On THE ELEPHANT MAN

Is David Lynch’s 1980 drama his greatest cinematic achievement?

David Lynch’s recent Twin Peaks revival took everything that made the landmark original ABC series so memorable and went even further into the ether, with the unobstructed non-network outlet (the series is a Showtime production) allowing Lynch to go as gonzo as he wanted to, respecting fan expectations while radically expanding and inverting that world, lapsing into the avant garde, totally liberated. It was mesmerizing. Energizing. Because out of all the elite directors who managed to infiltrate the Hollywood machine, Lynch remains one of the few that were working artists first, visionaries who developed a language all their own during a formative time and who use that singular creative dialect to make films their way, only giving cursory consideration to the suits who kept blind eyes on him, hoping to keep his work at least somewhat commercial.

And while seeing this new Twin Peaks stand tall as the pure, unfiltered wellspring of the Lynchian aesthetic, citing the times when Lynch has had to collaborate and enlist a more disciplined approach to his vision, yields no real criticism. I mean, the fact that Twin Peaks ever ended up on general stream network television in 1990 at all, is a marvel. It was way out there and defied what anyone wanted or expected from a prime time program. But going even further back, right back to 1980, to Lynch’s second feature film, we see what might very well be his greatest achievement, a movie that he was brought into and yet was given enough of a long creative leash to ensure that the motion picture he was hired to make, was indeed his and yet was also greater than him. A movie that likely educated the director and taught him that introducing strong human emotion into his nightmarescapes and populating the frames with the finest of performers, could result in a work that was art and product in equal measure.

That movie was The Elephant Man, Lynch’s follow-up to his fearless, unclassifiable midnight sensation Eraserhead. And 38 years later, looking back, it’s still a bold, brave and immaculately produced motion picture that offers the best of what Lynch could do and bears early evidence of the tropes and themes that would define his subsequent works.

As the story goes, Mel Brooks, he of scatological, smart and silly comedies Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, had just started a company called Brooksfilms wherein the producer could make “real movies” while hiding in the background so as not to mislead his fan base. His partner, producer Jonathan Sanger, got his hands on first draft script called The Elephant Man, which told the loosely true story of Joseph “John” Merrick, a wildly deformed young man who was rescued from the sideshow circuit in Victorian England and who became first a case study for a prominent London doctor and then, a national celebrity. The story was dark, evocative and sharply moral and for whatever reason, Sanger — who had recently seen and swooned over Eraserhead — thought Lynch would be a good bet to bring the steam-soaked tale to life. He met with Lynch who adored the script and agreed to do the film and, after a few re-writes, the movie was put into production.

With the budget and muscle of Brooks, Sanger and Paramount Pictures behind him, Lynch was able to amass a remarkable cast of British talent, first class performers like Sir Anthony Hopkins, Sir John Hurt, Sir John Gielgud, Anne Bancroft (Brooks’ wife) and Freddie Jones. But most importantly, The Elephant Man allowed Lynch to work with a man widely considered to be one of the greatest living director’s of photography, Freddie Francis, a man who had worked as both DP and director on a myriad Hammer Horror movies and British exploitation pictures, including Joan Crawford’s final film, Trog. Shooting in stark black and white to better paint a picture of the Victorian period but also give the production’s limited designs a more dream-like feel, Francis and Lynch essentially dragged Eraserhead to turn of the century England and grafted that film’s horrific, hallucinatory style to a potent story of pain and grace. Francis was never a conventional artist and with Lynch he was allowed to fully embrace his own eccentricities. I firmly believe that Francis’ influence on Lynch was an invaluable experience and heavily influenced Lynch’s sense of cinema and visual storytelling.

From the beginning of The Elephant Man, we know that we’re in that very same world first found in Eraserhead, where, after the tinkling, circus-steeped strains of John Morris’ lovely score and images of a face floating in space (a Lynch trademark), we are treated to a nightmarish, impressionist sequence where a group of slow motion-moving elephants either trample or gang-rape a screaming woman, meant to be Merrick’s mother. This is not a scene to be taken literally, but rather is a dream that metaphorically illustrates Merrick’s life of trauma and exploitation, where the love of his mother and his own upbringing have long been distorted by the scream of his carnival-barking owner (the great Freddie Jones, who is at his most despicable here). From this passage of savagery, we are thrust into the tawdry back-alleys of London where Lynch expertly juxtaposes the grime with the the kind-eyes of doctor Frederick Treves (Hopkins, who has never given a more moving performance on-screen) and from here, our tale unfolds. Hearing tales of the horrifying “Elephant Man,” Treves’ professional curiosity and interest in helping the needy, spur him to bring the unfortunate Merrick (who is brilliantly played by John Hurt, buried under Christopher Tucker’s intense prosthetic make-up) to the hospital where he works in order to study him and present him to his peers. First thinking the disfigured wretch an imbecile, Treves soon learns that Merrick is in fact a gentle, educated man who, despite the horrors he has endured is graced with a childlike sense of wonder and a hard-wired humanity and heart full of hope, instilled there by his late mother. As Treves treats Merrick, he is lauded for his work and “The Elephant Man” becomes famous. But despite the kindness and grace the unfortunate Merrick receives at the hands and hearts of his benefactors, there are blacker forces at hand that aim to drag the young man back into the cesspool.

The Elephant Man is a perfect movie and, as John Hurt once said “If you’re not moved by the time The Elephant Man is over…then you’re not someone I want to know.” I agree.

Lynch’s interest in holding frames and not giving into quick edits allows sequences of Hurt reacting to the kindness he is suddenly being shown to become almost religious experiences. We feel this man’s pain, his gratefulness, his empathy. There’s a humanity at work here that Lynch would later weave into the harsh worlds of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, real, profound emotion and sadness over just how cruel men can be to other men. The story is clear, elemental and driven by its talented cast and, again, the period is richly realized by Lynch and Francis. And when Lynch steers the imagery towards dreams, when he begins fetishizing belching smoke stacks, grinding machines and the horror and coldness of the factory, they serve to not only tie the movie into Eraserhead but also comment on the hostile, anti-human world that Merrick sadly came of age in, the one surrounds the refined, clean and kind world of Treves. The imagery is not self indulgent. It makes sense.

By the time the movie winds down, an inevitable climax of grace, surrender, sadness and hope, all played out the strains of Barber’s Addagio, you feel The Elephant Man in your bones. You feel as though you have witnessed a one-of-kind amalgam of bold artistry, history and universal human drama. Of horror and beauty in equal measure.

Lynch would bring much of what he did here to his failed adaptation of Dune, but he wasn’t ready for Dune. It was too big for him to control. Blue Velvet was more successful and yet it still suffers somewhat for its over-reliance on freakishness and kink. Still, what is Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) but a mutated version of Freddie Jones’ character in The Elephant Man? What is Bob and his followers in Twin Peaks, but a satanic riff on the human sludge that exploit and prey upon John Merrick and others like him?

The new Twin Peaks was a marvel and might just be Lynch’s final opus, his magnum. But for my money, there was a kind of magic in The Elephant Man that looms the largest in his filmography. Where youth and talent and freedom of expression and education all met to make one brilliant and enduring motion picture like no other.

On TALES FROM THE HOOD

Why Rusty Cundieff’s 1995 social horror anthology is a must see

When one is critiquing a film, the thinking is that objectivity is key. A proper review must not reflect the writer’s personal tastes but must evenly judge if the film is successful at its chosen level and respond accordingly. Well, f**k that. If you eat, sleep and breathe cinema, if you love it so much that it keeps you awake at night, if it makes your pulse pound faster and in many respects informs your view of the world, then objectivity is impossible. In fact, I think the very concept of a piece of film writing being removed from one’s life experiences and leanings is an abstract one, even on an academic level. Art provokes response and every single human being who views that art will respond differently. That’s the beauty of art.

So with that verbose preamble, I’ll say right here, right now that I am crazymadinsane in love with Rusty Cundieff’s savage, smart and socially potent 1995 omnibus Tales from the Hood beyond all reason. Many say Scream saved and redeemed horror in the ’90s. I hate Scream, that self-aware, sneering, smart-ass sitcom thing. And if the studio that released it had been savvier with their marketing campaign, they’d be saying that about Tales. It should have been “the one” that spawned the franchise, that kick-started the trends and Clarence Williams III‘s wild-eyed hell spawn mortician with his Satanic Don King hairdo should have been the guy people were dressing up as for Halloween.
But it was just too black. I mean, look at Scream, with its gaggle of pretty, porcelain white faces staring smugly at the pundits on that copied-to-death poster. A far easier sell to America than the ebony skull with the glowing gold tooth that grinned at you on the awesome Tales one-sheet. Savoy Pictures saddled the movie with a marketing campaign and tagline (“Chill…or be chilled…”) that positioned the picture as a spoof, like a Wayans Brothers skewering of HBO’s then-popular, campy series Tales from the Crypt. Ironically, those Wayans lads would find great success lampooning Scream a few years later.

No, Tales from the Hood is no spoof. It’s not a send-up. It’s funny, certainly, but often that humor — as it should always be in horror films — stems organically from the absurdity of the situations. What Tales really is, is a primal scream about black Americans in the urban ’90s landscape, both marginalized and — even more potently — cannibalizing themselves; its power and relevance has not dulled an ounce.

The film sees a trio of macho, tough-talking and pistol-wielding gang-bangers descending upon the wildly Gothic funeral home owned by the aforementioned mortician Mr. Simms, so deftly essayed by The Mod Squad‘s Clarence Williams III, who they think has a stash of cash and drugs. The punks demand that Mr. Simms cough up “the sh*t” to which the potentially insane embalmer retorts, “you want the sh*t? You’ll be KNEE DEEP in the sh*t!”

Over the next several hours, Williams stalls his antagonists with the grim, supernatural stories of the young, black men who fill the coffins in his basement. We get the story of the crooked, murderous cops (one played by the great Wings Hauser) who beat, frame and murder a crusading black DA while a young rookie cop watches in horror… and ultimately turns a blind eye. Years later, the unjustly slain victim rises from the dead to exact revenge with the now homeless and substance-addicted ex-cop’s help. Another story sees a teacher worried about a little boy who swears his bruises and broken bones are the result of a monster that hides in his home. Meanwhile, the kid’s dad (comedian David Alan Grier in a very dark change of pace role) is getting plenty angry at the images his boy is drawing. The next story sees a sniggering former KKK-linked politico (Corbin Bernsen) defiantly moving into a former plantation slave house and running afoul of ghostly marionettes who demand bloody justice. And the final story, the corker, sees a lethal gang banger left for dead after a bloody street brawl and whisked away to a secret clinic where a majestic doctor (The Omega Man‘s Rosalind Cash) subjects him to a mind-bending, gut wrenching “Ludivico” -esque treatment to make him aware that the real enemy to “his people”…is him. And then there’s that ending…

Oh, that ending. It’s one for the books, baby. Wow.

In style, structure and tone, Tales from the Hood is more of a kissing cousin to Freddie Francis‘ still chilling 1972 Amicus adaptation of EC’s Tales from the Crypt comics, with its somber tone, intense morality plays, Grand Guignol gore, black (in every sense) humor and supernatural punishments. But it’s something else. Something angry and upsetting. Something sad. If Jordan Peele’s brilliant recent smash-hit Get Out is about the way racism now hides behind America’s current grinning, faux liberal facade, Tales is about the pulse on the street, of how poverty and ignorance are causing young black men and women to fall into a chasm, one in which they rage war against themselves.

Cundieff and co-writer/producer Darin (From a Whisper to a Scream) Scott’s film is a masterpiece. It’s a perfect horror film and its messages aren’t so heavy handed that they overtake the pleasures of the genre elements, rather the social spine enhances the film’s fright factor. In case I have not made this clear: I LOVE TALES FROM THE HOOD. It’s a major work. If you’ve missed it, fix that grave error as soon as humanly possible.

 

On THE GUARDIAN

A look at one of American filmmaker William Friedkin’s most interesting and undervalued films

As every serious horror fan who both lived through it and has studied the period from the distance of time knows, as the 1980’s wound down and leaked into the 90’s, the pulse of the genre was faint. Producers were less interested in edgier supernatural fare than they were in conventional dramatic (and often, in the wake of Fatal Attraction, erotic) thrillers, with most horror product tailored to suit a post-BATMAN need for bloated, FX-rich action. Even Coppola’s much-hyped 1992 horror blockbuster Bram Stoker’s Dracula feels like a mutated Batman with fangs…

But we digress.

The bottom line is that historically, you’d be hard pressed to find a real-deal, bold work of adult dark fantasy during this time-frame. Except for William Friedkin’s 1990 effort The Guardian, that is; a film that was anything but successful during its domestic theatrical run and was unfairly dismissed by critics who deemed its absurdities as beneath its storied director. But, as we now know, even Friedkin “slumming” often offers a superior cinematic experience than most filmmaker’s most notable works do and, in retrospect, The Guardian is no exception to this rule.It’s a truly fascinating misfire that isn’t really a misfire at all. Rather it hits a target that’s not even on the range. It’s bizarre, beautiful, both lavish and cheap, controlled and reckless, erotic and ridiculous, character-driven and awash in tarty special FX.

In the film’s dreamy, balletic opening we see a faceless nanny drift through a dimly-lit home as a little boy reads a very grim fairy tale from an elaborate pop-up book. As said nanny finishes the feeding of a baby, the children’s’ parents cheerfully prepare to go out for the evening. But a pair of forgotten glasses cause the couple to drive back home where they find their eldest son fast asleep, cozy and safe and their delicate infant…gone.

Their nanny? Nowhere to be found.

We then see that shadowy caregiver sprinting through an ersatz, moon-lit wood straight of the most glorious set-bound Mario Bava film where she holds the crying baby up to a monstrous, twisted tree. In a crude smash edit, the baby is gone, its visage now carved into the trunk of the tree, along with the faces of other children who have come before. And as the nanny finishes her phantasmagorical ritual, the shimmering stream beneath her reveals her shape-shifting into a snarling wolf.

And then the movie begins.

The Guardian doesn’t take time to play its hand when introducing the threat at its core. Like Friedkin’s signature genre classic The Exorcist, it makes sure we are firmly aware of the strange sandbox we are playing in so that, when we are immediately introduced to our true protagonists, we are instantly on edge, knowing that their perceived safety will soon be steamrolled by something horrific.

Phil and Kate (Dwier Brown and Carey Lowell, both serviceable leads) are a pretty, healthy young couple of kindly yuppies just starting their life together; she’s just birthed a baby girl and the pair are ecstatic about sharing their monolithic home with their new daughter. Finding a nanny however, proves daunting that is until they meet willowy British caregiver Camilla (Local Hero’s Jenny Seagrove); Camilla is intelligent, graceful and gentle and seemingly has an innate gift communicating with babies.

She’s also a kind of druid demon, an incarnation of the very same hellion we saw in the picture’s opening and it’s her intent to groom Phil and Kate’s bundle to be another sacrifice to her tree-god.

The Guardian is a deeply strange picture with a history as tortured as the perverted limbs of the fabricated tree itself. The film is based on the novel by Dan Greenburg called The Nanny and, indeed, the initial version of the script bore that title. The director attached was none other than Sam Raimi, fresh off the cult success of his spastic indie hit Evil Dead 2. Producer Joe Wizan called on another rising star, British screenwriter Stephen Volk, himself coming off a pair of strange works in Ken Russell’s Gothic and the similarly female-monster driven Canadian thriller The Kiss, to re-write the script and, with Rami’s input, the pair fashioned what was to be a deliberately arch, body-count rich, blackly comic horror film.

But when Raimi opted to bail on the project and instead direct the, again, more Batman-esque Darkman, Wizan brought Friedkin on board (in what would be his first “legitimate” horror film since The Exorcist) roping Volk back into the project to collaborate with the iconic, loose-cannon filmmaker to make the movie that would become The Guardian.

Omitting the broadly-etched, splatter comedy Raimi was aiming for, Friedkin’s sensibilities are most assuredly the central visions of the final film. The Guardian takes its human drama seriously with any humor drawn naturally from the absurdity of the situation and it spends ample time building the characters and the world they live in.

Because we know the nature of the threat from the get-go, suspense doesn’t necessarily ratchet, rather the tension arises from the audience waiting for that magic moment when mom and dad clue-in to the true, insidious motives of the woman in whose trust they have placed their most precious cargo. Before that happens, Friedkin disorients by making Camilla a kind of vulnerable hero, most notably in a scene where she is almost assaulted by a pair of thugs in the woods; as she runs for her life, protecting the baby, we almost delude ourselves into thinking she may actually care about the child. She does, but of course her concern extends only as far as her own interests…

The aforementioned scene of near-rape is punctuated by a thrashing of over-the-edge gore, wherein the tree itself attacks the aggressors, chomping off their limbs, eating one screeching tough and impaling the other battered bastard on its covert roots.

The central idea of the set-piece is a crude one in that it’s the would-be-rapists who are the ones who get violently penetrated and that in and of itself is a resoundly Friedkin-friendly, darkly sexual motif; but the gore FX aren’t filmed properly and feel out of place, almost as if Wizan insisted that they be more present in the final edit to please the new batch of easily bored kids and the FANGORIA crowd.

More successful are the numerous Gothic touches, like the incredibly intense, Hammer Horror-informed wolf-siege on the house, and the outrageous, chainsaw-vs.-bloody-tree-by-way-of-naked-druid-Queen- voodoo-decimation-climax, a wonderfully insane flurry of cuts both on-screen and in the editing room that oddly channel the gonzo spirit of Raimi, whether by intent or otherwise. and then, there’s the magnificent tree itself, an impossible tangle of limbs that, whether caressing the nude body of its lounging leader (a stunning sequence) or defending its turf, is a glorious, mythical creation. One wonders if Tim Burton liked it enough to borrow elements of its design for his 1999 version of Sleepy Hollow

Ultimately, although he was brought in as a gun-for-hire, The Guardian is most assuredly a Friedkin joint, one in which you can repeatedly feel him grabbing the wheel away from the producers need for conventions and veering the film into that psychological, seedy and totally 1970’s fastlane that the filmmaker once blazed upon. This sense of Friedkin’s mischief, vision and total dedication to the project is validated by the wealth of quality supplemental interviews and features loaded into the back-end of the Blu-ray, some ported over from the UK Second Sight release, many made exclusively for this edition. In regards to Scream Factory’s transfer, the 1080p transfer is lovely, with most print damage evident only at the header of the film and the many nocturnal blues and greys are splendidly evident.

The Guardian is most certainly flawed, but so is the best of Friedkin. Those flaws are what some more thoughtful critics might call evidence of his humanity, the mark of a flesh and blood auteur reaching through the slick veneer of a studio-produced entertainment and making a beautiful mess of things.

Originally published at www.comingsoon.net

On GRAVEYARD SHIFT

An appreciation of the undervalued 1990 Stephen King adaptation

With every movie-going human being tripping over their toes to ladle love and money on the lavish remounting of Stephen King’s gargantuan novel It, it’s nice to see that the veteran master of literary arcana’s source material still has the power to suck in the pundits. If you believe the hype, It (or at least the first part of It that has thus far seen release) might just be the most financially successful horror movie in history. Critics are hot for the movie too and, to be fair, It is a beautifully produced and faithful realization of the 1986 book, improving on the limitations of Tommy Lee Wallace’s flawed but effective 1990 TV miniseries and providing a wealth of scares, both of the slow-creeping and jump-out-of-your-skin variety.

But the problem with It is that the picture – which reframes King’s initially 60s-set tale in the 80s – feels kind of…forced. Netflix’s hit series Stranger Things is the poster child for this wave of Regan-era pop culture fetishization, a greatest hits of that decade’s horror and fantasy movie tropes and it all works. Because of the show’s success, it’s clear that IT was re-designed to ride those small-screen coattails, going so far as to its casting of Stranger Things‘ Finn Wolfhard. And because of that, IT sort of left me a bit cold. It felt fabricated, calculated. It’s a fairly safe blockbuster entertainment, goosed-up gore be damned.

Now, come with me as I dial-back the clock to 1990 and the release of the King-cribbed Graveyard Shift. The ’80s saw a boom of lower-budgeted films that licensed King’s short stories, fleshing them out to varying degrees of success. King himself directed one of these cinematic expansions, 1986’s Maximum Overdrive and while King has since rejected that film (his first and last as a director) as a coked-up folly, I adore the picture. In fact, I tend to love most of the King films blown-up from his short stories (Creepshow, Silver Bullet, et al). Truth be told, I actually find King the writer at his strongest in the short story format. His novels – while expertly constructed and realized – tend to be bloated affairs that are not always suited to cinema.

But those short stories? Damn. They have few peers…

Witness his now-legendary Night Shift collection, a 1978 book released after the success of his first novel Carrie that amassed most of King’s previously published early work. Many of the movies from the ’80s are cribbed from this collection and almost every story is a blood-freezer. Among the pack – which includes “Children of the Corn”, “The Lawnmower Man etc.” – sits King’s concise 1970 shocker “Graveyard Shift”, one of the scariest damn tales (tails?) of terror I have ever read. Ever.

“Graveyard Shift” shows King’s brilliance at setting up a drama, fleshing out characters and conflict and delivering massive scares, devoid of resolution in a tiny, page-bound space. The story sees a cotton-mill worker and his sadistic boss venturing deep into the basements and sub-basements of the rat-filled structure only to unearth a hive of mutant, blind and blood-hungry monster vermin. It’s a horrifying story and while it may seem on surface too brief to be fleshed out into a feature film, director Ralph S. Singleton did it and did it really, really well. In truth, Graveyard Shift the movie is my favorite King movie, or at least the one I think just might be the purest rendering of his shorter work.

Let me elaborate.

When Roger Corman made his celebrated “Poe Cycle” films in the early 1960s, he charged his writers – Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont, chiefly – to expand tales that were more like snapshots. Take The Pit and the Pendulum for example. In the Poe story, we have a first-person piece of paranoia about a man strapped to the titular torture device during the Spanish Inquisition. As the swinging blade of the pendulum drops closer to his torso, he skirts madness before devising a way to narrowly escape. This is not a story. It’s a set-piece. So with the 1961 film, Matheson borrowed elements from other Poe stories to flesh out a drama of walled-up women, philandering wives, evil legacies, torture, madness, morality and just desserts served cold. At the center of the web sits the arc of the man and the pendulum and that nerve-shredding climax feels earned and organic, as does the movie constructed around it.

This thoughtful, ingenious and reverent approach is exactly what screenwriter John Esposito did with Graveyard Shift a film that was met with critical vitriol upon release, though trading on the King name still ensured a moderately successful box office take. Still, the movie was generally dismissed and the ensuing years saw very little in the way of a critical revaluation. Singleton never directed another feature, either. Shame that.

When I rented Graveyard Shift the following year (I was too young to see the film theatrically), I was instantly smitten with it. Like Eric Red’s Body Parts (another Paramount quickie release that still stands as an undervalued gem) I thrilled to the old-fashioned, air-tight, no-frills storytelling, genre irreverence and its acute sense of the Grand Guignol and was even more enamored by the way the movie built a convincing world around that skin-crawling source story. Here was a horror movie, a bona fide horror movie that was totally out of step with its time and loaded with personality. It’s a film ripe for rediscovery.

The movie tells the tale of the ancient Bachman (a nod to King’s pen-name) textile mill (the real-life Bartlett mill in Maine) that, after being boarded up for years, has been recently reopened for business. The machines are work just fine but the mill’s recent tenants – a dynasty of diseased rats – refuse to be evicted and run rampant. The blue collar workers, hard-up for employ, balk at the filth of the place but the sneering foreman Warwick (The Monster Squad‘s Stephen Macht) refuses to sympathize, treating his staff like sweatshop slaves. When a morally sound drifter (David Andrews) rolls into town looking for work, he immediately butts heads with the sadistic Warwick. Meanwhile, workers keep getting murdered and sucked into the bowels of the building by…something. Something wet, leathery, toothy and starving. And in the center of all this overheated EC Comics inspired mania, a wild-eyed exterminator (Brad Dourif, in one of his weirdest roles) lays waste to as many rodents as he can find and the neighboring graveyard spews out enough mist to fill another King film entirely.

Everything about Graveyard Shift works. We mentioned EC Comics and that’s no accident. Most of those shivery early King tales bore the influence of vintage Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror books, something King has long been proud of citing. The author’s most relevant collaboration with the late, great George A. Romero, 1982’s masterful Creepshow was itself a blatant nod to EC and Graveyard Shift often feels like an expanded episode from that anthology.

And as with many EC stories, rotting, shrill and broadly painted atmosphere and characters are the name of the game here and both director and cast are up to the task of bringing that four-color creepiness to lurid life. While Andrews makes a solid if somewhat flat hero, his muted energy is in sharp contrast to Macht’s absolutely outrageous turn as Warwick, who goes from full-fledged asshole boss to unholy asshole lunatic in the movie’s ballistic final act. Dourif’s eccentric rat-killer is electric, a skeezy yet somehow sympathetic creep who adds comic relief and absurdity to an already pretty out-there movie and future Wishmaster Andrew Divoff is fantastic as a sneering bully-worker turned snivelling victim.

Graveyard Shift is also perhaps the most noxious movie in American horror history. Remember that “body pit” sequence in Dario Argento’s Phenomena? The part where Jennifer Connelly is drowning in a filthy pool of oatmeal-ified corpses? Well, Graveyard Shift is that sequence drawn out for 90 minutes. Every inch of this rat-infested shocker is designed to drive you to the showers. I’ve rarely experienced a film that genuinely made me feel contaminated while watching. Ugh. And I mean that in a GOOD way.

But best of all, Graveyard Shift feels like it lives in King’s world. It’s actually filmed in Bangor, Maine. The locations are evocative and authentic, the actors nail the New England accent and my GOD does Singleton nail the dread of the original King story. Of course, he pads out the journey into the guts of the mill with other characters and FX man Gordon Smith’s central monster – and what a monster – is as a sickening bat/rat mutant thing with gelatinous body and suffocating wings as opposed to the shivering “thing” King hints at. But it’s a great realization of King’s wordplay and Singleton pushes the entire ending into the sort of berserk vomitorium that the author suggested the story would become. And man, is this movie splattery. The MPAA may have been hacking apart slasher movies to secure R ratings but because Graveyard Shift is ostensibly a “creature movie” it managed to squeak (like a rat) by them, pouring on the gore and still getting that commercially coveted R.

Carrie is a perfect Brian De Palma movie. The Shining is Kubrick’s masterpiece. The Shawshank Redemption is Frank Darabont at his best. But Graveyard Shift feels more authentically King-ish than any of those rightfully celebrated films. It feels scrappy. It feels like punk rock, bursting with energy and laced with subtly angry social comment. It feels mean and dangerous and is deeply, unopologetically weird. Like all of King’s early stuff.

Give this giddy, messy and macabre movie another look, won’t you? It may not be “better” than It. But it’s better than It. Get it?

3D Movie Memoirs

A personal anecdote about my long, loving relationship with 3D movies

It occurred to me recently, as I exited the local multiplex after a film screening, that the kids today casually tossing their handsomely designed plastic 3D glasses into the designated recycle bins, have no inkling as to how wonderful they have it.

3D is a remarkable magic trick that people take for granted. The fact that, with aid of a pair of innocuous goggles, cinema can betray its flat origins and trick your senses into believing that all manner of mise-en-scene is emerging from the screen, drawing the viewer into its designer world and further marrying moving image to the targeted eyeballs being attacked.

Indeed, 3D is marvelous. And meaningful. And we’re so very lucky to live in a world where such a grandiose escapist gag is both so immaculate and relatively affordable.

As you can glean from this hyperbole, I am indeed an ardent fan of 3D. Always have been, since I was given my first 3D comic book.

When I was a child, 3D was an all-out obsession.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s 3D was just beginning to rear its head again, decades after its golden age in the 1950s. We know that the technology, which had existed since the silent era, first found commercial popularity at the time when television was drawing people away from the movie theater experience, pushing studios to come up with novel ways to drag the pundits back and give them a thrill that could only be attained by buying a ticket to the “flat tops”.

Arch Oboler’s Bwana Devil was the first feature film to prove the viability of 3D and Warner’s Vincent Price epic House of Wax was the first studio 3D film, one that locked in the ensuing wave of films to follow. Alfred Hitchcock even dabbled in the polarized, silver-screen-aided gimmick with his brilliant Dial M for Murder, one of the most artfully rendered 3D films ever made.

But, like all trends, 3D faded away in the 1960’s as younger audiences started demanding more urgent and earthy (and European influenced) entertainment.

When I was a kid, when home video was born and, like TV before it, became an even greater threat to to the film industry, 3D briefly returned.

Today, we gave away copies of Tony Anthony’s 1981 Italian gore western Comin’ At Ya!.

That film was a hit and inspired more filmmakers, both independent (Charles Band’s Parasite was a modest hit) and studio-bound (Universal had Jaws 3D and Paramount had Friday the 13th Part 3D), to make 3D movies, this time using a more economical split-stereo process that only needed a single filmstrip and projector with a special decoder lens adhered to the machine.

But that wave quickly died out too, when the movies (usually horror) being produced weren’t critically or commercially successful.

But back to the point of this essay: why 3D means so much to me.

As most of the 3D films of the early 1980’s were rated R, I couldn’t see them. I was but a we lad of 6 or 7.

I wanted to. But, in Canada, R ratings meant NO kid under 18 could see the picture, with a grown-up or otherwise.

So I was shut-out.

I fantasized about what these films would be like. What terrors would await me. What thrills. What fun!

One day, while sifting through my parent’s copy of The Toronto Star, I noticed a print ad.

In it, there was a photo of a gorilla…wearing 3D glasses!

3Dlove2

The text around the shaggy beast screamed of a 3D festival that was aiming to be screened the following Sunday on local television channel Global TV.

The only way one could get the glasses needed to enjoy this triple feature of wild, vintage 3D movies was to either go to the local “Mac’s Milk” convenience store and buy them…

Or…

…track down the man in the monkey suit.

The network had apparently hired a few folks to dress up as gorillas and run around the city all week, handing out pairs of 3D specs to those eager to absorb the movies. Great promo for the channel, great promo for co-sponsor “Mac’s Milk” and an exciting, PT Barnum-esque hook to bring Toronto pop culture lovers together. The reason for this guerrilla/gorilla tactic was that the main feature on the 3D movie festival bill, was the great Anne Bancroft/Cameron Mitchell 3D suspenser Gorilla at Large. My jaw hit the kitchen floor.

I needed those glasses.

Better yet…I needed to find one of those apes!

I went running to my dad (who was, and still is my movie buddy) to show him the ad and to tell him about how IMPORTANT it was for us to get these glass and search for the gorilla.

Alas, my bubble was quickly popped when my Pop told me that we were off to the cottage the weekend the 3D festival was screening and simply would not be home in time.

Now, most children would be thrilled to go up North to their summer home (or rather, my Grandparent’s summer home) to swim, boat, play and have fun. Not me. I was devastated. All week I was in a funk. All I could think about were those apes running rampant. All I could think about is the once-in-a-lifetime cinematic experience that I was being denied.

The cottage would always be there.

But, as the print ad stated, those glasses were only on sale FOR A LIMITED TIME, never mind the small window I had to hunt for the monkeys.

That weekend at the cottage, we got the Saturday paper and there again was that damned print ad, reminding me of the beauty I was going to miss on that Sunday night.

Now, turns out, my parents were primed to leave the cottage on Sunday afternoon.

There was a GLIMMER of hope that we’d be back in time to catch the 3D festival!

I begged my dad to find a “Mac’s Milk” on the way home. But he refused. He told me he had tried to find the glasses and was told that they were sold out, city wide.

Now, some readers may find it cruel that my father did this. That he prolonged my misery as long as he did. But the old man was a showman through and through and he knew full well how to orchestrate a life experience, taking what for many would be a pithy distraction and stretching out the drama to make for an anecdote that would endure.
Of course, when we got home, two pairs of “Mac’s Milk” 3D glasses were waiting for me. Dad had bought them the weekend prior.

I lost my mind! I was the phoenix from the flame! I was Lazarus!

Most of all, I was totally in love with my dad.

The Jiffy Pop popcorn was popped (and, like always, semi-burned) and we sat on the sofa to see what we would see.

Sure, we had to fiddle with the color bars on the TV endlessly and sure, the red/blue anaglyph glasses gave us headaches and branded our eyeballs with color filters for the next 24 hours (trivia: if the red lens is over the right eye and the blue lens is over the left, oddly, your brain will reverse the colors when you take the glasses off, so you see blue from the right and red from the left…stupid brain!) and sure, the 3D gags weren’t always awesome, with many of them ghosting and doubling.

But I was there. The story had its ending. A happy one. Dreams could and did come true.

And that night I watched the Vincent Price flick The Mad Magician, the 3D Three Stooges short “Spooks” and, of course, Gorilla at Large.

It was all a kind of modest magic. Moments like this that always made me find the voodoo in simplicity. Made me realize that the most pivotal life experiences, the ones that stick with you and help design who you will be, aren’t always operatic in scope.

They’re quiet. Personal.

And sometimes, they’re in glorious, rickety anaglyph 3D.

A year or so later I saw the PG rated Jaws 3D in the theatre with dad. It was in polarized 3D. thought the movie was awesome. Then, anyway. It was the first theatrical 3D film I as allowed to see and I remember taking 50 souvenir Jaws 3D mags from the lobby. Wish I still had one!

So with that, every-time I step into a movie and put on the glasses and have immaculate digital trickery thrust upon me, I remember. I remember the quest. And I value how awesome 3D is and how lucky we all are to have it.

Still…it would be nice if we had a few more gorillas to chase.

On VAMPIRE CIRCUS

A personal memoir about watching a Hammer horror classic and almost paying for the experience with my life

As I continue into my forties, I am astonished by just how lazy I am. Well, maybe lazy isn’t the right word. In fact, I’m far from that. I’m busier than I’ve ever been, writing, making films, editing magazines, performing live music and many other creative pursuits (not to mention minding my three awesome kids) that I’m blessed to be involved in.

But when I was a youth, I never stopped moving.

See, I didn’t get my driver’s license until I was 32 and, living in Toronto, I relied exclusively on trains, buses, streetcars and feet.

These days, I rely on minivan and Amazon to get the things I need and the fixes I want.

But back then, in those carefree and questing days…whooo-weee. Nothing could stop me from getting where I needed to get, no matter the distance, no matter the sort of transportation required, no matter the time I had to block off to get there.

In my teens, I lived in a place called Mississauga, a city in the Greater Toronto Area. My fellow freaks that were in search of more esoteric culture in this artless deathtrap, used to call in MiserySauga. And it was indeed miserable. When there was a film or concert I wanted to attend, I would simply have to take the bus, the train and the foot to get there. It took me 2.5 hours using these routes to get downtown and I’d gladly bank this time just so I could sit in an opulent, ancient movie theater and watch oddball, arthouse and obscure flicks on the big screen. Or so I could simply have a coffee in a place where people-watching was exciting; where fashion, beauty, conversation, ideas and eccentricity were plentiful.

It was all worth it and I did it often.

Now, I still enjoy these solo pursuits. But the lengths I’ll go to sate these needs are minimal when stacked up against those longer, less schedule-bound days.

Last night, as I lay down to detox before I bed, I opted to put on the 1972 Hammer Horror classic Vampire Circus, a late period offering from the studio that I have long loved. And I immediately recalled the first time I saw this film and the berserk lengths I went to in order to see it. And I remembered how that quest almost killed me.

For real!

When I was 17, my weekend job was working at the Dixie Flea Market, at the dismal Dixie Value Mall in the East end of MiserySauga. The flea market was a basement grotto, only open on Saturdays and Sundays and it was a place I had been going to for years, primarily to trade VHS tapes with a pockmarked, shyster video-vendor that always ripped my naïve ass off. But to me, the place had a sleazy, smelly (it always smelled of mold, sweat and hot dogs) carnival charm.

So getting a paying job at this greaseball palace was a real thrill.

My gig was working for an old alcoholic vendor of “Peg Perego” mini-bikes for toddlers. You know, those motorized things that move at 1 mile per hour? My responsibility lay in charging parents a buck for their brats to ride around on this little make-shift track while they bought crap from the market and, hopefully, to actually sell them one of these over-priced vehicles.

I never did sell a bike.

But I sold tons of rides.

Endless rides.

And for every 5 bucks earned, I’d put 3 in my pocket.

I’d take that pilfered profit and leave my post (only when it was kid free…I’ve always loved and cared about children and would never do something THAT irresponsible) and run over to the bookseller and buy lurid pulp paperbacks or to that grifter VHS dealer and buy a big-box shocker or a movie poster or…oh, fuck, I skimmed that pithy till hard and criminally fattened up my collection of crap in the process.

Anyway, one weekend I learned that Toronto’s legendary cineaste Reg Hartt was screening a double-dose of Hammer films on the Sunday night at his “Cineforum”.

Two films I had never seen but had read much about.

One was 1968’s The Devil Rides Out.

The other was Vampire Circus.
Reg Hartt is a veteran film collector and exhibitor who has a vast collection of 16mm prints and he would screen them every night in his living room/library, right downtown Toronto on Bathurst, just south of College. I had heard Hart (who is still very much active I believe, though he now screens primarily off digital sources) also used his “screening room” as a way to entice cute young men into his lair for some fun, but I had been there on at least three occasions (once to see a beautiful, bright 16mm print of Horror of Dracula, a screening that changed my life) and each time found Hart to be a great guy and the experience of seeing these movies this way to be unique, warm and exciting.

So, I made plans to go after work, by myself (again, always my preferred method of seeing movies) to take the 2 buses, 2 subways and one streetcar to see these amazing movies, neither of which I would have had any access to otherwise.

There were but two substantial problems here, however.

One, it was the dead-of-blood-freezing-Canadian-winter. Late February, as I recall. An arctic tundra that was colder than my ex-mother-in-law’s kiss.

As a result, the other, was that I was suffering from an accelerating chest cold.

Then of course, there was the fact that I had already traveled 1.5 hours by yet another double bus-ride to get to my job at the Flea Market to begin with. And because of that I would have to tack-on that return trip time onto the near 3 hour additional time it would take for me to get downtown and back.

At night. In the cold.

That’s some serious fucking travel time to see a vampire movie.

But I was 17. I was young. I was in love with films to a degree that was unreasonable. So, after a full day taking dollars from dumb-ass dads while their snotty tots had low-speed chases around a filthy carpeted “track”, I took my stolen-spoils, bought a hamburger, closed up shop and set off on my journey to see some vintage British chillers…

It was 7pm. It was dark outside already. Blacker than a witches tit, in fact. So cold, your lungs felt like leather and, seeing as my lungs were already bothered and bearing mucous-fruit every five minutes, the feeling was deeply unpleasant. A day-long blizzard had turned to rain by this time, which didn’t sit well with the gaping holes in my boots, every step sucking in a swamp and every press of my arch like sloshing around in a sponge.

A cold fucking sponge.

I got on the first bus and, despite the state of things, I was excited to be on my way. You know that that feeling. When you’re finally moving? That feeling of quest was battering down the weight of my increasingly sickly condition.

But just as soon as I was starting to thaw on that bus, it was time to get out, transfer in hand and wait for the second bus on the corner.

There was a coffee shop at that stop and so I ducked in to get a a cup of something hot. I smiled at the cute girl at the counter. I felt alive then, like a sort of warrior on my way to an imagined mecca. And though, this mission was a solo mission, I secretly wished this pretty girl would jump over the counter and come with me. I could educate her in the ways of weird cinema and she could fall madly in love with me…

Once that fantasy passed, I got on the next bus. That bus took me to Kipling station, the first stop in my long subway ride to get me to Bathurst station. At Bathurst, I left the train and waited on the outside platform for the Southbound Bathurst streetcar.

I could feel the grip of the cold. It was a tight grip indeed. And with my toes now frozen and numb, and a cough sputtering in my chest, I started to seriously doubt my journey. Like, just maybe, I should have just gone home.

But I didn’t.

I continued on.

And on.

I made it to Reg Hartt’s house/theater, the neon glow of his “Cineforum” sign in his window, welcoming me gently. Reg himself greeted me just as warmly, took my 10 bucks ( a steep price for me then, but since my wallet was packed with ill-gotten gains, it didn’t really matter) and then I settled into a wildly uncomfortable folding chair to see the magic shadows I had made such an effort to see.

I was late and had missed the first 40 minutes of The Devil Rides Out but I picked up on the story and the tone of the piece quickly and started syncing myself with the three other older gents in attendance, dudes who presumably hadn’t traveled the earth to see these films as I had.

Hartt’s heat must have been broken because the room was unreasonably cold. And I’ve never been one to properly dress for the weather and that night was no exception. I was shivering through my ripped-up leather jacket and my toes? Fuck ‘em, I had zero feeling in them.

But I was watching Christopher Lee battle phantoms and I was fucking thrilled.

It was magic.

After Devil, Reg started to prepare the Vampire Circus print and I asked if he had any coffee. He did. The coffee helped and, pre-screening, we were treated to Reg’s lively mini-lecture/intro about the film we were about to see.

But by the time the first strains of David Whitaker’s delicate score started and we enter the walls of the evil Count Mitterhaus’ bloody lair and the Count’s fangs sprout in blood-lust just before he kills a kid (still one the most perverted and dark openings in any Hammer film…maybe any film period), I started to cough again.

And then I really started to cough. A lot.

It all started to fall apart. My shivers were uncontrollable. I kept spitting phlegm into my empty cup, secretly, as it wasn’t my cup and such an act is beyond uncouth. My head started to feel swimmy. I knew I was getting hot because my skin felt sensitive.

I had gone from getting sick to sick to seriously fucking ill.

But I stayed. I watched Vampire Circus in a daze. Freezing, shaking, burning, quaking, coughing, spitting. I made it to the finish line and deduced through my delirium that the film is perhaps Hammer’s greatest vampire offering, an absolutely mad and frantic piece of fantastique cinema with sex, blood, horror, fantastic bats, pretty sets, solid cast, lovely animals and a killer climax.

When the reel wound out, I literally stumbled out of that house on the verge of collapse.

Reg Hartt asked me if I was alright and I smiled and said yes and thanked him for an awesome evening. I moved back out into the stone-age Hell that was the cold Toronto night and made my journey home. I began sort of blacking out, mostly because I was exhausted but also because my body just wanted to call it a day.

This was before cell phones and no kid my age had a pager unless he was a drug dealer so I had no way of reaching my parents while I was in transit.

But by the time I made it to my bus transfer point in Mississauga, I knew I needed help…

I crawled back into that coffee shop to find a pay phone. I went back to that counter, but the pretty young girl wasn’t there anymore, instead replaced by a gruff, bald, short, middle-aged Greek man who gave me attitude when I kindly asked for change for a dollar so I could use the pay phone. He made me buy something so I purchased a fucking donut which I tossed in the trash and proceeded to stick a quarter in the phone and call my father.

Dad was at that point a cabby, night-crawling through the city in search of fares. He was just 2 years shy of divorcing my mother, a painful dissolve in itself. But I’ve never held a grudge and he and I have always been close. I got him just as he was en route back to his apartment for the night and told him about my predicament. I asked if he could take me home.

Within 10 minutes he was at that coffee shop.

I collapsed into his cab, never more grateful to be near him. I felt safe, like a soldier flying home from the front-lines. I told him what I did. Where I was. And I told him why I did it.

He thought I was crazy. But he understood. He wanted to know about the film and I suddenly perked up as I raved about the climax of Devil and the mad thrills of finally seeing Vampire Circus. I gave him a version of that Reg Hartt lecture on the history of Hammer and how CIRCUS fit into that puzzle, produced as it was in the waning days of the once great studio.

It was a cozy denouement to a very long, strange trip.

When I got home, my mum wasn’t very interested in Hammer horror. Rather, she saw her tom-catting son looking like grim death. I said I was fine, drew a bath (perhaps the greatest bath of my life) warmed up and went to bed.

I replayed the night’s journey in my mind and, despite the agony in my infected chest, I smiled.

What an adventure.

And yet, the price I paid for doing these things alone, outside of the “walking pneumonia” that I was diagnosed at the ER with the next day, was that I really had no one else to share my story with.

25 years later, I’m sharing it with you.

Thanks for reading.

Now, today, you wouldn’t catch me ever embarking on such a venture. Partially because I have no time, partially because I’m older and I don’t spring back from illness as quickly, partially because I drive now but primarily, because I don’t have to.

You wanna watch Vampire Circus now? Order the Blu-ray. Stream that (blood) sucker off your iPhone if you want. It’s easy to find any film or entertainment you want at any given time no matter where you are, ever.

The days of bus rides through the center of public transit Hell to sit in some strange dude’s living room and freeze to death while he pumps a print through a projector onto a pull down screen, are done.

And maybe that’s kind of sad, no?

On 99 WOMEN

A look at Jess Franco’s trailblazing 1969 women-in-prison film

Though we cannot fully credit director Jess Franco and his frequent producer Harry Alan Towers with inventing the horror/exploitation film subgenre known as the “women in prison” movie (or WIP for short), we can certainly credit them for defining the parameters of what people now expect from it. Since the dawn of cinema, Hollyweird has reveled in stories of lovely lasses crammed into confined spaces and confronted with dehumanization and worse (my favorite proto-WIP flick is 1950s tawdry and charming Caged), but Franco blended that barbarity with the sort of salaciousness audiences were hungering for in their downmarket cinema; the resulting opus was 1969’s 99 Women, a rough and tough and super-sexual trash classic that kicked into high gear our obsession with girls getting sent upstate and, despite the indignities they are subjected to, always finding time for a bit of sweaty, illicit same-sex coupling. Simply put, no 99 Women, no Orange Is the New Black.

I remember seeing 99 Women on late night television under the title Island of Desire and I was delighted to finally stumble upon a film by the then obscure Jess Franco. Of course, the Island of Desire cut is shorn of any and all sex and nudity so I was tad let down. But after I licked my wounds, I was still enamored with the look and feel of the film. From the opening moments, where Barbara McNair’s exotic song “Day I Was Born” congas across the soundtrack and a bevy of lovelies led by Towers’ muse and wife Maria Rohm drift into the port of a monolithic stone-age castle that will be their new prison home, there is a palpable feeling of obsession and invention here. And that’s exactly what was happening off screen. Franco and Towers had to pause production of their sexy thriller The Girl from Rio for a week and, instead of letting their cast and crew (who they had to keep paying anyway) languish, they opted to cobble together a film to shoot quick and dirty on the same locations. This was that film.

At this point, Franco was working almost exclusively with the savvy Towers and its well known that their collaborations during this fecund period were among Franco’s most opulent and expensive. They just looked great, with international casts, dreamy sex and violence, gorgeous soundtracks and lush locations. 99 Women is no exception. Shot in Rio and Spain, 99 Women is far cry from the cheap and leering films (not that this is a bad thing, however, especially in terms of Franco’s work) the director would make for French producers Eurocine and Swiss producer Erwin C. Dietrich; this film is delicious to look at and listen to, with a typically emotional, complex and grandiose Bruno Nicolai soundtrack that elevates the already handsome production values to epic heights. And then there’s the cast, which includes the great Mercedes McCambridge (four years away from voicing Pazuzu in The Exorcist) who stalks and glowers around the island prison like some sort of monster, and the amazing Herbert Lom (who would star in the equally-classic Eurotrash gem Mark of the Devil that same year) as the evil Warden, who here looks like a cross between Kim Jong-il and a Bond villain. And like many Towers productions of the time, 99 Women got a sizable U.S.release and was a modest hit.

There is plenty of sexuality and nudity on display but, as this was ground zero for the sleazy WIP wave, it’s comparatively restrained. There are other cuts including a different Spanish version (99 Mujeres) that is shorn of much sex and and an Italian cut that spotlights star Luciana Paluzzi. There’s also a hardcore porn version that Franco had nothing whatsoever to do with and, though he himself would direct his share of porn, the director disowns any of the cuts save for this one.

Though Franco would make his most personal and interesting work later on, when he was operating without any money, 99 Women stands as a highlight of the colorful and eccentric collaboration between the director and Towers. It was a golden time for both men in their careers and that spirit is alive and thriving in this joyously oppressive film.