Because the screen is the only well-lit mirror in town

Monday, May 07, 2018

Swingin' Monsters of the 70s: an EK-curated Amazon Prime "Top" 10 (morality-free capsule reviews)

Allergy season's deft poisoning of the senses undercuts spring's 'missing the orgy' angst-euphoria like honeymoon strychnine. The indoor child wheezing in the dark with comic books and old movies while the tanned kids cavort in the pollen - ask him what having every bad movie ever made at your fingertips means. He'll tell you. He, who spent a week writing about what was wrong with Shape of Water, he knows. Only in the 70s, on Amazon Prime, in a darkened room, with air purify and a de-humidifier and a fan and endless diet coke can escape velocity be reversed.

Thanks to Prime's inexhaustible trove of forgotten gems from time amoral, we can go back to groovy 70s monster movie childhood, before the rise of VHS, spandex-and-butcher knife SOV hair metal despair. The truth is in the 70s and its crazes - especially the 'nature' craze- the return to the hills and mountains popularized by the Waltons, Grizzly Addams, Apple's Way, Little House on the Prairie, (TV); Ranger Rick Magazine; The Wilderness Family, and Bigfoot (movies). He's still out there, in the past (3), and on Prime. And I'm bringing a small coterie of students with me to capture him. Will you be foolish enough to be one of them? Amazon Prime has given us all the fertile muck one might ever wish to trudge through. We could easily get lost in the thicket. Bring your Claritin. 

my bible at nine
More proof? It's there in the campfire, my friend. Horror movies didn't have to show as much as make you think you saw --I don't mean gore is bad - I mean remembering and relaying the story of the film to the neighborhood was part of the folktale myth part. You wanted to see that shit, you had to go probably to the inner city, or go to the drive-in and wait around until late-late-late for the third movie on the marquee. Rites of passage. Part of moseying down here in the Prime basement bins of  time is to look deeper amidst the eddies and levies and find all the crazes the 70s had that mainstream time has forgotten, the things that influenced the influential, lije 1974 film Legend of Boggy Creek as well as the documentary Mysterious Monsters which obsessed us kids and played independently for years at matinees I could never quite get my mom to take me to see (despite its G rating; Boggy too was a G). And I had the paperback edition (upper left). Its success led to a slew of bigfoot-themed movies--re-enactment documentaries that flooded drive-ins and matinees- eclipsed only by Jaws and the move from the forest to all things aquatic.

Another big part of the early 70s monster landscape people have forgotten: Willard (1971 - not on Prime, but who needs it? Too sad). The saga of a young loner and his rat army, it was a huge hit thanks to an iconic moment from the constantly playing TV commercial involved young Bruce Davison running down a tenement stairwell away from an angry landlord Earnest Borgnine, yelling "Tear him UP!" to his rats. It was a catch phrase for us kids for years, you had to get the right note of hysteria in Davison's voice, though. Then there was a sequel Ben and a horde of imitations, which--depending on how you look at it, might well include Carrie and The Exorcist (the anguished loner kid with weird murderous friend or skill) as well as the more obvious titles like Kiss of the Tarantula and Frogs. So much more odd eddies, but you never know until you go... so take a deep hit off your inhaler and sink down with me!

Special Note: As usual, I've provided screenshots and letter grades for image presentability.  Whenever possible I've avoided showing the monsters in these films- the better to enable the Val Lewton unseen factor as long as possible, of course that doesn't apply to our first item. When possible I've also kept to the spirit of the typical drive-in triple feature, breaking this list into three parts, the G or PG-rated feature attraction, the evening teenager make-out R, concluding with the late night grindhouse locally-sourced 'resident' weirdness. 

(1977) Dir. James K. Shea
**1/2 / Amazon Image - C-

It may not be good, but it's everything great about the 70s as my generation remember it (spaceships, sexy young adults, dinosaurs, lasers), and none off the bad (other kids, cops, buzzkill parents). Marooned on a planet just like earth was millions of years ago, a groovily-dressed co-ed crew from a crashed space craft eke out a living against a whole food chain of stop motion dinosaurs that stand as a reminder that before Jurassic Park there were no such things as 'velociraptors' at least not at that size.

Whether you go for the mellow 70s vibe of Planet of the Dinosaurs will depend on your age and taste. I go for it, obviously (but just saw it for the first time on Prime last month). The stop motion animation is fairly good for the budget, somewhere between Ray Harryhausen's and the creatures in Land of the Lost. The foxy uniforms make them resemble some hybrid Josie and the Pussycats and a 70s gymnastic team --the men have open shirts and the women have an array of styles, the most memorable of which is lovely Nylah (Pamela Bottaro): yellow midriff, white hiphuggers, long straight black hair. Sexy members on the girls side include Mary Appelspeth (eaten during a Jaws-style swim); and Derna Wylde, who's seduction strategies expand well past the entire crew, sweeping up all hapless young male viewers. As for the men and male leadership, there's a real macho boldness vs. cowardly caution thing at play, reminding us of how, in the 70s, the emerging women's lib movement found more affinity with the Burt Reynolds macho men than the wussy liberals. Planet helps us remember why - the assertive alpha made us--children and women--feel safer. He'd guard you by fighting - not by running or pacifying. As a kid in the 70s, living 24/7 in immanent danger, it was this theme that made TV series like Danger Island episodes on Banana Splits, and The Land of the Lost (all the hiding in caves, etc), so compelling. Every game of tag had a 'base' but not these. We could feel the danger all around us all the time anyway - but we had our parents for protection. Who would protect these people? Only Burt Reynolds, Clint Eastwood, and Charlie Bronson.

Alas, the Amazon Prime transfer is taken from what looks like a public domain dupe but will nonetheless look no worse than it would if you caught on UHF TV back some Saturday morning in 1978. An eerie synthesizer score by Lamers and O'Verlin and a fairly frequent ratio of dinosaur attacks vs. in-camp bicker-and-bond stretches makes up for any pictorial inconvenience. Terrible? Sure, but good enough I actually tried to find a decent DVD to order where the image isn't so washed out and blurry (Retromedia 20th anniversary release is OOP but available on Amazon at $300.)

(1972) Dir Charles B. Pierce
*** / Amazon Image - D

From its opening montage of woodsy twilight shots set to a mournful folk ballad, there's a compelling low-key inexorability to this influential mix of local witness interviews and re-enactments of what happened in Fouke, Arkansas, in the 1950s-60s when a certain Sasquatch-style monster showed up and began to be smelled, seen, heard, shot at, run from, and most of all talked about around campfires and country stoves at night and in the mornings while looking at damage done to screen doors and big footprints left in the swampy loam under the windows. Acted often by the the actual witnesses themselves in their own homes in the same areas it happened, there's a real immediacy to it all as if the film itself is some mimetic charm to keep the beast away. Told with a vivid urgency balanced out with a low key modesty natural to the region, the result is an effective mix of the best elements of documentary and re-enactment that manages to be double scary rather than half.

To that end, the old analog fullscreen (cropped) TV VHS dupe quality of the Amazon image may actually make it more effective, adding to the authentic rusticity by evoking old nature shows like they'd have on back in the 70s during the grassroots boom (see thus great collage of Ranger Rick, Waltons, Little House and Wilderness Family covers / posters). Pierce always keeps one eye on the natural world, the swamps and empty fields, enabling--rare in a semi-documentary-- an eerie sense of ever-mounting twilight and onrushing darkness (2). The crappy quality enables a Blair Witch sense of helplessness, depicting a time and place so dark at night that a monster could be five feet from your door at night and you wouldn't see them, where to get help from a neighbor during entails hightailing it a mile through the swamp; and making utterly vivid the feeling of isolation besetting a cabin full of young wives and kids. nervously sewing while the hound dog whines and mysterious howls echo outside and the men are all gone for days at a time on jobs.

The huge success of this still-effective G-rated film led to two sequels, a remake and a while mini-genre explosion of bigfoot-themed movies and TV shows, all either documentary, semi-doc, or fiction with a dash of doc, many are on Prime, too but too bad or dull to waste time with. Check out another Charles Pierce film that follows the same overall style, The Town that Dreaded Sundown, and a film with much of the same folksy local-color charm also on Prime, Bootleggers, starring Slim Pickens, a riveting James Dean-meets-Bo Hopkins charmer named Paul Koslo and Dennis Fimple, who co-stars in one near-'must' of the post-Boggy slew, and it's next on our list.

(1976) Dir. Joy N Houck (written by Jim McCullough)
** / Amazon Image - B-

The success of Boggy was such that four years later, they were still coming out with these semi-true "expedition / flashback" bigfoot-themed movies, and of all those that followed, this is probably the best. Chicago University anthropology majors Rives (John David Empire of the Ants Carson) and his 'Nam vet buddy Pahoo (backwoods character actor mainstay Dennis Fimple) head down to the Bayou for a sasquatch research project and get intertwined with various locals (including a pair of cute girls and the disproving sheriff) and, of course, the creature. The scenery is all actual bayou, the locals and the town have a perfect mix of friendly and suspicious that seems quite authentic and there's that vibe, so strong in the 70s, that a blue state college boy could go down south and talk to locals and not run into neither hostility and pre-judgment nor instant friendliness but something far more complex and real.

Future John Carpenter's regular future DP Dean Cundey's picaresque magic hour establishing shots would clean up real nice if the powers that be added some color correction, but what the hell. With all the splices and scratches and fades it looks like it could be part of Rodriguez and Tarantino's Grindhouse. Amazon gives us a nice HD transfer from the Code Red source, but the source material is terribly preserved (blacks washed to a fine greenish fog) con mucho emulsion scratches, pocks, etc. - but hey, in the words of Bleeding Skull's Joseph Ziemba, "imperfection only adds to the backwoods whiff. The Black Lake setting wouldn’t feel the same without it. " And speaking of whiffs, the stole is showlened by ole Jack Elam's local 'edge of town' drunk (he loses his buddy to the creature in the prologue). Everyone who's 'been there' knows how hard it is to describe being attacked a giant hairy monster to the local sheriff whilst so trashed you can barely turn off the ignition and stagger into the holding cell.

Still the climax with the boys running headlong into the monster, their scattershot response and the weirdly open ending is very unique as is the strangely intimate bond between Fimple and Carson as they drink around the campfire. They're not quite at the level of improv drunken bonding that Fonda and Oates had in Race with the Devil, but their heads are in the right low-key place (Carson makes great low-key use of lines like "What's with you and hamburgers, man?"). A refreshing change too is the way the build up involves the meeting and interviewing of so many character actors, and the film stopping for little bits of business (like a back porch country song between bigfoot witness Peckinpah regular Dub Taylor on harmonica and the writer of the film Jim McCulloch Jr. on guitar) and weird moments of futzing (there's a bit with a "Keep off the Grass" sign outside the jail) that any sane editor today would have snipped off. That it stays is typical of the more relaxed pace of 70s nature-set movies and helps to make the sudden violent action more resonant (Tarantino was going for that a bit, I think, in his Death-Proof.)

Other films in this post-Boggy subgenre (like 1976's super-boring Sasquatch, also on Prime) err too much on the side of rusticity, presuming a drawled field journal note-based voiceover and languid shots of bearded guys unpacking sound equipment around the campfire will make up for the lack of actual thrills. Black Lake gets the mixture just right, and I like that the monster is never humanized or earning of sympathy, nor even fully seen. It's simply an unknowable crafty thing that protects its territory in the most direct and brutal ways. So all in all, eerie noises, Fimple (if you're a newly-minted Fimple-holic after this, let me steer you onwards to Truck Stop Women - also on Prime), low-simmering suspense, and a good 'in-the-moment' actorly rapport that gives every moment a chance to land. What's to strongly dislike, asides the library cue-cut score?

(1977) Dir. William R. Stromberg
** / Amazon Image: A+

The gorgeous HD luster of the Crater Lake print on Amazon makes you wonder - would all these look that good if there was a decent negative and color graded transfer? Is there a good Boggy Creek or Planet of the Dinosaurs I should know about? Look at that shimmery lime green sparkle on the water surface in the top image. It doesn't even matter if the film is bad when you've got that crisp transfer and you know the monster is stop motion, even though it looks like the clay it's made out of is ever in the process of drying up, and when we see it underwater we see what looks like a plastic dragon head floating in a sun-dappled swimming pool.

There's other things to recommend about this homegrown monster film, but not too many. There's too much time spent on the the lame faux-hick antics of a pair boat renting locals who get drink a lot and bicker in a kind Mr. Wind and Mr. Kipp kind of way; some genuinely terrible acting by the local sheriff as he laments honestly not knowing what to do as everyone drops like flies around him. To pad the time, a guy in the city shoots the owner of a liquor store to get a free pint of booze (which makes sense to me, but a real alcoholic would take a bigger bottle!), and winds up being chased through the trees and down to the lake to feed the monster. There's another side story of a stranded magician and his cute assistant on their way to Vegas, who decide to rent one of the boats and, through magic, pretend their middle of the day fishing trip is occurring at night (the post-production team forgot to do day-for-night filtering). There's the usual meetings of the bewildered, incredulous sheriff, the intrigued local doctor and called-in expert, having drinks by the fire, looking at maps, sketches of dinosaurs, and wondering why their small town of all places has their very own plesiosaur. Did the meteor that struck the lake the other week heat up a dormant egg in the silt? We must try to capture it - for science! And money!

Thanks to the color-saturated restoration and HD transfer, the mountain lake location glistens gorgeously, so that all the tired bits of local color melt into the morning mist.  As with the last film, the soundtrack seems lifted straight from the library, but in the end... who cares, that lustrous new HD transfer gets the mist rising off the morning lake so completely you can see the rainbow in the shimmer. 

(1977) Dir. William Girdler
**1/2 / AI - B

(from: "Leslie of the Heretics") Naturally it's not that wild in reality, but 'naturally' is the key word here, that's what saves it. Animals was filmed as far away from the age of CGI, mentally and spiritually, as film would ever get. Girdler feels his way along in real time, you see, in real nature, with semi-real actors and real animals--especially vultures, hawks, a cougar, a crazy dog pack, and a tarantula--the scene where the hawks and vultures maul the bitchy girl is terrifying because those birds are real, and they're right there in the shot, and her unease is palpable.

The key signifiers of amok nature horror movies, such as animal mauling, really can't be shown unless you're a dickhead whose going to really kill animals. Girdler doesn't do such things, I presume, and that's where the comfortable cult pleasure is for we sensitive types. Quick edits between what is clearly just well staged play wrestling with tame animals, close-ups of baring teeth, pink foamy blood, actors and stunt men yelling and running, an animal's teeth resting on someone's arm, and then the hawk looking down signals an end to the scrimmage with his cry like a gym coach's whistle. You put it together in your mind, Sergei! Girdler's films aren't meant to be great gore pieces, but they are great for sick freaks in search of Cecil B. DeMille-levels of under-direction. Actors stand around in a 'funeral processions and snakes' kind of Cinemascope chorus line and wonder what to do, receive no guidance, and improvise.

It's hard to remember if I had a point to all this or if I even recommend Day of the Animals, though of course I do, if for no other reason than Nielsen and the amazing near-Morricone-level cacophonous percussion score by Lalo Schifrin. There may be nothing else at all to recommend it, scenery and Georges aside, but I love Day of the Animals, because even very young kids can tell when animals aren't being hurt or hurting anyone for real, no matter how many bared fangs, snarls and screams may come. Somehow, that's very reassuring, we can still be scared and intrigued but when we go to bed we don't feel sick to our stomach, we feel alive...(Full)

The Amazon Print is good except the color grading it a little intense - the result being that everyone looks magenta/red. but so what? Maybe that's the Ozone up there! (see also on Prime- Grizzly)
This is the point in the list where the children go to bed. Are they gone? Are you sure? Did you check under the couch? Are they hiding deep within? Get them up to bed, thermodynamically speaking!

The images above are from Island Claws
So let's talk. I know you may think this list has low standards but here's some examples of those that did not make the cut: SASQUATCH, ISLAND CLAWS, BIGFOOT, MONSTER and BOG were all films I wanted to review next, but hell, they were were either too boring (BIGFOOT and its mellow semi-documentary vibe) or murky (ISLAND CLAWS - images above) or just too half-assed (BOG) to finish. Enter their dubious confines at your own risk, or proceed along with me on this safe guided tour, where image is reasonably vivid and crisp or at the very least the content (as with Boggy) suits the form.

Luckily these next two films look and are divino.

(1979) Dir Sergio Martino
*** / Amazon Image: B+

Up to now we've been hanging out in the USA, in local areas like Bouke Arkansas or Crater Lake, but we mustn't forget all the imports from Italy that rounded out our drive-in and grindhouse triple bills. From the always endurable Sergio Martino, this undiscovered gem blends the tropes of the Jaws ripoff with the then super-popular cannibal genre and the disaster film, telling of a giant alligator god who wakes up and starts eating tourists at a newly opened resort deep in an unnamed jungle (It was filmed in Sri Lanka, though the locals are notably diverse). The resort's capitalist owner Mel Ferrer, has sunk a few million into the venture, and tries to keep the gator attacks quiet and avoid a panic, but handsome photographer Claudio Cassinelli wants to alert the tourists and local authorities, if there are any. Sexy Barbara Bach--rocking the same wet 70s bathing suit white shirt combination Jacqueline Bissett indelibly sported in The Deep two years earlier--agrees, but she works for Mel. That night, well, hell breaks loose by sea--thanks to the voracious giant gator--and by land with the angry natives (the white man woke up the giant gator with their interloping).

Amazon used to have a much worse print of this streaming - it seems to have been quietly upgraded. Fans can now better appreciate the pretty waterfalls and the well-lit climactic outdoor night scenes of nonstop carnage as everyone spills into the lagoon, the giant alligator devouring people like he's going for a competitive eating record and the natives stabbing and shooting the survivors with flaming hours as they stagger ashore (and if they try to go in-between are impaled on the spikes of the gator-proof fence). I love this movie because Martino never resorts to stock nature footage inserts for his gator attacks. The big gator itself might by only marginally convincing (its legs don't move; its eyes don't blink) but he's still awesome - the jaws go up and down atop screaming extras splashing gamely, and Martino knows how to film the melee so it's clear to follow and scary-fun crazy rather than traumatic, confusing, shrill and/or dull like... well, take your pick.

Rounding things out: well-crafted if obvious miniatures; a sprawling, well-directed cast (including go-to ginger moppet Silvia Collatina, Lory del Santo, Anny Pappa); plenty of stunts; gator-themed wicker headgear and breast plates for the natives;  rich sound design which weaves Stevio Cipriani swirling cocktail score gamely into a tapestry of thumping diegetic jungle drums, funky electric guitar, chanting, birdcalls, screaming that might or might not be human, and then ---suddenly -- a tiny splash along the water surface that quiets humans, birds, drums, on a dime- and sends the audience and natives alike jerking in its direction. Was that something? Or nothing...

(1980) Dir. Barbara Peeters
*** (Amazon Image - A-)

It's a kind of Jaws from the Black Lagoon as horny mutant salmon men infiltrate a Northwestern salmon fishing town to propagate with human women. It's all the result of a shady corporation's escaped experiment in fish hormones. Resident bigot Vic Morrow blames the local Native American Johnny Eagle (Anthony Pena), who's been trying to prevent the installation of a fish cannery on his native river. "Good" fisherman Doug McLure and his liberal son stick up for Johnny Eagle. Meanwhile, this is New World so chop chop, the monsters keep a-striking (Denise Galick, Cindy Weintraub and Lynn Theel are some of the unfortunate human women) and a cannery-sponsored genetic scientist (Ann Turkel) shows up to investigate (they're her 'children', so to speak). Directed by a woman, the monster rape scenes don't pack any kind of misogynistic undertone, so they don't traumatize innocent me like most such scenes do (they're so pre-cognitive deep id impulse they transcend morality, especially at the beach where feminine curves are so prominently displayed against the surging tides). Here, bathing suit tops may fly off but the girls never lose their dignity or resourcefulness -- even the scantily clad Miss Salmon (Linda Shayne) stops screaming long enough to bash her attacker's brains out with a rock.

To me, the most objectionable thing in the film is that a smirky toe-headed ventriloquist (David Strassman) almost gets it on with a naked fan in a tent, his puppet poking suggestively through the zipper of his bag. Yikes! Objection!

Whatever, a fast hour in, and boom all hell breaks loose in one of the best monster attacks on a local waterfront salmon festival in cinematic history.  The monsters themselves are good enough to not be bad, but not bad enough to be genuinely scary- with their long arm extensions and habit of swaying back and forth like bad Igor impressionists who just fell in a vat of sea weed, their incessant sexual aggression is almost refreshing in its innocence.  James Horner's subtle but familiar score of eerie strings and harp glissando stabs hurries things along and the moody Daniel Lacambra cinematogrpahy captures the Pacific Northwest's swirling mist and the deep reds of Cindy Weintraub's undershirt (above left).


(1972) Dir. Eddie Romero
**1/2 - Amazon Image - A-

A Philippines jungle-filmed combination The Most Dangerous Game and Island of Dr. Moreau this is one of the better in a series of John Ashley-starring, Eddie Romero-directed Filipino horror movies from the early 70s (another Beast of the Yellow Night is also on Prime). This time Ashley's a gentleman adventurer abducted off his yacht by the mysterious Dr. Gordon (Charles Macaulay) so he can use transfer parts of Ashely's personality into wild animal people he keeps locked up in an underground cave below his heavily-guarded mansion. His daughter/assistant Neva (Pat Woodell) examines him in several sexy scenes, falls for his weird ersatz Elvis/James Dean/Ricky Nelson hybrid looks, groovy sideburns, and Steve McQueeny coiled cobra stillness; soon he's coming and going as he pleases, following Neva on her chores, looking askance at the poor caged animal creatures, including most famously, Pam Grier as the leggy panther woman (a highlight). The Bat Man, too, is awesome, especially once he gets the hang of flying with so much extra weight. Other animal-hunan hybrids are less successful, especially the unfortunate 'Antelope Man' whose mask paint is still wet.

Soon Neva and our hero are in love, then leading an escape through the caves, animal people armed with M-1 rifles, while Matt takes Dr. Gordon hostage at gunpoint in a separate direction to throw the grinning towheaded homosexual security guard Steinman (Jan Merlin in a great, slithery, teeth-clenched performance) off the scent. The all-night into the next day chase to the coast through the thick green jungle is on, with Grier's panther woman leaping down from trees upon hapless Filipino henchmen and ripping their throats out, and other less amazing but still worthwhile sights. Woodell gets one of her weirdest scenes as she tries to keep order with the animal coterie while alone with them deep in the jungle, trying to teach Grier's panther woman to share lunch with the dog woman, and to stop the monkey man from trying to rape her while she sleeps (all under a yellowish-green day-for-night filter). Meanwhile Ashley putters along in another part of the jungle, watching from behind rocks in a flutter of poor judgement and inactivity.

I admit it, in the past I've found these Filipino movies claustrophobic and oppressive-- I could feel the humidity and bugs, the sheen of moisture on every surface-- but here the colors are all popping and the air is fresh and clean. The image, which is surely from the recent Twilight Time Blu-ray, is delectable: the color correction cranked to eleven so everything glows with a deep ochre patina inside and a deep jade green outside, the overwhelming jungle at dawn. Traversed via cross-island chase, Steinman clearly relishing the chance to stretch his hunter muscles as he lopes off in pursuit and a nicely offbeat score pulses with pizzicato strings, bongos, rolling high-hats and jazz bass. There may be a lot of unanswered questions at the end, but who cares? The sight of sexy Woodell leading her armed animal coterie through the moodily-lit tunnels and out into the lush green jungle evokes both Yeux sans Visage and and--with her gorgeous long legs and game for whatever attitude--the sight of sexy Panther Woman Grier leaping from the guard's throat to the next is most reassuring, as are the startlingly impressive tracking shots of effect of the bat man flying through the trees and around the mansion, striking terror into the hearts of everyone but us, who may be too busy laughing and/or snoring by then. Life isn't always this good - better grab it whilst ye may.

Now we're in the tail end of the triple feature - the real murk. Yew rer rawrned

(1974) Dir. Michael Findlay
**1/2 / Amazon Image - B

Terrible pacing, acting, framing, reaction shots, and a classical music library (Berlioz?) score all combine to make a truly spectacular--nay, Wagnerian!--chronicle of a weekend trip taken by four dimwitted college students and their professor Dr. Karl (Tawm Ellis) to hunt for the infamous Yeti on a remote island upstate NY island (don't ask). The beast got away from him the last trip, and now Karl's Ahab-level hungry for another shot. While the sole survivor of the last expedition raves and rants at a nearby party the night before the expedition (attended by cute girl Jennifer Stock (above), her towheaded idiot boyfriend is taken by Karl to eat at an "exclusive" restaurant, where he drops some creepy hints. Is he Count Zaroff or just gay and creepy? I won't tell you! It's best you go into it as I did, cluelessly, just agog at the mix of home movie roughness, odd bits of beauty (cheap as the film stock is, the transfer is clearly in HD with deep lovely blacks).

Director Mike Findlay is either a genius or an idiot, because he captures an uneasy de ja vu about paranoid nightmares and psychotic breakdowns, moments where you honestly aren't sure if the inconsistencies going on around you are your misperceptions or just a result of either conspiracy or crappy filmmaking In the words of Rosemary Woodhouse, "this is no dream this is really happening!" But her dreams never had a character like the Tim Carey-esque Ivan Agar as the mute body building "Indian," Laughing Crow chopping wood in the yard in a frisson bit that seems like the inspiration for similar moments in Jordan Peele's Get Out. As the Marilyn Burns / Rosemary character, Jennifer Stock plays only sane one in the room, the one the professor convinces the boys to think is just being crazu. Stock's super long straight auburn hair, Greta Gerwig body, black cape, and terrible acting skills leaves quite an effect on me. She's the only 'human' in the cast, the only one with any sense of what's happening - the one having the nightmare. And she's in all the best scenes.

It works because when the acting is really bad it brings out a whole extra nightmare level if you're dealing with a duplicitous character.  Though it looks like a homeless guy in a sheepdog costume, the sight of the yeti bounding around the woods is pretty endearing and when you're expecting a Scooby Doo- denouement it goes way darker, and then brings in a HAM radio! Findlay's wife Roberta did the cinematography (under the nickname 'Wings' in the credits).

Apparently this is the restored version so there's finally previously edited out random bits like a dying wife crawling along with a toaster across the bathroom floor to hurl it into her husband's bath to electrocute him, and a head-scratching decapitation prologue that will leave you wondering whether the the cocoanut head with a mask on falling into the swimming pool was meant to be ceremonial (like some effigy) or a human sacrifice that's just really really badly done? Then it hits you - that's what this kind of shit's all about - film is itself ceremonial. That cocoanut scene looks so familiar I feel like I shot it myself for a super 8mm Conan-inspired film Alan and I did in 1981. That's 'uncanny' all right. It even looks like the same mask. Same cocoanut! Same sword. What's going on? How is that even possible?

The Findlays were no fools and use their nonexistent budget to their benefit, for we can never be sure if the movie is intentionally bad, as in things aren't matching up for a reason that will be revealed later, etc. When key things seem to be missing in something we can't tell if we're supposed to notice it or it's red herring, danger signals, or directorial incompetence. Is this not the root of childhood nightmares? That mix of psychic, physical and social anxiety that comes from jumbled social cues? In this case we're squarely with poor Karen who has one of the stupidest most passive and gullible boyfriends in the history of stupid gullible boyfriends, a guy who lets the professor convince him that cutting up her friend to use as bait in yeti traps is natural- that she's hysterical for even complaining, and the final act with all the round robin dingus dialogue and a hilariously chilling bit of 'forking' is straight up from the pages of my own childhood nightmares.

(1972) Dir. Andy Milligan
* / Amazon Image - A

There's nothing quite as matter-of-taste as Andy Milligan, the off-off Broadway theater geek's Ed Wood, a master of getting Victorian era value out of dusty mansions and historically preserved NYC and London gardens and storefronts. For this oddly-named gem, the acting is surprisingly good, or at the very least, spirited, with something of the flavor of Rocky Horror Picture Show if it had no music or sense of spirit, or if John Waters characters tried to do a straight Dark Shadows soap opera version of House of Usher while high on exhaust fumes. Jackie Scarvelis stars as Diana Mooney, a woman wearing a punishingly un-Victorian amount of white eye shadow and heavy black eyelash mascara. She's returning to the mansion with her urbane British husband Gerald (Ian Innes)--a 'painter'--home to meet the family. They're all afflicted with lycanthropy and busy working on treatments (Diana was sent to medical school so she could come back and work on a cure). There's the brother, a savage, who's kept chained in his room and fed live chickens ala a carny geek; the bedridden old patriarch who drinks his every line like its Chatet Moulingon Blanc instead of Four Roses; the conniving older sister who's sort of become the de facto mother, the sassy maid; and--my new favorite actress-- Hope Stansbury as the homicidal sister, Monica Mooney (below right).

A sexy willowy morass of Virginia Merrye and Mary Woronov (tall, assertive, and unafraid to project badass crazy without quotes), Stansbury's Monica is a homicidally amped woman eager to own a horde of man-eating rats so she can name one Ben and later shout "Tear 'em up!" as was the big catch phrase from the year before, in case you forgot (see intro). If the rats element seems like it's coming, as in we see some rats at the rat store, and hear the rat salesman's gruesome monologue about how they eat his arm off when he passed out too close to the cage, but they don't really arrive in the film except off camera. Still, they're definitely coming, so it's truth in advertising. (Supposedly the producer wanted some rats added in re-shoots to capitalize on Ben, the Willard sequel released the same year, but the rat craze turned out to be over - a one-time thing), I think Monica was supposed to unleash them on someone, and maybe she did (it's hard to tell), generally the violence is just done by whirling the camera around with flames and red cellophane up to the lens and then showing some body part on the ground. It's fine with me of course.

No one thought about rats after 1973, when the Exorcist came out, at which points rats were cut and green vomit and out-of-their-depth priests were-added to already filmed movies (like Lisa and the Devil becoming House of Exorcism). That's show biz! (1) If Rats are Coming! sat on the shelf another year before William Mishkin released it, it would probably be called  The Exorcist vs. the Werewolves or something - and scenes of a priest trying to exorcise Monica would be added instead of her buying rats from a guy with half his face and one arm eaten off from when he got drunk and fell asleep too close to the rat cage. Genius!

Getting back to Stansbury. With her pale skin, long straight black hair, willowy physique and habit of darting around all amped up and giddy with hammy homicidal rage, teasing deranged brother, chopping up her neighbor friend or lunging out at her sister from the wardrobe closet like a shot --she's a perfect embodiment of the Victorian era devil girl. Does Melora Cregar or Dame Darcy know about this movie? They must. If not, they must be told! Where's my old rotary phone?

There's some genuinely good British actors floating around aside from her, and alas her scenes are strictly supporting compared to the 'good' sister and (I keep waiting for Scarvelis's lashes to just lock shut, so Monica would have her chance) and her hunky mellow husband - both of whom do a surprisingly fine job with the material.  Most scenes are single shot set ups between two hammy actors trying to make a short theater piece out of every exchange, no matter how slight to the story or meandering and repetitive the lines (or improv cues). No one can ever just buy silver bullets (a rare glimpse of Milligan as the gunsmith!), they have to endure pages of Victorian shopkeep small talk as if Milligan thinks he is going to stumble on becoming Dickens or Todd Browning through sheer disconcerted effort.

When enough of such scenes accrue, there's a rushed, gory, poorly edited (censored, with gore restored?) climax of gore and blood that happens so fast after all the endless two-person talking shots, your head spins. Frankly, it's awesome. Milligan's habit of shooting on 16mm and 35mm as his film stock 'ends' arrive, all of varying quality, the Kuchar-style ability to mask lack of  budget with colored plastic light covers, the way his whites assume a death green pallor from blowing up 16mm to 35mm, I don't know - it just works. Unlike all the other crap in the crap bins, it's never boring, and you either want to keep hunting more down, or never want to read his name again, or both. Show one alongside a typical Derek Jarman from the same period and art critics would have to be awake to tell them apart - surely that counts for something - since they won't be (awake, I mean). Don't even bother wondering why or how this managed to be art, just dig the underground vibe, the way the camera spins and falls over when gore scenes come, as if the only time Milligan's camera can face gore is in passing by as he's running past it in the opposite direction. (except for a gruesome scene of Monica actually killing innocent little mouse. Unforgivable? Perhaps, but it's the kind of thing underground films had to have)

That's the trick, I guess, to imagine seeing this on some late afternoon in the old 42nd St. grindhouse district back in 1972, nodding off on cheap smack in the back row and keeping your hand on your switch blade in case someone tries to lift your stash. Floating there in space, the whirr of the projector audible along with the sound of rain coming in from various leaks in the roof, is that not the best seat in the house, in the world? Watching Werewolves today, I keep wondering, why is this not a musical by now? The book writes itself, and having written, runs to America to shoot extra rat footage. Not anymore though - Milligan is dead of AIDS (would he were alive in the age of director commentaries), a fact that once again makes us all grateful to John Waters for his years of relative monogamy (and/or caution). He is still with us, one of American independent cinema's true national treasure. His Female Trouble is coming soon on Criterion!! Milligan's Werewolves, on the other hand is here! 


PS: check out a host of other Milligan "gems" on Prime, including # 9 (see item #12 on the 'Taste the Blood of Dracula's Prime" list, THE BODY BENEATH)  

1. You can still find rat and vermin (tarantulas) swarms devouring people in an array of post-Willard movies, from Italy (Rats; Night of Terror, Inferno, The Beyond)
2. See Halloween, Darkness and Tick-Tockality; Phantasm
3. See my bigfoot time traveller hypothesis posited to Joe Rogan Bigfoot is Real but Isn't Here. 

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Big City Bioluminescent Brutalism: GOOD TIME (2017)

Like a gust of vaguely moldy stale air-- the sort we used to breathe before cell phones, age, rehab, kids, whatever, curbed our kamikaze habits, the sort of air that flows through shallow uneasy breath and attempts to look nonplussed while being lead from the safety of the cracked sidewalk into snaking maze of backyard broken fences on the off chance a score with a stranger wouldn't go south, the sort of air you smell again only at AA in those permanently-rented church basement "workshops" and half-condemned storefronts that never quite not carry the smell of cigar butts soaked in urine, but fully and always the mold that grows on heater coils and poorly-stored winter jackets--this is the sort of air that fills the sails of the Safdie brothers' kinetic chase scene thriller GOOD TIME (2017).

Occasionally saturated in the kind Day-Glo psychedelic eeriness that somehow heightens the gritty yet warmly soothing dream-like reality of Bronx streets in the dead of night, and of crowded holding tanks, closed amusement parks, public hospital corridors, and bank teller windows, rather than making them too cartoon-like. Amok on 'anything can happen at any time' energy, the molly-shiverin photography (35mm!) of Sean Price William sends it over. Chris Doyle himself could surely no better do than does "eye to the grindstone" William for street-deep GOOD TIME.

From the first moments of Oneohtrix Point Never's propulsive ambient score we feel we're seeing part of a wild new direction in cinema, albeit one familiar enough from past decades (but not this one), a hyperkinetic snapshot of logical but inexhaustible desperation, one bright little fucker's off-the-cuff quick thinking, the power he derives in his pursuits from being white and attractive enough women give his wild-eyed madness a pass through certain needle eyes. So catastrophic in its real time results is his effort that it perhaps makes a fine reflection on America's meddling in third world affairs, so insanely desperate to keep their kid brothers away from socialism that we all but destroy their economy. I'm sure that's not the Safdie's intentions but so what. It's the tale of sketchy quick-thinking newly-paroled ('good time' being shorthand for 'out on early parole for good behavior') Connie's (Robert Pattinson) whose afternoon-through-to-dawn nonstop hustling efforts to 'rescue' his mentally-handicapped brother (Benny Safdie himself) from the mental health system, and then from jail after a bungled bank robbery, start after a dazzling rave-style magenta dye bomb goes off in their escape Uber, the boys go racing down the streets of Queens as real-life passers-by (the Safdies didn't steal their shots, but sure made it look that way) gape at the psychedelic blur, and as Oneohtrix Point Never's propulsive retro synths and drowsy ambient pulse drops surge like a cranked up heartbeat guiding them like the current of the third rail guides the 4, 5, Q and R trains.

First winning critical notice with Heaven Knows What, the tale of a junky crustpunk and her quest to score and/or break up with or get back together with her sketchy junky boyfriend, the Safdies obviously know their milieu, the busy urban streets, dilapidated apartments of twitchy girlfriends always starting to crash on whatever was the last of her sketchy stash, and grandmothers you just met on the bus and now talked your way into something between a quiet home invasion and "just being there to use the phone." High-lowlights include a frazzled Jennifer Jason Leigh finding out--in the midst of a panicked Mamet-style shout at the credit card company--her mom canceled the credit card she stole from her purse before Leiigh could even use it. Leigh's escalating tantrum-sub-junky desperation is masterful - she's trying to play her mom and then the credit card company as assiduously as Connie's playing her, but she's too emotional, too panicked. Also sublimely vivid: the testosterone-packed precinct holding cell, busy late night public hospital corridors, the kind of place where there are so many people on so many different shift schedules, and with no windows and no closing time, the sleep schedule so disrupted that rather than be awake and then asleep at a certain hour, everyone is half and half all the time; if you know where you're going, you can go almost anywhere; arcades where kids drop acid and play video games; and closed amusement parks, it's got it all, even a momentary pause here and there for some random termite humanity, or a barking pit bull.

This is a certain strata of outer borough living a lot of us 'aging hipster' New Yorkers don't really get to know anymore, not since the advent of cell phones made drug buying a "we come to you" thing, not a "let's take a subway up to the shadiest section of the Bronx and see if that guy who knows that guy is still there' kind of thing, the sort born of wearying teenage sobriety. And as rents rise, the lower world dregs are continually pushed farther and farther uptown, and marijuana more and more decriminalized, whole generations of will never know the way these sorts of hustlers sweep you up in their drama so fast that what started as you buying a dime bag and getting the hell back to your friends downtown winds up in you putting up your car up as bail for someone you barely know after running from the police through a neighborhood you don't recognize, with a head full of angel dust you didn't know you'd smoked, and taking another of your dealer's friends to a hospital ER waiting room, hoping to get him admitted before the cops show up and you have to run all over again, and you're too young and/or naive and/or nice and/or stoned to figure out how to make your goodbyes and extricate you from this hustler's Jenga hodge podge of quick fixes before it topples down into handcuffs or a bullet. It's a thing that happens to us all, once. If we're smart, we soak the lesson up good and never even visit that same subway stop again, even if the "sticks" (Xanax) and Oxy seems to flow on tap.

On the other hand it's far more entertaining than most such evenings, more riveting and propulsive, druggy and psychedelic while being utterly real (most scenes shot on the fly in real locations with passers-by who just happened to be in the shot) without the consequences or interminable length or waking up with your wallet and TV gone. It's a headlong zig-zag firefly race into the abyss that shows the devastating dry wit and talent for fly-on-the-wall naturalism the Safdies are second to none, locked in on a street-level substrata that few genuine artists quite penetrate deep enough to feel anything other than a pose. Christ, who would want to go this deep? Only real artists who, unlike so many others, actually may have a flag to plant.


The big psychedelic payoff is what puts this movie into the pantheon, including a wild inherently disturbing scene that trades on one's familiarity with the drug so in question. I.e. if you've ever done liquid or blotter LSD ever, you know that pouring a a goodly third or fourth of a full Sprite bottle of pure acid down some poor security guard's throat to render him incapacitated is a Black Mirror kind of evil, the soul trapped for all eternity screaming, even long after they finally come down. If you don't even know you got there or what just happened, you basically ensure they never come back, jumping through fifth story windows to stop the insane visions, even if they pump your IV full of enough Ativan to drop a mating season moose.

Hmmmm - moose-dropping Ativan IV - almost sounds worth it but no matter how much you may love it, if you know its force, the strength of a single drop to send grown men screaming into the ER begging for a 'stick' to ease the demonic rainstorm tearing their flesh and mind apart, then that Sprite bottle reverberates like a the mouth of Hell itself. Suddenly we look around at the glowing, surreal landscape - both beautiful amniotic, terrible and we are totally unmoored. We've let crazy Connie warp our world around him.

In the end though there are four elements that make Good Time work so indelibly well, the first is Pattinson, proving once again he's been criminally underrated as an actor (see this the same night as Cosmopolis and see what I mean). As he did in 2014's The Rover, he knows how to convey the half-strutting/half-defensive body language of a far too tightly-strung marionette hoodrat, but this is a whole new hood for him - you can tell he's been doing research hanging out with ex-cons and visiting prisons as this is leagues away from the usual Hollywood "street"kid. You can see it in the shots below - the wild animal aggression and just fucked-up tiredness of his hustler - the way everything from coming onto older girlfriend Leigh, to scaring people into line his way of thinking - are all just means to an end, something he's so convinced is 'love' for his brother he never questions it even as it turns everyone's life he runs across inside-out, brother included. He doesn't even realize how animal crazy his eyes look when peeking up from the bushes to clock the five-oh. He'd at least be nominated for something for it, but he's too good and too young and famous to be noticed. He'll have to get lionized in France first, like his ex, dear Kristen. 

The second is Williams' photography--35mm, blazing with rich saturated druggy colors that never deviate from the expected but get Day-Glo powder and paint mileage out of the inside of cars and spooky carnival rides at night; third is the sheer momentum, the snaking cool of all-night anything-can-happen urban amok mission following; fourth is Oneohtrix Point Never's score, both nostalgic to the horror films of the 70s and 80s and forward to the post-clubland post-industrial urban Black Emperor future. Never incorporates the ambient sounds of the narrative, the city sounds into the music so much there's a feeling of reality and this ambient post-rock score fusing in ways I usually only feel when driving to the airport at night in the rain listening to trip hop. For example, he incorporates the key of the hydraulic bus lift into part of the score for the scene it's used in: "My thought was that if the music could somehow be in concert with the key of the hydraulic lift, it's going to be subliminally cool. That kind of sonic language embedded in the film also refers to those New York textures. It makes New York feel like this bioluminescent, science-fiction, sentient being, even though it's real brutalist."

Dude's as termite as it gets. So's the film. It begs all sorts of indulgences for lack of higher purpose but then, as the end sinks in and you go about your business, the deeper meanings of all that's gone by in such a rush sinks deep into you. This is the kind of film that manages to do both, be a dirty vivid urgent urban race through acid-drenched nightmare grandeur, but then a truly great, resonant film at the same time. It lingers in the mind until its genius closes like a velvet trap around your cortices, illuminating a strange redemptive figure eight over the holy cross of anonymous acts of selfless kindness. You never know what form it will settle on while you're following crazy Connie through the dead of night system, but you know it's going somewhere new. Isn't that, in the end, why you never made a quick excuse and ran off when dragged into your dealer's scabby shenanigans deeper and deeper? You just couldn't go back to the normal schedule without finding out how deep the grimy rabbit hole goes now while you have a grimy rabbit to follow.


1. see also: Lana Turner and the Unscrupulous Doser - my review of The Big Cube - for more on this scary subject)
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