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."

Friday, June 26, 2009

A Minor Meditation on the Matter of Lobbing Metaphorical Manure at Lousy Movies

My recent Jesús Franco article, posted over at Bob Monell's excellent Cinemadrome board, drew some words from Bob about a pet peeve of his--scatalogical references used as a substitute for competent film criticism. I'd quoted some references of that sort from Franco-bashing reviewers, and he recounted recently seeing the same sort of comments being directed at Dario Argento.[1] In the grip of a manic fit, I thought it a topic worth addressing. Briefly, anyway. Bob:

This kind of "language" tells us little, if anything, about the films or filmmaker, but tells a lot about the writer's impoverished critical vocabulary. "I don't like it... so it's shit!" What banal, totally unegaging language. I don't care what this person thinks, if there's any thought at all involved, which I doubt. This is reactive writing. Self centered writing. Bad writing.

Most of the time, that's probably true (and I'd add "lazy writing" to the roster).I do think, however, that scatological references are sometimes useful shorthand, and even appropriate. Someone who calls a Brett Ratner movie "shit," for example, is expending only slightly less thought than went into making the movie itself. One could write a detailed article about all the ways in which the Ratner film sucked, but if such an article was competent (that it would be very long is a given), one would, by definition, be expending far more thought on bashing the movie than went into making it.

Sometimes, this can be an amusing exercise--I picture Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog at a picnic table combing through old books in an effort to find arcane profanities for Kinski to hurl at Herzog and his films. Most of the time, it's pointless, because most upbudget Hollywood rubbish--the movies that most merit that treatment--isn't, shall we say, up to Herzog's standards.

The "summer blockbuster" season is well underway, Hollywood besieging us with their annual roster of "tent-pole" movies, a parade of brainless CGI-laden inanity that seems to find no denominator either common enough or low enough. How does one write a thoughtful, intelligent critique of a movie like ARMAGEDDON or THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW or INDEPENDENCE DAY or this year's X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE? Such films wear their cretinous idiocy and complete lack of value on their sleeves. Their mere existence is an insult to the universe itself, particularly given their budgets (which run into the hundreds of millions of dollars). They're the soulless, putrefying leavings of a system of once-mighty studios who, decades ago, stopped living and became mixed-up zombies. And not in any good way.[2]

And if one doesn't want to waste the energy necessary to detail, about them, deficiencies already patently obvious to anyone with more than a few functioning brain cells, I think it's all right to just call them shit.[3]

--j.

---

[1] As this suggests, at least some little part of the objection to the use of defecation metaphors is that they're so often so poorly aimed!

[2] Think about this: 70 years ago, the studio system gave us THE WIZARD OF OZ, Laughton's HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, GONE WITH THE WIND, GUNGA DIN, STAGECOACH, ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS, THE YOUNG MR. LINCOLN--more great movies than can be counted. This year, we're getting a FRIDAY THE 13th remake, X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE, PAUL BLART: MALL COP, a LAND OF THE LOST rehash, a remake of THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123, YEAR ONE, and TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

[3] After all, is the bashing I've just given them here that much different? Some windier prose, some whimsical alliteration, some big words, but, when all is said and done, all I've done is call them shit in a fancier way.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

My Movie Madness (version 2.0)

As I was out to-ing and fro-ing a week or so ago, I ran into one of my old customers. That isn't so unusual for me. I've worked with the public in one way or another in every job I've had and when you live in such a small town in such a small county as I, you sort of get to know everyone after a while. This was a customer from a video store I owned a few years ago. It was called Movie Madness. It operated for three years before bowing to the inevitable. Before opening it, I'd worked for four years at another video store in town, so I'd put in quite a few years in movie rentals before I had to pack up my ruck and call it a day. When I closed, a lot of my younger customers had been renting from me since they were kids.

The fellow I saw on the day in question was among them. I hadn't seen him since I'd closed up my shop three years ago. I remembered him well. I just couldn't remember his name! He remembered me and my name very well, and you'd have thought, from his reaction upon seeing me, that he was some crazed fan who'd just randomly encountered whatever rock star to whom he secretly built shrines in between stays at the local mental health facility. He was very pleased to see me.


I was pleased to see him. I run into my old customers all the time--practically any time I'm out in public. I'm always particularly glad to see the old customers from my Movie Madness though. The store was an impossibility. I opened it in a rundown old building with $2,600, and ran it on a shoestring from opening to closing. Ultimately, it failed but I did give it a sweet try for a few years there and my customers were the ones who made it possible. There are a lot of good people among them. I'm grateful to all of them.

Well, all but the ones who stole my movies. Not so big on those.

Thankfully, this old customer wasn't among that mercifully small group. He was a diehard loyalists and he wanted me to know how much he missed me and my Movie Madness. Expression of this heartache was practically the first things out of his mouth. The next was about how there's no cool place like Movie Madness to go to anymore.

I'd tried to make my Movie Madness a place that would provoke that sort of reaction. Not just a sterile, impersonal rental house but a sort of shrine to cinema, the way video stores had been when I was younger and they first began popping up. When I was a child, access to movies was very limited--you saw them when they were making the theaters, caught whatever ran on television and that was about it. And then came VHS. In the Dark Age days before cable had penetrated my neck of the rural outback and satellite dishes were exotic structures the size of small autos (and just as expensive), a trip to the video store was a special thing indeed for a young cinephile. The stores were all independently owned and featured a remarkable diversity of films, much more so than in the years that would follow. You got to know whoever ran the place and they were usually movie lovers, too--it's why they were in the business. As they learned your tastes, they could point you to a dazzling array of fine films you'd never seen and often, of which you'd never even heard. Vigorous movie-watching became part of the culture (a change that is little appreciated today) and browsing the aisles, you ran into other people from around town and you'd kick recommendations back and forth between you. Sometimes, you'd just pull odd items off the shelf that looked interesting and even if you were burned by them two times out of three, the one that clicked made it seem worth the dig. When I built my Movie Madness, I think I wanted to make a place that was sort of like that, a place that would build a loyal base, and that would advertise itself.[1]

Because of money--more particularly, because of my lack of it--my Movie Madness was necessarily limited, to a significant degree, by the bounds of popular taste. A big part of its budget was consumed, every week, by whatever the new, popular material was at the time. That's what pays the bills at any video store. Still, I tried to make of it something different and special, even working within those limitations.

One of the ways I made the place my own was through my selection of older films. I'd been assembling Movie Madness in my basement for years before there was ever any store or even the name.[2] When I first hung out my shingle, video libraries had all but disappeared. When everything went from VHS to DVD (a process still underway at the time I opened), those older movies--all on VHS--were bundled up and sold for whatever they'd bring, with no effort to convert popular older titles to disc. It wasn't uncommon to go into a video store and discover it didn't carry a single title that was over three or four years old, with most being of much more recent vintage. Older movies are lower return items but they're also cheaper. I wanted my library to be part of my hook, a thing that marked my store as different and that drew people in. With no real libraries around, my thinking went, I could fill a vacuum. Much of my library of older films was carefully chosen. I went for cult films [3], classics, movies that were good but little known, those kind of movies about which people have always heard but haven't gotten around to watching and, encompassing all of these concerns, I wanted quality movies to which I, personally, could mate viewers. For the longest time (before I'd opened), I wanted to call my store "Video Eclectica," but there was no way that would fly in a small town in Georgia. Even if people could pronounce "eclectica"--which they couldn't--they'd have no idea what it meant (Yeah, I made up the word but I insist its meaning is plain).

Throughout my Madness years, I always sought out new old stuff whenever I was making a little money. Film cultists swoon over the things I'd dig up but odd items caught the attention of Joe Average renter too. I had the old original NOSFERATU, magnificent silent German Expressionist fare from 1922. Conventional wisdom says you can't pay people to take silent films, especially in the culturally desolate environs in which Movie Madness stood, but this particular version was the Arrow release scored by the music of Type-O Negative. I rented it like gangbusters! One guy even gave me a $20 tip after seeing it, just, he said, for having such a cool store.[4] I had REEFER MADNESS and THE COCAINE FIENDS, infamous, unintentionally hilarious anti-drug films from the 1930s--I stocked them in the comedy section. People loved them. I had PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE, Ed Wood's wonderfully incompetent anti-epic. It was in comedy too and it was so popular it was stolen. Not once, but twice. As much as it made for me, I didn't mind buying it three times.

Many of the sections in which I divided my library reflected its eccentricity.

I had a section devoted entirely to ancient world "Epics"--nothing but sword-and-sandal flicks and Roman empire-related titles. I had a great (and extensive) section devoted to films based on comic books. My section marker was a great collage of comic characters (I designed all of the section markers, and my pal John printed them up). I had a "Film Noir" section, one of my personal favorite genres, and quite a nice selection of films, many of them from my personal collection. My marker for it was the cover of a Raymond Chandler anthology. I had sections devoted to the old cliffhanger serials (which I've always loved) and to Japanese anime. Never had much of either but they weren't that popular. I had an extraordinary "War Movies" section. No exaggeration, it would be easier to name the great war movies I didn't have than the ones I did. And where do you ever see a war movie section in a video store anyway? I had mine by way of my friend Darren, who made a deal with me to use his collection in return for half of whatever they made in rentals (he provided me with several other good flicks too).

Even the "normal" sections of the store were marked by eclectic selections. My Western section was made up of things like spaghetti westerns, the complete KUNG FU series (GREAT show from my youth, released to DVD in the years I was in business), Sam Peckinpah's blood-drenched sagebrush sagas and so on. My tips of the hat to "normal" were things like the YOUNG GUNS flicks (very popular), and even a copy of HIGH NOON (a great movie no one ever rented). My section-marker was a black-and-white Clint Eastwood from THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES with "Western" written over him in red Marlboro font. Over the rack on which they stood, I had a reproduction of a great poster from Enzo Castellari's KEOMA (also available to rent). My children's movies were marked "Kids' Stuff," and, again, odd choices. The animated LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, the Betty Boop collection and so on.The section-marker for "Sci-Fi" had a then-new image of the surface of Mars taken by a Russian craft--I downloaded it, made the marker out of it and had it on foam-board over my sci-fi films within three days of it being taken. I had a "Fantasy" section too, where roamed Ray Harryhausen, THE ODYSSEY, CONAN THE BARBARIAN. My collection of softcore "Skinemax" type movies and most of the films that ended up being "unrated" or NC-17ed for sex were posted under a section labeled "Lovin'." I had a great section marker featuring a cut-away of Shannon Whirry obviously enjoying the attentions of some beefy fellow and the words "Lovin'", in a very ornate font to the side. I put up my section devoted to wrestling and Ultimate Fighting events on a large rack beneath the "Lovin'" films, in a section marked "Fightin'," which had, as a marker, Popeye, fresh from eating a bait of spinach and charging into action. Lovin' and fightin' in the same place. The stuff of life![5] My "Horror" section was to die for. There was quite a bit of good horror being released when I was open. DOG SOLDIERS, WRONG TURN, the GINGER SNAPS trilogy, 28 DAYS LATER, CABIN FEVER. I had Jesus Franco flicks, Jean Rollin, when a lot of it was out of print[6], and lots of Italians, alongside Roger Cormans and Herschell Gordon Lewises and George Romeros and John Carpenters, among a plethora of great, obscurities I'd found.

DVD brought forth the proliferation of "special editions" and "director's cuts" and "unrated" or "expanded" versions of movies. When there was one available, I always tried to get the nice edition. Most people didn't care but my core clientele of cinephiles certainly appreciated it. I wanted them to have the longer editions of the LORD OF THE RINGS movies, not just the radically shortened theatrical releases all the other stores had. A new, much revised release gave people who has already seen the films a reason to rent the new version. I made a fortune on UNDERWORLD in its original version; when the unrated, extended edition was released, I got it too and made another fortune.[7]

When people rented my movies, I stuck the boxes back on the shelf with a rubber band on them and a big tag with some silly, irreverent message indicating their absence, most of them reflecting periods of boredom when no one is coming in and one has a little time to concoct silly, irreverent messages. If a Schwarzenegger movie was rented, the tag indicating it read--what else--"Ah'll be back!" If it's a sad movie, it will be something like...

A Western or other guy picture might get this...

A more generalized one...


Most were general, and could be stuck on anything. "Roses are red/Violets are blue/I've been rented/ But not by you"; "Already gone"; "I ain't here"; "Gadzooks! I've been drafted!"; and so on. Better, more clever ones too, but I don't, off the top of my head, remember them. I'd suggested doing something like this at a previous store at which I'd worked and the idea had been vetoed on the grounds that people might be offended. No one ever expressed offense at my tags. A lot of people laughed at them though. A few customers even provided new ones. I kept a pile of blank tags on the counter where they checked out so they could add to the pile if they came up with a good one.


I had lots of great posters and other images all over the store. I had a reproduction of a German poster for James Whale's FRANKENSTEIN, a reproduction of an old 1933 KING KONG poster and the long one-sheets of CASABLANCA, OUT OF THE PAST, and ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT. Contemporary posters for new movies as they came out as well but not so many of those. In my horror section, I had a Gil Elvgren print of a witch--actually, one of Elvgren's typical smiling beauties in witch duds riding a broom that is visibly tied up with a string. Once, a customer who turned out to be a fellow fan of the old pin-up artists decided he simply had to have it. I sold it to him and had another copy of it in its place within a few days.

I had lots of other things hanging around the store, as well. A poster recounting the Golden Age origin of the Batman. Another doing the same for the Golden Age Superman. Plenty of things like this, too...


And many iterations on my logo. The logo was designed by a very old friend of mine (thanks, Allen). It was going to be a character I'd just called "the Doc" and I told him to make it a mad scientist in a Peter Lorre/Dexter's Laboratory vein. It was great:

I had a more-than-life-size Doc on the front of the store and those coming in the back--most people, because that's where the parking-lot was--were greeted by a 4-foot stand-up Doc, mounted on coreplast, again by my friend John, who, after a while, did all of my printing, including banners, flyers, business cards, and my little newsletters I'd write and put in various locales around town. He only ever got, for his troubles, whatever movies he wanted. And he didn't even want a lot of those.

My first location (and the one where I spent all but the last year of the store's run) was an old house. There was  a small porch off the back door, which, as I said, is where most people entered. It had a huge cherry tree growing beside it. When they were in season, this meant all the cherries one wanted. It also meant a mess, though, when they ripened and dropped off on to the porch--I had to keep them swept off so they weren't crushed and tracked in. I had my punk-rock night-drop box on that same door--a milk crate with a pillow on it, nailed to the door under a mail-drop slot. For some reason, people found this endlessly amusing. The place had a bricked-up former fireplace with a mantle off to the side of where I'd put my long counter. I turned it into a shrine to Dr. Shock, a local late-night horror host in Chattanooga who had delighted me as a child:


Early in putting together the store, I tried to track down Dr. Shock (whose real name was Tommy Reynolds), in the hopes of arranging a personal appearance at the store. Never could find him though. He was apparently in Alabama at the time and he died a few years later. I never got to meet him.

I also sold comics out of a back room; they're another passion of mine. I had an old-fashioned spinner-rack up front, stocked, perhaps appropriately, with older books. The comics didn't sell very well in the store but I sold a ton of them on ebay. They were, in fact, what helped get the store through its first summer. Movie rentals wither in the heat of the summer and while the comics didn't bring in a lot, they added enough that it was like getting an extra week out of  each month.

The blood that kept afloat my cash-anemic project flowed from my customers and I loved them.[8] I ran the store myself, and made it a point to interact with everyone who came in. They became like friends and family. I always kept a cooler of drinks in the front for anyone who wanted one. I had a small dinner-table in the front room; sometimes I'd feed folks who were a little down on their luck and maybe couldn't feed themselves and sometimes food was for people who had done me a favor, ran an errand for me when I couldn't get away and so on.[9] I got to know a fellow named Dmitri who had opened a pizza shop a short walk from me. The location was new to him but he'd been in business for a while and was sympathetic to the new kid on the entrepreneur's block. One day, I told him the tale of who gets fed and he told his people to give me a 2-liter Coke any time I bought pizza, free of charge! I never got to do anything to repay him (except, of course, buy his pizzas and say "thank you" in a blog post years later).

The real cheese-and-pepperoni of my Movie Madness though, was always movies. I love movies. At Movie Madness, I got to talk about them all day and get paid for it. Paid a little, anyway. Some of my customers would stick around for hours yakking about them. A large part of my solid customer base was younger people and because I was knowledgeable and passionate about movies, many of them came to regard me as some sort of film guru, which, for whatever reason, always seemed to amuse me. People would pick a movie from my store, ask me if it was any good, then find it hilarious if I told them it sucked. I never misled anyone for the sake of a rental. They often rented the ones I dissed anyway. Sometimes they didn't come back with sour "you told me so" looks. A lot of times, they did.

People would sometimes come by and talk about problems they were having with a DVD player or VCR or movie and I'd tell them to bring it over. I installed some DVD players and explained their workings to those who found them mysterious and I got to be pretty good at fixing things. The town mayor was my neighbor, and his wife once brought over a pair of movies on VHS, one of which had broken free of one of its reels and one of which had been left in the car in the sun and had melted into something that barely resembled its previous form. I gave the latter a full body transplant from an identical tape I had laying around and patched up the former. She was so pleased she gave me $20, which I did my best to refuse. In the end, she insisted, and I needed the money at the time too much to fight it to the last man.[10] That was the only time I ever accepted any payment for such business though. A friend once told me I was crazy to do those things free of charge. My view was that it made for better advertising than you could possibly buy and if I could install or fix someone's machine, they'd rent my movies. Whenever I would order things for people (which was pretty regularly), I always took a pretty small cut.

There are a lot of funny Movie Madness stories. My original location featured an ever-collapsing toilet. The floor was progressively falling in on one side of it but it was situated in such a way that fixing it would have been a major hassle. It still worked and didn't get much use, so I just let it be. Eventually, the best you could do, if you had to go, is one-cheek it and hope. The building was rigged for gas heat but I couldn't afford to have the town gas-line connected, which meant a constant struggle to keep the drafty old place warm in the winter. My best solution was kerosene but there was never a good solution. It was always a lot warmer inside than out but in the colder parts of winter--the prime movie rental season--the warmer-blooded of my customers became fond of my big heater. There was also the underhanded hijinks of the competition, who, at one point, launched a whisper-campaign aimed at suggesting I was running a porn shop! I thought this quite amusing at first. When skeptical parents kept their teens away while a lot of the new customers were shady guys in metaphorical raincoats looking for porn that wasn't there, not so much. Well, the guys in raincoats were funny. Not what the rumors did to my bank account though. In a sense, I got the last laugh--I outlasted those who started that bit of trouble.

Some years ago, a Movie Gallery had moved into town and helped kill off the local independents. I was the only one to open my doors after they arrived on the scene, and the last holdout to fall after they'd finished off everyone else. Mine is a small town but it used to support five video stores. Now, there's only Movie Gallery.

And, as my old customer I saw a few days ago put it, "Movie Gallery sucks."

In a very real sense (and to borrow the old cliche'), an era ended with my Movie Madness. I put up the best fight I could with what I had.

I sometimes doubted myself on that point though. Was I really putting up the best fight? I would often walk the length of my store and wonder if I'd made it too eclectic. Too much like me. Was I hurting business by making a trip through my library too much like a trip through a corner of my own mind? I could never entirely convince myself it didn't hurt me but I did lean that way. Being so different probably helped me hold out as long as I did. It was an unique place. My customers seemed to find my enthusiasm infectious. I developed a strong cadre of clients to prove it, many of whom even followed me when I had to move the store out to the styx for its last year of business,[11] and when I run into them today, they're still going on about the place. There just weren't enough of them. And, really, who cares if I did do any harm by making the store my own? I ran into another of my old customers online last week and, talking with her, I came to realize something about my Movie Madness that should have been obvious to me all along:[12] It was more than just a store. It was art. I've always been an artist, not a businessman. Movie Madness was, in a very real sense, one of my works. A personal one.

Well, this has been a bit of a rant and on what must seem a bit of a strange subject. I started my Movie Madness because I thought it would make the money I needed to fund things I really wanted to do. This is hilarious in retrospect--I barely made anything at it. I do think I created something unique and worthwhile. And if my own film projects ever get off the ground, it will be through the efforts of people I met through my Movie Madness, so in a sense, it helped "pay" for those projects after all. I don't think I'd ever want to go back and do it again. Well, that isn't exactly true. I'd love to do it again. One of these days, maybe someone will come up with a way to run a business like that without the incredible amount of stress my Movie Madness involved.[13] If that ever happened, I'd jump back into it in a second. Seems pretty unlikely though. The age of the independent video store is, unfortunately, over, now. It really was a lot of fun while it lasted.

And I did finally remember your name, George. Don't hold it against me that I forgot.

Forgive me if this has been boring. It's just something I did with my life for a while.

--j.

---

[1] Word-of-mouth really is the most valuable advertising. When I opened, I had a massive box of flyers printed. I don't remember how many--probably a thousand or two. They acted as a coupon on a rental. I, my friends, my family, and whatever other poor souls I could rope in handed out flyers. We put flyers in the local businesses. We hung flyers. We taped flyers to mailboxes. We coated the world in flyers. In all the years I was in business, I got exactly one customer from all of those flyers and all that effort. There was, on the other hand, one guy who lived not far from my store. He was a real movie buff--came in with his girlfriend, fell in love with the place, told all his friends. I probably got a dozen regular customers from him. Thanks, Jerry.

[2] I'd put in four years working at a place called Dynamite Video, right next door to where I'd ultimately open my own. At one point toward the end of that job, one of my customers approached me about teaming with him to open a new video store in town; I'd run it and he'd be the bank. I did some initial work toward this end, putting together some numbers and so on, but he ultimately had to pull out over money--his wife, pregnant with twins, had just been put to bed by her doctors a few months before her due date. But I kept working on the project from time to time anyway, thinking maybe I'd take it up myself at some point. When Dynamite closed its doors, I went for it, with a little borrowed money and my income-tax refund for that year.

[3] Film cultists are choice customers. They want to see BLAZING SADDLES or MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL for the 10,000th time. They're predictable and profitable, so I tried to find and stock as many Blazing Saddles and Holy Grails as I could (and to spend as little on them as possible). These renters also multiply well; they talk up these movies so much that they make people who have never seen them want to see them, and I got their business too.

[4] Thanks, Jason.

[5] Those softcore flicks were the most popular item with thieves--during my years in business, I lost more from that section than all other sections of the store combined.

[6] My preference for obscurities meant I had a lot of movies on the shelf that, over time, went out of print. Incredibly stupid--setting myself up for theft--but I was fortunate enough to never lose one of them, and cinephiles certainly appreciated me for having them. The closest I ever came to losing one was the 1980 version of FLASH GORDON. It had run out of print for a time, and one day, a fellow called rather desperately searching for it. He turned up at my door, near orgasmic over the fact that I had it. He kept it a lot longer then he was supposed to have. I had to call him a few times. He did finally--maybe reluctantly but at least graciously--bring it back.

[7] I also had it in the back of my mind that having all these nicer editions would make the library worth more, if I ever wanted to sell it. I never got to sell it.

[8] And I still do, Adrian, Melanie, Bryan, the Jerrys, Jason, Deforest, Christy, Gerard, Mike who helped me through an inventory crisis, among a great many other things, Darren who delivered my movies every week, sometimes fed me and was always there when I needed help, my cousin Julie who made some "Movie Madness" t-shirts, my aunt Sherry who helped me out of a money jam with my early taxes and more others than I can fairly list, so don't even think about taking it as a sleight if I fail to mention you. You all made it happen. You're the greatest.

[9] And sometimes, they'd bring me food and other goodies. Once, one of my regulars brought me some exceptionally good barbecued pork, right off the grill--thanks Bryan.

[10] Later, whenever the mayor and his wife would leave town, they'd get me to come over and feed their cat in their absence.

[11] That's what killed me off. I had to move because I could no longer afford my place in town. I moved into the back of a convenience store, an isolated commercial property in a remote area. Should have been a good move, but the new owners of the convenience store systematically ran it into the ground, thus running me into the ground.

[12] Thanks, Melanie.

[13] The part I definitely don't miss is the stress. There was never money for anything, and, for most of my time in business, I lived on stress sandwiches for breakfast, lunch and dinner, to the point that my health was adversely affected (I'm still living with the legacy of THAT). It became so ridiculous that the mere appearance of the mailman was enough to make my acid reflux kick in--the mailman meant bills I couldn't pay.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Figuring Out Jesús Franco

Kurt Dahlke, over at DVDTalk, just doesn't get Jesús Franco. Reviewing the admittedly poor DEVIL HUNTER, he opines that
Jess Franco is a suck-hack... IMDb lists 189 films to his credit--and almost as many pseudonyms--that's about 4 films a year for the last 50 years, and he's still working. The viewer is punished nearly every time, yet we still come back. I just can't figure it out.
He's far from alone. Scanning the internet, one finds many reviewers similarly mystified by the prolific Spanish auteur, his films and the following they have accrued. Over at Eccentric Cinema, the very negative review of Franco's excellent FEMALE VAMPIRE is actually accompanied by an audio clip of a particularly juicy-sounding fart. Alan Simpson, at Sexgoremutants, goes scatological as well in his review of KILLER BARBYS:
Let's get things straight right off the bat, Jess Franco is a hack. Don't let any deluded Francophiles tell you otherwise, the guy makes movies faster than I can take a dump and they are rarely as satisfying.[1]
I'm certainly not opposed to scatological references in and of themselves, of course. I'm sure I've probably used them myself at various times to describe the dismal films of the likes of Michael Bay, Steven Spielberg, Brett Ratner. In a lot of his worst work, Franco himself earns a few. Some shit work though, does not a reeking sewer make nor some hack-work a hack. I've never seen "hack" as an inherently negative characterization anyway. Everyone hacks it out sometimes. It's usually not terribly difficult to distinguish that from the real stuff.[2] Many of Franco's critics aren't always so good at making such calls though.[3]

Franco often faces a lot of unfair criticism and his genuine shortcomings are always radically overstated by his critics but something I've discovered through my increasingly extensive delvings into his work is that those shortcomings have probably also been radically overstated by his admirers. You find reviews all over the place hailing a given Franco film but prefacing laudatory remarks by saying something like "a lot of Franco movies are worthless dreck, but this one...." I'll be the first to acknowledge Franco, at his worst, can churn out a complete waste of cinematic space with no redeeming value (OASIS OF THE ZOMBIES, I'm lookin' at you) but I've come across a lot fewer examples of this than is suggested by most commentary on his work. His resources are limited but he really is a top-notch filmmaker and in context, the pooches in his pound come across as simply the inevitable consequence of having made so many movies for so many years and for so little money. No one can be at the top of their game that often and under those circumstances. It would, in fact, be a remarkable credit to his skills as a filmmaker if he'd only managed to turn out even two or three really good flicks at the impoverished budget levels and breakneck pace at which he worked for decades but he has dozens of bona fide classics under his belt. I think he's been terribly underestimated, even by many of those of us who admire him.

To return to the main topic at hand though, there are those who just don't understand why he has any following at all, so, Franco being one of my areas of cinematic interest, I thought I'd try to explain.

Franco is a jazz musician and a key to understanding a lot about his work is that he carries over that mindset to his film work.[4] Like jazz, a real appreciation requires study.[5] His admirers often say of his films, "you've never seen one Franco until you've seen them all" and, while that's obviously hyperbole I certainly agree with the sentiment behind it.

Franco's visual style is born of jazz. He's not one who is usually going to spend a lot of time on elaborate set-ups for note-perfect renditions of a piece--there usually isn't the time or budget for it. He's improvisational, experimental. He often operates the camera himself and plucks the images it records from the air. He's able to do this quite well, as a rule, because he's extremely well-versed in cinema--he knows it top-to-bottom and front-to-back and he can reference that encyclopedic knowledge on the fly, bringing it to bear on whatever is before him at any given moment. These days, the zoom lens is frowned upon; to Franco, it's frequently indispensable. He gets a lot of heat for this (and his use of it is overstated) but he's often able to use it to remarkable effect. VAMPYROS LESBOS, to mention but one example, is like a living entity. We know it's alive because it has a pulse and the zoom is what creates it. Back and forth, it never seems to stop. It digs out new images from what's happening before it with the regularity of a heartbeat.

Franco is a self-confessed voyeur and being a jazzman (and an artist of Euro-cinefantastique), he puts a premium on dreamlike narratives and this, like much of what he does, can be alienating to a "mainstream" audience. His narratives are usually very loose. They don't follow any hard line. They tend to drift along, going wherever the director wills them. If the viewer isn't as caught up in what Franco is filming as he is, his work can often seem dull indeed. It's the musician on a stage, working his mojo on a piece, giving it his all, getting really into it and the audience just ain't diggin' it at all. There's a very long striptease sequence in NIGHTMARES COME AT NIGHT (an unfortunate title, to be sure) that had this effect on me. It was comprised of very little and just seemed to go on and on. The director is clearly into it; I wasn't.[6] Other reviewers have written of having the same reaction to Lina Romay's frustrated writhings in FEMALE VAMPIRE. I didn't. There, I achieved some sort of simpatico with the director and when you can tune into those vibes, it works.

Franco has made every sort of movie under the sun but he has a number of stories (and story elements) that intensely intrigue him and he's filmed them over and over again, all different variations on the same thing, all, for the most part, totally different than the ones that have come before. It's, again, a great jazzman at work--the same thing never sounds the same way twice. VAMPYROS LESBOS is MACUMBA SEXUAL, FEMALE VAMPIRE is DORIANA GREY, THE PERVERSE COUNTESS is TENDER FLESH, THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF is FACELESS, THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z is SHE KILLED IN ECSTASY. He's told the same stories a dozen times but except for the basic story, the themes, etc.--the things that interest him--every telling is different. He puts his own interest/personal quirks/obsessions on the stage and has spent decades wringing them out.

Franco's subjects are often very dark, the worlds he weaves in which they play out claustrophobic and unyielding. He embraces the aesthetic of sleaze and often manages to make it seem almost respectable. His sense of humor, little commented upon by either his critics or his detractors, can be both broad and sharp and he's often quite clever in how he works it into a piece. Love in his films tends to be a form of twisted obsession that most would regard as quite unhealthy but in which Franco seems to revel, even if it does usually end in tragedy. His characters' strange passions burn twice as brightly if only half as long. Franco doesn't always approve of them but he is fascinated by them. He's particularly fascinated by women. His camera worships them. They're virtually always the protagonists in his stories and his sympathies clearly lie with them. They're forever struggling against the seemingly inexorable destinies that Fate tries to impose upon them (which can be read in more ways than can be easily listed). Sometimes they succeed. Sometimes they don't. They often "win" by dying. Not, perhaps, the most audience-pleasing method but often the most honest.

Franco isn't necessarily a crowd-pleaser, that's for certain. He goes where he wants with his work and where he usually wants to go is in various dark corners well off that well-beaten track marked Mass Appeal. He's unconcerned with playing to the built in expectations of an audience; he plays things his own way.[7] For Franco, film isn't a job; it's a way of life.[8] He dislikes his own movies, though he always seems willing to talk about them and always gives great interviews. He never offers any pretensions of being an artist--he always says he considers himself a pop filmmaker!

His rejection of artistic pretensions notwithstanding, Franco is a great deal more than merely a creator of exploitation movies, as he is so often pigeonholed. He's a jazzman, a journeyman, a hack, a carny barker, a magician, a dirty old man, a master poet of lurid romanticism, a mad scientist of cinema. Those who go into Franco films unprepared can find them quite difficult. I read about Franco for about 15 years before seeing any of his movies. I was so enthralled by what I read that I was positively giddy about finally getting to see some of it with the advent of DVD. Very rarely can anything live up to the anticipation accumulated over so many years. Usually, it's not even close. Franco not only lived up to it, he exceeded it by a substantial margin. Even I'm surprised by how much my admiration for him has grown. I used to try to pick a favorite of his films every time I wrote anything about his work and I've finally decided I can't. There are too many of them that are too good and that are too different to compare, even when they're telling exactly the same story. I can prefer one to another but I always feel as though I'm unfairly slighting the one I don't denote as a preference. I've stopped trying to pick a favorite. I am an Jesus Franco fan. That's enough for me. He's one of my favorite filmmakers and he has, in my view, been terribly underestimated.

--j.

---

[1] To be fair, Simpson did seem to come around on Franco after seeing EUGENIE and JUSTINE.

[2]Though often, with Franco, even the hack-work has some extraordinary element that makes it noteworthy and raises it above most work of its breed.

[3] To be fair, they're often poorly served by their choice of movies on which they grade his work. For example, neither DEVIL HUNTER nor BLOODY MOON (the two most recent Franco releases from Severin) are good places to start, and any of Franco's films from the last decade or so would leave the unprepared utterly aghast and not in a good way. Still, it seems far too many reviewers form a negative opinion of Franco's work based on a small handful of his films, often work-for-hire movies about which he didn't really care and which are completely unrepresentative of either his best work or of his larger body of work.

[4] While I certainly see that proposition as self evident, it isn't an original observation. Credit where it's due, it was also the assessment of Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs in their book "Immoral Tales."

[5] Many find the pretensions behind such assertions comical when offered in reference to a director who has made a movie called--and about--LULU'S TALKING ASSHOLE but I maintain the assertion, pretensions and all, is entirely appropriate.

[6] Franco also wears boredom on his sleeve like few other directors. When he's cooking, and the audience isn't with him, he can bore but when he, himself, is bored, he can really bore.

[7] This tendency, mated with his eccentricity, gets him accused of contempt for a paying audience, accusations that are often hard to refute.

[8] In recent years, Franco's work has turned up on the Sundance Channel, My reaction was "IT'S ABOUT DAMN TIME!" Franco is indie cinema. He has been for nearly 50 years. His films are the sort of thing Sundance and the Independent Film Channel should be showing, instead of so many of those "independent" films that come from big Hollywood studios.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

SIMON OF THE DESERT (1965)

Writing about a widely recognized classic can be a very daunting task. We cinema buffs of a literary bent love our classics and feel compelled to write about them sometimes but the truth is that it's usually an exercise in futility. What can you say about, for example, CASABLANCA or about Orson Welles' films or even about something like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD that hasn't already been said a million times and probably better than you could ever say it? At best, one could manage a hopeless redundancy somewhat concealed behind a snappy wit or quirky style.

For one who reportedly once said "thank God I'm an atheist," Luis Buñuel can appear something of a godsend as such a subject. He's a classic. One of the greatest artists the film medium has ever produced. Everyone recognizes it. And there's been plenty written about the man and his work over the years. Buñuel is a filmmaker about whom there will probably always be plenty to write though, no matter how much is written. One of the wonders of his films is that they're so elaborate, so byzantine and so ambiguous that they invite, require and effectively support nearly as many interpretations are there are viewers. The father of cinematic surrealism is a bottomless reservoir for critical commentary.

He still has some pretty obscure works too. My favorite of his films (so far) is one from his Mexico days, a short one called SIMON OF THE DESERT. I first saw it years ago on Turner Classic Movies. I watched it again last night and at the risk of being pointlessly redundant (and maybe a tiny flickering of hope that I won't), I decided I'd write about it.

The movie tells a wickedly humorous tale of a fanatical Christian monk who renounces all worldly things and, in a fit of piety, spends years of his life standing on a column in the desert to keep himself above the earth and its corruptions. The locals all think he's a saint. Buñuel has a less charitable opinion, both of Simon and of saints in general. The director never made any secret of the fact that he didn't think much of Christianity and its trappings and neither does the movie.

Uber-ascetic Simon (Claudio Brook) is a good Catholic's model of saintly piety. And that's the problem, really. The model of saintly piety is a guy who wastes his life standing on a column in the middle of nowhere. His contempt for the worldly even leads him to snub his own mother, though we later learn he secretly dreams of coming down from his pillar and being with her. Being of the mortification-of-the-body school of sainthood, he scowls at a young monk for being too clean and he takes a sour attitude toward anyone who smiles or seems to be having fun or enjoying life in any way. He's something of a hypocrite in this--at one point, while somewhat delirious, he admits that he blesses things in part because it's fun to bless things--but for the most part, he does make a game effort at being utterly contemptuous of any good life in this world may offer.

Not that this doesn't come with perks. Simon demonstrates genuine supernatural powers. At one point, he causes a man who'd had his hands lopped off for thievery to grow a new pair. Very impressive but, the film seems to ask, of what use are such abilities if, to tap into them, one must live the deprived, harsh, cruddy, joyless existence chosen by Simon? What use is he or his piety to the world?

His basic uselessness is recognized by those who gather beneath his column to dutifully gawk at the saint and ask his blessings. Even when he performs supernatural acts before their eyes, the locals seem almost bored by him. Going before him is like going to church, something done begrudgingly, in mechanical fashion, out of a sense of duty and not from anything they actually gain from the experience. Near the end, one of the local priests scales the column and discusses with Simon the problem presented to the world by the idea of "yours and mine." He illustrates by pointing to the bag Simon keeps for hauling up provisions from the ground and claiming it as his own. Simon protests at first, but when the priest insists the bag is his, Simon relents and tells him he can have it, at which point the priest hands Simon his bag and tells him that, while his attitude is admirable, it doesn't do the world a whole lot of good.

Throughout the film, Satan appears in the form of a beautiful woman (Silvia Pinal). She pesters, questions, tempts Simon, tries to get him to come down off his column and live a little. Even tries to discredit him in the eyes of the locals. He tells her to repent of her wickedness. In reply, she asks if God would restore her to her former glory if she did. Simon makes it clear that would never happen, no matter what. It seems a god must have a villain. Unsurprisingly, Satan sees a god like that as pretty worthless.

Satan is the hero of the piece. Some years ago, when I first saw the movie, I was extremely depressed. It had me laughing myself silly before it was over but the funniest moment--maybe because it was the nuttiest yet so entirely appropriate--is when Satan whisks away Simon near the end. I won't give away any details--it's something that should be seen rather than described.[*] Suffice it to say it's a doozy.

Back in the '70s, movies like SIMON resulted in the Vatican denouncing Buñuel and Jesus Franco as the "most dangerous" filmmakers in the world. I wish distributors would put that as a blurb on every new release of every movie from either of them. Redundant, perhaps, but not pointlessly so.

--j.

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[*] SIMON is available. After far too many years lost in the wilderness, it has finally gotten a DVD release. It's a Criterion disc, which means it will be both overpriced and of excellent quality.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Viva Cinema!

Earlier today, I was poking through the message boards at the Internet Movie Database and came across a rather thoughtful post that suggested the horror genre was dying in the U.S.. The author listed several reasons why he thought this to be the case--elements of the films, trends in marketing, etc. Many of them were solid points, a few not so much so. The solid ones had, as I saw it, a single source but it was unstated--and perhaps unrecognized--in the article, so I jotted down a few comments aimed at outlining my own thoughts on the matter. The author had offered the view that bigger budgets were a factor harming the genre at present and while I thought he was right in most of his details, one line in particular caught my attention and I used it as a point of departure for my own remarks:
It might appear shortsighted to say a bigger budget would have a negative effect on a film. The more money spent, the better the film will be, right? Not always.
Actually, it's practically never, and anyone who thinks otherwise has no understanding of how films are made. More money means more money-men running the show instead of creative people. A gaggle of suits pulling the strings almost inevitably means the final product is dumbed down, watered down, unoriginal, slick, mass-appeal trash. And not trash in any good way.

The "problem" with horror cinema today is the same it has been for years: Hollywood.

In horror's last great era--the '60s and '70s--film was still somewhat affordable and with all sorts of markets for all sorts of movies, crazed maverick indie filmmakers popped up everywhere and with a few bucks, a dream, some bologna sandwiches and a whole lot of heart, they were turning out crude, brilliant mini-masterpieces. Lots of crap, as well--99% of everything is always crap and that applies here too--but the gems so outshined the fool's gold that the latter do almost nothing to drag down our gleaming estimation of that era.

Hollywood barely touched those years. The big studios coughed up a few soulless, upbudget hairballs like THE EXORCIST over those years, a very few jewels like JAWS and a few of them, good and bad, made lots of money but the era largely belonged to the little guy.[1]

All of that ended with the coming of the '80s. Film began to radically escalate in expense while the physical venues that had previously provided the market for the small fry rapidly dried up and died and the newly-corporatized, risk-averse, never-do-anything-that-hasn't-already-been-done, make-'em-slick, dumb-'em-down, keep-'em-tame big studios moved in and began to take over. Reflecting the cultural conservatism growing in some well-heeled quarters, the studios were openly hostile to both the radical notions that had underpinned so many of the best horror productions from the 70s and to the horror genre itself.[2] Home video, which exploded through the decade and had initially proven a profitable refuge for genre fare, was progressively consumed by the corporate chain-stores devoted to Hollywood Uber Alles. This is why the intervening years have been so terribly desolate. Every so often, a good, small movie would squeak out. Sometimes, even Hollywood produced one (usually because a filmmaker who has amassed enough clout to get his way decided to make one). But not often. Anyone who listed "the '90s" as a Great Horror Era would rightly be dismissed as a clueless clown.

The end of the '90s did, however, give us the film that, a decade or two from now, will be seen as pointing the way to the future: THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. It was, for film, dirt cheap, embodied the finest tradition of maverick indie horror cinema and made lots of money, demonstrating there was, indeed, a market for this sort of film. It was slightly ahead of its time, though. Film was still too expensive (a lot of BWP was shot in Hi-8 video, which wasn't really a viable option for future productions) and the physical market for this kind of film wasn't in place yet (BWP had gotten into the corporate multiplexes via studio backing, which isn't something films of its kind are likely to ever get in any noteworthy number). It pointed the way though.

A technological revolution in recent years has finished setting the stage. DVD came along. The discs are dirt-cheap to create, they've become omnipresent in society and they're so popular that they've surpassed theatrical distribution as the primary source of revenue for films. At the same time, audio and video equipment has improved in leaps and bounds. Progressive scan video cameras that emulate the look of film, computer editing and so on--much more versatile than film but at a microscopic fraction of the cost of actual film.

What all of this adds up to is that quality features on virtual used-car budgets are now possible and a viable physical market for them is now in place. The coming years are likely going to see a flowering of indie films, including horror films, like we've never seen before. It has already begun, though still in its barely-born infancy. We'll get a lot of crap out of this new wave, as is always the case, but in the coming years we're going to be seeing the emergence of some extraordinarily talented people making some really beautiful, ugly, wonderful, terrible art. It's an exciting time to be a fan of the cinema and I think it's going to be a great time to be a horror fan.

So keep your chin up. Things-as-they-are may look bleak, but the Revolution is coming.

--j.

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[1] Now, decades later, Hollywood has spent the last several year remaking every classic film of that era, instead of trying to create any new original classics anyone may be interested in remaking in the future.


[2] Which didn't prevent them from hypocritically using horror movies to save themselves in the early '80s, just as they had blaxploitation in the '70s, but they took the profits with a sneer and walked away as soon as they had the money in the bank.