Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Halloween Roundup 2008

Let's not lose our heads, kiddies: The Halloween Roundup is back! And as your faithful Mausoleum Master, I wracked my brains--and when that didn't work, I wracked the brains of a drifter I lured into my unmarked van--and out popped this year's Roundup, a salute to the post-Vietnam, pre-digital, big-haired '80s, with all kinds of stuff trickling down. Everything was awesome and the New Wave gagged everyone with a spoon--and at the movies, nothing was sacred--unless you were making a big-time Hollywood picture, with Ark-Raiders, Star-Warriors, or a pack of John Hughes brats.

But down there in the basement, the horror film hissed like a 'gator, the outer limits of bad behavior meeting the boundless audacity of Special Makeup Effects. So square those big shoulders, mousse up and bug out, because it's Halloween all day, and the '80s all the way (after a kinder, gentler kid matinee).

11:00 am: Monsters, Inc. (2001)

Proud to have successfully digitized hair, Pixar luxuriates in a free-flowing, bouncing romp through that most basic of childhood fears: the Thing in the dark. Except this time it's John Goodman in Gentle-Giant mode, with Billy Crystal talking out of the corner of his mouth--and Mary Gibbs as Boo, the voice-talent highlight of this candy-colored clown of a movie.

1:00 pm: Mr. Vampire (1985)

A goofy Hong Kong hodgepodge of ghosts, follow-the-bouncing-vampires, wire-fu action and slapstick comedy, sprinkled with obscure (for most of us) references to various folk-myths and practices. A movie that all but demands you watch it dubbed, if only to add one more layer of foolishness. An early-afternoon oddity you won't soon forget.

3:00 pm: The Changeling (1980)

Along with Uzumaki (2000), a Japanese exercise in gothic-surrealism, The Changeling is a Roundup perennial, a solid ghost story that features George C. Scott tortured by guilt (not a stretch for the Big Man) and drawn into his new home's past sins. Worth it just for the rubber-ball scene.

5:00 pm Near Dark (1987)

Well, the '80s really begin with this one, Kathryn Bigelow's almost-comic gore-fest that asks the question, "Are there vampires in 'Real America'?" You may not want to know the answer, but you'll get one from Lance Henricksen, Bill Paxton, and the rest of their a-hootin'-and-a-bloodsuckin' clan.

7:00 Eating Raoul (1982)

I'll admit I haven't seen this one since the actual '80s, so its satire may not travel as well as I'm hoping, especially as it enters John Waters territory: '50s camp sensibility paired with '80s alternate sexuality. Hmm. We shall see.

9:00 pm Dead and Buried (1981)

With James Farentino and Jack Albertson starring, one might fear we're in TV-movie territory. But if you remember the heyday of TV movies, you should fear not--and just enjoy being afraid of this small-town-with-a-secret. Although Dead and Buried is another one I haven't seen in years, it promises a twist or two as the body-count rises.

11:00 pm The Fly (1986)

Along with Les yeux sans visage (1960), one of the true masterpieces of "medical horror." Serving as a metaphor for AIDS, cancer, genetics as an industry, abortion rights, what-have-you, David Cronenberg's movie forces us to watch the changes any of these can force upon the body and soul. Audacious, funny, heart-breaking, sickening, The Fly takes us past midnight with a buzz no one wants.

Fall-back options (in case of damaged discs):

From Beyond (1986): Stuart Gordon's follow-up to 1985's Re-Animator.

The Shining (1980): Stanley Kubrick's Gothic meditation on the disintegration of the nuclear family, with a fire-ax.

Angel Heart (1987): Alan Parker drifts along the bayou with Mickey Rourke, joined by a decidedly de-Cosby-fied Lisa Bonet and Robert DeNiro eating a hard-boiled egg. Things, I don't have to tell you, get weird.

And I may have a few copies of last year's Roundup CD, free to our valued patrons and crammed like a doomed goose with spooky tunes to keep you doing the boneyard watusi all night long. See you Saturday, boos and ghouls! (Heh-heh-heh!)

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Rating Game Redux 45: Are We Scared Yet?

Our local paper continues to love Halloween, calling for "Scariest Movie Moments." (I have excluded the obvious: Michael Bay, Wild Hogs, Mike Myers' accents)

Them! (1954)

In the opening sequence, a little girl in a bathrobe, clutching a doll, wanders trance-like through the desert. The giant ants that follow are pretty cool, but that image of the little girl conveys real dread, deeper in your head than any ‘50s creature-feature could actually deliver.

The Fly (1986)

Just about the longest man-to-monster transformation in the movies culminates with Seth Brundle’s doomed, surreal consideration of his slipping into fly-dom: “Have you ever heard of insect politics? Neither have I. Insects don't have politics. They're very brutal. No compassion, no compromise. We can't trust the insect. I'd like to become the first insect politician. You see, I'd like to, but I'm afraid.” Always the jazz performer, Jeff Goldblum plays the scene like sci-fi Shakespeare, scatting his way into the genetic abyss.

Psycho (1960)

While Milton Arbogast’s (Martin Balsam) slow ascent to his doom is Hitchcock working the scare-machine full tilt, it’s Anthony Perkins at his ease that scares me the most, with his boyish grin and stammer, watching Vivien Leigh eat “like a bird,” his attention, as always, maternal.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Rating Game Redux 44: We All Scream

Our local paper edges us closer to the October Country by calling--loudly, piercingly--for "Best Horror Movie Screams." As usual, too many remain unheard when three is all I'm allowed to mention--but we can still hearken to Mary Philbin, opening her mouth--and covering it, lady to the last--her eyes wide enough to take in every putty-and-wire rotted crease of Lon Chaney's Phantom--her scream silent, as if in a dog's-only upper register. And Janet Leigh, vying with Bernard Herrmann's violins as Anthony Perkins smiles, shy guy that he is, and helps Mother. And even John Goodman and Willliam Forsythe, the Snoats brothers, letting loose with lusty roars as they suddenly realize the shocking burdens of raising (as far as anyone can tell) little Nathan Arizona.

But these three--OK, four--will do for now, their din the first herald of Good Ol' Halloween, just around the dark corner.

In the original King Kong (1933), Fay Wray’s scream becomes more important than any actual words in the script (excluding the famous last line). Sometimes recorded as a tiny thing—to match her size relative to Kong’s—sometimes filling the soundtrack, her screams are as memorable as the animated ape himself.

A tie, same movie: When Helen Delambre (Patricia Owens) finally sees what her husband (David Hedison) has become in The Fly (1958), she screams—and the camera cuts to her fly-husband’s perspective, her face reproduced in every facet of his fly-eyes, her scream suddenly a distorted warble. And then the human-headed fly at the end, caught in the spider’s web, screaming, “Help me! Help me!” in a high-pitched falsetto at once ridiculous and pitiful—until Vincent Price smashes it with a rock.

In Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Marilyn Burns as Sally Hardesty spends an interminable final sequence screaming, moaning, begging for mercy. It is unnerving and almost impossible to watch /listen to, the cruelest ten minutes in movie history.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The Home Viewer (11): Lincolnesque

I recently submitted a Lincoln-themed piece to our local paper--but I can't find it online, and I don't get the paper, so I'm not sure if it ran. (I really should work on my ego.) Anyway, here in Illinois we're generally pretty Abe-happy--although I'm used to that kind of thing: Growing up in NJ near Philadelphia, it was Ben Franklin this and Ben Franklin that. History. Sheesh. Anyway (again), we're gearing up for his bicentennial--and the college where I work was the site of the 4th Lincoln-Douglas debate, during which, we are always proud to point out, Lincoln "first condemned slavery on moral grounds."

And so it is in high moral dudgeon mode that I present The Roundabout Lincoln Movie Tribute. As the Honest One once said, "There's nothing I'd rather do than go to the theater." You have been warned.

As the Lincoln-Douglas Debate Weekend arrives, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the debates, Galesburg and Knox College are doing their best to honor the old Rail Splitter and his legacy. But as far as the Home Viewer is concerned, no celebration is complete without a random collection of movies. In my diligent laziness, I wandered around a Lincoln quotations website, and have allowed some choice passages to help me select the films that follow. Honest, Abe.

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

There’s nothing like opening strong. These words, from his first inaugural address, are justly famous, beautifully constructed without being too fussy, self-assured in their flourishes—the balanced, parallel structures, the long phrase separating subject and verb, trusting the reader to follow, to carry on to the end—with a judicious balance of sentimentality and profundity. But where, cinematically speaking, does this take us? I’m reminded of films where passion strains the “bonds of affection”:

In John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards all but surrenders his love to hatred, a hard man whom everyone shuns—until he is forced to break his own will and be touched by those “better angels,” and stay his murderous hand.

Akira Kurosawa’s Akahige/Red Beard (1965) is the tale of young, ambitious Doctor Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama), who feels trapped in a charity clinic run by Toshiro Mifune’s Dr. Niide (whose nickname gives us the movie’s title), a man whose great humility and good will—and humor—is tainted by neither false pride nor false humility. While Yasumoto complains, Niide persists, and the younger man’s ego melts under the heat of Red Beard’s implacable dedication. And the remarkable thing is that Kurosawa, like Lincoln in his speech, avoids sheer sentimentality, and instead asserts compassion as the “mystic chord” necessary to accomplish any worthwhile task, pride abandoned, enemies reconciled.

Touchez pas au grisbi/Don't Touch the Loot (1954), directed by Jacques Becker, feels like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Maltese Falcon in its brutally frank attention to failure, while ironically praising the virtues of friendship and loyalty. Jean Gabin's Max, a ready-to-retire criminal, is forced to risk everything to save his longtime friend/partner in crime. A casually hip movie in which thugs call each other “Daddy-o” and friendship is more valuable than loot. As Sam Spade says, "Don't be too sure I'm as crooked as I'm supposed to be." Fifteen years later—and an ocean away—Max tenders the same warning, and woe to any mug who gives it the drift.

"Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration."

Can we still affirm these words from Lincoln's first annual message to Congress? After a $700,000,000,000 bailout, it appears that, while we are told the American laborer/fundamentals/foundation is sound, Capital still rakes in better fringe benefits. Even at the movies.

Wall Street (1987) trickled down a little secret: “Greed is good.” Michael Douglas with his slicked-back mane and lizard eyes today may seem quaint, an ‘80s Simon LeGree, but is it a coincidence that his character’s name is Gordon Gekko? In its boundless truthiness, Wikipedia tells us that, when threatened, many species of geckos will “expel a foul-smelling material and feces.” Thus endeth the lesson.

But if you really want to see an angry populist at work, suffer through George Romero’s Land of the Dead (2005). The capitalists hide in a luxury hotel while the workers forage amid the living dead—which in the end become the not-so-meek inheritors of the Earth-as-buffet, taking what they like, and eating what they take.

Still, some movies give credit where it’s due. Norma Rae (1979) and Bread and Roses (2000) extol the virtues of unionization—although Ken Loach’s movie is not as optimistic as Norman Ritt’s, whose Norma Rae (Sally Field in her first Oscar-winning performance) rises above the cotton-dust to lead her fellow textile workers to victory. And while the anti-(crooked) union undertones of On the Waterfront (1954) shift the film’s politics, Brando’s Terry Malloy rounds his shoulders and sneaks in the class-hero side door, the worker-as-boxer, bloodied but unbowed.

“I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor or degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy [sic].”

In this 1855 letter to Joshua Speed, a Southerner and slave-owner, Lincoln addresses, among other things, his opposition to the American Party, or “Know-Nothings,” “Nativists” who advocated restricting immigration of Catholics, particularly from Ireland. Despite his repeated statements that he did not consider a person of African descent to be his “equal in many respects,” as he put it in his first debate with Stephen Douglas, he maintained a strong conviction that “in the right to eat the bread, without leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.” In the Know-Nothings he saw a damaging extension of the degradations of inequality.

Listen carefully to Daniel Day-Lewis’ Bill “The Butcher” Cutting in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002), and you’ll hear plainly the “progress in degeneracy.” He is always on the lookout for the Irish minions of “their king with the pointy hat what sits on his throne in Rome” and boasts, “You know how I stayed alive this long? All these years? Fear. The spectacle of fearsome acts. Somebody steals from me, I cut off his hands. He offends me, I cut out his tongue. He rises against me, I cut off his head, stick it on a pike, raise it high up so all on the streets can see. That's what preserves the order of things. Fear.” And in the end, it is fear that motivates even the fearsome.

My favorite part of the above quoted Lincoln passage is his assertion that, if the Know-Nothings gain control, he “should prefer emigrating to [Russia] where they make no pretence of loving liberty … where despotism can be taken pure.” But when John Reed went to Russia in 1917 and witnessed “ten days that shook the world,” he was hoping for a nation where no one craved “the spectacle of fearsome acts.” And for a brief time, the electric charge of freedom lit him up—as Warren Beatty chronicles in Reds (1981), where Reed moves from fellow traveler to true believer to disillusioned idealist to accidental martyr. In the end, Reed stays behind, buried in the Kremlin, finally equal to everyone, while the “pretence of loving liberty” is still kept up, although more than a little strained.

Well, I’d like to thank Lincoln for easy words to build on, evocative and brimming with ideas. Seems a shame that this is all I’ve squeezed out of them; but as another Master Rhetorician, George Orwell, reminds us, everything is political, even the decision not to be political—and that might include a movie now and then.

Coming Soon: The annual Halloween Roundup. I was thinking of doing an all-'70s version. Any suggestions--or alternate themes?

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