Monthly Archives: May 2016

Cash on Demand (1961)


*. Clever. But not clever enough.
*. The idea of updating Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and repackaging it as a heist film is interesting. The cast is solid (Peter Cushing as the anal bank manager Fordyce, André Morell as the Rafflesesque burglar, Richard Vernon as Bob Cratchit). They made it for next to nothing, but you don’t mind because it’s obviously a filmed play being shot on just a couple of sets so it’s all good.
*. Unfortunately, the promise of a short play kept on a tight production leash being a cinematic well-wrought urn is not kept. You expect this movie to be wrapped up neatly at the end and instead you’re left with more questions than answers.
*. The scheme is a typically British take on the crime story. “I want bank robberies to be smoother, more sociable,” Colonel Gore Hepburn tells us. He’s so suave you almost want him to get away with it. His one show of violence is even a slap to the face of Fordyce, not a punch.
*. But what is his scheme? He fakes a call to Fordyce from Fordyce’s wife and child, apparently by using a tape recorder, but how does this work? Does he really have an accomplice outside the bank? He says his partner is Father Christmas, which may refer to the charity Santa Claus we see a couple of times outside the front door, but if that’s where he’s stationed how does he see any signals from the window of Fordyce’s office?
*. I’d like to say that the business about signaling from the window is just some nonsense Hepburn made up, but he rushes to the window in a panic when he hears a siren outside so it must be real.
*. If the Santa was the Colonel’s accomplice, why does Fordyce give him up at the end?
*. Of course the big question at the end is what’s going on with Fordyce. He isn’t being charged with anything, but at the same time his story doesn’t sound very convincing and he is sent off to the police station in handcuffs. And what was the Colonel’s game in all this? Did he just want to turn the burglary into a learning experience for Fordyce?
*. There’s something untidy and unsatisfying about such a resolution. It’s not even clear that Fordyce has been redeemed, as Scrooge was, after his ordeal. He’s still someone who has no friends, or any close personal relations, aside from his wife and son, and they will presumably go on being treated as a kind of property. His paying the pound he “owes” the Colonel at the end smacks less of a newly discovered spirit of generosity than another example of his usual dreary punctiliousness. I’m not even sure if we can believe that Pearson’s or Harvill’s jobs are safe.
*. So it’s enjoyable. The script gets to indulge the Colonel’s sense of irony, especially when playing with Pearson. The audience tries to anticipate whether Fordyce or Pearson will outsmart the Colonel or whether he will be tripped up by some accident. In fact, it’s neither, and we’re left wondering if getting caught was somehow part of the plan all along, that it was somehow all meant to be a test or a game.
*. My own hope was that Mrs. Fordyce was going to be revealed as the mastermind, getting even with her neglectful and superior husband. But I guess 1961 was just a bit too early for that. Pity.

Hannibal Rising (2007)


*. There have been a lot of Hannibal Lecter movies. In order of their release they are: Manhunter, The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal, Red Dragon, and this one. Then the character was turned into a short-lived television series. Quite a surprising run, when you think about it.
*. I’m on the record as saying I don’t think any of Thomas Harris’s Lecter books are very good. In fact, they’re trash. But Silence of the Lambs rose so far above its base origins, and so far eclipsed Manhunter, that it deserves to be regarded as the real beginning of the franchise anyway.
*. So much for the background to this absolutely worthless, repulsive piece of garbage.
*. Apparently Harris wasn’t keen on returning to Hannibal, but felt pressured by De Laurentiis (who threatened to have someone else write a prequel). So we have a novel and screenplay coming to us courtesy of a tired and somewhat reluctant hack. That’s getting off to a bad start.
*. According to the DVD commentary Harris insisted on writing the screenplay this time out. I can’t imagine why. Whatever the reason, the results are terrible. The structure is awkward as hell (a twenty-minute prologue?) and the dialogue is awesomely bad. Poor Gong Li, a Chinese actress again pressed into playing a Japanese woman (the all-purpose Asian), gets saddled with the worst of it. “Be gentle, Hannibal. And be brave. Like your father.” Or “You smell of smoke and blood” (I guess it must have really gotten into his clothes). Special note, however, has to also be taken of Grutas telling Lady Murasaki that he knows her “asshole will look just like a violet.” Am I missing something? What does that even mean?
*. The next ingredient was finding a director, which involved a truly bizarre decision. Peter Webber came to the project from Girl with a Pearl Earring, a well-received film that would not have first made me think of the Hannibal Lecter franchise. Or made me think of Hannibal at all.
*. Production designer Allan Starski says the plan was to mix action-horror with art house, which might have seemed like a good idea but turned out not to work. This movie is expensively produced but far less stylish than any of the other Hannibal films (including the post-disco era Manhunter). For that matter, it’s less stylish than the TV series Hannibal too. There’s a difference between a film that looks expensive and one that looks great. The Silence of the Lambs had some of the best production design I’ve ever seen and it was done on a shoestring.
*. So we have a lousy script and a director who doesn’t seem to have any affinity for the material at all. Could things get worse? They could.
*. For the record, I don’t mind a bit that Gaspard Ulliel doesn’t look, or sound, even remotely like someone who is going to grow up to be Anthony Hopkins in another forty years (though according to producer Martha de Laurentiis finding a match was “paramount” in casting and they thought they’d got it with Ulliel). That’s fine. What I do mind is that he’s so damn hard to look at. And yes, I know he’s a professional model. Maybe that’s the problem. What’s with that sneer? Is that his Blue Steel? Where is his character’s urbanity and charm? This Hannibal is just a nasty prig.
*. On the commentary Webber remarks how people were somewhat confused as to who the gang of baddies were and what they were all about. I shared that confusion. They are native Lithuanian . . . mercenaries? Partisans? Bandits? Apparently the correct historical label is Hilfswilliger, or “Hiwi” for short. This mean they were German volunteers, though they seem like total freelancers to me.
*. Later we’re told they’re war criminals (“cannibalistic Nazis” in the words of Webber on the commentary, though unlike the mature Hannibal none of them are cannibals by choice). It’s also said that they were judged at Nuremberg, from whence they “walked free.” I can’t understand why any of these hoods would have been at Nuremberg, but I guess this reference was just thrown in as a way of identifying them as Nazis.
*. They aren’t Nazis, but this film is a good example of how the history of the Second World War has come to be rewritten in popular culture (especially film). What I mean is that WW2 has been translated into a global conflict whose main, perhaps only, larger meaning was a struggle against the forces of anti-Semitism. This it certainly was not, but the Holocaust has since been enshrined as the central generative fact of postwar Europe and Hannibal Rising is just one example of what it generated.
*. Quentin Tarantino got a lot of press on the release of Inglourious Basterds, particularly in an article about that film appearing in The Atlantic by Jeffrey Goldberg titled “Hollywood’s Jewish Avenger,” for being a type of the Jewish revenge fantasy. That label, as a term in film criticism, goes back to Pauline Kael’s review of Marathon Man, and can be interpreted more broadly as referring to films about Jews taking a violent revenge on Nazis. Taken to a brutal extreme it becomes what Eli Roth, quoted in Goldberg’s essay, calls “kosher porn” (a riff on “torture porn,” one assumes).
*. Hannibal Rising is kosher porn. And there’s nothing wrong with such fantasies in a context where they apply — as in Marathon Man or Inglourious Basterds. Here, however, it seems an odd fit. I don’t think Lecter is Jewish. And yet anti-Semitic persecution is a theme that’s returned to again and again in the film, with material and information that is totally extraneous to the plot. A Jewish man is murdered at the Lecter castle in a bit of ethnic cleansing at the beginning of the film, the gang of Hiwis are sent to Nuremberg, and we see a French collaborator being executed after confessing to shipping Jewish children to Auschwitz. The lair of the bad guys looks, improbably, a little like the Eagle’s Nest. Hell, even the French butcher is fair game because he’s a racist and, as we later find out, a Vichy collaborator as well (he also “shipped Jews from Marseilles”). Nazi: check. Off with his head!
*. Are Nazis the only historical villains, at least from this period, that Hollywood can even imagine any more? It’s one thing to say all Nazis were bad guys, but to say that all bad guys must be Nazis seems to me to be taking things too far.
*. The upshot of all of this is that Hannibal is made over into yet another Jewish avenger. Aside from the shoehorning problem (a Jewish avenger movie without any Nazis, or Jews), this also has the effect of making him into even more of a hero. Indeed, pretty much any trace of Hannibal as a great screen villain (much less a monster) has disappeared. Even as a child Hannibal upsets the “normal human pecking order” in a noble way by taking on the school bullies. And of course later we are meant to cheer as he dispenses rough justice on the gang of pseudo-Nazi trash, because even if he isn’t a survivor of the Holocaust his experience was sort of, kind of, similar. He lost his family too, you see.
*. What the hell are a bunch of Lithuanian grunts doing as Mafiosi in France after the war anyway? That seems more than a bit unlikely.


*. In any event, the resulting carnage plays out like a tony version of I Spit on Your Grave. The only interest generated is in seeing how Hannibal is going to kill his victims, and how much torture they’ll have to endure before finally being finished off. Torture porn is at least meant to be disturbing: we aren’t supposed to approve of people being dismembered and butchered. But here we’re asked to enjoy it, to identify with Hannibal and not his victims, who are all subhuman.
*. I like Dominic West, but what is he doing in this film? Inspector Popil doesn’t serve any function. He’s a composite of several characters in the book that doesn’t add up to one good part.
*. In general, directors really know their movies. So what does Webber mean when he compares two scenes here (the rope decapitation and the fight in the kitchen) to a Sergio Leone Western? The presence of a noose? The use a lot of close-ups? I don’t see any connection at all. I’m also baffled by his claiming that the direct overhead shot in the forest is a steal from the scene where the scientists discover the spaceship in the ice in Howard Hawks’s The Thing from Another World. I would have never thought of that, and even with him pointing it out I still don’t see it.
*. My DVD box has a pull quote on the front from Pete Hammond of Maxim magazine calling Hannibal Rising “an absolute shocker in every way imaginable.” This surprised me so much (is it shocking in any imaginable way?) that I went looking for the full review online to see if it made more sense in context.
*. I couldn’t find the review but I did find a bunch of stuff on Hammond, who apparently had quite a reputation as a “blurb whore” in the industry, often being asked for advance praise to run in advertising spots. He also set off a bit of controversy with regard to another line from his review for this movie when what he said was changed to be more “family friendly” for a television ad (“terrifying” was switched to “electrifying”). According to reports, The Weinstein Company worked together with Hammond on the altered quote. According to the same reports this is actually a common practice, and some studios even suggest exact quotes to reviewers before they see the movie.
*. So I guess you have to take some of those blurbs with a very generous dose of salt indeed. Some time after this, Hammond was let go by Maxim. I can’t say I blame him that much for all the controversy. This was his job. He says his “reviews” were limited to 30 words anyway, and had to be positive as per editorial guidelines. So basically he was being asked to write blurbs.
*. But back to the movie. Why is it so very bad? This may be the biggest problem: Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal in The Silence of the Lambs was named by AFI as the number one film villain of all time and Hopkins went on to win an Academy Award despite only appearing on screen for about fifteen minutes. Great villains don’t need a lot of screen time, and indeed I think an argument could be made that they shouldn’t be on screen very much.
*. The other Hannibal movies rightly focused on Clarice Starling and Will Graham (which was presumably the role Popil was going to have here, but as noted he is made superfluous). This is the first film in the franchise to jettison the formula and make Hannibal the hero and central character. Indeed he’s in almost every scene.
*. In hindsight we can see this was a mistake. Peak Hannibal had already been crossed and this was a film too far. Much too far. Pray this is the end.


Citizen X (1995)


*. We’re in Russia, though the film was shot in Hungary. Russia the depressing and eerily depopulated. Russia the bureaucratic, sclerotic, and moribund. Is there some thematic significance to the capture of the killer coinciding with the downfall of the Soviet Union? Certainly the filmmakers imply some connection between the policies of perestroika and glasnost and more effective policing.
*. We’re in Russia, but of course the actors are all speaking in English. English with Russian accents. I’ve always wondered about this. Since we’re never outside of Russia here, and all of the characters are Russian, why bother with the accents? It’s the same for any movie where you present characters in a foreign country speaking English with a French or German or Russian accent when we know that they’re not “really” speaking English at all. I guess using an accent in such a situation is a convention, but in a case like this it doesn’t make much sense.
*. We’re in Russia, which lovers of classic Russian literature (and to some degree film) will always associate with trains. Trains covering those vast empty spaces. Except here the trains are electric instead of steam, and they’re looking run down. They’re also the carriers of the lethal Chikatilo. Again one senses a thematic point being made.
*. We’re in Russia, Soviet Russia, where party members get all kinds of perks. Like the “get out of jail free” card that Chikatilo enjoys, or his relatively luxurious apartment. He’s a factory worker and he lives like a king compared to Burakov, who is a high-ranking police officer.
*. At one point in the movie we’re told that Chikatilo kills more boys than girls. So why is it that all of the victims we see are female? That’s weird. Meanwhile, the police go around putting the frighteners on homosexuals. There’s something confused in this.
*. We’re in Russia, where everything is kept low key. Stephen Rea never loses that hangdog face. There’s no point getting excited about anything, standing out from the crowd, drawing attention to yourself, rocking the boat. Which makes Chikatilo on the hunt rather like the police who are hunting him: a grey, anonymous predator.
*. At the end there’s a note telling us that there was no explanation for the mistake made in classifying Chikatilo’s blood type. Actually there was an explanation, but I’m not sure how convincing it is. Apparently Chikatilo was a rare case of someone whose semen was type AB, whereas his blood and saliva were type A. My understanding is that this is at least possible. But the producers of the film either weren’t buying it or didn’t know about it.
*. This is a good little HBO movie, presenting an interesting wrinkle on the already familiar serial-killer story. The direction is pretty flat (you can tell we’re not going for style points just from the opening credits), but that fits with the overall tone of the movie. Even the score, which is terrific, is subdued. Rea and Jeffrey DeMunn (Chikatilo) are both excellent. Donald Sutherland seems out of place to me. Better that a film like this be without stars. We’re in Russia, after all.


Happy Birthday to Me (1981)


*. This mostly generic ’80s slasher pic is best known today for three things.
*. In the first place there are the credits. Director J. Lee Thompson gave the film a big boost, and apparently enjoyed the experience, having always wanted to do a thriller. This is odd given that he has absolutely no feel for the material. He did, however, at least make it look professional.
*. Glenn Ford, on the other hand, was just picking up a paycheque. He was also Canadian, which helped. He did not want to do a slasher film and reportedly drank heavily during the shoot. Not that this made much of a difference.
*. The second thing the film is known for are its inventive kills. These were advertised as “Six of the most bizarre murders you will ever see.” I came away less impressed. The murders are actually quite abrupt and involve little in the way of Savini-like effects. The only gore is Virginia’s brain surgery, which is all the more unpleasant for being “real” (hospitals are the scariest places I know). Meanwhile there are only a couple of kills that strike me as clever: the barbell and the shish-kebab.
*. With regard to Greg’s demise while going for a max on the bench press, it doesn’t reflect that well on him does it? I mean, for the school jock he isn’t lifting heavy, and he doesn’t even get a single rep off but just holds the bar over his head. Sad.
*. The third point worth noting is the insane plot and confusing back story. This is crazy enough even before we get to the ending, which is deservedly famous for its ludicrous revelations.
*. The story came from John Saxton, who also got a co-writer credit on the screenplay. I don’t know anything about this guy but apparently he was (a) an English professor at the University of Toronto, and (b) his most notable other credit was for Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS (which he wrote under the pseudonym Jonah Royston). I wonder if Professor Saxton would be able to get tenure today with that kind of work on his C.V.
*. The ending was actually a quick fix, almost an improvisation. The idea was to just make the climax more sensational and give things a twist. They certainly did that. Apparently the original ending had Virginia being possessed by the spirit of her dead mother . . . which everyone acknowledged made more sense than what they finally went with!
*. They liked that shot of the car falling into the water so much, they filmed it several times. Sometimes it falls in the water upside down, sometimes rightside up. What a continuity fail.
*. So the one fellow made “twenty bucks cash!” out of totally demolishing the front end of his car. That’s not too bright.
*. How is it that a nerd, and a creepy nerd at that, has made Crawford Academy’s Top Ten?
*. Though despised by critics at the time, this has gone on to be credited as one of the better slasher films from a period when they were notably thick on the ground. I don’t think it’s great, but it is one of the few of its kind to still be of any interest.


Written on the Wind (1956)


*. Camp? And by that I mean, is it a joke? Perhaps not intended as a joke — camp doesn’t allow for too much of that — but a joke nonetheless.
*. So: camp? Damn, it’s a hard label. For one thing, is it a judgment that we can only make in hindsight? Did audiences in the ’50s, who made this movie a hit, think it was camp? Or does it just seem ridiculous in retrospect? Or, another possibility, do we take it more seriously today? Douglas Sirk’s stature as an auteur has certainly grown, especially after being adopted by the European art house. At the time this film was made he was generally thought of as a hack.
*. Perhaps another word fits better. Kitsch? J. Hoberman: “Written on the Wind is not simply kitsch — it has the lurid classical grandeur that suggests Norman Rockwell redecorating Versailles.” Not simply kitsch then, but something more and something different. As Hoberman concludes, “Written on the Wind is not simply epic trash, but meta trash.” What non-meta label fits it then?


*. Well, here’s another word: melodrama. I think we can almost all agree that Written on the Wind is melodrama. It is melodrama writ large. But is melodrama by definition kitschy? Campy?
*. David Thomson is sensitive to the cultural cachet of the genre. Indeed in his entry on Douglas Sirk in his Biographical Dictionary of Film he even says that melodrama contains “the roots of cinema”: “Cinema — as an entertainment, an art form, an academic topic, or an institution — is addicted to melodrama.” Ergo Douglas Sirk is an absolutely essential filmmaker.
*. An aside: is this still true? While melodrama may have been the soil that cinema sprang from, is it still addicted to emotion and feeling? We live in a heartless age.
*. There’s also an uncomfortable gender angle to the genre argument. Melodrama is primarily a form of romance, and Written on the Wind is clearly a woman’s picture. Indeed the overly emotional script make it play like a kind of flip book of Lichtenstein’s True Romance blow-ups: frames of what might be comic-book panels, with bright colours and beautiful faces delivering dialogue bubbles containing such corny lines as “I love you, Mitch. I’m desperate for you.” “Please don’t waste your life waiting for me,” “I’ll wait, and I’ll have you — marriage or no marriage.” “Somebody just stole my magic dancing slippers.” “You’re a filthy liar!” “I’m filthy, period.” And so on and on.


*. So that’s another label, albeit one that nobody at the time or, I think, ever since, has argued against. Even the internal studio memos were clear that the movie “should be largely geared toward woman appeal” (because of the appearance of hearthrob Rock Hudson). And it’s worth keeping in mind that as ridiculous as so much of the romance claptrap is in this film, it’s no more ridiculous than a lot of action conventions or horror clichés. In looking down on such pictures we may be guilty of a little sexism as well as snobbery.
*. But without its camp value would a movie like this have any value at all? Who among us would want to watch a run-of-the-mill mid-’50s soap opera? Are there half as many fans of Magnificent Obsession out there as there are of Written on the Wind? This movie is often seen as the precursor to TV shows like Dallas and Dynasty, but who on earth watches them today? The reason this film has lasted is because it’s so crazily over the top that it becomes, another magic label, subversive.
*. Of course, you have to read it ironically. This is what makes everyone, or nearly everyone, see Sirk as a subversive artist. You can’t believe in his vision of America. It’s so obviously not real. There’s no need to call in Brecht: we know we’re watching a play. Nothing could be more artificial than those pink hallways in the Florida hotel, the silly toy cars the Hadley kids drive, the old swimming hole set, or all those painted backdrops. It doesn’t even matter that the cars (Kyle’s is a 1953 Allard J2X and Marylee’s a 1953 Woodill Wildfire) and the grotesque flowers in Marylee’s room (anthuriums) are real. They look plastic and fake.
*. And this is not to mention the film clichés you have to laugh at: the pages from the calendar being blown backward (over a whole year’s worth!), or the jukebox that plays throughout the fisticuffs at the diner. I wonder what the first film to do that was. Probably some Western with a player piano.


*. And yet. Roger Ebert: “To appreciate the trashiness of Written on the Wind is not to condescend to it. To a greater degree than we realize, our lives and decisions are formed by pop clichés and conventions. Films that exaggerate our fantasies help us to see them — to be amused by them, and by ourselves. They clear the air.”
*. But do they clear the air? Or do they feed the heart on fantasies? I wonder how much our sweet tooth for such confections is born of nostalgia, and how much of it expresses a desire to believe in this kind of nonsense: the god-like wealth, the celebration of privilege and materialism that comes complete with the darkies serving dinner (Sam) and drinks (Ben). This was the American dream, and it’s become our dream of the American ’50s.
*. I want to stick with this point about fantasy and realism for a moment. When you watch a lot of these kinds of movies, from this period, you’ll probably notice how tacky their sense of luxury was. This could be the result of several things. In the first place, the art director might be consciously going for an artificial or tacky look. Here, for example, Julia Heron, one of the set decorators, “had to deliberately use some bad taste” (according to a studio press release) to make the Hadley home look more vulgarly ostentatious. Another possibility is that the 1950s really were a tacky time, or at least they look that way to us. We can notice the same thing in movies set in the 1970s. But I prefer a more basic explanation: that in the 1950s production design just wasn’t ruled by the same canons of verisimilitude. You weren’t trying to design a home or an office or a restaurant that looked “real.” I don’t think this was peculiar to Sirk either. It was the Hollywood studio aesthetic.


*. Here’s Ebert again: “Films like this are both above and below middle-brow taste. If you only see the surface, it’s trashy soap opera. If you can see the style, the absurdity, the exaggeration and the satirical humor, it’s subversive of all the 1950s dramas that handled such material solemnly.” I think the line that this is both above and below the middle-brow is key. It is trash and meta trash. I just have a lingering, uncomfortable feeling that this kind of thing can be taken more seriously than critics might want us to believe. That is, audiences can and do take it as real.
*. In brief, it’s a movie that can be read on different levels. Trash or meta trash, sentimental or subversive, fake or symbolic. Those plastic cars and flowers are obvious character keys: yellow for Kyle, glistening red for Marylee. Texas is a Wild West state where everyone is quick to draw their pistols. The bartender draws his to break up a bar fight, and Jasper even pulls one out of a drawer with the cops — albeit his cops — right there in the room.
*. But Kyle’s pistol is a shiny, pearl-handled lady’s gun, and he sleeps with it tucked under his pillow. When Lucy finds it, she takes it from him and throws it away. No missing the symbolism there!
*. Or take this reading (courtesy of Peter William Evans) of the pink corridor in the Florida hotel, another bit of bright phoniness that triggers our symbol-radar: “The watery setting of the hotel and the oneiric, shocking-pink-lined passage invite speculation on notions of rebirth, of intrauterine memory and of a motherless son’s search for an absent mother.” Phew! And I just thought it was a vagina.


*. How much is being repressed? Thomson: “surely Sirk, who made eight films with Hudson, knew his innermost yearnings. And thus the real secret text in the film is the unspeakable attraction between Stack and Hudson, and the relative emotional homelessness of the women.” Personally, I didn’t think this was all that clear. Mitch is in love with Lucy and Kyle seems more envious and resentful of Mitch. Apparently, however, Sirk had wanted to make Kyle’s homosexuality more explicit but couldn’t because of issues with the censors.


*. The incest angle is also hinted at, but again I didn’t get the sense that there was much to it. Mitch says he loves Marylee like a brother, and I suppose we’re left to wonder just what that might mean. And Marylee warns Kyle that if Mitch steals Lucy then the two of them will be left alone to wake up to one another. But the siblings don’t seem to have any erotic connection, and Mitch is so asexual you don’t feel the spark of anything indecent coming from him.
*. The theme song, music by Victor Young, lyrics by Sammy Cahn and performed by The Four Aces, is justly celebrated. For some reason it’s been stuck in my head for years, the fitting melos to this drama. And yet do the lyrics mean anything? Who is the faithless lover whose kiss is written on the wind? Isn’t the problem that everyone in this movie is too damn faithful?


*. How dull both Mitch and Lucy are. Kyle and Marylee are the only people we want to watch (just as James Dean remains the only reason to watch Giant, even with Elizabeth Taylor in full bloom and throttle). The freaks fascinate us, getting to chew all the drapes and smash all the china while even Hudson was put off by playing yet another square. Stack and Malone would both get Oscar nominations, and Malone would win (a contemporary contra opinion can be seen in Bosley Crowther’s New York Times review, which called both their performances “absurd”). Meanwhile, the leads were justifiably ignored. I like Lauren Bacall, but when she wasn’t motivated she could really mail it in. And what was there to motivate her in this part?
*. The original script made it clearer that Marylee — yes, Marylee! — is going to take over running Hadley Oil at the end of the movie. That’s what having her sit under the giant portrait of her father while picking up the model of the oil derrick (Hadley No. 1) was meant to signify. I was shocked when I found this out. I don’t see Marylee as running anything.
*. Presumably the company will now be run by a trust while Marylee is left to fondle that golden dildo as a substitute for losing the one true love of her life. I guess we’re supposed to feel sorry for her, but in fact she’s a lucky girl. Mitch didn’t deserve her. Now she has her money and her independence, a good toy is all she really needs.


Magnificent Obsession (1954)


*. It’s hard for me to talk about Douglas Sirk. He was very good at what he did, but what he did doesn’t interest me much.
*. Because it’s genre work? Melodrama? Soap opera? Women’s pictures? That probably has something to do with it. But I think more than that it’s because they’re such period pieces, and their vision of America in the 1950s seems so totally unreal today. It’s a Technicolor Neverland of endless bounty, artificiality, and style.
*. But was it Neverland? Women really did wear gloves. Some men wore ascots. Every room might have been filled with floral arrangements. Four million dollars, the net worth of playboy Bobby Merrick, was a lot of money (today it wouldn’t be a down payment on that lovely lakeside property). You really could smoke in a hospital bed, at least if you had a private room. I’m not sure about the saloon doors on the hospital rooms, but they’re in the 1935 version as well so maybe they were a thing.
*. I would still call it a dream reality though, and one that probably has some influence on the mythologizing of that time and place in American consciousness. This was the golden age that (some) Americans always want to go back to. Strong families. A strong economy. Everybody rich, and white.
*. What special quality defines this vision of America? It’s clean. The cars shine as brightly as the men’s Brylcreemed hair. The men’s cheeks are also shaved clean as babies, without a hint of shadow even after a long night of drinking. If a drop of blood were seen at the Brightwood Hospital I think the doctors and nurses would faint on the spot. Not that they could have shown blood anyway (censorship issues), but still it would have upset the hygienic order of the place.


*. Douglas Sirk’s reputation continues to rise. I’m still unsure. His melodramas are both professional and personally distinguished. He was obviously an intelligent, cultured man and very critic-friendly, which helps. But the question continues to nag: was he only slumming it with these sorts of movies, or were they his love letters to America? Did he think they were a joke? Was he really subverting the genre of melodrama, or was the genre itself subversive?
*. Sirk apparently never even read all of Lloyd C. Douglas’s book and seems to have thought it was trash, a “stupid story.” But then he thought trash books made good film projects because you couldn’t mess them up. He also said that there is “a very short distance between high art and trash, and trash that contains the element of craziness is by this very quality nearer to art.”
*. It’s easier to see this connection with craziness in the case of a movie like Written on the Wind. There the element of subversion is more obvious: the split between what Kathryn Bigelow in her video tribute describes as a nihilistic, psychological interior (sickness, madness) and a lush and exotic exterior. The one reality literally subverts the other.
*. In this film, however, it’s not so clear. We miss the craziness of Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone, who were the only couple worth watching in Written on the Wind. Here we’re left with the squares.
*. Especially boring squares at that. Thomas Doherty’s DVD commentary notes on a couple of occasions the “distinct lack of romantic sparks between” Wyman and Hudson. Hudson simply worships her while she learns to tolerate his adoration. There is no hint of physical consummation (that would be dirty), and Doherty correctly sees only “affection without passion.” This isn’t just a matter of a strict production code. It’s a total lack of chemistry.


*. Wyman was nine years older than Hudson, which is interesting. Also interesting is that this is less than the age gap between Irene Dunn and Robert Taylor.
*. Some things have changed in twenty years. There’s a soaring chorus of back-up vocals. Helen Philips is a stronger character. Robert Merrick doesn’t win a Nobel Prize (yet). The first object of Merrick’s charity isn’t some panhandler but a guy with a dead baby and a wife in the hospital. A more deserving case.
*. The religious angle is toned down. Randolph doesn’t have a Bible to hand Merrick. Indeed there is only one brief mention of Christ, and not by name but only as an upright guy who paid the ultimate price for his exercise of Personal Power.
*. That Personal Power angle is the most bizarre thing in the film. I’m using ironic capitals to suggest the Tony Robbins connection. It doesn’t seem at all Christian to me but rather a kind of New Age engineering: establishment of contact with the source of infinite power allows one to fulfill one’s destiny, but you have to keep it secret in order to insulate yourself. I don’t think this qualifies as a mechanical interpretation of the Gospel.


*. No, this film isn’t a personal favourite. It looks pretty in a fake way. The story is rubbish. I didn’t find anything moving about it at all, which seems to me the most important test. Today I think it’s mainly appreciated by cineastes and fans of camp. As for Sirk, one respects him but still.
*. Perhaps I’ll end with this. David Thomson, in his Biographical Dictionary of Film, rates Sirk (and melodrama) quite highly. Now here he is on horror director Wes Craven: “over the years maybe the most odious thing about him is the postmodern self-reflection of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and the Scream pictures, which amounts to a frenzied, disdainful redoubling of nastiness because no one really believes in it. That is a dreadful manipulation of his own audience, with a view to excusing him and letting him feel superior.” An educated, intelligent man (at least “intelligent enough to know how surely the darts of horror do penetrate the vulnerable mind” and become very rich), Craven created efficient if lowbrow genre trash that was later adopted by academe and “people who write learned treatises on the imagery . . . who have learned to gaze through the revolting fury of his films and see tenure beckoning.”
*. Is this just a difference in taste? Thomson is no great fan of horror films and thinks melodrama underappreciated. But how different are Sirk and Craven? Couldn’t you just switch their names and change “horror” with “melodrama” in what Thomson says? I don’t know if there’s any way to reconcile the two assessments except to say that there was much to admire and appreciate in the work of both men. And something to despise.


Magnificent Obsession (1935)


*. It was a nice gesture of Criterion to include this title as a bonus feature with their release of the 1954 Douglas Sirk remake. Nice because without this treatment I think it was ready to be consigned to film oblivion. Who would even bother hunting it down today? Why?
*. Something feels icky from the start. Helen and Nancy are mother-daughter but are conscious of the absurdity of this as they appear to be the same age. This May-December feeling is later returned to when Nancy announces her engagement to Tommy, who looks quite a bit older (the actor playing Tommy was in fact twenty years older than Betty Furness.)
*. But then we have “Bobby” Merrick falling for Helen Hudson, with Robert Taylor being thirteen years younger than Irene Dunne. There’s your age equity paying back.
*. The genre is a hybrid particular to the time. Basically it’s a pulp romance (the handsome, rich playboy even becomes a Nobel Prize-winning surgeon!), crossbred with the sort of homiletic morality that was Lloyd C. Douglas’s stock-in-trade. Douglas was a Lutheran minister who didn’t write his first novel (this one) until the age of 50. He would go on to pen Biblical blockbusters like The Robe and The Big Fisherman.
*. I suspect it’s the religious message, with Bobby being reborn as Dr. Robert after an intervention by the devout sculptor, that dates the film the most. Heaven knows we still love a good love story, but I doubt the preaching appeals very much to a mass audience.
*. I don’t think it’s much worth watching today. The car accident looks pretty darn sharp for 1935 (better even than it does in the remake, twenty years later), but that’s the only thing that stood out. The plot is so clichéd and contrived it’s funny. Dunne and Taylor walk through their parts with the kind of formality that was the custom of the time, at least in a vehicle like this.
*. Pauline Kael: “This first version of the inspirational Lloyd C. Douglas novel . . . should certainly have been the last, but the woebegone trickeries of the material made the movie a four-handkerchief hit, and damned if Ross Hunter didn’t produce another version in 1954 (with Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson), and the slop made money all over again.”

Deranged (1974)


*. There’s an awful lot of low-budget horror crap out there that frankly gets more credit and attention than it deserves because of some spurious “cult” status that’s been bestowed upon it. A film like Prom Night is a good example. This was a complete piece of garbage, but it was released during the golden age of slash, had Jamie Lee Curtis in it, was followed by some sequels, and even endured a watered-down remake. So people talk about it now as though it was something special. It’s not, and never was.
*. Deranged, however, is the real deal. No, it’s not a great movie. It had far too limited a budget, and not enough talent in front of or behind the camera. But it deserves a wider audience, and all things considered is remarkably well handled.
*. The source is the story of the Wisconsin ghoul Ed Gein (rhymes with “fiend”), whose crimes were first translated into fiction by Robert Bloch in the novel Psycho. With Psycho (the novel and the Hitchcock movie), the best known fictional element in the Gein myth was introduced: that he dug up his mother and lived with her corpse. In fact, Gein left his mother’s grave alone.
*. So . . . the intro card that tells you that “The motion picture you are about to see is absolutely true. Only the names and locations have been changed” Is, well, a stretch.
*. The Gein story, or myth, has had a long history, beginning with Psycho and later transformed into the wholesale butchery of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Deranged came out the same year as Texas Chain Saw Massacre but was actually released months earlier. I don’t think there’s any grounds for believing that either production influenced the other, which makes their resemblance all the more startling.
*. What stands out the most is the set design of the two horror houses, their air of cluttered squalor and death. Then the culminating “dinner” scene, where a female victim is tied to a chair while the giggling ghoul mocks her.


*. I think I’ve spoken before about these grotesque parodies of a formal dinner party, and how often they recur in horror films. I’m not sure why it’s so popular a motif. The corpses around the table here also remind me of the end of Happy Birthday to Me.
*. Of course Texas Chain Saw Massacre went on to become one of the most notorious, seminal, and commercially successful horror movies ever. Deranged disappeared. The difference?
*. Deranged doesn’t take itself quite as seriously, which is perhaps its greatest undoing. For starters, there’s a bizarre on-screen narrator, the newspaper columnist Tom Sims, who introduces us to “a human horror story of ghastly proportions and profound reverberations” and then shows up at odd times and places throughout the film, breaking down the fourth wall.
*. The performances also slide into camp too easily. Roberts Blossom is fine as Ezra, all manic, lizard eyes and pouting lower lip. But his mother, and the zaftig would-be seducer who ends up being his first victim, are hammy caricatures.
*. That said, I don’t think Kim Newman is right in lumping this movie in together with Cannibal Girls and Motel Hell (the latter being a film it shared a video release with), as examples of the sub-genre of “cannibal comedies.” Co-writer/co-director Alan Ormsby had originally expressed interest in making it into a black comedy but had been persuaded not to go this route. I don’t think this is a comedy, but a movie that tries, sporadically, and unsuccessfully, for comic relief.
*. What might have been. Apparently both Harvey Keitel and Christopher Walken were interested in the role of Ezra.
*. That’s Robert McHeady playing the sheriff. You may recognize him, if you’re an aficionado of low-budget Canadian horror, as the sheriff from Cannibal Girls (credited as “Bob McHeady” in that film). I guess he was being typecast.
*. Check out the slide Harlon Kootz’s station wagon does in the mud when it arrives at Ezra’s farm at the end. It must go for nearly twenty feet after the wheels stop turning.
*. The virtues of a low budget. It’s worth remembering that for all its reputation, Texas Chain Saw Massacre is not a gory film. They couldn’t afford the effects. Much more was achieved by implication. In this movie, despite the presence of a young Tom Savini working as an assistant, the gore isn’t particularly realistic or effective. One scene, of Ezra scooping an eye and the brains out of a decapitated head with a spoon, was deleted for the American release. Horror purists decry this censorship, but I think it makes the film better. The gore in this scene is over the top and unconvincing, and adds absolutely nothing to the feeling of perversity and dread that’s been building.
*. When the movie becomes more serious it is quite effective. In particular, Ezra’s hunting of “pretty Sally Mae” has the same sort of grim cruelty as the end of Texas Chain Saw with Marilyn Burns stumbling and crawling away from her tormentors.
*. There are also a couple of directorial flourishes that work quite well. Shooting the widow through the pillow so that the feathers from it cloud the portrait of her former husband (actually Alan Ormsby) is a nice touch. And there’s a terrific 360-degree pan around Ezra’s room where we hear his mother talking to him while he’s in bed, and then when we come back to him we realize he’s talking to himself in his mother’s voice. That’s creepy and revealing.
*. So, as I began by saying, it’s not a great movie. But it was closer to the true Gein story than its more famous fellows, and has several genuinely harrowing moments. It also deserves to be recognized for the dirty realism of its rural setting, which it evokes almost as well as the farmhouse in Texas Chain Saw. It’s a movie that really should be better known, at least among fans of raw American gothic.


House (1977)


*. This movie’s reputation is that of a freak show, something impossible to categorize. In his brief Criterion video essay Ti West, echoing the thoughts and feelings of many, refers to it as “one of the most, if not the most original films I’d seen, ever.” And yet . . .
*. It’s actually a very simple and traditional ghost or haunted-house story. Even the cat as witch’s familiar is as much a commonplace in Japan as it has long been in the West. What sets it apart, the only thing that sets its apart, is its visual texture. Put another way, ff you just read the screenplay you might not think you were in for anything more than a genre film with a couple of admittedly odd, but minor, twists. The presentation is what takes it into another dimension.


*. Though even here I’m not sure it’s all that groundbreaking. A film like Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell came out nearly ten years earlier and was just as weird and over the top in its own way. Japanese popular culture has always had a thing for the bizarre.
*. It’s an odd film with an odd pre-history. The studio (Toho) wanted a blockbuster like Jaws, and were thrilled by Nobuhiko Obayashi’s script despite the fact that (a) none of their directors wanted any part of it, seeing it as ludicrous or beneath them, and (b) it wasn’t anything like Jaws. That’s a strange disconnect.
*. Then when the studio couldn’t go into production right away Obayashi campaigned for the project by getting the ball rolling in other media. The story appeared in both comic book (manga) and novel form, then as a serial radio drama, and the original music was released on a sound track album, all before they even started filming. This was, of course, a great way for building buzz but I can’t think of any other screenplay having this much development before going into production.


*. The visuals stand out for being both very weird and very bad, or at least crude. This was, however, at least somewhat intentional. Obayashi wanted the special effects to seem childish and unrealistic so as to draw attention to their artificiality.




*. Why? Obviously if the goal had been to create a suspenseful or thrilling horror film then such an approach is self-defeating. There’s nothing at all scary going on here. So I take it the intention was to turn it all into a joke or parody. At one point one of the girls says that being trapped in the house is like being in a horror movie, but adds that she means an old, “out-of-date” horror movie. So everybody in the film is aware of the conventions.
*. It’s not a large bag of tricks. The iris effect gets used quite a lot, as well as some crazy animation effects. Obayashi certainly had an incredible imagination, but I question his technical proficiency.
*. Beyond this slapstick send-up of the genre I’m not sure if there’s much going on. The main theme that’s been identified is that of the girls coming of age. In this sense it reminds me all very much of Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), with the girls from the school, buzzing with budding sexuality, disappearing on a group outing. In both cases sexual maturity is mysteriously avoided: the girls disappear precisely before they can come of age. They become a lost generation as they skip being women entirely.


*. Is there much more to say? It’s a fun film, with all the boldness, irreverence, and energy you’d expect from such a youthful and relatively inexperienced production. And yet for all its reputation it finally strikes me as a rather weightless film, a nutty bit of ’70s pop culture that spins like a cat trying to catch its own tail.


Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell (1968)


*. When it comes to enjoying grade-D level camp, too much emphasis is given to low budgets and poor performances, and not enough to crappy dialogue.
*. Admittedly, I watched this movie with subtitles. So maybe something was being lost, or corrupted, in translation. I find it hard to believe that in the scramble for the exit from the airplane Mr. Mano actually says to the co-pilot Sugisaka “I don’t want to die! You die instead!” Even so, the few English lines delivered by Mrs. Neal are bad enough to make me think that the Japanese dialogue is perhaps no better.


*. An appreciation of wild, over-the-top, and downright stupid dialogue is essential for enjoying this movie. One wants to quote so much of it. I particularly love the psychologist warning of how the plane crash has created “a fascinating scenario for a psychiatrist to ponder” because it will let egos run wild and turn people into beasts!


*. Adding to the hilarity of the lines and the hamminess of their delivery is the way so many of the characters lose their shit at the drop of a hat. The politician Mr. Mano seems to be the only one who gets thirsty (after Mrs. Neal has used up all the water on the plane to wash her hands), but his DTs come and go. Even without the aid of booze, however, people routinely go crazy over nothing.
*. Why does Tokuyasu smash the radio as soon as he hears that the search for plane survivors has (somewhat prematurely) been given up? Why does the radical bomber (with a thing for surrealist painting) become unhinged and attack the psychiatrist for eliciting the stewardess’s story? I guess Mrs. Neal has some reason for freaking out over Hideo Ko’s cleft face (her dead husband had been wounded in the face too, when napalm blew up in it), but even the fellow passengers are mystified by her hysterics. When one of them asks “What’s the foreign broad so worked up about?” they are told that her husband had had his face ripped open “like a pomegranate” by napalm. This is surely a poetic embellishment (how the hell would Sugisaka know this anyway?), but it’s not out of keeping with other such moments in the film.


*. We’re over ten minutes in before we get the credits. This isn’t too extreme, but the movie is only 84 minutes long, which makes it seem exceptional.
*. The action is very cheap, but in a fun sort of way. When the original Gokeman is doused in fuel and set on fire, we only see flames leaping up in the front of the screen. It’s obvious he isn’t burning. When the next Gokeman is swept away by the avalanche the same “trick” is used and we don’t even see him being struck by a fake rock. Meanwhile, when the vampire is shown feeding on his victims’ necks we never see any blood, and indeed in one of these scenes it’s clear that his mouth isn’t even touching his victim.


*. The plane crash looks silly, but the wrecked plane is actually a pretty realistic mock up. I also love the whole premise of the small, eclectic group stranded and having to use the plane’s fuselage as a kind of fort.


*. For all its obviousnes, I’m still not sure what the anti-war message is, beyond the fact that war makes people miserable (as Mrs. Neal so eloquently puts it). What does the atomic bomb, or Vietnam, have to do with the invasion of the Gokemidoro? Does it make us seem weak, or more worthy of extermination? We are told at one point that “our senseless wars have given extraterrestrials an irresistible opportunity to invade our planet,” but if that were the case why wouldn’t they have invaded right after World War 2, or some earlier time?
*. There’s something delightful in the psychadelic visuals, absurd script, and whacky, almost improvisational plot. Is it ever sorted out who the political assassin was? What was that acid doing in the suitcase? Did the bomber have a cause, or was he just someone who wanted to stir up some trouble? Did the plane really go down just a short walk from a big city, and nobody could find it?


*. Or was everybody on Earth already dead? I love the apocalyptic ending, though again I can’t see where it makes any sense. Who killed all the people when the invasion fleet hasn’t arrived yet? Why are some corpses frozen in place (even standing), while others are turned to skeletons and others crumble to dust?
*. This is a crazy movie. And yet it stays just this side of the kind of all-out bonkers sensibility found in some Japanese cinema, a madness that I find alienating. As random as this movie is, it does manage to maintain some coherence. Given the apparent sincerity of the anti-war message I don’t want to say that we’re not meant to take any of it seriously. But still, you have to laugh.