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Sunday, May 31, 2009

John Waters: National Treasure

"Beauty, beauty. Look at you. God, I wish I had it too."

Now, if you didn't read this line with a Baltimorean accent while looking at this picture (and laughing hysterically), you don't know what I'm talking about. And if you don't know what I'm talking about, how did you find this blog?

I'm talking about John Waters, the radical filmmaker and free spirit who turned bad taste into a celebrated art form, and whose legions of fans are among the most inspired, liberated and unusual individuals on the planet (just check out his Web site).

I first became aware of Waters in my college days, of course. I was in charge of the film program back then, and I booked 16mm prints from a nontheatrical distribution company called Films Incorporated. In its catalogue was a subcategory of adult-themed titles from a distributor called Saliva Films, whose logo was a lolling, pink and very wet tongue. One of Saliva's products was "Pink Flamingos," featuring that now-iconic shot of Divine in the skin-tight red dress brandishing the handgun.

I was intrigued. Still, I thought, "My God! Can I show that movie in my school auditorium—in South Bend?" I opted for films like Andy Warhol's "Bad," Ralph Bakshi's "Wizards" and Dario Argento's "Suspiria," resisting the entreaties of the other members of the student council to "Get 'Rocky Horror'! Get 'Rocky Horror'!" Oh, Jesus.

I finally saw "Pink Flamingos" in 1980 at the Nuart Theater in Los Angeles. I was shocked—not at the perversion on display, but at the audience's enthusiastic reaction to said perversion. What a bunch of happy freaks! Nevertheless, I knew I'd found a filmmaker who truly spoke to me. After that, I rushed to the so-called "revival" theaters to catch John Waters films anytime they were playing. And as the home video revolution got into full swing, I was able to enjoy still more of his incredible work, including "Multiple Maniacs," "Desperate Living," and my favorite, "Female Trouble."

"Female Trouble" is in my opinion the best-structured and most hilarious of Waters' early films. It's jam-packed with quotable lines:

"We rarely eat any form of noodle, but I'll take a small portion just to be polite—with cheese."

"I got something for your face—motherfucker!"

"Nice girls don't wear cha cha heels!"

"May I suggest Mr. Ray's Wig World."

And of course Divine, as Dawn Davenport, evolves from juvenile delinquent to unwed mother to criminal to full-on murderer in the name of beauty, shooting up eyeliner. It just doesn't get any better than that. Oh—and she gets raped by her male alter ego.

Later came "Serial Mom," which features a wonderfully game Kathleen Turner as the titular character who kills her neighbors for breaches of etiquette and Sam Waterston as her understandably confused husband. The obscene phone call she makes to Dottie Hinkle (Mink Stole) is an all-time watermark in cinematic hilarity and should be included by law in all those television clip shows saluting comedy throughout history—complete and unedited. Screw those tired old Jackie Gleason routines.

When I went to New York for the first time, "Pecker" had just opened, so of course I had to go see it immediately. Coincidentally, it's the only Waters film in which characters actually leave Baltimore and travel to the Big Apple, so even though I was actually there, my first glimpses of Manhattan were in a theater on Broadway watching a John Waters movie. Isn't that fitting?

In 1997, a friend of mine who ran a sound facility alerted me that Waters would be working in one of their dubbing studios, preparing a new stereo track for the 25th anniversary release of "Pink Flamingos." Of course I had to meet him. He was retransferring the music and replacing some of the songs due to rights problems. As you know, he built the original soundtrack with 45 rpm records from his own collection, running the original 16mm print through the projector again and again until he got it just right. Just think...one of those trips through the projector could have destroyed the film and deprived the world forever of one of its true masterpieces. I shudder at the thought.

With the new technology available, he was cleaning up the image and adding a spacial soundtrack for the anniversary edition. When I arrived with a copy of "Shock Value" for him to sign and a Polaroid camera, he was very gracious and forthcoming, signing the book and posing for a photo. He even allowed me to stay in the studio while he worked, offering anecdotes about the making of the film. One unused piece of footage he described featured Divine having a liaison with an underaged boy in a dumpster that even Waters thought was too extreme for the movie. Too extreme for that movie?

It was a magical afternoon. See the monitor in the background behind us? That's a shot of Divine walking to the market where she'll shoplift a steak and "keep it warm in her own little oven." And look how he signed my book. That's class.

Just a couple of weeks ago I attended his art exhibit at the Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills, "John Waters: Rear Projection." It was a clever and hilarious collection of mounted movie frame blow-ups, sculptures and other ephemera made special the John Waters way. The title piece is a series of frames into which giant pictures of derrieres have been superimposed behind the actors. Another item, "Children Who Smoke," puts cigarettes into the mouths of child actors from the past. A large sculpture of Tina Turner dangling from the controlling strings of puppetmaster Ike was also impressive. My favorite, though, was a series of frame blow-ups of actresses Bette Davis, Lana Turner and Joan Crawford behind the wheel of stage cars during hilarious, rear-projection cinematic wrecks. As the collisions occur, the actresses' faces spin in silent, lipstick-slathered, open-mouthed screams. Mr. Waters, you're a genius.

I recently caught a broadcast of his one-man show, "This Filthy World," on Showtime. In it, he speaks affectionately about his beloved Divine and the rest of the Dreamlanders—David Lochary, Mink, Edith Massey, Mary Vivian Pearce, Cookie Mueller... He projects such a boyish enthusiasm and delight, even when discussing such potentially off-putting topics as coprophragia and bestiality.

It's a healthy attitude to have. Hell, the world is always going to be full of sick shit. You might as well celebrate it!

For that, Mr. Waters, for the distinctive point of view you've allowed me to share with you, and for all the big, big laughs you've given me throughout the years, I thank you.

And my marketing and creative services firm is named after your production company: www.dreamlandmc.com. (Shameless plug!).

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Glory Days of Video

It's hard to believe that home video has been with us for over 30 years. I still remember the magic of going into a store where you could "rent" a whole movie given to you on a tape about the size of an eight-track cartridge! Films I wanted to see (or see again) that never aired on cable, like "Zombie," were available to take home and enjoy. So what if it was a pan-and-scan print, fuzzy and green? I still got my zombie fix.

In Los Angeles there are still many independent video stores with VHS tapes available; they usually charge 99 cents for a week's rental, but DVD has pretty much pushed analog tape off the face of the earth. I find it pleasant to go into the stores that still carry tape, stroll the horror aisle and take a trip down memory lane as I gaze at the obscure, strange or cheesy packaging from defunct companies like Genesis, Media, Wizard and Magnum, to name just a few. Sometimes I still rent 'em; there's something comforting and homey about the fuzzy prints and worn-out video in this day of crystal-clear DVD.

Since the home video revolution came so quickly after my stint at the drive-in theater, it was like a continuation of the experience for me. Not only could I revisit old favorites like "The Silent Scream" with Barbara Steele and Ralph Bakshi's "Fritz the Cat," I could also explore new avenues of entertainment. Each box (usually oversized; it was the independent releasing company's marketing gimmick), regardless of the quality of the art on the outside, held the promise of something weird and wonderful. There were a lot of disappointments: often the print used for transfer wouldn't be in the best shape and would sometimes be cut for television. The bloody mayhem promised on the box would either be disappointingly mild or not come at all. Worst of all, the film would be just plain boring. Hate me if you will, but the films of French erotic horror director Jean Rollin are boring, boring, boring.

On the other hand, the pleasant surprises were frequent. For example, "The Devil's Nightmare," a bizarre French-Belgian-Swiss-Italian co-production, featured Italian horror hottie Erika Blanc as a vengeful succubus terrorizing visitors at a creepy castle. In one scene, a woman relaxes on a bed after some lesbian action (a requirement in films of this type and vintage). The succubus (who can appear lovely, as seen here) turns into a pasty white, greasy-faced spectre with crazy eyes and supernatural powers. In the yard outside the bedroom, she transforms a stick into a snake (don't ask) and it crawls through the window to get the lesbian. What makes the scene especially hilarious is the dubbing. The hissing of the snake is just some guy saying "ah-h-h-h-h" into a microphone, and when the woman screams at the sight of the reptile, her voice is about two octaves lower than you'd expect.

And obscure American product like "The Toolbox Murders" (which actually played my drive-in) features Cameron Mitchell at his most over-the-top, kidnapping a young girl ("Charlie Brown" alum Pamelyn Ferdin) and murdering women in his apartment complex with various implements. The film has an overwhelming degree of sleaze that makes for some disturbing viewing. When I met Pamelyn at a collectors' show a few years back, she had no stills from this film to autograph. I encouraged her to start offering them as there were collectors out there who would really appreciate them. Next time I saw her, there they were! I think she was originally embarrassed by the film, but decided to embrace it in all its greasiness.

For better or for worse, home video was also the only way to experience films off the beaten path or too strong for the drive-in, if you weren't lucky enough to live near 42nd Street in the 1970s. Italian cannibal films were always a challenge. You knew you were going to see rubber gut munching and staged mayhem, but you also knew the filmmakers were going to throw in scenes of real animal butchery, which were not only hard to watch but were always infuriating.

In 1989 Magnum Video did the world a favor by releasing Dario Argento's previously unavailable "Suspiria" in multiple versions: R-rated fullscreen and letterboxed and unrated fullscreen and letterbox. I'd only seen 20th Century Fox's R-rated release at the State-Lake Theatre in Chicago in 1977, so it was a revelation to finally watch it in all of its uncut glory. The film-to-video transfer for the time was truly extraordinary, with the wonderful, saturated three-strip color and that troublesome Technoscope. Great packaging art, too!

In the late 1980s I discovered a wonderful video company, still in operation, called Sinister Cinema. The company had a wide variety of economically-priced videos and it was with its help that my one-sided romance with Barbara Steele began. Quickly I snapped up "Black Sunday," "The Horror of Dr. Hichcock" and "The Ghost." Sinister even had a series of Drive-In Double Features. For one low price, you got two films (often those that were originally booked together) with a generous selection of drive-in commercials between them. I've been buying from Sinister for 20 years now! It's a great resource for some really obscure product.

Well, the digital revolution has taken over. Soon physical recorded media of any kind will be extinct as on-demand libraries become more readily available on cable and satellite. I sold my Beta on eBay last year after transferring the tapes to DVD. I still have a laserdisc player and some discs, but it's stored in the garage. And the VHS recorder I keep around for those times I'm strolling through one of those stores with the "big box" obscurities and get in the mood to watch a scratched, beat-up print of one of my favorites.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Fulci's "Zombie": An Appreciation

About a year after Romero's shattering "Dawn of the Dead" (1978) blew my mind, another kind of zombie film arrived at the good ol' Niles 31 Drive-In. Despite a cast led by Richard Johnson ("The Haunting") and Mia Farrow's kinda sorta lookalike sister Tisa ("Anthropophagus"), I could still tell it was Italian in origin and reminded me more of Jorge Grau's "Don't Open the Window" (aka "The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue") than its American counterparts. It also delivered the gore galore, featured an underwater zombie attacking a shark, and put a previously unrecognized director (in America) on the road to splatter stardom.

The Italians were always quick to cash in on popular American sci-fi/horror films, especially in the 1970s and 1980s. "Alien" became "Alien Contamination"; "The Exorcist" inspired "Beyond the Door," "Eerie Midnight Horror Show" (gee, what's that supposed to remind you of?), and my favorite, "The Tempter" aka "The Antichrist." "Zombie" is actually known as "Zombi II" in Italy, because "Dawn of the Dead" was called "Zombi" and was specially recut for Italian audiences by Dario Argento.

Lucio Fulci was a workaday director who helmed films in all kinds of genres from the 50s to the 70s: spy movies, spaghetti westerns, giallos. He even made a comedy called "The Maniacs" with Barbara Steele! Some of his early pics have violent scenes (like a cruel sequence with a character falling off a cliff, featuring a close-up of his face being torn away by rocks again and again and again, repeated in two of his films) that would become more prevalent in his post-"Zombie" work.

Some of his notable earlier work: "Don't Torture the Duckling" (1972) tells the story of a small village torn apart by a rash of child murders (I think it's actually his best, most virulently anti-religion and—most personal,—film) ; "Lizard in a Woman's Skin" (1971) is a giallo made to cash in Argento's"Bird with the Crystal Plumage" (1969) whose most notable aspect is a graphic scene of vivisected dogs that was deemed so realistic that Fulci and his special effects director, Carlo Rambaldi ("E.T."), had to go to court to prove that they were fake. Then he was hired to do a cannibal zombie film to cash in on the success of "Dawn of the Dead," and the rest is history.

"Zombie" hit me like a ton of bricks. Sure, "Dawn" was graphic and extreme, but the zombies were obviously reg'lar people with purple makeup and there was something pink and artificial about the entrails on display. "Zombie," on the other hand, projected a disturbing sense of disease and decay that even hilarious dubbing can't completely eliminate. One character pronounces the word Conquistadore as "Con-quee-sta-dor-ay" numerous times, but when one of them rises up out of the ground with worms dangling from his eye socket and rips out a girl's throat, the laughs kind of stop.

Man—these zombies are decayed! Shuffling, taking their time, they seem to be oozing an infectious putrescence. And, boy, does Fulci (and his SE guy, Gianetto DeRossi, who he would keep for the rest of his career) emphasize the rot! The first zombie, found by unlucky patrolmen on a boat in the harbor of New York, bursts out of a hold filled with decayed food, decayed bodies and worms playing "Chopsticks" on the piano (yes, there's piano on the boat; it's not the QEII either, just a regular four-person yacht). As the obese zom goes for a patrolman's throat, he defensively rips at its face, only to pull away a handful of wormy goo.

Anne Bowles (Tisa Farrow) arrives on the scene, as the boat had belonged to her father, who'd been missing at sea for months. Reporter Peter West (Ian Mcullough) pops up and together they hit the briny to retrace her father's route. It leads to an island called Matul. Yes, pronounced like "My tool." I showed the Media Blasters unedited DVD to friends last Halloween, encouraging them to "MST3K" the film and work the name of the island into their comments as frequently and as obscenely as possible. Elise won.

Anyhow, Matul, which is larger than expected (HA!) is infected by a plague. All the recently dead have been popping up and running (well, shuffling) around town. The locals think it's voodoo, but the veddy English Dr. Menard, who's been using the island as his own personal concentration camp, complete with freaky experiments, knows better.

Now, the aforementioned Richard Johnson, who was the priest in "Beyond the Door" (link!), plays Dr. Menard in all of his sweat-popping glory. He knows the only way to stop the living dead is to shoot them in the head, which brings me to my only complaint about the gore effects. In his disgustingly filthy hospital (nicely realized), when the sheeted dead begin to rise, he plugs them in the head. Unfortunately, it looks like intestines come bouncing out of the bullet wounds.

Anne and Peter, meanwhile, hitch a ride with two nautical free spirits, Brian and Susan, on their yacht to the island. You can tell they're free spirits because Susan whips off her top and goes skin diving while Brian eats beef jerky and pays no attention. Peter leers and you can tell he is thinking about "Matul," or his tool. Anne has decided that Peter is now her boyfriend (why?) and looks on angrily. Everything takes a turn for the worse when Susan comes up out of the water and shiveringly declares that there's "a man down there." Now that's pretty cool. This leads to an underwater attack by the living dead and Sushi with a shark!

I gotta say, even with the hilarious dubbing, Susan still manages to engender sympathy. When the aforementioned "con-quee-sta-dor-ay" rises up and rips out her throat, you feel bad. Plus the actress portraying her (Auretta Gay) does a really good job of doing the "so scared you can't move" expression. Sweating, sloe-eyed, she can only watch with a chilled passiveness as the huge creature rises up out of the ground and rips out her throat. Later, when she's reanimated as a zom, she looks more sad than hungry as she lunges at Brian and tears into his esophagus. Of course, she must be killed again, and you feel really desolate.

Fabio Frizzi's score (which grows in stature each year IMO) perfectly plays up the emotion. The "thump thump thump" march that Frizzi devised perfectly encapsulates the inexorable finality of what's happening on the island. It's great. By the way, for those familiar with the score, Frizzi did the "thump thump thump" sound by tapping on a microphone with his finger. So much for high tech.

Menard's wife, Paola, played by the extremely exotic Olga Karlatos (who can be seen in such wildly varied films as "Once Upon a Time in America" and "Purple Rain") has the best line. I encourage you to recreate it. Say the following as if you've got laryngitis but are being punched in the stomach every other word:

"You WON'T be HAPPY until I MEET one of your ZOMBIES!"

Congratulations. You read it just right. She ends up with one of her eyes (what color are they anyhow?!?) impaled on a shard of wood in the most famous scene of the film, and later her abdomen is laid open for a zombie buffet. When Anne, Peter and grief-stricken Brian arrive at Menard's house, they find a group of room-temperature types chowing down on Paola. The camera pans from face to disgusted face. Hilariously, they all look like they're going to barf. But they don't move. I mean, its sickening, but wouldn't the sight of the reanimated dead instill the "fight or flight" instinct in you, rather than a leisurely "I ate at Arby's" reaction?

Of course, they all end up trapped in the nasty hospital to fight off the onslaught of active corpses. And, of course, the circular ending: Anne, Peter and Brian manage to escape back to New York, which is now overrun with the living dead: zombies are walking across the Brooklyn Bridge (doesn't that happen everyday?).

Oh, yeah. I moved to Los Angeles from South Bend, Indiana, about six months later, with all my possessions in a Chevrolet Chevette with no floorboard, and was welcomed by the sight of hundreds of "We Are Going To Eat You!" posters all over Wilshire Boulevard featuring ol' Wormy. I knew I was where I belonged. God bless you, Jerry Gross.

I need to do another Fulci post to finish the story. This one's plenty long. I had a lot of fun writing it. I hope you had fun reading it.

Monday, May 4, 2009

An Ode to Karen Black

You knew it was bound to happen. How could a blog be called "Weird Movie Village" not have a post about the weird, wonderful and extremely prolific entertainment phenomenon known as Karen Black? I've seen her in movies, I've seen her on the stage; hell, I even saw her in the grocery store! Let me tell you...

Ms. Black has had a truly incredible career. In the late 1960s and early 70s, she was the toast of the independent film scene. She was in "Easy Rider," "Five Easy Pieces," "Day of the Locust" and "Nashville." She's been in almost 200 movies, and when fickle Hollywood turned its back on her, she continued her career in Italy, Canada and wherever else true Blackishness was called upon. She worked for Hitchcock and she worked for Ruggero Deodato. According to the IMDB, she's got six current films completed or in postproduction. And a band named after her...The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black. Now, I'm going to have some fun with her in this post, but I mean it with the utmost respect and admiration. Karen Black is cult movies personified.

We all know the career highlights: the cross-eyed stewardess landing the plane in "Airport 1975"; she makes the actor's choice of sticking out her tongue while trying to pull the replacement pilot in through the damaged fuselage, but that pales in comparison to the hideous 1970s orange decor inside the cabin. She portrays the terrified apartment dweller fighting off the Zuni Fetish warrior doll in "Trilogy of Terror," a story that traumatized TV movie-watchers for years. In Altman's "Nashville," she played the ambitious Connie White, intent on overthrowing cuckoo lady Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley) in her quest to be the number one female country singer in America.

I first saw her in person at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel Cinegrill in the late 1980s, performing an evening of some of her original songs mixed with standards. The show began with her in bed. The lights were supposed to come up, the bed would wheel out onto the stage, she would sit up and begin to sing. Something went wrong technically, though, and she had to lay back down and start all over again. Some cruel audience members came to jeer, but I came to experience the majesty.

Karen (if I may be so familiar) has an unusual singing voice. How can I explain it? How's this: just as she has lived her life, she allows her octaves to go wherever the hell they feel like. Not that she has a bad voice; it's very good. She has adventurous phrasing, that's all. When I asked for her autograph after the show, she was obviously still stinging from the hecklers. She grabbed the pen and program from my hand, snapped, "What's your name?" and signed in super-spirally script, "Best, Karen Black." I don't blame her for her irritation. Those guys were total douches.

About three years ago I was shopping at my neighborhood Pavilions grocery store on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks; I lived across the street. As I walked through the store, I was people-watching and doing that interior monologue you do when you look at someone who's vaguely reminiscent of someone famous. Or maybe I'm the only one who does it. Anyhow, my inner voice said, "Hey! It's Karen Black!" Then I did a double-take and realized that it was indeed her...at my market!

Later, while waiting at the checkout, I became aware of Ms. Black herself heading toward my line. She was coming straight at me! What was she going to say to me? Just when I was fumbling for what I hoped would be an appropriate rejoinder, those famous eyes turned from me to the cashier and she asked, "Where's the aluminum foil?" Damn.

Most recently, I saw her in "The Missouri Waltz," a stage production in Hollywood. It was an Equity-waiver theatre (99 seats or less), so the surroundings were very intimate. Like you walked across the stage to get to the bathroom.

Karen's playwriting debut is a "drama with music" set in the 1970s, about a young woman who returns to her family home, pregnant and unmarried and unsure what to do with the baby. She is guided by her two ghostly aunts (Black and Dana Peterson). Black wrote some good monologues but the second act collapses into a running-in-and-out-of-doors sequence reminiscent of something out of "I Love Lucy." And the songs (not written by her)...well, here's an example. The actress portraying the niece sings large portions of one of her numbers bent over with her ass sticking out at the audience and it actually helps the material.

Ah, Karen can try again and you know she will.

What are my favorite Karen Black films? "Trilogy of Terror," "Nashville" and "Day of the Locust," of course, but her second film with Altman, "Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean," a screen adaptation of the Ed Gracyzk play, has to rank as number one. Ostensibly, it's about the 20th anniversary reunion of the "Disciples of Dean," a group of former high school friends in a small Texas town, but it 's more complicated than that. Black plays Joanne, a male-to-female transsexual who went under the knife as a result of his/her unrequited love for Mona (Sandy Dennis), who claims to have been impregnated by James Dean during the filming of "Giant" in nearby Marfa and her mentally-impaired son is their love child. But look for this film. It's not on DVD but it's on cable from time to time. The extremely low budget caused Altman to utilize some effects from the stage that actually add to the story rather than doing the reverse. Since the story bounces back and forth between 1955 and 1975, the quaint effects are appropriate.

And what a cast! All from the stage version: Cher (still looking human), Kathy Bates (long before she became "Academy Award-winner Kathy Bates") and the aforementioned Dennis. It only played 52 performances on Broadway, which may account for the spartan budget of this film adaptation. Nevertheless, it's a goldmine of one-liners you can inject into (almost) everyday conversation. For example, if someone suddenly says that they feel like they've been through something all before, turn your head, cross your eyes and ask, "Deja vu?" not in English, not in French, but in some indiscernible accent, maybe from another planet, like Karen did in "Jimmy Dean."

She's the gift that keeps on giving.

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