intensely gripping for its double revenge motif.  Continuing the theme, vengeance is what Skyfall's about, administered here by Tiago Rodriquez (Javier Bardem), a former MI6 hacker turned over by M to the Communist Chinese for "operating beyond his brief" just before the 1997 Hong Kong handover ("They were on to him," M shrugs, "so I gave him up.  I got six agents in return, and a peaceful transition"), and now doing business as the androgynously bleached blonde Raoul Silva.

If supervillain Silva's carrying a ton of spiritual baggage ("Life clung to me like a disease," he says of surviving his cyanide-assisted suicide attempt after being tortured by the Chinese), so is our old friend Bond, who's presumed dead after being accidentally shot in Istanbul by his fellow agent Eve (Naomie Harris) while battling mercenary Patrice (Ola Rapace) atop a speeding train.  It's the second bullet for Bond, whom Patrice has earlier wounded.  The mercenary has stolen a computer hard drive containing the identities of NATO agents working undercover in terrorist cells, thus inciting the deaths of several operatives.  Shrapnel from Patrice's slug enables 007 to track him to Shanghai, where the two men--who seem to have wandered onto the futuristic set of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982)--battle to the death in a skyscraper after Patrice assassinates a man in an adjacent monstrosity who's attending a private viewing of what appears to be the Amadeo Modigliani painting La Femme a l'eventail (Woman with a Fan), which was stolen from the Paris Museum of Modern Art in 2010.

Before this battle, a bitter Bond has secretly retired to Turkey, where he spends most of his time brooding, cultivating stubble, and generally drinking himself senseless; the last activity entails entertaining the locals by draining the tequila from a shot glass while a scorpion is balanced precariously on the back of his hand.  One morning Bond is watching Wolf Blitzer on a bar television and learns that MI6's headquarters has been partially detonated, killing eight employees, by terrorists (the second time in the series the building has been bombed).  The blast is observed from outside by M, who's returning from a meeting with Intelligence and Security Chairman Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes, looking fairly weatherbeaten) where he's urged her to retire in light of recent events as the political winds shift.  ("We can't keep living in the shadows," Mallory obliviously insists, apparently having never seen a Bond film.  "There are no more shadows.")  MI6 has also been hacked, causing the exposure and murder of additional NATO agents.  007 pulls himself together, more or less, and returns to duty, incidentally informing M that he found the obituary she wrote for him "appalling."  Believing him deceased, the agency has also unloaded Bond's childhood home in Scotland, Skyfall, as well as his London apartment.  007 fails MI6's mandatory physical and psychological retesting--M, however, deliberately conceals the results from him--and next he's in a Macau casino after discovering a gambling chip in the late Patrice's gear.

Here Bond encounters the mysterious Severine (Berenice Lim Marlohe, whose character's name recalls Catherine Deneuve's role in Luis Bunuel's classic Belle de Jour [1967]), a former sex slave employed by Silva and earlier glimpsed by Bond during Patrice's hit at the Modigliani viewing.  She agrees to help 007 if he will kill Silva.  After battling her bodyguards (one of whom winds up as a tasty meal for the casino's Komodo Dragons), Bond does the horizontal mambo with Severine as her yacht sets sail for an island Silva's requisitioned for global mischief.  The pair are taken prisoner aboard the boat by his henchmen.  Back on dry land and with a goon's pistol pointed at him, Bond is challenged by Silva to shoot a shot glass off the now-bound Severine's skull (a William Burroughs reference?--the ambiguously sexual Silva could easily be a member of the novelist's viral Nova Mob).  Bond's old aim, unfortunately, isn't what it was; the shaken 007 misses, hitting a broken statue behind Severine, and, in a truly chilling moment, Silva casually kills the woman, almost as an afterthought.  Bond finally springs into action, while the tracking device Q (Ben Wishaw) has earlier given him trails Silva to his lair as helicopters swoop down for the capture.

Silva is held in MI6's underground headquarters (which once served as Sir Winston Churchill's wartime bunker), assailing a phlegmatic M for betraying him.  "You're smaller than I remember you," he tells her, to which she retorts, "Whereas I barely remember you at all."  Assuring Silva that "soon your past will be as non-existent as your future," M departs to appear before a House of Commons subcommittee regarding the case of the stolen hard drive; there she is badgered by the female Prime Minister and responds by attempting to inform the silly creature what a dangerous place the planet has become.  (In Michael Apted's The World Is Not Enough [1999], the character openly lamented the end of the Cold War.)  Silva escapes from his glass cage--his capture was a deliberate attempt to get him close to M--and, disguised as a policeman, is pursued by Bond while wreaking havoc in the London Underground.  Silva and his henchmen emerge full-blown from Mallory's non-existent shadows, storming with guns ablaze into the subcommittee inquiry just after M has finished reciting the final stanza of Tennyson's "Ulysses."  Bond arrives rather late to protect his boss; he's assisted by Eve and Mallory, who is wounded in the shootout.  Silva and crew retreat, allowing Bond to go "back in time" by essentially kidnapping M and hiding her out at Skyfall.

If you have yet to see this marvelous picture, then I strongly suggest that you stop reading right now, as I intend to discuss the outcome of all this chaos.  Bond and his boss are greeted at Skyfall by estate gamekeeper Kincade (an almost-unrecognizable Albert Finney), who helps them prepare a lethal welcome for Silva and his men as the villains electronically track them.  (Amusingly, the only gun left in the house is Bond's father's old rifle; an American collector has snapped up all the other weapons.)  Silva arrives by helicopter, his plane's speakers blasting the Animals' classic "Boom Boom" much as Robert Duvall's choppers blared Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979).  M is mortally wounded in the ensuing firefight, dying of her injuries in the family chapel after Bond dispatches Silva with a hunting knife in the back.  It's a devastating moment for the series--in truth, I can scarcely believe it myself--and 007 openly weeps for her, just as he did for his murdered wife Tracy in Peter R. Hunt's much-underrated On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969).  An era has ineradicably ended.

Stephen B. Tippens, Jr. has detected more than a trace of Ian Fleming's father, the World War One-killed Tory MP Major Valentine Fleming, in the novelist's legendary creation, noting that 007's "intangible virtues are Valentine's," virtues which "may not have been singular" in the Major's time, "but...are quite un-plural now."  If Bond is, in a very loose sense, Valentine reborn, M plainly functions in both Fleming's novels and the pre-Brosnan series as a sometimes distant father figure to the orphaned Bond, whose parents perished in a mountain climbing accident.  (Fleming's posthumous 1965 The Man With the Golden Gun goes all Oedipal as a Communist-brainwashed 007 attempts to assassinate M, though this surprising subplot was omitted from Guy Hamilton's 1974 film adaptation.)  In the Brosnan movies, Bond resents M's female leadership--he considers her a "an accountant, a bean counter, more interested in [her] numbers than [his] instincts" in Goldenye, while she warns him that "if you think for one moment I don't have the balls to send a man out to die, your instincts are dead wrong."  M assures him that his "boyish charms" are "wasted" on her, and even abandons him to the North Koreans in Lee Tamahori's Die Another Day (2002), which got 007 through the atrocities of 9/11 by the expedient of having the secret agent held and tortured by the Communists for fourteen months.  The Craig Bonds, however, take their relationship in a different direction, with a more distinct maternal dynamic.  The three most recent pictures in fact form a trilogy of sorts for our post-9/11 age.

Bond is callow and violent, too-quick to emotion in Casino--eager, indeed, to quit his job for the (treacherous) woman he loves--and almost off-his-rocker ruthless in Quantum (at one point he prepares to kill himself and his fellow vengeance-seeker Camille when it looks as if they're going to be incinerated in a South American hotel), but by the time of Skyfall Bond's more than just physically broken; he's unexpectedly middle-aged--apparently several years have transpired since the previous picture--and facing burnout in a young man's field.  Yet still he must keep moving, demonstrating Nietzsche's dictum that "Under peaceful conditions a warlike man sets upon himself."  It is Silva's vendetta which brings Bond back from the brink of despair.  Meanwhile, the new Q, a tousle-haired waif, seems to have wandered into MI6 from a shoegaze or emo band; Bond can scarcely believe his eyes when he encounters the lad, who's nearly young enough to be his son.  Time is marching relentlessly on for the scenario's key characters.

007 admirer Sir Kingsley Amis famously preferred the Fleming novels' "belief, however unreflecting, in the rightness of one's cause" to "the anguished cynicism and the torpid cynicism of Messrs [John] le Carre and [Len] Deighton,"  but the dark, dour world of George Smiley and Harry Palmer has been very much a part of Bond's cinematic universe for quite some time now, particularly since Craig assumed the role.  The key sequence in Skyfall is Silva's assault on M at her hearing.  Powerful cross-cutting has her quoting "Ulysses" as Bond races through the London streets to stop his nemesis.  Tennyson's lines symbolize England's faded glory, as well as the nation's fortitude:  "'Though much is taken, much abides," M intones to the inquiry board, "and though / We are not now that strength which in old days / Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are; / One equal temper of heroic hearts, / Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will / To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.'"  This eloquently sums up 007 himself, a superman in a country which is no longer a superpower.  Bond endures in spite of everything, even the Spenglerian decline of the land he loves.

The film's family dynamic is amplified by the surrogate father figure of Kincade, who has known Bond since he was a child, and is further complicated by Silva, bloodily craving acknowledgement from the woman who abandoned him.  When Silva observes that M shows "no remorse" for turning him over to the Chinese, she responds that "regret is unprofessional." He's an agent sacrificed--stabbed in the back, literally and figuratively--for the sake of the British government, a man who despite torture "protected [its] secrets" until he finally realized that it was M, and M solely, "who betrayed me."  M not only represents motherhood, she's Mother England herself, repeatedly referred to by her MI6 underlings as "Mum."  Attempting suicide with his molar capsule--the same type of  cyanide implant which M chastises 007 for not swallowing in Die Another Day ("I threw it away years ago," Bond defiantly informs her)--the poison damaged Silva internally and left him with a mutilated mouth, but the terrorist ultimately comes to believe that he has survived in order to look into M's eyes "one last time."  He wants to hear her speak "my real name.  I know you remember it"; she, however, declares that she will have that name removed from "the memorial wall of the very building you attacked."  Silva mockingly tells his former brother in arms that "Mommy was very bad" in "[sending] you after me, knowing you're not ready, knowing you would likely die."  In the chapel climax, Silva embraces the dying M, giving her his pistol so she can shoot them both in order for them to be together in the grave.  She willingly pulls the trigger, but the weapon's out of ammunition, although Silva successfully joins his surrogate mother in oblivion, his mission accomplished.  This time, the villain has won.  Bond, once again, has been abandoned.

Skyfall is permeated by a surprising Christian religiosity, something one seldom encounters in the series.  M is hounded electronically by Silva, who urges her via computer to "think on your sins."  Skyfall (the manor) contains a priest hole, one of those hiding places which were prominent during the persecution of Catholics in Queen Elizabeth I's reign.  Kincade proudly tells M that the young Bond hid in the tunnel behind the priest hole after learning of his parents' deaths; when he emerged, Kincade says, "he was no longer a boy."  The hole later allows the surrogate family unit to escape from the manse's inevitable obliteration.  Earlier, when Silva inquires what Bond's hobby is, our hero replies, "Resurrection."  007 is violently baptized twice in the film, the first time emerging into a metaphorical afterlife spent "enjoying death"; the second, after a battle with Silva's last remaining henchman beneath the broken ice of a frozen lake, rebirths Bond into a post-maternal landscape.

Mendes' direction is muscular, with Skyfall fitting in surprisingly well amongst his other examinations of personal and social breakdown such as American Beauty (1999) and his splendid adaptation of Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road (2008).  The film's numerous action setpieces, from a motorcycle rooftop chase in the pre-titles sequence to the obliterating battle of Skyfall itself, are superbly staged.  The script by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan has a novelistic depth not often witnessed in today's megabudget behemoths.  Roger Deakins' cinematography is exquisite, impressionistically interpreting the bleak beauty of the Scottish Highlands, while Mendes' frequent composer, Thomas Newman, offers a score to rival the powerful work of earlier series masters John Barry and David Arnold.  Adele's sultry theme is one of the better Bond songs.  The performances are uniformly excellent, with Craig, Dench, and Bardem delivering Oscar-caliber performances.

All those novels, all those films.  Why does 007 so fascinate us?  It's not simply vicarious self-actualization.  Contrasting the age of Valentine Fleming with postmodern England's grave new world, Tippins observes that, "[w]here Valentine's contemporaries took to the trenches, the young men of today's Britain riot in the streets.  That's what a half-century of entitlement does to a society," he continues, "it takes the backbone out of people while simultaneously giving them notions of grandeur."  The appeal of Bond appears to be well-nigh eternal because he represents a masculine ideal in our increasingly demasculinized age.  007 still has his backbone, and by the gods, he knows how to use it.

Typically, the superspy has his fair share of detractors.  The British/Indian writer Bidisha sniffs that "the Bond films are generally sexist....Ian Fleming hates women," asserts the angry authoress without supplying any evidence whatsoever.  Leicester University Professor James Chapman, author of a cultural history of the movie series, goes so far as to pronounce that "ideologically, none of us should like the Bond films"--speak for yourself, Professor--which flaunt "everything that is not politically correct."  This, however, is precisely one of the reasons why I, and I suspect many moviegoers, enjoy the pictures.  Bidisha propounds that "the Bond mythos is loved because it represents people's biggest bigot fantasies," but I believe that she, like others of her idealistic ilk, is dead wrong.  We love 007 not because we are bigots, but because we respect his intangible, non-plural, and out-of-fashion virtues.  We passionately long for a less sensitive age when men strove, sought, found, and did not yield--especially to the Universal Cult of the Victim and its attendant entitlements.  By Skyfall's end, the recuperating Mallory has become both the new M and another father figure to 007, Eve has become the new Moneypenny, and James Bond is ready for his next assignment, which I fervently hope will not entail facing up to gender issues and the sometimes covert nature of sexism in the Twenty-First Century.  Here's the trailer.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012


The Nineteen Seventies were a fairly productive decade for spiders crawling across cinema screens.  Our eight-legged  friends emerged both normal and giant-sized from black holes that somehow found their way to Wisconsin (Bill Rebane's Volkswagen-propelled The Giant Spider Invasion [1975]), and covered an entire Arizona town with their sticky stuff in John "Bud" Cardos' Kingdom of the Spiders (1977), but it's Chris Munger's Georgia-lensed Kiss of the Tarantula (1976) that established a psychic link between the creepy critters and their master--or, in the case of this film, mistress.  The picture's obvious antecedents are Daniel Mann's Willard (1971), Phil Karlson's Ben sequel (1972), and William Grefe's same-year Stanley; like those rat and snake operas, the thematic shift here is from ecological to personal revenge.

Susan Bradley (Suzanna Ling in her sole film appearance) is the strange-but-lovely daughter of mortician John (Herman Wallner, a Victor French surrogate), whose police chief brother Walter (Eric Mason, apparently the only actor with other pictures to his credit) is planning a run for state Attorney General.  Uncle Walter, when he was a mere flatfoot, was the secret lover of John's shrewish wife Martha (Beverly Eddins), but the paramours' plans to murder John and move her out of the family mortuary she so despised were sabotaged by Susan's unleashing one of her colorful pet tarantulas on Mommy when Daddy's Girl discovered the plot.  Susan never said anything to anybody, however, so everyone accepted the story that Martha expired from a heart attack--the spiders, you see, crawl all over their victims but never bite them, although they certainly scare them into early graves.  Now Susan's in the flower of young womanhood, while Uncle Walter's incestuously licking his chops.  (Father John, of course, is oblivious to everything.)

Susan is considered peculiar by her peers because she lives in a mortuary--and a falling-apart one, at that; the house, which was also utilized for the climax of John Wayne and Ray Kellogg's The Green Berets (1968), sports several gaping cracks and holes in its ceilings and walls.  While her father's away one evening, several neighborhood goofballs break into the house to borrow a casket for Halloween hijinks.  Susan catches them, and the men decide to have a little fun with the fetching lass.  They drag her to the basement, accidentally killing one of her pets by dropping its glass cage.  This understandably spoils their erotic mood and the punks guiltily depart, while the distraught Susan plots vengeance, unleashing her arachnid familiars on two of the men and their girlfriends while the couples are necking in a car at a drive-in.  She simply cracks opens the passenger door--conveniently, no one else, either inside this particular vehicle or any other, notices her actions--and the mayhem begins.

Unfortunately for Susan, two of her friends, Tracy (Linda Spatz) and Joan (Rita French), are among the victims; sole survivor Joan is now a weepy basket case.  (The other three die from such ridiculous injuries as slicing their necks on broken window glass and being crushed between a car door and drive-in speakers.  Allow me to reiterate that none of this idiocy is observed by anyone until after Susan has regathered her pets and the theatre empties.)  A distraught Susan visits her bugged-out friend in the hospital, where she's overheard telling her "I never wanted to hurt you, but they made me do it" while being eavesdropped on by nosy Nancy Drury (Patricia Landon), who immediately informs Bo Richards (Jay Scott), the ringleader of the casket gang.  Bo apologizes to Susan for the men's mischief and asks her for a date, to which she surprisingly agrees.  She doesn't expect to be taken to the drive-in, however--especially to see a thriller ("Everything just seems so unhappy now.  Everything is just so down....That's why I like happy endings")--and, after Bo accuses her of killing his friends, she bolts from the vehicle.  The next day, Susan unleashes her spiders on him while he's caulking inside a ventilation duct at a building under construction.

People are dying right and left, but authorities are baffled--at least until Uncle Walter retrieves a tarantula leg from Bo's corpse.  Next he's approached by Nancy, who urges him to take action against Susan.  Walter confronts his niece, but assures her he can fix everything if he has her "cooperation," nudge-nudge-wink-wink.  He kisses the repulsed Susan, who kicks him out of her house.  The sorry scene is observed by Nancy, spying on the pair.  Walter chases and chokes Miss Nosy to death, then pretends to investigate the killing.  Nancy's corpse is now in a casket at the mortuary, whose business is definitely booming; when Walter returns to tell Susan what he's done and obtain from her more cooperation ("We have to look out for each other," he whispers lustily), she pushes him down the stairs, which paralyzes the fiend below the neck.  Finally, in a sequence so comically protracted that we forget all about tarantulas, Susan removes Nancy's body from the coffin with a special hoist, uses the same device to place her weakly protesting uncle in the casket, and puts Nancy back where she found her, sealing both the coffin and Uncle Walter's fate.  The picture ends as it began, with Susan smiling into the camera as she admires a spider.

Warren Hamilton, Jr.'s screenplay, from a story by producer Daniel Cady (who also wrote and produced the prison zombie anti-classic Garden of the Dead [1972]), is absurd but adequate.  Spiders here symbolize the dark side of female sexuality, amply manifested by the creatures' lethal appearances in womblike car and ventilation duct.  Susan herself seems reasonably open to physical love--she even has a perfunctory boyfriend who quickly disappears, as if forgotten, from the movie--but sex in this picture is a veritable killing ground; Susan's deepest emotional connection is with her pets, anyway, and it's obviously all she really needs.  Munger's direction only truly comes alive during the drive-in and duct sequences, enhanced by Henning Schellerup's otherwise mundane cinematography, which viscerally communicates the claustrophobia of the enclosed spaces in which the various characters find themselves trapped.

VCI's anamorphically-enhanced 1.85:1 version of Kiss of the Tarantula is available singly, as half of a 70s Drive-In Horror Double Feature with Curtis Harrington's superior Ruby (1977), and as the first film in a three-disc Scream Pack (whose ungrammatical ballyhoo on the keepcase cover concludes "...If You Can Still Breath!").  As with a fair number of VCI titles--certainly the pictures in this collection--the label's print is in as rough a shape as the Bradleys' house, with spidery speckles aplenty.  The eighty-four minute film, which is copyrighted 1974, contains eighteen chapter stops, as well as trailers for the other two S.F. Brownrigg-directed  Scream Pack regional obscurities, Don't Look in the Basement (1972) and Don't Open the Door (1975), plus John Llewellyn Moxey's marvelous City of the Dead (1960, with video-generated titles replacing the original U.S. Horror Hotel retitling), and Arthur Crabtree and Herman Cohen's Horrors of the Black Museum (1959).  The picture's amusing menu screen features several computer-generated tarantulas crawling across a web.  Sinister Cinema once offered Kiss of the Tarantula in its extensive catalog, but I've not seen this edition, which appears to be deleted.  Here's the film's original trailer.  Happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 11, 2012


Jeffrey Hayden's The Vintage (1957) is the type of picture where the American and Italian players make no effort whatsoever at passing themselves off as convincing Italian, French, and Spanish characters, and the authentic French actress doesn't particularly seem all that Gallic.  It's the disintoxicating tale of two Italian brothers, on the lam from authorities, who cross into southern France looking to find work by harvesting grapes.  Hot-tempered, switchblade-wielding Ernesto Barandero (John Kerr) is wanted for killing a man who was beating a woman, while older Giancarlo (Mel Ferrer) is along to keep Ernesto out of further mischief.  The siblings, despite their conspicuous lack of hand calluses and work cards, are reluctantly employed by vineyard owner Louis Morel (Leif Erickson, Kerr's macho headmaster nemesis in Vincente Minelli's camp classic Tea and Sympathy [1955]) the morning after they safely deliver the dead drunk Morel to his farmhouse.  (He's passed out during a ferocious rainstorm after beseeching God not to destroy his crops.)  Ernesto and Morel's neglected wife Leone (Michele Morgan) are drawn to one another, with lovesick Ernesto even carving her portrait in a woodblock, while Leone's teenaged sister Lucienne (Pier Angeli), who's supposedly engaged to jealous Etienne (Jack Mullaney), is attracted to the more mature Giancarlo; this, of course, is the opposite of what we expect from the scenario, and it is, I fear, The Vintage's single surprise.

Morel spends most of his time worrying about hail damage and complaining about his grape pickers, while the fuzz, hindered by sympathetic guitar-wielding Spanish foreman Eduardo Uribari (Theodore Bikel) and his co-workers, search for the brothers.  Complications arise when Morel discovers the whittled head, which Giancarlo has accidentally dropped after taking it away from his brother in a near-fight.  Giancarlo is falsely accused of stealing chickens--yes, dear reader, chickens--and locked in a barn when he attempts to retrieve the sculpture; the real poultry snatcher, former family patriarch Uncle Ton Ton (Joe Verdi), has been trading the creatures for Eduardo's chocolate. Lucienne confesses her love to the imprisoned Giancarlo, Morel gets slapped by his wife after accusing her of infidelity--she's plainly delighted to be desired again--and Giancarlo is released in time to watch his brother get fatally shot in the back by the police when Ernesto runs from them. Morel finally begins to appreciate his long-suffering spouse; Giancarlo--about whom, apparently, the authorities no longer care--is free to begin a new life with Lucienne.  C'est tout.

The oddball cast's performances are generally indifferent, with the only amusing work coming from Erickson, from whom Kerr seemingly still cannot get away; in a ludicrous attempt to frencify the actor, the filmmakers hide his mug behind a bushy moustache.  The Vintage's primary interest is in its reunion of these Tea and Sympathy stars, and essentially functions as a footnote to the earlier film.  Morgan is beautiful, but hasn't here the charisma of (let's say) Deborah Kerr.  Former blacklistee Michael Blankfort's adaptation of Ursula Keir's novel lacks body, while television man Hayden's direction lacks finish.  The Vintage's only real flavor is furnished by four-time Oscar winner Joseph Rutenberg's cinematography, which exquisitely captures the natural beauty of the region, and David Raskin's exultant score.  The film isn't bad per se; it just isn't much of anything, and I could scarcely remember enough of it to write this post.  The presence of marauding zombies, a la Jean Rollin's marvelous Les Raisins de la Mort (1978), would at least have injected a little life into the proceedings, preferably with Brigitte Lahaie in the Leone role.

The ninety-two minute melodrama is, not surprisingly, unavailable on home video, but Turner Classic Movies occasionally airs a lovely print of this picture in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio.  The Cinemascope colors are positively vibrant.  Here's the theatrical trailer.  Emotions naked as the earth, indeed!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012


     I was deeply saddened to learn this morning of the death yesterday of Gore Vidal at age 86.  He was the great rebel angel of American literature.  At some point down the road, I want to write more about Vidal and his relationship--both good and bad--with cinema.  However, my wife and I have, after much searching, just bought a house and are in the process of moving in, so I'll be occupied with other things for a while.  For now, I will merely state that Vidal is the artistic and political figure who has had the single greatest influence on my life, though plainly I lack even one-millionth of his astounding abilities.  Reading his 1978 dystopia Kalki at the age of thirteen was an electrifying experience for me, and soon I was devouring anything by the writer that I could get my hands on.  (Here's a lovely 2008 review by Bill Kauffman of the author's final essay collection.) Vidal was, quite simply, my hero, and I wouldn't be who I am today without having encountered his work so many years ago.  Hail and farewell to an American patriot!

Thursday, April 19, 2012


Vittorio De Sica's A Place for Lovers ("Amanti," 1968) is perhaps best remembered today, if at all, for its inclusion in Harry Medved and Randy Lowell's snarkily amusing 1978 guide to The Fifty Worst Films of All Time (and How They Got That Way). Roger Ebert proclaimed the picture "the most godawful piece of pseudo-romantic slop" he ever had the misfortune to experience. Must-see viewing, in other words, for the masochistic Mr. Pagan. Once, at any rate. The picture has, understandably, never secured a home video release; however, Turner Classic Movies recently broadcast De Sica's messterpiece, and I'm pleased to report that, if A Place for Lovers is perhaps not precisely one of the Fifty Worst Films--offhand, I can think of other, more deserving celluloid atrocities, especially anything released by the execrable John Hughes--it's definitely the director's worst.

Fashion designer and hospital escapee Julia (Faye Dunaway) is rapidly succumbing to the Nameless Disease That Afflicts So Many Movie Heroines (the vapors?), though you'd never know to look at her that she has precisely ten days of life left; she merely alternates between striking poutily introspective poses and grinning like a jackass chewing briars. Julia has earlier briefly encountered unhappily married engineer Valerion (Marcello Mastroianni) at an airport, where the immediately smitten man hands her his card. She gets in touch when she recognizes him on television. The pair holiday at her friend's Italian villa, which midway through the movie hosts an erotic art slideshow and an orgy that we never glimpse because the incensed Valerion storms out before all the swinging-flinging-and-ring-a-ding-dinging begins. The villa, incidentally, is simply a convenient excuse to exhibit gliding camerawork a la Sacha Vierny's superb visuals for Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad [1961], another film adjudged one of the Fifty Worst by Medved and Lowell. (For the record, I have seen, and even enjoyed, twenty-nine of the authors' selections.)

Julia accosts the engineer the next day at an autodrome where he's testing crash safety water bags; they reconcile, travel to the Alps, and make-a de love. Unfortunately, Julia's frantic friend Maggie (Caroline Mortimer) spoils everything by telephoning the couple's chalet and informing Valerion of the designer's failing health, insisting that she should be rehospitalized. The mortified Julia motors off to commit suicide, but Valerion catches up with her in the film's climax, trusting her not to kill them both by driving their Jeep off a mountain in a truly ridiculous sequence. They do not perish, to this viewer's considerable displeasure.

As my Italian language professor undoubtedly exclaimed from time to time when grading my pitiful papers, "Dio mio!" One would never suspect, watching A Place for Lovers, that De Sica was formerly a master of anything, much less neorealism--indeed, John Simon memorably compared the late director, who after all gave the world such classics as Bicycle Thieves (1948) and Umberto D. (1951), to "a once-famous operatic tenor turned pop singer and grown old, trying to sing one of the arias from his youthful repertoire, and left wrecked and wheezing on the high C's." It's also difficult to believe that five--five, I say--scenarists toiled fruitlessly on the screenplay, including Brunello Rondi, who co-wrote with Renaldo Cabieri the play upon which the picture is based. (Ebert suggests the writers were "possibly locked into separate rooms and forbidden to communicate," which I can easily believe.) The theme of a dying woman plunging headlong into hedonism has dramatic potential, if not exactly originality, but there's utterly no sense of depth or any appreciable tension here. The dialogue includes such daffy lines as "I see you like experiments. How would you like to experiment by staying with me for two days?" The entire film is an experiment, in tedium.

Dunaway's bloodless performance obliterates the memory of her accomplished turn in Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967). (Fans of the actress may be interested to know that she appears in another of Medved and Lowell's Fifty Worst, Otto Preminger's hilarious Hurry Sundown [also '67]). Mastroianni, for his part, is pure, unadulterated ham; in the film's funniest moment, he ecstatically tells Dunaway "I love you, I love you, I love you!" as if he's about to spontaneously combust. The performers were a genuine item for a brief while; alas, any electricity these two thespians generated in their private lives is conspicuously absent onscreen. Pasquale De Santis, who later lensed Luchino Visconti's The Damned (1969) and Death in Venice (1971), contributes his usual fine cinematography, which remains, together with De Sica's son Manuel's opulent orchestrations, the film's most redeeming quality. Particularly striking is De Santis' composition of Dunaway contemplating a leap to her death as the camera swivels ninety degrees to capture the austere beauty of the high altitude. It's a splendid shot, rendering the foreground player completely irrelevant. A Place for Lovers is an empty shell of a film, but at least it's a beautifully polished one.

TCM's eighty-eight minute print is letterboxed at 1.75:1. Here's the original Italian trailer, which showcases Ella Fitzgerald's theme song. Most appropriately, the YouTube title is misspelled. Arrivederci, baby.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012


Citizens for Decent Literature, Inc.'s 1965 Perversion for Profit is Christian anti-pornography propaganda of the most exploitative and entertaining kind. Narrated by "outstanding reporter" and talk show host George Putnam, this endlessly quotable short film was financed by George "Mr. Clean" Keating, a Roman Catholic censorship advocate best remembered today for his criminal mischief in the Savings and Loan Crisis, as well as for the extensive smut collection he maintained in his law offices, ostensibly to educate skeptics about the corrupting influence of "dirt for dirt's sake." (A pre-jailbird Keating was memorably portrayed in Milos Forman's The People vs. Larry Flynt [1996] by actor James Cromwell.)

Over the course of a thirty-one minute harangue, the stentorian Putnam--an acknowledged inspiration for The Mary Tyler Moore Show's asinine newsman Ted Baxter--stands before a map of the United States while alerting us to the "floodtide of filth...engulfing our country in the form of newsstand obscenity and...threatening to pervert an entire generation of our American children."  Perversion for Profit is a mouthwatering time capsule of Swinging Sixties filth, ranging far and wide from such forgotten girlie magazines as Nightcap and Rapture to the dreaded physique publications (one of which, Male Classics, sports muscleman Steve Reeves as Hercules on its cover), whose "homosexual viewpoint and poses are often not understood by many youngsters who take them as instructions of body development."  All models have their eyes blacked out, presumably to save the poor creatures from embarrassment; their naughty parts, however, are barely concealed.

The film completely degenerates into paranoid lunacy when Putnam warns us that "moral decay weakens our resistance to the onslaught of the Communist masters of deceit"--the very same scoundrels who were attempting to sap and impurify our precious bodily fluids during the Cold War, and for all I know are still trying. This same decay, we are gloomily instructed, "caused sixteen of the nineteen major civilizations to vanish from the Earth." As Gore Vidal pointedly observed in a 1966 essay on pornography, "This simplistic view of history is a popular one, particularly among those who do not read history." "Oh, God," Putnam piously intones at the conclusion of this camp masterpiece, "deliver us, Americans, from evil." Amen.

A highlight of Perversion for Profit is Putnam's dramatic recitation, as an example of indecent literature, of a passage from Sex Jungle (1960), a pseudonymous novel by none other than award-winning science fiction author Robert Silverberg, laboring mightily to pay off his new house. Silverberg later modestly described his "Don Elliott" oeuvre as "outstanding"; it certainly delivers a shock to Putnam's system. "'Dirt,'" Camille Paglia explains, "is contamination to the Christian but fertile loam to the pagan. Far from poisoning the mind, pornography shows the deepest truth about sexuality, stripped of romantic veneer." Indeed, despite the perpetual protestations of concerned citizens, gender feminists, and other foes of the First Amendment, "pornography is art, sometimes harmonious, sometimes discordant. Its glut and glitter are a Babylonian excess."

Perversion occasionally materializes as wee hours filler on Turner Classic Movies, usually after the network's Underground series, and is the source for Zombie Popcorn's YouTube presentation.  The fullscreen print is in rough, faded condition, which actually enhances the film's loopy allure. Settle back, dear reader, fire up a colortini, and watch these dirty pictures as they fly through the air.


Paglia, Camille. Vamps and Tramps. New York: Vintage, 1995.

Vidal, Gore. United States: Essays 1952-1992.  New York: Random House, 1993.