HH2020 #7 – Jennifer Upton on “When Michael Calls” (1972) — Horror And Sons

One of my favorite parts of each Halloween Horrors series is when someone covers a film or show that I’ve personally not seen. Today’s entry would be one of those cases. Jennifer Upton of Womanycom.wordpress.com returns for her 3rd year of our October series, this time taking a look at the 1972 made-for-television film When […]

HH2020 #7 – Jennifer Upton on “When Michael Calls” (1972) — Horror And Sons

The Original Halloween: A Debra Hill Production

Screen Shot 2018-10-25 at 9.35.34 AM

This week the latest installment of the horror franchise Halloween was released to great box office success. A direct sequel to the original, it ignores all other installments and re-boots and has broken box office records.

In celebration, Jamie Lee Curtis tweeted the following:

The Tweet was shared on the horror social media page Dread Central and although it was received positively by most, there was also the expected backlash against anything celebrating the achievements of women by more than several of the rank and file immature fanboys. One commenter asserted that John Carpenter created the original film and therefore Curtis owes the success of the new film (and the entire franchise) to him. The facts beg to differ.

Halloween was co-created by a woman. Her name was Debra Hill. She is credited as the film’s co-writer and producer. It’s right up there on the screen with Carpenter’s name, although – despite their supposed literacy – many viewers have simply ignored its presence. In the minds of some fans, it’s almost like her name isn’t there at all. “This,” I replied to the commenter, “is why we need feminism.”

In the interest of fairness and equality, let’s talk a bit about Ms. Hill.

Debra Hill first met John Carpenter in 1975 when he was looking for a script supervisor on Assault From Precinct 13. A few years later, they went on to create Halloween together. She co-wrote the screenplay and also acted as producer.

Hill was responsible for all of the character development and dialogue of the three female leads. Without her, there would be no Annie with her sarcastic put-downs, no giggling, air-headed Lynda and – most importantly – no Laurie Strode, the shy intelligent final girl who sings to herself “I wish I had you all alone…just the two of us…” An unforgettable characteristic to be sure.

Hill’s realistic dialogue gave 1978 audience someone they could relate to. The scene that best illustrates this is the one in the car where Annie attempts to get Laurie out of her shell and ask a boy on a date while smoking weed. Hill herself directed the largely improvised scene, having discussed the context with the actors beforehand. The result is that we sympathize with these young women and in the end, root for Laurie to survive. Without the likability of three characters, Halloween would likely not have struck a chord with audiences of the day and would be forgotten rather than serving as a template for the countless imitators that came after it.

Hill is also responsible for the naming of the town Haddonfield, where the film takes place. She was born in Haddonfield, New Jersey and went to Haddonfield High School. She chose all the (now iconic) houses for the locations and she even played the hands of the young Michael Myers that pick up the clown mask at the opening of the film.

She went on to work as producer on Halloween II and III and re-united with Carpenter for 1980’sThe Fog, 1981’s Escape From New York and its 1996 sequel, Escape From L.A. In 1985, she produced David Cronenberg’s adaptation of the Stephen King novel The Dead Zonestarting Christopher Walken as well as the Tim Curry classic Clueand 1988’s Big Top Pee Wee.

THE FOG, producer Debra Hill, Jamie Lee Curtis on set, 1980, (c) Avco Embassy

As one of Hollywood’s first female producers, she was a member of the Producer’s Guild of America, eventually coming to serve on their board of directors as well as on the Executive Committee of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She was nominated for an Academy Award for her work on Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King, which also won a Golden Globe for Best Picture – Musical or Comedy for the year 1991.

In 2002, I was honored to watch Ms. Hill give a presentation at the American Cinematheque in Hollywood, California on the films she worked on with John Carpenter. Along with anecdotes from the making of the films, she spoke of the need for more women in the film industry to get behind the camera and the difficulties she faced as a female writer/producer. “I was assumed to be the make-up and hair person, or the script person…everybody called me “Honey.” I was never assumed to be the writer or producer.”

I was later shocked to learn that she was likely ill on the day I watched her speak. In 2005, after a long battle with cancer in which she had both legs amputated below the knee, she passed away. She was only 54.

In her name, The Producer’s Guild of America has established The Debra Hill Fellowship, which awards both men and women who complete an accredited graduate program in producing and “whose work, professionalism and passion mirror that of Debra Hill.”

In October of 2012, The New Beverly Cinema hosted the first Debra Hill film festival with all proceeds going to the Fellowship.

Debra Hill once said, “I hope someday there won’t be a need for women in film. It will just be people in film.” She was a pioneer who should not be forgotten by anyone. Least of all by horror fans to whom they owe a debt of gratitude for helping to create one of the genre’s most beloved modern classics. Thank you, Ms. Hill. Rest In Peace.

 

Sources:

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/debra-hill-527694.html

https://www.thewrap.com/debra-hill-film-festival-honor-pioneering-producer-60091/

https://www.producersguild.org/page/DebraHill

http://www.cinefilles.ca/2015/10/01/remembering-halloween-co-writer-and-reel-survivor-girl-debra-hill/

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/1485210/Debra-Hill.html

Mandy Review: A Great Ride (w/ Spoilers)

 

I’m always baffled by the inability of respected film critics to understand the horror genre. Panos Cosmatos’s Mandy is no exception. Since the film’s debut on streaming sites and its subsequent bookings into cinemas due to audience demand, it has drawn ire from the majority of “respected” critics. Even the ones who liked it were careful not to actually say so. Horror is somehow beneath them and this attitude serves as a restrictive lens within which to critique Mandy. The problem with viewing the film through this restrictive lens is that Mandy is most clearly not a horror film. It’s a revenge drama.

Mandy’s plot is revenge genre 101. It’s the same story in The Crow (1994), Oldboy (2003) and The Virgin Spring(1960). 1. A senseless horrible crime is committed against honorable people. 2. The lone survivor methodically hunts down and kills the perpetrators. If the presence of gore was the only qualifier to categorizing Mandy as a horror film, then clearly Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch(1969) or Mel Gibson’s torture-happy The Passion Of The Christ must also be horror films. They are not.

It speaks highly of Mandy that reviewers just didn’t get it. This film wasn’t made for the likes of Mark Kermode. It was made for the people who grew up on George Miller, David Lynch, Dario Argento and the many revenge epics that came out of Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea in the 1990s and early 2000s. Like Gordon Chan’s Beast Cops (1998), you either get it or you don’t.

That’s not to say that there’s nothing here to enjoy for those not “in the know.” Mandyis both deeply atmospheric and highly entertaining. The relationship between Andrea Riseborough’s Mandy and Nicholas Cage’s Red is tender and very real. Mandy is clearly a survivor of childhood abuse. It is made clear in the story she tells Red of her father forcing all the neighborhood kids to kill a bunch of helpless baby starlings with a crow bar. Then there’s the mysterious scar under her left eye. No explanation is required. Mandy’s dark, sad eyes tell us all we need to know. It’s a perfect example of silent cinema character development.

Mandy’s haunting qualities eventually attract cult leader extraordinaire Jeremiah Sand who, after randomly spotting her walking down the road, decides she’d make a great addition to his small “family.” He orders his minions to summon a few demon-like drug-mangled bikers who resemble the Cenobites in Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987.) They kidnap her and Red and leave after taking another member of the cult as payment. It is unclear if they eat him.

Jeremiah erroneously believes that Mandy will be as easily controlled as the other damaged souls in his group. He is wrong. Even after they administer their best LSD and a hallucinogenic wasp sting, she won’t join. She defiantly laughs at Jeremiah’s outdated hippie proclamations of peace and love and especially at his shitty failed folk album. It’s 1983 and Mandy and Red are metal-heads.  Jeremiah’s time has passed and only the oldest members of his dwindling group still worship him unconditionally.

This sequence is an interesting one. Rather than falling victim to the genre tropes of stripping the lead actress nude and/or including a rape scene, Cosmatos instead features Linus Roache’s Jeremiah fully disrobed. The scene lays bear just how sensitive the male ego can be when Mandy laughs at Jeremiah’s penis. His fragile ego just can’t take it and he immediately orders his followers to stuff Mandy into a burlap sack (similar to the one her father used for the starlings) and light her on fire. All of this takes place in front of Red, who is tied to a post left to bleed out slowly from a knife wound. Bad idea.

Although we never learn much about Red’s history, other than that he is a recovering alcoholic, it is sufficient motivation for his forthcoming rampage that he loved Mandy very much. He was in awe of her intelligence and artistic accomplishments and now she is dead. Those responsible must pay. They do so dearly and it’s super-fun to watch.

Much has been written about Nicholas Cage’s “wigged out performance” in this film. Cage has alwaysmade unconventional choices in his performances going all the way back to Peggy Sue Got Married(1986) but, the scene in the bathroom takes the madness to new heights. For a moment it felt like we were watching actual footage of Nicholas Cage at home alone on a weeknight, screaming and chugging down an entire bottle of vodka in his underwear, as one does. Following that, there’s a cheddar goblin, homemade battle axe fights, bad LSD trips, a chainsaw duel, a mound of cocaine snorted off of a glass shard and crushed skulls. In short, it’s awesome.

Having vanquished all the bad guys, Red is reunited with Mandy and together, they drive off into one of her drawings of an alien landscape. Is he hallucinating? Definitely. This conclusion is reminiscent of some of the best romantic/tragic endings in cinema history. Within it, one can see the shadows of Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungeon riding off in their taxi to heaven at the end of Sid and Nancy (1986) or Eric Draven meeting Shelly in the graveyard of the afterlife at the end of The Crow (1994). It is a beautiful ending to a completely crazy, heartbreaking, fun film. Not everyone will get it. Those who do will buy the Blu-Ray and attend midnight screenings. It’s that kind of movie.

mandy-box-office

 

The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine – 50th Anniversary Review

YELLOW-SUBMARINE1520

This week marks the 50thanniversary of The Beatle’s animated classic Yellow Submarine (1968). To commemorate the occasions, many cinemas around the country (and in the U.S.) are screening the film’s 2012 Dolby Surround restoration in 4K. For fans and younger newbies alike, it is well worth the effort to seek it out.

Although The Beatles themselves weren’t very involved in the project (it was a way to fulfill their contractual obligations to United Artists) the film does not suffer for it. The voice actors perform reliably decent impressions of John, Paul, George and (especially) Ringo and the frame-by-frame hand-restored animation is gorgeous. The separation on the soundtrack offers a depth and richness that modern audiences are accustomed to but could not be achieved during the period of the film’s original release.

Stylistically, it offers up a rich cornucopia of ‘60s pop-art styles. While this mixture of different types of animation could be criticized as inconsistent, it offers a glimpse into the different movements pioneered by the likes of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein and in this respect, serves as a sort of time capsule for that period.

There are two sequences worthy of exploring in greater depth.

The first is the submarine’s visit to monster land. This segment of the film shows that the animators not only had a solid foundation in the history of animation but that they were well aware of what the medium was capable of in those pre-computer times. At one point, a vacuum monster sucks up everything within the film frame including the background, leaving only the title’s namesake floating in the vast nothingness of the white space on which the invisible omnipotent animator controls their destiny.

It is reminiscent of the classic Warner Brother’s short Duck Amuck (1953)where Daffy Duck was held hostage, helpless against the manipulation of the unseen animator later to be revealed as Bugs Bunny who then slyly addresses the audience with “Ain’t I a stinker?”

Rather than break the 4thwall as Duck Amuckdid, Yellow Submarinegoes one layer deeper within the drawings themselves, having the monster devour itself until the audience is left with nothing to look at but a blank white frame. Just as we are about to ponder what happened, the submarine inexplicably re-appears. In animation, the standard world rules do not apply and it is a joy to see a film play with this freedom at every opportunity.

The movie’s other great sequence, which accompanies the song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, the filmmakers aren’t so concerned with stretching the boundaries of the medium as they are concentrating on creating colorful movement within the frame. The images are filled with subliminal (and not so subliminal) messages, featuring Lucy herself dancing as well as all kinds of animals, flowers and rainbows, sometimes residing in the heads of unnamed masses of people lined up geometrically in stark contrast to the colorful worlds inside their heads. The segment merits a repeated viewing at home where the frames can be paused and studied.

As an accompaniment for the song, which is one of the best Lennon-McCartney compositions of all-time, it works perfectly. The editing even changes tempo with the song when it switches between from ¾ verse to 4/4 time chorus. As for the song’s meaning it matters not that the original inspiration was a drawing by then-toddler Julian Lennon. It’s clear here that the audience is meant to take in the images on the screen in a state of altered awareness. Who knows, perhaps the animators themselves were high when they created them.

In terms of story, it is simple albeit still relevant today with the music-hating warlike Blue Meanies invading peace-loving Pepperland because they simply can’t abide by all of their positivity. The Blue Meanies remain a timeless representation of Britain’s conservative party. They even have grenade-launchers that look like clowns who send people into a joyless state of catatonia where all color is removed from the frame. In contrast, the peace-loving residents of Pepperland represent an entire generation of 1960s hippies who just wanted everyone to get along, play music and love each other regardless of age, race or nationality.

Pepperland’s happy ending is a far cry from where real society ended up in the Reagan-Thatcher era and beyond. What a shame that John Lennon didn’t survive to criticize all the hippies who voted for Thatcher and to create more great songs like All You Needs Is Love. Luckily, we still have the music of The Beatles and Yellow Submarine’s message to get us through these continuing dark times of considerable political division. It really is better to live All Together Now, isn’t it?

 

8 Ways Bladerunner 2049 Is Not Sexist – SPOILERS

 

The best science fiction literature and films deal with modern cultural and societal issues. They frequently do so set against the backdrop of a distant technologically superior albeit dystopian future. Bladerunner 2049 succeeds in this respect. As well as exploring issues of humankind’s reliance on technology, the theme that was the most prevalent was that of the male gender’s diminishing role in the new world and the emerging importance of the female. Much has been written over the generational gap of understanding of the film. Several reviews have noted that demographically, only people over 40 were interested in seeing the film to begin with and those younger people who did go to see it, decried the film for being sexist. Yes, there is female nudity and representations of male-created ideals of femininity. Yes, there is violence perpetrated against females. But this shallow criticism shows a lack of ability to read beyond the surface images and apply meaning to them within the narrative of the story. In fact, Ryan Gosling’s K/Joe spends the entire film being both manipulated by women who are both more powerful and intellectually superior to him. There are many reasons why this film can arguably be read as feminist. Here are 8 of them:

SPOILER ALERT

  1. K’s boss is a woman. He does everything she tells him without question. He even kills his own kind (he is a replicant) because it is what he believes he was made to do. A belief she reinforces regularly. He does not question her, even when he is questioning his own identity. It is implied several times that he is a ‘’good boy’’ placing him in an inferior position.
  2. K has a virtual holographic girlfriend. Joi is young and beautiful. The first time we see her, she is dressed in typical 1950s housewife attire fretting about the results of a new recipe that she has made for dinner. This era is considered by many American males as being the ‘’good old days’’ when women knew their place. The fact that she is entirely a creation of K’s fantasy version of a perfect woman is not meant to be ironic or demeaning and it is far from sexist. Rather, it places K in the role of a man who has created an outdated fantasy for himself and refuses to see reality. It makes him seem ridiculously old-fashioned. It is even explicitly said at one point that he ‘’doesn’t like real girls’’ and that Joi is nothing more than a product manufactured for his shallow needs. She holds no relation to anything close to a real woman. She feeds his ego over and over and it is though her suggestions that K ultimately comes to believe that he is the first replicant child born naturally. In other words, it is because of her that he believes he is special. When she gives him a human name, she calls him ‘’Joe.’’ Because he’s just an average Joe. This is true in every way possible.
  3. K is led to the group of rebels by a female prostitute with the aid of Joi. In other words, a female who is seemingly exploited every single day, uses the manufactured image of ‘’Joi’’ (the male’s ideal girl) to get what she wants from him. She exploits his need to fulfill his sexual fantasies by ‘’syncing’’ up with Joi. Here the word ‘’syncing’’ takes on a possible double meaning. One is technological, combining the virtual and the real. The second, conceivably comically meaning refers to the long-held common male-originated myth that women who reside together can ‘’sync up their menstrual cycles.’’ Like this myth, K’s sexual experience with the synced up hooker is also not what it appears to be. She doesn’t really like him. It is merely a ruse to lead him to the rebels, who are…surprise…led by a woman.
  4. The leader of said rebels informs K that no, he is not the special child. It’s a lie whose idea was planted by a fake woman and reinforced by the actual special child, who is…another surprise…a woman.
  5. When he visits this woman, Dr. Ana Stelline, he finds her to be a memory maker. In other words, she creates the identities of and is therefore responsible for the psychological make-up of every single replicant on the planet. She is a creator. When K asks her if his traumatic childhood memories are real, she answers vaguely (but not untruthfully) with tears in her eyes that ‘’these things are true.’’ K (and the audience) read her tears as sympathetic to K’s difficult childhood. Later, it turns out that they were HER traumatic memories. She was crying because of her own trauma and K was so wrapped up into his own need to feel special that he (and we) completely misread her emotions and her response. Despite her having a compromised immune system, she is emotionally and technologically superior to every human on earth as she is the first of her kind. She cannot be touched, hugged or physically exploited as she lives in a hermetically sealed bubble. She is the special person and the one who will bring revolution. The future does not, therefore lie in the hands of the average Joe because he is little more than a slave to his own antiquated ideals. At the end of the film, when confronted with a giant nude, over-sexualized holographic image of Joi, K comes to the realisation that his entire purpose, unbeknownst to him up until that point, was to fulfil the mission of the replicant rebellion led by a females. The memories that he thought were real, were actually those implanted by the true miracle, who is female. He is little more than a puppet.
  6. The use of Las Vegas as an outdated, dead city as a backdrop. K enters flanked by large dominating statues of female figures. He is small within the frame and they look as though they are going to eat him. Once inside the city, we are bombarded with images of old -school masculinity. There are holographic showgirls, and Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley sing the songs that gave them their reputations in their time, of being ‘’man’s men.’’ Even Deckard, who, in the first film was at his peak in terms of stereotypical maleness, limps along slowly and is flanked by a lame old dog. It is obvious that their time is over. The entire city is covered in a layer of sand and dust waiting for the last winds of change to cover it over forever, with only the women at the entrance remaining.
  7. Corporate magnate Wallace is a blind man who both physically resembles and speaks like a religious prophet. The first thing we see him do is to create a woman replicant. When he discovers that she is incapable of breeding, he destroys her by stabbing her in the reproductive organs. The film then immediately cuts to the reaction of his female replicant assistant, the very strong, but mercenary Luv. She sheds a single silent tear. Wallace represents every old-school man that clings to religion and wealth and attempts to exert control over womankind’s bodies in 2017. Luv’s tear can be read both as sadness from seeing a fellow replicant cut down but also as sadness for having participated in the cutting down of a fellow female literally at the start of her existence. x Even so, it is Luv who at the end of the film, obliterates the old male ideals of the feminine when she literally stamps out the existence of Joi by stepping on K’s emulator where she is stored. She is the ultimate traitor.
  8. When Wallace meets with Deckard, he makes it perfectly clear that Deckard’s falling in love with Rachel in the first film was entirely outside the realm of his own agency. Whether possible because he was programmed to do so as a replicant (which is highly hinted at in the Director’s cut of the original film) or simply because he is a human male is irrelevant. Deckard was simply the sperm donor falling prey to his own idealized view of women. It was Rachel who was more important as she would would give birth to the child who will bring revolution in a chapter as yet unwritten in the Bladerunner universe.

Visually, Bladerunner 2049 is stunning. I would encourage the younger generation, to look for meaning in these images as they are presented within the narrative in relation to the characters and their actions.  History will be kind to this film. There is more going on here than meets the eye.

George A. Romero’s Feminist Themes

Yesterday, we lost the most influential filmmaker to the horror genre in generations. George A. Romero was single-handedly responsible for creating the zombie sub-genre with 1968’s Night of the Living Dead. Known more for his themes of anti-consumerism, he also wove threads of the changing roles of women in society throughout the narratives of many of his films. On first glance, one might say that Night is outright sexist in its representation of women. I used to think this way. The adult female characters in are all ineffectual. Barbara is comatose from having witnessed her brother’s death, Helen Cooper speaks her mind but never really does anything and is constantly overshadowed by her loud-mouthed husband Harry. Worst of all, we have Judy who stupidly follows the lead of her boyfriend Tom all the way to her death.

But there is one more female that must not be overlooked. Karen Cooper, the feverish little girl who was bitten by a zombie prior to the start of the film. She is the future. It is surely no coincidence that she utterly destroyers the previous generation, stabbing and consuming them. Karen generates the biggest impact (and the biggest scare) of the entire film. Even today, with more almost 50 years of gore in its wake, the garden trowel scene loses no impact. Drawing a parallel with societal change, the scene is violent, painful and leaves the viewer shocked and slightly sad.

For the next 2 decades, Romero’s subsequent films consistently featured stories concerned with the role of women in society as perceived by both themselves as well as the men around them.

Season of the Witch (1971), which was originally titled Jack’s Wife, is not a horror film, although it does contain the plot device of witchcraft. Produced in 1971 Witch is very much a reflection of the period when feminism and the Women’s Liberation movement were gaining traction in America. The lead character of Joan (Jan White, who coincidentally shares her name with a very real famous witch) is very much “a product of traditional patriarchy who seeks individualism and freedom from oppressive conformity” (Wilson).

The first scene in the film is a dream sequence in which Joan follows her husband Jack (Bill Thunhurst) through the woods obediently. He ignores her and allows the branches he is parting to whip back and scratch her face as he passes through. Further on, Joan sees an image of herself swinging happily on a tree-swing dressed completely in symbolic white. Before Joan can reach out to her own self- image and grab happiness, Jack reaches into the frame, attaches a collar to her neck, and leads her around on a leash for the remainder of the scene. It ends with Joan receiving a smack on the nose with a rolled newspaper and left alone in a kennel while Jack is away. In match-cut that retains Joan’s seated position in the cage, she is suddenly sitting in her home, creating the visual association that Joan’s home is like a cage.

Joan is led around by a realtor, who describes her life to her as if it were everything anyone could ever want. The house is nice and up to date for the time period. Her kitchen has all the best appliances and her closet has “all the latest styles” but the dream turns into a nightmare when Joan once again encounters her doppelganger. Instead of being happy as she was on the swing, this time she is an old hag who has wasted her life being “Jack’s wife.” When Joan awakens in her bedroom, reality and the nightmare are the same. Reflecting Romero’s typical anti-consumerist stance, a seemingly deal socio-economic situation is actually a slow death for Joan where she will grow old and die lest she break out of her role as a financially dependent wife and mother and declare her independence.

Mirrors feature prominently within the overall mise-en-scene and help to illustrate the shallowness of Joan’s attempt at an internal transformation via external sources. There are many shots of Joan inspecting her face and other parts of her body as well as applying make-up to help turn back the clock. Beauty is only skin deep and therefore not very different from the labels that society places on women. To truly change and become happy, Joan will have to reject her social conditioning, and embrace an ideology more progressive for the time period.

Following a visit with her friend to a local self-proclaimed witch for a Tarot card reading, Joan is intrigued and immediately converts from Catholicism to Magick. She embarks on an affair with a younger man and eventually kills her abusive husband “accidentally” as she believed him to a be a prowler.

The dog imagery at the open of the film comes full circle to the end where she is tied up with a collar during her initiation rights into the local Coven. She is now making her own decision to be objectified, even if she is not consciously aware of it. True change was difficult for women in that time, even for those who desired it. Perhaps Romero is saying that changing our ideology does not make us any less a slave to it.

By 1978, Dawn of the Dead’s Fran (Gaylen Ross) has a career, speaks her mind, learns to shoot a rifle and becomes a helicopter pilot.  All despite being pregnant. She is smart and quickly adapts to the new reality of the zombie apocalypse, even when her macho male counterparts suffer from battle fatigue. In 1985’s Day of the Dead, we have a lead zombie-fighting, gun-toting scientist named Sarah (Lori Cardille), who was perhaps the most badass of all his female characters. It’s her movie and she carries it well.

1980’s Knightridgers gave us Romero’s most richly diverse cast of females. The film deals with highly principled motorcycle enthusiast Billy Davis (Ed Harris) who wishes to live outside the confines of an increasingly shallow and materialistic society. To accomplish this, he creates his own private Camelot in the form of a self-sufficient medieval style nomadic commune where the members move from town to town putting on motorcycle jousting shows for the local citizenry.

The group includes artistic misfits from just about every walk of life. There are bi-racial couples, homosexuals, doctors, entertainers and craftspeople, who have made a “conscious adult decision” to live under low-income conditions in exchange for the ability to live as they wish outside the stifling conventions of “normal” society.

The women inside the group are portrayed as strong and independent. At first, bike mechanic Angie (Christine Romero), puts up with a lot. She is constantly cheated on by her boyfriend Morgan (Tom Savini). Once she realizes her value as a human being at the behest of her gay friend Pip (Warner Shook), she speaks her mind freely and confronts Morgan telling him that although there is no one else she is interested in courting at the moment, “someday there will be.” Additionally, the lesbian character of Rocky, quickly identifies as one of the best bikers in the group.

Conversely, life on the outside in the straight world is portrayed as lonely and shallow for women. Julie Dean (Patricia Tallman) is a bubble-headed sweet teenager who runs away from her abusive home to join the group and embark on a whirlwind romance with Billy’s favorite knight Alan (Gary Lahti). The girl’s father is portrayed as an oafish drunkard who beats his wife, Helen (Iva Jean Saraceni) regularly. In the best shot in the film, we see Helen crying in her kitchen, dwarfed by large, neutral colored empty walls.

After realizing Julie is too young for him, Alan brings Julie home and leaves her crying on the curb in front of her house. When the light in the front room turns on, Julie raises her head with an expression of abject fear. Her father will beat her for running away. Rather than give the audience resolution on the matter, we never see this character again. It is an editorial choice that resigns the audience to the depressing fact that things like this happen all the time. Knights in shining armor aren’t real and sometimes, men just suck.

Although his output dwindled in quality over the last decade, George A. Romero will always remain a legend for creating the flesh-eating living dead sub-genre. I’d like to remember him as a feminist as well.

 

Works Cited

Belton, John. American Cinema American Culture. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2009.

Dawn Of The Dead. Dir. George A. Romero. Perf. Gaylen Ross, Ken Foree, Scott             Reiniger and David Emge. Laurel Entertainment, 1978.

Gagne, Paul R. The Zombies That Ate Pittsburgh: The Films of George A. Romero.

New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1987.

Knightriders. Dir. George A. Romero. Perf. Ed Harris, Tom Savini, Christine Forrest and Patricia Tallman. Laurel Entertainment, 1980.

Nemiroff, Perry. “Interview: Survival Of The Dead Writer-Director George A. Romero.”

Cinemablend.com. May, 2010. < http://www.cinemablend.com/new/Interview-Survival-   Of-The-Dead-Writer-Director-George-A-Romero-18735.html

Season Of The Witch. Dir. George A. Romero. Perf. Jan White, Bill Thunhurst and Ray Laine.     The Latent Image Group, 1971.

Williams, Tony. The Cinema of George A. Romero: Knight Of The Living Dead.

Great Britain: Wallflower Press, 2003.

Wilson, Brian. “George A. Romero.” Senses of Cinema. November, 2006.

< http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/directors/07/romero.html#biblio

David Lynch’s America

4 Forgotten Films To Watch On Women’s Day

Today is International Women’s Day and though there are plenty of newer films available to honor the day, why not celebrate the feminine with a few forgotten old school films? None of the films on this list were commercial blockbusters at their time of release but all of them are now highly respected and/or considered classics with the added benefit of having kick-ass soundtracks. Enjoy.

Season of the Witch (a.k.a Jack’s Wife) (1972) Dir: George A. Romero

Season of hte Witch

Image ©Arrow Video

The only film on the list written and directed without the input of a woman, this film nonetheless shows remarkable insight into the minds of aging housewives in the late 1960’s at the dawn of the women’s liberation movement. The plot concerns Catholic housewife Joan (Jan White), who has spent the best years of her life doting on her abusive husband Jack (Bill Thunhurst), and raising her very cool free-thinking daughter, who is now in college and no longer needs her. Despite having all the comforts of a suburban life, she regularly attends therapy sessions for her recurring nightmares in which she is tied up like a dog and left in a kennel by Jack. Eventually, she meets a practicing female occultist and decides to explore “the craft” in an effort to gain meaning and empowerment in her life. The question at the heart of the film is whether witchcraft is responsible for Joan’s ensuing emancipation, or if she has manifested these things through her own decisions. She casts spells, but she also initiates practical steps that are in no way supernatural and directly lead to her having an affair with her daughter’s boyfriend, breaking off her relationships with her older, more conservative-thinking female friends, and ultimately to the death of her husband. The power, it seems, was Joan’s all along and it is her decision alone who she will submit to. No irony is spared when we see her dead husband being carted away on a stretcher intercut with images of her kneeling down, completely nude for indoctrination into her local coven. Entirely happy with her new identity, the film’s conclusion is nonetheless haunting as it seems the rest of the world has yet to catch up with the new modern Joan as she is still referred to socially as “Jack’s wife.”

In the UK, Arrow Video will be releasing this film later this year on Blu-Ray. Definitely check it out.

Foxes (1980) Dir: Adrian Lyne

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Image ©Warner Home Video

Starring a young Jodie Foster and The Runaways’ Cherie Curie, the film follows the friendship of a group of girls in L.A. in their last year of High School in the late ‘70s. Although each girl has a coming-of-age storyline, the plot’s focus lies mainly with latchkey kid Jeanie (Foster), and her close relationship with her druggie friend Annie (Curie) who constantly parties to avoid going home to her physically abusive policeman father. Director Lyne is no stranger to drawing complex authentic performances from his female actors as evidenced by his excellent take on Nabokov’s Lolita (1997) and this film is no exception. Jeanie is not just a kid. She’s the smartest person in the room even when she’s with her mother or her teachers. She takes care of everyone and everything. Consequently, she has difficulty finding people who will look after her when she needs it. Her parents are divorced and both act younger than her. After tragedy befalls one of their group, Jeanie leaves them all behind for college and hopefully a better future.

Times Square (1980) Dir: Allan Moyle

Time Square

Image ©Network Video

This film is probably my favorite on the list. The development of the unlikely friendship between shy well-off Pam (Trini Alvarado) and volatile street musician Nicky (Robin Johnson) into the band the Sleeze sisters serves as emancipation from expectations for both girls, who become beloved by all the young girls in the city for their take no bullshit attitude. The excellent music is enhanced by the backdrop of decaying 1980 Manhattan, which almost becomes a character in and of itself with the age-old question of culture vs. gentrification featuring prominently. The changing city has an important impact on the way these divergent girls come to understand each other, their sexualities, and the outside world. In the end, the message is one of rebellion, self-expression and believing in yourself, even when at odds with those closest to you. As if those weren’t enough reasons to see it, the soundtrack rocks (it features the Ramones and XTC among others) and Tim Curry plays a DJ.

Girls Town (1996) Dir: Jim Mckay

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Image ©Lions Gate Films

Not to be confused with the 1950’s Mamie Van Doren movie, this title is another film about the last year of high school, this time set in gritty urban New Jersey. The film follows a gang of four girls (Lili Taylor, Bruklin Harris, Anna Grace and Aunjanue Ellis) one of who is a single teen mother to a little girl, who must cope in the aftermath of the rape and subsequent suicide of one of their group. Feelings of rage, sadness and hopelessness cause the surviving three to act out towards in various ways, to just about everyone in their periphery despite the prospect of college and a better future. The girls become closer in their shared trauma and they know in their hearts, that no matter where any of them end up in life, this will be the event that defines their friendship. The writing (with contributions from co-star Lily Taylor) is especially poignant when dealing with mother-daughter issues and the guidance or lack thereof provided after the incident. This one is hard to find as it was only ever made available on VHS, but it is worth looking for the occasional screenings on IFC, which is where I first discovered it. The performances are incredibly strong and the soundtrack features some great music from that era, including Queen Latifah’s U.N.I.T.Y., which is used to great affect as the girls patrol their neighborhood spoiling for a fight.

 

 

Honoring Divine in the Month of March

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Image © 2017 The Criterion Collection

This month marks the 29th anniversary since the death of Divine, the actor, singer and drag queen most famous for the films he made with his friend and fellow Baltimore native, John Waters. Recently, a full six months after its release in North America, the United Kingdom was blessed with the limited theatrical release of the newly restored version of Waters’ second film 1970’s Multiple Maniacs. On the 21st of this month, The Criterion Collection will be releasing the title on DVD and Blu-Ray. For fans, it is essential viewing.

For mainstream audiences the 1988 feel-good Hairspray, its subsequent Broadway musical adaptation and its 2007 cinematic re-adaptation are likely the first exposure to the duo. For those casual fans curious about the humble beginnings of Waters and his muse Divine (aka Harris Glenn Milstead) Multiple Maniacs is as good a starting point as any and perhaps a gentler introduction to the pair’s oeuvre than the more famous Pink Flamingos (1972.)

The plot of Multiple Maniacs concerns “Lady Divine’s Cavalcade of Perversions” where unsuspecting middle-class punters pay to see late ‘60s American horrors such as “real homosexuals kissing.” The acts take place in a Baltimore roadside carnival scam where everyone is eventually humorously robbed, humiliated or killed. Like all of Waters’ early work with Divine, the story is secondary to the visuals, which are indeed meant to shock and include simulated sexual acts with a rosary inside a real church and a sexual assault perpetrated by a giant lobster.

Past reviews have referred to the film as “outrageous”, and “grotesque.” It is also agreed by many to be very funny. Indeed, it was a hell of a good time to watch it with an audience at the British Film Institute.

In the 47 years since its initial release, the one word that has probably has never been associated with Multiple Maniacs is charming. Not charming as a film like Marley and Me (which is arguably a more traumatic viewing experience) but charming like your favorite nephew’s first student film that had cardboard monsters running around in it. The kind of charming where the director and crew had not yet mastered the technical skills associated with good filmmaking but whose results made it abundantly clear that those kids put their hearts and souls into every frame.

Rather than being mean-spirited, the scenes of violence in Multiple Maniacs are frequently evocative of child’s play. Divine’s knife strikes miss their intended targets by a good 18 inches. Compared to modern rebellious cinema, such as the New French Extremity movement, this film feels innocent. The missed cues, flubbed dialogue, out-of-focus zooms and awkward editing only add to the experience and more than once, I found myself rooting for Edith Massey (the egg lady from Pink Flamingos, 1972) to get through a whole take without missing a line.

Of course, as with all of Waters’ earlier works, Divine is the standout performer of the piece. He effortlessly recites pages upon pages of dialogue without missing a word. He hits all of his marks perfectly and ultimately elevates the proceedings to new heights in his high heels. The camera loved him, whether he played men or women. Waters knew this and his instinct to showcase Divine’s talents whenever possible was part of what made him into the cult hero director he is today. Had Divine lived, he would have no doubt enjoyed the same enduring success.

As fate would have it, March 7th is the 29th anniversary of Divine’s death. He died of heart failure at the age of 42 in 1988 on the eve of starting work on what was likely to become a groundbreaking recurring role as the openly gay Uncle Otto on the American sitcom Married With Children.

Of his late friend and long-time collaborator, Waters once said “I think he changed drag queens forever. Ru Paul’s show wouldn’t be there. His legacy was that he made all drag queens cool. They were square then, they wanted to be Miss America and be their mothers.”

So, in honor of the great Divine, (and John Waters who was recently bestowed the Writers’ Guild of America Lifetime Achievement Award) pick yourself up a copy of Criterion’s newly restored Multiple Maniacs on DVD or Blu-Ray, make some popcorn and have some friends around. Soon you’ll all be quoting such award-winning lines as “I love you so fucking much…I could shit!”

Sources:

http://www.dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/article/26962/1/john-waters-remembers-legendary-drag-queen-divine

https://www.criterion.com/films/28954-multiple-maniacs

5 Films in 5 Weeks – Halloween Edition

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It’s 5 weeks until Halloween. In the run-up to the big day, there will be parties, costumes, candy and decorations. Part of celebrating the season includes watching scary films. If you’re too busy to look through the longer lists available online, here’s a short tally of recommendations for your viewing pleasure, one per week, in the run up to Halloween 2016.

  1. The Thing (1982) Dir: John Carpenter

THE GREATEST HORROR MOVIE EVER MADE. All the films on this list lose nothing with repeated viewings, but The Thing is so well constructed, that the mystery deepens each time. Details emerge that we didn’t notice on the first (or fifth) viewing. Every shot, every edit and every plot twist are perfectly crafted to keep us guessing and on the edge of our seats. There is no waste. It is a lean, mean scaring machine with great acting, atmosphere, real in-screen special effects and creatures the way your wannabe Tom Savini-loving cousin used to make. You haven’t seen it? “You gotta be fucking kidding me!” If you have, go watch it again. See if you can figure out if Doc was infected when he logged on to the computer.

  1. Halloween (1978) Dir: John Carpenter

The second of two films by John Carpenter on this list. Though the re-make by Rob Zombie gets its fair share of respect from audiences, I was not one of the champions. I threw my remote at the TV as the credits rolled. Then I re-watched the original classic to wash the bad taste from my mouth. Michael Myers was scarier when we didn’t know why he killed. He just did. That’s all we need to know. The story, though simple, is so well photographed, acted and scored that it still holds up 38 years later. Watch it with the lights off and if you’ve seen it, watch it with someone who never has. It’s fun to see people jump the way we did the first time we watched it and it really brings home how effective Carpenter is as a director.

  1. The Exorcist (1973) Dir: William Friedkin

Lauded as the “scariest movie of all-time” it needs no exposition. Full disclosure: I was unable to watch this film all the way through until I was 41 years old and yes, I had nightmares after.

  1. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) Dir: Tobe Hooper

Far superior to the 2003 re-make. I base my opinion on my experience of watching a restored print at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, CA with an audience of millennial film students. Initially, they were dismissive, chuckling at the bell-bottoms and early ’70s astrology-driven dialogue. But, once Leatherface made his first kill with his handy sledgehammer, they became silent. They remained so through the continued mayhem until well after the end credits. When the house lights came up, they revealed expressions of traumatized dismay. 42 years later, it still packs a punch. Right in the gut. With the business end of a sledge.

  1. Evil Dead (2013) Dir: Frede Alvarez

In a sea of bad re-makes of horror classics, this one stands a mountain above the rest and deserves a place on this list. It respects the Sam Raimi classic while updating it smartly. It increases the tension of the original situation by adding the specter of drug addiction to the narrative and ramps up the pace and special effects to such an extent that when it was over, I had all but forgotten all about my undying love for Ash and his boom stick. Of course, if this list were longer, I would honor that love of my life and tell you to watch the original as well as its two awesome sequels. Groovy.

Got a scary film you’d think I overlooked or a list of your own? Please share it in the comments section! Happy Halloween and Happy Viewing!