It’s officially horror movie season, which means that the Internet is overrun with lists of Scariest Movie Moments, Best Horror Villains, and Worst Slasher Sequels. As a lifelong horror movie devotee, I figured I’d throw myself into the fray with my own modest list of ten favorites.
Having dragged out some old horror-movie favorites for Halloween, I was inspired to revisit a classic of the genre that I’ll confess to having seen only once before: Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963), based on the well-known Shirley Jackson novel. The Haunting is generally seen as one of the great, if not the greatest, haunted house films—a horror movie that works by suggestion, subtlety and indirection. But I remembered being somewhat underwhelmed by the film when I first saw it roughly fourteen years ago. I figured now was a good time to take another look at it.
I caught the recent film Win Win (dir. Tom McCarthy) on video this week—mainly because I had free access to it and figured anything starring Paul Giamatti would be worth a look. But while Giamatti does the best that he can with the material, he’s more or less wasted in a part that feels like a cliché of the roles he played so wonderfully in films like American Splendor (2003) and Sideways (2004). How many times must we watch him play a shlubby, good-hearted but somewhat ethically compromised middle-aged loser type? Win Win seems to prove that Giamatti has played out this phase of his career and that he would be better suited taking on more diverse roles, or at least better-written ones (like his smaller but more impressive supporting turn in The Ides of March).
The psychotronic diaries: “Whoever finds the secret of the South Sea Queen will live in great danger of assault!”
I end my education in psychotronic film with Lady Terminator (dir. Jalil Jackson, 1988), an Indonesian rip-off of James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) that’s truly mind-boggling. (The Brattle Theater advertised this movie on its calendar by writing: “Get ready for your face to melt completely off your skull.”) This film has it all: Indonesian pop music, women with snakes inside their vaginas, epic mullets, a police detective who dresses like a frat boy, and priceless dialogue (“Stop calling me ‘lady’—I’m not a lady, I’m an anthropologist!”).
Daddy issues have been a recurring theme in my psychotronic viewing project: first Toys Are Not for Children, then The Mafu Cage, and now Julie Darling (dir. Paul Nicholas, 1982), which I had the good fortune to see here at the Brattle Theater in 2010. It’s an insidious, wonderfully grimy-looking psycho thriller in the “evil children” vein, in which adolescent Julie (Isabelle Mejias) takes out her incestuous desire for her father (Anthony Franciosa) on every woman who threatens to come between them, first by standing by while her mother is raped and murdered by a sleazy grocery delivery man (Paul Hubbard), then by trying to off her more resilient stepmother (played by exploitation queen Sybil Danning).
I recently read someone over at the Criterion Forum message board describing Lucio Fulci’s films as undeniably nonsensical, but so visually striking that it’s possible to slip into a particular mindset while watching them—one in which the viewer simply becomes lost in the images and forgets about the incongruity of the plot. It’s an interesting theory, especially because, as I’ve been suggesting throughout my recent posts, psychotronic films almost always require us to adopt unusual viewing methods. We don’t watch a psychotronic film in the same way that we watch an Oscar-winning historical epic or a Judd Apatow comedy. We’re in some weird other viewing space, where we’re alternately horrified, amused, disturbed, bored, perhaps confounded. Which is where Fulci’s The Beyond (1981) comes in.
Chained Heat (dir. Paul Nicholas, 1983) is as sleazy an exploitation film as they come, a women-in-prison drama loaded with gratuitous female nudity, quease-inducing rape scenes, and ugly, clumsily staged acts of violence. So why watch it? What pleasures, if any, do such films afford?
What is there to say about George Clooney’s The Ides of March, which opened last week to largely positive—if not glowing—reviews, and which is certain to be a key player—but perhaps not a lock—during Oscar season? Why is it so hard to know what there is to say? The Ides of March is smart, modest, solidly made, and doesn’t get bogged down in gimmicks, extraneous characters or plot contrivances. It is, somehow, both stylish and workmanlike, a throwback to the classy political thrillers of the 70s, like All the President’s Men. (It feels equally indebted to the psychologically charged noir films like Sweet Smell of Success, which center on an older man/younger man dynamic.) And it’s got a dynamite cast: Clooney himself as a charismatic Obama-like presidential candidate; Ryan Gosling (who can do no wrong this year, apparently) as his idealistic campaign manager; Philip Seymour Hoffman, doing a great job in one of the film’s several pissed-off blowhard roles; Paul Giamatti as the rival pissed-off blowhard; Marisa Tomei as a duplicitous New York Times reporter; and Evan Rachel Wood as a flirtatious campaign intern who knows more than she appears. All are excellent.
There’s a subgenre of the psychotronic film for which, I’ve discovered, I have a particular weakness: the “career suicide” movie, in which A- or B-list Hollywood actors attach themselves to material that’s so out-there they may as well be asking never to work in “reputable” films again. A good example of this would be Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (dir. Robert Aldrich, 1962), which didn’t exactly flop (it earned Bette Davis an Oscar nomination, after all), but which effectively ended both Davis’ and Joan Crawford’s careers as Great Actresses and established them as camp icons, consigning them both to horror parts for the next twenty-five or so years. Interestingly, Faye Dunaway’s decision to play Crawford in Mommie Dearest (1981, dir. Frank Perry) was another act of career suicide—one that came, tragically, at the height of Dunaway’s success. Career-suicide movies seem more common among female actors than male ones; men seem somehow better able to bounce back from a flop, and the missteps seem less fatal, and even less interesting—it doesn’t feel as embarassing to watch, say, Jackie Gleason trapped in the disastrous Skidoo as to watch Carol Kane and Lee Grant in The Mafu Cage (dir. Karen Arthur, 1978).
“Learn to go see the ‘worst’ films; they are sometimes sublime.”
So writes Ado Kyrou in Le Surrealisme au Cinema, quoted in J. Hoberman’s indispensable “Bad Movies.” The best kind of bad movie, Hoberman argues, is one that is first of all “objectively bad” (i.e., so badly made that its shoddiness is beyond dispute—hence Plan 9 From Outer Space is objectively bad, while something like, say, Titanic is open to debate). If it’s objectively bad in the right ways, a film (like Plan 9) indeed becomes sublime. But I’m not sure into what category Satan’s Children (dir. Joe Wiezycki, 1975) falls. It’s a staggeringly incompetent film on just about every level, though not in interesting enough ways to be an object of stupefied fascination.
The psychotronic diaries: “If anybody asks you what happened, tell ’em you been hit by a truck—Mack Truck Turner.”
A fantastic shot from Truck Turner (dir. Jonathan Kaplan, 1974), the latest in my series of psychotronic film screenings. I’ll admit that my knowledge of blaxploitation is somewhat limited, with the exceptions of Blacula (dir. William Crain, 1972), which I screened this past summer, and the great Emma Mae (a.k.a Black Sister’s Revenge, dir. Jamaa Fanaka, 1976), which I had the good fortune to catch here in Boston at the Brattle Theater back in June of 2010. So while I may not be in a position to back up such a claim, I’d venture to say that Truck Turner is a superlative example of blaxploitation, a dynamite action flick that sports ingeniously filthy dialogue, a funkadelic score (written by Isaac Hayes), and a badass hero, played by Hayes himself, at whom other men stare in awe and women lick their lips (“Check out that piece of chocolate cake!” one whistles). Known as “Mack Truck” Turner, he’s a former football star working as a bounty hunter for bail-skippers; after a brush with a pimp named Gator (Paul Harris), he suddenly finds himself the enemy of Gator’s right-hand woman Dorinda (Nichelle Nichols, terrifying) and her new associate Harvard Blue (Yaphet Kotto).