Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Tales from the Retrofuturist Pharmacy, Part II: PHASE IV, Boards of Canada, SPACE STATION 76 (1st 20 minutes)

The future is always already then, as then is the future, so it isn't written. Some tomorrows are maybe yesterdays' correct prediction and if you're still blind enough to believe man is the axis of his own spinning destiny, consider the wisdom of that hedonistic and empathic era known as the 70s --a scant 40 odd years ago, though it seems like it hasn't even happened yet--when we were much more collectively decadent and forward-thinking (about some things). Now it's a pipe dream wrest from our collective grasp at the first sign of trouble. We had the sexual, spiritual, and psychedelic revolution in the mainstream, but we let it slip through our fingers. Why? Movies. Home video. Cable. The proliferation of a low res saturation that Nigel Kneale predicted in his 1968 BBC mini-series YEAR OF THE SEX OLYMPICS (it predicts THE HUNGER GAMES as well).

In theaters there had been successful 'head trips' like 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1969) showing us mankind--high  on a big black rectangular slab of LSD sent to us by a highly advanced civilization--ready for his next stage of evolution, one with free love, Evelyn Wood and EST, ESP, and mood rings to go with the Valium and wife-swapping and all night drunken block parties. and DoodleArt for all. In short, a future we felt we were already reaching, aspiring to and achieving all at once.

Underneath all that was another element: how even the future will eventually look outmoded one day, that commercial space flight will be reduced to a few 'idle' commie intellectuals in the Howard Johnson spaceport lounge on ridiculously modular furniture. But we felt we could afford to admit our own tacky tendency to grow complacent and glazed-eyed without regular visits to the obsidian obelisk.
(PS - there's a mild spoiler or two on
PHASE IV within, so you should Netflix this shit up
first if you... well, you know)
Yeah, and part of our evolution, according to Timothy Leary, is that our collective intelligence will meet and merge with collective intelligences from other kingdoms, like the kingdom of the ants. Today we can't imagine giving up the reins on Mother Earth without a lot CGI overkill and Space Marines "going in hot" ala STARSHIP TROOPERS but sans fascist irony to battle an otherworldly foe. The PHASE IV ants would be six moves ahead of those troopers, their collective hive intelligence seeing through our every knee-jerk move. We wouldn't even be anything as coarse as wiped out. Wiping out itself is a primitive notion that involves a fixed identity, and what is fixed can be threatened. The unfixed never needs to worry about new kingdoms slithering over to visit and mate.

Recent retrofuturist head trips like SPACE STATION 76 (2014) and BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW (2010 -covered here), provide the full measure of timeless nostalgia for these times un-past, these nearly-fulfilled ambitions. Enhanced by a subgenre of electronic-analog music spearheaded by Boards of Canada and fans of 70s-80s horror film music (see below), and great macabre sites like The Scarfolk Council, it's a good time to be missing the 70s and its less oppressive, more tactile future.

On the other hand, SPACE STATION 76 (2014) was so trite I couldn't make it past the first 20 minutes. I kicked it out of my TV after three strikes: 1) the terribly anachronistic use of bad CGI for the space shots, instead of models which could have looked phony but would have been tactile, which is the whole fucking point of making a film set before the arrival of non-punch card computers 2) wasting the fantasy of a druggy space station fantasia with a lot of anachronistic alienation and angst, as if writer-director Jack Plotnik had a great idea but then couldn't remember the 70s at all beyond one or two cigarettes and a strung out emotionally unavailable caregiver on Valium. And when a guy lights a joint he does so with perfectly mussed hair, and joint in his rolled up shirtsleeve, alone in his sexy garage, the sort that betrays no real attempt at non-cliche set design. And only one cigarette at a time and smoked like the person never smoked a cigarette before, like a health nut mime in an anti-smoking ad and 3) hopelessly trite and obvious pop music choices, spelling out the mood they're hoping to generate rather than providing any interesting form of contrast or counterpoint. ZzzzzAP! "Welcome to the future of the past" is the tag, and I'd say this isn't the past or future past at all, but an idea whose time has come sunk by last minute second guess groupthink, or underthink.

Liv Tyler looks good though, even with a paralyzed upper lip and a mousy reticence utterly at odds with her character's supposed accomplishments as a pilot. Compared to mighty feminist vanguards like Christina Applegate in ANCHORMAN or Denise Richards in STARSHIP TROOPERS, she asserts no sense of competence or strength, being rather mousy and underwritten. Her polyester uniform is sexy in an offhand way and I was glad it wasn't overly obvious... it looks genuinely worn, lived-in, rather than, say, a sexy space girl outfit of the sort never worn outside slutty Halloween parties. Even so, I couldn't handle more than 20 minutes. I clicked it and ejected the silver disc like a Phillip K. Dick character in a novel written before even the arrival of Betamax.

I know that disqualifies me from a genuine review, so why did I mention it? The future, man. I'll see the rest one day, when I'm less picky about my retrofuturist serio-rom-coms. It does inevitably happen; there is a season, burn burn burn. I know because I've peeked/peaked. Meanwhile, to gratify the retrofuturist jones, I put back on a film I've already seen twice on Netflix Streaming and which just gets better every time, BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW (2010)

 RAINBOW is a mad druggie psychologist's 70s dream of a geodesic dome paradise for people who are ready to leave petty moral strife behind even if it means a cold clinical red geodome prison instead, and it improves with repeat viewing; in a flashback to 1966, the lead character, a drugged-out shrink, takes some powerful liquid LSD, is reborn, eats his mother or... something. Back to the mid-80s, and the rich scientist who set it all up is a shattered junky, his star child daughter kept under protective glass to contain her ability to project thoughts and melt people's brains and the drugged-out shrink delights in tormenting her and talking super slowly, each word savored as it spirals out in gorgeous liquid curvature. (more here).

Right as I was writing this, Craig T. Nelson behind me said the words "phase four" in relation to the real estate development agency he works for in POLTERGEIST (1981). Is it any coincidence that this PHASE IV is the movie I'm writing about at this very moment? Or rather, not writing about it all yet. "Reach back and remember when you had an open mind," JoBeth Williams says before a chair slides across the floor. As I've already written, Craig T. Nelson starts the film in the 70s great dad mode--and winds up a closed-down conservative Reagan 80s dad, and so "remember when you had an open mind" could apply to our current world as well. I never thought, as a kid, conservatism would ever resurface, that things would get more decadent, and/or stay as they were. In Buenos Aires, for example, it's still the 70s in a lot of ways. Why mess with perfection? Sideburns, jean jackets, big collars... at least that's how it was 10 years ago, back when not just I had an open mind, but a nation. Not our nation, but still an American one (we're North Americans down there, and mighty backwards, too).

There's also apparently the music and the shared educational films put out by the Canadian Board of Education -- hence Boards of Canada, whose eerie electronic music seeks to capture that late afternoon feeling of woozy instant hauntological retrofuturism, the way children's sponge like minds absorb the 70s elementary school-enforced complex lessons of overpopulation, pollution, Saturn, the world of insects and the darkest ocean depths --though the BOC is actually Scottish, no doubt their ingeniously socialized education systems shared film strips and 16mm shorts. In a progressive 70s grade school (Knapp Elementary in Landsale PA), we saw short films on themes like the hole in the ozone layer like THE ARK (1970), and this thing I can't find mentioned anywhere where a lone color butterfly invades a depressing black and white industrial hellscape, almost initiates a revolution, and then winds up pinned to the wall in the manager's desk. Saw that film a dozen times. At least we weren't working. Kids could handle depressing industrial hellscape cautionary metaphors in the 70s, goddamn it. At home, on PBS, we watched things like LATHE OF HEAVEN and STAR MAIDENS. Where did we go wrong, before or after?

But these things are immaterial to the features and the music, and the way futuristic synthesizers, so creepy and great especially in horror and science fiction films of the late 70s-early 80s, have galavanized a whole genre of music, so time specific that a certain generational swath remains hypnotized with a giddily ominous rapturous mix of sadness, dread, and delight --the future as imagined in the past-- literally out of time, ultra-dimensional, soaring backwards and winding up ahead of itself.


England made Scarfolk; Scotland made Boards of Canada; and Canada made RAINBOW. And what did we make? Goddamned half-baked overthought de-clawed SPACE STATION 76. Jeeziss. We got to get it together / now (in service of then).

Luckily, los Estados Unidos rules the past. We gave the world SOYLENT GREEN, SILENT RUNNING, BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES and LOGAN'S RUN, and--now on Netflix streaming-- PHASE IV (1974), which used to come skittering through the usual after-school creature features on local TV, and had me thinking hyper-intelligent ants besieging a geophasic dome in the middle of the desert sounded pretty cool. But these ants aren't Bert I. Gordon-style, like EMPIRE OF THE ANTS or FOOD OF THE GODS. They're not giant (not then at least, on our 70s TVs), and for most of the time we barely see them interact with the humans at all except through basic shapes related via fax machine, until said humans are dead or 'right where the ants want 'em in a giant hole. In short, it was too intellectual for my sugar-addled attention span at the time. The up close shots of ants were okay, but I saw tons of insects as a kid, both in school on nature documentaries and living across the street from a thriving park where every upturned rock delivered unto us kids a vast eye full of struggling worms, pill bugs, centipedes, and spiders. I even had a bug collection, pinned on a cork board, slowly crumbling onto my desk. It was something we weren't impressed by as easily as stoned adults might later be. Besides, most kids, small and powerless in a strange world of giants, come to depend on tormenting, killing, or capturing, or just cuddling with smaller creatures to feel any sort of power, as the lead scientist played by Nigel Davenport (below) demonstrates. We could understand the big ones eating us, but not the little ones outsmarting us. That was just too much to bear.

Now though, on the widescreen HD TV, the close-ups look like alien monsters, and I've put away childish things, taken them back out again, and now left them at some party I lost the address and anyway am too embarrassed to retrace my steps and ask around. I revisited that Lansdale park a few years ago and the creek was dried up, the trees dying, the park was now just a stretch of grass with a softball diamond. Bugs got zero cachet for me, and reality is parched and empty while the screen explodes with HD color. And PHASE IV awaits rediscovery on Netflix.

Davenport plays an entomologist whose detected disturbing signs that all the different kinds of ants are working together, and that their natural enemies are all conveniently and mysteriously disappearing in a remote stretch of Arizona. With a big grant he sets off to build a geophasic research station and weapon lab to find out what's going on and (hopefully) destroy the ants before they wipe out mankind, recruiting a games-and-theory code breaker from MIT (Michael Murphy) to help him communicate with the collective hive ant intelligence.

The film actually moves very fast, even truncated, like a Reader's Digest abridged novel (popular at the time), moving through a cycle of ideas and not at all the molasses drip of meaningless I remembered. It helps to have taken some drugs, I guess, in the interim, and so be able to better understand the psychedelic journey of the end, where the couple come together as the messengers of a new insect alien intelligence-commandeered Earth, one no doubt infinitely better managed. In short, 2001: An Ant Farm Odyssey

Theory of film recollection:
The more in depth we remember a film scene, i.e. writing about it, analyzing it, getting a thrill from remembering it in great depth, the longer and more powerful the scene becomes, and so how we remember it stretches its meaning until it takes the form of myth. This lasts until we see the film again and are forced to either presume it's been edited, somehow changed with time, or else we were 'on' something at the time and aren't now. The film's presentation might be different - certainly the widescreen and HD makes a huge difference over the old square. But we're the ones who have changed, and memories have accrued around initial impressions until what's there isn't there anymore; it's covered up with little neuron ant eggs.

That doesn't mean the memories are false, merely that time is.

Directed by Saul Bass, PHASE IV was his only film, and though he's remembered for his ingenious credit sequences (for Hitchcock films particularly), he certainly acquits himself well. The script is veery intelligent, of course each ant in itself isn't brilliant, but the hive mind is, and the hive mind is a real thing, obviously, so it's tough to not consider the difficulty in combating a non-localized intelligence, and since we genuinely can't easily understand what they're up to, we're forced to consider them as an entire new form of intellect, genuinely superior to ours because they're so self-sacrificing, so devoted to the whole. After Davenport sprays the ants with a yellow poison, for example, they die en masse, but then we see ants dying as they drag a chunk of the toxin through a long ant tunnel and into the queen's chamber, where she eats some of it and immediately gives birth to an array of immune eggs. Humans simply can't evolve that fast, not sober, not after AIDS and the Reagan 80s brought us into crash mode.

The big thing people mention when they argue against evolution today is 'how come animals haven't learned to talk by now," and they miss the point - mankind's ability to talk is not a sign of evolution, any more than the plague is. Language is a soul-killing virus that slowly strangles our five sense in favor of some abstract symbology, while at the same time our natural evolution has slowed. Our dogs and cats look at us like we're crazy but they love us beyond what we're capable of grasping --they see when we're really troubled and comfort us without a word. Their senses are superior, they get cuter all the time; they have to, that's evolution.  By which I mean, if we were animals we would have long ago adapted to our natural world rather than destroying it so it can conform to us. Animals see what language and abstract thinking have done to us and they say 'no thanks.' Maybe our evolution will involve curing ourselves of the curse of abstract thinking and language, and we'll merge once more into the cosmic egg, fuse our intelligence to that of our Sky Mother, Shakti Kali Durga, the one without a second. There she is, waiting for us to swim once more into her light tunnel womb towards full transfiguration. And animals will all be all waiting to welcome us when we return, saying "hey man, you finally evolved!"

The problem with us ever actually evolving, of course, is that survival of the fittest is no longer a human luxury, quite the contrary - people who by any stretch of the imagination could never feed themselves even for a day are allowed to continue to eat and crap and consume all the finest things in life, and to procreate in billions far more than the people too smart to procreate at all... this is actually the reverse of evolution, the 'idiocracy' of Mike Judge. And if someone doesn't spray our colony soon, we're going to devour this entire jungle, then turn on ourselves, 'til all that's left is one pissed off queen and a consort set, stowing away on the next star-powered INTERSTELLAR craft out of here. Count me in.

... to frickin' throw eggs at it!

Further 70s "learning" -

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

THIRTEEN WOMEN (1932) + Hedvig and the Ghost under the Hollywoodland Sign

Imagine if Fu Manchu's insidious sadist daughter (Myrna Loy's character in MASK OF FU MANCHU -1932) went off to a ritzy college in America, tried to join a sorority, but was snubbed because of her race. That sorority would rate a world of hurt far worse than Ursula Georgi (Myrna Loy's character in THIRTEEN WOMEN - also 1932) inflicts 15 years after the fact. Ursula patiently waits, and knowing a best-served-cold special is on the way helps you endure sleep-inducing scenes of the ladies meeting on Irene Dunne's sunny Westchester verandas for tea and gossip as they note each others' death, and the curious thing of them all being predicted beforehand via ominous telegrams from noted astrologer Swami Yogadaci (C. Henry Gordon). On a much cooler and shadowy eastern mystic exotica set back in NYC meanwhile, Ursula toys with the Swami's undying devotion. Schooled in the arts of hypnotic suggestion, she seduces him into figuring out how and when the stars will allow her to assassinate said gossipy snubbers. It's based on a novel by Fortean Society-founder Tiffany Thayer, so you know the astrology and hypnotic suggestion are legit. And Tiffany... was a dude, so you know he probably got ostracized in school himself.

So while Ursula's the villain and thoroughly evil, you'll be rooting for her all the way (unless you're a prom school snob who's never felt the sting of a snubbing for your girl's name or half-caste epicanthic folds). Though alas, most murders occur off camera, not all do -- a tragic pair of acrobats plummeting for example to the netless sawdust of the center ring. Finally Laura (Dunne), the last of the thirteen, is up, and the best way to get her is through her little boy Bobby. Ricardo Cortez is the detective who investigates, and Ursula makes a play for him too. Meanwhile, wrapping things up with the lovelorn Swami via a 'push' on  crowded subway platform, Loy moves in on Laura's chauffeur, seducing and beguiling him into delivering a very a very explosive birthday gift for young Bobby. Compared to the sun-dappled self-righteous tea-and-doily bailiwick of Ms. Laura, how can you not cheer Ursula's bloody swath of vengeance on? Here a full on-manhunt is going on to find her, and round-the-clock police guard on Laura's house, but Ursula's already on the same property, in bed with the chauffeur. Genius. David O'Selznick produced, which may explain part of why the Westchester veranda scenes are so cloying; he loved that stifling flowers and maids nonsense. Dunne's star was on the rise, so it seems like the cool murders were cut to make room for her to stretch out on that veranda (I'm no fan of Irene Dunne, though I concede she's brilliant). At least it's filmed indoors on a set; something about too many outdoor shots depresses me in a film like this. Real daylight should be banned from supernatural-tinged thrillers, though big crowd scenes at train platforms (LA's La Grande doubling for the Hudson Line out of Grand Central) help make the film feel broad and A-list, and the big train chase finale is train lover catnip. 

Alas, even with all that, THIRTEEN WOMEN didn't do very well financially, and still hasn't earned the cult reputation it deserves, perhaps because the well-scrubbed rubes in the audiences of 1932 hated to be reminded that their callous racism was inevitably heading back around to haunt them via the slow, inexorable spin of karma. And men don't like realizing just how easily their hormonal desires can be used against them, that falling in love with a pretty exotic girl may mean said girl's manipulated their will, that love might be something easily harnessed and co-opted as a weapon rather than a wondrous magical blah blah. In most such miscegenation fantasies it's never in doubt that the woman is in some way inferior to the white man she loves,e and usually has to die in the end so the white guy can marry the long-suffering dull-as-dishwater white girl waiting at home. But here there's never a doubt that Ursula is superior, mentally and coolly, to every other character in the film. Her only mistake is in letting the desire for vengeance cloud her judgment. But in her crazed behavior up until then, seducing and beguiling every man in a ten mile radius, Loy's Ursula is pre-code gold. As I've written before, the censors let sexy Asian characters get away with all sorts of kinky madness no white chick would ever be permitted (as long as they were really white, in make-up, to avoid riots --see my award-free series, Skeeved by an Asian). And here it's in spades.

And so it is that Loy goes down swinging, head unbowed, even robbing Cortez of the special joy of nabbing her. And once she does, the film ends, with nary a shred of follow-up to the damaged white imperialist swine souls she's left dead, alive, and/or distraught.

 That in itself might, if you're me, make you want to see again and again, especially since parts of it are better than Nyqil, which then makes the weird Loy sequences all the more dreamlike as you gaze on them with one eye open, and the great rushing shooting star dissolves into the camera lens and all the stars and victims and treasures are no more. In other words, it's pretty short; 59 minutes. No word exists on why they edited two women out --did Selznick think women couldn't count that high? Maybe Hollywood just couldn't handle that many women at once --too dangerous to the status quo.

One of the remaining twelve, Peg Entwistle, was cut out of the film except for a shot of her knifing her husband in a trance, then  reacting to a lurid headline, leapt off the Hollywood sign to her death from the 'Hollywoodland' sign a few days after this film opened, and perhaps it was bad reaction to pre-release screening that led to her being cut mostly from the film and dropped by RKO.

Top: Entwistle as Hazel Couisns in THIRTEEN WOMEN (premiere: Sept. 16, 1932);
bottom: Entwistle as herself in NY TIMES (death: Sept. 20, 1932)
 Who knows why she chose not to stick it out? Science was a long way from SSRIs, but she was far from a failure, at least on the stage, and in THIRTEEN WOMEN she's hypnotized into murdering her husband during a black-out, ruining her life, in effect, seems to have carried over into reality, as if the missing scenes found a way to express themselves through repetition compulsion disorder. She'd found success on Broadway in an Ibsen play, THE WILD DUCK, in which she plays Hevig, a daughter who kills herself. She allegedly was so good she inspired a young Bette Davis to become a dramatic actress.

In the end, Hollywood rewards more than anything tenacity and gumption. Loy suffered through a solid decade, from silent to sound, waiting for Hollywood to stop saddling her with exotic vamp roles, but she tackled each one with sensual relish nonetheless, and she rose above it to become the fist ever very cool wife. And if Peg had bothered to read her mail, she would have realized she'd been offered Hedvig again in another production of Ibsen's WILD DUCK. And so it is, life imitates art just as much as vice versa. In THIRTEEN WOMEN, Ursula implants suggestions into Hazel Cousins (Entwistle) mind via hypnosis, which is a tool for being able to communicate with and influence the unconscious mind, and it's this unconscious mind that must be courted and accessed by the conscious self in pursuit of great acting. Without consciously surrendering the reins of oneself to one's unconscious, the accessing the truth of the whole self in service of a great performance cannot be achieved. That's the heart of 'method' and it can sometimes unhinge actors to the point their offstage personalities change. The unconscious doesn't always give back the reins. Sometimes the unconscious self doesn't plan on staying on the surface, so figures it can just wreck the joint before being forced back behind the curtain (as in Heath Ledger or Robin Williams). Being too good at playing a suicidal woman onstage commingled with Entwistle's own genetic depression, and just needed to be sparked into action by her rejection from Hollywood, all while a letter that would have kept her going disappeared under a stack of unopened mail in the foyer. If that's not a sick sort of fate, what is? The Hollywoodland sign was right above her house, all she had to do was climb.

Peg Entwistle's saga doesn't end there. Her ghost still haunts the hill, and people who've snuck over the fence to visit the Hollywood sign sometimes run into her according to sources (as seen in PARANORMAL WITNESS.)  And she leaves the scent of gardenias (her favorite flower) in her gliding eerie path. (See Stephen Wagner's: The Ghost of the Hollywood Sign or the short film and e-book by Hope Anderson.) It's bizarre how that all works, ghosts, and she's become an emblem of Hollywood Babylon to many locals.

I hope one day we'll find the original preview cut of THIRTEEN WOMEN, and be able to see Entwistle's full part at last so we can judge for ourselves. Maybe then, Peg Entwistle can rest in peace, and a cool, cult-ish film will finally be weird and pre-code violent enough it can stand up to anything, even the flowery sediment of Irene Dunne and the hack ladyfingers of O'Selznick. Alongside the Welles cut of AMBERSONS, and the excised Myrna Loy in her underwear singing "Mimi" in LOVE ME TONIGHT, this is my biggest 'lost reel excavation' fantasy. And don't think it can't happen! It's already happened to FRANKENSTEIN, BABY DOLL, and THE BIG SLEEP!

Peg Entwistle, 
may you find the peace in death 
you could not get in Los Angeles.
May exhumers of dead reels
right the hasty butchering by
our Hollywood fathers 
and return you to THIRTEEN WOMEN
in full shimmering glory
Forever on Blu-ray
or at least DV-R.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Meta Murderous Surreal Post-Modernism in Under Twelve Minutes: TOO MANY COOKS (Infomercial)

No amount of David Lynch or Eric Andre can compare with or prepare you for TOO MANY COOKS, the recent 4 AM informercial on Cartoon Network once and now existing only on the VHS-ish Youtube pages of intrepid dupers. No matter where you think this bizarrity can go, it goes far farther than a fur-forn farddio brand of beyond the black rainbow farrity, beyond even the swords of photo bomb "Bob" giallo and Fun with Real Audio What on Was the Britney old Thinking SNL. See it and understand the cryptic proclamations of the pie Von Trier, and understand, at last, how the need to break free from our programming is so intrinsic to our identity as to be inseparable from the programming itself. It's enough to make lesser actors go mad but that's what enlightenment - the acceptance of one's eternal actor darkness; heaven for an actor is just the hell of a sitcom cycle of endless retooling fully surrendered to, letting your ego construct dissolve as the infernal flames lick your soul clean for sweeps week, award season, reruns, stalker fans, Buddhist hell, and backforth.

For maximized post-modernist refraction, I'd recommend seeing it on your laptop on the couch, with the TV on pause or slow-motion behind it (on any random channel --as long as it's 'desperately' random). Because when a show is this meta, it just needs one tiny push to make it off the screen and across your living room like a loping Korean water ghost, through your ocular cavity and into your brain, you life, your soul, our collective oversoul, and then beyond what's beyond our oversoul, and back around to the screen/s in perpetual shrinking /expanding Ourobros double dips and forever in echo rerun.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Samhain Cocktails: Recommended Halloween Films/Lists: Slant, TCM, THE UNDEAD

I'm insane, indisposed, and in SLANT:

13 Obscure Horror Films You Should See This Halloween,
A few of them are on Amazon Instant (Prime, of course), if you need 'em:


Not only are these great films, they're all covered by top drawer female horror film bloggers, from Stacie Ponder, Heather Drain, and the great Lindbergs herself!
Women are the Fathers of Horror! 


(click on titles to go to my cogent, alacrity-encumbered praise, to see if they're right for you and your drugged ones):

6. DEAD OF WINTER (2007)

And the best sexy witch vs. good old witch vs. time-traveling hypnotist vs. the Devil movie EVER:

THE UNDEAD (review and video)

Lastly check out Steve Johnson's fascinating declaration of Bert I. Gordon's auteurness over at Bright Lights Film Journal!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Mephisto from Missouri: Vincent Price Collection II (Blu-ray review: THE RAVEN, COMEDY OF TERRORS, TOMB OF LIGEIA, HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL + more)

Vincent Price is synonymous with Halloween as it was meant to be: grinning at one's own ghoulishness; merriment and malice in equal measure, and last week the Blu-ray set 'Vincent Price Collection II 'dropped' - yes, friends, it dropped.... like the gallows' floor, the guillotine blade, the axe and the turkey.

Forgive my gauche similes in the spirit of the times, for part of makes Price such a treasure is his sense of macabre humor, that rare ability to put you at ease while scaring you, to convey the fun he has in playing evil rather than being it, his luxuriant delight in every syllable spoken, not just in the classy Poe films with Corman but even with sideshow hokum like The Tingler.  He was to Roger Corman what De Niro would become to Scorsese or Monica Vitti to Antonioni, an actor and director working together to create some magic third element, a form of lightning that could zap a film into life around a single core performance like the earth around a molten core.

This second volume only has two Corman Poes: The Raven and Tomb of Ligeia, but along with the Jacques Tourneur-directed classic Comedy of Terrors, and William Castle's House on Haunted Hill the set is an instant essential. Extras include Corman commentaries, interviews with screenwriter Richard Matheson, and--as with the first set, those lovely lyrical introductions by Price filmed by Iowa Public Television for a PBS series from the 70s, each in its own way invaluable. And the three lesser films that are still grand in their own right, if for no other reason than the gorgeous new depth and clarity offered them by Blu-ray. Shout's remastering lengthens and deepens the image, saturating with deep dark colors--dark reds and greens, glowing amber and crypt-deep blacks; firelight reflections on maroon drapery haunts the mind; we can see every gossamer strand of the cobwebbed covered gates; we can see every brush stroke of Bud Shonberg's twisted portraits, every shade of the moody-psychedelic paint swirl credits. It all adds up to horror fan crack, fired up by Matheson or Towne scripts and no matter how threadbare the situation, Price's aesthete air of mephistophelean delight never wavers.

1963 - dir. Roger Corman
A personal favorite Halloween perennial--this film saved my life one dreary $2 Syracuse Student Union midnight showing ($2 w/i.d. - in the day they still screened an actual film prints. The colors were brownish evenn then, and the first scenes of this Shout Blu-ray might give one the impression not much had been done HD digital restoring-wise, but once the gang (including Jack Nicholson as Peter Lorre's son, Rexford) enter Boris Karloff's castle the HD transfer begins to shimmer and glow in a new hauntingly lovely greenish gold reflective light and inward depth. As we learn in the extras, Corman kept all the sets from past Poe films and would just add them onto the next film's, and by the time of The Raven he'd assembled a vast sprawling Gothic maze, which gets full glorious use here. The Les Baxter score at times errs on the side of the smugness, but this is pure uncut Halloween delight, so might as well bring the kids, by which I mean depressed lovelorn sophomores reeling from too much bad acid too soon in life, and needing to return to the Gothic chambers of childhood, wherein every fairy tale was grim...  and all the more comforting for it.

1964 Dir Roger Corman
Definitely one of the better and more unnerving (and last) in the cycle, thanks largely to a ripping script by Robert Towne, who captures the horrified eloquence of Poe, which Price then rolls through like a velvet serpent, waxing about how he wishes his head could be wrest open as easily as the cabbage thrown at Ligeia's trickster spirit animal cat. "What else is madness but belief that inwards does not exist?" No offense to Richard Matheson's earlier scripts; they were solid, but tended towards repetitive arguments between someone wanting the truth and Price withholding it, "Sir, I cannot tell you," as if the censor was glaring from offset. Instead of all that bother, Towne lets the rich existential poetry flow freely, trusting the audience to get the metaphors.

Which is good, because it offsets the things that don't work, like the shock of seeing Price outdoors and sans mustache. Maybe it's me. I find his naked upper lip upsetting and any English countryside exterior shots, unaccountably dreary. Poe, especially, should never see daylight--especially not England's sickly boy blue skies--maybe I'm still angry that Hammer sunk half the running time of their vampire movies with scenes of old ugly Brits with awful monk haircuts shuffling through dreary exterior shots in the flat ugly daylight, when they could have been spending more time indoors at the castle, on set, with atmospheric lighting and sexy birds coming out all crypt-like. Corman has every right to want to switch up his game, find some real castle ruins to shoot in, and Price wanted to play it complete straight, as a mournful Olivier type, with a dark secret al, but he comes off as hostile and aloof rather than the desired Byronic and enigmatic; we can't fathom why the piercingly self-confident English Lady Rowena (Elizabeth Shepherd) would want to marry such a sullen, naked-lipped poseur.

The image on the Blu-ray isn't as resonantly color-touched as I was hoping either -- it still looks pale and thrift shop-pish around the gills--which I blame more on the 'realistic' settings rather than the digital color restorers, though when indoor color does come in, such as with the fire pit or the revolving hypnosis light (which also turns up in The Terror and Dunwich Horror) it's stunning. And in a way, the ghost of Ligeia is a great metaphor for drug addiction and alcoholism, so the dourness works. I relate to the whole 'having a will beyond death' with Lady Whiskey as my Ligeia, feeling her call every time I walk past a liquor store window display, especially if I'm hungry, angry, lonely, or tired--Price seems all four here, and should call his AA sponsor, because between the crazy cat attacks and Price's sleepwalking, he needs intervention. Towne and Corman leave it deliberately open ended as to whether there really is a spirit of a willful real life woman floating around, possessing him, the cat, and her own corpse, or he's just a paranoid delusional crazy person, even getting us to the point where we understand there is no difference, that reality is subjective. The tree falls in the woods, but we hear it like a tolling bell. Therefore, it's a bell tree.

1963 - Dir Jacques Tourneur 
This film used to give me a massive headache, the forced comic bounciness of Ronald Stein-wannabe score, the unnerving sight of three of my favorite stars decaying into elderly humans; And I found Price's character awful, especially in his abusive relationship to his hot buxom terrible singer wife (Joyce Jameson). Luckily the Blu-ray makes every image gorgeous, the deep red throb and creep darker than that Stygian shore, so now Price's evil funeral director seems to have more of a right to be luxuriating in his own evil, and Lorre looks like he's been partying too hard, but his drunken leering affection for the buxom Jameson is touching, and Price is, after all, killing to support them, even if he regularly tries to poison his father-in-law (Boris Karloff). Sure it's not The Raven, or even Spider Baby, but it's better than The Trouble with Harry or Arsenic and Old Lace. But Price and Lorre make a great team, somewhere between Burke and Hare and Abbot and Costello, and better than both put together, even if Les Baxter's overly jaunty score has to hover over everything like a helicopter parent at the circus.

1959 - Dir William Castle
A perennial public domain Halloween perennial favorite, the HD remastering creates a dark rich sense of inner space, which Castle's spare sets don't necessarily require, but it's still the perfect Halloween party all-ages show and Price is on full throttle and the deep shadows now go wayy back, creating an eerie sense of cavernous modernism, like a carnival spook show moved into a vast, empty, unlit museum.

1963 - Dir Ubaldo B. Ragona
The widescreen photography is gorgeous, the script intelligent and faithful to Richard Matheson's novel; and it's interesting seeing the connection (admitted by Romero) to the first NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, with the hands coming through the boarded windows, the underground verite surrealism of shambling black and white bodies in the glare of headlights, though Romero wisely got rid of their monotone echo-drenched drunken slur, "Vargas, come out, Vargas..." (one guy even looks like the mangy Italian cousin of the very first zombie we see in NOTLD- the one who palms Barbara's car backwards down the hill.) But personally, I find a lot of this dispiriting, much of it is just pantomime to a Price voiceover; it's just isn't the same as seeing his lips move along with his voice; Price seems to feel it, too. The weight of the world seems on him, and while he never loses our sympathy, the flashback-heavy structure seems alternately rushed and tedious. The Blu-ray quality is outstanding though, and you can see some of the same retro-futuristic architecture that was alienating Monica Vitti in Antonioni movies around the same time. Imagine what a pairing that would be!

1972 - Dir Robert Quarry
Like some weird gay horror burlesque, the Blu-ray quality of this titles is perhaps the most stunning of the lot, with eerie array of purple and pink a-glowing in a 3-D depth of space. The problem is that this that this lovely clarity reveals a very cheap clapboard TV-show-style sets that were made with the not unreasonable assumption most people would be seeing this on TV or at a drive-in or at any rate nowhere near as pristine clearly and in perfect anamorphic beauty as this. We were never meant to see so much grain and flaking on Price's whiteface make-up and powdery Beatle wig; he seems like some sad gay diva wafting through a later Fellini movie. I don't mind the near total absence of exteriors or connecting or establishing shots, but this is almost like a play --even when the whole shebang allegedly moves onto a yacht or then onto the deserts of Egypt, there's never any doubt they're on sets, which I love, usually, and I like the giant stone feet, but with the Blu-ray clarity you can practically see the stress creases on the sky backdrop. That said, composition and blocking are sublime, like Kubrick on too many poppers at a gay ball in 60s London. It would be great with the sound off at a party, or projected behind my old acid rock band if we played Abba covers and had a bubble machine. As a narrative, though, it's infuriating. Phibes and his Vulnavia's self-congratulatory champagne toasting and dancing seems the height of self-aware camp, which, like so many lesser British horror movies, means it's not buying its own fantastical premise. And don't believe Peter Cushing has anything more than the teensiest cameo as a yacht captain, as if he's there just so they could add his name to the marquee.

One thing I never understood about the Dr. Phibes films is why they waste Price's beautiful voice with pre-recorded monologues that seem like something Criswell would read for an Ed Wood movie, a cheap way to patch up loose ends and never have to sync sound, so Vulnavia (Vali Kemp) and Price can just waft around the sets in mock solemnity, pantomiming to his pre-recorded monologue like he's interpretive dancing at a beatnik poetry reading.

1959 - Dir Edward Bernds 
Released in 1959, capitalizing on its predecessor’s runaway success. Price reprises his role from the original, and finally gets to catch a human headed fly and undo the damage wrought by the teleportation chamber, but otherwise he has little to sink his teeth into and the whole middle stretch involves Phillipe (just a boy in the first film) tracking and killing the pair of industrial spies who've made off with his patents after purposely giving him a giant bulbous fly head. As monster on a vengeance trail films go, it's okay, but aside from the abundant gay subtext it's pretty familiar stuff - an old saw that kept Karloff in mad scientist smocks and gangster burial clothes all through the lean 40s, and when Price restores Phillipe to his former peevish self, we're left with the odd feeling that he's going to get off scot free for his two murders. Must be nice to be so damn rich... and fly-free

FINAL GRADE: A - It would have been nice to see The Tingler and Tales of Terror instead of some of these lesser works, but it hardly matters when the films look this good and the extras abundant. Maybe a Vol. III is in the works?