Wednesday, October 19, 2016


There is always the danger of being too cute, too obvious, and too smug when filmmakers get all meta and attempt a commentary on the medium. 2010's RUBBER suffers all of these sins and is just all around too much in love with itself to really succeed in its modest goal: taking the genre of horror films (and its fans) to task.  Actually, you could argue that its targets are all genres and all who spend time watching movies, since the entire pursuit is meaningless anyway, no?  What to make of a film that opens with a sheriff climbing out of a car trunk, explaining why movies as diverse as THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and THE PIANIST are filled with head scratching elements (or omissions) - "There is no reason"?

In case you might think the sheriff's examples are clever, erudite, or interesting, think again.  Here's one: "Why isn't anyone in MASSACRE ever seen going to the bathroom?"  Another: "Why is Speilberg's E.T. alien brown"?

Believing that you really are soooo clever would work if, yes, you really were.  Writer/director Quentin Dupieux does manage some astute moments in his film, which centers on an old tire that emerges from the dirt and goes on a killing spree after it discovers it can cause people's heads to explode via psychokinetic powers.  It sounds like something Stephen King may have concocted while he was high.  His ideas for MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE are freaking genius by comparison.   If RUBBER had merely been about the tire (credited onscreen as "Robert") and its swath of death through the California desert we may have had a real trash classic, a guilty pleasure.  The film could've infused its observations simply through subversion of genre cliches, like John Sayles and Larry Cohen have done in the past.

But Dupieux had other plans. He may well have an ocean of contempt for horror, even as he builds some almost suspenseful scenes.  I think his points, and they are interesting, are leveled at the entire process.  In RUBBER, a disparate group stand off to the side and watch the action through binoculars, sometimes offering commentary.  Too obvious? It could've worked; Bunuel did similar things in his films.  But Dupieux's characters (including one played by B movie veteran Wings Hauser) only make vapid comments. The sheriff (Stephen Spinella) is seen throughout the film, his dialogue always alerting everyone that it's only a movie, elaborate fakery, even as headless corpses litter the streets.

Dupiuex's best scene is perhaps when the spectators, standing in the sun for days without food, are finally given a just slaughtered turkey.  They attack it like ravenously hungry zombies (the scene is framed in just that way - nice jab).  The implication of course is that they crave more cinema, more carnage, but the joke will ultimately be on them.

And perhaps you, invisible audience.  You'll either find RUBBER endlessly clever, completely ridiculous, or an embarrassing attempt at satire.  It is in fact all three.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Changeling

Amongst the many gore drenched serial killer films of the early '80s was the effective chiller THE CHANGELING, a ghost story that also includes that oldest of thriller stand bys, the haunted house.  There's also a hostile, twitchy local woman who warns a new occupant to get the hell out of that house.  Additionally featured is a seance, perhaps one of the most unsettling ever committed to film.   The main character has lost his wife and daughter in a vehicular crash.  He's wracked by nightmares even before he moves into said haunted house.  Standard plotting.

But this 1980 film delivers the goods with some palpably creepy atmosphere in and outside the ancient domecile that is rented by a widower named John Russell (George C. Scott), a music professor and concert pianist who has relocated to Washington state to escape painful memories.  The Victorian mansion has quite a history.  It is during the seance, a masterfully directed (by Peter Medak), really scary several minutes of film with mediums furiously scribbling on tablets and the presence of a whispery voice, that Russell begins to learn why doors slam themselves shut and windows shatter without visible provocation.

The screenplay reveals a tale of murder and greed from decades earlier.  A victim haunts the house quite relentlessly, eventually goading Russell to investigate and unravel the mystery, to provide some justice and closure for the ghost, who may be a young boy.  That's as much spoiler as you will get, invisible audience.

THE CHANGELING is good old fashioned spooky fun. The silly moments are minimal.  There are no cheap shocks, but rather a careful building of atmosphere.  Many scenes send shivers, including a recreation of a brutal drowning and a visit to the house's attic, and what lies within.   Despite the film's R-rating, the violence (and any other content) is not too harsh.  Scott is in good form, believable in his grief and bewilderment, and his frequent co-star/wife Trish Van Devere (playing a real estate agent) is elegantly beautiful.

The finale may be a bit over the top, and certainly gave fire wranglers plenty to do, but it does not hurt the overall spooky, minimalist vibe of the picture.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

A Bucket of Blood


Poor Walter Paisley.   Bussing tables for those condescending Beatniks at the coffeehouse, night after night.  Harrassed by his boss for spending too much time attempting conversation with them and not clearing away empty cups.   But Walter muddles through, marveling at (and memorizing every word of) the pseudo intellect spouted by the poets at the mic. Words like:

Life is an obscure hobo bumming a ride on the omnibus of Art. Burn gas, buggies, and whip your sour cream of circumstance and hope, and go ahead and sleep your bloody heads off. Creation is, all else is not. Creation is graham crackers; let it all crumble to feed the creator; feed him that he may be satisifed.

Walter (Dick Miller) aspires to create art, to be part of the group, not merely pitied.  He also pines for the cafe's hostess, Carla (Barboura Morris).

It is of her he is thinking as he attempts to mold her face out of a lump of clay, helpless to even create a suitable nose.  At that moment, he hears the cries of his landlady's cat, who's somehow gotten stuck in the wall.  When Walter attempts to free it with a knife, well, the meowing ceases.  After a brief lament, he finds that the feline corpse would make a great piece of art.  He covers the cat, with knife still in it, in clay.  Soon, Walter has impressed most everyone at the Yellow Door Cafe with his piece, marveled at for its realism and anatomical correctness.  But Leonard (Antony Carbone), Walter's boss, has some suspicions.

Soon human beings will be added to Walter's collection: an undercover cop, an obnoxious model, and even an innocent factory worker.  Those sculptures, so lifelike!  Walter's fans are none the wiser for a time, lavishing praise on this new resident genius.  Yet another fraud to join the ranks.

That point is made over and over in 1959's A BUCKET OF BLOOD, directed by B-movie czar Roger Corman.  Charles B. Griffith's script is quite wise for its time, skewering the Beatnik culture quite thoroughly.  But the art world is the larger target, a subject just as ripe for ridicule today as ever.  When someone can seemingly randomly splatter paint on a canvas or dip a crucifix in urine and have it praised for its brilliance.   ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL would nicely pair for a double feature.

A BUCKET OF BLOOD is just over an hour, long enough to be an effective comedic chiller and short enough not to wear out its welcome.  The very cheap production values do hurt the film a bit, and the finale is too rushed, but this is a nice bit of old school drive-in movie fun.  Character actor Miller, who has appeared in countless exploitation films (many with Corman's involvement) over the past several decades, has perhaps his best role as Walter, the slow witted wannabe (without talent) who represents millions of also-rans who may crave fame/notoreity but perhaps just want to be accepted and loved.  He just never learns that the way to sweep a woman off her feet is to not encase another in a clay tomb.....

Monday, October 10, 2016


1977's ERASERHEAD is memorable for numerous reasons, for me especially because it was the first movie I ever rented.  It was from a mom and pop store in Lake Worth, FL called, I kid you not, Pick-A-Flick.  The movie was near the top of my wish list, even though I was eighteen years old.   By the time I finally got a VCR that Christmas, senior year of high school, my taste in film had begin to broaden to include interest in things that might be called avant garde.  David Lynch's first feature length film more than qualifies.

Taking a bid from Kafka, and perhaps personal experience,  Lynch fashions a nightmarish industrial world in which Henry (Jack Nance) wanders with uncertainty.   He lives in a dank flat filled with dead plants and dirt.  It appears that Jack has gotten his girlfriend Mary X (Charlotte Stewart) pregnant.  Her mother (Jeanne Bates) orders the two to marry.  Their offspring does not resemble a human, more a mutant.  It emits terribly, unbearably sad cries the way a human would, day and night, enough to drive Mary back to her parents'.  Henry is left with the slug/alien like creature, and plenty of time to wrestle with his subsconscious.

To borrow an oft-used quote, attempting to describe ERASERHEAD is like "dancing about architecture".  Lynch expands the disturbing visuals, sounds, and themes of his short films into a full length gasp of despair.  Many have described the movie as a manifestation of Lynch's fear of marriage and fatherhood.  I recall thinking the film was anti-pro life, a feeling that remains.  The imagery of flying and slithering spermatazoa and a myriad of other sexualized elements create a dissertation on the horrors of reproduction.  The methods to achieve this are shown to be hungrily desired but also quite unsavory.   Note the extremely bizarre dinner scene, still one of the strangest moments Lynch has created, as a miniature chicken propels its legs and gushes blood on Henry's plate while his mother in law makes weird (orgasmic?) noises.  The mother later begins kissing Henry's neck.

The film's title is revealed in a curious scene, a device I normally find unnecessary but here it not only accelerates the nihilistic theme but allows Lynch to create scenes that point the way to moments in his later works, namely Twin Peaks and WILD AT HEART.  Henry is shown, sometimes literally, to be drowning in a filthy environment, perhaps representative of the view of sexuality as wholly distasteful and grotesque.  A fascinating juxtaposition of what is considered in that context as proper (matrimony) and immoral (adultery), yet both ultimately resulting in the same barren landscape.  The soundtrack of low frequency industrial noise throughout ERASERHEAD is perfect to keep the viewer feeling uncomfortable.

How did my high school self respond to such an unusual movie? I was mesmerized, certain I hadn't seen anything like it before.  Thousands of movies later, I can still say that...

In heaven, everything is fine.....

Thursday, October 6, 2016



As far as creature features go, 1980's ALLIGATOR isn't too shabby.   The movie could likewise be classified under the "Nature Runs Amok" category, though the former is a better designation as the amphibian of the title is more a product of human folly than evolution, Intelligent Design, or whatever your bent.  The story begins in the late 1960s with a young girl convincing her parents to bring home a cute baby gator.  But one day dad in a (drunken?) rage decides the flush the little guy down the toilet.

Twelve years later, strange things begin happening in the unnamed (though apparently Midwestern) metropolis.  Dogs disappear.  Then people get eaten when they (for various reasons) investigate the catacombs of the city's sewer system.  Jaded cop David Madison (Robert Forster) investigates and finds a link to a company developing growth formulas for livestock - they experiment on dogs and then discard the carcasses in the sewers.  Over time, baby gator is there to feed on them and will grow to enormous proportions.

Of course, no one, including a cute reptile expert/potential love interest named Marisa Kendall (Robin Riker), believes Madison until an obnoxious reporter is devoured, leaving behind a roll of film he shot at the time of death showing rows of the teeth of the 36' beast.   The city in a panic, an arrogant big game hunter named Colonel Brock (Henry Silva, really hamming it up), who likes to flirt with TV reporters, is called in to bag the predator.  The finale involves a disrupted wedding reception and later, dynamite.

ALLIGATOR hits all of the expected cliches, courtesy of screenwriter John Sayles, who also penned another JAWS rip-off called PIRAHNA a few years earlier.  Both films are distinguished by a sly sense of humor, at every moment ribbing the horror genre.  Sayles wrote a number of low budget features in the late '70s and early '80s, allowing him to finance his own far more serious and personal films.  He was clearly having fun with ALLIGATOR, particularly with Silva's character, who buys beer for underage youths in exchange for their intimate knowledge of the 'hood.  When they refuse to follow him into an alley, he inquires - "No backbone? Must be the environment." Also, Marisa's talkative mother asks Madison which of her eyes are evil (which look like one of the many close-ups of the alligator's irises).  Another clever Sayles touch - that concluding graffiti.

B-movie vet director Lewis Teague does good work with creating a creepy atmosphere, especially in the sewer scenes.  The reception massacre is also well staged and brutal (nice use of that long tail!).  I could've done without the young child walking the plank scene, though, a moment that very likely would not be done today.  The cast is also game, with special mention of Michael V. Gazzo as the police chief.  His distinctive vocal delivery is quite hilarious.  The animatronic gator, similar to Bruce the shark from JAWS in more than one way I assume, also delivers a noteworthy performance, especially when he bursts up through a sidewalk.

Monday, October 3, 2016

De Palma

Many film directors have had their sit downs with interviewers to talk about their lives and films.  Some are informative and entertaining (Mike Nichols, Alexander Payne), while others may come off as immodest and downright arrogant (John Landis, Quentin Tarantino).   Brian De Palma gets nearly two hours in front of two other celebrated directors, Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, in a documentary named after him.  A doc that got a theatrical release! Is he worthy of such treatment?

Oh yeah.  Granted, I've long been a big fan, a defender of a guy who was frequently accused off cribbing from Hitchcock, blatant sexism, graphic violence and sexuality, show off camerawork, and complex set-pieces that call attention to themselves.  All of these charges are accurate and undisputed (sometimes a bit abruptly) by De Palma himself.  He addresses each of these criticisms unapologetically throughout this year's DE PALMA as he discusses every film (and even one short subject) he ever directed, from his collaboration on THE WEDDING PARTY to his current non-Hollywood efforts like REDACTED and PASSION.

The film alternates between a static shot of the director and clips from his work.  Many selections showcase the sort of rough content in question.  Sexism? Violence? We get the infamous elevator scene from DRESSED TO KILL. The drill scene from BODY DOUBLE.  The prom massacre in CARRIE.  The ultra elaborate climactic chase from CARLITO'S WAY and the Odessa steps inspired moments from THE UNTOUCHABLES of course are there too.  The clips sometimes play like a "Greatest Hits" of an impressive, if very uneven, career.

De Palma recounts plenty of on set remembrances.  Cliff Robertson was uncooperative on OBSESSION.  Bernard Hermann was "scary".  Sean Penn taunted Michael J. Fox on CASUALTIES OF WAR.  John Travolta was a darling on CARRIE and BLOW OUT.  An iconoclast like De Palma predictably will have tales of fights with the studios and failed marriages ("My true wife is my movie. Not you!").  The director is quite frank about his work, what he thinks is good or otherwise.  For example, he relays that when he watches the remakes of CARRIE he realizes what mistakes he didn't make with his own version.   What a privilege to hear his thoughts, so off the cuff and fascinating.  Indispensable for fans.  It made me want to revisit most of the ones I've seen, even the ones I dismissed originally (BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES, SNAKE EYES), and finally get to the ones I hadn't (FEMME FATALE, MISSION TO MARS)

We never hear or see Baumbach and Paltrow.  It's just as well.  This is De Palma's show, his life. There is a home movie of Steven Spielberg calling De Palma from his car phone (in 1976!) on Thanksgiving Day.   He shares (in between frequent exclamations of "Holy mackerel!") some experiences from his youth, things that likely shaped his cinematic point of view.  Like the time he stalked his father around town as the latter conducted illicit trysts with other women.  Yeah, I think you can see that on the screen.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Horror Month Revisited

For the past few years I've featured at least a couple of slots in October for what might be called "horror" films, or "thrillers" or whatever your pleasure.  In 2014 I got inspired enough to fill the entire month with 'em.  It's happening again.

Over the next thirty-one days, you'll get nothing but posts detailing films designed to make you shiver, possibly even feel nauseous at times.  I used to be quite a fan of this kind of thing but not so much now.  Current horror films really don't interest me.  They're either remakes or cheaply produced cash grabs (PARANORMAL series).  Many feature that washed out, really ugly cinematography that seems to be in fashion. Others are so-called "torture porn" (SAW, HOSTEL) or just plain vile (HUMAN CENTIPEDE).  Just "geek shows" as Roger Ebert used to say.

Some of this year's entries are not bona-fide "horror".  One is a documentary about a man who created several such movies.  Another is a fairly recent meta exercise about horror films.  Still another is a cult classic that is as discomforting as anything I've seen, but maybe not a true blue terror exercise.  A few of them are almost spoofs.   Hey, it's my blog and I'll post what I want.

So there.  Have fun.