Psychedelic Film Criticism for the Already Deranged

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Taste the Blood of Dracula's Prime: 12 Psychotronic Vampire films now streaming the Amazon


Weird times, man. I've been laying low surfing around Amazon Prime like a deranged 'American Picker' of psychotronic oddities to collect and lay at your feet like so many dead mice. It's become even wilder and weirder out there then ever- all sorts of groovy stuff can be found under the plainest of rocks, while classics are unwatchable thanks to terrible transfer/uploads. Llike with psychedelics or that 'other' Amazon, the one in South America's swingin' rain forest, you need the right guide.

I'm that guide, man.  Quick! Turn left!


As I've written (in my 5 Films on Amazon Prime for a new TrumpMerica), there's a strong need to be picky in here, lest your aesthetic sensibilities be dampened, so stay close. Rule number one, if you go away on your own, avoid these danger signs, they signify fly-by-nite outfits who upload crappy blurry VHS dupes barely endurable even on a tiny cell phone:


AVOID Synergy Archive (silver/gold trim); Cinema Classics (pale blue w/palm tree background); Moving Picture Archive (blue velvet curtain backdrop); 'Digitally Remastered' (dark yellow letters on black) These three labels denote 2nd or 3rd generation dupes-sometimes even wrongly formatted image, often edited and mangled and otherwise dispiriting --far worse than not seeing the film at all.  Also, unless you're really crazy, AVOID anything recent - no matter how good the poster looks. Anyone can get their film uploaded to Prime these days and while I'm sure they're all special in their way (especially if you made it or star in it), if they're on video, HD or no, it's just not the same as film. When it comes to crap like this, my brothers, film is all. 


Now you know the secrets of successful slumming, so I'm giving you Dracula's living dead secret vault of international vampire titles, twelve in all, chosen just as much for the streaming image quality as for content- in no particular order. Keep your hands away from the actors' mouths and kick back your shoes into the fire.

PS - I'm not shilling for Prime or actually giving you a password. But especially as Netflix only seems to care about their original material these days and Hulu has terrible organization skills, for the weirdness hunter Prime is, dare I say it, the new Kim's Video. 

All Images below are Screenshots from Prime Itself to give you quality assurance.

BLOOD OF DRACULA'S CASTLE
(1969) Dir. Al Adamson (USA)
** 1/2 (Image quality - B-)

Somewhere between the hick carny hustle of Steckler, the macabre jouissance of Wood, the amateur competence of Mikels, and the laissez faire shrug of William Beaudine, Al Adamson waits for thee. More often than not his stuff is terribly preserved and even when it looks good it still seems like you're watching a home movie by a kid who's been following a film crew around and stealing shots for his super 8mm opus while the real cast is at lunch. His set-ups are lazy; his sound mixing done by Charles Haltrey and the Deaf Eggs, but sometimes I'd swear there's something magical about it all when it clicks into place, as it does here, if you're in the right mood for accidental Brecht totemism and sick with fever and lack of sleep and love all the same movies and TV shows as every kid did in the early 70s, i.e. Satan movies in the theater we were too young to see, Universal horrors on local TV Saturday afternoons, and Addams Family reruns weekdays after school

Alexander D'Arcy (the 'music teacher' in The Awful Truth) is the aristocratic vampire who tries to figure out how best to dispose of a Squaresville US couple who just inherited the place. Naturally it will save him from having to move if he can, shall we say, 'have' them for cocktails? Paula Raymond is his loyal Bathory-ish wife; John Carradine is the butler... for some reason. As an escaped (werewolf) lunatic, Robert Dix (Richard Dix's boy) looks like he just murdered his way out of a George Axelrod movie. There's a "big" sacrifice to Saturn or some (day-for) night goddess out on the dunes, or something, at the climax. Whatever piece you slice off it, Adamson is serving a refreshingly dark and amoral aura here, like The Addams Family if they actually chained up women in the basement to torture and drain of blood, laughing all the way. If it wasn't made in 1971 I'd swear it was ahead of it's time for 1964.  László Kovács did the photography, which may explain why it looks good even while having Adamson's paw smudges all over it.

2. VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA 
(1960) Dir. Renato Polselli 
*** (Image quality: B+)
(In Italian w/ English subtitles)

Luisa (Hélène Rémy), the gorgeous platinum blond heroine in this atmospheric Italian horror film looks a lot like a hippier, less conventionally svelte Eva Marie Saint or Gunnel Lindblom, which for some reason is enough in and of itself for me to love this film. The busload of showgirls breaking down near an old creepy castle wasn't old hat when this came out (1960) so it's exciting to watch the ladies improv vampire dance routines and the naturalistic way the plot coheres around seemingly random exchanges. Equally compelling is the natural rapport between Luisa and her equally platinum-blonde Nordic-ish roommate Francesca (Tina Gloriani) conjuring weird parallels with Persona and Stage Door. And when Francesca gets punked out by the vampires, she tries to lure Luisa into the fold via weird quasi-lesbian bed sharing and head games. Great kinky stuff. As with Rome's neo-realist 'found value' approach to its countries post-war ruins, fine atmosphere is hewn from the living rock of a bombed-out castle and its winding catacombs, so once sealed crypts are accessible by Third Man-style stumbles down piles of rocky rubble, and the transfer on Prime has got that pencil sketch black and white photographic richness one sees in Italian neorealism of the same period.


The vamping is divided between the mysterious Countess Alda (Maria Luisa Rolando) and her bullying male consort --she acts all endangered by him, who wears a goofy mask with ping pong eyeballs but becomes younger and 'handsome' after drinking blood, an unusual smart touch that taps into the insecure amped-up macho vanity at the dark heart of Italian manhood. He drinks from the ladies once they've drunk from the men--cuz he's not gay or anything. And as soon as his lovely young victims come back to life he stakes them, shouting "I'm master of my domain!" and kicking their coffins shut. Meanwhile he's really supposed to be the consort of the vampire princess, if in sooth he's more like her captor, or is he just pretending he is to soothe his vanity? Irregardless, the Amazon Prime print is pretty pleasing and the Italian language being spoken over subtitles helps it keep that arty, neorealist edge to go along with a jazzy score, the theremin-goosed passages of the vamp moments that contrast with the diverting muzak-style filler when the composer (or library cue DJ) can't discern the emotional tenor of a particular scene. Ciao bene!

(1966) Dir. Curtis Harrington 
*** (image quality: A-)

For the longest time this film, the tale of crashes, deaths, and rescues involved with escorting a vampire alien ambassador from a Martian moon to Earth, was available only in faded ugly pan and scan TV prints/transfers, but now thanks to small miracles its even in Blu-ray in a gorgeous full color restoration, so it glows much like its compatriot in ALIEN-inspiring, 1965's PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES (see: Growing up Alien) and man it looks great. Coming from the Corman/AIP school of using Soviet bloc sci fi film effects footage with newly shot story and American actors, Curtis Harrington used footage from a Russian film Corman had acquired, 1965's MESTRE NASTRESHU, a film almost Bava-esque in its deep reds and eerie gel lighting. Those colors are now on Prime's print perfectly popping. They not seem quite 'right' but they're better than right.


Acting as a fine mirror to issues of gender as well as Soviet-American relations of the era, the footage is matched brilliantly to its respective sides - the Dionysian and ornate deep red Russian footage for the female vampire Martian ship and the red planets - while the Earth scenes and space ship interiors are in nice powder blues and cafeteria grays on threadbare Apollonian sets with John Saxon and Dennis Hopper amongst the astronauts, Basil Rathbone and Judi Meredith on the ground by the monitors. The result is a perfect metaphor for the repulsion/attraction between the US and Russia... Together it's like an unholy union written in the stars and read by lovers holding hands across the Berlin wall. When the astronauts of both planets get together for the flight home, the hypnosis starts and the blood drinking and the orders from on high not to harm the specimen, no matter how many human astronauts perish like so many sailors on Dracula's London-bound schooner. This time however, everyone but John Saxon agrees: save the queen! If she wants to drink Dennis Hopper's blood just warn her first: the thorazine is long gone!

4. CAVE OF THE LIVING DEAD
(1964) Dir. Ákos Ráthonyi
**1/2 (image quality: B-)
Dubbed in English

Eurosleaze mainstay Adrian Hoven is a possible vampire aristocrat squaring off with a square visiting detective over a hottie blonde (Erika Remberg) in this cool black and white German variation on the mid-60s neorealist Eurosleaze horror film. The real stars are the cobblestones, Remberg's lingerie, the crazy tunnels and some nice expressionistic shadows/ At night the villagers are offed by a weird silhouette of jazz hands at the window leading the visiting detective towards his aristocratic quarry. Not quite as lurid as a Franco film or as procedural as a krimi, it manages to have one foot in the aftershave and sideburns of its era and another in the timeless past. As for the story, the vampire aspects are cleverly folded into a class study and there's hints of the dream poeticism we find in later films like Valerie and her Week of Wonders. The print/transfer on Amazon is okay, could be worse--kind of sepia-tinged but whatever. Find the old Image DVD which has enough of better upgrade to make it worth it, if you like it. (To me, it's not quite as robust as Vampire and the Ballerina, but if you're feeling the groove after seeing that one, go for this. Remberg will make up the difference) Gordon Murray dubbed it and released it in the States on a double bill with Tomb of Torture, also on Prime, but in worse shape.


(1971) Dir. Jean Rollin
*** (image quality - A)
in French with English subtitles 

Marie-Pierre Castel, Mireille Dargent are a pair of cute young outlaw clown girls on the lam who wind up trapped in a crumbling vampire chateau with mausoleum, graveyard, castle, grounds with paths all winding back into itself in prime dream logic style.  A kind of Ghost World for the Bataille set, but with vampirism taking the place of adult responsibility as eventually one of the wedge between the two plucky heroines-- one of the girls keeps her virginity and dutifully lures a wandering horny Frenchman to his death, Don't Deliver Us from Evil-style; the other falls for her quarry, losing her virginity to him (which she intentionally invites to save herself from vamp initiation) even enduring a flogging by her once-bosom pal to find where he is, to no avail (only to have the man shove her out of the way and run off later!) There's no doubt really that Rollin is rooting against him, despite his charismatic charm, and that's why it rules and why Rollin is no misogynist despite all the groping/raping of the brute underlings. 

Prime used to have dozens (though he really only ever made the same film, over and over) of Jean Rollin's lyrical dream-like art school neurotica but--as befits the title and somber mood of the film--this is the only one left. (Not counting Zombie Lake); the quality is lovely if not quite magnificent, and should allow for pleasant napping. Stretches do seem to run by where you can feel Rollin not sure what to do next- maybe wishing he had a script. (the girls' initiation evening involves one sitting next to beta vamp lady playing piano for ten minutes, while the other goes into a red lit mausoleum and then comes out. The piano tune is pretty annoying by then but the red and blue gel lighting is nice and the somber mood inescapable. The scene last four hours it seems, going nowhere, ending in one of those "party's over" speeches that seems to denote an auteur ready to declare the subject matter of his trilogy exhausted. As Acidemic contributor Ethan Spigland writes:
"Despite the gratuitous nudity and requisite sex associated with the genre (and often demanded by producers), Rollins films never come across as misogynistic. In Requiem for a Vampire, the men tend to be either brutish, foolishly gullible, or impotent. The last vampire accepts his fate with quiet dignity, but possesses no sexual magnetism. His female vampires, by contrast, convey an erotic power. Though women are associated with the chthonic, we never sense the fear of the castrating phallic mother that one encounters in such films as Lars Von Triers Antichrist . Rollin seems to be in thrall to their ecstatic jouissance. " (more)
6. FEMALE VAMPIRE
(1973) Dir. Jess Franco
*** (image: B-)
In French with English subtitles

The period of 1971-1973 was the peak for vampire lesbian movies coming out of Europe and based loosely on Le Fanu's "Camilla". 1971 alone had about 300 versions all with the surname of the lead vamp being named either Karnstein or Bathory. This Jess Franco masterpiece, also known as The Bare-Breasted Countess, Erotikill, and Loves of Irina exists in a myriad of versions, each tailored to the needs of each country's censors vs. distributors. In some place lurid gushing violence was cut out and pornographic close-ups inserted; in other places vice versa; and in the version on Prime- not in HD but still looking pretty spiffy - both sex and violence is cut out. Yet the movie's still 100 minutes and has plenty of innocuous softcore gyrating (it's hypnotic in a second chakra aligning miasma, rather than either erotic or flat-out boring), misty morning standing around with Lina Romay--excellent as the mute Irina, the usually naked and certainly last countess in the Karnstein lineage determined to be the last of her race, living in self-imposed exile on the strange island of Madeira (where the film was shot - a beautiful place off the coast of Portugal with mountains that seem straight of some Alpine Herzog existential wandering), slowly decimating the population thereon of all its libertines male and female. She kills by biting the enflamed sexual orifices of her victims and feeding on their hormonal essence, or something. Jess Franco plays a Van Helsing come to kill her, and running ineffectually up against her hulking manservant

But the real magic comes from Jack Taylor, the Franco go-to for steely-eyed leading man, "for the auteur who wants a John Phillip Law all to himself. " He's a doomed poet ever at his writing machine, pining for death and in love with her even before they meet --Baudelaire approves from beyond the grave--and with the whispering wind and trees and glowing white sky, the weird love between them manages to be eloquently conveyed with barely a word... mostly by embracing and then running from each other--each saddened by the inevitable damage that their love will bring upon themselves, but only as far as it will cut that love short. Taylor's piercing blue eyes seem legitimately haunted over that blonde mustache and straggly hair- this is no longer his masculine puffery from a few years earlier in Franco films like Succubus, this is real genuine existential dread, the kind alcoholism or drug addiction brings when you use your own warped perceptions and poor health as a tool to strip away the layers between you and the harrowing void... you know... for your poetry.

Change the name to 'Kuersten' and she could be talking about me!
If you're only a casual viewer of the 60s-70s Eurosleaze genre it can be hard to understand why anyone would give Jess Franco a red cent to make his godawful films--so let me take this unruly space aside to say a few words. One--hey, they're on film, and aesthetically always interesting --they capture a mood --Franco has a good eye for framing and composition and using what's around to fit his theme rather than the reverse (has he ever actually built a set?). It took me seven tries to get even fifteen minutes into Female Vampire back in 00. I figured I was looking at inept student art film pornography. But the eighth try I was sick with a cold, strung out on cough medicine and half-asleep and the magic took ahold of me like a pair of velvet claws soggy with vaginal seas and zees. I 'got' it, realizing Franco's style is to inverse Rod Serling's Twilight Zone, i.e. an adventure not of mind but of sight and sound. With touches of Herzog and Malick swirled in its trans-national naturalism, vintage 60s cocktail boots and post-giallo lounge lizard loucheness--all sorts of nouvelle vague tricks to mask mismatched dubbing in a dozen languages by an international cast (with as small amount of dialogue as possible, to save studio time in post). No wonder Orson Welles was such a close colleague (in his Euro expat food gorging, budget-grubbing latter days). Franco and Welles have a lot in common - though for every one film Welles "finished" there'd be thirty Francos, their cumulative overall effect is pretty much the same.

A lot of this hard-to-peg existential ennui, I've deduced, is bred from language barriers in everyday life that globe-trotting filmmakers encounter, way more numerous that the average American is used to--but when they do I'd betcha Franco movies, and Antonioni, too -- even Harmony Korine-- start to finally make sense. In our modern era too it can be hard to imagine the appeal of such films as this and Rollin's Requiem; but remember that this was the era before hardcore pornography was street legal. These kinds of films were risque but still respectable. Sure this is an incoherent jazzy mess, but so is seduction, sex, love - no matter how airbrushed Maxim wants to make it. This is sex with a bush, baby, and there's nothing coy here. Franco isn't trying to woo you into some kind of Mulveyan eye possession but to devour you from the outside in via a vagina dentata clockwork zipper.

As far as music, though he's not Ennio, Daniel White is always a sublime collaborator for Franco. He lathers on the swirly cacophony, the silken lounge lizard eyes-across-the-casino seduction, the breathy swooning hotel room breathing, and through it all a layer of constantly chattering birds, bats, peacocks... it's hypnotic, so when they suddenly stop we're left to wonder if its intentional or Franco just got bored and forgot, or they ran out of noise. It doesn't matter; if you're nodding off in your easy chair, the blood beyond your eyes drained from either arousal or too many cigarettes, then you can nod off for minutes and not miss a thing. The idea with slowness in movies of course is to, as the saying goes, 'slow your roll' in the same way meditation works when it works, which is never.


In that sense, Female Vampire isn't a movie at all really, but an X-rated writhing melancholy jazz riff on one - the way Coltrane doesn't play "My Favorite Things" except in the beginning and end of his long-form improvisation, instead be-bopping some ghostly counterpoint echo/antecedent of it, a kind of negative space reverse fill in. In that way, a Franco vampire bat is not a flapping piece of rubber on a string but a bat-shaped hood ornament.  If you can dig that, you're ready to watch the six hour opus by the late great Paine Dreying.


7. GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE
(1972) Dir. John Hayes
Movie - **1/2 / image: A

Potent, lurid, unapologetic - even a tad disturbing in its Larry Cohen-style bluntness, GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE manages to be scary and even unnerving while covering familiar ground with distinctly 70s-thriller updates: a vampire drags a woman into an open grave to sexually assault her and bite her of course, after rising from the grave and starting a career as a professor; she's pregnant with a vampire baby but won't believe it's not her dead boyfriend's, no matter what the doctor says about the baby being undead, she winds up giving birth to a bloodsucker needs blood not milk from mama (so she dies). The baby grows up into a brooding William Smith, with huge collars, vowing to find his evil father and destroy him. While researching the occult he kills sexy librarians who wont loan him rare grimoires, and seduces and destroys an array of sexually open hotties in the neighborhood. Though his big fangs are a little silly, Michael Pataki does a very cool thing with his eyes where they seem to go completely dead and impassive when the fangs come out, like shark eyes, Hayes makes the most of Paul Hipp's solid if TV Movie-style cinematography and the Prime print is lovely with deep moody blacks which seem to envelop our bad guy like a blanket. If you've only ever seen this in some crappy PD edition, try it now.


There's a lot of small things work well together: the moody avant garde score by Jaime Mendoza-Nava. - the way we see the film's large female cast as adult women, not 'girls' with evolved 70s women's lib attitudes towards sex and careers (maybe stemming from work on soaps), but also we see them through the lens of a vampire sex addict (that of the typical of the delusional misogynist who misreads women's sexual cues and then blames the woman for being a tease) as in the strange inversion of the BIG SLEEP bookstore scene at the local library. I also like the tight angles and cramped vibe making us wonder/presume the film was shot in actual houses and apartments rather than on sets. It works: everyone is pressed up against each other and powerless to escape - which makes the final knock-out, kick-the-railing-in brawl between father and son all the more cathartic. But even then, beware! This is one nightmare that will never end.

 8. DOCTOR VAMPIRE
(1991) In Cantonese w/ English subtitles
*** / Image - B+

What better way to follow two slow-moving but aesthetically pretty Eurosleaze vamp pics than with this boisterous fast moving albeit flatly shot Hong Kong horror comedy from 1991? The typically boisterous fast-moving horror comedy action follows a virgin intern as his car breaks down and he winds up crashing a ritzy vampire happening, losing his virginity to a cute young neophyte vamp (a scene that manages to be erotic, scary and touching, all while other guests are being killed downstairs in crosscuts), then returning to work trying to deal with his sudden craving for blood (luckily he works at a hospital and has two loyal fellow intern comrades). Meanwhile the Count (he and his main concubines are all white, allowing for colonialist subtext)--who samples all the collected blood of his various ladies after the end of the evening back at the mansion--goes crazy for our hero's virgin blood (she must have bit him before taking it) and demands she bring him back to the castle so Drac can drink deep. But she's young and maybe in love! The stage is set for a hilarious, chilling showdown. The film leaps along various familiar threads but does so with speed, agility and --if not exactly aesthetic miracles, who cares? There's an awesome brawl at a Tibetan monk demon-repelling ceremony (allowing for everyone to don ceremonial garb) and tons of cool touches like use of a surgical laser, an operating light shaped like a cross, giant syringes full of acid, and a magical Buddha statue the Count makes the mistake of spitting on.


9. THE VAMPIRE'S KISS
(1988) Dir. Robert Bierman
**1/2 / Image - A

A lot of us debauched 90s New Yorkers wistfully thought of this film while being underwhelmed by American Psycho. Nic Cage is way crazier, without trying half as hard, as Christian Bale. He's less rich--more a publishing expect--but is certainly even more of a bully, especially after being seduced and drained of precious bodily fluids Jennifer Beals as a lithe urban vampire who seduces and destroys him --- but is she real? Certainly something is happening to him --either vamping or latent paranoid schizophrenia, Cage at his most over the top--he's young, hungry and hammy-- to push nearly every scene way way off the deep end, torturing his bewildered, hard-working Latina secretary (Maria Conchita Alonso) and his patient, clockwatching lady shrink (Elizabeth Ashley). It can all be a little overly improv-manic, at times scenes drag on just so Cage can get it all out of his system, but as a kind of male version of REPULSION and NYC addiction-alienation, it can't be beat.

Alas, Bierman also has to crosscut constantly, almost mockingly, to the staid working class foil secretary and her drab proletariat sanity, like riding the subway (giving $$ to beggars) etc. We don't need to have a contrast to know off the rails our Cage is, and every second with her is a second that could be spent fathoming the weird succubus style insanity at the core relationship with Beals. As with Ferrara's ADDICTION because the vamp attack occurs in the anonymity of the big city - and there are no witnesses in the boudoir- we wonder if it really happened at all - and is still happening - or if Jennifer is just an anima projection, a schizophrenic mirage. Be it either way, vampire or hallucination, you'll laugh, cry, and kiss reality goodbye when you dig Nic babbling to the street pole 'near end.' And if you hadn't realized back in '88 that Cage--who'd just come off Raising Arizona (1986) and Moonstruck (1987)--was a staggering wild talent --genuinely edgy as in the edge between genius and hammy terribleness (that adenoidal affectation of a voice in Peggy Sue got Married gave his early fans grave doubts about the former), we knew it now; we were firmly convinced. True manic craziness has seldom reached such heights, before, since, or ever.

** (image - A)

(from: Manson Poppins): Lensed by the great DP, Bill Butler (JAWS, DEMON SEED) in great countercultural AIP semi-documentary style, part Kovacs elaborate pull focuses, part Gordon Willis darkness and wall paint texture, the film might be a bit shoddy special effects wise but it looks great. Manson Poppins

11.  THE VAMPIRE BAT
(1933) Dir. Frank Strayer
**1/2 / Image - B

It's a PRC with a top shelf Universal cast --they must have had some weird deal to use the sets in the dead of night after Whale and Browning were through with them. So there are lots of great old stairwells and finely painted rock walls, oil lamps and cobblestone streets in that grand nebulous everywhere and nowhere Universal small 'vaguely Eastern European' village tradition, even some of the same craggy character actors (like perennial bürgermeister Lionel Belmore). So even if there's no Bela Lugosi or real vampire there's Lionel Atwill as a scientist who needs blood for his experiments and controls Robert Frazer through telekinesis, Dwight Frye petting bats, and Fay Wray screaming while homicide detective Melvyn Douglas pounds at the door! As Timothy Carey put it while strapping Linda Evans to the log splitter conveyer belt in Beach Blanket Bingo, I got a weakness for the classics, baby. If you do too, Vampire Bat is a fine place to weaken. Maude Eburne is the comic relief; murder-mystery barnstormer Frank Strayer directed.

12. THE BODY BENEATH
(1970) Dir. Andy Milligan
**1/2 / Amazon Image: B

If you too are rooster-level fascinated by the white chalk line between low budget high camp art (Warhol, Fassbinder, Waters) and the junk basement DIY drive-in filler (Steckler, Lewis, Mikels) then you know that somewhere between the outsider sub-Sirkian soap smut of Kuchar, the drag grotesquery of Smith, the magickal high butchness of Anger, the punk sneer of Jarman and the pulpy opportunism of Al Adamson, there lurks Andy Milligan, a pioneer of grindhouse local NYC DIY bathhouse gay art smut, back before Stonewall, when gay films were considered easy busts by vice squads with too much time on their hands. Maybe it's that sense that the cops might bust in and grab the works that makes Milligan's films seem so urgent and important. A modern sort of theater group-ish reworking of Dracula and House of Frankenstein, the Body was blown up from 16mm to 35mm for distribution, as was the style and the result is washed-out to the point that all the whites have gone quite turquoise from grief, and blacks turned electric grey--and everything in between either a primary color or the look of stressed finish, which fits well the Gothic austerity of the decaying British abbey where most of the action occurs. The story of a few days/nights in the life of a vampire couple--the "reverend" Algernon Ford (Gavin Reed), wife Susan (Jackie Scarvellis), their hunchback servant Spool (Berwick Kaler), and some thuggish underlings, There's lots of transfusions, betrayals (and in a surprising scene, an apology) and enough talk about needing the right royal blood to waken Illuminati conspiracy theorists from their twitchy slumber as they seek the right descendants to be forced into breeding new vampire heirs to their house (who once imprisoned set about trying to befriend Spool into helping them escape). Meanwhile circumstance is compelling them to move to America as the cops are closing in on their cemetery digs.

Humans
Nicolas Winding Refn is apparently a fan of Milligan's and worked to get this film released (on BFI Flipside at any rate) and so consider the grungy overexposed Dark Shadows at black box theater style of it all to be some kind of high art; the house in UK where it was filmed was supposedly the backdrop for the Stones' album insert--the gatefold image on which oodles of lids have been de-seeded over the decades, Beggar's Banquet. Funny too that there's a big banquet scene at the same table here, one filmed awash in tints and diaphanous cellophane cape filters, a barrage of cannibalism and fruit mashing, followed by some impassioned monologues twisted around around in a solar flare daze conjuring genuine madness like a super 8mm camera passed around at a real Satanic time travel bacchanal.. There's a nice score of woodwinds (library cues?) and occasionally a buzzing heartbeat undertone. With all that Vaseline on the lens and all those layered canopies of cellophane colors it's the kind of off-the-cuff expressionism still alive today in the work of Guy Maddin. It all works because whether intentional or not, those colors are alive and unique in kind a two-strip Technicolor kind of way that suits the 'reeling in the centuries' mood.

All in all pretty impressive considering Milligan was his own cinematographer, editor, wardrobe mistress (using aliases for each job no doubt to make the film seem more 'professional' - we've all done it). Maybe my expectations were just so low thanks to Weldon's damning praise but I admire it's lurching, strange edits and occasional lapses into a kind of Masterpiece Theater flourish. It works to create a mood where anything can happen, and I like the use of sudden cuts to the three witches/sisters/brides of the vampire (all in different color capes) emerging like a pack of silent hounds whenever a guy or girl is chosen for death (rather than slow draining). If you actually enjoy this film all the way through, maybe it's true what Weldon says, there's no hope for you. But since Amazon Prime also has Guru the Mad Monk, you can just keep rolling unto the dawn.

Or you can turn off the TV and go out in it... maybe there is hope yet. But there's so much more to see down here in the bargain crypt....of Dracula's Prime. And who knows when they'll disappear? By the time you read this they could all be gone... or worse...

-------
PS. LATE ADDITION (9/29/16):

VAMPYRES 
(1974) Dir. Jose Ramon Larraz
*** / (Amazon Image - B+)

By the time Vampyres came out the lesbian vampire cycle was beginning to wane, but it's still one of the best, less lyrical and lulling than Franco or Rollin maybe but more satisfying in total with good pacing and interesting offbeat characters, a moody dark green patina (lovely indoor candle lighting and outdoor twilight gloom) and a scenario any man could related to: being lured to the house of two hot girls after the pub closes (gorgeous blonde innocent Anulka Dziubinska and terrifyingly carnal Marianne Morris) getting drunk with them by the fire and then waking up drained and alone, or worse, dead. In short, an indispensable primer on the dangers of priapism no man (or lesbian) should be without.

Friday, September 16, 2016

How am I not Myself? - INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956, 1978, 1993)





Very few stories are so Piscean in nature that their subtext can either be pro-or-anti nearly any social or cultural system, side or issue: INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS first appeared in the mid-50s, the height of red scares (and red propaganda), conformity (and fear of conformity), and atomic fear (and fear of pacifism), fear of fear, and fear of fear of fear itself. The story of an invading race of placid, docile space pods with the ability to replace their barbarous human hosts, SNATCHERS touched a nerve and entered straight into the popular mythos where it's been since. Even people who haven't seen either of the three versions know what it means to be a 'pod person' even if they've forgotten why . There have been four films based on the original novel, a book celebrating the original film with essays by its devoted fan-authors, and countless dissertations such as this one. But this one is the best, the rest are imitations and some don't even get the irony. Think of it... no pain, no fear, no irony... superior in every way... everything old is new again, and no one says anything about the Emperor's New Clothes, or anything really at all. It's not that we're afraid, but we're afraid of the people who told him he had clothes on, we're just afraid he'll catch a draft.

In BODY SNATCHERS the aliens come to us in the form of ourselves, exact duplicates, only without the intangible qualities of the "real." Like Prada knock-offs, they're alike in almost every way, but by not being "real" they are enemies. Allegedly, these aliens are here to “save us from ourselves” and thus presumably to save us money, both in therapy and expensive brand awareness costs, or perhaps to rescue the money itself, to deliver it from our evil clutches. In this sense they are definitely communists, as they speak of total equality among the workers, and by extension the end of advertising. The humans who catch wind of the conspiracy and resist the pod people are the ones with prestige, highly educated positions of authority (doctors, EPA agents, etc.) and money-- they seek to hold onto the upper middle class status they studied so hard in expensive schools to earn. To keep the Prada motif rolling, they are the ones who can afford expensive designer bags, and they react to the pods flooding the market with escalating violence. Their fear and fury, the very emotions which the pods speak of eradicating, increases exponentially as the number of human survivors dwindles, until all that's left is one hysterical man, a blazing fire sale of human desperation.


If we take what the pods say at face value, then what they are doing will ultimately benefit mankind. That spiritual seeker Abel Ferrara, director of the third BODY SNATCHER version discussed here, even went so far as to compare the pods to Zen Buddhists. (p. 150). So what's not to like? Why run into traffic just to avoid a nice, quieting mental haircut?

This Roscharch ink blot of a story has also been interpreted as anti-communist, anti-anti-communist, anti-establishment, and anti-nonconformist. Horror icon Stephen King sees it expressing the middle American fear of neighbors not cleaning up their lawns; French theorist Jean Baudrillard would no doubt love the story as emblematic of the implementation of the pop culture "simulacrum." Andy Warhol based his soup cans on the “pod principle.” The list goes on and on, myriad theoretical tentacles that slither in all directions from Finney's original story. Ultimately, what they reveal in their infinitude is the fluctuating nature of man’s position in relation to the social order, how the individual is continually subsumed and expelled from the collective body of his current cultural zeitgeist in a tide as regular and merciless as the ocean.

Einstein’s pod law of physics goes as thus: For every action there is a reaction, which duplicates the original action and then takes its place, only with less verve’. Imagine it in terms of food: Imagine there's a rumor that the new world order will be getting rid of steak in favor of more potatoes for the hungry; everyone would a potato, no matter how poor or alienated they are. The money for this would come from the budget for steak which now only the middle class and higher can afford, potatoes on the side, while the poor have no steak and no potato at all

So that’s the new order proposed by the NWO: No fear, no hope, no sour cream --just eat your potato and forget your troubles. No need to worry that if you worked harder or pushed for it more, you too could have a steak. You, a voracious eater of steak, hear of this potato plan, and you fear for the future. You start guarding your plate of steak obsessively at dinner. At the block party picnic that weekend you notice your neighbors are all guarding their steaks, too. No one is sharing.

1993 version
Then one day, a stranger sits down at the picnic table with a plate full of potatoes and broccoli; no steak, he’s a vegetarian. In unison, you all jump up from your plates and lynch him. That night you sleep soundly, dreaming of a land where steak runs free, but the next evening at dinner your wife tells you she’s out of steak. Your plate shows only spinach and a potato, like a bad hand of cards. If you’re neighbors see this, you will be next on the lynch list. You eat hurriedly, draw the shades, sit down in your old rocking chair and start planning your next move. But something new is happening; you are feeling relaxed. Without red meat you’re less violent; you think maybe it’s wrong to lynch vegetarians. Weeks pass and some intellectuals start coming to your house at night to sip carrot juice and talk about the dangers of red meat conformity. You grow in number until you can't fit in the living room and so rent out the town hall; the next election is split between the green (vegetarian) and red (meat) parties. Green wins. The last steak eater in town runs down the street screaming “You’re next,” and around the track it goes. Thus the mob and the outsider are always changing roles. Eventually, even Frankenstein’s monster is handed a torch and asked to join in hunting down some newer threat. I remember this personally as a kid in elementary school - we'd pick on the new kid until a newer kid came along - then the kid we had been picking on joined us in picking on the newer one and so on.

This merry loop of conflict/resolution undergoes a major change however, with the advent of the high speed cable modem. The faceless mass that used to love targeting (and being targeted by) the outcast individual now finds itself dissolved. Everyone goes wandering along their private web thread into oblivion. Without the communists to threaten the borders, the iconoclastic “individualism” of rugged drunks like ('56 version script writer Sam Peckinpah), Don Siegel and Samuel Fuller grows suddenly outré, moldy with retro kitsch. Only Abel Ferrara (barely) survives with cool intact, and even his BODY SNATCHERS have to hang out at a military base to find any trace of conformity. Even there the pods have to wear identical sunglasses so they’ll “pass” as different.


I. THE BOOK

There was a time when America was a great utopia, when the still unpaved streets shone like asphalt jewels, and the iconoclast was revered for settling the country with such mercenary thoroughness. It is this appreciation for pre pre-fab small town American life that motivated Jack Finney to write INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, which appeared as a serial installment in Colliers Magazine in 1954. In Finney’s original story, the alien pods reveal truths about themselves that the movies never mention. For one, they confess they have no higher purposes other than to replicate and reproduce their pods all over the universe. Two, they are truly cheap knock-offs of the real thing, doomed to decompose rapidly and die within five years. Another difference is that Becky Driscoll doesn’t get turned into a pod at the end. She and Miles even ultimately triumph over the invaders by burning a pod crop, which almost makes them angry, which would be an admittance of true defeat, i.e. if you piss them off they're mad at themselves not you), so the remaining, un-hatched pods head back up to space. Miles rejoices in this victory: “We shall fight them in the fields, and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” (Dell, p. 217). Wait, isn't that Churchill?

With or without the happy ending and weird Buddhist morality, independent producer Walter Wanger optioned the movie rights ere he read it and soon he and Finney were scouting locations. Don Siegel was hired to direct and Daniel Mainwaring wrote the adaptation. A writer of paperback westerns and hardboiled detective fiction, Mainwaring was the tough guy who wrote OUT OF THE PAST (1947), a classic of film noir, adapted from a novel he wrote under the pseudonym Geoffrey Homes. Siegel was a hardboiled character himself—he later directed DIRTY HARRY (1977). As if these two guys weren’t tough and iconoclastic enough on their own, Siegel brought his friend Sam Peckinpah on board as co-writer. The stage was  being set for a different sort of SNATCHERS; these guys weren't so big on victorious rejoicing and with their low budget preventing them signing marquee names they took a chance and cast the film with "real" actors: Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynters. These are adults, each with wit, intelligence, and energy. This was important, for in order to show the loss of emotion, they would have to be able to convey they had some in the first place. Most sci fi characters didn't have to show they weren't pods.

Befitting the noir edge they wanted, Wynters' character Becky was to become a pod--as cold eyed as Rita Hayworth in THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI—for the bleak, noir-nightmarish climax. The characters' emotions—and their lack of—are conveyed in lots of tight close-ups; lips quiver with unsubstantiated anxiety, wicked licentiousness darts across otherwise mannered and sophisticated smiles. Later their faces get pale and puffy from lack of sleep, red and irritated from amphetamines. What a far cry all this face change business is from the bland visage of the typical 1950's sci fi hero and heroine!

This attention to depth, despair and transformation will probably make this 1956 adaptation forever cutting edge. In his autobiography, Siegel wrote: “Danny (Mainwaring) and I knew that many of our associates, acquaintances and family were already pods. How many of them woke up in the morning, ate breakfast (but never read the newspaper), went to work, returned home to eat again and sleep?" It's these pod-person associates in the film industry that have made this film so eternally current, that blinders-on attitude that spells the death of original thinking and the birth of the play-it-safe box office brain-cooler; TAXI DRIVER is dead, long live TAXI DRIVER IV: SPORT’S REVENGE.

It's interesting to note that sleep is key to podliness. "They get you when you sleep," is the first thing Gabrielle Anwar is told in Ferrara's remake.  Siegel too notes (above) specific pod traits as "waking up in the morning, and sleeping at night." We all know what it’s like to have to sleep when we want to stay up all night writing or talking with friends. It’s 5 AM, we’re full of a weird kind of magical life, but we know when we wake up the next day all that magic will be gone. With this in mind, we can connect INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS not only with other films made by its creative team: WILD BUNCH (1969) or DIRTY HARRY (1970) but also to films about artists who employ dangerous sleep-deprivation/drug abuse tactics to help them break the pod-lock on their creative genius: POLLOCK, BASQUIAT, ALL THAT JAZZ, and CHAPLIN, to name a few. In westerns it’s about the lone scorpion gunman being slammed Gulliver-like down via the swarming ant masses of by-the-book law enforcement tedium. In artist bios, it’s the limits of the artist’s physical limitations (bad heart, alcoholism, cancer), buckling underneath the tireless spurs of innovative genius. With artists and writers it’s not evolve or die, but evolve AND die. All writers, including Jack Finney, have to fall asleep. Dreams may come, but the art may not come back.


Maybe there are some folks who don’t want it to. Maybe the era of the sexless marriage--when TV parents slept in separate beds--seems a pretty oatmeal-ish time through the HAPPY DAYS rerun looking glass; maybe that gray flannel honky who once fought so bravely to keep his steak is as gone as the laserdisc, and good riddance. But maybe he should have fought a little harder; maybe he should have said yes to drugs and fought hippie LSD explosion fire with fire. Now his once nice clean suburb’s been overrun by foreigners who don’t clean up after their dogs or repair their broken windows. A Wal-Mart ate up Pop’s grocery store; it also ate the newsstand, candy store, soda shop, bowling alley, shoeshine shop, Owlin Howlin's arm, and several fruit carts. Indians outsourced his modem. Ugh. Now him out on Lazy Boy recliner reservation--living room called "man cave" now. Him got heap big drinking problem. Wife took his six figure job, confiscated his Lucky Strikes. No you die of COPD, she says.


Perhaps things are better as they are now-- “integrated,” with many cultures, sexual orientations, races, colors, and creeds inhabiting the same block, workplace, power position. But does this create a rainbow community or just merely alter the basic composition of paranoia so that it can no longer be “solved” via vigilante violence? People are almost blind from pretending their neighbor isn't different than themselves. Small talk over the picket fence must be sanded down until it's free of all cultural specifics, gender norms, biases, and inside jokes. Rumors literally don’t get around anymore; there is no longer a “townsfolk” to form a lynch mob with, there's no common language or common cultural property, so there can be no lone hero to try and stop them at the jailhouse door (or vice versa, if you are DIRTY HARRY). The 1950’s American value system stood for something and thus rebels had something to stand against. Since all the dads wore suits and ties--from morning until long after dinner--just wearing a turtleneck instead made you a beatnik. Nowadays, even if you get a tongue piercing and neck tattoo you’re just catching a trend that already left the station. When there are no pods in Santa Mira, all Santa Mira will be pods. You got that piercing at the mall- so it doesn't count, unless it's meant ironically, or--even more ironic--not meant as ironic at all. When parents try to emulate the teens, the teens are in deep trouble; the one-eyed child leads the blind-panicked cultural herbivores off a cliff, and by the time they land it's gone viral and sparked a backlash.

THE MOVIE (1956 original) 
I. The Peak of the Pyramid vs. the Sane Simulacrum

Siegel’s film opens with the mighty Straight White Male of 1950’s America, the city-educated doctor, Miles Bennell (McCarthy) riding into Santa Mira on his iron horse (the train). He’s been called back early from a medical conference because of a mysterious outbreak in town. People think their loved ones aren’t their loved ones and they need Miles to come fix things, but no idea how. He’s like Matt Dillon in TV’s GUNSMOKE, only Dodge City isn’t Dodge City anymore. It still looks like Dodge, just not the emotional, fun-loving, rowdy Dodge City it was before it fell asleep. We know in advance Miles won't fix a thing though, because in the studio-enforced prologue he comes crying in to FBI headquarters all dirty and hysterical. You think Sheriff Matt J. Dillon would ever get hysterical, no matter how many pods there were? He'd just shrug and reckon that as long as they're peaceable and ain't no corpus delecti, ain't nothing he can do, but poor Miles has to sob on the shoulder of Whit Bissell until his panting stops. The tone of Miles’ ensuing voiceover then grows calm and reassuring under Bissell’s authoritative blanket. We’re almost tempted to believe old Miles might be able to save Santa Mira after all, but no, the age of Matt Dillon is gone and we can only watch in horror as the what man grip on small town America tightens in panic, then gives way.


But what could have made this happen? There is no external force so violent and menacing that the forces of good cannot conquer it, whether by American ingenuity or the common cold. But the pod is an enemy so nonviolent and banal that good’s own “force” becomes the new menacing violence. This passive victor is so generous it even forgives, forgets and incorporates cantankerous iconoclasts like Fuller and Peckinpah into its tedious realms, processing them and radiating them back out, edited for content and re-formatted to fit your TV. It recruits the forces of Zenith, the local dope farmer, to plant pod-tatoes on every couch.

Media studies writer Michael Parkes sees this as a metaphor for post-modern simulacra, particularly in the scene were Becky and Miles drive to eat dinner at a nearby tavern, which is empty, presumably due to the pods lack of interest in a candle-lit dining environment. He notes that “Television’s effect on the service industry of America was immediate and harsh. The leisure sectors were the worst struck – bars and cafes slumped into decline.”
The only person they meet in the parking lot of the tavern is another medical professional, psychiatrist Danny Kaufman (Larry Gates) who is on his way out with another VIP --speaking to the resilience of the cultural elite at evading TV's magnetic draw. At the tavern, Becky and Miles ask about the live band that is usually on hand. The saloonkeeper indicates the new jukebox in the corner, which fills half the screen with an unworldly glow. Not enough interest in live music, he says, and the juke box is cheaper (another knock-off): “Humans," notes Parkes, "deemed redundant, are being replaced in this bar by a technological simulacrum. The artistry and individuality of the original band has been ‘snatched’ and replaced by an inferior technological substitute.”

Miles and Becky still attach import to the human connection, (a habit that prevents them from being so easily replaced), so they want to hear a band, and they want to eat out instead of in. Remember that the reason Miles was out of town for several days was to attend a medical conference—a practice of higher learning wherein information is relayed by live speaking voice directly to a present audience (as opposed to online classes of today). In college, attendance is part of your grade, part of your escape from pod-purgatory, as is staying awake in class. Blow off class to stay in bed (cuz you partied so hard the night before) and you’re a sitting duck for the pods; you’ll fail out of med school and wind up working at the fruit stand with Uncle Ira. You need to stay awake in a room with other humans; the TV doesn't count as contact, and if humans don’t touch you directly, the tendrils of the pods will.

This human touch is a big thing for doctors in general. They want you to "come in and see them," to let them touch you, without your clothes on, and this is supposedly for your own good. They can detect things in you just be listening to your heart, or tapping your because the great unwashed masses roll through the offices in the Professional Building where Miles pops them a pill and assures them that--by the power invested in him by the God and the Medical Community—their loved ones are not peaceful Buddhist knock-offs of their former, loving, abusive, intolerant Christian selves. Over the phone this would have no authority; they have to be in the same room, in the same frame, on the same movie screen at the same time. Anyone who is not present and swearing allegiance 24 hours a day could be a traitor. Move out of the frame, and the devil's got you.


The arrival of Becky into Miles’ office is a whole different matter. She comes not as a patient but as an old friend from college. She has returned to Santa Mira for a few months, from the city, to recover from a divorce. Like Miles she is cosmopolitan, she has been outside of Santa Mira and seen the wonders of the world. She has been divorced, a signifier meaning she places her individuality above the constrictions of the social order. Also, she enters his office wearing a stunning summer dress, form-fitted, with a bouquet of white frills spilling out of her chest (no knock-off this). Compared to the other women in the movie, she stands apart; a chosen goddess of the species. Her coming back amongst the “little people” to recover from a divorce implies that Santa Mira is relatively small potatoes, easy to conquer. A resident here wouldn’t be able to handle the rigors of life outside the town limits. Her beauty, dress and marital status are as valid a badge of superiority as the stethoscope is around Miles’ neck.


Actually, Becky has come to see Miles on behalf of her hick cousin Wilma (Virginia Christine -Princess Ananka in THE MUMMY'S CURSE) who is upset because their Uncle Ira (Tom Fadden) isn’t Uncle Ira (he seems like PA KETTLE). Before that, Little Jimmy Grimaldi (Bobby Clark) is almost hit by Miles’ car while he runs away from his mom (Eileen Stevens), a fruit-stand worker straight of central casting for THE GRAPES OF WRATH. In each case a hick prototype is being “taken over” (recruited to the party) as the pods move up from the cellar of the social order towards the roost of Becky and Miles. 


Their youth, beauty, education and childless marital status are all clearly adding up to make Becky and Miles the tip of the Santa Mira social pyramid, but everyone is connected - and since they are the top they are expected to share the benefits of their vantage point. But they are benevolent royalty, and thus their carriage doesn’t callously trample Jimmy Grimaldi when he runs out in front of it, though it certainly seems like the aristocratic thing to do. Rather, Miles slams on the brake and leaps out of the car—dusting up his fine city shoes--to try and calm poor Jimmy down. And when spinster cousin Wilma needs help, Miles and Becky put their flirting on hold to hang out in her dull suburban backyard and give her Uncle Ira the once over as he haphazardly mows the lawn. Seems fine from here... what could possibly be 'weird' about such a yokel? Moreover, who would want to horn in on such a hardscrabble existence, like robbing someone's compost heap or leaf pile. And moreover still, what exactly can Becky and Miles do about it, about any of it, top of the pyramid or no?


Their flirting also is put further on hold when Miles is called over to the home of his friends, Jack Bellicec (King Donovan) and Teddy (Carolyn “Morticia Addams” Jones). Jack is a "writer" and thus not quite in Miles’ doctoral league, but rather part of the emerging intellectual middle class, which is established by the “rec room” in his house. This locale is where a partially developed pod body has been discovered, growing on the pool table. (this is my parents' class, so I'm most comfortable with these people, EK). The Bellicecs are the middle of the pyramid types and the choice of the pool table as the first “exposed to the public” pod bed is very telling. Green and felt-covered, it represents the crossroads between the juke joint dirt fields and the cigar-scented parlors of the old rich. It is the field of play where colored balls of narrative bounce from surface into holes, or bedroom down to basement, flower down to roots, upper middle class artist down to proletariat pod. Miles is quick to rack up the various balls of evidence and realize that this is corpse is the future Jack Bellicec (who is now moving towards the side pocket for a deep rest) and that as Becky is already asleep at her house she must also be in danger. Before he goes racing to the rescue though, he tells Jack to call Dr. Kaufman.

But why?

How is a shrink going to be able to handle the pod situation better than a doctor like Miles? Will Kaufman diagnose the pod as manic-depressive?

II. Dr. Kaufman - Reality Repairman 

Miles wasn’t really expected to fix Uncle Ira or Mrs. Grimaldi, to hit them on the head with his little reflex testing hammer and restore them to sanity. He was called in as a "reality repairman," as an authority figure ordained with the power to redefine social reality when it no longer fulfills its function. When Miles’ own reality slips its gears (i.e. he begins to see and touch the pods) he has to defer to Dr. Kaufman, the ultimate reality specialist. If Kaufman sees and touches them, then they are real, they are there--because he will know the difference between the real and the  vividly imagined and whether the pod thing is an actual unknown alien plant or a pile of clothes overgrown with some basement fungus. Thus Kaufman--and by extension psychiatry—are the keepers of the gates of Hell, gently labeling each new demon that tumbles out of their patient's minds. Only they--the doctor of doctors so to speak-- can validate (and thus incorporate into social reality) an external phenomenon such as people not being themselves for real (rather than just symptoms of some schizophrenic break--the sort of thing for which electro-shock actually does work wonders).

Note also that while Miles fears for Becky’s safety since she’s asleep already, it never even occurs to him that as Dr. Kaufman’s already asleep, he too may be already taken over, or be harboring a half-formed Dr. Kaufman in his wine cellar. Miles sees Kaufman as his intellectual superior—therefore he trusts that Kaufman is still Kaufman, and that Kaufman can repair any crack in reality that Miles himself cannot. When a doctor cannot handle a situation, he calls in "a specialist" who would then call in another specialist and so on, there can never be a "specialist endpoint" lest the whole system collapse. And since the vines are creeping up the pyramid from the base (in Miles' direct experience) Kaufman will be among the last to go.


At any rate, Kaufman can’t help them. The phones are in the hands of the pods, as are the cops. It’s well known that Siegel’s original ending was of Miles screaming “And you’re next!” right into the camera, his blurry, sweaty, bleary face taking up the whole screen. This was a very gloomy finale. It's so traumatic that even Manger’s enforced FBI epilogue doesn't fully lay the anxiety it causes. In the novel, Miles’ violent tantrums finally try the pod people’s patience to the point where they let him have his world/steak/control back. But the sad fact is, Siegel’s pessimistic ending was the more realistic. There is simply no way humanity can triumph in the face of such unstoppable non-violence. This Gandhi knew, and this is also known by anyone who's had to watch as his hip downtown block is overrun by families and investors looking to get in on 'the hot new neighborhood' until all the cool stores are priced out and all that remains are banks and chain stores (i.e. like every other 'dead' place).


FRIENDLY ENEMIES 
or the GI Bill don't mean your co-pay at the gastroenterologist's (cue laugh track)

A common enemy is the glue of all social fabric; abortion bonds the Christians, Saddam bonds the rednecks, Bush bonds the hippies; Israel bonds the Arabs. Jason Vorhees bonds the screaming teenage audience. When your group runs out of enemies, they may need to look internally for the next one, and this means YOU! YOU’RE NEXT! Thus revolutions turn to dictatorships, and the closeted gay kid in high school bullies the the out one in his misguided bid for straight acceptance.

But there’s no such thing as a gay pod, for that would imply there is a straight pod to be different from. The pods refuse to play fair; they won’t come after Miles with lawyers, pitchforks, and picket signs no matter how many times he assaults their lack of values. Instead they come bearing lovely tranquilizers, and soft words about nonviolence and the soothing benefits of shut-eye. No more wondering if the 1950's was closer to the giddy freedom of George Lucas' AMERICAN GRAFFITI, or the soul crushing conformity of Todd Hayne's FAR FROM HEAVEN. That heads-or-tales coin humanity’s been flipping since the game began will be melted down into a nice, plain silver blob.


Whether it be gravity, royalty, religious oppression, or a bossy in-law, the American pursuit of freedom means not just ducking its authority, but incinerating it. Thus, the cheap tract home, and the ideal of nonstop after-work barbecues with beer and tikki jazz music spilling from the window. Finally and forever free of their parents (who are still using lamp oil lights and pshawing exposed ankles), these youngsters--he fresh from the war; she tired of mom’s antiquated curfew--ditch the old world and blast off into the 'no money down' tract home GI bill mortgage of the future.

Ah but what price freedom? As their own old age sets in, the “greatest generation” sees the effect that growing up in a more permissive, modern era has on their children. The sugared version of austere discipline their visiting grandparents present these tykes by contrast is refreshing and habit-forming, a worthy weapon to rebel with against parental permissiveness. When an issue like Vietnam finally comes along, these kids use grandmas’ pre-war piety (the 20s pacifism following the disasters of trench warfare) as a tool of liberalism, thus uniting the worst of both worlds. Thus the 70s parent groovy wife swapping spawns the barbarian hordes trampling Thulsa Doom's orgy.


That is where the family values vanished in the nuclear schemata: the mini van and the soccer team, the computer game and the basement rec room, it’s all there and it looks like a family and it acts like a family but it’s just not a family. If they think about, no one is even sure what the nuclear family values are. If they did, they’d buy that big Victorian house back, get both sets of old folks out of their rest homes and start back at square one. Not interested? What a shocker.

If we have the choice between being a free pod in Paris, or part of a close-knit “family” with rigid dogmatic rules and devotion to outdated codes of conduct and the wearing of scratchy linens, we will naturally choose the pod option, unless we are masochists. The trouble is, when we are all pods there will  be nothing to hide, so the dark secrets will be all out in the open, dirtying the street.


In this context, Miles proves to be an agitator on the level of William Shatner’s hatemonger in 1962's THE INTRUDER. When a society becomes totally non-conformist then there is no sense of belonging, thus rendering the outsider experience worthless. There is no one to hear Miles screams, because everyone is busy screaming about their own damn pod problems. Someone shouts “You’re next!” and the response is “Is that a threat? You talkin’ to me? I don’t see anybody else here....”
---
THE REMAKE (1978) 

By which I mean, man, the urban paranoia of the 1970’s, or: “Life in a world where everyone is a pod but you, and even the you in the mirror looks suspiciously like a pod but what are you going to do, shoot the mirror with a .357 magnum?” Maybe the mirror's the pod.

Michael Chapman, the director of photography for TAXI DRIVER (1976), FINGERS (1978), HARDCORE (1979), THE WANDERERS (1979), was clearly on an urban alienation roll during the period he worked on the 1978 Phillip Kaufman remake of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. Whatever else you may say about them, these films are all poems of grime, desolation and evil inherent in decaying urban architecture. It’s as if Chapman somehow imprinted the archaic patterns of sidewalk soot, the black flat blobs that once were chewing gum, the million overlapping stains, onto the Ektachrome like a narrative version of Brakhage.

By this time, the 70s, the American “small town value” that Finney had so much confidence in--for it found a use for stubborn iconoclasm in the same way, say, Fuller finds use for it via Gene Evans--was long gone; but maybe San Francisco --with its pop psychology and expanded consciousness, could present a viable contender? As was the style of the time, Kaufman’s plan was to make the whole urban environment seethe with menace. A slowly rolling office chair, an unbilled Robert Duvall as a priest on a swing set, even a pair of stereo headphones could be, with the right soundtrack and cinematography, something alien and hostile.

To find out why everything was so alien and hostile, let’s compare 1956, year of the Siegel film, with 1978, year of Kaufman’s. The late 1950’s was when that greatest generation—the young men of the war and their Riveting Rosies—were aging their way into position as political leaders. By 1978 their kids—the Vietnam Protestors and their flower girls—were similarly growing into middle aged governmental positions. This was certainly true in San Francisco, land of Harvey Milk, Gateway to the East, refuge for Chinese immigrants, gay sailors and drag queen dance hall dames. If the pod people were going to settle in a land where they might be accepted despite their lack of difference, it would surely be here (or New York City). One can almost see them carrying "Pod" Party banners and shouting "Legitimize Pods!" But without the requisite self-righteous anger to add inflection, no one would notice them.

The character of Miles Bennett is now called Mark Bennett—and is not a doctor but a restaurant inspector from the Board of Health. Played by Donald Sutherland in his heavy corduroy sports jacket, thick curly hair and droopy mustache phase, Mark is--in sharp contrast to the mature divorcee played by Kevin McCarthy in the original--a bit of a bozo. Though the city of San Francisco has granted him some authority, Mark clearly lacks the respect of the citizenry; he misuses his power, and has only limited ability to “create” reality in the same reassuring way the old Miles or Dr. Kaufman could. We see him intimidating the chef of a five-star restaurant for no apparent reason, poking through the kitchen getting in everyone’s way as he searches for health violations with the glee of a kid about to watch his little brother get yelled at. What the cook defends as a caper in his simmering sauce, Mark fishes out with a tweezer and labels a rat turd. When the cook disagrees Mark dares him to eat it, again evoking the schadenfreude of the little brother. While Miles in the original could dispel entire pod invasions in the minds of his people by labeling it rampant hysteria, the territory of which Mark is a master could hardly get much smaller or more repellant.

We see his pettiness and immaturity further when he makes a late night call to his assistant Elizabeth (Brooke Adams), urging her to come in early to work the next day. There is no apparent reason for this off-hour request, other than his excremental enthusiasm. Maybe this was okay in the 1970’s but in a modern context this behavior would be considered sexual harassment; it’s clear he's trying to force a pissing contest between him and Elizabeth’s current boyfriend, Geoffrey (Art Hindle), an alleged dentist who wont even take off his super size 1970's headphones when he and Elizabeth are coupling. It seems almost a relief the next day to see Geoffrey wandering around in a glassy-eyed robotic haze.

On their car-pooling way to work, Elizabeth complains to Mark about Geoffrey’s odd behavior. As they drive, evidence accrues, VERTIGO-like, through Mark’s cracked windshield (via a disgruntled cook no doubt): businessmen, old ladies, and construction workers conspire in low tones on street corners, and if that weren’t enough, there’s Kevin McCarthy jumping in front of their car screaming “You’re next!” Mark seems determined to think it can all be explained away by his shrink friend. The reality restorer they're driving to see. When Kevin's hit by a car around the corner, MIles spends several scenes trying to report it to the cops even forcing his way onto the phone at the crowded book signing they're attending, the cops could give a shit - what is he going to report anyway, that he heard a thump? It makes no sense, but it illuminates a key difference between himself and Miles in the original, which is even more tellingly borne out in the rather juvenile romantic situations of Elizabeth and Mark vs. Becky and Miles in the original version. 
In 1956, the institution of marriage--that golden bedrock of “family values”--had yet to be shattered by free love, only chipped at here and there.  Newly divorced (as is Becky), Miles ruminates (in Finney’s novel): “It was wonderful to be free, but just the same, the breakup of something that wasn’t intended to turn out that way leaves you a little shaken…but we’d each been through the same mill.” This mill that the two of them have gone through has left them both in rather good shape, maybe because that mill is still pretty clean, seldom used, not indicative of system-wide failure. By 1978 that mill is more like a slaughterhouse assembly line, spitting out stoop-shouldered singles like Mark and Elizabeth, who don’t get a snazzy convertible but rather a dirty sedan with cracked windshield. Where Miles and Becky could enjoy the thrill of rekindling a romance with no prior commitments to worry about, here Mark sublimates his attraction for Elizabeth via ordering her around at work. Meanwhile she lives with her boyfriend but doesn’t make it clear to Mark she is unavailable, sublimating the coldness of her handsome affluent lover Geoffrey is a dentist (she lives in his house and it's fairly nice - there's a housekeeper). She’s not that committed to Geoffrey, but in no mood to leave him either. In 1956 if you loved a woman, you knew it; looked her in the eyes and told her so, and you got married the next day. In 1978 if you love a woman, you look at your watch, shuffle your shoes, and hang around her kitchen until her boyfriend leaves, or the situation gets to intense and scary that making a move on her seems easier, you have no fear left with which to self-sabotage or stutter.

DR. KIBNER - REALITY ERADICATOR

So Mark and Elizabeth drive over to Mark’s psychiatrist friend, Dr. Kibner’s (Leonard Nimoy) book signing party to report seeing Kevin McCarthy being chased by pods and presumably killed. Kibner, with his short black bangs and dark crimson turtleneck is clearly a figurehead for the new “post-conformity.” This was the time--the 1970s--when national fads would burn through the cultural landscape like wildfire: EST, Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics, the Guyana Kool Aid Acid Test. The hippies had knocked one out of the park as far as seizing the reigns of American culture, but Manson turned out to be an Apache and slaughtered the innocent, and no one could find a bugle to sound revelry, cuzza weed, man. And even with cult danger on everyone's mind, the spiritual pillars of contemporary society were suddenly up for grabs; Christian priests were loosening up to connect with the rudderless younger generation; the face of God was melting into your lap at the Church of the Higher Consciousness. Jesus was alive and playing banjo (dubbed in by Jerry Garcia) in the park outside your office. Your old lady neighbor could have you pregnant by Satan or pimping the Baghavhad Gita in airports before you even had time to thank her for the strange tasting coffee. Thus, just by writing a book, Dr. Kibner becomes an authority on "what's happening."

For me the most uncomfortable part of the whole film is when Elizabeth, hearing a woman complain to Kibner that her husband is not her husband, tries to rush up assure the woman she’s not crazy. But Kibner--ever the showman--blocks her path. He turns his back to Elizabeth, keeps his eyes focused on the woman with the problem, and reassures her that her husband is indeed her husband in a groovy, gravelly, Spock-the-hypnotist voice. When Elizabeth tries to interrupt he holds her at bay with an outstretched hand, and says “Please.” This repeats over and over: anything Elizabeth tries to say, Kibner interrupts with “Please, Please!” and continues to spout his platitudes to the doomed woman. She’s powerless to resist; Kibner’s ego is so huge it will not allow any other outcome than for her to be soothed by his commanding aura, and see things his way.

It’s a scary scene because unlike Kaufman and Miles in the original, who were fighting to maintain the democratically elected illusion of social reality, here in the remake’s post-modern San Francisco there is no longer any such thing. The doors of perception have been kicked open; the demons are out; it's the wild west all over again--only on an intra-psychic level--and Kibner has elected himself sheriff. In telephone terms, Miles and Kaufman were Bell Telephone repair people. Kibner is an MCI representative in a post-monopoly era, using his most authoritative Spock voice to preach the gospel of the lowest bidder.

Reading Finney’s book now, when a character expresses concern that her uncle has “no emotion—none—only the pretense of it” (p. 21), it seems almost quaint. The prognosis would merely be to cut his Xanax prescription to half, or otherwise adjust his meds. Even by 1956 and Siegel’s film, emotion was already draining—like cheap dye—out of the human fabric. By the time Antonioni’s BLOW UP came around in 1967, sincerity was synonymous with square. By 1978 even the squares knew better than to act sincere, so sincerity was almost cool again. Thus, Kibner’s question about the pod panic isn’t whether people are faking being themselves—that’s a given--but why is everyone suddenly so aware of it? Has detachment gone too far? Is this some new trend he should be aware of? He didn't get to ride the cultural zeitgeist by not chasing every new spontaneously occurring group mind schizmatic rhizome like some gonzo wack-a-mole barber.

POST-MODERNIST REFRACTION 
(or 'That San Francisco Sound might be the Echo of a Dead Can')

Like so many post-modern films, Kaufman’s remake ends up going literally “nowhere.” This is the same root of the urban paranoia in Coppola’s THE CONVERSATION, or the films of De Palma and Antonioni. In these vortexes of the real, not just the plot, but the hero of the story himself, is likely to disappear halfway through (also in fiction, as in Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow). One of Mark’s many boneheaded attributes in the 1978 film is how he is utterly unable to "wake up" out of the haze of reliance on illusory authority. He can't stop calling up governmental agencies even after he knows they're pods; it's an addiction. Even after the almighty Kibner has decided to believe Matthew about the pods and to do all he can, Mark still insists on calling reporters, FBI agents, and governmental watchdogs for help. He’s dying to tattle on the pods and can’t let go that there is no one to tattle to. He hits the streets, the payphones, so they "can't trace him." Voices begin to reach out to him from passing pay phones as he staggers down the street. Chapman's handheld camera follows him through a wobbly series of shots that mix POV angles of various San Francisco streets --downtown to the Tenderloin, until we get the impression Mark is chasing himself, or has eaten his own tail. In a post-modern touch, Matthew/Sutherland becomes aware of, and scared of, the camera/viewer, which in turn mirrors his paranoia via crazy angles as it captures his image. Thus the passers by in the fish eye lens look over at him as if to say “Hey, that’s Donald Sutherland, is this some kind of a movie?” and he reacts to them as if they are pods who figured out he’s not human, and his shocked look right out of the screen into the viewer's eyes makes you realize he knows you know, and it's a trip, man, if I may use the vernacular of the locals.


Forgoing any attempt to connect to the more exploding color aspects of the Haight or anything, Chapman’s camera makes San Francisco throb like some giant alien embryo in these scenes. The recently completed Transamerica Pyramid Building looms in the background, an immobile Martian automaton waiting for Nimoy to activate it with a Klaatu Barado Nikto type command. Chapman’s camera leaps forward and devours Sutherland’s image for a few minutes and we see things from his eyes, hearing him hear phone calls overlap into each other, hearing his own voice played back at him, things happening, but then not happening. A meeting is arranged with a deep throat-style mole in the park who gives him a packet of info, but then the packet is gone. Each new payphone rings louder than the last; a Washington official urges him to keep vigilant. Automated voices overlap until they form the sounds of a crowd. The lights of the city flash like saucer landing strips from the furnace-like doorways of peep shows. First Mark, then Chapman’s camera, then the viewer, all slowly drown in a sea of urban information.

You are Totally There, But There is No "There" There
 Abel Ferrara's 1993 re-remake. 

SO.... the military family hurtles all around the country, blowing like the seed of space to whatever corner of the continent offers dad the best salary. Ask the kid in the back of car how he feels about losing his hard-won friends every few years, and he'll tell you it's alienating. This is especially noticeable by 1993 and Abel Ferrara's remake, the third version of SNATCHERS film, with its most traumatized of all the alienated space fliers, the military brats. In this version the good guys are the aliens, drifting onto the uptight military base like a bunch of pre-Reagan hotties. The dad is an aging but still full hair-headed hippie named Steve Mallone (Terry SAVE THE LAST DANCE Kinney), his daughter from a first marriage, Marti (sizzlin' Gabrielle SCENT OF A WOMAN Anwar), his second wife Carol (lovely PSYCHO 2 star Meg Tilly) and their cuddly, tow-headed six year old son, Andy (Reilly Murphy).

It's not really fair to give Abel Ferrara's remake the bad rap it has, if for no other reason than the amazing cinematography of Bojan Bazelli. The man behind the unique look of Ferrara's KING OF NEW YORK, and such films as THE RAPTURE (1991) and DEEP COVER (1992), and lately, RING 2. His work radiated through even in the days of VHS but on HD widescreen it bumps anything it touches up a star. With the action framed through window slats, fences, window panes, blinds, curtains, dissolves of window reflections into other window reflections which then pull back to the other interior, and so on, the shots are bathed in haunting hues and even the pods glisten with complex beauty. More than almost anything else in the film, his cinematography unveils the "meaning" of this rendition of the snatchers. 

Unfortunately, while it ably conveys the dissolution of the American mental fiber (constantly affirming the sense of split personality) it doesn't really help us get involved with the horror element and Ferrara --taking this job on for the cash and restricted as to improvisation and all his other favorite approaches--isn't able to really show off a knack for narrative suspense beyond the merely 'above average' competence. Aside from Anwar's ability as an actress to draw us in and make us worry she'll be bored, dumped unceremoniously on the lame-o back streets of the makeshift suburban world inside the prefab suburban military base (a behind-the-fences neighborhood that's probably equal parts families of the military, and witness protection), there's not much going on. The pods seem to have taken over long before--or right as--the Mallone family arrives. Thus their arrival seems to trigger the menace; they bring the menace with them in some abstract sense, like Tippi brought THE BIRDS to Bodega Bay.


This whole aspect of strangers in a strange land steady getting stranger makes for an interesting comparison when measured against the other two films. Siegel's 1956 version takes place in small town where everyone knows your name; Kaufman's in the swinging 1970s where names don't matter, cause we're all the same soul (but really everyone's alienated and alone); Ferrara's is in the glum early 90's on a suburban military base in the Deep South, where no one even has a name to know, or a soul that hasn't been warped in basic training. Though setting the film at a military base wasn't Ferrara's idea, it nonetheless works, at least as a basis for an interesting comparison, a yardstick with which to measure the pod's progress in real life, a halfway point between the 50s rise of the suburban prefab tract home picket fence and our modern alienation where all cultures are right next to each other as strangers but united via earbuds that cut their hearing off as if alien face hugger coils feeding them any chosen sensory stimuli.

Marti narrates the events of the film, in a convention borrowed from the 1956 version, one that automatically allows for a certain measure of security in the viewer (we know she will survive from the outset). She intones gravely about fate, as if she was "chosen" to encounter and--presumably--survive, her inevitable run-in with the pods. "I guess things happen for a reason," she says, and adds "In the end it had to happen." The feel of all this is reminiscent of TERMINATOR 2, which came out two years earlier, and the images of the family on the road to EPA dad's new post possess an eerie post-apocalyptic feel. Nothing bad has happened yet, but the family is already alienated from each other and the landscape is desolate and scarcely seems to know itself. Marti and her sexy young step-mom are locked in an unspoken stand-off over dad's affections. The kids are obviously pissed off at having to go live on another military base just as they were "beginning to make some friends" at the last one.


While at a rest stop en route, Marti is accosted in the bathroom by a crazed soldier who tells her "They get you when you sleep" before he vanishes. Later, Marti hears the same thing from a terrified Andy. The poor boy has just had a weird day in class where the teacher kept trying to get him to take a nap, and all the kids made the exact same finger painting (cool touch!). Meanwhile the adults go about their business, resolutely oblivious to the kids' suspicions and worries.

The idea of "who makes reality" takes an interesting downturn here as well. R. Lee Emery (FULL METAL JACKET) plays base leader General Platt, and he's far less intimidating than he thinks and is unable to make the bespectacled hippie dad, Steve Mallone, cringe and want to be out of there post haste, but Steve just challenges him with the smug self-righteous assurance of Sutherland at the restaurant in the beginning that if there are any leaky drums of toxins floating around, oh yes, he will find them. While standing around in a ditch taking samples Steve gets accosted by the third reality steerer, Major Collins (Forrest Whitaker, even more over the top than he was in SPECIES), the camp shrink. Obviously hip to the alien spore takeover, Whitaker stutters and struts and frets his minutes upon the stage with his paranoia. He and Kinney gets into intense dialogue about what's happening; people could be thinking their family members are not their family members due to some sort of toxicity in the water. "It's not part of the systemology," says Steve, like he knows what that means; and another intriguing spin on Finney's concept, that this time around the takeover might be a result of neurotoxins in the ground water--a sentient neurochemical!--is shortly shot to shit.  And which came first - the toxin that changes people or the toxin that makes people think other people have changed.


That's the thing really --all the pods would have to do if they wanted to avoid all the hassle would be to just instantly and pre-emptively accuse the remaining humans of not being themselves - of trying to imply they're the ones having the nervous  breakdown and so forth. It's the kind of reverse mirror gaslight logic that sends even sane minds around the bend.

Meanwhile Marti is almost abducted by some weird soldiers who inform her she's trespassing as she walks home along a fence, but the general's daughter, Jenn (Christine Elise) rescues her in her shiny new convertible (that symbol of individuality and freedom from the 1956 film) and spirits her away to cool kid places, like off to the one cool bar in town, where she meets her spur-of-the-minute boyfriend, Captain Tim Young (Billy Wirth). This bar scene is interesting in how well Ferrara captures the stifling deadness of a mostly empty bar, the jukebox is here from the first film, but also another drunk raving about how they get you when you sleep. At this point the movie still seems like it could be really good, especially when Tim and Marti take a romantic walk through some woods that are lit by Bajelli in an almost storybook manner.


Alas, such moments are a sort of false alarm as this is the last 'clean' landed beat of the film. Any further character exposition is quickly shunted to the rear in favor of cramming the film--which barely makes it to the 90 minute mark--with unrelenting action. We don't get much chance to even unpack Marti's things before pods are dropping from the ceiling like maggots in SUSPIRIA. No time to go check whether Uncle Ira is really Uncle Ira now; aint no Uncle Ira anyway, hell there ain't even a half-formed Jack Bellicec for the family pool table. No time, as if Ferrara's checked his watch and realized the invasion is behind schedule. Schnell! Schnell!


As all the invasion stuff unfurls there are plenty of twists to the old formula to make it toothsome for fans. Best of all is probably the doses of Ferrara-brand, Catholic-sin tax-stamped sex. Steve discovers his wife's dusty corpse right as the very nude Meg Tilly pod emerges from the closet in a sort of coming out party wherein she discards the role of mother and becomes a cunning, ambivalent, highly sexual figure. Hell yeah we'd have a hard time getting our bearings too.

Meg Tilly really shines in these scenes, as if her character didn't really even exist before becoming a pod, as if in becoming a pod she has found herself--which is perhaps intended. Tilly is very sexy and at ease in roles that require her to be emotionless; she packs more allure into unfeeling zombiedom than almost any actress this side of Sean Young. Her body is slammin' (her sister Jennifer was an unbilled body double) and she gets off the film's most memorable lines as well. She woos Steve up to the bed to give him a massage in order to put him to sleep and when he says "I love you," in a dorky way as thanks for the rub down, she answers, "I love you too, yeah." In a way that suggests that yes, the pod formerly known as Carol does love Steve, why not? It’s not that big a deal to summon the sort of low-res love Steve is capable of.

Steve proves his limited capabilities, his emotional stunting, when Marti comes home late from her evening out and he races out to the front lawn to make a big scene over her being "three hours late" when she is no more than an hour. As this is going on, the camera tracks from the bitter, pointless battle between daughter and dad over to Meg, staring placidly across the yard, over at a black woman with a crying baby who is looking out the window back at her. The deep but emotionless sense of connection between strangers that contrasts wonderfully with the infantile attempt at concerned parenting that is Steve's yelling at Marti, a kind of guilty stalling.

Marti goes to take a bath, and Carol Pod lures Steve back to bed to put him out and let him get taken over. Up in the attic, Marti's pod is forming and about to drip on her as she dozes off in the tub. Steve's is forming under the marital bed. In this version the pods attach long tendrils to your nose and mouth and sort of suck up your saliva, presumably to run a full DNA screen. There are some amusing burbling sounds as if the pod is drinking the bodily fluid, burping and so forth. The pod body then gets too big for the cheap ceiling insulation and it goes crashing through the ceiling into the bath with Marti. Her subsequent screams wake up Steve, who's got pod tendril problems of his own.

Thus the shit hits the fan, and never lets up for the rest of the picture. The highlight moment of the film comes with Meg/Carol/Pod trying to talk the hysterical (crying like a little girl) Steve down, so he'll relax and accept the situation, by telling him there's nowhere to run, nowhere to go to:

"Go where? That's right, go where? What happened in your room...Are you listening? What happened in your room is not an isolated incident. It is something that is happening everywhere to everyone. So where you gonna go? Where you gonna run? Where you gonna hide? Nowhere, because there's no one like you left."--

Then she adds, "we'll be connected, we'll be close" as if to seal the deal.

I'd write about this shrink as arbiter of reality but look at him, he's crazy as a bedbug
As if to contrast this, he's soon trying to become an action hero, hiding Marti and Andy in a storing area and sneaking into Major Collin's office while all around people are dragged out of their homes and forced to sleep by the pod soldiers in scenes clearly echoing Guyana. Whitaker has acted himself up into a fine old frenzy: "We got to fight 'em! We'll show 'em what the human race is really made of!!!" His hysteria makes an interesting contrast with the calm of Meg Tilly in the other scene, and when Collins is visited by R. Lee Emry's General Platt we see the general is suddenly all mellow, even calmer and more hippy-ish than Steve was in the earlier scene when they squared off in his office. "Relax major," Platt says. "Look what your fear has done for you…" There can be no doubt about it, the pod takeover is a very effective tool for combating anxiety, an invasion of psycho-pharma.

Genius - especially considering the relative newness of SSRIs and Xanax. Sweet Xanax.


An interesting new plot device this time around is that the pods have to use mind games to tell whether other people are pods or not. Tom tries to go steal the surviving humans a helicopter to escape with, a task which involves acting unemotional before the guards, as if he's already been taken over. To test to make sure, one of the pod people, his buddy before the takeover says, "I fucked your girlfriend." When Marti and Tom are sneaking through the confusion trying to find her missing brother they run into Jenn who gets Marti to react by whispering, "I saw Andy." The "are they or aren't they" anxiety is played up as high as it can, but with such a truncated first act it's hard to tell or care.

Of all three films this is also the only one with a clear climax of explosions (beyond Donald's petty sabotage climax of the 78 version) as the pod menace is supposedly legitimately halted by our intrepid heroes; for the audience of the late 1980's and early 1990's really demanded no less from their horror action cinema --or so the filmmakers seem to think. But the three-way split of the film's diegetic reality, personified by Platt, Collins and Malone, never coheres, and with all three gone, the reality producing mechanism lies somewhere over the rainbow. Tim and Marti, the sole survivors, who have blown up tons of military equipment on their escape are believed over the radio that these things were pods, and are given clearance to land at a "friendly" base. With all the authority figures destroyed, the film enters the land of dream. The sunglasses of the signalman on the base implies he might be one too, but implying is okay, no nightmare take-home.

Again a TAXI DRIVER comparison is apt; the ending of that film found Travis somehow completely exonerated and a hero after his mission of slaughter. Pauline Kael famously theorized that TAXI's ending didn't make sense compared to the rest of the film if taken literally, that it should be read as a dream of Travis's; a fantasia. In real life there would be no Cybil Shepherd crawling into his cab begging forgiveness, no letter from Iris's parents proclaiming him a hero; he would be in jail. That final, startled look he gives the rear view mirror is an indication that he has suddenly realized this happy ending is all a dream, as if he sees the electric chair warming up for him through the bars of his cell, his iron barred taxi, or the way Jimmy Stewart suddenly sees the drop of the building face outside Midge’s window in Vertigo, or the soldier on the gallows in Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.

CONCLUSION

The iconoclast, the lone gunman, the man against the machine, is always in danger of vanishing, of falling asleep, of facing the comfortable blandness of a life spent nodded off at the wheel of darkness. "I'll drive anytime, anywhere," Travis says at the start of the Scorsese's film. He's afraid to sleep; an insomniac, afraid to wake up a pod. But Marti and Travis each have to face the realization that the films they are starring in have ended in the place they've been fearing all through their respective stories; the illogical realm of dream--the last breadcrumb on the trail is gone. Somewhere along the line of the narrative, their worst fears (and perhaps by extension most secret desires) have come true; they’ve fallen asleep. Now everything is suddenly calm and rosy; when they land at the "friendly" airport, it will be as pods that they are welcomed; or if not, how are they to ever tell they're themselves? Is raw terror and alienation the only way to tell if you are an awake artist in this sea of sheep? In this world in which we live, heaven and hell have long since been boiled together to form one big cloud of ashes. We're all breathing in the same smog, all waiting for the alarm clock to ring so we can get out of this insane dream, all longing to escape this tale of sound and fury and ease ourselves back into the empty, emotionless droning of a brand new medicated day... mmmmm, meds... (3-23-05)

PS - This essay was finished before the recent Kidman vehicle, which from what I've seen of it (the last hour) is pretty terrible and tries to tack on some child-will-lead-them resolution, so for all porpoises, I'm deeming it a variation not a remake
PPS - Also, I lost the bibliography - sue me. It was originally intended to be published by Scarlet Street, right before the editor and chief Richard Valley passed away, RIP
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