Monthly Archives: July 2016

Misery (1990)


*. The theatrical release poster for Misery is amazing. Three names get top billing: Rob Reiner, Stephen King, and . . . William Goldman.
*. Now admittedly William Goldman may be the most famous screenwriter of all time, and a living legend, but his appearance here is surprising. I don’t think he’s a name that puts bums in seats.
*. Still, his name above the title does highlight just how much this is not Stephen King’s Misery.
*. I don’t mean to describe all the changes, big and small, that have been made to the plot. Those are obvious enough. To take just a few examples, in the book Annie cuts Paul’s foot off (and a thumb for good measure), she doesn’t break his ankles. In the book there is no character of Buster (Richard Farnsworth) the olde-tyme sheriff, much less his wife (Frances Sternhagen). In the movie nothing is made of Paul’s addiction to painkillers. These are all significant changes, but there are two larger, tonal differences I want to focus on.
*. In the first place, Misery the film is a comedy. A black comedy to be sure, but still a funny movie. That line where Annie wants to celebrate by breaking out the Liberace records isn’t in the book. And the endless reaction shots of Paul trying to keep a blank, straight face while Annie takes flight are typical of a whole style of comedy that’s become very popular (think of the cutaways to Jim watching Michael Scott on The Office).
*. The second change, relating to the first, is the film’s treatment of Annie. In the book, Annie is an ogre. She smells foul, and looks worse (at one point King even compares her to Piltdown Man). She is also sadistic and gratuitously cruel, in a way that she isn’t in the film.
*. Part of this is down to the inevitable process of prettying-up that comes with making a movie. It may be that the sweet-faced Kathy Bates was as close to an ogre as anyone in Hollywood could imagine. The movie Annie even admits that she’s “not a movie-star type,” but she’s far from hard to look at. Being killed by the pig doorstopper fits with the earlier business of having her oink like a pig, but this almost casual harshness sounds a false note. That’s not Kathy Bates.
*. The fact that Annie’s actually kind of pretty in a rustic way lets Reiner play up the romantic/sexual angle more than it is in the book. We know that the cross Annie has on her necklace lies on top of a breast that is a hotbed of repression. We nod our heads when we see her watching The Dating Game and eating up all those Misery nurse-novels. Maybe she doesn’t want to fuck Paul, but she does want him to write some good porn for her.
*. By the way, I don’t recall that cross being mentioned in the novel. Annie does invoke God on occasion and says she receives guidance from him (as she does in the movie) but His presence is less overt. Here, however, you’re made to notice that golden cross in nearly every shot of Annie, the way it glitters out of her drab wardrobe. Is there any significance to the fact that we don’t see it when she’s all dressed up for her candlelit dinner with Paul?


*. I guess what I’m implying here is Hollywood’s inclination to treat faith itself as a kind of mental illness, though to be fair King’s novels are full of shots taken at crazed fundamentalists. I don’t say this from the perspective of an offended believer (I’m not), but just as a general observation.
*. Annie also occupies an uncertain no-man’s-land of psycho women in film. She’s not a psycho-biddy of the Grande Dame Guignol school, nor a honey trap or sexual predator of the Play Misty for Me or Fatal Attraction variety, but a bit of both. She’s a mommy taking care of her baby boy, but one who is full of sexual yearnings under all those layers of heavy winter clothes. You can certainly see elements of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? here, with Caan as Joan Collins, but there are also pieces that are recurring elements in the psycho-succubus genre.
*. The leads are all good, and Caan (who was way down the list of choices to play Paul) is underrated I think, playing against type (the tough guy as invalid).
*. As for the direction, it seems mostly functional to me. Roger Ebert’s notice is, I think, right: “It is a good story, a natural, and it grabs us. But just as there is almost no way to screw it up, so there’s hardly any way to bring it above a certain level of inspiration. Many competent directors could have done what Reiner does here, and perhaps many other actors could have done what Caan does, although the Kathy Bates performance is trickier and more special. The result is good craftsmanship, and a movie that works. It does not illuminate, challenge or inspire, but it works.”
*. So yes, the suspense is well advanced. When things get crazy there are some Dutch tilts and thunder and lightning thrown in for good measure. The inclusion of Buster and his wife helps beat the cabin fever or letting the whole thing turn into a horror version of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. As mentioned, none of that is in the book, though Buster’s end reminded me of nothing so much as the similar rescue fail by Scatman Crothers in The Shining.
*. Good use is made of a couple of repetitive shots. In the first place we have all the giant close-ups of tiny but significant items: bobby pins, matches, pills, porcelain curios. This is an effective way of bringing home to us Paul’s incredible shrinking world.
*. The other repeated shot is that of Annie’s head looming like a storm cloud just slightly above us, imperiously holding instruments of torture and control like Zeus clenching a thunderbolt. Shots like this give the “goddess” impression of Annie that King made a major motif in the novel.




*. All of these little touches work. This is a small movie in more ways than just the restricted set, but it’s the kind of story that I think has always shown King at his best. We feel like we’re watching a well-made play, with everything in its right place. For example, I love the dressing and arrangement of that overhead tableau shot near the end showing the foot of the bed the open door, the broken glass of champagne, the pile of the burned manuscript, and Annie lying by the typewriter. Those are all stage marks.
*. Finally, I can’t help but think there’s something elegiac in all of this. It’s 1990 and we are on the cusp of the digital revolution, still living in an analog media landscape. Wordsmith Paul Sheldon, however much a hack, is the last of a dying breed, banging away on his clunky manual typewriter (the kind that I first learned to type on). In his secluded mountain cabin he is living a dark parody of the romantic myth of the solitary artist shivering in a garret, dangerously isolated from the madding crowd.
*. And as for Annie, well, isn’t it nice to have a reader who cares? Annie isn’t one of those social-media friends who “likes” Paul in an ethereal way. I’m afraid that she’s the real deal.


Fatal Attraction (1987)


*. I remember this film being a phenomenon at the time it came out, but had completely forgotten how well received it had been critically. It was up for six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress. It didn’t win any, but that’s still kind of impressive.
*. My recollection was that it was just a piece of slick trash that struck a cultural nerve. Seeing it again for the first time in a long while I realize it’s better than that.
*. I thought it would have dated a lot worse and was impressed by how fresh it seemed. About the only thing that really dates it is Glen Close’s hair. But as awful as this is, it’s worth noting that it was widely remarked upon even at the time of the film’s release. It’s not just one of those objects that appears larger in your rear-view mirror.
*. On the DVD commentary director Adrian Lyne says he worried about the hair, thinking it was over the top and a mistake (and this was the eighties, the decade of big hair!). He even calls it a “Medusa thing,” while in his essay on the film David Thomson references Bride of Frankenstein (I would have thought it was closer to that of Magenta in Rocky Horror Picture Show).
*. Despite his concerns, however, Lyne says that when the critics fixated on the hair he figured it was something that had worked. I’m not sure the attention it received signified approval, and overall I think the hair was, and is, a distraction. However, it has become the film’s signature, even more than the car’s acid bath and the bunny boiling in the pot.
*. The basic idea owes much to Play Misty for Me, but more directly is an expansion of a short British film named Diversion (1979). James Dearden wrote and directed Diversion and got a screenplay credit for Fatal Attraction. He would also go on to write the stage adaptation (yes, they put Fatal Attraction on stage).
*. Diversion is a much quieter film, and one that seems all the more sinister, at least to me, for being less overwrought. It presents the same basic situation and a couple of scenes from the middle of the movie are redone quite faithfully. What I find bizarre are reports that Paramount, when it bought the rights to it, tried to destroy every print. And perhaps they did. I read somewhere that Dearden himself still has the last one.
*. I watched Diversion online in the form of a very bad tape job from an old broadcast on the A&E network. It’s really very good and well worth watching, and I can’t for the life of me understand why Paramount would do something like this, if they in fact did. It’s not as though the two films were ever in competition. Diversion is only forty minutes long and had been released nearly ten years earlier. Nor are there any spoilers in the earlier film, as Diversion ends just at the point where the man’s wife returns home from her trip. The ending of Fatal Attraction is all original material. So why try to stick Diversion down a memory hole?


*. Without trying to oversell it, Fatal Attraction has a bit of the feel of classical tragedy. We are dealing with an archetypal situation that proceeds with grim ineluctability. We know Dan is making a mistake hooking up with Alex. Hell, Dan probably knows it too. We know this will all end in blood and tears. But we have to go through it so that the family can be made stronger (though, on this final point, Lyne disagrees, saying that the family has been irreparably damaged and the film’s final shot is “ironic”).
*. I think it’s the threatened-family angle that plays the most into the anti-feminist message. Alex is the home-wrecker, and she is not just attacking a man or male privilege but another woman (and the woman’s daughter). This is also in keeping with an underlying theme in a lot of horror from the 1980s. From the novels of Stephen King to the films of Wes Craven what we see time and again is the family under threat. It was a time of widespread anxiety over this as people began showing concern over the fallout from the no-fault divorce revolution.
*. For other critics the anti-feminist line was more obvious and direct. Pauline Kael: “she [Alex] parrots the aggressively angry, self-righteous statements that have become commonplaces of feminist fiction, and they’re so inappropriate to the circumstances that they’re proof she’s loco. They’re also the director Adrian Lyne’s and the screenwriter James Dearden’s hostile version of feminism. The film is about men seeing women as witches, and the way the facts are presented here, the woman is a witch.” Not just the facts, Pauline, but the hair.


*. Given all this I think it really helps that Glenn Close felt so much sympathy for the character of Alex Forrest. In interviews she made the claim that she felt Alex had been a victim of abuse “long before the story begins” and she was strongly opposed to re-shooting the ending to make Alex appear more of a psychopath. One can see her point, but the original ending was far too anticlimactic to work. This is a classical tragedy, and it needs a bloody catharsis, a sacrificial figure dressed in a virginal white gown to be offered up to the household gods.
*. On the commentary track, while discussing the new ending, Lyne remembers the bit about Alex rising from the bathtub being from “a Clouzot movie” but he can’t remember the name of it. Really? He doesn’t sound like he’s joking, but how could he not know?
*. It’s also a bit weird that Lyne talks a lot about the swinging light in the scene where Dan comes to Alex’s apartment and nearly kill her, but doesn’t mention Psycho. Was Psycho the first thriller to use a swinging ceiling light and its crazy alternation of light and dark to accent a climactic horror scene? It’s become a cliché now, but somebody must have done it first.
*. There aren’t that many movies that are both so much of their time and yet universal as well. For whatever reason, Fatal Attraction manages this. There have been a number of very good “psycho lover” films, but this is the one that has set the standard for the genre. Despite its cult following, and a great performance by Tuesday Weld, Pretty Poison remains largely unknown. Ditto for Play Misty for Me, even though Jessica Walter is great in that too. I strongly suspect few people will remember Amazing Amy from Gone Girl ten years from now, much less thirty. That film already seems slow and conventional. It’s Alex Forrest who remains a clear and present danger. There’s no putting her to rest.


Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1972)


*. A real struggle just to finish this one.
*. I thought from the title — which is generic for this run of films but just a little extra silly with the childlike rhyme — that it was going to be more of a horror comedy. It has aspirations in this direction, but in the end I think it misfires badly and I couldn’t sort the tone of it out.
*. The sticking point is how we’re supposed to view Auntie Roo at the end. Is she a wicked witch, intent on killing the two kids (or at least Christopher)? Or is she just a dotty old lady, made mad by her loss, who is only trying to keep her act together and wants to cook the children a holiday pig? In this latter reading, Christopher becomes the little monster, stealing the poor old lady’s jewels and then burning her alive in her house.
*. I tend toward that latter reading, though I honestly can’t say whether this was what was intended.
*. On the basis of the title alone it’s a movie that’s usually lumped in together with other Grande Dame Guignol films, and there are similarities, starting with the older woman haunted by a past crime (or tragedy) and even including the awful musical number, like the “Animal Crackers” song in What’s the Matter with Helen? or the “Sending a Letter to Daddy” in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
*. But it doesn’t have quite the same feel as those other films. It’s never scary, shocking, or even particularly suspenseful. In part this is due to the boring direction (witness the whole sequence in the magician’s storage shed), and also because we sympathize so much with Winters and because the pre-credit reveal gives so much away. We already know the worst about Auntie Roo before the movie properly gets started. And aside from that corpse in the cradle she’s a decent, even vulnerable person, hosting Christmas parties for the orphans and being preyed upon by unscrupulous house staff.
*. Instead of the typically convoluted hag horror plot courtesy of Henry Farrell there’s an attempt to do an update of the Hansel and Gretel tale, though if my reading of Christopher is right then he is just using this as a way of framing his own narrative for Katy’s consumption. There’s little objective parallel to Hansel and Gretel (though the house does look a bit gingerbread-y), but there is in Christopher’s mind and he’s the one who survives to tell the tale.
*. Aside from Winters the cast has a couple of other interesting faces. Ralph Richardson is superfluous as a phoney spiritualist and Mark Lester, Oliver Twist himself, is back as another plucky (perhaps too plucky) orphan boy. The direction is handled by Curtis Harrington, who also did What’s the Matter with Helen? Fans of cheap, exploitation camp seem to enjoy it, but I thought it was a struggle to sit through once.

Play Misty for Me (1971)


*. We begin with an aerial shot of Dave Garver’s spectacular home and immediately you have to wonder. Did Clint Eastwood really think a late-night DJ at a tiny local radio station would be able to afford an oceanfront property like that? Or were such things possible in 1971? I doubt it, but you never know.
*. Yes, it was 1971, a time when a well-dressed ladies man could have a whole wardrobe full of nothing but golf pants and Dave Garver hasn’t seen Fatal Attraction yet. But he does seem to understand the script, which is very much the same script, complete with a reference to Madame Butterfly and a botched suicide attempt.
*. By later standards, Dave seems a little too understanding of Evelyn’s obvious madness. Perhaps it’s just that men were more in control. I suppose the underlying social anxiety behind such stories is the (perceived) falling and rising fortunes of men and women. If we plot these threatened-male films on a chart we can see ascending and descending gender arcs. From Evelyn Draper, a mental basket case, to Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction (who is at least together enough to have a job), through the ball-breaking Demi Moore in Disclosure and ankle-busting Annie in Misery (note how Evelyn here is Dave’s “number-one fan”), to the alpha-psychopath Amy in Gone Girl who gets it all and gets to have it on her own terms. You’ve come a long way, baby!
*. As the women have grown in efficiency and menace, the men have lost ground. Clint is Dirty Harry, after all, a film released the same year as this one. He can handle himself and defend his woman. Michael Douglas’s masculinity is more in question, and tellingly it’s his wife who has to administer the coup de grâce to Glenn Close. Finally (or at least most recently, we may still have a way to go) poor Ben Affleck is just a pathetic doofus who is putty in Amy’s hands, to be molded like a block of wet clay.
*. Kim Newman thought the big difference between this film and Fatal Attraction was that in the former the man is a playboy and in the latter he’s a caring family man. This means that Clint has to be taught a lesson about using women while Douglas is more sympathetic. I’m not sure this means the message of Play Misty for Me is “turned inside out” by Fatal Attraction. They seem more like points on the arc I’ve described. Though what Newman says does add another dimension. Certainly by the time we get to Gone Girl we’ve found something rotten at the heart of American “family values.”
*. Getting back to the opening aerial shots, I wonder who was the first to make use of that “predator’s eye in the sky” motif in a thriller/horror film. Of course the opening of The Shining immediately comes to mind, but if you start looking for it you’ll see it in countless horror films from the 1980s on. The idea being suggested is of fate looming over the victim (invariably the person or people in the car). I don’t mean who did the first aerial car shot — I remember They Live By Night (1948) having one of those, and it probably wasn’t the first, but that was a different context. I mean the first aerial shot of a car being driven by someone we know is in trouble.
*. What an odd walk Clint Eastwood has. Look at him leaving the bar the time when Evelyn is waiting for him in his car. He seems to have an unnatural curve to his spine, but this is the only film I’ve really noticed it in.
*. This was Eastwood’s debut as director and I think he handles most of it well, especially considering the fact that it was filmed on location with a very low budget (which limits a lot of what a director can do). The violence explodes in startling ways. There’s a nice use of the mirror at the back of the bar in the scene where we’re first introduced to Evelyn, drawing out her approach to Dave by basically showing the same movement to us twice.


*. There is, however, one major issue that has been the focus of a lot of criticism: the strange “intermission” in the final part of the film where we see Dave and Tobie (Donna Mills) making love in various romantic locations and then taking in the Monterey Pop Festival.
*. Roger Ebert: “There is no wasted energy in Play Misty for Me. Everything contributes to the accumulation of terror, until even the ordinary, daytime scenes seem to have unspeakable things lurking beneath them.” This is not quite the reaction I had. I thought these scenes were pure filler.
*. Take that montage of Tobie and Dave walking on the beach, through the woods, getting naked in a waterfall, making love in the woods, and then kissing by a spectacular sunset, all to the soothing strains of Roberta Flack singing “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” Where are the “unspeakable things lurking beneath” these images? Are they rolling around in Poison Ivy?
*. Some people, however, appreciate the romance. Here’s Donna Mills: “He [Eastwood] worked very hard on that montage . . . I thought it was one of the most beautiful pieces of film I’d ever seen.” Hm. She goes on: “At the time, strangely enough, a lot of people didn’t like it. They felt that it was intrusive.” I can’t imagine.
*. Well, here’s Ebert again: “Eastwood succeeds in filming the first Semi-Obligatory Lyrical Interlude that works. The Semi-OLI, you’ll recall, is the scene where the boy and girl walk in the meadow and there’s a hit song on the sound track. In Eastwood’s movie, he walks in the meadow with the girl, but the scene has been prepared so carefully that the meadow looks ominous. The grass looks muddy, the shadows are deep, the sky is gray, and there is a chill in the air. The whole visual style of the movie is strangely threatening.” Really, Roger? It just looks like postcard or motivational-poster material to me.
*. Love it or hate, the Semi-OLI is followed up by the Monterey Pop sequence, which has a similar lack of narrative or thematic purpose. Cut both these sequences out and what has the film lost? Nothing. And by placing them together they don’t even work as a break in the film’s pacing. Instead, things just come to a stop. I really think they were both a mistake, at least as they’re presented here. At the very least they needed a break between them to show us what Evelyn was up to in the meantime.
*. I wonder (I’m always wondering odd things) what would have happened if Dave had gone along with Evelyn and let himself be smothered. Could they have lived happily ever after? No, I don’t think so. She would have had him stuffed and kept him around like one of those giant plush animals.
*. You have to love the way Dave catches on to the clue in Evelyn’s quoting the Poe poem “Annabel Lee” to him. And he just happens to have a volume of Poe’s collected works in the radio studio! Whatever happened to bookish, literate action heroes?
*. But Dave’s fondness for poetry also raises a question. At the beginning of the film Dave begins his radio show by reading “a little verse,” consisting of the following lines: “Men have destroyed the roads of wonder, and their cities squat like black toads. In the orchards of life nothing is clean or real, or as a girl, naked to love or be a man with.” What is he quoting from? I haven’t been able to find any source. Was it just something they made up for the movie?
*. There’s a disjunction between the mellow sounds that Dave plays, and which make up most of the soundtrack for the film, and the tense material. I think that it would have been more effective if there’d been a suspenseful score instead of the laid-back romantic tunes that are always playing.
*. I like this movie, despite it being crude and dated in many ways (I mean, just dig the lettering for those groovy opening credits!). What stands out most is Evelyn Draper, very well played by Jessica Walter. Evelyn was something different: a new kind of femme fatale for the times. She’s a far more compelling character than Dave: someone caught between playing different roles  that she can’t keep straight in her head (the nurturing mother; the slutty lover, both dominant and submissive). This has led to all sorts of arguments over whether the film is misogynistic.
*. I think it might be, though only as part of a simpler conservative message. The old order was breaking down, leaving wreckage in its wake. The psycho-bitch from hell would go on to have a long, prosperous life in popular film, but in movies that were more concerned with psychopathologies. Evelyn is a head case, to be sure, but she’s also representative of a larger cultural breakdown. Say what you will about Eastwood’s point of view on this breakdown, he at least put it in play. As the genre developed the politics would change, but the song would remain the same.


What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971)


*. Success breeds imitation. Genre is formula. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was a surprising hit, both commercially and critically. It led to Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte and a whole spate of very similar films that go by different labels: hagsploitation, Grande Dame Guignol, hag horror, or psychobiddy.
*. What impresses me is that such a sub-sub-genre had as much traction and lasted as long as it did. Though the first spate of slasher films barely stuck around any longer, the level of production for those was much higher.
*. The basic elements of Grande Dame Guignol are all present and accounted for in What’s the Matter with Helen?, which is no surprise given that it was developed out of an original screenplay by Henry Farrell who also wrote the novel What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and the screenplay for Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte (which was in turn based on a story he also wrote). This material was his only stock-in-trade.
*. What are the basic elements? A couple of big-name Hollywood stars, now past their prime, play women haunted to the point of mental breakdown by a mysterious crime (or crimes) in their past. The pair are bound together in a toxic relationship and as the barometer rises there will be blood. For some reason a scene where there is difficulty disposing of a body is also a staple. At the end there is a revelation concerning the historical back story which sends one of the women over the edge into madness and/or death.
*. It’s material that sits just on the edge of camp, which seems to be the main audience draw for these movies today. That’s a historical judgment, but one it’s hard to argue with in the case of this film. It has that tacky, small-screen, studio-bound look to it that we associate with camp, and the cast includes campy figures like Dennis Weaver’s Tex (or Linc, to give him his proper name). Linc must be a billionaire in the oil bidness but for a good time he takes Adelle out to play minigolf. I loved it. But then there is the awful (and also very campy) Kiddiestar Revue complete with two full musical numbers featuring little girls glammed up like drag queens singing “Animal Crackers” and “Nasty Man.” I found this part hard to watch.
*. Shelley Winters plays Helen: yet another hard put-upon, slightly dim, whiny dishrag role for her filmography. I guess Helen is camp as well, being Debbie Reynold’s overweight “partner” (a lesbian subtext was edited out of the final cut) who finds comfort in bon-bons, rabbits and listening to Christian radio broadcasts from the Church of Agnes Moorehead (another typecast actress, if ever there was one).
*. There is, I think, too much going on, too much information that doesn’t add anything to the film. The whole Leopold and Loeb act that gets the ball rolling is totally pointless. Unless, that is, we are meant to take seriously the bizarre psychological analysis made by Helen wherein she seeks to explain the murder by saying that the victim was a surrogate for the boys killing their mothers. Also irrelevant is Helen’s memory of the death of her husband, who is run over by a disc (not a plough, as she calls it). Then there’s an elocution instructor (Micheál MacLiammóir) who is made out to be quite a sinister type but who ultimately just disappears. And I wasn’t sure what was going on with the guy who was hunting Adelle and Helen down. Did he actually write a letter about a bogus inheritance or was Adelle just making that up?
*. I don’t think it’s a very good or even very interesting film. Reynolds and Winters manage to keep it professional, but it’s a rather cheap and stupid movie all around, one of the last gasps of a fad that never really came back after its initial run. Don’t we have any Hollywood hags to exploit any more? Or would that be ageist and sexist?
*. Nuts to that. If you believe that horror is all about breaking taboos then we need to bring the biddies back.


Pretty Poison (1968)


*. Poor Tony Perkins. Once a psycho, always a psycho. At least until a bigger psycho comes along.
*. He knew he was going to be typecast forever after Psycho. He even plays these characters, like Dennis Pitt here or Norman Bates again in Psycho II, where he’s trying to reform himself after being released from the loony bin, but to no avail. The crazy shit just keeps dragging him back in.
*. And what an odd body he has. Shoulders like the deck of an aircraft carrier, narrow waist, flat ass, and when we see him without his shirt on he’s sporting a pair of well-developed man boobs. These parts don’t even come close to adding up.
*. But we’re on Dennis Pitt’s side. He seems odd, but harmless. Still, we’re concerned throughout the first part of this film. What did he do to get stuck in a reformatory? Why does he hang out watching high school girls in the park? Sue Ann needs to be careful. Norman Bates seemed innocent too.
*. I keep talking about Psycho, but I think it’s a film that’s being used here. Audiences would have been suspicious of Anthony Perkins because of Norman Bates. That he isn’t Norman Bates is made abundantly clear when he can’t dispose of the body in the trunk of the car. It’s a psycho-fail. That was Norman’s specialty.


*. Noel Black. I saw the name come up and immediately wondered “Who the hell is Noel Black?” After doing some research I found he had a shining debut at Cannes with the short film Skaterdater, then did this movie, after which he went on to a long career in television. I’ve actually seen Skaterdater. It was something of a rite of passage for schoolkids of my generation, being a sweetly innocent-romantic coming-of-age tale. I had no idea the same guy directed this movie, but when you think about it . . .
*. Apparently Weld didn’t like Black at all and considered this one of her worst performances. In fact, it may be her best. It’s interesting how that sometimes happens. Vincent Price didn’t like working with Michael Reeves on Witchfinder General either (a film that came out the same year as Pretty Poison), but at least he could recognize after the fact that it was one of the best things he ever did.
*. I don’t think Pretty Poison is a complicated movie. In Pauline Kael’s judgment it is “a good little movie, and I use ‘little’ not in a pejorative sense but as a form of protection and also a term of affection.” This seems about right to me.
*. In could also be considered a parable. The setting is an idyllic America. Sue Ann even lives on Fresh Air Lane. I’m reminded of Blue Velvet‘s Lumberton, another mill town that seems too pure to be true, and is.
*. The leitmotifs and symbolism are all pretty obvious. There’s the pollution the chemical company is dumping in the river. There’s the rhyming of the marching girls in their red uniforms with the line of red bottles on the production line. There’s all Dennis’s talk of being under pressure and feeling ripe and ready to burst, and the pressure explosions that go off at the diner and the factory. You notice this because you’re meant to notice it, and it makes you nod your head.
*. The story isn’t complicated either. It’s basically a noir set-up, with Sue Ann as the femme fatale. As I’ve had occasion to observe before (see my notes on Where Danger Lives), it’s always a bad sign in noir when a woman is doing the driving and the man is riding shotgun. It invariably means she’s taking him somewhere he doesn’t want to go, but he’s too weak or stupid to stop her.
*. I’m putting Sue Ann’s genealogy into play because she’s such an intense character it’s easy to think of her as something new. She isn’t. Danny Peary even makes a terrific observation about how she’s really the little girl from The Bad Seed all grown up.
*. As I’ve said, Pretty Poison isn’t a complicated film. Sue Ann is a sexual animal. The illicit makes her horny. When she kills the watchman she does so by hiking up her skirts and riding him in an obviously sexual manner. And the way she licks her lips when she kills her mother is hard to mistake. But if there is one abiding point of debate about this movie it’s with regard to just how Machiavellian she is.


*. As Peary puts it: “Sue Ann is a strange character. It isn’t exactly clear when she stops believing that she is helping Dennis with CIA activities or if she believes his story in the first place.” This is the question.
*. Peter Rainer tries to have it both ways: “Particularly on a second viewing of the film, it’s clear that Sue Ann is on to Dennis very early. He’s the patsy she has been looking for to eliminate her harpy mother (Beverly Garland). Sue Ann is like Barbara Stanwyck’s black widow from Double Indemnity (1944) transplanted into the environs of Norman Rockwell. But she is not as overly calculating as the standard noir vamp, and this is, finally, the most disturbing thing about her. She’s a sun-kissed psychotic with a killer instinct so primordial it’s practically unconscious with her. Her murders are like dream walks.”
*. I don’t buy all of this. I agree that it’s clear Sue Ann has Dennis figured as a mark right from the beginning. Dennis is obviously “a jerk, a loser with a capital ‘L'” (Peary), and as he learns (or perhaps it is only facing up to what he has always known), she is far more worldly and experienced than he is. So I don’t think there’s anything unconscious about Sue Ann’s machinations. She is, however, something pure and natural, the type of American girl that gave Freud nightmares: dominant, sexually precocious and threatening.
*. In fact, I think she’s the kind of American woman that frightens American men. She’s jailbait, and more. It’s a nightmare that hasn’t lessened in fifty years. The finale in the police station, with the media and the police fawning over the victimized Sue Ann (“Here’s your Pepsi, sweetheart”) must have been in the mind of David Fincher when he filmed the end of Gone Girl. And I wouldn’t be surprised if Gus Van Sant had it in mind while working on To Die For too.
*. The movie was a one-off and dead end. Noel Black pretty much disappeared. Perkins and Weld never did anything else as good, and they were both young (she was 25 and he was 36). Dying at the box office will do that to you.
*. And why did it die? Well, the studio was partly to blame. But more than that, by making Sue Ann the All-American sweetheart the movie becomes a very powerful rejection of American values. Sue Ann doesn’t represent the dark underbelly of American life, some id-like force in need of control, but rather a rottenness on the surface. A desire for the beautiful things in life doesn’t lead us to do evil; the beautiful things themselves are evil, and they will win in the end. Thinking otherwise is Dennis’s undoing. He is, as Sue Ann explains at the end, the real psychopath.


What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)


*. Whenever I return to it, I keep expecting this movie to be duller than it is. It seems like it should be much too long, with the pre-credit material alone taking over ten minutes of screen time. Much of this is irrelevant, and indeed I can’t understand the point of the first part, with the child (Jane?) crying at the jack-in-the-box, at all.
*. And yet once the prologue is out of the way I enjoy nearly every minute of it, even after countless viewings. Not, I should say, because of any camp value. Other camp classics, like Valley of the Dolls or Mommie Dearest, only have their moments. But What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? never loses its grip.
*. No, what we have here is another happy accident where everything — the project, the talent, the moment — just happened to come together. I can’t think of it as a great movie, but at the same time I’m not sure how it could be improved.
*. First there’s the moment, and the moment was the advent of television. Old Hollywood is a thing of the past, and the stars of the studio system are now drunk and disabled and living on royalty cheques. Norma Desmond at least lived in a mansion and showed her old movies in a home theatre. Here Blanche can only watch Sadie McKee (1934) on a little TV set in her room, where it plays between dog food commercials. The pictures did get small, and so did the stars.


*. Psycho had shown the way, being shot in black and white on a shoestring budget with Hitch’s television unit. This movie has been described as Sunset Boulevard meets Psycho and that’s an obvious claim to make for lots of reasons, not least of which is how much this film looks like Psycho. It has that same small-screen, movie-of-the-week feel to it, despite its shock value. Indeed, that shock value is part of the same response to television. You couldn’t show nasty stuff like a shower murder or a dead rat on a plate on TV at the time. Of course it all seems tame now, but in Britain Baby Jane got an X rating.
*. Then there’s the talent. Yes, the tension between the two stars, who genuinely disliked each other, gives it an edge. But their physical appearance is what is most remarkable. This was anti-glam. Davis was only 56 when she made this movie, but with her frowsy wardrobe and slatternly mannerisms (listen to her dragging her feet!), her pancake make-up and tatty hair, she looks like she’s in her 70s. Booze will do that to you.


*. Davis’s appearance is striking even for the genre of hagsploitation. In the following years there would be a series of somewhat similar films, with swiftly diminishing returns. The next one up, Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte would reunite Davis with Aldrich and writer Henry Farrell (Crawford bowed out). But the Grande Dame leads would never look like this again. Other psycho-biddies would just be dotty older women. Davis’s Jane Hudson is a unique creation, then and now. A scary thought is that perhaps the nearest parallel is to be found in the documentary Grey Gardens.
*. It’s a credit to her performance that Davis makes us feel sympathy for such an unattractive character (a sympathy we feel for her even before the absurd reveal at the end). Jane really doesn’t seem to know what she’s doing half the time. And who wouldn’t relate to someone who wants to recapture a last glimmer of their glory days, even when they are now so far gone that the dream itself is grotesque.


*. Then there’s that damn buzzer! Anybody would go crazy with Blanche laying on it every time somebody comes to the door. I’d be dragging my feet too.
*. Why does Jane tell Blanche to “look at the sea” when they’re on the beach at Malibu (apparently the same location Aldrich used at the end of Kiss Me Deadly)? Do people in California refer to the Pacific as the sea? It’s not incorrect, at least by one understanding of the term, but it’s not something I would say.
*. Davis’s daughter, Barbara Merrill, plays the teenage daughter in the house next door. She was only 16. She looks like a linebacker.
*. It can’t be a coincidence that the neighbour is Mrs. Bates, can it?


*. The pacing seems off at times, making a mess of some of the suspense, but it’s a film that always looks good. The photography by Ernest Haller is excellent. Haller had often worked with Davis, and was concerned about her appearance here, especially as she is exposed to harsh lighting that may be the cruelest of all the indignities the stars undergo. Nevertheless, working within some pretty tight restrictions, Haller manages to inform the Hudson home with a full sense of space. Lots of high and low angles help. Roger Ebert thought the staircase should have been billed along with the stars, and one can feel his point. Another nod to Psycho there as well?


*. There’s something about the end of this movie that’s always bothered me. Why, when confronted with the obviously desperate and dying Blanche’s appeal for help does Edwin Flagg (Victor Buono) run away instead of doing something to help her?
*. I guess your answer will all depend on how you read Mr. Flagg and his relationship with Jane. Is he a gay man, living at home with his mom, playing the old lady as another codependent mark? Or is he actually attracted to her?


*. It’s complicated. I think he feels sympathy for her because they’re so much the same. Both are alcoholics. Both are physical wrecks. Both live in a show biz past. I love the scene where they’re getting drunk together and only want to talk about themselves, with no interest in each other’s stories.
*. There’s also an interesting point when Edwin’s mom tells him about Jane’s past. When she reveals how Jane was discovered drunk in bed with a total stranger he retorts that that’s how he was conceived. This makes it seem almost as though they’re related. They really should be living together.
*. As I’ve noted, there were a bunch of other hag horror films that followed quickly after this one, but none of them were close to being as good. Indeed, despite all the attempts at imitation, and its own obvious debts to earlier films, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? remains sui generis. That’s a big part of what keeps it fascinating. Not “fresh,” but burning with the slow smokeless fire of decay.


My Bloody Valentine (1981)


*. In his history of Canadian horror cinema They Came from Within, Caelum Vatnsdal calls My Bloody Valentine “a film that stands almost without rival as the most Canadian horror movie ever made.”
*. I really like Vatnsdal’s book, but this is a judgment that doesn’t have a lot of support. Yes, the film was shot in Sidney Mines, Nova Scotia and there are indeed a number of plugs for Moosehead Beer. The cast do seem “like genuine small-town hosers” (“hoser” being a now dated term for a Canadian provincial), and the scene where the mayor (not the police chief, as Vatnsdal writes) opens a box of chocolates to reveal a bloody heart and only grimaces may qualify as a Great Canadian Moment of underacting. But none of this strikes me as particularly illustrative of national traits or characteristics.
*. The theme, certainly, was nothing new. What we have here is yet another Halloween clone, the formula followed almost to the letter. There’s a back story involving a violent crime in the past, and a psycho killer locked up in an asylum who may be on the loose and looking to avenge the anniversary. The killer himself wears a face-concealing disguise and we get various shots from his POV, with the requisite black gloves in the foreground. And the victims are primarily horny young people, their murder a bloody coitus interruptus.
*. Instead of being a peculiarly Canadian slasher film, what sets My Bloody Valentine apart is its social setting. This is a true rarity in the genre, being a blue collar horror film. It’s not just that we’re not in high school any more, but we’re not even in a middle-class suburb. Valentine Bluffs is a company town (the mayor owns the mine) and the people we meet are workers who are going nowhere. T.J. tried to get away but has come back because, let’s face it, once in the mines you’re never out.
*. It’s a remarkable point to reflect on. For a horror film, this milieu is nearly virgin territory. The working class may be economic victims but they aren’t expected to fall prey to supernatural or psychological terrors. And even if they did, who would care? Not the audience for such films, who are unlikely to have ever seen the inside of a mine.
*. That said, I wish more had been done along these lines. Unfortunately, we’re still in high school. The mine seems to be staffed entirely by youngsters. There are no old-timers, which is odd given how it’s a union mine and those jobs typically last forever. There is a locker room and showers, and the tunnels are like hallways. Everybody is keen on going to the big dance party and making out. Adults are generic authority figures: the maternal Mabel (memorably disposed of in an industrial drier) and the Mayor and the Police Chief (cigar and pipe, respectively).
*. It might have been a classic but for the censors. There were a lot of cuts, making the unrestored version hard to follow in places. The opening murder, for example, in the theatrical release version, leaves it vague as to just how the girl is killed. We never see the point of the pick breaking through her heart tattoo.
*. If you want to see this movie I strongly recommend the restored DVD version, which isn’t perfect but is still a lot better. The kills really are quite imaginative and well rendered.
*. I love the gang’s response to the discovery that a killer is stalking them at the party: they all jump in their cars and bug out as fast as they can. Not a bad call, all things considered.
*. Even in the unrestored version I’d still rank this as one of the better slasher pics of the period. Yes, the ending is both a reach and predictable. And yes there are some eye-rolling moments (I winced at Patty’s reluctance to leave the dead Hollis). But this isn’t an idiot plot and the kids are neither stupid nor unlikeable.
*. All this and the “Ballad of Harry Warden” playing over the end credits? You could do far worse. You know you could.