Monday, November 10, 2008

Rating Game Redux 46: "Determined to Prove a Villain"

Our local paper asked us to call into the abyss, and some boss villains called back.

The first villains are encountered in childhood. Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) is the Big Bad Wolf in Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955), his fingers famously tattooed with “love” and “hate,” Mitchum’s sleepy grin relentless as he pursues the children through a black-and-white troubled dream.

Given the current global economic state, Haghi (Rudolph Kleine-Rogge), the evil banker in Fritz Lang’s Spione/Spies (1928), comes easily to mind. Sitting wheelchair-bound (unnecessarily, his disability a ruse—how’s that for a metaphor?) in his office, wired to a worldwide network of saboteurs and assorted minions, his staring eyes and goatee pointing at us like a weapon, Haghi threatens monetary chaos while his own coffers fill to bursting. Fortunately, in Lang’s version, no bailout is offered.

OK, I can’t resist another financier: Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Also in a wheelchair, Potter cannot bear the thought of regular folk owning their own homes—or George Bailey’s growing conviction that, eventually, everyone should have a conscience.

Monday, November 03, 2008

The Home Viewer (12): Dead of Night

Yes, yes, Halloween is over. But terror--not to mention my ego--knows no bounds, so here's the latest column I wrote for our local paper. Boo.

The best Halloween films are midnight movies, weird creatures that hide during the day, slithering and lumbering out only when the sun has set and it’s a long way until dawn. As Macbeth, among the finest citizens of Halloweentown, says, “Let not light see my black and deep desires.” So save your revered classics and perennial favorites for a happy matinee: It’s time for Midnight Madness, where (as long as I’m quoting) “something wicked this way comes.”

Les yeux sans visage/Eyes without a Face (1960)

Also known as The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus (the English dubbed version, which I’m sure I saw in the mid-‘60s on some UHF channel), this is the least unhinged of our Creepy Cavalcade. Still, surrealist Georges Franju sent them running out of the theater with his tale of a surgeon who attempts to restore his daughter’s beauty (maimed when her father crashes the car) by kidnapping young women and removing their faces, which he then grafts onto his poor daughter, who wanders the mansion-clinic wearing a featureless mask, a ghost before her time, while her father and his dedicated nurse cruise the shadowed streets, searching for victims. The gruesome is always more so in black and white, the details of the surgical procedures soaked in darkness, the daughter’s melancholy mask pale as a bone in moonlight. (For a campy take on this situation, see 1959’s The Brain That Wouldn’t Die.)

Freaks (1932)

“We accept her--one of us--gooble, gobble--we accept her--one of us--gooble, gobble.” Or “gabba gabba” if you’re a Ramones fan. Tod Browning loved the circus, and the fact that night must fall. So every chance he got, he put the two together, in whichever way he could, from The Unknown and the lost London After Midnight (both 1927) to Dracula (1931). But Freaks has its own strange trajectory, veering toward exploitation (his cast famously includes actual circus sideshow performers)--well, plummeting over the edge, perhaps. But in Browning’s world the congenitally disabled and the purposely contorted are the norm, while the “normal” viewer is the deviant, the voyeur. If you feel uncomfortable watching the Human Torso, Koo-Koo the Bird Girl, Johnny Eck the legless man, or the encephalitic Zip and Pip, it’s your problem, not theirs. But woe to anyone who crosses “one of us.”

Day of the Dead (1985)

After the original, this is the most outlandish (and my favorite) outing for George Romero’s forty-year zombie spree. The humans are nervous wrecks, the zombies are literally storming the gates, while undead Bub grooves to his Walkman. Gory without regrets, cluttered with endlessly bickering characters--the best of them as pleasant as spoiled milk--and punctuated by social commentary delivered with all the subtlety of a chainsaw, Day of the Dead should be viewed only at midnight, when your regular self is too tired to stop watching.

A Bucket of Blood (1959)

I would have to resign my post if I didn’t mention a Roger Corman movie--preferably one with Dick Miller. But what can I add to the basic premise of A Bucket of Blood? A wanna-be beatnik artist (Miller as Walter Paisley; what a Clyde, daddio) kills things—eventually people, natch--encases them in clay, and becomes the darling of the finger-snapping set. Only Dick Miller could play camp straight; lesser performers would have tripped over their own sandals. More desperate than The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), with a creepy-giggling sense of its own cheap appeal, this one deserves a tip of the beret.

Daughters of Darkness (1971)

In deference to this column’s appearance in a family-friendly publication, let me simply state that if you’re going to watch only one ‘70s eurotrash lesbian vampire film at midnight this Halloween …

The Brood (1979)

David Cronenberg’s horror films are bearable only if you’re willing to watch what appears to be occupational therapy. Here, it’s divorce Cronenberg-style, as Samantha Eggar turns to psycho-babble psychiatrist Oliver Reed to help her work out some marriage/motherhood problems. The result is a Gothic parable of anxieties externalized and rage embodied. Always one to rub our noses in our selves, Cronenberg turns the mad doctor scenario into an indictment of pop psychology--with truly nauseating and delirious results. And you thought Norman Bates had issues.

Suspiria (1977)

Dario Argento’s triumph of style over substance, its suspense set-pieces textbook lessons in editing and pacing worthy of Hitchcock or DePalma. It’s basically an “old dark house” plot, with strange goings-on and multiple murders. But Argento brings a painter’s eye--and a devilish glee--to the proceedings to prove that a midnight movie can also be a class act.

Eraserhead (1977)

The ultimate student film, five years in the making, David Lynch’s first feature, “a dream of dark and troubling things,” set the tone for most of his later work. It is, for me, the ultimate dead-of-night movie, devoid of all camp sensibilities, deliberate as a virus, a dimly lit trudge toward adulthood depicted as a surreal withdrawal--not back toward childhood, but inside the resisting self, sickened by the prospect of growing up. For most viewers, Eraserhead is something to be endured, like an unwelcome guest, and so I’ll warn you more than recommend it to you. But if you must, watch it at midnight--better yet, after the midnight movie, in the “dark night,” as St. John of the Cross put it, when you’re ready for it because you’re all alone.

Have a Happy Halloween, kiddies.

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