On the Original PLANET OF THE APES Films

A brief look back at the original 1968 classic and its essential sequels

Recently, I took my three little boys to see a revival screening of what is still one of my all-time favorite motion pictures and a work of daring, groundbreaking popular science fiction that has long ago attained the status of myth. I’m speaking of Planet of the Apes, a picture I was obsessed with as a child and – thanks to the nurturing influence of my Uncle and his own passion for the movie – became part of the fabric of my life. The toys, the sequels, the short-lived television show, the mass-merchandising and most importantly, the dark, cerebral moralist spine of the series, one that was put in place by a draft of the script penned by my hero, The Twilight Zone architect Rod Serling. Sure, Pierre Boulle’s novel “Monkey Planet” was the source of the story, but that book trades in social satire while the resulting hybrid motion picture and the legacy of entertainment that followed, was most assuredly a byproduct of the late-60’s and early 70’s cultural fixation of future-shock tales of terror. Indeed Planet of the Apes was my first real taste of heady, grimly prophetic and sophisticated fantasy filmmaking, one that was charmingly washed down with those iconic make-up designs, lively dialogue, primal action and appealing – to a child – genre tropes. It was and remains a work of startling art and the films that followed both built on, fumbled and re-directed its messages in fascinating ways.

Needless to say my children – ages 11, 9 and 7, respectively -all  fell under the film’s spell (I highly recommend seeing this classic in the theater if you have yet to do so) and  it sparked an “Ape Fever” in my house that, as of this writing, is thriving enough that we now own a set of the original 70’s MEGO Planet of the Apes dolls, the POWER! book and record sets and more.

And after the kids and I cycled through those first five films, discussing them at length and interpreting the maddening “time loop” metaphysical nature of them, I was inspired to write down some quick feelings on each and every one of them.

Here, then, are those thoughts…

Planet of the Apes (1968)

Franklin J. Schaffner’s untouchable adaptation was a labor of love for all involved and it was a huge success, both critically and commercially. It stars aging Hollywood icon Charlton Heston as Col. Taylor, an American astronaut lost in the brutal landscape of a planet ruled by talking, socialized simians, one where mute humans are the “dogs”. Heston offers his best genre work here, forming the first of his sci-fi trifecta of Soylent Green and The Omega Man and the rest of the cast adds gravitas to what under a different director and lesser actors would be nothing more than a pricey B-movie; Kim Hunter’s progressive and rebellious doctor Zira, Maurice Evans as the conservative, terrified and fascist Dr. Zaius and of course, the inimitable Roddy McDowall as Zira’s mate, Cornelius, the company man who refuses to live a lie. Jerry Goldsmith’s nightmarish music still chills, John Chambers’ ape masks allow the actors to use only their eyes and voices to create deft characters and, whether you’ve seen it 100 times or for the first time, that final shot is unforgettable, in both aesthetic and meaning. A perfect film.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)

Rushed into production after the astonishing success of the first film, Beneath the Planet of the Apes suffers from Jaws 2 syndrome, attempting to replicate the beats of the first film too closely with much of the same cast reprising their roles and character ticks and because of that, it simply doesn’t have its own fingerprint. That, and the absence of Roddy McDowall as Cornelius (McDowall was off directing his surrealist horror film Tam-Lin) and general dour, joyless tone of it sink this one and do not lend it to pleasurable multiple viewings. It’s a real bummer, albeit a mesmerizing one. Surprisingly, despite the film’s bloody and nihilistic climax (one that Heston insisted on if he was to return to the franchise), the film was rated G in the U.S. The best part of the film is James Gregory as the horrifying General Ursus, whose public proclamations that “the only good human is a dead human!” are chilling and iconic.

Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)

With the planet decimated at the end of Beneath the Planet of the Apes, director Don Taylor and writer Paul Dehn wisely brought their chimp heroes Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter) to earth. What starts as a goofy, fish-out-of-water romp quickly turns deadly serious, jerking the viewers emotions around expertly and ending on a final image that is almost as haunting as the one in the original. A great film even isolated from the franchise and an essential bridge entry in the series.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)

J. Lee Thompson’s righteous fourth Apes film is, in the cyclical initial Apes timeline, an origins film, telling the tale of the creation of the “monkey planet” itself. Diminishing budgets meant that the supporting ape masks were cheap rubber cowls but Roddy McDowall gives what might be his career best performance as the fugitive Caesar who, after he witness the brutalization of his people and his kindly “father” ( the brilliant future Fantasy Island star Ricardo Montalban) is killed, launches a full scale revolution. The original climax sees Caesar enacting the bloodiest of acts and that censored violence was restored for the recent DVD and Blu-ray versions and it radically alters the very fabric of the movie and its messages. It’s a mean, oppressive film that feels exhaustively claustrophobic, its action centered on a sterile city block and scattered, computer-soaked offices and labs. And while it’s only a PG-rated picture in either cut, it’s the most relentlessly intense and violent entry of them all.

Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)

The fifth and final of the initial Apes series, J. Lee Thompson’s lower-budgeted entry is often derided as being cheap and childish. But it’s really rather exciting and moving, with Roddy McDowall’s Caesar venturing into the wasteland to find evidence of his parents and then doing battle with racist Gorillas in his base empire. The film boasts a great cast, including Phantom of the Paradise legend Paul Williams as Caesar’s trusted adviser Virgil and Claude Akins as the brutal General Aldo. And Severn Darden makes a memorable villain indeed. What’s perhaps most interesting is that Battle is a sequel to the theatrical cut of Conquest, with Caesar being a kinder, more loving leader who lives in peace with the humans. If the series had stopped at Conquest, it would have simply chased naturally back to Planet of the Apes as far as its evolution is concerned. But Battle instead ends with a deep sense of melancholy and grace, a timeline defying notion that Caesar’s decency in fact altered the course of history. And while some might balk at that as being a facile notion, I find it rather beautiful and cite Battle as perhaps the most interesting of all the sequels. It was after all written by husband and wife scribes John and Joyce Corrington, who brought the same spirituality and dark beauty to the loose “I Am Legend” adaptation The Omega Man, itself starring Apes legend Heston. Also of note is that the recent Blu-ray release of the film restores the extended international cut, which is slightly longer and more violent and adds character moments that serve to enrich the film.

On STRAIT-JACKET

A look at William Castle’s startling Joan Crawford psycho thriller

Anyone who saw the recent FX series FEUD, knows the story of Hollywood legends and career-long “frenemies” Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. That remarkable and wildly entertaining show saw Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange as Davis and Crawford, respectively, who lay down their never-ending professional rivalries long enough to co-star in director Robert Aldrich’s hyper-melodramatic Gothic shocker WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE in 1962. As both glamorous leading ladies were well-into middle age at this point, with decent roles drying up (as they often did and sadly still do for women in cinema), the chance to essay such intelligently written and scenery chewing characters was a gift and with the critical and commercial success of the film, an unofficial sub-genre of horror film often called”Hagsploitation” was born. Both Davis and Crawford would lead the pack in these sorts of films (along with others like Shelley Winters, Olivia de Havilland et al), which always saw women past their youthful primes driven to madness and often committing murder or just so far gone into psychosis that they become easy marks for the plots of others. Watching “earth mothers” and noted aging screen beauties go bonkers translated into boffo box office…

But while Davis jumped into this new phase of her professional life with open arms, grateful for the work and success,  Crawford did not go gently, feeling much of the post-BABY JANE material offered to her was beneath her, and was notoriously difficult to deal with.  But master showman and horror producer/director extraordinaire William Castle (13 GHOSTS, HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL) was up for the task and landed the actress for his 1964 shocker STRAIT-JACKET, a pulpified slab of post-PSYCHO slaughter that pushed – in typical Castle fashion – its mania and melodrama to fevered, dreamlike heights.

Like his 1961 murder mystery HOMICIDAL – a much more direct riff on Hitchcock’s 1960 gender-bending game-changer – Castle laces STRAIT-JACKET with a heightened sense of reality and an (un) healthy undercurrent of sick sexuality. But while HOMICIDAL was penned by frequent collaborator Robb White (THE TINGLER), STRAIT-JACKET was actually written by PSYCHO source novel author Robert Bloch. And unlike HOMICIDAL – which stopped its story dead for the gimmicky Castle-approved “Fright Break” – STRAIT-JACKET employs no such audience-baiting shtick. Well, Castle DID arrange for exhibitors to hand out cardboard axes at the box office, but no similar carny tricks wind up on screen. Rather STRAIT-JACKET is and remains a potent dose of mania that has few peers and is propelled by Crawford’s fully-committed (in more ways than one) performance.

In the wild, surreal and sensational opening, STRAIT-JACKET sets-up the shenanigans to come,  illustrating in tabloid-fashion how Crawford’s boozy broad of a wife Lucy walks in on her philandering hubby having a tryst in their home with another woman. She goes bananas and grabs an ax, hacking the humping couple to pieces while her young daughter Carol watches in horror. It’s a stunner of a first act and immediately jumps twenty years later to the present, with Crawford’s traumatized little girl (played by Diane Baker) now all grown-up and preparing for her murderous mom’s release from the local loony bin.

Lucy, now cured but still obviously emotionally disturbed, is now a kinder, gentler woman who has paid for her crimes and had her illness eradicated after years of intensive – and grueling – treatment and only wants to be a good mother. Carol is on the cusp of getting married to a well-to-do lad (John Anthony Hayes) and all seems to be heading in the right, healing direction for the mother and daughter. That is until Lucy begins finding phantom severed heads in her bed and hearing strange sounds coming from locked rooms. And when a spate of gruesome ax murders grip the town, suspicion firmly – and unsurprisingly – falls on Lucy’s trembling shoulders. Is she losing her mind again? Or is there someone else behind the gory killings?

Anyone whose seen a Castle film or read a Bloch shocker will likely figure out the serpentine mystery before the insane – and awesome – corker of a climax. But that’s not why you watch STRAIT-JACKET. It’s a film to savored for its over-the-top plotting, its leering characters (including a young George Kennedy as a sweaty and sinister handyman), its cauldron-bubbling oration and – for 1964 – its brutally graphic head-choppings. Hell, even the grand old Columbia Pictures dame gets her noggin lopped of in the film’s final image. The entire thing is rapturously ridiculous and boiling-over brilliant.

But naturally, none of this hyperbolic cranium-removing mayhem would matter were it not for the presence of Crawford, who fearlessly dives into the part of Lucy, jerking the audience around from terror to pity to disgust to empathy and back again. In the film’s most arresting encounter, Crawford goes up against her daughter’s snooty future mother-in-law, standing her ground and defending her child’s honor while defiantly admitting her crime and the pain she endured in its aftermath. It’s a stunning, moving scene and certainly ranks right up there with the finest of Joan Crawford’s turns.

I have great affection for this last leg of Crawford’s career and life. In lesser films like Castle’s own I SAW WHAT YOU DID and tawdry programmers like BERSERK and especially the unforgettably awful Freddie Francis romp TROG, Crawford refused to phone it in, dedicated to even the lowliest of roles. She may have been mourning her glory days and miserable that the bloom was off her rose, but she remained until the end a major artist and a consummate professional.

Critically sneered at upon release, I’me extremely happy that the delirious STRAIT-JACKET – and by proxy, its larger-than-life leading lady – is now getting the respect it deserves.

STRAIT-JACKET is out now on Blu-ray from Scream Factory and Mill Creek Entertainment.

 

 

 

 

On THE KEEPER

Little seen Dennis Hopper and Asia Argento thriller The Keeper is a cult movie in the making

Director William Wyler’s 1965 thriller The Collector set the template for the female-in-forced-confinement two-hander, the likes of which wormed its way it the downmarket exploitation film industry, amping up the sex and violence while putting the focus less on the unnerving social and sexual dynamic and more on gratuitous – and let’s be honest, pretty revolting – female suffering. But there have been a myriad high quality and intelligent shockers that traded in this post-Collector riffing, chiefly stuff like Bob Brooks’ Tattoo, Jennifer Lynch’s Boxing Helena and of course, Silence of the Lambs and all the imitators that followed it.

Director Paul Lynch’s 2004 cable psychodrama The Keeper is a curious thing, nestled somewhere between gutter trash, TV movie of the week and respectable high-gloss horror movie. And what it lacks in budget and balls, it makes up for in the sheer novelty of its casting and deranged narrative. See, The Keeper was made by now-defunct Canadian production house Peace Arch Films for the Showtime network. Peace Arch was, for a brief moment, a kind of Northern direct-to-video AIP, pumping out low-grade tax rebate romps with well-known American actors, spending decent amounts of money to ensure their product had a shot at “making it” in the international marketplace. The Keeper is a prime example of the Peace Arch wave as it’s well-produced, professionally shot and edited at a brisk clip and it does indeed feature well-known actors on the semi-decline who, while no doubt taking a pay check, are also clearly relishing the luxury of a leading role.

For horror fans, The Keeper is a rather interesting bauble. It stars the late, great Dennis Hopper and now-controversial and scandalized (the scandal in question is not mine to comment on, I’m here to talk about the art not the tabloid lives of the artist) Italian actress and filmmaker and daughter of Dario, Asia Argento, both of whom appeared together in George A. Romero’s Toronto-shot 2005 chiller Land of the Dead. I presume that the Peace Arch team nabbed them at a reasonable cost for this Canadian quickie since they were already up here. And while seeing both these totally opposing performers bounce off each other and devour scenery might have been a fun distraction in 2004, the casting – with Hopper no longer with us – makes The Keeper a genuine cult movie in the making, ripe for discovery. Throw in The Believers actress Helen Shaver as a serial killer hag and a director who made the seminal Canadian slasher movie Prom Night and how can any lover of oddball cinema resist?

Argento stars as Gina, a stripper just rolling through town who, after escaping an attempted rape, is “rescued” by local Sheriff Krebs (Hopper). Said cop is actually a full-blown lunatic who has a nasty habit of kidnapping troubled women he deems morally sullied, locking them in his basement dungeon and attempting to “correct” them. Gina is a tough lady however and she bucks his self-righteous psycho-trip at every turn, which makes us admire her spunk but question her foresight seeing as she ends up locked in that prison for months on end, with every attempt at escape foiled.

But that generic set up is only the basic thrust of The Keeper. What makes it so perversely watchable is the fact that Sheriff Krebs is also a children’s TV host and becomes such in his off time when he’s not tormenting poor Argento, leading to the appearance of Shaver’s aforementioned groupie, a woman whose mania even Hopper seems freaked out by (incidentally, Shaver is still looking rather fine here, though she’s well into middle age). The end sequences of clumsy pursuit and Hopper finally losing his mind full stop are outrageously, awesomely tacky and push the already unstable film right off of a cliff. And I mean that in a good way.

Hopper – one of the founding fathers of bad-boy, post-60s indie filmmaking and one of cinemas greatest dangerous eccentrics – is fantastic here, though he was near the end of his days and was simply working to indulge his art-collecting habit and pay the bills. He’s not an off-the-wall evil cartoon like his Frank Booth was in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, nor is he the heroic basket-case lawman he was in Tobe Hooper’s bonkers The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2. He’ s got a mature, squinty and totally controlled kind of madness here, making his Krebs likable (he IS a kids TV star after all) and even reasonable, despite his penchant for pious torture and murder. Argento looks wasted (though she always sports that kind of junkie-chic appearance) and that adds to the urgency of her character’s frantic plight. With her Italian accent she seems kind of awkward in her line readings but hey, Gerald Sanford’s script aint that great to begin with, so she does what she can with it. But Argento is primarily a physical actress and she uses that strength to give Gina a bona fide presence. And no, in case you wondered, despite her character’s pole-spiraling profession, she does not remove her clothes.

The Keeper is junk, sure. But it’s sublime and strange and hugely entertaining junk and kind of floats in its own awesomely tacky orbit. It’s hard to see but it was released on DVD back in 2006 and if you seek it, you may find it. For fans of Hopper and Argento, it’s an essential curiosity.

On MOTHER, MAY I SLEEP WITH DANGER?

Musings on James Franco’s bizarre lesbian vampire Lifetime movie

I have a rather nagging fixation on tawdry, leering, Lifetime movies; those television trash films that have long been pumped out of the once noble network to titillate audiences hungry for low-rent thrills. And there’s nothing wrong with this. And if there IS something wrong with this…well, I don’t give a flying fuck.

Apologies for the profanity, but I’m employing it to illustrate a point. Using the “F” word is infinitely more graphic than the stuff you see in Lifetime movies. These are most assuredly exploitation films, filled with sexual deviancy, murder and all manner of lurid transgression. And yet none of this sensationalism strays beyond the level of PG.

And that’s the appeal.

When the Hays office slammed down on Hollywood, enforcing the puritanical production code in the early 1930s, filmmakers and studios had to hide all their dirty stuff and scenes of potentially offensive material lest they get their movie yanked from theaters. But as we all know, when we bury base impulses they just get perverted and leak out in weird ways and part of the joy of 30’s and 40’s cinema is the fact that producers and directors invented clever ways to push unsavory aspects of their stories but sneak them through the back door, weaving them into the narrative using allusions, suggestions, body language and double entendres. And of course, that just made audiences feel even filthier, becoming willing accomplices working hard to read between the lines to win their kinky reward.

And so it goes with TV movies and in this case, Lifetime movies. The first wave “golden age” of tawdry small-screen melodrama cinema surged in the 1970s, with a glut of “women in jeopardy” thrillers that featured strong women characters as their heroines, a blatant attempt to lock their target demographic of female consumers. The seemingly endless spate of similarly constructed films made for the Lifetime Network are the heirs to that dynasty, with films often based on either pulp books or headline-ripped true crime tales and starring actors young and old that are either on the professional ascent or decline. Among the hundreds strong in the Lifetime cannon sits 1996’s MOTHER, MAY I SLEEP WITH DANGER? starring BEVERLY HILLS 90210 actress Tori Spelling (the daughter of TV tycoon Aaron Spelling, who himself produced dozens of those original 70’s TV movies) as a girl who falls in love with a manipulative, murderous young man (Ivan Sergei) whose psychosis almost signals her death knell.

20 years later, Lifetime released a remake of that highly-rated tabloid trash gem. Sort of. The in-name successor once more stars Spelling, this time as the single mother of a teenage girl (Leila George) who in this case doesn’t fall prey to a brutal bad dude, rather she starts up a lesbian affair with a teenage Goth vampiress (Emily Meade)! That’s right: a remake of a trash TV movie that doubles as a trash TV horror sexploitation movie! Yow! And the kicker? It’s produced and co-written by Hollywood multi-hyphenate actor James Franco!

How? Why? Well, I have a theory. Read on…

Back in 2012 I conducted an interview with Franco, the purpose of which was to talk about his hyper-violent Cormac McCarthy shocker CHILD OF GOD for the magazine I was editing at the time, FANGORIA and honestly, it was a fantastic conversation. I found Franco intelligent, friendly, serious-minded yet self-deprecating and dedicated to pouring his energy into making as much art in as many mediums as humanly possible. I eventually turned the tete-a-tete to mention one of my heroes, Jess Franco and asked if James had heard of his surname namesake, who I mentioned he also shared a restless creative spirit with. He had not heard of Jess Franco, but when I mentioned he was well-known for a string of lesbian vampire movies lensed in the 60s and 70s, he was amused and interested and wrote down titles and promised to investigate.

So allow me to claim – or imagine – some responsibility for the fact that director Melanie Aitkenhead’s redux of MOTHER, MAY I SLEEP WITH DANGER? even exists! I like to think that Franco did heed my words and either investigated the work of the notorious Spanish director or at least jumped at the opportunity to make a similar film. And making it for a network known for their covert perversion masquerading as socially relevant entertainment is a streak of bratty, transgressive genius. At least I think it is.

Is MOTHER, MAY I SLEEP WITH DANGER? any good? Well, yes and no. It’s well acted and moves fast and is silly and surprisingly bloody and compelling throughout. It’s not scary. It’s not particularly artistically interesting.  It’s kind of tacky. It’s a Lifetime movie, through and through. But it’s also the only lesbian vampire Lifetime movie and it’s the only James Franco-produced lesbian vampire Lifetime movie and it’s the only James Franco co-starring lesbian vampire Lifetime movie and it’s the very fact that Franco made it simply because he could that gives it such an almost punk rock feel.  And yet it’s oddly reverent to its source. It’s probably the most unnecessary and unwanted remake in film history and yet Franco plays it straight (ahem) and respectful with the re-casting of Spelling (who, whatever you think of her, commits sincerely to the role) and even the original’s Sergei as a vampire obsessed college professor. It’s a callback to fans of the first film (all 3 of them) and it’s an admirable and commendably weird conceit.

Recently, Mill Creek Entertainment placed both versions of the story on a single DVD release.  It’s the secret handshake, B-movie release of the year, I think; an arcane treasure for deep-drawer lovers of pop culture junk. And as for Franco  (who chased this thing with his acclaimed and award-winning THE ROOM docudrama THE DISASTER ARTIST), love him or hate him (and I know many who subscribe faithfully to both camps)…who else is like him?

 

 

On TATTOO

A look back on the controversial and lurid erotic psycho-thriller

While re-watching Quentin Tarantino’s magnum 65mm, locked-door mystery/giallo/western/morality tale THE HATEFUL EIGHT, I was once more struck by how damn good actor Bruce Dern is in that film. It’s a deceivingly simple performance, mainly because the then 78-year-old performer never leaves the chair in which he sits, from the first time we see him to the point in which he loses his miserable life at the barrel of Sam Jackson’s vengeful Smith & Wesson. But it’s perhaps the most layered turn in the picture; subtle and oddly dignified despite the fact that his character is a coward hiding behind racist, patriotic bravado and by the end, even somewhat sympathetic.

But that’s Dern. He’s one of Hollywood’s finest character actors and an artist who rarely gets the credit he’s due. Not a traditionally “good looking” man, Dern has his own thing going on; a pointed look, almost rat-like, and when he opts to play an unsavory character (as in H8, HBO’s BIG LOVE, THE COWBOYS et al) he is a fiend without peer. And when he’s given the task to actually carry a film himself, the results are startling.

Take, for example, director Bob Brooks’ controversial 1981 psychosexual character piece TATTOO, a film that belongs to the experimentation of the 1970s, like all of the great, misunderstood American thrillers of the early ’80s (CRUISING and WOLFEN, I’m looking fondly at you). When the movie was released it was almost universally reviled, condemned for being vulgar, trashy, pointless and criminally misogynistic, the latter claim being an odd one as it was written by a woman, filmmaker Joyce Bunuel, the daughter-in-law of the father of cinematic surrealism, Luis Bunuel. Sure, on the surface, the concept of a man keeping a woman prisoner to be his “thing” might be seen as being politically incorrect, but it’s meant to be. It’s not a film in favor of its antagonist so much as it is an allegory about the extremity of love, using the ancient art of inking skin as its fetishized hook. I’d call it a masterpiece, but I’m not sure it is. All I know is that its incredibly powerful, strange, sensual and bizarre, as it was meant to be. And I know that Dern, who is virtually ever scene, is mesmerizing in it; it’s the ultimate Bruce Dern experience.

In it, Dern plays Karl Kinsky (an obvious nod to dangerously eccentric German actor and performance artist Klaus Kinksi), a brilliant, humorless Hoboken-based tattoo artist who lives by an odd, dichotomous moral code.He is obsessed with Japanese culture and iconography and has latched onto a kind of Samurai-steeped sense of honor and chivalry. He also loves porn and frequently combs the underbelly of New York to find the greasiest jerk-off joints he can. And yet, don’t dare utter the “F-word” in his presence, or you’ll stir his mania. Because, though it takes some screen time to totally figure out, Kinksy is hopelessly insane. His mostly dormant madness wakes up fully when he’s hired by a glossy Hollywood agency in love with his work to paint nude models with his patented bizarre and beautiful dragons and Asian imagery. One of the models, the gorgeous Maddy (played by the immaculate Bond girl Maud Adams) strikes his fancy and he launches a quest to court the woman, who is so out of his league, it’s not funny. But this class divide is exactly what fascinates the high-rolling Maddy. She’s fascinated by this strange, troubled artist, by his rough edges and intensity and is flattered by his would-be “knight-in-shinning-Indian-ink” treatment of her. They begin a sort of uneasy friendship and quasi-courtship.

But when, after a night of Sushi and conversation, Maddy dares utter progressive feminist views and worse, starts to cuss, Kinsky loses his mind and asks the shocked woman to leave. She does. And then Kinsky totally loses it. The ensuing stalker dynamic echoes that of TATTOO’s closest sociopathic anti-hero cousin, Martin Scorsese’s TAXI DRIVER, a close shadow of the relationship De Niro has with pretty political groupie Cybill Shepherd. That same pretty, progressive girl relationship was also exemplified in William Lustig’s MANIAC, released the previous year and I’m not sure if its a coincidence that TATTOO shares that film’s same fashion-centric device to hook that relationship. Could Bunuel have seen Maniac? It’s unlikely, but possible. The captive connection is also, of course kin to the Terrence Stamp/Samantha Eggar relationship in the classic thriller THE COLLECTOR. And later, Jennifer Lynch’s BOXING HELENA, which is another film made by a disciple of a great surrealist filmmaker.

Anyway, Kinsky begins phoning Maddy, begging to see her and generally scaring the wits out of her. He goes to his family’s coastal home and retrofits the abode as a prison/studio and kidnaps the model. His intent? To mark her. To make her taught skin the canvas to etch his masterpiece on. And he’ll do this. And she has no say in the matter.

It’s here where most audiences tune out of TATTOO and yet I think this is the very point in which the movie comes to life. Instead of raping the woman with his body, he assaults her with his needle. The sequence where he slowly prepares his gear to do this and the immediate moment he begins to draw on her flesh while she is in a drugged-stupor is disturbing and Brooks blasts histrionic violin string scrapes across the soundtrack to mirror PSYCHO‘s shower scene. And when Maddy wakes to find the first illustrations permanently on her skin, her outrage and terror and misery is deeply affecting. No, this is indeed a rape scene, the images left on the woman’s body akin to the psychological damage such an act irrevocably leaves on a victim.

But what got TATTOO into such hot water with disgusted audiences and critics was the fact that a semblance of a sensitive relationship continues in captivity, that Dern’s “Norman Bates with a Needle” fiend treats Maddy like an object of affection and worship despite her protests, that she eventually plays along with the scheme, that she eventually becomes aroused by his perversions and even begs him at one point to stop his kink and just make love to her like a man.

What is this daft film trying to say?

I do read TATTOO as a very dark, very ugly love story on one level, with the broken-minded Dern finding salvation of a sort through Maddy, who he imagines “needs” him. But the fascinating thing is that maybe she does need him. I don’t read TATTOO as a film that takes place in reality. It’s an art film, a dream, masquerading as mainstream studio film (in this case, a brave 20th Century Fox). Maddy is somewhat lost herself. In a loveless relationship, at odds with the world she is enmeshed in. In giving the monstrous Kinksi her time and attention, she wakes something up, something dangerous, maybe in both of them. The last 10 minutes of the picture, dissolve into the abstract, with a strange sex scene and a death and the final shot, with Maddy standing nude and inked like a warrior, is one of the most powerful and metaphorically potent shots I’ve ever seen. Like the model has been oddly empowered, transformed. Like this horror needed to happen to her for her to find out who and what she really is.

That’s socially irresponsible thinking of course. But who on earth said movies need to be socially responsible?

As Kinsky, Dern offers the best of what he can do, giving us a character who is in some respects, neither man nor monster, but a different species entirely. It’s an unforgettable performance matched by a strong, fearless turn by Adams who should have had a much healthier career as an actress. She’s remarkable. So is the movie.

TATTOO has never to my knowledge been released on DVD or Blu-ray. It’s a film that needs to be seen however, so I suggest you find it…somewhere, someplace. Find it.

On Hammer’s DRACULA Cycle

A brief, critical look at the official Hammer Studios Dracula film series

When England’s Hammer Studios invested some of their capital and produced 1957’s full-color, full-blooded, adult-geared riff on the classic Universal horror film with Terrence Fisher’s THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, they changed the way we watch horror movies. Filled with sadism, cruelty, sexuality and gore, but classed-up with sumptuous production values and classically trained British actors in lead roles, CURSE was an international hit and launched a successful (and really, rather wonderful) series of Hammer Frankenstein pictures.

But it was with their next picture, 1958’s HORROR OF DRACULA (known in the UK as simply DRACULA) that they found their first real deal iconic franchise and shone a light on their most memorable horror movie star, Christopher Lee, who was under wraps as the cataract-eyed monster in CURSE, but here was given free reign to terrify and seduce an entire generation of fright fans.

Here’s a brief, critical look at the strange, beautiful, bloody and often, bloody frustrating series of Hammer horror films starring the King of the Vampires.

HORROR OF DRACULA (1958)

Terrence Fisher’s majestic, lean and urgent riff on Bram Stoker’s novel was a bloody punch to the face to Tod Browning’s gentle, mannered 1931 film, effectively replacing Bela Lugosi’s fangless European gentleman with Christopher Lee’s snarling, athletic and imposing man in black. The film begins with a bang, with cameras prowling over the set of Dracula’s castle, with jets of blood squirting sexually over his coffin and James Bernard’s now-iconic score roaring on the soundtrack. There’s not much to complain about in this maiden voyage as HORROR set the tone for the wave of tough Hammer Gothics to follow and was rarely bettered, with Fisher at the peak of his craft here. That said, the film doesn’t feel as epic as one might hope, with the geography between London and Transylvania fuzzy as, due to budgetary restraints, it’s often clear the actors are just jumping between sets. Lee is perfection of course, effortlessly cool, fluid and dangerous and Peter Cushing sculpted what is still the definitive screen Van Helsing, here portrayed as a less bonkers riff on Sherlock Holmes, a role Cushing would take on a year later in Hammer’s THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES.

BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960)

Lee opted to sit this Fisher-directed sequel out, afraid of being typecast and truthfully…the film does not suffer for the lack of his presence. In fact BRIDES is one of the best Hammer films of all time and one of the strongest in their DRACULA cycle. The title implies that the focus will not be on the Count this round, rather his “Brides”, as in “Brides of Christ”, nuns, the “wives” of a parasitic messiah. Which is interesting, considering the vampire or “bride” we follow here is one Baron Meinster (David Peel), a preening, cackling brat of a ghoul with a very toxic and unhealthy relationship with his long suffering mother. Yes, the homerotic subtext of BRIDES has been talked about ad nauseum but it’s an interesting one (though calling Meinster bisexual would be more appropriate). Peel’s blonde, effete and mean spirited aristocrat revels in his bloodsucking ways and he’s wildly manipulative and resourceful. In HORROR OF DRACULA, Lee’s Count, for all his majesty, was rather easily dispatched. But Meinster gives Cushing’s Van Helsing a real run for his money and the battles between the two opponents are action packed and exciting. The best of them sees Meinster bite Van Helsing, leaving him to be turned, causing the terrified vampire killer to cauterize his infected neck with a hot iron and cool holy water! Fisher directs like a bat out of hell, the movie looks sumptuous and it’s an incredibly eccentric and entertaining example of Hammer at its best.

DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966)

Eight years after re-inventing the way in which the world would view the character of Dracula, Lee returned to Hammer’s franchise with their first Drac film in 6 years, another winner helmed by the great Terrence Fisher and one in which, strangely, the Count is mute. Depending on who you believe, the role was either written without dialogue to save the production some dough or, as Lee tells it, the script was so chock full of cringe-worthy lines that Lee himself opted to play it silent. One of the lines Lee said he balked at was Dracula saying “I am the apocalypse!”, which I kinda like and wished they had kept. Otherwise, Lee playing the role without dialogue turned out to be a masterstroke, accidental or by intent, it matters not. Without words, Lee relies exclusively on his imposing physical presence (as he did in both THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and THE MUMMY), a hissing reptile like monster, an alien presence that is to be feared and loathed. This is a mean, violent picture. And those worrying about the lack of Cushing’s Van Helsing needn’t fear as Andrew Keir’s crusading holy man is just as compelling an opponent. There’s also a lot more overt sexuality, as in the scene where Dracula opens his chest and urges his female victim to drink his blood, an obvious nod to fellatio.

DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968)

One of the most underrated Hammer Dracula pictures, GRAVE is a lively affair, directed with style and a leaning towards psychedelia (dig those Dracula-gels!) by veteran Hammer director and award winning cinematographer Freddie Francis. Here, Dracula is woken from the ice prison he fell into in PRINCE OF DARKNESS by a wayward Priest who then becomes Drac’s familiar. Eventually, the Count’s coffin ends up in the cellar beneath a local tavern, where Dracula uses his powers to draw women down to him. Lee has less to do here but he’s still the spine of the film, a movie that is in fact a bit more, dare we say, intellectual than most of the DRACULA films? Conversations about the existence of God and a central dynamic and sub-conflict in which one of the heroes is a pious man, the other an atheist, adds much needed substance to a series of films that usually lack any conflict beyond the morally one-dimensional good vs.evil. A vibrant, classy Drac picture that strangely, despite its bloodshed and headier themes, was rated ‘G’ in the U.S. upon release.

TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA (1970)

This film was initially one of a handful of films designed to turn actor Ralph Bates into a major Hammer horror star, TASTE was originally intended to not have Lee in it at all. But when international distributors balked at having a Drac picture without Lee, the studio piled on the dough to bring Lee back. And truthfully, that’s a shame. TASTE has a dynamic first half. It begins during the final moments of GRAVE, when a traveler witnesses Drac’s execution and, after the old vampire bastard turns to dust, the man retrieves a vial of the Dracula’s concentrated blood. After the credits roll, the central tale kicks in, a story of Victorian morality gone rotten, with a cabal of entitled, elite men of society, stepping out for their monthly night of debauchery and hypocritical transgression. At the house of ill-repute they’re playing in, they meet the Black Magic loving Lord Courtley (Bates) who promises them the ultimate thrill in the form a ritual in which they will drink an activated goblet of Drac’s plasma. When the men freak out at the 11th hour, Courtley drinks the gore, has a fit, is beaten to death by the men, cracks apart and then turns into Christopher Lee! From there, Lee just sleepwalks through his part, bumping off and/or enslaving the daughters of the men who he thinks killed his “master” Courtley. It makes no sense. In the original script, Courtley was the ghoul getting his revenge. But why is Dracula so cheesed? These dudes helped revive the Count. He should thank them! That central lapse in lazy logic makes the second half of TASTE a bit of a by-the-numbers snooze,though Peter Sasdy’s direction is perfectly fine, especially during the darker moments in the first reel.

SCARS OF DRACULA (1970)

After TASTE did so well, Hammer rushed another Dracula picture into production, albeit one armed with a lower budget. SCARS OF DRACULA is the first Drac film to get saddled with an R rating, due in no small part to Dracula’s full-blown and unpleasant sadistic streak. Here Lee is the Devil himself, whipping his servant Klove (not the same dandy butler from PRINCE OF DARKNESS, more of a Renfield-esque madman), torturing his victims and even driving a stake into one of his “brides” hearts for no other reason than to juice the film up with some extra gore. SCARS also has no relation apparently to the rest of the films in the series, with Lee being revived by a blood-spitting rubber bat while he lies desiccated in his coffin (and oh, those bats are so wonderfully phony baloney) but is more of an attempt to re-boot the series, with yet another young couple, this one a rather dull pair, running afoul of the mean Count. Lee approved of this film, mainly because of its attempts to lift scenes from the original novel, including the chilling bit where he scales the castle wall. Roy Ward Baker is perhaps not the edgiest of Hammer’s house directors and his more restrained approach is at odds with the film’s nastier elements (a problem that plagued his THE VAMPIRE LOVERS). If Freddie Francis had steered this ship, it would have been a lurid, even dangerous Dracula movie. As stands, it’s still a fun anomaly in the cycle.

DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972)

Critics and fans scoffed then and some still jeer at director Alan Gibson and writer Don Houghton’s attempts to propel the Dracula series into the modern age and certainly, DRACULA A.D. 1972 is a much campier, sillier picture. But that unbuttoning of the collar works in the film’s favor. With Lee now running rampant in Mod-era London (one of the film’s alternate titles is DRACULA CHASES THE MINI GIRLS), A.D. 1972 is a blast, with groovy music, a luscious Caroline Munro in the cast, a much more urgent and fast-paced narrative and plenty of kinky twists. It’s also great to see the distinguished Cushing back in action as Van Helsing’s Great Grandson, stalking the demon who has long plagued his family. Both Lee and Cushing bring the class, while Gibson and his supporting cast bring the sass. Maybe not a good Hammer Gothic, but a plenty fun vintage 70s British horror movie.

THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973)

Gibson and Houghton teamed up again for this immediate follow-up to DRACULA A.D. 1972 and the movie has an even worse reputation than its predecessor. Much of this is due to the picture being a public domain eyesore, haunting dump bins and 50-movie collections everywhere in its heavily cut U.S. version, called DRACULA AND HIS VAMPIRE BRIDE. But man, is SATANIC a great film. Propelled by an amazing score by HORROR EXPRESS’ John Cacavas, SATANIC is a deranged and compelling world-domination spy thriller filled with sex and violence and vampirism, with Lee’s revived Count commanding a vampire cult while also serving as the head a shadowy corporation. Yes indeed, Dracula is a capitalist here and it makes perfect sense. His modus operendi is to release a bio-weapon that will infect the world with the black plague, effectively murdering every human being alive. The extra gravitas comes from the concept that, as Cushing’s Van Helsing explains, with Dracula doing this, he is effectively committing suicide; after humanity perishes, no one will be left to revive him and no one will left for him to eat. There’s so many thrills and chills in SATANIC (love the vampire slaves dying in slow-motion in the cellar sequence). More respect needs to be lauded on this fascinating climax to the series.

Except it wasn’t really the climax…

THE LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES (1974)

Sir Run Run Shaw and Hammer teamed up for this oddball commercial disaster, a mutant hybrid of horror film and Kung-Fu action epic and a weird sidebar-cum-coda to the series. Lee sat this one out, by this point vocally disgusted by Hammer’s irreverent treatment of Stoker’s character, and was replaced by John Forbes-Robertson whose truly evil looking Count possesses a 19th century Shaman in China and uses him to resurrect the Seven Golden Vampires, a group of long-fanged, ancient demonic bloodsuckers who lay waste to the land. Luckily, Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing is lecturing in China and agrees to help fight the monsters, with the aid of a family of chop-scokey heroes. Barely released in an insanely edited version in the US as THE SEVEN BROTHERS MEET DRACULA (have you ever seen this cut? It’s totally bonkers…not in a good way!), GOLDEN only started getting the acclaim it deserves when it started showing up uncut on VHS and DVD in the 90s. It’s a spectacular picture, filled with violence, classic Shaw Brothers action, another great turn by Cushing and buckets and buckets of vampiric weirdness. And that James Bernard score! Roy Ward Baker teamed up with Chinese director Change Cheh, and the latter vision clearly is the one bringing the freak value to this party. A must see…but not a classic Hammer Dracula movie.

What’s your favorite Hammer Dracula movie?

On THE BIG CUBE

Vintage psychedelic mind-bender is Lana Turner’s last great film.

Poor Lana Turner.

The former Hollywood sex-siren, she being one of the original Femme Fatales in Tay Garnett’s 1946 adaptation of James M. Cain’s THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, was considered in her prime to be one of the most dangerous and desirable women working in front of the lens. Of course, like most if not all of the living legends controlled by grooming studios during that period, much of Turner’s public persona and carefully marketed myth was fabricated. In truth, the actress was a gentle, troubled soul, an alcoholic and a bit broken after failed marriages and carreer dips and the typical Hollywood sneering at women when the bloom leaves their rose and they slip into middle-age.

It was at this point in Turner’s career that she would find herself starring in what is one of the most outrageous and bizarre films of the 1960s. Director Tito Davison’s Mexican/American co-production THE BIG CUBE was Warner Bros. attempt to out-trip Roger Corman’s THE TRIP and blend noir tropes with druggie youth culture and the still popular “horror hag” wave of films, the likes of which usually starred Bette Davis or Joan Crawford. Turner joins their ranks here, in a psychedelic assault on the senses, common and otherwise, a film so over-the-top and wrong of head that cruel critics had a field day eviscerating it and Turner’s appearance and performance in it.

The bile ladled upon THE BIG CUBE upon release helped propel it into virtual oblivion and so damaged Turner’s already fragile state, that she wouldn’t appear in any films until 1974’s trashy British horror/melodrama PERSECUTION (where she played Ralph Bates’ domineering mother).

But watching THE BIG CUBE today, it’s actually something of a marvel; an absolutely insane anti-drug yet still drug-addled free-fall into surreal psychedelia and ludicrous, overheated psychodrama. It’s a genuine cult film that has sadly not yet found its cult.

THE BIG CUBE sees Lana starring as Adriana, an aging, elegant actress of stage and screen who gives it all up to marry wealthy millionaire bachelor Charles Winthrop (HALLOWEEN III’s Dan O’Herlihy, whose equally obscure and deranged 1962 sorta-remake THE CABINET OF CALIGARI is the perfect psychotronic companion picture to CUBE). Charles’ daughter Lisa (Karin Mossberg, whose thick Swedish accent is bizarrely explained away as the result of her attending a Swiss boarding school!) isn’t terribly thrilled about dear old dad marrying again, but Adriana genuinely cares for the girl and sweetly attempts to build a relationship. But their potential bright future takes a tragic turn when,while on a sailing trip, Adriana and Charles are in a shipwreck and Charles drowns. Gutted, Lisa falls in with a pack of acid head hipsters, led by sociopathic, disgraced med student/LSD alchemist Johnny (played by WEST SIDE STORY’s George Chakiris). When Johnny learns of her fortune, he manipulates the girl into a plot to drug her stepmom to Palookaville and secretly trip her out to the point of madness. Convincing Lisa that Adriana was actually responsible for her dad’s death, Lisa’s mild disdain for her new mom turns to blind hate and she goes along with the plot, with dire results for all involved.

THE BIG CUBE is pretty much wall-to-wall lunacy. The movie is shot almost entirely on sound-stages, dream-like expressionist interiors that are ideal for projecting the endless LSD-trip visuals over the surprisingly frequent naked female bodies and wild-eyed male faces that make up a bulk of the non-domestic scenes. Chakiris is pure, smooth evil, essentially a kind of vampire who seduces and spikes his victims with acid-soaked sugar cubes (hence the title) and thinly grinning through all of his transgressive actions, convinced he is above suspicion and any sort of law. The entire thing feels like a play put on by the inmates of an asylum. Like MARAT/SADE for horny, far-out 60’s teens.

As we mentioned, poor Lana got lambasted for her turn here but really, she’s rather good in it. She’s a sympathetic presence, a woman who sees her second chance at happiness with a wonderful man and whose attempts to give love are met with malevolence. In her late 40s at the time, Turner doesn’t look nearly as worn out as critics have cited, though you can certainly see where the effects of booze and chain-smoking (the latter which led to her death from throat cancer in 1995) have played minor havoc with her skin. Sure she wears a cavalcade of cheap wigs, but such affectations suit the character and add to her slightly past-its-prime old school Hollywood glamour.

Many have giggled at the film’s final reel, where an LSD-damaged Turner is convinced to essentially re-enact the entire film’s events in a mocked-up stage play directed by her former lover and collaborator Richard Egan, but it’s that surreal, overheated turn of events that most lovers of odd cinema will cherish most. Truly, I’ve never seen another film quite like it.

THE BIG CUBE was released as part of long out of print “Cult Camp Classics” DVD box set from Warner Home Video that also included the proto women-in-prison flick CAGED! and the uproarious Joan Crawford vehicle TROG. The transfer on this version is gorgeous and bright and presented in matted widescreen.

You’ll laugh at THE BIG CUBE and that’s okay. It is funny. But more than simply tittering at its dated charms, you’ll more likely be astonished at its skewed vision and of Turner’s brave, committed performance, one of her last great roles buried in a movie that so many people would have you believe is just antiquated junk.

On WHO CAN KILL A CHILD?

A look at the shattering 1976 Spanish horror film

I first watched the 1984 Stephen King-penned horror film CHILDREN OF THE CORN with my parents on cable when I was 10 and even at that relatively easy-to-please age, its punch-pulling pedigree was obvious. Here was a film with a shocking enough opening sequence (I especially winced at the bit where the creepy kids pushed the beefy chap’s knuckles into the blender) and with a pair of solid enough lead actors in Peter Horton and Linda Hamilton and propelled by the grim concept of small town kids locked on murdering everyone over 18. But the film was utterly undone by juxtaposing the eeriness of the killer tots with an inner look at their religion and societal structure and was totally torpedoed by an FX heavy ending complete with a silly corn-creeping demon.

It’s understandable that CHILDREN OF THE CORN shrugged and sunk its inherent horror deep into the weeds because, well, that’s kinda what American horror movies did in the 1980s. This is not to necessarily dismiss 80’s American horror films outright, because I generally like them for what they are – lighter in tone, conventional, accessible and slick. But a movie about kids killing their parents and all adults within their sight-line needs to cut deeper to the bone. It needs to have the courage of its convictions. King’s own original short story played with suggestion and shadow to unnerve effectively. The film adaptation aimed to wrap the terror up with a tidy bow to please the multiplex set. The result is a picture that is neither fish nor fowl.

But nearly a decade prior, Spanish director Narcisco Ibanez Serrador tapped into the visceral, primordial horror of those who nature has designed us to protect rebelling against us instead (and cutting our throats) with his 1976 Spanish masterpiece WHO CAN KILL A CHILD? And where the King film’s mission to freak-us-out flopped, Serrador’s nihilistic shocker succeeds. This movie – even in its shorter, more direct US cut ISLAND OF THE DAMNED – is truly one of the most savage and upsetting movies that the genre has ever offered and yet – despite its sensational subject matter – it’s anything but an exploitation film. Recently released in an impressively thorough and meticulously remastered Blu-ray edition from Mondo Macabro, WHO CAN KILL A CHILD? is a somewhat obscure-on-these-shores dose of mature, unsparing horror that demands as much attention as possible.

The film stars Lewis Fiander and Prunella Ransome star as Tom And Evelyn, a British couple who are celebrating the impending birth of their third child by leaving their other two kids at home and whisking themselves off to the Spanish coast for a sun-soaked holiday. Escaping the mainland, the pair rent a small boat and drive off to the tiny, remote island Almanzora and soon discover that, while beautiful, the isle is virtually abandoned…that is, save for a horde of children. These wide-eyed moppets unnerve our heroes instantly, staring and them wordlessly and often breaking into manic giggling. When Tom witnesses one little girl bludgeon an old man to death and later sees a dozen of them using his corpse as a gory pinata, he breathes past his nausea and begins to conclude that something is dreadfully wrong. Wrong with island and wrong with these fresh-faced little boys and girls, all of whom seem to be on a perverse crusade to sadistically torture and violently butcher every adult they encounter. As Tom and Evelyn try to leave the island, the blood-lusting brood block them and every turn leading to a shattering, disturbing climax that you won’t soon forget.

On the surface, making children into monsters and forcing adult heroes to defensively slaughter them seems an easy mark. Horror movies are bought and sold on shattering societal taboos, after all. But Serrador is operating on an entirely different level. In the original Spanish and English cuts present on this release (the US cut is also here), Serrador treats us to a stomach-churning “mondo” style documentary that plays over the slowly unspooling opening credits. In it, the director employs a sickening wave of real 16mm footage of children being experimented on and murdered and dumped into mass graves by their Nazi tormentors, shots of juvenile Korean war survivors shambling through wreckage and the effects of nerve gas on kids during Vietnam. While damn-near impossible to watch, this opening is Serrador’s way of offering an allegorical explanation of the horrors to come. Here, he suggests that although we pride ourselves on being a species that protects and nurtures our children, we have a long, ignoble history of betraying trust and inflicting legacies of pain upon our offspring, of playing our “games without frontiers” and crushing our innocent successors in the process. And naturally, as pain begets pain, the cycle inevitably will continue.

Except here, whatever madness or virus has these children in its grip (refreshingly, nothing is explained, though it’s clear the impulse to murder is spread through the children by eye-contact or touch) is a break in the cycle of pain. These kids do not kill each other. They mourn when one of their brethren falls. They are a kind of hive-minded new species that is driven to enact a kind of rough justice on the generations that came before them. In the 1975 sci-fi/horror classic SHIVERS, director David Cronenberg has said of the phallic sex-parasites that tear through their hosts, turning them into Freudian ID-fueled maniacs, that they are in fact the “heroes”, wiping out the “old” to make way for the “new”. I think that same philosophy can be applied to WHO CAN KILL A CHILD? The killer kids have but one purpose and that is to completely wipe the slate clean of the human beings that bore them, thus inheriting the earth and breeding a new master race, one that sticks together. On that tip there’s just as much social parable here than there is in George A. Romero’s zombie films. In fact, Serrador’s film pre-dates Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD, the film that first hammered home the idea of the dead as a new race inheriting the earth, by two years.

In lesser hands, WHO CAN KILL A CHILD? would be cold, cruel and pointless. But it’s not. There’s a real poetry here and it’s anchored by the lead actors’ deft performances. Serrador takes enough time with the first half of the the film to allow us to get to know them, to care about them, to emotionally invest in their doomed plight. And as the picture downspirals hard and fast into the unthinkable, we feel – along with revulsion, shock and terror – deeply, profoundly sad, a response that is accentuated by Serrador’s THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED composer Waldo de los Rios’ dark, dissonant, delicate and moody score.

WHO CAN KILL A CHILD? is an exceptional and essential genre film.  Once you see it, you will never shake it. Ever.

On THE BAD BATCH

Revisiting Ana Lily Amirpour’s visionary and allegorical horror western

Sophisticated director Ana Lily Amirpour‘s sophomore genre-bender (following the stark, monochrome A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) The Bad Batch screamed into festivals chased by critical acclaim, received a limited theatrical run, didn’t really find its audience and then was seemingly cast into the literal and figurative contemporary cinematic dump bin. That’s not really a surprise. Pictures like The Bad Batch are so singular in their vision, so pulsing with energy, art and ideas that they generally need a wide berth of time to be re-discovered, discussed, debated and appreciated.  And I’m convinced that history will remember The Bad Batch as a major work of pop-cult art and I say this fully admitting that, after a blistering first half, by contrast, the rest of the film is a bit of a shrug, bleeding out into a wave of exposition and hastily resolved narrative and character arcs.

But man, oh man… those first 45 minutes! So deliriously brilliant is the set-up for this future-shocker that you can – and should – forgive the work its flaws. In fact, after multiple viewings – which The Bad Batch surely needs – those flaws become acceptable deviations. They become part of the fabric of the total vision, for better or worse.

The Bad Batch literally hits the ground running, with Suki Waterhouse‘s lithe Arlen fleeing a future-Texas desert Hell from motorcycle-riding assailants who takes her back to their camp, restrain her and inject her with some sort of fluid before hacking off her arm and leg and eating them! It’s a bold passage of violence and odd poetry propelled by an equally-odd soundtrack and, despite the graphic nature of the sequence, it’s shot with, er, taste. Suddenly Amirpour trots out a rogues gallery of miscreants, a cannibal tribe of weight lifters — even the women are ripped — led by the hulking Jason Momoa (Game of Thrones, Justice League, Aquaman) that seem pulled from the films of Alejandro Jodorowsky (with echoes of pictures like The Witch Who Came From the Sea and select works by Kenneth Anger) and yet are still unlike anything else seen on screen. As Arlen drifts in and out of her haze and sees others like her, human livestock, missing limbs and wallowing in misery, the scrappy woman with the too-short jean shorts plots her escape. Said escape involves caking herself in her own excrement and with her one-arm, wielding an iron pipe while wheeling herself away on a skateboard.

That all this mesmerizing madness is related by Amirpour and her cast without a word of discernible dialogue makes it all the more powerful, a battle cry against genre films that pad their running times and murder their own souls with tin-eared verbiage, refusing to trust that their audience is engaged enough and intelligent enough to follow along using universally understood sound and image, body language and movement. But when Arlen weaves her way to the neighboring camp of “Comfort” and “rescues” the daughter of her former cannibal captor, Amirpour either loses her nerve or listened to too many money people who likely suggested that she compromise her vision and clarify her beautiful abstractions.

See, The Bad Batch is very clearly an unsubtle allegory for the New America, specifically honing in on the “have-nots,” those on the fringes who often are forced to create their own sub-societies, governed by their own laws and codes. These are motifs alive in the best Spaghetti Westerns, where Europeans presented a fascinating outsider’s view of the already fantastical cinematic visions of early America and the director herself has cited The Bad Batch as a neo-western of sorts. With our man Trump blathering about walls and blustering through attempts to keep “undesirables” out, The Bad Batch‘s entire Escape From New York-ish set-up speaks of this current regime’s skewed view on “the other” and Amirpour makes the point here that “the other” is really an illusion, and only a matter of perspective. And again, she does this with image and sound, not words. She does it with revolting scenes of human barbecue and instantly-iconic imagery (Waterhouse’s “happy face ass” will likely live on in cinema history forever). Truly, Amirpour is an intelligent, bold filmmaker and it’s beyond exciting to watch her create this world, her world.

But then, as the movie trods on, people start talking — a lot — including Keanu Reeves’ Jim Jones-esque leader, whose hammy oration pushes the movie into camp but also has the unfortunate effect of hammering home explicitly everything Amirpour has taken an effort to allude to in the abstract (Reeves literally says that freedom costs an arm and a leg to our limb-challenged heroine). Suddenly the film is awash in heavy-handedness, from fractured puzzles of the American flag, the slogan-heavy T-shirts key characters wear, to signs, signs, everywhere signs. The movie loses its footing and feels like the intellectual at the party who has one-too-many and just dissolves into a puddle of punchy preaching.

But no matter. There’s more than enough fire and strangeness and near-feral originality to make The Bad Batch a major slab of deranged grandeur and anti-mainstream majesty while cementing its director as one of the most interesting cinematic voices currently alive. There’s no other film like it. And hey, Jim Carrey appears as a mute Gabby Hayes-esque desert rat. Know any other movies that can claim that honor? I thought not…

On THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA

A deeper look at Matt Cimber’s moving, horrifying and emotionally sophisticated masterpiece

The job of every good horror film is to exploit, degrade and pervert that which society deems sacred, to suck us out of our comfort zone and shake our foundations. Ultimately, I’ve found – as have many other admirers of the genre – horror to be the most successful form of cinema to not-so-subtly remind us that life is NOT all strawberries and orgasms. That life is short, often painful. That the illusions we as a society work so hard to construct to make that short, painful life slip down our throats like sugar pills, are easily undone and that perhaps our only true defense against that which is inevitable is to accept and soldier on.

I find horror films – when they are on point – to be life-affirming, even when they come draped in extreme images of gruesome death, misery and general malevolent mischief.

This may seem an odd statement to make when one is about to discuss Matt Cimber’s leveling 1976 psychodrama THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA, a harrowing work that has slowly, surely amassed a devoted cult following. But despite the film’s jet-black subject matter and its wrenching portrait of a woman pushed into the deep end of psychosis,  THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA has a primal power that speaks loudly to the horrors of childhood abuse, and how – when left untreated – that trauma can decimate its victims and the many unfortunate people that surround them. It offers no trite solutions to its internal terrors,  it offers no comforting denouement for the grisly journey of the “witch” of the title. Rather it serves as a stark warning, a barb-wired buoy bobbing in the seaside where most of its lyrical, lurid action unfolds. And while its oft-tread subject matter has been explored in horror cinema many times prior and since, there is simply no other film quite like it.

Working from a thoughtful, mature script by DEATH RACE 2000 scribe Robert Thom, Cimber’s expressionist shocker expertly frames his canvas from the film’s opening sequence: a long, almost abandoned beach on an overcast day, waves crashing into the sand and over the lens of cinematographer Dean (HALLOWEEN, THE THING) Cundey’s camera. This meditative, lonely visage is rendered even more melancholy by Herschel Burke Gilbert’s beautiful, lilting flute and guitar score, music that speaks of the sea, and more importantly things “lost” at sea. Specifically, a woman lost at sea, hopelessly. That woman is the deeply disturbed Molly (a shattering, dissonant performance by Millie Perkins), a seemingly sweet, child-like lady who we first see embracing her beloved nephews, telling tales of their grandfather, a sailor who himself was lost at sea. The children obviously adore their seemingly eccentric aunt and she them. And it is at this level that Molly is happiest, in the company of children, safe and needed. Because in the real world, the one populated with peers and with expectations, Molly is barely hanging on.

Almost immediately, Cimber illustrates Molly’s psychosis when she spots a pair of Charles Atlas comic-strip-esque bodybuilders on the shore, her eyes fixating on their muscles, their sweaty bodies, their bulging swimsuits. Cimber expertly cross-cuts Molly’s lust-locked face with flashes of these “parts” and eventually climaxes with bursts of cartoonish blood and the men hanging dead from ropes.

At this point we are barely five minutes into THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA and we are painfully aware that our protagonist equates sex and desire with death and is only calmed by the elemental nature of the sea and the “pure” love of children. Through direction, photography, sound and Perkins’ wide-eyed, carefully controlled performance, we are completely committed to Molly’s plight, wherever it may take us.

And naturally, nothing ends well for her.

Protected by her welfare-chained older sister and endlessly rhapsodizing on her long-dead father – whom her sibling dismisses as a monster – Molly is a raging alcoholic and ritualistic drug abuser, a woman whose only protection from whatever demons have hold of her is to numb herself with substances and sex, something she seeks out like an innocent. She is loved by her salty dog boss Long John (Lonny Chapman), who owns the bar in which Molly works at and who lives for the moments he can get her in his bed. He also – like everyone close to her – enables her and turns a blind eye to her increasingly distressing psychological state. There are passages in THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA where it seems that Long John’s blind adoration might just “save” Molly, ground her and serve as a lantern to help her find her way out of her fog-drenched, self-destructing state of mind.

But naturally, it can’t. And it doesn’t.

In protracted, slowed-down and hallucinatory sequences that illustrate both Molly’s intoxication and lapses into out-of-body darkness, we see Molly immersed in kinky sexual liaisons that end in torture and murder. First, with a pair of drug-juiced Football heroes who tag-team the beautiful woman, only to awaken the “witch”, who ties them up and slowly, sadistically carves them to pieces.  As the police investigate the crime, Molly declines further, ferally attacking a Hollywood hotshot, sexually fixating on the star of a shaving commercial and worse. And while Molly’s lethal libido ramps up, we are treated to gut-punching flashback’s of Molly as a little girl, brutalized by her vile father. It all climaxes in one of the most affecting, tragic and strangely beautiful final acts I’ve ever seen a horror movie. If you can even call THE WITCH FROM THE SEA simply a horror movie. It is one, but it’s so much more. It’s a work of art and it’s what all filmmakers who toil in dark cinema should aspire to be.

In some ways, THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA reminds me of an adult version of the classic Swedish/German PIPPI LONGSTOCKING movies from the early 1970s. Astrid Lindgren’s beloved child-waif Pippi is realized in those movies as a free-spirit, living alone in a candy-colored world, blessed with unlimited wealth and super-human powers, the hero to all children and the scourge of responsible adults. Like Molly, Pippi pines for her long-lost sea Captain “Papa”, of which she has a close but rather irresponsible relationship with. If you’ve seen those pictures, you’ll know that they are adored mostly for their almost experimental nature and the way they are completely free of the crushing, pedestrian confines of conventional narrative. They move like a child’s life moves, from adventure to adventure, from moment to moment. Undercurrents of serious social issues like child abuse are ignored, but there is most assuredly a darker side to the pictures that scratches just under their day-glow surfaces.

I see Molly as Pippi, all grown-up. The world has moved on. The circus has left town. The magic has long since evaporated. She’s alone at the Villa Villekulla, left to stare at her aging reflection and forced to confront the truth of her childhood. Unlike so many movies with a central character who is broken and psychotic, Molly is never painted as a villain. She is always, from the first frame to the final sequence, a victim. We cry for not only the broken woman she is, but the ruined child she was. She is OUR child, left alone, unguided and unprotected.

See this movie. Now.