Category Archives: 1970s

Duel (1971)

*. It’s hard to think of the 1970s as any kind of golden age of television. Most of the best-known shows from the period are of interest only to nostalgists today. And the movie-of-the-week format didn’t produce much that has lasted either. Duel is a real anomaly.
*. It was the ABC Movie of the Week in 1971, broadcast in a 74-minute version and then released theatrically in Europe the next year with another fifteen minutes added. What I find remarkable about this is that the added sequences (the phone call David makes to his wife, the scene with the school bus, and the business at the train crossing) don’t seem at all like padding. They actually make the movie better and I couldn’t imagine it without them.
*. To take the most obvious point, it’s the phone call to his wife that introduces the theme of David Mann (yes, that’s his name) having to prove his manhood in the upcoming duel. Dennis Weaver wouldn’t have struck me as the most obvious Caspar Milquetoast figure but apparently Spielberg had his role in Touch of Evil in mind, and so he plays the wimp who gets sand kicked in his face on the beach until he grows a pair and turns the table on his mega-phallic bully. I don’t want to make too much of this, but look at the shot of the tanker truck idling at the edge of the tunnel just before the driver comes to rescue the school bus. That’s a big load of manhood, and it’s about to put David’s ineffective attempt at a rescue to shame.
*. This crisis of masculinity may also be why Duel reminded so much of Straw Dogs (which came out the same year). The whole thing has the scent of Peckinpah about it, and apparently Dustin Hoffman had been considered for the role of David.
*. In hindsight, this was a project that couldn’t miss, uniting Steven Spielberg before he was anoninted wunderkind and Richard Matheson, who was Stephen King before Stephen King. If you wanted a classic popcorn film you were ordering from the right menu.
*. Technically, it’s very accomplished, and set a standard for road thrillers. The tricks Spielberg used to shoot the chase scenes (all on location) became widely adopted. The low camera, for example, to make it look like the vehicles are going faster, would be used a lot by George Miller. And ABC hadn’t even wanted Spielberg to shoot on location! The thought of doing this movie with all process shots is mind-boggling.

*. Pretty much all of Spielberg’s creative decisions paid off. He was a natural. He knew he had to shoot on location. He was right to reject the fiery finish ABC wanted, both because the slow death of the rig (complete with surreal dinosaur groans) plays a lot better and because it makes more sense. Let’s face it, there’s no way that rig was going to be pulling a full load while dueling it out on the highway.
*. Spielberg saw it as Hitchcock on wheels, and felt Hitch whispering over his shoulder while filming, telling him to drag out the suspense. I think he was referring mainly to the diner scene but it really works well at the end, where the climactic chase actually slows things down as David’s car dies and the rig labours climbing up the hill.
*. Another decision was not to show the driver. This pays off as well, as it turns the film into a kind of monster movie where technology is the enemy and being in our car turns out not to be so safe.
*. A later film like Joy Ride would also hide the driver, but Rusty Nail was still the villain, not his truck. It was a psycho-killer movie. That’s not what Duel is. Instead, it stands at the start of a series of killer-machine flicks, including Killdozer! (a 1974 ABC Movie of the Week), The Car (1977), and the Stephen King vehicles Christine (1983) and Maximum Overdrive (1986). And as a thriller it also had an even wider influence. The truck would become a shark in Jaws, and movies would never be the same.
*. I wouldn’t want to build Duel up too much, as it is pretty crude in places and gets a bit repetitive. But it is a highly successful entertainment, from a creative team who understood entertainment better than anyone. As I said, they really couldn’t go wrong. And they didn’t.

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Nashville (1975)

*. You could debate Robert Altman’s best film, with a number of plausible contenders, but I think the majority opinion is that Nashville is his most representative work. In the words of David Sterritt, it’s “the film Robert Altman was born to make.” Now: what does that mean?
*. Is it a movie about Nashville, Tennessee? Or the country music business? I don’t think so. I don’t think there’s a lot of evidence Altman cared much about either. It may be a movie about America. But the way I see it, what it’s mostly about is how people relate to one another.
*. Not having any clear agenda, it has left itself open to a variety of interpretations. Given my own reading of it, I want to look a little more closely here into how this works by discussing how Altman presents his characters, and how critics have responded to them.
*. Pauline Kael: “During this movie, we begin to realize that all that the people are is what we see. Nothing is held back from us, nothing is hidden.” I don’t know what to make of this. On the face of it, I think it’s very wrong. Altman’s fly-on-the-wall approach — showing not telling, with most of the dialogue coming in overheard fragments — only lets us see pieces of the people on screen. Some pieces are more revealing, or at least seem more revealing, than others, but they are still just pieces. Why does Kenny shoot Barbara Jean? Was that even his original plan in coming to Nashville? And what do we know about Tricycle Man? Is that all he is? A bike? Or is he just a narrative element, mere “connecting tissue” in Altman’s words.

*. I’m not criticizing Altman for this approach. I appreciate what he’s doing. How much do we know about anyone else in our lives, even those closest to us? How well do we really understand them? We have to make our judgments based on fragments. But such judgments can only be speculative, partial projections and shots in the dark. So when Kael starts explaining what the characters mean to her (all they are, remember, with “nothing hidden”), I tend to dig in my heels. How does she know?
*. For example. (1) “Barbara Jean is the one tragic character.” Really? Nashville seems stocked with tragic, sympathetic figures, with Sueleen Gay and Mr. Green being only a couple of the more obvious. (2) Tom (Keith Carradine) sleeps “with Geraldine Chapman, whom he’ll barely remember the next day, and with Lily Tomlin, who he’ll remember forever.” It seems to me as though he won’t remember Tomlin five minutes after she’s out the door. I think Kael wants Tom to remember Tomlin, but it’s not at all obvious he will. (3) Who, watching Haven Hamilton sing “Keep a’ Goin'” “would guess that the song represented his true spirit, and that when injured he would think of the audience before himself?” Again we have Kael discerning a character’s true spirit on spotty evidence. Hamilton seems like a pure shit to me. Was he really thinking of the audience before himself at the end, or was he just trying to keep his political future on the rails?
*. In his Great Movies essay on Nashville Roger Ebert quotes from a couple of Kael’s readings and agrees with them. I find them unpersuasive, as I do Kael’s initial premise that “all that the people are is what we see.” Still, if that’s the way you want to read the film, it is at least a point of view that’s available.
*. Standing before such a monument to indeterminacy and irresolution I don’t think it’s really possible to say what Nashville is about. I can only say what it means to me.

*. A constant motif throughout the film is that people don’t listen to each other. Nashville is a place where everyone wants to be a star, which means they want to be heard without having to pay attention to anyone else. Shelley Duvall’s L.A. Joan is a comic example, but really everyone is like this. The groupie and the celebrity have much in common.
*. This is something we see repeated over and over. Opal tells Bud Hamilton she’d love to hear him sing the song he wrote and then just gets up and leaves him when Elliot Gould walks by. Does anyone listen to the loudspeaker van or is it just background noise? When Winifred gets to sing at the racetrack we can’t hear anything over the noise of the engines, and presumably no one else can either. Del doesn’t want to hear about his boy’s swimming lessons. Pfc. Kelly doesn’t care about Wynn’s wife Esther dying, while Wynn isn’t interested in anything else. Finally, when Winifred sings “It Don’t Worry Me” it seems not so much a plucky or courageous anthem as simply a reflection of the crowd’s apathy. A couple of people have been shot but they’re all still there. It doesn’t bother them. They don’t care, any more than they care about the politics. They’re just there for the free concert and the hot dogs.

*. I think this is the central irony of Altman’s presentation: the overlapping, fragmented and muddy dialogue forces us into being ever more intent upon hearing what nobody in the film is listening to. I think it’s interesting that one of the few times we do see a character paying attention is when Del listens in on Linnea talking to Tom, eavesdropping (like the audience) on a conversation he isn’t a party to.
*. The film itself thus becomes a sort of exercise in determining what’s important. Given that there’s a lot of dialogue that’s hard to hear, and improvised, or just plain inconsequential blather, we have our work cut out for us. And this is one of the reasons why interpretations of the film diverge. We hear what we want to hear, or what we came in primed to hear.

*. I don’t know what it was with Altman and misandry. He made shocking changes to his sources in films like The Long Goodbye and Short Cuts to work in violence toward women. According to screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury, when giving directions for the script for this film he only said he wanted a woman to be killed at the end “for whatever reason.”
*. The improvisation and humour foreshadow the comedy of Christopher Guest, as does the focus on celebrity culture. The two seem to go together, and to be sure the awful banality and amorality of publicity are easy marks. Fame is a cruel game. The vile crowd of local politicos hooting for Sueleen to strip are really no worse than the Opry goers who boo Barbara Jean during her on-stage meltdown. The public can be so demanding, and what it demands isn’t always right.

*. The ending seems slack to me, with its waving flag and sense that the show will go on even after everyone has gone home. I don’t see it as at all hopeful or affirming anything. We’re not even sure if Barbara Jean is dead. It’s a conclusion where nothing is concluded, which is fitting for a movie that was only superficially going somewhere all this time.
*. It’s hard to pin down the magic of a film like this, and of Altman more generally. The style is that of a documentary, which may be thought of as a kind of anti-style. Altman certainly didn’t want you to notice anything about the filmmaking. Then there’s no real plot and a general diffusion of interest across a wide spectrum of characters who often aren’t even connected. As already noted, much of the dialogue is just presented as background noise. Hell, even most of the music, and there is a lot, is pretty bad (again, deliberately). And yet one can’t deny the fascination such a film has, even (or maybe especially) on repeated viewings. Perhaps it’s the constantly teased connection between order and chaos, meaning and its absence, the significant and the ephemeral. Make of Nashville what you will and it obliges.

Lisa and the Devil (1972)

*. First the back story. Mario Bava was riding (relatively) high after the success of Baron Blood and so was given a green light to basically do whatever he wanted next. Lisa and the Devil was the result, but it wasn’t seen as being commercial enough to find a distributor. So it was recut and some footage was added to make it into a devil-possession film that would cash in on the success of The Exorcist. This movie was called The House of Exorcism. Lisa and the Devil never had a wide release anywhere, and it’s really only been rediscovered recently with a deluxe DVD edition.
*. I don’t want to say anything more about The House of Exorcism here, as it’s really another, later movie and I don’t think seeing it provides any insight into Lisa and the Devil.
*. If you give a director, especially an older, established director, a bit of freedom, does it make sense to expect him to do something radically different than his usual? I don’t think it does. Bava was the filmmaker he was by this time, and while Lisa and the Devil is a little more bizarre than his usual fare we’re still very much in Bavaland. There’s the garish use of colour, the zooms, the mirrors, the mild exploitation in the form of gratuitous skin (Elke Sommer, Sylva Koscina’s bosom yearning to be free), the family psychodrama, and of course the mannequins. I don’t know what Bava’s thing for mannequins was, but he really gets to indulge it here.
*. Even the basic plot, while weird in its uncanny neo-gothic way, isn’t that far afield from Bava’s usual territory. What mixes things up is the odd frame to the story. Is it all a dream? Is Lisa dead at the beginning, making the film an odyssey like that of Canadace Hilligoss in Carnival of Souls? I don’t know if things are worked out enough for us to be able to answer questions like these. I’m still not sure as to whether Lisa is just a random victim, a tourist having a resemblance to Elena, and or if she really is Elena. And I’m not sure if Bava knew either.

*. As the events slowly draw us into more surreal territory the atmosphere takes over. This is a good thing, as Bava’s plots were rarely his strongest suit while atmosphere was something he possessed in spades. After a while, and not a long while at that, I found myself wishing it were a silent film, or at least without any dialogue. I don’t think the dialogue gives us any necessary information, and without it I might have imagined I was lost in Buñuel’s Spain (which is where in fact this film was shot). I can’t think of any Bava film that makes such overt use of symbolism, with recurring elements like the keyhole arch Lisa passes through and the broken pocket watch. Even the mannequins fit with the surreal motif, and I’m only sorry we missed seeing Telly Savalas’s Leandro going full Buñuel and measuring Elke Sommer’s feet.
*. Usually when a director is given creative control over a project we’re encouraged to view the results as being more representative of their most abiding preoccupations and the peculiar bent of their imagination. I’m still not sure what Lisa and the Devil tells us in this regard, as it’s really a farrago of elements that don’t cohere that well thematically or tonally. It’s tempting to see Bava as Leandro: the stage manager of the whole farce, though forced to play the role of underling to the decadent, moneyed family. The actors, meanwhile, are transformed into mere dolls to be arranged into the proper positions. Even Sommer’s big sex scene has her unconscious throughout, only slightly more flexible than the skeleton she’s lying next to.
*. Is this the real Bava then? Well, maybe. It’s certainly a plumbing of someone’s unconscious. And while I wouldn’t rank it among my favourite Bava films, it does have goofy charm (introducing us to Kojak’s lollipops) and unfolds an elliptical dream logic that’s as smooth as a silken dress or tapestry. As with any dream, however, it’s hard to tell how much is surface and how much is depth. I find it weightless and mad, but nevertheless essential.

Baron Blood (1972)

*. Mario Bava scored a real hit with Baron Blood, which in turn led to producer Alfredo Leone giving him a free hand on his next feature, the ill-fated but intriguing Lisa and the Devil. That’s about everything good I can say about Baron Blood though.
*. The story is uninteresting and tired. Just for kicks, Peter, the descendant of a bloodthirsty German baron (modeled on Vlad the Impaler) decides to read aloud an ancient spell that, legend has it, has the power to resurrect his ancestor. The baron comes back and kills some people before finally being done away with.
*. None of it makes any sense. There’s a sexy witch who says things like “you mortals are such fools!” and a magic amulet thrown in for good measure. The young man pairs off with Eva (Elke Sommer), who runs around and screams a lot. Aside from looking good in a torn-up dress, she’s awful.

*. A couple of silly parts stand out. I liked it when Peter tells Eva that, after raising the Baron from the dead, “if we don’t dig him, we’ll ditch him.” Yeah, man! But even better is when the Baron, after being dead for three hundred years, crawls out of his grave and heads straight to a local doctor for first aid. You have to take care of yourself.
*. The book Peter’s professor uncle is seen holding is Die Kultur der Griechen by Thassilo Von Scheffer. I always notice things like this, and it made me wonder what it is he’s a professor of. When we see him working in his classroom he has mathematical equations and drawings of the brain on his chalkboard. He carries around books on the classical world. He says he studies ESP and the paranormal. I think he’s probably just the stereotype of the brainy Professor of Everything.
*. To be honest, I was mostly just waiting for Joseph Cotten to show up, which he does in a wheelchair at the halfway point. He’s playing Vincent Price (who was the first choice for the part). The fact that he’s disabled is immediately suspicious, since the castle he’s just bought doesn’t look very wheelchair accessible. Are they going to put in elevators while they’re refurbishing the torture chamber in the dungeon?
*. There’s nothing scary going on. The effects are poor. There are no good kills, despite the film’s reputation for gore. And Bava’s usual camera tricks, in particular the use of zooms and shots going in and out of focus, are gratuitous and overused. I know they’re a staple, but they’re so repetitive and pointless here that they become annoying.
*. I like Bava a lot but there’s no denying this is one of his weaker efforts, both uninspired and dull. I would recommend it to fans, but think that it may disappoint them the most. Better to take a pass.

Vengeance is Mine (1979)

*. There’s always a difference between the movie you see and the movie you remember seeing. I first saw Vengeance is Mine at a rep cinema (remember them?) in the early 1980s. I found some of it pretty shocking, though the friend I went with, who was Japanese, said it was nothing out of the ordinary for a Japanese film.
*. I didn’t know (and still don’t know) how true an assessment that was (I’m not expert on Japanese cinema), but there were a couple of images that stuck with me over the years. On returning to the movie more than thirty years later I was surprised to find that I had apparently imagined one of these. Call if false movie memory syndrome. It happens a lot.
*. David Thomson begins his Biographical Dictionary entry on Shôhei Imamura by telling us that “Imamura has never been easy to pin down.” Again, I don’t know how true this is, but Vengeance is Mine certainly strikes me as a movie that’s hard to categorize. It’s not a thriller. There are some bloody murders but they aren’t presented in a suspenseful way. It’s not a psychological study, or at least not a successful one. We get glimpses of various forces that may have shaped Iwao Enokizu (Ken Ogata) and made him into a monster, but nothing that adds up to a convincing portrait (Roger Ebert: “A few scenes from the killer’s boyhood feel almost like satirical demonstrations of how any ‘explanation’ would be impossible.”) There’s some Dragnet music that plays occasionally but it’s not a police procedural.
*. Is it a morality tale? I don’t see it. The title is a Biblical reference, but whose vengeance is it drawing attention to? Personally, I don’t see this as a movie involving a lot of “vengeance” on anyone’s part. And what is the significance of Iwao being raised in a Catholic household? It doesn’t seem to have rubbed off. In one striking scene he attempts to strangle himself and adopts a pose suggestive of crucifixion, and we notice he’s wearing a crucifix too (the only time I remember seeing it in the film). But he’s hardly a Christ figure, and I don’t see anything in his story that suggests he could be seen this way.

*. I just want to dilate on this point about religion for a moment. Iwao is a poor vessel for carrying any religious meaning, but he is hardly unique in this. It is a problem for a lot of serious filmmakers who have taken up the theme of crime and punishment. One thinks, for example, of Bresson’s L’Argent (1983) and Kieslowski’s A Short Film About Killing (1988), two films that also suggest deeper spiritual or Christian interpretations that might take us beyond their sordid and bloody crimes. But do they work on that level? In Crime and Punishment (I’m speaking of Dostoevsky’s novel here) Raskolnikov has a conversion in prison, he sees the light. That doesn’t happen in any of these films I’ve mentioned, and certainly not in Vengeance is Mine. The modern killer isn’t a tortured soul or even a psychopath but only a blank slate or automaton. He has no spiritual dimension.

*. Moving along, is this a “state of Japan” film, a social documentary? It has a very realistic feel to it, and while the narrative is complexly structured there’s nothing flashy about it visually. I also thought it interesting how there are a lot of awful people in the movie aside from Iwao.
*. It’s interesting we never see Iwao in prison. He seems to think of Japan itself as a kind of prison, and is surprised while on the run to get a sense of how big it is.
*. Is it a love story? I remember finding the bath scene between Iwao’s father and his wife kind of creepy the first time I saw the film. This time I found it erotic. Perhaps that’s just me being older. As for Iwao, he seems to have some kind of genuine feelings for Haru. Like his father, however, he has problems with exercising his libido in conventional ways.
*. I don’t mean to suggest that Vengeance is Mine is a failure at being any of these things. I think it’s a movie that’s meant to suggest all of them.

*. That said, I’m still not sure what the ultimate purpose is. That may be deliberate though. It’s a peripatetic film, and does a great job of capturing the fragmented and random nature of Iwao’s wanderings and the sense of a passionless predator who is just going from one victim to another, taking money or killing and then moving on to the next hit. I doubt even Iwao could find a purpose or meaning in what he’s doing.
*. How sad to have such a good movie end with such a crumby effect. Are we to imagine Iwao’s bones are still floating around somewhere above the city? What sort of supernatural curse would have to be removed in order for gravity to take over?
*. I really like Vengeance is Mine but I do feel like something is missing from it. Not the black hole that is Iwao, that’s a given, but something more about the people around him. His father and wife, and Haru and her mother, all seem so much more interesting. They each seem to understand Iwao, or at least a part of him, but in different ways. In the end, however, they’re all fooling themselves. Self-delusion is, as so often, the real path to destruction.

Heaven Can Wait (1978)

*. I began my notes on Here Comes Mr. Jordan by talking about how it was a movie that fit its time. What was it about 1978 that made people so eager to embrace a remake? In itself this is a modest little film, but it got a raft of Oscar nominations and did big box office. I remember when it came out and I can attest that people loved it.
*. Vincent Canby, writing in the New York Times, began his review with the same sense of confusion: “There is something eerily disconnected about Heaven Can Wait. It may be because in a time of comparative peace, immortality — at least in its life-after- death form — doesn’t hold the fascination for us that it does when there’s war going on, as there was in 1941 when Here Comes Mr. Jordan was released and became such a hit. Or perhaps we are somewhat more sophisticated today (though I doubt it) and comedies about heavenly messengers and what is, in effect, a very casual kind of transubstantiation seem essentially silly.”
*. Comparisons to the 1941 version are inevitable and don’t come out in this film’s favour. Beatty and Mason are basically trying to get by on charm, and heaven knows they both have plenty. Mason’s Mr. Jordan, however, is a much reduced part, to the point where he almost seems irrelevant.
*. The love interest is an interesting case study in that most difficult of qualities to capture and define: on-screen chemistry. In the original, Robert Montgomery and Evelyn Keyes apparently didn’t care for each other much but they really clicked. Here Beatty and Julie Christie had been a couple, and had starred together previously in McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Shampoo, but I don’t sense any spark between them.
*. Here Comes Mr. Jordan had a lot going on, and almost all of it worked. In this movie there’s a lot going on but much of it just seems like a distraction. As noted, Mr. Jordan goes from being a co-start to almost disappearing. The Escort (co-director Buck Henry) is undistinguished. The police investigation gets short shrift, spending most of its allotted time dragging us through some really unfunny business about Farnsworth’s dislike of hats. Hey, if you had Warren Beatty’s hair you wouldn’t want to wear a hat either!
*. What’s up with Farnsworth’s uniform fetish? Was it supposed to be funny?
*. I did like Charles Grodin and Dyan Cannon as the scheming couple. They were interesting and fun to watch. “Pick up The Fountainhead, pretend you’re reading.” That’s a good line.
*. But really, if you want to see the difference between the two movies just compare the final scene in the tunnel between Joe and Betty Logan. In the original the lights go out and they’re exposed as reverse silhouettes, outlined in light. It’s a beautiful shot, perfectly framed, and it has a glimmer of that old-school moonshine about it. You can feel magic in the air. In the remake the lights go out and . . . you can’t see anything! Then they come back on. How magical is that? How romantic? I don’t mean to sound like some crotchety lover of Hollywood’s golden age — because I’m not — but how could Beatty have messed up something so simple?

Black Magic (1975)

*. I don’t think I’ve seen another movie shot in Kuala Lumpur, so in that respect at least Black Magic was, for me, a unique experience.
*. Aside from the handful of location shots I didn’t find much else interesting about Black Magic. That feels like a weird thing to say, since it’s a zany movie. But it’s not zany enough.
*. The actual story is just an updated folktale involving a bad rich girl who wants a love potion to make a decent working fellow leave his fiance and become her toy boy. She gets said potion from a wicked wizard who carries a skull around. But the young man’s fiance and friends fight back by enlisting the aid of a good wizard.
*. That’s the outline, and you’d think it would be hard to screw up. But Black Magic is a total mess. It’s basically a sort of exploitation horror flick, but it isn’t scary or erotic in the slightest. The subdermal worms are the only creepy part (aside, that is, from the ghastly wallpaper), and the way the women have to be milked by hand to make the love potions will only appeal to the (hopefully) small percentage of the population with a lactation fetish.

*. The effects are laughable, but they make for the few enjoyable moments. The final battle is like something out of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, but a lot cheaper. This cheapness has some unfortunate results elsewhere in the film. The severed finger, for example, has an uncomfortable similarity to a dog turd.
*. Speaking of dogs, the one we see here has to be the most unthreatening guard dog in film history. It’s so obvious he just wants to play.
*. I can’t think of much to recommend this one. It’s basically a bunch of bits and pieces thrown together without any strong connecting thread. We spend far too long, effectively the entire first half of the movie, dealing with extraneous plot elements. Then we’re left wondering if the evil magician was in love with the rich girl himself or if he was just interested in a one-night stand. If the latter, why does he keep hanging around? By the end I didn’t care, and all the Italian-style zooms and campy special effects didn’t make much of a difference to me.

The Comeback (1978)

*. I wonder how bad a director of horror films has to be, to ever be truly forgotten. In 2014 exploitation director Pete Walker was given a retrospective at London’s prestigious Barbican Centre where five of his movies (including The Comeback) were screened. In 2012 Kino bundled together five films (not the same five, but also including The Comeback) as a “Pete Walker Collection” DVD box set. So I guess this means that he’s been accepted as an auteur of sorts. But let’s be honest: these movies are terrible.
*. You can give Walker credit for being independent and even, in some respects, ahead of his time with his grimy proto-slasher flicks, but how independent is any exploitation filmmaker, really? I mean, they’re nakedly just in it for the money. They’re not pursuing any kind of original or personal artistic vision.
*. Yes, there are some consistent themes that inform most of Walker’s work, but it would be hard to avoid all fingerprints. Meanwhile, stylistically he is very dull and his plots are so silly they actually make one yearn for the modern “American” version of the psycho killer. That is to say, a predator with little if any motivation.
*. In short, I found The Comeback to be boring and stupid and silly. The silliness is the only fun to be had. Apparently Walker’s idea of a pop singer in the late ’70s was a lounge-act fellow who takes girls out on dates wearing three-piece pin-stripe suits. The whole feel of the movie is off. I had the feeling that Walker really wanted to do a Hammer film set in an old mansion or country estate, but was stuck making a nod toward swinging London with a pop-music storyline that he had no interest in or affinity for.
*. Also silly is the transvestite angle, which I suppose is meant to operate as a red herring but which in the end turns out to be otherwise gratuitous. Why does the killer get all dressed up anyway?
*. Finally, the motivation behind the murders is priceless. It seems all of Nick Cooper’s “foul contortions” and “lewd, suggestive songs” were receiving their comeuppance. A lot of horror movies from this period were actually quite conservative, or at least had a conservative strain to them. In some respects they’re like the English village mysteries, where murder disrupts a natural, peaceful, aristocratic order that is ultimately reasserted. But The Comeback dials this up to a whole new level.
*. Of course it’s a bit more complicated than that, but like I say, we do often find a conservative, moralistic strain at work in the Brit horror of this time. Think of the cop’s speech against hippies in The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue: “You’re all the same, the lot of you with your long hair and your faggot clothes, drugs, sex, and every sort of filth.” It’s very similar to what the killer says here. The longhaired young man in Manchester Morgue was the hero and the cop a jerk, but the point of view expressed is not discredited in the film. This then led to all those American slasher films in the ’80s where promiscuity would be made a capital crime.
*. Aside from this I don’t think there’s much to comment on here. It’s not a well made movie, and even the gore is pretty dull. As an interesting footnote, the blood doesn’t have that almost acrylic orange look that a lot of horror movie blood had at the time because apparently it was real (outdated donated blood from a hospital). That couldn’t have been fun to work with. It’s also kind of weird that we keep cutting back to Gail’s rotting corpse in lieu of anything else going on. But even the maggots and rats and real blood didn’t do much to change the impression I had that I was, basically, watching paint dry.

Schizo (1976)

*. “When the left hand doesn’t know who the right hand is killing!!” That’s a great ad line.
*. As far as the film goes, I can’t be quite as complimentary. But I think the time and place matter.
*. The year is 1976, which is a couple of years before the success of John Carpenter’s Halloween officially launched the slasher film genre. Horror aficionadoes may point further back, to Black Christmas or even Psycho, but I think it was the success of Carpenter’s film that really established the formula. In any event, all I want to say here is that Schizo wasn’t just a rip-off of Carpenter. It’s not a dead teenager movie, for one thing.
*. The place is England, which might also come as a surprise. The grimy urban texture looks like the New York City of Abel Ferrara in such films as The Driller Killer and Ms. 45, and shares the same interest as those films in tortured psyches gone murderous. But again, Schizo was several years earlier.
*. All of which is to say that, despite being a crude exploitation flick, Schizo was actually somewhat ahead of the curve. Something we might have guessed from director Pete Walker, a cult figure who independently financed his movies and tended to use them to pursue his own idiosyncratic vision of terror.
*. Schizo isn’t what I would call a typical Walker movie, as it doesn’t work any of his core themes, like the tyranny of corrupt authority figures. Which I guess makes it even more of a curiosity. Not a very good movie, but an odd one.
*. It’s a decent script that keeps you guessing, at least for the first half. After that it starts to get pretty clear as to what’s going on. Still, the various alternative possibilities are kept open as long as possible.
*. I don’t know if it was a conscious connection, but Schizo also reminds me of Cat People. There’s the newlywed couple, with the neurotic wife pursued by shadows and troubled by fears of going crazy. In distress she turns to a friendly (nudge, nudge) shrink, while becoming jealous of her husband’s old gal pal. Does that seem too big a stretch? I really do sense a resemblance.
*. I wouldn’t want to make Schizo into something more than it is. Walker was an interesting albeit minor director who says he mainly just wanted to “create a bit of mischief” (and, of course, make some money). I believe he stopped making movies entirely at the age of 41 and turned to the business of buying and restoring cinemas.
*. The suspense is handled reasonably well, and there are a few nice flourishes, like the scribbles on the newspaper turning into the circles Samantha’s skates cut into the ice, but aside from the dark ending (one of Walker’s trademarks) there’s not much to recommend.

The Asphyx (1972)

*. I have to admit, I went in to this with one question paramount in my mind: How do you pronounce “Asphyx”? The answer? “Ass-fix.” I probably should have guessed.
*. That matter settled, what we have here is a surprisingly off-beat British horror flick. The premise is demented. Apparently each of us has a personal demon known as an asphyx that comes to take away our soul after death. This is not a comforting thought, or one that fits very well with any religious tradition I’m aware of.
*. As researcher Sir Hugo Cunnigham (Robert Stephens) discovers, however, the asphyx can be seen hovering around a person who is approaching death, and by use of a phosphorus lamp can be trapped in a case. This means that the person whose asphyx is so contained is now effectively immortal. I’m not sure why this should be so, but it is.
*. Being a good man of science, Sir Hugo experiments first on a white lab rat, making it immortal by capturing its asphyx in a special cabinet. Note that animals have souls too. Might we do the same with plants as well, or anything organic? The question is left open. In any event, satisfied with the results Sir Hugo goes on to immortalize himself, and plans to do the same with the rest of his family. Alas, as errors compound he learns that “providence is not to be tampered with.”
*. The Asphyx was directed by Peter Newbrook, and I believe it was his last film (he later went on to work a lot in television). His previous movie had been Crucible of Terror, another real oddity that I enjoyed. He obviously had a thing for making movies outside of the box. It’s too bad he didn’t have a chance to do more, but the British film industry was contracting in the 1970s.
*. The story came from Christina and Laurence Beers, who I don’t know anything about and didn’t find any other credits for. The script was written by Brian Comport, who did a couple of other obscure (and weird) horror titles and that’s it. The nearest analog I can think of is The Picture of Dorian Gray, but even that’s little more than an echo, with the asphyx in the basement the guarantor of Hugo’s immortality. But Hugo does age, even if his lab rat, his “companion for all eternity,” doesn’t.
*. Of course this part of the story doesn’t make sense. Why should it only be Sir Hugo’s face that ages? How is he still ambulatory? And how is he maintaining that asphyx casket after all these years, since he can’t get into the basement?
*. Using a guillotine as a near-death experience was perhaps not the wisest move. I’m just saying.
*. But then the death traps the characters use are all kind of fun in a Dr. Phibes sort of way. An electric chair. A guillotine. A gas chamber. The Jigsaw killer might have been taking notes.
*. It’s all very silly. If Giles just wants to kill himself at the end, for example, and that clearly is all that he wants to do, why bother going through that rigamarole about replacing the crystals and pumping his chamber full of oxygen so he can blow himself up? Why not just take some poison and call it a day?
*. So now I’ve called it demented, silly, and fun. I enjoyed it. The frame narrative is a nice gag, and watching them play around with all the Victorian technology is a treat. I don’t think there’s anything very profound about The Asphyx, but there is melodrama if not tragedy in its story of a man who basically annihilates his entire family and then, faced with a choice between grief and nothing, chooses grief.