Color Me Blood Red (1965)

*. It’s possible — just possible — that in 1965 you might have had your hopes up for this one. After “inventing” gore with Blood Feast Herschell Gordon Lewis had followed up with Two Thousand Maniacs!, which marked a huge advance. So might Lewis’s next film show a further progression?
*. Wishful thinking. Color Me Blood Red marks a reversion to the mean of Lewis’s career, which is very low indeed. It cost less than Blood Feast to make, being mainly shot in a house they’d rented. The gore isn’t as imaginative or as well represented. The sound, which they had difficulty with because of the location, is muddy. The music is canned and overbearing. The picture often goes out of focus. The story isn’t original (Lewis admits to having been inspired by Roger Corman’s A Bucket of Blood, but the crazed artist turning bodies into art goes back to Mystery of the Wax Museum and its ilk).
*. In sum, there’s nothing scary, or shocking, or creepy, or even campy about the goings-on. It’s just dull. Of the three films that now make up the Blood Trilogy (so-called only later when a different distributor packaged them together) it strikes me as by far the weakest. Blood Feast had at least a spirit of amateur fun about it. Here there’s nothing.
*. To be honest, I didn’t want to bother with a re-watch of this one. Even the commentary track with Lewis and producer David Friedman (this would be their last film together) isn’t as bright and lively as for the previous two films. One gets the sense that they weren’t having as much fun this time out and much of the conversation turns to other topics. About the lead Gordon Oas-Heim, who plays the artist Adam Sorg, Lewis has this to say: “an exceptionally good actor but not really a team player.” They didn’t get along, though by the standards set by the other films it’s a decent performance.
*. Not a good movie. The only interesting way I can think of reading it is as a kind of allegory for Lewis’s own career. A low-rent, exploitation director, with his “invention” of gore Lewis enjoyed a burst of commercial success not unlike that experienced by Adam Sorg. The crucial difference between the two isn’t that Lewis painted with fake blood but that Sorg actually is a tortured artist, putting his soul into his work. He doesn’t even want to make money off his paintings, refusing to sell them at auction. Lewis, in contrast, could only laugh when people called him an artist, but he did make a living for a while as a director and enjoyed more than fifteen minutes of fame.
*. Since I did enjoy the DVD commentaries, I’ll give the last word to the two men responsible. Lewis, to any future critics: “Try to do better, for the same amount of money.” Friedman: “We made pictures basically to entertain, have a little fun, and walk home with a small profit. And if you’ve enjoyed it, fine. But if you’ve even looked at it, that’s good too.”

Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964)

*. Director Herschell Gordon Lewis deserves some credit, and I think for the most part he got it. The self-styled Godfather of Gore (to take the title of a 2010 documentary about him) had a bright-red run as an exploitation filmmaker in the ’60s, turning out a number of flicks that went on to attract a cult following. Almost none of these, beginning with the worthless Blood Feast, were any good at all, but they made money and gave Lewis a certain notoriety.
*. Two Thousand Maniacs! is widely heralded as Lewis’s best film, and it’s the one he considered to be his favourite. I think it’s a surprisingly effective shocker and the only good movie he made. At least it’s the only one I can return to and see anything in.
*. After the huge success of Blood Feast Lewis and his partner David Friedman wanted to up their game with better production values and better acting. I guess there’s some tick upward in both regards here, but not as much as you’d expect, especially given the low baseline they had set. At least some of the cast look their parts, if nothing else. The direction is also just barely competent. That the movie works as well as it does is all down to the fascination of the story and its structure.
*. To just stick for a moment with putting the film in the context of Lewis’s career, I found an inevitable comparison with Gerard Damiano. Damiano had a similar huge success with Deep Throat, another movie that basically created its own niche. Of course there’d been porn before, Lewis himself had done “nudie cuties,” but Deep Throat marked a watershed. Deep Throat was then followed up by Devil in Miss Jones, a far more ambitious and much better movie that, naturally, didn’t enjoy the same immediate success. It’s not that either Lewis or Damiano were going art house, but they did try, I think successfully, to transcend the genres they did so much to launch.
*. So back to why I think this is a good movie. I mentioned the story, which I think is great on two levels. In the first place it’s an archetypal ghost story, inspired (really!) by Brigadoon. Except the ghost town here is full of the vengeful victims of a Civil War massacre.
*. A few other staple horror archetypes grow out of this. In the first place this is one of the first “wrong turn” horror movies, where the heroes by accident or contrivance find themselves in an isolated backwoods or rural enclave, which is a very dangerous place to be for modern, urban types. This was “hicksploitation” before The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Even before Deliverance. True enough, the Bates Motel in Psycho is a place bypassed by the main highway but Norman isn’t a redneck. Lewis was on to something new here.
*. Another related subgenre that we see getting going is the spinning of the town-with-a-guilty-secret idea into darker territory. Before The Wicker Man and such recent spin-offs as Midsommar the basic idea is already here, with outsiders arriving in a community that seems friendly but whose carnival is actually a stage for ritual sacrifice.
*. Finally, a third horror subgenre that may have its start in Two Thousand Maniacs! is that of the murder catalogue. What I mean are movies that don’t really have any point except to show people being killed in highly theatrical and violent ways. In the twenty-first century the Saw and Final Destination franchises have taken this about as far as it can go, presenting their elaborate murders as a series of over-the-top “gags.” As far as I know, however, this is the first such movie. The Abominable Dr. Phibes, to give another early example of this same kind of thing, came out in 1971.
*. Now I didn’t want to give Blood Feast too much credit for “inventing” gore, but it seems to me that in the ways I’ve just talked about Two Thousand Maniacs! really was ahead of its time, or at least responsible for a lot of later developments that would go on to loom large in the horror genre.

*. The other thing about the story I mentioned liking was its structure. If the centennial celebration is a carnival then the various ways invented for killing off the damn Yankees are the different rings in the circus. And because the victims are all separated first each of them gets to experience that moment of dawning awareness that things are not quite right. In fact they’re horribly wrong.
*. The most effective of these, and a scene that is truly shocking, comes when the hulking Harper cuts the thumb off the first victim. She’s not going to be raped or killed right away but instead tortured like one of the town cats that the kids are keen on chasing around. It’s a sequence that lets you know that things are going to just keep getting worse for these people.
*. Wes Craven: “The first monster that an audience has to be scared of is the filmmaker. They have to feel in the presence of someone not confined by the normal rules of propriety and decency.” The thumb-cutting scene is an example of the sort of move that I think Stephen King referred to as “training the audience.” You suddenly feel the ground disappear from under your feet.
*. Fun fact: both Lewis and Craven taught English at university before getting into movies. I can’t say what that might mean, but they do seem to have both had an understanding of archetypal narratives.
*. Perhaps the most unnerving thing about Two Thousand Maniacs! though is the presence of the townspeople. These extras were actual residents of the town Lewis was shooting in (St. Cloud, Florida) and they lend an innocence and authenticity to the gruesome proceedings. I’m not even sure to what extent they knew what was going on, which allows them to project what Lewis on the commentary track calls the difficult “combination of sweetness and evil.”
*. What they also represent is the complicity of the crowd. They don’t really do much in the way of killing the Yankees, but they go along with things. At times they may even show some signs of doubt. I love their silence after the one victim is pulled apart by the horses. Is this not quite what they expected? Or wanted? But then strike up the band and play “Dixie” and they’re back in a good mood again.
*. Two connections come to mind. First is Chesterton’s remark about how the fact that man can enjoy skinning a cat is evidence of original sin. Or hanging a cat, we might say, with the fact that this is what we hear the kids are doing further proof of that human stain. Yes these are Confederate ghosts out for revenge but presumably those aren’t Yankee cats. And I don’t think the point is that these are just evil ghosts. I think the point is that the crowd is inherently evil.
*. Second, and this may be connected in some way to the previous point, there’s the scene where the cars first roll into town and are surrounded by townsfolk waving their Confederate flags and children waving nooses. By some process of association that I don’t think is too far-fetched (though we’re going from low to high) this made me think of the kid seen from the boxcars taking Jews to Auschwitz in Schindler’s List who is making the sign of cutting his throat. It’s another sign not only of the complicity of the crowd but the cruelty of human nature.
*. This is a cheap exploitation flick, but it’s to its credit that it’s not only functional as a horror movie (by the end Lewis even achieves a modicum of suspense as we really want to see our heroes get the hell out of that town), and also raises these larger points, even if inadvertently. I don’t know if Lewis ever had much to say about the movie having such messages, but like the best of junk (or, more charitably, folk) culture I think it carries a lot of deeper meanings.

Blood Feast (1963)

*. I did something a little different on my most recent rewatch of Blood Feast. I knew the movie was garbage, but that the director Herschell Gordon Lewis had done a fun commentary I’d enjoyed a few years earlier. So in preparing these notes I just played the movie with the commentary (which Lewis shares with producer David Friedman). I doubt I’ll ever watch Blood Feast (with or without the commentary) again.
*. Lewis was quite a character and his play-by-play is full of interesting tidbits about the production as well as other humorous asides. I got a real laugh out of his description of the fake blood they used. “The blood was so realistic, if you had a transfusion you would probably die but you wouldn’t know why you had died.” Tell me that isn’t a better line than anything in the movie.
*. In the commentary Lewis also stakes Blood Feast‘s sole claim to fame. This is that it marked a watershed in the presentation of cinematic gore. All of the slasher films of the ’80s are, in Lewis’s reckoning, the children of Blood Feast. “I’ve often referred to Blood Feast as a Walt Whitman poem. It’s no good, but it was the first of its type.” (Which, I think, is an odd thing to say about Whitman, in that he did write some good poetry and wasn’t the first of any subsequent school.)
*. Does Lewis have a fair claim to being such a pioneer? Yes and no. He did push the envelope on gore, but I don’t think Blood Feast, despite being highly profitable, was that influential. For one thing, how many people actually saw it? John Waters and who else? I think the slasher films derived more directly from the giallo genre.
*. Still, as the original, or at least the oldest, of the U.K.’s “video nasties” I guess Blood Feast does deserve some credit, if only as a footnote in the history of horror. Lewis was never under any illusions that he was doing anything more than trying to make a buck out of a new exploitation niche (he’d been doing “nudie cuties” before this). Nor was he under any illusions that he was actually making anything good. Shot in about a week (4, or maybe 9, days) for a budget of $25,000, with few actors and a crew that mainly consisted of Lewis holding the camera and Friedman doing the sound, you’d be insane to expect competence much less quality.
*. I found it a bit odd that Lewis defends the film on the commentary from criticism by saying it’s only a “fantasy.” Did people really complain about it not being realistic? Or by fantasy does he just mean that it was meant as a joke?
*. All this said, I do find Lewis’s output a cut above the usual exploitation fare. I’d rather watch one of his movies than the work of William Grefe, his fellow Floridian bargain-basement horror maestro. And next up for Lewis was going to be Two Thousand Maniacs!, a movie I rate very highly. He was not without ability. It’s just that it’s hard to make a good movie without even trying.

Saw: The Final Chapter (2010)

*. If not rated by fans, or just anyone on the Internet who likes to make lists, as the worst film of the Saw franchise, The Final Chapter usually scores near the bottom of the bloody pile. That’s where I’d put it too. A lousy note to go out on, if “going out” was ever their intention.
*. Which I don’t think it really was. On the writers’ commentary track they start off with a joke about this being “the so-called Final Chapter,” but conclude by saying that “within this thread this is the last one.” You could argue either way, but seeing as Tobin Bell was going to be back in Jigsaw, Hoffman’s fate is, again, left hanging, and even Bobby, the protagonist here, is presumably still alive, they weren’t even closing the circle.
*. Meanwhile, Cary Elwes came back . . . for this? Seeing as he’d stayed out of all the previous sequels because of a lawsuit over his salary for Saw I hope he got paid this time.
*. The first note I made to myself was that this is a movie that looks like it was made on the cheap. Oddly enough, it was the most expensive film in the franchise with a $27 million budget. Alas, most of that money was eaten up by the fact that it was shot in 3D. Which is money wasted in my book, as I was watching it in 2D at home.
*. The opening kill was actually something a bit new (if even more improbable than usual), being a display on a concourse outside Roy Thomson Hall, in front of the most Toronto-esque crowd of extras I’ve ever seen. I take it the location and installation are meant as a finger to the art house-crowd, and it actually is a bit witty. But the victims don’t seem like the kind of people Jigsaw would be interested in (and I should add that these two are, once you straighten out the jumbled timelines, Jigsaw’s victims).
*. “There’s a new game going on,” one of the useless police figures informs Jill at one point. “Does that surprise you?” “No.” Should it? The story isn’t worth going into. Hoffman, as you may have guessed, survived the end of the previous film and is back to take his vengeance on Jill Tuck. As noted, Dr. Gordon is back as well. And brooding behind it all is the malevolent spirit of John (or Jon, he doesn’t care which) Kramer, who is looking to expose a pseudo-Jigsaw survivor.
*. I don’t think the plot is as cleverly constructed as in previous outings. Instead of twists they just decided to up the body count (27, a record for the franchise) and the gore (though much of this was, in the writers’ words, the “inevitable side effect of having to jam two stories into one”). There’s lots of splatter, if that’s your thing. We even (finally!) get to see the Reverse Bear Trap thingy, the signature device of the franchise, do the job it was designed to do. Think of one of Gallagher’s smashed watermelons.
*. The gags or games are gruesome enough, but that’s all that can be said for them. They’re not suspenseful and don’t involve any sort of interesting puzzle-solving. Instead they seem more like a gauntlet of CrossFit stations. The ending is particularly downbeat, as the most horrific death is visited upon someone who is innocent (indeed an “absolute innocent” according to the screenwriters), while her husband is unconvincingly undone trying to save her by going full Man Called Horse.
*. But then, perhaps because of the high body count, perhaps because of Hoffman’s evil nature, there’s a full slaughter of the innocents going on here. Gibson, to take another example, seems downright decent. It’s enough to make you pine for the more innocent days of the franchise, when the killing at least had some sort of point to it.
*. The DVD comes with two full-length commentaries, one with the producers and the other with the writers. You’ll also find a lot written about it online. This is one of the products of superfan culture in our time. So much critical attention is directed at material that I wouldn’t have thought able to sustain it (which is leaving aside the question of it being worthy of such attention in the first place). This, in turn, has become one of the more time-consuming aspects of making these notes, since I tend to feel obliged to listen to commentaries and review some other sources. But I guess it was interesting to know that the pig masks really were taken from Motel Hell.
*. Actually, the producers’ commentary also turned up another interesting tidbit. Indeed, it was something that even surprised them. The skinhead who gets killed in the garage game is played by Chester Bennington, a popular singer (now deceased). Apparently they had to redraw his tattoos because the tattooist who did his ink had copyright on them and the studio couldn’t show them. Colour me amazed. I don’t know how that would stand up in court.
*. Wesley Morris: “This series never cared for filmmaking. It never cared for human life. Now it doesn’t even care for its audience or itself, scraping together the gist of the other movies, simply in order to have something to sell for Halloween.” Nicely expressed, but can we be that cynical? I do get the sense that people were trying here. This is not a good movie, but the fact that they managed to keep this series going through seven movies and maintain some interest in its mythology is to their credit.
*. Some of the elements have promise, but none of it works. Maybe it’s the direction. Maybe it’s Sean Patrick Flanery as the lead contestant in Jigsaw’s game. He seemed to be lacking the requisite passion (in the Biblical sense). Maybe it’s the way what was originally planned as a two-part finale had to be collapsed into a single film after the box office disappointment of the previous entry. Maybe it’s the 3D. Maybe it’s all of the above. I didn’t like it, and would have preferred not finding out what happened to Dr. Gordon. I’m still a bit surprised fans didn’t go for it, but for all the reasons given I think they must have felt let down.

 

Missing in Action (1984)

*. First things first: let’s try to get these movies in their proper order. You might think, as I certainly did, that Missing in Action was a clone or rip-off of Rambo: First Blood Part II (the one where Rambo goes back to ‘Nam). But First Blood Part II actually came out a few months after Missing in Action. It was, however, based on a script (by James Cameron) that was originally written for First Blood Part II. So Cannon rushed it into production so as not to get sued.
*. You also might think that the next Missing in Action movie (Missing in Action 2: The Beginning) was a prequel. Which it was, but it (The Beginning) was actually made back-to-back with Missing in Action and I’ve read that it was actually the first part they shot. Cannon just decided to release Missing in Action (the real sequel) first because they thought it was a better movie.
*. The only real takeaway from this is that all of these movies came out within a year of each other, basically re-fighting the Vietnam War so that, in Rambo’s words, America would get to win this time. They also sought to cynically cash in on the widespread belief that there were American POWs languishing in Vietnamese prison camps at the time.
*. The question of whether there were (or are) MIAs being held in Vietnam is one that people still argue over. Needless to say, this movie accepts their existence, while also dismissing a trumped-up charge against the American hero Braddock (Chuck Norris) of war crimes. So it’s a political movie, playing out along pretty well-worn lines. I won’t get into that here. It’s the kind of story that was criticized in some circles as a dangerous right-wing fantasy, but I guess some people found it comforting or cathartic. Norris wanted to “instill a positive attitude” about Vietnam, and was pleased to see audiences standing and cheering at the end. It was huge at the box office.
*. As for the movie itself, it’s not very good even at being generic. The one oddity is that the two chief villains are killed off at the end of the first and second acts, leaving Norris free to just blow things up in last half hour. Buildings explode into fireballs. Bad guys can’t hit anything with their rifles and mortals but good guys drop bad guys while running and shooting from the hip.
*. Norris himself had by this time settled comfortably into what was his one role: a soft-spoken tough guy characterized by beard, blue jeans, and beer. M. Emmet Walsh goes along for the ride and gets to die a hero’s death (after curiously telling Braddock that he will see him in hell).
*. As with most of Norris’s efforts, Missing in Action is characterized mainly by its blandness, a quality its star projects, if not personifies. Aside from its political angle I can’t see where it’s of much interest at all. Since I don’t want to enter into its politics, I’ll just leave it at that.

The Happytime Murders (2018)

*. The Happytime Murders is a bad movie. Not so bad it’s good, though it does tend in that direction, but so bad it makes you wonder how it ever happened.
*. The idea itself wasn’t new. It was described accurately upon its release as Who Framed Roger Rabbit meets Meet the Feebles. But without the magic of the former or shock value of the latter.
*. It’s a comedy with one joke, which is puppets engaged in “adult” behaviour. Meaning having sex, doing drugs, and swearing a lot. I say this is the joke, but it isn’t funny. Crude, but not funny. It’s also a bit uncomfortable. There’s something not just juvenile but angry and nasty about the degrading of the puppets here. Since it was directed by Brian Henson (son of Jim Henson, creator of the muppets) it’s hard not to imagine some kind of acting out. But it ends up just awkward.
*. Why isn’t it funny? Some possibilities: (1) it’s trying too hard; (2) the timing is all wrong, given the awkward way the puppets move; (3) the fact that the puppet faces can’t show any expression, making them as funny as zombies or people wearing masks; (4) the really boring voice of the main puppet character, Detective Phil Phillips, played by long-time muppet performer Bill Barretta.
*. The plot isn’t very interesting, being concerned with the murder of the cast of a puppet television show called The Happytime Gang. It’s the basic noir set-up, with Phillips and his partner (Melissa McCarthy) hunting down leads through the sleazy highs and lows of L.A. What’s really going on is perfectly obvious from the opening minutes because it’s the only explanation we’re left with.
*. McCarthy does everything she can to make this shit work, and her delivery of one line was the only smile the film got out of me. As I say, it’s a movie you watch wondering how it got made. How did they let things go so far down this road without realizing how poor the material was and how none of it was working? There seems to have been some fighting in post-production over putting together a satisfactory cut so maybe some of the blame has to go there. But still you have to ask: What were they thinking?

The X-Files: Fight the Future (1998)

*. I’ve been re-watching The X-Files, intermittently, for the past little while and had just started on season six when I realized that I’d missed something. That something was this movie, which I’d seen but mostly forgotten. Which led me to track it down for another look.
*. That way of coming to Fight the Future tells you something about its odd status. It’s not a standalone story but more an episode in a serial. In particular it takes the main X-Files “mythology” or narrative spine and runs with it. In producer Cris Carter’s words, it’s basically a “big mythology episode.” When season six kicked off it didn’t miss a beat, as the first episode has someone getting infected with the alien virus and then giving birth Alien-style to an alien, as is done here. Indeed, they probably wanted an episode going over this same material just to keep the television audience up to speed.
*. But that’s not to say that you’d be totally lost if you hadn’t been watching the show. The thing is, the X-Files mythology is so complicated and semi-opaque there’s no way to make sense of it all. As Strughold says, with regard to Mulder, “Of the whole he has seen but pieces.” And this is after he’s seen the alien ship taking off!
*. What’s more to the point, Mulder never will see the whole. To arrive at any final revelation wouldn’t just bring the series to a crashing halt, it would go against its entire premise, not to mention the way it works. The truth has to remain “out there.” Somewhere.
*. I think Roger Ebert’s review makes this point: “As a story, it needs a sequel, a prequel, and Cliff Notes. I’m not sure even the filmmakers can explain exactly what happens in the movie, and why. It doesn’t make much difference if you’ve seen every episode of the TV series, or none: The film is essentially self-contained, and that includes its enigmas. X-philes will probably be as puzzled at the end as an infrequent viewer like myself.”
*. That sense of always running in place and getting nowhere is baked into the cake. When Mulder says at the end “How many times have we been here before, Scully, right here so close to the truth?” we have to accept it as a given. In that regard it’s much like Scully and Mulder’s own romantic yearnings for each other. They can never be consummated, even with a kiss. Because that would, like the revelation of the Truth, shut everything down, and also because it would be a betrayal of the rules of the game.
*. A key part of Scully and Mulder’s always-interrupted courtship is Scully’s steadfast refusal to commit. Yet another way we see their relationship inverting gender stereotypes. She is the scientific mind and he operates just as much by intuition. By this point in the series Scully’s continued resistance to believing what is going on had become a bit of a joke, which would continue into the next season of the show as she refuses to back Mulder up at yet another closed-door hearing. Because she didn’t actually see the alien ship! Just like she never sees the monsters or the aliens in the show. And without further evidence . . . you know.

*. Given how much of the movie is a tease, never giving us the whole picture, questions about the plot are easily foiled. How did Mulder get all the way to Antarctica and drive that tractor right up the base without anyone knowing? Well, maybe they did know and they wanted him to come to them. But why? These questions are like a dog chasing its tail.
*. One thing that did bother me was the introduction of Scully and Mulder by way of the explosion in the office building. This was apparently orchestrated in order to destroy the cadavers of the firemen and child who fell into the cave at the beginning. But couldn’t they have figured out an easier, and far less conspicuous, way of doing this? Especially considering the fact that the explosion does not destroy the bodies! And why does Michaud have to sacrifice himself? Given the bomb was about to go off anyway, why didn’t he just evacuate the building with the others?
*. Judging the movie on its own is difficult. Basically what worked on the small screen works just as well on the big. David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson have the same good chemistry, and share the same low-key delivery that plays well against the insanity of the plot. Fan favourites like The Lone Gunmen put in an appearance, even though they have little to do. The Cigarette-Smoking Man (William B. Davis), known as Cancer Man by fans and referred to as CSM on the commentary track, looks grim and sinister. There are black helicopters, and even a black train. The show’s signature atmosphere of layers of conspiracy shrouding everything is well evoked.
*. In fact, one of the things I enjoyed the most are all the old boys showing up and doing their thing. Davis. Martin Landau as a slightly buggy deserter from the cause. John Neville as the Well-Manicured Man. Armin Mueller-Stahl giving the Organization a suitably Nazi accent.
*. Any final judgment on such a movie is impossible. The X-Files was a good TV show, and so if the movie is basically just a more expensively tricked-out version of that, then that’s OK. But I don’t think it stands up that well on its own. I can only speculate about this, since I do know the show, but I think anyone coming to it cold will likely feel as though they’ve been left out of the loop. Since, moving forward, fewer and fewer people will be familiar with the show I suspect this movie will soon be forgotten, or only remembered as just one chapter in a saga accessible only to fans.

Eraserhead (1977)

*. I first saw Eraserhead at a rep cinema sometime in the 1980s and it really made an impact. I think I was dragging friends off to see it for the next couple of weeks. And even though I don’t think I’ve seen it since then, watching it again now I found I remembered almost all of it quite distinctly.
*. Much of that probably has to do with how striking the imagery is. Who can forget Henry’s towering hairdo, or that mewling baby? All rendered in exquisite black-and-white. Could you imagine this movie in colour? I can’t.
*. Filmed in L.A. but Lynch wanted it to look like Philadelphia. I’ve never been to Philadelphia but I know this doesn’t look like L.A. It really is a remarkable job of low-budget world building. Of course locations are a big part of this, but it’s also an effect of the lighting. This is a dark film even in the daytime.
*. The images also stick in the mind because of their mysterious nature. Ever since it came out it’s been a parlour game to try and uncode Eraserhead‘s meaning. This is something David Lynch obviously wanted to invite, which is why he’s remained coy about offering any interpretation of his own. Thus far he’s only said that “no critic or reviewer has given an interpretation that is my interpretation.”
*. I suspect this may be because he didn’t have anything specific in mind. In fact, I don’t see how he could have had anything specific in mind. Does it make a difference that Henry works as a printer? Does that relate to what happens to his noggin?
*. The most frequently quoted line about the movie, that it is “a dream of dark and troubling things” is all we’ve gotten from Lynch, and it only shuts the door. Despite all the books that have been written on the subject, I don’t think dreams have any objective or universal meanings.
*. Of course this hasn’t stopped critics from trying to unpack Lynch’s dream (or nightmare). I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this since, as I say, it’s clearly invited. But given the weirdness of the proceedings I don’t think we should expect to get very far.

*. The one point that does seem certain is the revulsion shown toward sex, something that is almost de rigueur when dealing with body horror. There are giant sperm wriggling around and getting squished underfoot or slapped against walls. There’s a bed that sort of melts into a milky hot tub in a very unerotic way when Harry makes out with the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall. The products of sin are disgusting, from the bitch with her pack of nursing pups to Henry’s hideous baby. Meanwhile, it’s hard to figure out how Henry (a very human Jack Nance) and Mary managed to conceive in the first place (something that Henry is a bit mystified by himself).
*. It’s not difficult to make sex seem disgusting. In fact, making it look good is probably harder. Plus, the world of Eraserhead is an all-around ugly and depressing place. What’s interesting is that even the glimpses we’re given of escape or of something outside Harry’s immediate environment, are even worse. The Lady in the Radiator, singing of heaven, is deformed. The Man in the Planet is in even worse shape. Henry’s window only looks out onto a brick wall. This may be the most disturbing thing about Eraserhead: that within its dream of dark and troubling things the dreamer only dreams of things more dark and troubling still.
*. If the visuals are depressing and disgusting the film’s sound, designed by Alan Splet, is equal in its misery. I’d forgotten just how irritating, indeed purposefully annoying a movie this is to listen to. What a cacophony of noise: humming from machinery, static from the radio, hissing from the radiator, squeaking from the furniture, trains in the distance, the baby’s crying, the wind blowing, and all of this playing non-stop.
*. Eraserhead is a movie better experienced than talked about. I don’t think Lynch had any real statement in mind and people probably see in it what they want to see. I was mightily impressed by it thirty years ago, and while I came away from it this time with a lot of respect for what Lynch accomplished, on a shooting schedule that stretched over five years, I have to say it’s not a movie I enjoy as much today. It was student work, of the highest caliber but still student work, and it appealed to me as a student. But my imagination isn’t what it used to be.

Lizzie (2018)

*. Because the imagination tends to dwell on unsolved crimes, the axe murders of Mr. and Mrs. Borden in 1892 have stayed with us, and indeed grown over the years into a kind of folk tale that much can be projected on. I think it’s long been the majority (but not universal) opinion that young Lizzie Borden did the ghastly deed. Her reasons why, if she had reasons, have, however, provided much ground for conjecture in various re-enactments.
*. To mention just some pertinent highlights. The 1975 TV-movie The Legend of Lizzie Borden had Lizzie (Elizabeth Montgomery) committing the murders (or at least imagining herself committing the murders) in the nude, then washing the blood off so that she didn’t get any on her clothes. Canadian playwright Sharon Pollock’s Blood Relations premiered in 1980, casting culpability for the Borden killings on society at large, with the audience being a stand-in. The play also suggested that Lizzie was a lesbian. In 1984 Ed McBain’s novel Lizzie explicitly had it that Lizzie, the killer, was in a lesbian relationship with the maid Bridget.
*. I bring up all this background just to show that this Lizzie (which includes all of the elements just mentioned) wasn’t breaking any new ground in 2018. Far from it. Yes, you can see it as a movie of the #MeToo era, with Mr. Borden being a sexual predator getting his comeuppance, but that’s hardly a fresh take on the case. Nothing here is.
*. This leaves us with the presentation. I wasn’t that impressed. It’s a low-budget production and looks it, mostly confined to a few interior sets. The direction is not inspiring. The only nod toward building suspense is to throw in some creepy and discordant music.
*. ChloĆ« Sevigny, for whom this was a pet project, is very good as Lizzie. Kristen Stewart has an indifferent Irish accent. The rest of the cast don’t stand out. The script never fully comes to a point. Bridget asks why Lizzie was doing this to help her, and I guess this is what the movie wants us to consider as the big question. But isn’t it obvious? Because if it isn’t obvious — that Lizzie has genuine affection for Bridget — then I can’t think of what sort of conclusion I’m supposed to be drawing.
*. I wish I could say I liked this more, but there was none of the style or atmosphere it needed to make it work and in the end I found it pretty dull.

Inseminoid (1981)

*. Let’s be perfectly honest: I don’t think anyone in 1981, or at anytime since, has gone into this movie thinking it was going to be any good. There’s simply no way a movie with a title like Inseminoid could be anything but a joke. But might it still be one of those so-bad-it’s-good, video-basement treats?
*. I think for the most part it is. It’s a terrible movie from start to finish, but so very bad that you just have to laugh at it. The script (apparently written in a rush) is full of deadly one-liners. The action proceeds by way of huge leaps in continuity. It’s SF-horror but the effects are laughable. The monster twins are just stiff plastic puppets and the gore consists of abrupt edits and then shots of victims with blood splashed on their faces or clothes. Even the weapons, including a welder and what looks like a hedge trimmer, are a joke.
*. The acting is also terrible. Judy Geeson as Sandy, the inseminated one, is praised in some quarters but I think the only thing you can say is that she’s giving it her all, and that her efforts don’t really help. The birth scene goes on so long you have to laugh to drown out her screams. But then there are also little things like the way Mark goes running through the tunnels. This reminded me a bit of John Belushi in Animal House.
*. Released a year after Alien, most people saw it as a rip-off. This is a charge the director, Norman J. Warren, has denied, saying they had not seen Alien at the time of writing Inseminoid. This doesn’t strike me as a very convincing defence, since there’s more to being a rip-off than just a script and the script in this case likely consisted of nothing more than an outline. To me it seems like an Alien rip-off, though I suppose you could say (and there have been those who’ve said) that Alien itself borrowed from other films, like It! The Terror from Beyond Space and Planet of the Vampires. Eventually everything gets recycled.
*. Another likely source was Demon Seed, with the pregnancy angle playing out in a roughly similar fashion. In fact, the script was originally called Doomseeds and had to be changed because of the resemblance. Though here I think the connection is more generic, with both movies fitting into the then popular sub-genre of reproductive horror.

*. Of course what set Alien apart from everything that had come before were all of its iconic design elements, starting with Giger’s creature. This movie has none of that going for it, unless you consider the rape or impregnation scene to be an early instance of what would develop into the Japanese porn fetish for tentacle sex and alien breeding. Otherwise the women all look fantastically made up, the spacesuits are borrowed from the 1950s, the phones from the 1970s, and designer blue jeans are now the rage in space.
*. But does this add up to something so bad it’s good? Kim Newman is someone who enjoyed it: “Most of the rip-offs [of Alien] are dull, but Norman J. Warren’s Inseminoid (1980) aspires to hectic lunacy by having its cast (which includes a heavy feminine complement — Stephanie Beacham, Jennifer Ashley, Victorian Tennant and Judy Geeson) rush around some offworld catacombs with the enthusiasm of a crowd of schoolkids with plastic bags over their heads playing spacemen.”
*. Surprisingly, some reviews, at least in the U.K., weren’t bad when it came out. But I think since then it has gone on to gain a bit of a cult status based on its sheer incompetence. I don’t find it laugh-out-loud awful, or the stuff of favourite-bad-moviedom, but I do get a kick out of most of it. It’s cheap and derivative and, like most movies that are so bad they’re funny, it tries to do too much and keeps falling on its face in embarrassing ways. I wouldn’t call it one of the best worst movies ever made, but it is bad enough to want to see a couple of times. I’m happy to report that over the years I think it’s been getting better. And yes, by that I mean worse.