Thursday, December 31, 2009

PANDEMIC (2009)

I have a buddy. He loves movies. He's not as picky as I, though, about what he chooses to love. As he has no close family here locally, I have, for some years, now, had him spend the various holi-days with me and mine. He did this year, as usual, and brought a pile of movies to watch, as usual. Generally, he is, to be honest, terrible at picking movies--goes by whatever box cover looks cool. This year was no different. He appeared on Christmas Eve with a large pile of space-wasting genre features, as usual, and, over two days, we nevertheless watched them all, as usual.

One, in particular, stood out as exceptionally awful, a shitty little ditty called PANDEMIC.

How to put it?

One can actually feel oneself getting dumber while watching PANDEMIC, a film seemingly created by complete idiots for an apparently like-minded audience. As it went along, I made little then no effort to resist the nagging temptation to point out its many idiocies. Talking during movies is usually a no-no, but this one was just too much--it was draining some part of my soul. Even my buddy, who, having chosen it, can sometimes become defensive over that sort of thing, laughed at it with me as it went along. It gives me a sharp pain to think someone gave perhaps as much as a few million dollars to the poor fools who made it (the holiday season being an appropriate time for undue mercy, the latter shall remain nameless).

PANDEMIC is a thrill-free thriller about a small town in New Mexico that becomes infected with a disease that kills both livestock and humans. After a horse, a cow, and a rancher become infected and die from it, the town vet gets together with the town coroner and, inspecting the rancher's corpse (with "sterile" gloves left laying openly on the same table as the bloddy, diseased corpse), decide to call the Centers for Disease Control, as officials always do when a disease is so dreadful it kills a cow, a horse, and a rancher.

Within half an hour of their call, a huge military contingent arrives and quarantines the entire town.

As always happens when one calls the CDC, right? Particularly after such a terrible death toll.

The military boys don't seem to be under the command of, say, the President of the United States. They are, instead, under the command of a general who, though not the president, has, we're told, the power to issue executive orders with the force of law to the civilian population! And he does so, we're told repeatedly, under the authority of some conduct code internal to the military. And this internal military conduct code gives him the power to seal off a U.S. town from the entire world. He doesn't just keep people from moving in and out--he cuts off the mail, phone communications with the outside world, including cell phones (quite a trick!), and--horror of horrors!--even turns off the town's cable! This is said to be a town of only a few hundred people, but our veterinarian heroine is seen driving through it, post-quarantine, in one of those awful music-video-inspired existential-crisis-as-montage sequences, and there are perhaps hundreds of cars driving the multi-lane streets. An idiot character included solely for the purpose tells the second-in-command among the military brass that he's been feeling sick, fears he has the disease, has heard rumors that there is a "vaccine," and requests that he be made a test subject for it. A vaccine, of course, is worthless to those who already have a disease, but the colonel in question says there is one, and even gives it to the fellow.

And so on. In the end, the whole thing turns out to be a bio-weapon test, and one is as unsurprised by this generic turn of events as one is wholly unconcerned by it or anything else in the movie by the time it is revealed. It's hard to understate how profoundly bad is PANDEMIC. It has a script that would insult the intelligence of a 12-year-old from the sorriest excuse for a school in the U.S., and those who made it had the money to get Ray Wise and a shitload of military equipment for it (and, I'll admit, the thought that this happens in a world in which I, in an effort to finance my own film project, have had to resort to rubbing quarters together in a vain effort to get them to mate probably didn't enhance my viewing experience, either).

The mind boggles.

But at least it had a cool cover. I suppose.

--j.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Critical Peek At What Some Critical People Wrote About SILIP

Sometime early last year, I got my first look at a 1985 film called SILIP: DAUGHTERS OF EVE. It was a movie I'd bought more-or-less blind when the good people at Mondo Macabro brought it to DVD. My initial impression of the film had been that it was something of a blood-and-thunder masterpiece. A few nights ago, I pulled it off the shelf for a rewatch, and found I enjoyed it even more than the first time around.

The obligatory exposition: SILIP is set in an isolated, seaside Filipino village, and tells the story of Tonya and Selda, two locals who look at the world very differently. Tonya, lost within an extremist version of Catholic dogma, is sexually repressed to the point of near madness. She's harsh, bitter, never smiles, and divides her time between trying to beat back her natural physical urges and trying to indoctrinate the village children in her joyless ways. As the film begins, her childhood friend Selda, who has been living in Manila for some years, returns, those Big City Ways having rubbed off on her. Selda is exactly the opposite of Tonya. She's sexually open, smiles, plays with children, enjoys having fun. The villagers don't much cotton to either of them though, and as Tonya and Selda make their way through a journey of self-discovery, a series of events lead passions to flare, jealousies to erupt, hypocrisies to rear their ugly heads, and our two protagonists meet a terrible, tragic end. The movie is of a genre that, in its native Philippines, came to be called "bold," and it earns the word in every particular. It tells its thoughtful, multi-layered story through a sheen of wall-to-wall nudity, sex and bloodletting that apparently led some to mark it as an exploitation film.

I was going to come here and write about it, but some impulse led me to do a little Googling first. I thought it was a great movie. I was curious as to whether anyone else had thought so. I found a like-minded assessment by Kurt Halfyard at Twitch:

"Speaking without irony or hyperbole, Silip is a bona fide masterpiece."

I can get behind that. The "m" word is overused by people who write about movies. It is, however, entirely appropriate in the case of SILIP. Halfyard has a lot of nice things to say about the film:

"It is not often that this type of essential cinematic discovery comes along..."

...

"Kudos to UK label Mondo Macabro for bringing this intense film out of obscurity and hopefully into a beloved place in cinema history. Surely it belongs beside Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo as one of the defining films that go after the extreme side of the human condition."

...

"Unlike many films labeled as extreme or exploitive cinema, Silip is a meticulously plotted, delicately structured and textured film that finds a sublime balance between thematic depth and shocking (occasionally even absurd) imagery. The two hour plus film wraps it all up in package that speaks volumes about human repression, how people individually and collectively deal with guilt, and the inevitable unleashing of the beast within if things remain bottled or suppressed for too long."

And so on. Halfyard said a lot of what I would have said about the movie if I'd just decided to write a full-scale review of it, and he probably said it better than I would have managed.

Kurt Dahlke wrote about it over at DVDTalk, and he, too, recognized it as something special. Noting that it was being sold as an exploitation film, Dahlke wrote, "I can assure you that Silip is not your usual empty-headed sleaze show," and spoke glowingly of the production. "Bold viewers are Recommended to check it out." Hear, hear.

But some of Dahlke's comments about the theme of the picture suggest some confusion on his part. He talks about its "potentially disagreeable message," and, toward the end, fleshes this out:

"While the 'women are the root of all evil' message is ultimately distasteful, the truths exposed, and the path we're lead down in getting there, consists of quite a sumptuous, sensuous journey."

I wouldn't take issue with Dahlke's agreeable estimation of the film's merits, but the notion that SILIP has as a theme the idea that "women are the root of all evil" suggests he wasn't paying very much attention. In the movie, the villagers do, indeed, come to lay all of their ills at the feet of Tonya and Selda, the two women at the center of the story, but the film makes it very clear they're completely wrong to do so, and Dahlke even makes note of this elsewhere in his review. Imputing a pretty ugly misogynist theme where there really isn't one unfairly tarnishes the movie, and I was left wondering how Dahlke had come to a conclusion he, himself, seemed to refute.

That's when I came to Gordon Sullivan's review, over at DVD Verdict, and immediately realized this is the thing about which I was going to have to write.

Some film critics who come to be seen as a little too smart for their own good often get a lot of ribbing for cooking up overly elaborate interpretations of a movie that have little or no real connection to the intent of those who made the movie, and sometimes that ribbing is, indeed, earned, but far more often it's the product of a basic misunderstanding of the art. Art is almost always subject to multiple interpretations. Producers of the new (awful) V television series, for example, confess surprise that their alien invaders are so widely seen as a metaphor for the ultra-right's insanely paranoid view of the Obama administration, but, watching the show, that interpretation is absolutely unavoidable. The real measure of a proffered interpretation isn't usually the stated intent of the filmmaker, it's whether or not that interpretation is supported by the film itself. V supports the Obama interpretation. Positively begs it, in fact. That's why people read it as they do.

Reading a lot of film criticism, as I do, one inevitably comes across the occasional instance where a reviewer completely misses the point of a film, but I submit that no possible reading of the events in SILIP allow for Gordon Sullivan's "interpretation" of it:

"The entire story lays the downfall of humanity at the feet of women, repeating the same ridiculous biblical tripe that has subjugated women for millennia. The 'daughters of Eve' referred to in the title are raped and then burned for desiring to control their own sexuality. It's not enough that the story is this ridiculously conservative, but it's reinforced with continual violent imagery, including beatings, hot sand to the crotch, and animal killing."

Sullivan calls the film "misogynist" and asserts that, in it, "the blame for everything wrong is ultimately placed on women."

The movie doesn't adopt that point of view, though. Quite the opposite, in fact. The villagers who blame Tonya and Selda for their ills are clearly shown to be wrong, and the film is utterly unsympathetic to them, and sympathetic to the two women who fall prey to them. The movie offers one of the most shocking portraits ever committed to celluloid of small-town prejudices, hypocrisy, and mob mentality overwhelming all reason and leading to a dreadful end. Tonya and Selda are presented as particularly tragic because, by the time they're set upon by the mob, they'd reconciled their conflict, come to realize they'd each made a mess of their lives, and the possibility of a better life seemed to be before them. Sullivan concedes that the men in the movie "don't come off as anything other than violent brutes," but that undermines--and, in fact, destroys--his case for the film's misogyny, its "misguided message, reinforced by the horrific fate of the protagonists," as he puts it. The women are victimized in a ghastly, protracted fashion--no one could possibly identify with their persecutors, nor does the film, at any point, ask the viewer to do so. The film's final image, dismissed by Sullivan, refutes, in rather spectacular fashion, any notion of the film as a vessel of misogynist Christian doctrine.

SILIP is excellent, and, like most works of art, subject to multiple interpretations. The things Sullivan and I write are sort of like that, too. So what am I to make of Gordon Sullivan? Is he one of those too-clever critics who out-clevered himself this time around? A simple imbecile? Someone who chose to write about a movie to which he'd paid almost no attention? Or am I the dumb one missing the point? I suppose the best anyone can do is watch the movie, read what we've written about it, and come up with one's own interpretation of who got it right.

--j.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Much Ado About Roger Corman's Oscar

Roger Corman has been called a lot of things. Shrewd. Miserly. Maverick. He's been given titles like King of the Cult Film, King of the B-Movies, and the Pope of Pop Cinema. The last is probably the most appropriate and not just because it sounds cool and Corman says he likes it. Corman's particular breed of low-budget, action-oriented, socially conscious exploitation fare has, for over 50 years, graced the cinema, to the persistent delight of audiences and, in turn, to his significant profit. He's brought his talents to bear on every genre under the sun and has even invented a few of his own. He has a finely-tuned eye for talent--it's only a slight exaggeration to say it would be easier to list the big name Hollywood directors, writers, actors of recent decades who didn't get their start with Corman than those who did.

For a fellow from whom a lot of the present Hollywood Establishment sprang though, Corman has never been an Establishment kind of guy. Far from it. For all his money and all his concern about making more of it, he's always been anti-Establishment to the core. Critics higher of brow than of cinematic acumen look down upon Corman's little operation. It's the usual complaint from this quarter: budgets too small, goals insufficiently lofty, too much concern for commerce mixed with the art. A Corman film is far more often dismissed by such snoots as free of merit for what it is than for whatever merit it may actually possess. It was made to turn a profit--how could it be anything but terrible, right?

To put my cards on the table, it has always been my view that labeling as worthless such a perspective unfairly maligns the merely worthless by the association. I don't mind a little film snobbery. I've been accused of it myself. What I dislike is the sort of film snobbery born of this misplaced blend of ignorance and arrogance, wherein respectability can only be attained beyond a certain budget level and free from all but the mildest hint of commercial considerations and wherein things shot quickly, cheaply, and with a vigilant eye toward Mammon are reflexively looked upon with, at best, suspicion, and with, in general, contempt. Here are the facts of life: Film is an art; it's also commerce. Making movies involves both considerations to some extent. That's just the way it is. That's what movies are. If you don't like movies, you don't need to be watching movies.[1]

Not long ago, it was announced that Roger Corman would be receiving an honorary Academy Award for, in the words of the Academy, "his rich engendering of films and filmmakers." It was a token accolade for which a lot of his fans had been clamoring in recent years and it would be difficult for anyone with any knowledge of Corman's work and its impact on cinema to argue against the appropriateness of the award. That doesn't mean some didn't want to argue. When he picked up the trophy a few weeks ago, one of the snoots couldn't resist a snort at the very idea of bestowing such a vaunted prize upon such a lowly specimen:

"Corman, who has directed more than 50 films and produced nearly 400 (!), has never been nominated for an Oscar, probably because all of his movies are terrible. But apparently the Academy is rewarding quantity now, too. So don't give up, Uwe Boll! Just make another 300 movies!"

This snide remark by Eric D. Snider at Cinematical drew a mild retort from Scott Weinberg, a Cinematical colleague, who argued that Corman did indeed deserve that honorary Oscar. Snider couldn't leave bad enough alone and returned to the subject, his premise, stated flatly, that "Roger Corman doesn't deserve an Oscar."

Snider conceded Corman was "not the worst filmmaker of all time" and thus his initial Uwe Boll comparison "might have been an exaggeration" (wording that suggests allowances that Snider may have any insight into the subject might have been exaggerated). He admitted he didn't really have any basis for saying "all" of Corman's movies "are terrible"; he hadn't seen them "all," of course. How many of them has he seen? The reader is left to guess. And if Snider's generalizations about Corman's body of work more closely resemble the prejudices of the snoot than the observations of one with an intimate familiarity with any significant portion of that body of work, the reader can draw his own conclusion.

Snider's peripheral arguments are weak. He rejects the idea that Corman should get an Oscar because he nurtured the talents (and usually began the careers) of such a vast array of great filmmakers. "Giving Corman an Oscar for helping them learn the ropes is like giving a high school teacher an award because his students went on to graduate from the top of their college classes.... To me, that's a weak reason to give someone an Oscar." That is, of course, a judgment call but as Weinberg noted in his reply to Snider, the Academy has given out these sorts of honorary awards for decades and to recipients whose contribution to cinema was far less significant than Corman's. Snider offers a list of individuals he feels were more worthy of Academy Awards than Corman but that never received them. Even filtering through Snider's errors (some he lists actually did receive awards and some have been dead for decades) and his sometimes horrendous judgment[2], this argument, at best, amounts to past injustices being used to justify new ones.

Of course, Snider wouldn't see it that way, because he wouldn't see denying Corman an Oscar as an injustice. His central argument is his weakest one, hilariously outlined in sentences liberally laced with unintentional irony:

"If the Academy is giving out Oscars based on the production of quality work--which, last time I checked, was the basic idea behind the Oscars--then Roger Corman does not qualify. The vast majority of his output is mediocre at best. Some of it is downright awful. A few films are good enough on their own, but not to where any of them would deserve Oscars individually. Even as a body, those moderately good Corman movies don't outweigh the dozens--literally dozens and DOZENS--of cheap, forgettable clunkers. Producing a huge quantity of work whose overall entertainment or artistic value averages out to be somewhere between 'mediocre' and 'mediocre-plus' isn't worthy of Academy Award consideration.... Corman... never tried to make great films. He wanted to make cheap, profitable films, and to crank them out in a couple weeks. He's been extraordinarily successful at it, and there's definitely a place for that kind of product in moviedom. But again, that doesn't mesh with the philosophy of the Academy Awards, which is to reward artistic excellence."

To the snoot, it's a truism that "cheap, profitable films" could never be "great films," certainly never worthy of the notice of the Great And Powerful Academy, which prefers to honor such "artistic excellence" as was exhibited in the likes of GLADIATOR, BRAVEHEART, CRASH, FORREST GUMP and a mountain of other such worthless upbudget rubbish tall enough to blot out the sun. Snider asserts that none of Corman's films "would deserve Oscars individually." That just begs the question of what does win these awards, though. As I outlined in a piece last year (dealing with Best Picture awards), those in the Academy generally do a wretched job of picking winners. They tend to pass over the more deserving of their own nominees and the genuine best pictures from most years are never even nominated at all. A lot of the films honored by Oscar are so bad, they're almost entirely forgotten within a few short years (THE ENGLISH PATIENT, anyone? Anyone?).[3] Corman, on the other hand, could take the crew of his "quick-and-sloppy movie poop factory," as Snider calls it, put together some actors, a nothing budget and, in a few days time, create a movie that people are still watching and loving decades later and that even manages to acquire some degree of critical respectability. Are his films really so vastly outclassed by something like CRASH? The "artistic excellence" that allowed CRASH to win Best Picture consisted solely of a massively-financed lobbying campaign aimed at Academy voters. The movie itself was terrible, more closely resembling a bad made-for-television film (or After School Special) than anything that should ever be considered for any sort of award and the prize it did win was almost immediately recognized, widely and with little real dissent, as one of the all-time worst Best Picture decisions. Would anyone be willing to seriously argue that it was more deserving of being honored than, say, HOUSE OF USHER, Corman's first Edgar Allan Poe adaptation? Does the embarrassment that is GLADIATOR stand head-and-shoulders above DEATHRACE 2000? NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN tackled a theme Corman had handled decades earlier--and far better--in BLOODY MAMA. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of similar examples. In a head-to-head clash with a lot of the movies that have actually won Academy Awards, Corman's pictures would do just fine and all the harrumphing of all the Sniders of the world wouldn't make the former any better or the latter any worse by comparison.

Roger Corman has spent his long career crafting a wide array of entertainments of every conceivable variety and degree of quality. Admittedly, plenty of them were awful, some even as bad as a lot of Hollywood summer blockbusters, a few as bad as Eric D. Snider would have people believe. Plenty of them were great too, though, which is why they've endured. As a director, he was a proletarian gem. As a distributor, he brought to U.S. shores some of the best foreign films of the last few decades.[4] As a producer and mentor, he nurtured a lot of the best filmmakers we have. I have no position on the question of whether Roger Corman deserves an Academy Award. He is not of the Establishment. He doesn't need its praise. Told a few months ago he was under consideration, even he didn't think he'd get it. Given the Academy's history, I'm not convinced he won't be as tainted by it as honored. Still, if anyone in moviedom deserves some respectful recognition for their work, it's Corman. For anyone offering an award that symbolizes that, he's as good a recipient as they'll find.

Besides, he's always looking for ways to save a buck--the Oscar would probably make a great paper-weight.

--j.

---

[1] And my last card, if it isn't apparent, is the fact that I'm an unabashed Corman fan. I'm someone who, in high school, was waffling on the question of the feasibility of filmmaking as a career and finally committed to the notion after reading Corman's autobiography, which is still one of the best books about moviemaking ever written.

[2] Snider points out some legitimately glaring oversights by Oscar but cripples his case by heavily padding his list with numerous minor figures. And when you suggest it's a travesty that Corman has now been given an Oscar but that master thespian Marilyn Monroe hasn't, your case enters the realm of walking, talking, and sounding just like, well, what it is.

[3] With his snoot's view of Corman, Snider could say his award was par for the course but he's precluded by his snoot's view of the Oscars, that they "reward artistic excellence."

[4] He's been the American distributor for Bergman, Kurosawa, Fellini, Truffaut, and others.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Wolfman Passeth


The news apparently went out this morning. Jacinto Molina, better known, over the last several decades, by his screen name Paul Naschy, has died from cancer at the age of 75. I didn't turn on my computer until this evening, and I suppose I may be a little late to the wake. Hopefully not too late.

Over the years, Paul Naschy essayed his own unique variation on every sort of traditional horror character in the book--a rampaging mummy, a gleefully evil warlock (who spent half the movie in which he appeared as a severed head), a way-too-healthy Dracula, a hunchback (one who operated in not just any place, but a morgue, and not just any morgue, but the Rue Morgue). But, of course, it was Waldemar Daninsky, Naschy's Byronic wolfman, which became his signature part. It was the one that launched his career, the one he obviously loved the most, the one to which he always seemed to return, and the one that gave him a lot of his best movies, and a lot of his success. FRANKENSTEIN'S BLOODY TERROR, Naschy's first turn as the wolfman, is what first brought Naschy to the U.S. at the dawn of the '70s. WEREWOLF SHADOW, his 3rd wolfman outing, became a massive international hit, raking in a fortune all over Europe and making him a star. Naschy returned to the character a dozen times over the years, with, at times, better results than others.

It's easy to understand the character's durability. Naschy, a former competitive weight-lifter, was a stubby fellow with a power-lifter's build perfectly suited for a classic wolfman, and Naschy brought to the part a ferocious physicality; he looked every inch the wild animal out for blood who, darting hither and yon through the night, would just as soon rip you to shreds as look at you, and he looked mean enough to carry out the threat implicit in how he carried himself. Naschy was better, as a wolfman, than anyone who ever donned hair and fangs and loped across a set. As the human Waldemar, he was always a sympathetic sort, a likable chap who suffered under an horrendous curse, and for whom love itself was usually a death sentence--as he went along, Naschy added, to the films, a piece of lore that said a werewolf could only die at the hands of someone who loved him.

Naschy's specialty was Gothic horror. He was first exposed to it as a lad when he encountered FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN, and it clearly made a strong impression on him--his films were, for decades, littered with references to it. When Naschy entered the horror field in the late '60s, though, the Gothic tales near and dear to his heart were rapidly going out of fashion after more than a decade of genre dominance. The decline progressed rapidly until Gothics often seemed like museum pieces, but Naschy stayed in the ring, undeterred, still plugging away at it decades after much of the world had seemed to have moved on. Considering the state of horror over the years he was working, it's remarkable--and a real credit to his tenacity--that he was able to keep making these kinds of movies. He's gotten a lot of respect for it over the years. He deserves every bit of it.

Naschy's horrors were always awash in traditional Gothic trappings--moonlit nights, crumbling castles, dark, cobweb-bedecked corridors, and ancient curses--but, though steeped in this tradition, he was an inventive writer who never felt constrained by the conventions that accrued around it. His scripts are marked by a seeming willingness to throw in everything and the kitchen sink, which, at their best, makes them a delight, and, at their worst, can often also make them a delight, but, of course, for very different reasons. Usually, you never know what's going to happen next. Over the years, Waldemar the wolfman encountered (and often battled) vampires, aliens, an abominable snowman, even the formula of Dr. Jekyll. His Dracula could be vicious, but he, too, took on an utterly sympathetic edge--as it turned out, he did what he did not because he was evil incarnate, but because he was on a mission to resuscitate his dead daughter. He abandons this quest for love of a mortal, only to have his love reject him. Unable to bear it, he commits suicide by driving a stake through his own heart! Naschy keeps it in the Gothic, but his is definitely not your grand-daddy's Dracula movie, and though choppy and seemingly hastily assembled, COUNT DRACULA'S GREAT LOVE is definitely a keeper. I thought this mad, audacious, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach reached a particularly cacaphonous crescendo in HORROR RISES FROM THE TOMB, a gleefully insane film that's one of my all-time favorite Naschy flicks.

After reading about Naschy's work for decades, I only got around to watching his films a few years ago. I've become rather fond of them. Before falling on some economic hard times, I consumed every one on which I could lay my hands--quite a few in this wonderful era of DVD--and in a few cases, I was sort of an unofficial evangelist in the cause of Naschy fandom. Only last night, I'd pulled out FRANKENSTEIN'S BLOODY TERROR and given it a re-watch. My mother, of all people, came by while Naschy was on the screen in the midst of his first werewolf rampage. She usually hates horror movies, and wouldn't know Paul Naschy from Paul Bunyan, but even she stopped for a moment to watch him work. "He's good at that," she said.

He was.

I'm going to miss him.

--j.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

HALLOWEEN 5, or One Sunday Afternoon

It doesn't seem possible, but it's been 20 years since HALLOWEEN 5 first stalked across North American movie screens. A 20th anniversary is usually a big deal for some pop culture creation, if only because so few pop culture creations manage to last that long but H5 really owes any longevity it may have to the original HALLOWEEN, which goes back 31 years (which REALLY doesn't seem possible), and it's too minor a movie in its own right to justify making much of a fuss over, even if people do still sometimes talk about it two decades later. So why write about it?

Well...

The original HALLOWEEN is a genuine classic, virtually an essay on very basic, elemental horror. Its overall influence on horror cinema to date must, unfortunately, be judged as quite negative. The movie spawned the wretched slasher film, which became a boom industry in the '80s that overwhelmed the genre and severely stunted it during those years. The things that made the original work--the visual stylings, the consistently menacing atmosphere in an utterly everyday setting, the suspense, the killer-as-projection-of-the-mind and so on--are almost all ignored by the subsequent FRIDAY THE 13th and its legion of imitators. Among those imitators are, unfortunately, also numbered the HALLOWEEN sequels. The slasher films as they emerged in the '80s began as stupid, chromosome-damaged throwbacks (and not in any good ways) and a decade of inbreeding had only worsened their condition. The year before H5, there had appeared HALLOWEEN 4: THE RETURN OF MICHAEL MYERS, which perfectly mapped out the genetic degeneracy. H4 was a top-to-bottom, by-the-numbers generic slasher flick, a flat piece of cardboard cut to specs without a single original element or anything beyond the title that could effectively differentiate it from the by-then wretchedly degenerate herd of slashers. It plays like an unintentional parody. And it made a bloody fortune. A lot of misguided souls still regard it as the best of the many HALLOWEEN sequels, remakes, reimaginings.

Fast forward a year and H5 appears, offering a different angle. Though still operating within the parameters of the slasher sub-genre--too much so, really--H5 tries to bring back something of the spirit of the original film and to take the series in some new and interesting directions instead of allowing it to follow the rest of the slashers into continued degeneracy and death. The movie is partly hobbled by its creators' decision not to sufficiently deviate from what had become the slasher formula. Like its predecessor, it panders to the conventions of slashers in offering a body-count of extraneous characters who are, as usual, written as little more than one-dimensional targets and, as usual, brought to the screen in "performances" with which the entire concept of "acting" is degraded by association. This is, fortunately, only a small part of the overall film. For the most part, the experiment is a success. The film certainly isn't great--that would be far too much to expect for such a project--but it's light-years ahead of its immediate predecessor in nearly every respect. And it bombed, and is, to this day, still frequently reviled as a notorious waste of celluloid.

It's enough to make a loving cinephile start to wax existential over the tragic flaws of contemporary human society.

Well, maybe one who had lost all sense of perspective. The rest of us were content to grumble and perhaps curse a bit against the conservatism of too many horror fans. We'd been doing that all through the '80s anyway. And it is, after all, just a slasher sequel.

One of the key elements of the effectiveness of the first film is its plausibility. Viewers could directly relate to the film because it removed most of the elements that had so often served to distance an audience from the dark fantasy on the screen. In HALLOWEEN, the killer wasn't a creature who stalked some 19th century Euro-Fairlyland, he didn't sprout hair and fangs by the full moon, he wouldn't disintegrate if religious trinkets were brandished against him. He was a serial killer, someone whose mind had snapped and left him with some strange impulse to kill. It's a specimen of human with which modern society at the time of the film was becoming all too familiar. His slaying ground was an ordinary neighborhood in an ordinary suburb in contemporary middle-America.

At the same time, those in the film spoke of him in mythic terms. His psychiatrist, Dr. Loomis, calls him "Death" and says he isn't a man. The children offer the real myth in play in the piece though; they call him the Boogeyman. Visually, he's presented as a sort of living embodiment of a shadow, our fear of the dark personified. He seems to be everywhere, always out of sight, always watching, always waiting for his chance to strike. These mythical elements in the narrative and visuals create an unrelentingly menacing atmosphere. At the same time, every viewer knows there's no such thing as the Boogeyman. Myers is an extremely dangerous man but he's just a man; that's part of what makes him so creepy. This juxtaposition between the plausible and the mythical continues throughout the film, generating a marvelous tension that finally comes to fruition in the end when Dr. Loomis finally catches up with Myers, whips out a pistol and apparently blasts the killer to oblivion. When Myers manages to get up and walk away from this, it was such an incredible and creepy moment that the film ended on it.

In the slasher cycle that followed, the "plausibility" part of the equation was jettisoned almost immediately. The familiar settings were kept but the killers, though supposedly human and in human form, became superhumanly strong and inexplicably indestructible. By the time H4 rolled around, Michael Myers had become an unintentional parody of the depths to which such characters had descended in the cycle. Possessed of the strength of Spider-Man, the invulnerability of the Hulk and a padded-out costume to show it, he doesn't bother to do much stalking--he just comes right at his prey like a battle-tank and is even more difficult to damage. He shoves a shotgun completely through one victim. He punches his bare finger through a man's head. He stands stock still while a guy smashes him in the head with a rifle, ballbat-style, without injury or even reaction. He singlehandedly liquidates an entire police station full of armed cops and absorbs more lead than the dirt hill on a shooting range, again all without effect.

The slasher formula had been run to ribbons years before H4 and the movies' strict adherence to it precludes wringing any suspense out of the events on screen. The characters are awful, the performances atrocious, the ending nonsensical. There isn't a single original or interesting touch in the movie.

The next year when H5 arrived, there were still some useless characters thrown in as targets and they were still poorly essayed, but these tips of the hat to the slashers, which take up very little screen-time, are H5's most serious flaw. Director Dominique Othenin-Girard tried to return the series to its roots. Myers steps back into the shadows and becomes the methodical stalker again. Though he takes some abuse, there's no more Super-Mikey the Battle Tank. The film is full of great flourishes and memorable scenes. Myers is humanized. Rather than merely a killing machine, he's someone with whom Loomis tries to reason, someone who experiences a moment of hesitation when poised to kill his niece. He even removes his mask and sheds a tear at the thought of the terrible things he's being driven to do by that evil something in his mind. There are some fantastic moments of suspense; his niece hiding in a laundry chute, a car-chase across a field, one of the characters taking a ride in a car with a masked man she assumes is her boyfriend but who is actually Myers. Donald Pleasance's long-suffering Dr. Loomis manages a spectacular final take-down of Myers near the end. Throughout the film, a mysterious stranger is in town watching these events unfold. At the very end, just when we think it's all over, he breaks into the police station with explosives and automatic weapons and springs Myers. H5 was packed with great moments that were worthy of the original and it created hooks upon which subsequent writers could have built for quite some time.

Unfortunately, it just wasn't to be. The film bombed, was written off by many as a stinker and the return to business-as-usual H4 territory with the next entry marked the death of the original series.

I've sometimes wondered--when I find enough spare time to ponder such stupid questions, anyway--why H5 was so often reviled while the awful H4 was praised. The only answer I've ever found is that it dashed expectations. People went from H4 to H5 expecting another mindless, generic slasher flick like H4 and got, instead, something a lot closer to a real movie. Dashing expectations--even such low ones--can be dangerous. Look at what happened with Ang Lee's HULK. People went into it expecting two hours of a brainless monster breaking things and as a consequence, one of the better comic adaptations in the history of comic adaptations is still, to this day, often written off as an atrocity on par with turkeys like ELEKTRA and CATWOMAN. It seems unconscionable to punish a film for being far better than anyone expected. That it sometimes happens is extremely unfortunate and sends a terrible message to filmmakers ("don't even try to do anything better or original").[*]

Maybe that's why I thought it was worth the time to write some remarks on H5. Maybe--and here's an even more ambitious notion--I thought I should because H5 suggested how the always-awful and by-then-moribund slasher flick could have evolved into something worthy of the film on which it's printed. It's like a road that could have led to better things but wasn't taken. Maybe I wrote about it just because it's a slow Sunday, and I felt like it. Whatever it is, I've said my piece.

--j.

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[*] In general, the film's detractors offer a small, standard litany of gripes (a product of detractors repeating and feeding off one another ad infinitum). These gripes divide into two genres. The first, and by far the most prevalent, is Stupid Complaints About Things of Little-To-No Consequence. The Myers mask is different, the filmmakers changed the interior of the Myers house from the first film, the comic-relief cops are awful, and so on (though the cops are certainly a mark against the film, they probably don't take up, collectively, 3 minutes of screen-time). The second genre is The Bastards Did Something Different. Pretty self-explanatory--the efforts at a little more psychological depth, the mystery of the man in black and pretty much anything else that made H5 more than another FRIDAY THE 13th clone like H4 stand condemned under the heading.

If, after listening to an H5 detractor rattling off this litany, the reader is left with the unmistakable impression of someone grasping at straws in a desperate effort to justify their hatred of a movie that doesn't earn it, the reader is paying attention. HULK gets the same treatment from its critics and for the same reason.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Once Upon A Time, The Revolution

PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, reportedly made for something between eleven- and fifteen-thousand dollars, became the #1 box-office draw in the U.S. at the end of October, issuing a stern take-down to the latest entry in the mighty SAW franchise. At a fraction of the production budget of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, it has now eclipsed that earlier film as the most profitable ever made.

The Revolution is upon us.

We've seen quite a few no-budget DIY features in the last few years. It's a full-fledged sub-culture but only a few of us pay it any mind at the moment. We're going to be seeing a lot more of these movies in the near future. All the pieces are in place. Features can now be made for the cost of a used car and when you have talent behind the camera, these can be quality features, not glorified home movies.

The next several years are going to be a wonderful time for the cinema. Hits of this magnitude probably won't be common but there will certainly be more of them and there will be scores of more moderate successes, which, at such microscopic budgets, will be "moderate" successes only when judged against the numbers for something like PARANORMAL ACTIVITY. When a film costs so little to make, it's easy to make a profit if you can get it seen.

That can be a big "if," admittedly. Not, I suspect, as big an "if" as everyone seems to think though.

Technology has opened the field to a whole new breed of indies, filmmakers who can pursue their dreams without the threat of being financially destroyed if their project comes up a dry hole. If they're into it for a pittance, relatively speaking, and it never gets off the ground, just eat it and move on to the next one. Their only limitation: How much money they have in their pockets, how many people they know, how many resources they can tap to bring to the screen whatever they can dream up.

The Revolution is going to put the cinema in the hands of those who really love it. People, given access to the medium, will unleash their creativity. We'll have horror films, dramas, comedies, action pictures, variations on everything under the sun. Vigorous genre cross-breeding. Entirely new genres may appear. All the old rules will be scrapped. Movies will take on forms we can't even imagine. We'll hear from segments of society that have rarely had a voice in the cinema. All the ingredients for this are in the pot. People are picking up cameras. The success of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY is going to make these films multiply like lab rabbits on Viagra. I think it's an exciting time.

Or maybe I'm just dreaming.

We'll see, I suppose.

--j.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

THE MUMMY (1932)


Karl Freund really was a master with a camera. His cinematography is why the Bela Lugosi DRACULA is still remembered today. It holds up pretty badly on just about every other count but damn, is it pretty to look at. Some extraordinary atmosphere. I've always suspected Freund was battling director Tod Browning over that one. I haven't sampled enough of Browning's silent output, but in his sound pictures, he's terribly uninspiring, employing bland staging, and I always get the impression that, if he had the choice, he'd bolt the camera in place and never move it an inch in any direction. Freund, as cinematographer, is the one who made DRACULA work, and the next year, he hauled his substantial bulk into the director's chair himself with THE MUMMY, taking a similar story by the same writing team and brought to life by some of the same cast and upstaging the much-better-known DRACULA in pretty much every way.

Though it's often regarded as one of the lesser Universal horrors of that era, I've long held that THE MUMMY is, in fact, one of the crown jewels of that extraordinary run of films. It goes about its business much more subtly than some of the more highly regarded films in the cycle but it works. Boy, does it work.

The "mummy" Imhotep, or "Ardeth Bey," as he calls himself after his resurrection, is easily one of Boris Karloff's best parts. I'm surprised it isn't more widely remembered as such. Boris is always revered for FRANKENSTEIN but, one suspects, that's mostly because it was so wildly successful. Though the Frankenstein tales were great and the part physically taxing, the role just wasn't that challenging as acting jobs go. Perhaps Imhotep isn't so terribly challenging either--one could make the case that a lot of what Karloff is able to project through the part is a product of the director--but it leaves a remarkable impression. The part strips Karloff down to his strengths--his eyes, his face, his voice. The resurrected Imhotep is a tall, frail, dried-up husk of a man who moves slowly and stiffly and, one suspects, would crumble to dust under any real physical trauma but Karloff, playing from his strengths, imbues the character with a remarkable presence. He's always the baddest dude in any room.

While it's demonstrably unwise to get in Imhotep's way, he isn't really a villain. His story is, instead, a grand tale of love spanning millenia and transcending death itself. Imhotep is an ancient Egyptian priest whose love for a princess leads him to defy the gods themselves in an effort to restore his love to life. He pays a terrible price for his blasphemy but, resurrected in the present, remains defiant and continues his efforts. He's a very passionate, driven fellow who is terribly, obsessively, single-mindedly in love and though the gods in the movie judge him harshly, I can't. I find him a glorious notion. I love it that he goes through so much hell and remains totally unrepentant.

Zita Johann is quite good as the sharp-dressing modern-day vessel of the reincarnated soul of the princess. Edward van Sloan is on hand to deliver his usual Learned Fellow Who Becomes All Christianly Righteous in the Face of Monsters, a routine he admirably reproduced in several of the early Universal horrors. Arthur Byron provides him with a solid foil and David Manners gets the unenviable job of token Young Male Hero, who, in THE MUMMY, is essentially a non-entity. I get a kick out of the fact that Karloff warns Zita Johann against the love she has creeping into her heart for Manners. Typical of Hollywood at that time (when such conventions were obligatory), their "love" was a stupid plot contrivance, formed in mere minutes. I like to look upon Imhotep's remarks on the subject as a metatextual commentary on that convention. The movie makes it easy to read it that way; though the filmmakers included this inane subplot, they didn't make this contrived "love" the reason Zita wanted to live at the end--her concerns are, instead, entirely self-centered.

Jack Pierce, Universal's master monster-maker who designed some of the most iconic make-ups ever to grace the silver screen, turns in the greatest single work of his career in the initially-resurrected Imhotep. It's on the screen for, cumulatively, less than a minute in the opening act but it's Pierce's finest hour, no doubt about it (and must have been pure hell for Karloff). His later "Ardeth Bey" make-up doesn't rise to that height but it more than gets the job done.

As with most Universal horrors, particularly those involving Freund, the movie is creepy atmosphere from beginning to end, a masterful use of light and shadow, and probably a good place to start if trying to instill some appreciation of black & white in a foo... er... skeptic of the format. Karloff's eyes, lit just a little brighter than his surroundings and shot with his head at a slight downward tilt, practically burn through the screen. The effect is so impressive, Freund uses the footage of it more than once.

It's always hard to write about acknowledged classics, particularly one so long-lived as THE MUMMY. It's been with us since 1932 and when a flick hangs around that long, what can you say that hasn't already been said a million times and usually better than you could ever say it? Still, I love THE MUMMY. In recent years, I've fallen to watching it on a pretty regular basis. It's become one of my favorites. I can't help but want to write about it, even if I don't have anything new or even interesting to say. I love it and, in some little way, just wanted to say so. Sue me.

--j.

Monday, September 14, 2009

DANGER DIABOLIK (1968)

Mario Bava is one of my favorite filmmakers but he's a difficult subject to cover. What, after all, can one say about Bava that others haven't said a million times? One ticks off the standard raves like items on a grocery bill: He's a masterful visual stylist, a brilliant special effects innovator, a veritable magician of the cinema who could take practically nothing and make it look like he had a Hollywood-sized budget. He made damn good movies. Over the years, he's become one of the most ripped-off filmmakers to ever sit behind a camera; if imitation truly is the sincerest form of flattery, Bava has been flattered by some of the best.

When it comes to praise of Bava, it's all become boilerplate. Bava was a great filmmaker.

Having now offered the standard praise, I can proceed with the business at hand, namely composing what I expect will be an adoring screed about one of his works I've recently revisited after too long an absence. One of my absolute favorite Bava flicks is DANGER DIABOLIK, an adaptation of an Italian comic that certainly ranks among the best comic book films of all time.

Diabolik, its protagonist, is a character after my own heart, an anarchistic anti-hero, a romantic rebel who robs from the rich, a master thief elevated to the level of a comic book super-villain who does what he does for no other apparent reason than for the sheer fun of it. He's sharp, resourceful and never just one step ahead of the government goons who make it their mission to bring him in--he's always 20 steps ahead of them. They swoop down upon him like hawks after blood, but whenever it looks like his goose is cooked, he pulls a rabbit out of his hat and shows them to be nothing but a gaggle of turkeys. They have the entire government behind them, they're granted emergency powers, they bring back the death penalty to use against him, put a huge bounty on his head, ally with organized crime to bring him down and they never even have a chance. He takes great pleasure in making fools of the lot of them.

As I feel it, DANGER DIABOLIK is about reveling in the sheer joy of living life to its fullest. Diabolik, played with great flair by John Phillip Law, has cast off the soul-deadening drone culture that is most of so-called "civilized" society. He operates outside it and by his own rules and has a blast doing so, getting his kicks from forever testing himself with one impossible crime and escape after another then returning to his massive underground Bond-villain-style lair and the warm embrace of his luscious lady love and constant companion (Marisa Mell). The film reflects their passion--both for one another and for life itself--in a striking visual sensuality, particularly in their scenes in the lair.

The words "Bava" and "visual stylist" deservedly appear in the same sentence with great regularity and in Bava's filmography, DANGER DIABOLIK may be his most visually impressive. The director uses clever comic-book-inspired compositions to tell the story, and his trademark candy-colored lighting schemes work particularly well here, immediately invoking the brightly-colored pages of a comic.[*] He works in healthy doses of frenetic action, which are marvelously complimented by Ennio Morricone's typically brilliant music.

The film's plot consists of a series of increasingly elaborate heists and other difficulties for our anti-hero to try to overcome. His battle with the government hilariously escalates into a full-scale war, with Diabolik reacting to a large bounty being placed on his head by blowing up tax records in order to choke the government of funds and threatening to bankrupt it. He meets every challenge with a wink and the same mocking laughter. He doesn't have any grand scheme to finance with his purloined loot. He doesn't even need it himself. He does what he does because he enjoys it. At one point, after he's just ripped off several million dollars, police officials are sitting around contemplating what he'll do with it. One darkly assures the others he will use it in "a way no mind but his could imagine." Cut to Diabolik in his lair, the money spread all over his bed while he and his fine lady roll around in it, screwing like rabbits.

I've loved DANGER DIABOLIK since I first saw it some years ago and I find myself wanting to rave about it at much greater length but in the name of avoiding spoiling it for those who may read these words and haven't yet seen it, I'll resist the temptation and conclude only by saying the film is a funny, endlessly entertaining romp, a masterwork by a master and one of the finest productions of a very special age of Italian cinema. Do yourself a big favor and check it out.

--j.

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[*] Though not the Diabolik comics, which were black-and-white.

Monday, August 17, 2009

INDECENT DESIRES (1967)

Given the state of exploitation filmmaking in the 1960s, Doris Wishman would be historically noteworthy simply by virtue of her chromosomes. Women simply didn't do what she did when she did it. She wrote, produced, directed--the whole schlemiel--and in a field that was an almost exclusively male preserve. She never struck it rich but she did well enough to make a lot of movies over the years and tonight, I got my first look at one of them.

The flick was INDECENT DESIRES, an odd little gem from 1967, and though it's true Wishman would have been one for the books simply for doing what she did while a woman, I learned by watching this film what I suspect is the real reason the cult around her work has only grown over the years: She's very good at what she does.

Pretty Ann has a good job, a good man and her future is looking pretty bright, until, one day, into her life comes a creepy little slug she meets at random on a street corner. The slug never speaks a line of dialogue and is never given a name but he's played by a fellow named Michael Alaimo and "creepy" is an understatement--sleaze practically oozes from this guy's pores. He walks the streets during the day picking up odds and ends, things people have lost, thrown away, left laying around. He swipes them and takes them back to his apartment, for no apparent reason other than that he has a serious screw loose. One of these objects is a doll he finds in a trash can. Another is a ring, which turns out to be possessed of magical properties. When he meets Ann on that street corner, he's immediately smitten and associates her with the doll.

Here's the rub: when he dons the ring and handles the doll, Ann can feel it too. Realizing this, he begins working out his fixation with her on the doll. He caresses it, molests it, fondles it and, when angry, beats it and burns it. Ann can feel it all and having no idea what's happening to her, she slowly begins to lose her mind.

As odd as that sounds so far, it doesn't even begin to do justice to how truly bizarre INDECENT DESIRES really is. It's shot on a small number of sparse sets through a constant barrage of crazy, off-kilter camera set-ups--there's barely a "normal" shot in the film--and the soundtrack never stops moving. This is an exploitation picture, so there's copious nudity, but none of that pubic stuff that would have gotten the censors so full-frontally outraged and Wishman has a delightful sense of the fetishistic which she indulges through the camera with some regularity.

This isn't just a weird film though; it's a good one, a perfect example of effectively realizing an utterly personal vision on screen in an unique way with virtually nothing with which to work. The ending is particularly good and has probably left a lot of slack jaws in its wake over the years.

It's been said of Wishman that if she was some Euro-director and her films were subtitled imports, instead of home-grown underground films, she'd be widely hailed as a bold, innovative filmmaker. I've read about her work for over 20 years. I've always been curious about it. I'd just never gotten around to seeing it. In general, it seems impossible that anything could even live up to that much stored up anticipation, much less surpass it. It has, nevertheless, happened a few times with me. With Wishman, it has just happened again and if the rest of her filmography is of the caliber of the one I just watched, I'd say whoever offered that "what if" scenario about her films as imports was probably right.

--j.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

PUNISHER WAR ZONE (2008)

The first two efforts to bring Marvel's Punisher to the screen were creative abortions and I held out little hope for the third, PUNISHER: WAR ZONE, upon learning it would soon be coming to a theater near me. There were early reports that Lions Gate (the studio behind it) was insisting it be a wimpy PG-13 flick. I knew nothing of the director--if I'd heard then that it was being made by a female German kickboxer, it would have probably drawn a lot more of my interest--and as it turned out, the movie was savaged by critics and pulled from theaters by the studio almost immediately after its release. Sounds like another pooch in the Punisher pound and I paid it little mind.

But the film grew a following. The internet buzzed with its words of praise, their persistent insistence that someone had finally gotten the Punisher right. This buzz drew sometimes angry retorts from those unfortunate souls--few but loud--who inexplicably found something of merit in the meritless Thomas Jane Punisher film from 2004. They resented these mouthy upstarts' insistence that their beloved turd of a movie had been upstaged and insisted that WAR ZONE was just a dumb gorefest.

PWZ, as it turns out, was something of a dumb gorefest.[1] It was also an absolute blast from beginning to end. Saying it's easily the best screen adaptation of the Punisher isn't really saying much--neither of the other two films even tried. It isn't sufficient to say it's the best we're ever likely to get either, because that sounds like we're settling for something that isn't as good as it could have (or should have) been. No, it's much closer to the mark to say PWZ is a great adaptation of the Punisher.

Over the years, there have been a few different "versions" of the Punisher and it should go without saying that as conceptually different as they are, no movie can be a great adaptation of all of them. PWZ isn't about the original version, which was, conceptually speaking, a top-to-bottom ripoff of Don Pendleton's Mack Bolan the Executioner character (had Pendleton ever decided to sue, Marvel would have lost a bundle). PWZ primarily adapts the far more interesting and original version of the character portrayed in Garth Ennis' very long run on the title.

Like Ennis, those behind PWZ knew what they had in the Punisher; a relatively simple pulp character who rages through a comic-book world of over-the-top-of-the-top ultraviolence, dishing out justice to superhumanly inhuman scum. That's what PWZ delivers in spades, a solid, violent, entertaining exploitation actioneer (albeit one made on a budget of which most exploitation films could only dream)[2]. And that's exactly what a Punisher film should be.

Noteworthies: Ray Stevenson, a dead ringer for the comic character, is rock-solid in the part, even if it does mostly just require him to look rock-solid, and Dominic West does a first-rate turn as the villainous Jigsaw. Director Lexi Alexander and cinematographer Steve Gainer tried an interesting experiment with the film's color scheme, attempting to replicate the color schemes of the comics. It succeeds, and makes for an interesting effect on screen. And the ending of the film? FANTASTIC!

Unfortunately, PWZ wasn't treated very well by Lions Gate. The production had been troubled from the beginning, and many of its troubles had been very public. Reading between the lines of the contemporaneous reporting, it seems as if the studio suits were determined to wring an anemic PG-13 film out of the material and when this wasn't possible, set out to intentionally make it fail in order to prove their "point." What isn't in any way speculative is that the film was dumped into wide release with virtually no promotion at all then pulled from theaters after only a few days and written off as a flop. Few were even given the chance to hear of its existence and of those who did, memories of the earlier Punisher films, unleavened by any knowledge that this one would be any different, no doubt kept large swathes of potential audience away in droves. It was never even given a chance and that it was deprived of any chance in such a dramatic way strongly suggests someone really had it in for the movie.

Now that Marvel is making their own movies, perhaps they should buy back their rights. I suspect they could get them for pretty cheap. Stevenson has expressed his enthusiastic desire to continue with the character as long as he's able. I suspect Lexi Alexander could be lured back for another go 'round. I'd like to see it happen. PWZ was the third attempt at a Punisher film but it's the only one that earned what the others got--another chance.

--j.

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[1] A "gorefest" relatively speaking, that is. For a contemporary "mainstream" film, that label would probably apply. For an action picture made these days--or, at least, one that isn't the latest RAMBO--it also seems appropriate. As a hardcore horror buff, I wouldn't personally regard it as a "gorefest" in general, but still, PWZ offers bloody deaths via various objects through the throat, one exploding head after another via gunshot, decapitations, cannibalism, a guy ground up in a glass grinder, a fellow hacked up with an axe, a man roasted on a spit over an open flame and so on. For some reason, the filmmakers, in assembling their list of horrors to cover, missed necrophilia. Something to save for the sequel, I suppose.

[2] By upbudget Hollywood standards, though, PWZ is a very small-budgeted film. It cost less than the 2004 feature but managed to be vastly superior.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Mainstream Scribe Makes Mess of Slasher Movie Meditation

Why would an allegedly intelligent professional writer try to pass off, as an informed, learned article, something he'd written about a subject of which he really knows very little? Does the thought that his ignorance is immediately going to be apparent to anyone who does know anything of the subject give him pause? Why would he do it?

The answer, as best I can tell, is that he assumed there aren't a lot of horror fans who read the Atlantic. In that, I'll admit he's probably right. But when it's put on the internet, everyone can see it, including those fans of dark fantasy who, randomly scanning the internet one night, come across it and immediately recognize it for the thin inaccuracy it is. Sometimes, they even feel the urge to come to their own little corner of the internet and rant about it.

The offender, here, is James Parker. His article: "Don't Fear the Reaper," from the April 2009 Atlantic. The subtitle: "Learning to love the slasher-film renaissance." The premise: That we're in the middle of a full-bore revival of the cinematic slasher sub-genre. The problem? The author doesn't know what a slasher movie is.

Slasher films, properly speaking, are a sub-genre that emerged in the 1980s in the wake of the huge success of 1978's HALLOWEEN[1] and, particularly, 1980's FRIDAY THE 13th (which proved HALLOWEEN hadn't been a fluke).[2] It's no accident of history that they proliferated so prodigiously in the Reagan '80s. The slashers were simple, reactionary morality fables wherein bad little boys and girls--particularly the girls--are punished for their "sins," those "sins" being any deviation from the sternest Puritanical morality. Take a hit off a joint, a shot of booze, party while the parents are away, or, worst of all, get laid and you're guaranteed to be laid to rest before the film runs its course.[3] Such sinners are destroyed in slasher films by a killer who, brandishing bladed weapons, is often little more than a cypher, a living embodiment of those Puritanical moral notions--gaze upon the blank "face" of HALLOWEEN's Michael Myers or FRIDAY THE 13th's Jason Vorhees.[4]

As a matter of convention, the killers were usually given some sort of backstory that began years earlier and tied into this theme. There's usually a "final girl," the last to survive the killer's onslaught and who usually defeats him in the end. This, too, ties into the central theme. The "final girl" is always "virtuous," by the curious "morality" embraced by the films. She's not allowed to be sexual, to dissent from this stern "morality," to do much of anything to assert her independence. She's the one left babysitting while everyone else is out partying. And everyone else is merely a target, thinly written non-entities whose job is solely to sin and to die for it in various ways.

What I've just outlined doesn't make for a complete definition of the slasher movie, of course. Other conventions and clich├ęs grew up around the subgenre, and there are other elements floating around on the outer strands of its DNA, but that basic reactionary morality fable was its core, its central defining characteristic, and the slashers were, with very few exceptions, rigorous in their devotion to the formula. By 1996, that formula had become so universally recognizable that it could be effectively parodied--and turned into a huge money-maker--in Wes Craven's SCREAM. The slashers are an identifiable group of literally hundreds of films sharing the same genes in incestuous fashion. Their family tree is, for the most part, a straight line. You can pull out virtually any dozen genuine slasher films at random, watch them back-to-back, and, with the exception of the obvious disparities in talent, different settings, and so on, you'd essentially be watching the same movie over and over again.[5]

I don't think much of slasher films. There were some good ones over the years, to be sure, but out of those hundreds of productions, the good ones can easily be counted on the fingers of one hand with fingers to spare. They are, for the most part, creatively bankrupt ventures that, at their height in the '80s, became a blight on the horror genre, nearly strangling it to death. Or perhaps "cutting its throat" would be a better metaphor. I suppose that's why I get all uppity when someone like James Parker comes along and writes an article about "the modern slasher movie" wherein non-slashers like THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, and SAW are aggressively thrown on the same slasher pile as genuine slashers like MY BLOODY VALENTINE and the FRIDAY THE 13th movies. Parker seems to think the only thing a slasher film needs is a killer who slashes. A killer with blades does not a slasher film make, though.[6]

To be fair, Parker isn't alone in this. One encounters this same sort of thing all over the internet; whenever fans on message boards are tasked with compiling a list of great slashers, there are almost inevitably numerous non-slasher inclusions. It's a sign of the complete creative bankruptcy of the slasher subgenre that, with so many films from which to choose, not even their most fervent fans seem capable of compiling a simple list of worthy efforts, even one only ten movies long, without padding it with at least a few non-slashers.

"But why this press of remakes," Parker asks, "this slasher-jam at the box office, right now?" He hasn't made any case for any "slasher jam," though. Hollywood has been aggressively remaking every horror success story of the past for years, now; it was inevitable that it would eventually get to the slashers. It didn't just get to the slashers this year, either--it has been remaking them (along with everything else) for a few years now. Parker's assertion of a current "slasher jam" is partly premised on the current remakes of slasher films, but it also relies heavily on those numerous remakes of films that are not, in fact, slashers, and on more recent films that aren't slashers, either.[7]

Parker says "the modern slasher movie... is a child of the 1970s," but it is, of course, much more closely--and properly--associated with the 1980s. In the '70s (starting, really, in the late '60s), filmmakers were using horror and other exploit genres to present interesting ideas and radical points of view. Films like THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT are much more sophisticated than the simple, Puritanical morality fables of the slashers. They follow no blueprint. No one in them is "safe." They were made in an atmosphere in which "The '60s" had crashed and burned really hard and it seemed as though America itself was winding down, sentiment the films reflected. There's a heavy emphasis on things like American self-image vs. reality. The evil you see in these films isn't some sort of exterior force that can be made to vanish by waving a crucifix at it or mumbling incantations over it. It resides within us.[8] The slashers think there's evil in us too, but their notion of "evil" is infantile, and they're all about cutting it out instead of contemplating the horror of it. They're like the dumbed-down revenge of angry, stupid, grunting conservatism, finally stomping out all those dope-smokin', fornicatin', long-haired troublemakers.

Parker is light-hearted in his comments. It would probably be wrong to be too hard on him. Most "mainstream" writers don't like horror films, and their work reflects it. That this one isn't openly hostile to the genre is, alone, a plus. And it certainly doesn't betray the shocking degree of ignorance and idiocy of a David Edelstein (He Who Created "Torture Porn"). Still, it is an uninformed piece, and, pretending to be informed, ends up dragging some good movies through the mud. I thought that was worth a grunt or two of protest.

--j.

---

[1] Though I recognize that it belongs there, I've never been entirely comfortable with including HALLOWEEN in the slasher category. The things that made HALLOWEEN work--the mythical element, the incredible visual stylings, the consistently menacing atmosphere, the suspense, the killer-as-projection-of-the-mind--are all pretty much ignored by the slashers that followed. FRIDAY THE 13th is the one that really popularized the by-the-numbers formula the subgenre would follow, and the long green it raked in was the point at which it really took off.

[2] Various commentators have unsuccessfully tried to make a case for the slashers starting earlier. BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974) is often cited by this contingent. The fact that the film was a failure, disappeared, and had no real influence wouldn't disqualify it as being a slasher film, but, among other things, it doesn't have the slashers' habit of lovingly lingering on the sinners getting their comeuppance, and, in fact, doesn't really offer the slasher movie morality fable at all. It's much more closely related to regular suspense films and thrillers. The full gamut of elements that would come to characterize the slasher film first congealed in HALLOWEEN.

[3] Women who express their sexuality in any way or who just get naked (even if no one but the camera is watching) are slaughtered without mercy, and the films always lovingly dote on the deaths of the women far more than the men, because female misbehavior is always thought far worse by this particular breed of moralizing.

[4] Those are extreme examples--slashers obviously didn't all go this way--but they were the most successful.

[5] The slashers are sometimes referred to as "body count" movies, and the appellation is certainly appropriate. Coming at the end of a great period of horror, they're not just stripped of the intellectual content of their predecessors, they're stripped of nearly everything. As my description suggests, they amounted to an effort to reduce horror down a few basic elements. They're horror in its most degraded, dumbed-down form, an artless, soulless assembly-line product featuring a standardized procession of unidimensional targets committing sins and being destroyed for it.

[6] Some would like to use that as the defining element of a "slasher movie," but doing so results in so many non-slasher horrors, thrillers, and mysteries being dumped under the classification of "slasher movie" that the huge body of work that legitimately falls under it and that does contain the clearly identifiable elements that make a cohesive subgenre is completely overwhelmed by these new additions and the classification is rendered meaningless.

[7] He uses, for example, the SAW films, which aren't slashers. The first is quite good, and is really a throwback to the pre-slasher '70s, in that it has an actual story, a psychological approach to the horror, characters who are more than cardboard cut-out targets, and a killer with an intriguing point of view (it borrows heavily from SE7EN, which is also excellent).

[8] That's not to romanticize the horror cinema of the '70s. Like any other era, it produced scores of films ranging from mediocre to outright worthless. Sturgeon's Law always applies: 90% of everything is crap. It's usually closer to 99% of everything. The top horrors of that era were crude, nasty, pitiless and in-your-face. They were also sublime. The slashers not only marked the end of this era of horrors of substance, they helped kill it off.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

How To Get HAMMERed: A Reevaluation of Hammer Horror

When fans talk about movies on the internet, one of the most painfully overused words is "overrated." It's thrown around time and time again, usually when someone somewhere has just watched some widely recognized classic of a movie and didn't get any kicks from it. The fault, he decides, must lie in the movie, not in himself, so he logs on to the internet, punches some buttons and gives birth to the latest overuse of "overrated" to describe his conclusion about that mediocre-to-lousy movie everyone inexplicably seems to love.

I offer this both as prologue and as a bit of a warning; what I've just described is what I'm about to do. It's not exactly the same, of course. Mine isn't a momentary whim. I've thought on the subject I'm about to tackle for some years. I've even written about it for years in various forums. I've had entire squadrons of angry fanboys try to decapitate me for my thoughts on the matter. I've had more learned commentators intemperately dispute with me on the subject. And sometimes--just sometimes--people agree with me too. But not as often.

Let me put my cards on the table.

The films of Britain's Hammer studios are some of the most beloved horror picture shows of their day, the movies that gave birth to the careers of icons Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, smashing successes at the box office, scandalized for their sex and violence and hailed for pushing the boundaries on both, credited with singlehandedly giving birth to "the modern horror film" and with the rebirth of gothic horror. That's the legend of Hammer.

The analysis I'd offer is a little different. As entertaining as a lot of the Hammer films undeniably are, the studio was a factory. In an era of wild experimentation in cinema, the stiff Tories running Hammer strove to impose--largely successfully--an unchallenging uniformity on their product. Even their staunchest defenders would have to concede their horror films were, for the most part, basically formulaic programmers, the filmmakers behind them competent jobbers without much to say. While it's certainly true their success helped bring about that new wave of horror films, the Hammer pictures were a part of that wave, not the leaders of it, and quality-wise, they were often put to shame by the films that emerged from around the world at the same time. Hammer gets a lot of credit for pushing the boundaries of sex and violence in horror cinema and while their content certainly resulted in a storm of controversy at the time (mostly from elderly British critics who, one suspect, were being paid by the harrumph), it really wasn't particularly bold and, for the most part, seemed the stuff of tame children's fare within only a few short years. Others were pushing those same boundaries much harder in those years.

Hammer films are, in a word, overrated.

That isn't to say, as some have seemed determined to have it say, that Hammer is bad. In this Bushite age of starkly drawn, irreconcilable and perpetually combative dualities, I've often been dismissed as a "hater" when I've offered this line. That's not the case at all. The Hammer gang, which doesn't need me to vouch for this, turned out a lot of good and even excellent horror films. The best of it has always had a place in my heart. I recently had another look at their version of THE MUMMY--a great piece of work. Their Nigel Kneale adaptations--THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN and the Quatermass flicks--are excellent. I really like the first two Draculas, several of the Frankensteins, CAPTAIN KRONOS, COUNTESS DRACULA, their adaptation of DR. SYN, THE GORGON (which is very underappreciated), the first Carmilla movie--lots of good stuff over those years. I'm a fan of a lot of it, a big fan of some of it and nothing I write here should be interpreted as the words of a "hater" or of someone who fails to appreciate and even adore the studio's very real accomplishments. When I assert Hammer horror is "overrated," I'm mostly aiming at its reputation for innovation, which goes beyond what it deserves, and attempting to redress, to some extent, the habit of some of its enthusiasts of sweeping under the rug its shortcomings.

The state of horror cinema when Hammer first entered the field was the first block on which the Hammer legend was built. Sci-fi horrors were the order of the day in the 1950s--saucer pictures, big bug movies, commies-from-space pictures--and when Hammer came along, what very few straight horror films still appeared were mostly terrible and had been for years, pretty much since Lewton's RKO unit had closed up shop.[1] Gothic horror in particular had died a cruel death with a Lou Costello whimper in the '40s. Hammer films were great indeed compared to most of what had been passing for horror for years but contrary to the legend, Hammer didn't lead the pack when, in the late '50s, the world had ripened for a return to the good stuff. The modern horror film actually began in France with LES DIABOLIQUES in 1955,[2] while the modern gothic horror began in Italy, where Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava offered up I VAMPIRI in 1956. When, in the magic year of 1957, Hammer lept into the horror field with THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, horror was already popping up all over the world. In the U.S., Roger Corman made THE UNDEAD, a cheapie and no classic but one that introduced many of the elements he would, within a few years, expand upon in his superior cycle of Edgar Allen Poe adaptations.[3] Also produced at the same time as CURSE were Ingmar Bergman's THE SEVENTH SEAL (Sweden), Fernando Mendez's EL VAMPIRO (Mexico) and Jacques Tourneur's NIGHT OF THE DEMON (UK). All three of these films were vastly superior to Hammer's CURSE.[4] They were, in fact, superior to just about everything Hammer would ever produce in the horror field.[5]

What CURSE had that the others in the Class of '57 lacked was color.[6] The flesh-tones were warm, the blood was red, and no one had seen anything like it. The use of color in gothic horror was, indeed, a Hammer innovation,[7] and no doubt part of the reason those crotchety English critics were so shocked--shocked!--by the level of gore in the film. For those who haven't seen it, there's virtually no gore in CURSE but what little was present was indeed red and that seemed to inspire those critics to portray the film as a nauseating bloodbath (Feeling cheeky, the Hammer boys replied by opening their next horror production, DRACULA, with a shot of some blood splattering on a tomb).

What Hammer's use of color lacked was any real artistic initiative. CURSE and the Hammer horrors that followed offered sumptuous, beautifully rendered color photography but their use of color remained strictly matter-of-fact. Decorative and nothing more. While Hammer is so often praised for its use of color, it in fact fell to Hammer's contemporary rivals to show the world how it's really done. Roger Corman, in his Poe cycle followed almost immediately (and even more impressively) by Mario Bava left the merely decorative far behind, offering up wild, innovative experiments in the expressive use of color. Hammer never matched it. Hammer never even tried.

Hammer's conservatism with color was matched by its conservatism in its choice of stories. Hammer films were always set in a conservative, rigidly ordered moral universe, which arguably murdered any effort at horror right out of the gate. With a few notable exceptions, they offered simple good-vs.-evil tales. As horror buff "Squonkamatic" put it (in one of the message board exchanges I've had on the subject):

"Their stories tend to be about the status quo being upset and a quest to settle things down again. Even if the particular evil isn't destroyed or the story wrapped up into a neat bundle, there is always an emphasis on order being restored in the face of chaos. The monster himself isn't so much the antagonist as is the disruption of normal life and the moral or ethical disharmony that his/her influence inflicts on the community."[8]

While genre films were taking storytelling in different and interesting directions,[9] Hammer held to this conservatism throughout its time in the horror business.[10]

Hammer was routinely pelted with criticism in its native Great Britain for its violent and sexy movies and that hail of rotten tomatoes has been converted, over the years, into a shower of praise for pushing the boundaries of acceptable content. Lost in the midst of both the decaying vegetation and the congratulatory wreaths is the fact that Hammer's use of sex and violence was actually extraordinarily mild. Mild in and of itself, mild in comparison to their contemporaries and becoming cartoonishly mild in comparison as time went on. British censorship was (and is) the most conservative in the Western world; coming into conflict with it required very little. The insanely stodgy critics and censors of the House of Horror's heyday revealed, through their reviling of Hammer's product, everything about themselves and little about the films. Hammer's years of horror coincided with Jesus Franco's earliest work,[11] PEEPING TOM, Herschell Gordon Lewis' gore-packed extravaganzas, THE WHIP & THE BODY, BLOOD & BLACK LACE, and the rest of Bava's prime, ONIBABA, REPULSION, MILL OF THE STONE WOMEN, PSYCHO, etc. By the end of the '60s, Hammer had been left entirely in the dust when it came to blood and bumpin'-uglies-related business. We were getting items like THE WITCHFINDER GENERAL, Jean Rollin's early films, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, the Blind Dead, MOJU, DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS, Dario Argento, pinku stuff from Japan, Paul Naschy's movies and so on, movies that genuinely pushed boundaries like mad and like they were mad.

Particularly odd are the hysterical howls of their early detractors regarding all that smutty sex stuff with which Hammer supposedly stuffed their productions. In the real world, Hammer always shied away from full-bodied eroticism. They had to--the British censors would drag out the scissors if they offered more than the vaguest suggestion. Their films didn't even feature nudity until 1970.[12] Before that, the most you'd ever get from them was a little upper-jubbly cleavage from some busty (but fully clothed) barmaid, a suggestive dance or a curvy vampire lass whose actions we're to regard as "sensual" because we're meant to substitute, in our minds, her sucking of her victims' blood for suction of a more wholesome variety.[13] To sample how truly backwards was Hammer when it came to more involved matters relating to the beast with two (or more) backs, look at the snickering, embarrassed, English-schoolboy-being-naughty approach to eroticism in the first two Karnstein films, especially the second one,[14] and compare it to the way the same element is approached by Franco, Harry Kumel, Jean Rollin in their roughly contemporaneous films.

For that matter, look at how just about everything was being handled by Hammer vs. everyone else, particularly from the mid-60s onward. It was a time of remarkable innovation. As genre writer Tim Lucas put it, the '60s was "second only to the '20s in terms of its serious contribution to the history of imaginative moviemaking."[15] We're getting KWAIDAN, TARGETS, Jose Mojica Marins' Coffin Joe, and all of the other films about which I've just been rattling on, and Hammer is cranking out DRACULA, PART 48 and FRANKENSTEIN, PART 34.

Hammer was a film factory and like most factories, those who ran it didn't see much merit in the idea that strength could come from diversity. On the other hand, the Hollywood axiom "nothing succeeds like success" had a lot of very dear friends among the management there. When the studio started making horror movies, it had a big hit, then another then fell into its cycle of formulaic programmers almost immediately. Its films weren't made by artists with a burning desire to tell a story; they were made by clock-punching jobbers,[16] skilled craftsmen working from a house style that was intended to obliterate as many signs of individuality as possible and that mostly succeeded. That's why, when one isolates the films of any particular individual director among the long-time Hammer hands, there are no identifiably consistent themes,[17] bold or unusual points of view or even particularly innovative technical work that marks those films as the product of that individual. The house style shows some (mostly minor) variation over time but with few exceptions, Hammer horrors basically look the same, regardless of the director, whose job was little more than to show up, say "action" and say "cut." If they had a good story and script--and they were always assigned this; they never came up with the idea or developed it themselves--and the actors and crew were doing well, the picture worked. If there was a shortcoming anywhere in this chain, it didn't. Hammer was blessed with a large number of competent craftsmen who could make pretty things for an audience to look at and could crank out a fine entertainment from time to time.

The blessing comes with a caveat though; they cranked out a far larger number of mediocre-to-poor entertainments. I've always found a certain blandness factor in Hammer's horror films, even among the better ones. It isn't exactly true that, with Hammer, "if you've seen one, you've seen 'em all," but it often feels a lot like that. That's part of the downside of too unyielding an effort to impose uniformity--it makes your best picture feel a whole lot like your worst one. And while great horror can inspire outright awe, very few of the Hammer horrors do (which isn't an insignificant point, particularly given the volume of horror Hammer produced). My own feelings about Hammer are, as everything I've written here makes plain, mixed but one thing on which I'm not divided is that the common sentiment regarding the high quality of their films, the boldness of them and the place they earn Hammer in cinematic history is overblown.[18] In this sense, they are overrated.

Make of that what you will.

--j.

---

[1] While ailing in the cinema, however, horror had flourished in American comics between 1950 and '54, led by William Gaines' gang of groovy ghouls at EC Comics. At mid-decade, the insanity of the McCarthy era turned its guns on horror books and TALES FROM THE CRYPT and all the rest were put out of business but the Cryptkeeper had the last laugh; the influence of the EC horror comics on modern horror cinema is immeasurable and, to bring things back to the central theme of this article, puts the influence of Hammer to shame.

[2] LES DIABOLIQUES was a huge box-office success. William Castle, upon seeing it, was inspired to leave his regular job at Columbia and start work on what would eventually become MACABRE, the first of his many entries into the horror field. Author Robert Bloch named LES DIABOLIQUES his "favorite horror film of all time," and "the epitome of what the horror film should be." He was inspired by it to write PSYCHO, which was, a few years later, turned into the seminal horror film by Alfred Hitchcock.

[3] '57 was also the year Screen Gems put together, for television airing in the U.S., a package of more than 50 classic Universal horrors from the '30s and '40s under the banner "Shock Theater." The package was wildly successful, and set off a renaissance of interest in the classic horrors. Their popularity led Forrest J. Ackerman--Uncle Forry--to launch his horror fanzine "Famous Monsters of Filmland" in 1958, and it nurtured a few generations of genre filmmakers and writers.

[4] That isn't to say CURSE was a bad movie. Though one of Hammer's lesser films, it still had, among other things, a cracking good villain. The character of Frankenstein is said to have appeared in more than 200 movies over the years but for my money, Peter Cushing's is easily the definitive portrayal.

[5] Some would disagree, of course. Fortunately for them, they face no legal sanction for being completely wrong.

[6] And what it made was money--lots of it. The big bucks Hammer had rolling in from their initial productions added rocket-fuel to the production of this new breed of horror film.

[7] There is a perpetual argument among horror aficionados about whether gothic horrors even should be shot in color. I confess my sympathies lean more toward those who argue black-and-white is the proper medium for the sub-genre but I'm no ideologue on the point. There have been far too many great gothics well lensed in color to dismiss it as a palette. Still, gothic horror is about generating a certain atmosphere and a lot of the visual language that most effectively spoke to this seemed to get lost in the translation to color.

[8] That may be the first time in history someone known only as "Squonkamatic" was quoted in a text of this sort, and this may be the first footnote to cite such a source, too. I don't care. I'm feeling lazy. He said it as well as I could have--why rewrite it?

[9] Roger Corman, for example, constructed his Poe films around the idea that the "reality" they present is a projection of the disturbed minds at the center of the stories. Polanski's REPULSION (1965) visualized the delusional fantasies of its central character, a mentally disturbed woman.

[10] Hammer also remained committed to straightforward linear narratives right to the end, though the genre began generating interesting challenges to those narratives by the end of the '60s, like Jesus Franco's SUCCUBUS and Jean Rollin's early work. If this is judged a sin at all, it's a very minor one, but it does help make the case for Hammer's lack of any real innovative spirit.

[11] Franco's first horror, GRITOS EN LA NOCHE (1962), is a vicious little film, with onscreen surgery on bleeding human beings (a carryover from 1959's seminal EYES WITHOUT A FACE) and sporting, as a lead, a doctor who seems to have had much of his conscience surgically removed. The torture sequence in THE SADISTIC BARON VON KLAUS (Franco's second horror outing) puts to shame anything ever shot by Hammer. A lot of the sex and violence in films of this vintage look quaint now--that KLAUS sequence is still jaw-dropping in its rawness and viciousness today. And both of those flicks feature all kinds of wild music, crazy camerawork, improvisation. They are innovative features, reaching for something new and different, not the dull, practically invisible house style adopted by Hammer for most of its time in the chiller business. O.K., so this was really just an excuse to throw in a footnote about Jesus Franco movies. Sue me. I like the guy.

[12] In THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, a most excellent (if flawed) flick, that appeared nearly a decade after Hammer's contemporaries had began using nudity.

[13] Then, later, we're meant to cheer with some sexless Puritan drives a stake through her, ridding the world of suction forever in the name of the Lord. Hallelujah!

[14] These were Hammer's first attempts at a plunge into lush eroticism. THE VAMPIRE LOVERS gets the striking Ingrid Pitt naked on camera--a good start, to be sure--but when, in the scene in question, a pair of fully grown women suddenly act like silly girls playing a game of tag, one suspects the jobbers behind the camera didn't quite understand the phrase "lush eroticism" (as one commentator has said, one expects them to break out into a pillow-fight at any moment). As for the follow-up, LUST FOR A VAMPIRE, well, let me hear you sing it... "Straaange love..."

[15] "The 1960s" from Fangoria #100

[16] I've gotten some static over that and similar phrases when I've discussed Hammer in various venues. It's said to be demeaning, which isn't the intention at all. As a matter of personal bias, if that's the right word, I do place artists at a higher level than employees when it comes to making art. Being a jobber can imply a lack of passion for the work. Obviously, an indie filmmaker who puts his all and usually every penny he owns, and a lot of pennies he has to beg, borrow, and steal from friends and relatives is going to put all of his heart and soul into a project. It's going to consume all of his time and money, maybe for years. It requires dedication, commitment, a sort of obsession. I know--I've been there for a few years myself. A jobber is someone who punches a clock every day, who is usually going to look upon his work the same way most of us look upon our work. It's just a job. This isn't always the case, of course, but my bias in that regard is, as I see it, reasonable. It's the same reason football fans prefer college ball to the pros. And none of this is to suggest the jobbers can't sometimes trump the artists. Warner Brothers, as a factory operation, produced CASABLANCA, for example, a film without which no list of the greatest movies can be complete. It's telling, however, that literally no one who worked on that movie had any idea how good it really was. They just cranked it out, moved on to the next one, and expressed disbelief in later years that it turned out so well. The difference between the artist and the jobber: for the latter, filmmaking a job; for the former, it's a life.

[17] Hammer's films had thematic consistencies, not the films of the individual directors.

[18] And no, Hammer fanatics, that's definitely not the product of a "divided mind."