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Saturday, August 28, 2010

Some Classic Horrors

What makes a classic horror film? Craftsmanship, certainly, and especially repeatability—a film you want to watch again even though you've thoroughly memorized the moments of shock. Today I'd like to reflect on a few classics...horror films that have stood the test of time and are just as striking today as they were on their original release.

Les Yeux Sans Visage (Eyes Without A Face), from 1959, is French director Georges Franju's masterpiece. A surgeon, GĂ©nessier, is obsessed with restoring the face of his daughter, Christine (Edith Scob), which had been horribly disfigured in a car accident. To achieve this, he recruits his devoted assistant, Louise (Alida Valli) to lure beautiful young women to his remote clinic where he experiments on them.

It's a fairly straightforward plot, but what makes this film exceptional is Franju's handling of the material. Hauntingly poetic and genuinely creepy, it really gets under your skin (pun intended). Christine wears a white porcelain mask to hide her disfigurement, and it makes her seem like a living statue. Dressed in stylish white gowns, she drifts through the house like a ghost.

GĂ©nessier is so smug and self-involved that he doesn't realize his skin graft experiments are in fact torturing Christine—not to mention the fate that befalls the numerous victims who are unlucky enough to find themselves under his scalpel. Louise is slavishly devoted to this bastard—she knows full well the women she brings to the clinic are going to die—and yet she keeps procuring more, defending the doctor's work when Christine dares to complain.

Scob is remarkable in her role. We only see her face for perhaps three minutes in the entire film, yet she manages to convey a full range of emotions with her body language. Valli, of course, is terrific, and her Louise is a study in contradictions. Brasseur plays the arrogant doctor to the hilt, not in mad scientist mode, but with the self-assurance that comes from believing he's always right. Christine is the only one with a conscience, preferring to die rather than continue suffering—and causing the suffering of others.

The most famous scene—the removal of a victim's face for the graft—is still shocking today, because it's done so clinically. There's no sound except for the doctor's breathing as he methodically cuts into the skin, carefully pulls up the edges and lifts it off. Even though I knew it was coming and had seen it before, when I watched this film in its 2003 theatrical re-release, I thought I was going to pass out during this scene!

The fleeting glimpses we get of Christine's face are equally shocking. She slips into the room of one of her "donors," and the disfigurement is seen, briefly and blurrily, but it's enough. When a graft seems to be successful, she is elated with her restored beauty, but when it begins to fail, we're subjected to a series of clinical still photographs documenting the skin literally rotting off her face accompanied by the doctor's passionless reportage of the failure.

There are fairly straightforward scenes of police procedurals, but the images of Scob seemingly floating down hallways, and the leonine Valli driving through the streets of Paris in search of prey are oddly beautiful, surreal and absolutely unforgettable. Future Academy Award-winner Maurice Jarre provides the excellent score.

Terrence Rafferty, writing in The New York Times, said it best: “Eyes Without a Face is among the few films in the genre—Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) is the only other one I can think of—that holds our attention without any recourse to narrative suspense. We barely care how the story will turn out: the suspense is in the images themselves, in the tension generated by our attempt to resolve the contradictory emotions they arouse."

Hard-working horror hack Jess Franco did a remake of sorts in 1987, Faceless. Relentlessly sleazy, it amps up the gore and is actually one of his more watchable efforts...which isn't saying much. It also boasts (for Franco) an all-star cast: Helmut Berger, Telly Savalas, Anton Diffring, Stephane Audran (who gets a needle in the eye) and Caroline Munro!

Curse of the Werewolf (1960) is one of my favorite Hammer films, along with Brides of Dracula, which I've discussed before. Featuring a star-making turn by a shockingly young Oliver Reed, it's perverse, violent and has a lot more on its mind than just ripping throats.

A beggar (Richard Wordsworth) is thrown into a prison cell and left to rot by a sadistic Marques (Anthony Dawson). When his mute servant (Yvonne Romain) rebuffs his repulsive advances, she is put into the same cell and raped by the now-beastlike beggar. After escaping the cell and killing the Marques in revenge, she flees to the country and is taken in by the kindly Don Carledo (Clifford Evans) and Teresa (Hira Talfrey), his faithful servant.

When the girl dies in childbirth on Christmas Day, Don Carledo adopts the boy, naming him Leon, but superstitious Teresa fears that he is cursed. Sure enough, soon the little nipper is flashing his fangs and telling his father about his disturbing dreams of blood. Local farmers are up in arms about the "wolf" that is prowling the countryside and attacking their sheep.

Leon grows to adulthood, and he moves to another town to take a job in a winery. There, he meets and falls in love with his employer's daughter, Cristina (Catherine Feller), but when he is taken to a brothel by a well-meaning co-worker, the beast inside him is awakened and he goes on the rampage. He goes to the police, but they don't believe him, so he turns to his father for help. Don Carledo realizes he must summon the strength to put his son out of his misery with a silver bullet.

Curse brings a number of new twists to the werewolf story. Rather than suffering a bite from another wolf-creature, Leon's lycanthropy is truly a "curse," having been born the bastard child of an insane man on Christmas Day. And the film explicitly links lycanthropy with puberty, as the young Leon is seen howling at the moon as hair sprouts on his body.

This is the Hammer factory in its prime. Excellent color cinematography, beautiful sets and crackerjack direction by the great Terence Fisher make this a film to savor again and again. The details are great—when the Marques calls the servant girl to his room for unsavory purposes, he is seen studying himself in the mirror and picking scabs off of his face. Behind the opening title sequence is a long-held close-up of Reed's eyes darting, animal-like, back and forth. One could argue that the contact lenses he's wearing are causing his eyes to well up with tears, but it really adds an extra dimension to the shot—this is not a happy monster.

Reed is so good as the suffering Leon. I don't think his screen time even adds up to half of the film, but he's in turns eloquent, pitiful and scary—all the right attributes for such a role. His werewolf makeup by the ever-reliable Roy Ashton is perfect, taking advantage of Reed's already wolfish appearance. The supporting cast, including Wordsworth, Evans and Talfrey, also add to the persuasiveness of the story. And the story—written by producer Anthony Hinds under his John Elder pseudonym—is based on Guy Endore's "The Werewolf of Paris" (switched to Spain because Hammer had the standing sets) and it has enough religious, psychological and sociological underpinnings to keep Freud busy for weeks.

1960's The Mask of Satan (aka Black Sunday) is the legendary Italian horror director Mario Bava's finest film and the sensational Barbara Steele's first venture into the genre. She plays a two roles she'd repeat several times with variations—Asa, a reincarnated, centuries-old witch and Katia, her innocent, virginal descendant.

When we first meet Asa she is being condemned to death for sorcery. Before she is burned at the stake, a spiked metal mask (the mask of Satan) is hammered into her flesh.

200 years later, Dr. Thomas Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and his assistant Dr. Andre Gorobec (John Richardson), are traveling through Moldavia to a medical conference when one of the wheels of their carriage breaks. While waiting for their coachman to fix it, they explore a nearby crypt and find Asa’s tomb. Kruvajan is curious about the mask he can see through a glass panel in the lid, and when he removes it from the corpse's face, he accidentally cuts his hand. His blood drips on the exposed flesh, but they leave the crypt unaware that Asa is being restored to life. Outside, the doctors meet Katia. who lives with her father, Prince Vajda (Garrani), and brother Constantine (Enrico Oliveiri), in a nearby castle that the villagers all believe is haunted. Gorobec is smitten with her beauty.

Now revived, Asa telepathically contacts her henchman, Javuto (Arturo Dominici), who'd been executed along with her, and orders him to rise from his grave. She wants to drain the blood of her descendant, Katia, believing it will give her immortality. Javuto goes to the castle and vampirizes Kruvajan, kidnaps Katia and taking her to Asa. As the witch begins to drain away Katia's life force, Gorobec arrives in time to save her and dispatch her malevolent ancestor.

The devil is in the details with this film. The simple plot is merely a device upon which to hang a series of startling—and startlingly beautiful—images. When we (and the doctors) first meet Katia, she is dressed in a black coat, accompanied by a pair of large black dogs, standing against a dramatically clouded sky. It's quite an entrance. As the mask is hammered onto Asa's face, blood jets out—it's still a startling scene. Asa's resurrection is striking, too. When Kruvajan first pries the mask off of her face, her empty eye sockets stare up at him and a spider crawls out of one of them. Later, when his blood begins to resurrect her, eyeballs "regrow" in the sockets.

Javuto's resurrection is also atmospheric. Revived but still unable to move, Asa commands him to return from his grave. The ground splits open and an alarming-looking, undead creature gropes his way out of the soil and pulls off his mask. Later, when Gorobec discovers that Kruvajan has become a vampire, he goes to the coffin where his former colleague now rests, accompanied by a local priest, who drives a wooden spike into the fiend's eye in a scene that certainly must have inspired Lucio Fulci's trademark eye-mayhem.

For years we Americans had to live with American International Pictures' version of the film, heavily edited and re-scored by house composer Les Baxter. The first time I saw it was on VHS videocassette with a faded pan-and-scan print that did criminal things to the splendid black and white cinematography. And although it was a British print, it still had the more explicit scenes of violence excised.

Image Entertainment's 1999 DVD release was a revelation. Not only was it restored to its widescreen monochrome glory, the mayhem was back. I knew what to expect—the old videotape was clumsily cut, but you could sort of tell what had happened. Not that Black Sunday is a splatterfest—the scenes are swift and unexpected, which makes them all the more shocking.

What makes this film a perennial is a handsome production, rapturously atmospheric settings, truly creepy sequences and the insanely gorgeous Steele, who was dubbed by one critic "the only actress whose eyebrows can snarl."

Sunday, August 22, 2010

When good zombies go bad

Because I am going to the Egyptian at the American Cinematheque in Hollywood tonight to see two crown jewels in the zombie pantheon—Night of the Living Dead and Zombie—it put me in the mood to write about a couple of other zombie epics, both Italian in origin, but one ridiculous and the other sublime.

Burial Ground (aka "The Nights of Terror," or as it says on the screen, "The Nigths of Terror"), directed by Andrea Bianchi, is so wrongheaded on every level that it's absolutely hilarious to watch. And, fortunately, it's a snap to find on DVD in the U.S. The simple plot is this: a professor accidentally unleashes a horde of cannibal zombies from a burial ground near his countryside villa and is consumed. Later, three couples arrive, presumably to visit the missing professor but also to have sex immediately and in as many places as they can. Of course, when the zombies descend upon them, they find themselves in a battle for their lives.

Where to begin? First of all, the copulating couples are not in the least sexy. As a matter of fact, they're rather repulsive. At the beginning of the film, as you're being introduced to them two by two, you realize that you're going to have to watch at least the beginnings of a sex scene, which can include a) clumsy fondling; b) the woman dressing in sleazy lingerie that she found in the house; c) the man calling the woman his whore; and d) coitus interruptus courtesy of zombies or nosy children.

I use the term children quite loosely. The only "child" in the film is Michael, the son of one of the women, played by an adult midget actor in a bad toupee who went by the stage name Peter Bark. His mere presence is creepy enough, but Bianchi amps the icks by giving him and Mama an Oedipal relationship that culminates in one of the most famously sleazy scenes in the movie.

As zombies go, these ones are a really mixed bag. The makeup looks like mudpacks with teeth added. And since the performers' real human eyes are peering out from beneath the layers of gunk they're wearing, it gives them an added dimension of bizarreness.

Since they're supposed to be ancient Etruscans, their apparel is limited to shapeless blobs of dusty-looking cloth, although there is the occasional nod to fashion, as demonstrated by the rather natty ascot-wearing zombie pictured here.

They're not fast—as a matter of fact, they're you're traditional shuffling lot—but fortunately their victims are patient and wait to be killed. The humans could easily outrun them, get in their cars and take off, but they stand frozen in terror in scene after scene after scene. And their lame attempts to fight the creatures (including throwing paint on them!) are hilarious.

The English dubbing is all that you want and expect from an '80s Italian horror film—over-the-top performances and lines that don't make any sense, plus there a shots a-plenty of the actors staring in horror—and that's it.

Here's a good clip of the "child," Michael, coming on to his mother:



In 1972, Bianchi had directed an obscure little thriller also featuring a perverted kid, What the Peeper Saw (aka Night Hair Child, whatever that means), starring Oliver Twist himself, Mark Lester, as a sick little bastard tormenting his new stepmother (Britt Ekland). At least Bianchi used a real kid that time. Wait—what am I saying?

On to the sublime...

Cemetery Man (aka Dellamorte Dellamore), from 1994, has got to be the genre's first art film. It's packed with surrealistic sequences, multiple planes of awareness, and generous doses of gory silliness that fit well into the framework of the film. It also features a charismatic performance by Rupert Everett, who plays the titular character, Francesco Dellamorte, the caretaker of a cemetery whose residents have the nasty habit of coming back to life.

With the aid of his mentally-challenged assistant, Gnaghi (Francois Hadji-Lazaro), his job is to put them back into their graves when the return seven days after burial, and he's weary of it all—dealing with the dead on a daily basis has left him feeling like he's become one of them. But he meets a beautiful young widow (Anna Falchi) whom he finds mourning at her recently deceased (and much older) husband's grave, and a romance begins.

Unfortunately, the guy chooses to come back from the dead just as they're making love atop his tomb, and he tears a sizable chunk of flesh out of her before Dellamorte can kill him...again. Thus begins an hallucinatory odyssey of lust, longing and the living developing emotional attachments to the undead.

In one scene, a girl comes to the cemetery to welcome back her lover, who'd been killed in a motorcycle accident, and happily allows him to consume her flesh. "Leave us alone!" she cries to Dellamorte. "He's only eating me!" Even Gnaghi finds love with the reanimated head of the local mayor's daughter, keeping it housed in the shell of a broken television set and dressing it in a wedding veil.

Dellamorte's love returns as a full-fledged zombie, whom he must kill again, and this drives him over the edge. When he receives a visit from Death himself, who warns him: "Don't kill the dead. They're mine. Kill the living instead," he drives wildly through town, randomly shooting people walking along the street.

Then he meets a college student who's the spitting image of his lost love, but she turns out to be a prostitute who's just looking for money, and he furiously immolates her in her apartment building. Talk about flames of passion.

All of this sounds insane, I know, but Soavi and his writer, Gianni Romoli, keep the story comprehensible and engaging. The visuals are rapturous and dreamlike, and the conclusion is a real mind-blower.

Everett has never been better. As a matter of fact, he was cast in the role thanks to his resemblance of an Italian graphic novel character, Dylan Dog, on whose stories this film is loosely based. Falci is voluptuous (and makes a fun zombie) and Hadji-Lazaro is hilarious. Only a few performances and Italian-to-English translations are a little shaky, and Americans might find some of the humor a little broad, but for the most part, it's exquisite. Ricardo Biseo and Manuel DeSica's score is excellent, as is the cinematography by Mauro Marchetti.

Soavi worked for many of the big names of Italian horror cinema in the 1980s, including Dario Argento, Aristide Massaccesi, Lamberto Bava and Lucio Fulci, and Massaccesi gave him his first chance to direct in 1987 with the film Stagefright. Cemetery Man is head-and-shoulders above his other horrors (and, indeed, most of the Italian horrors of the period), and the work he's done since has been in other genres. I don't suppose a sequel is in the offing, but I wish he'd work this kind of magic again.

And now only half an hour to go before I leave for the Cinematheque. I can't wait...I haven't seen Night or Zombie on the big screen for ages. I hope the prints are good.

CINEMATHEQUE UPDATE

Night of the Living Dead was a digital projection from a nice-looking print, but it still looked and sounded like film, not video, thank God. Zombie was an original theatrical 35mm print that had turned pink but was still a joy to watch. How else are you going to see these gems on the big screen these days?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Mis-"Inception"

I'm always suspicious of movies that are massively hyped months and months before their release, so I was unimpressed with Inception's nonstop promotional drumbeat and the legions of fawning critics. In fact, instead of hurtling myself to the nearest theater on opening weekend, I was able to restrain myself and finally caught a screening of it last night.

Boy, am I glad I waited.

I confess I haven't seen director Christopher Nolan's first two films, but I certainly enjoyed Memento (2000). All the Dark Knight hype (especially about the late Heath Ledger's performance) convinced me that I was going to see a masterpiece. Although I found the first 90 minutes or so absolutely riveting, I thought Nolan gave the film far too many climaxes, which exhausted me and made me really not care how it finally ended. How did it end, anyhow?

Inception also suffers from multiple climaxes (ha!), but it has other problems, too. First of all, it's incredibly pedantic, with the characters feeling the need to explain the concept every few minutes. A reviewer on IMDB who disliked the film as much as I did summed it up best: it's a simple action film dressed up as a "thinking person's" thriller, inviting those who grasp the plot to feel that they've accomplished something great. To them all I can say is, "Try reading 'Naked Lunch,' pal!"

Although the plot is quite routine, the multiple dream levels, incessant jabbering and shifts in time and locale make it wearying to follow. And when it comes down to it, the entire scenario can be broken down into probably five or six scenes, repeated over and over. You can read about the plot in excruciating detail here if you so desire, but these are the highlights:

A bunch of people run around the world and through self-designed dreamscapes in order to help some powerful rich guy obtain vital energy secrets from some other powerful rich guy. Oh, and the head of the team, Dom Cobb (Leo DiCaprio) is a former Inception architect and now disillusioned burnout, having been accused of murdering his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard) and forced to run around the world until his name can be cleared and he can return to the States where his young children await.

So when Saito (Ken Watanabe) proposes to help him do just that in exchange for using Inception to invade the brain of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), heir to a powerful energy magnate (Pete Postlethwaite) who's just kicked the bucket, he signs on.

Cobb can't design the dreamscapes anymore, because his late wife keeps popping up in vengeful and murderous forms, so he hires Ariadne (Ellen Page), a young student who is also supposedly a brilliant dream designer, to do the work. He adds a forger, Eames, (Tom Hardy), who can impersonate people that Inception subjects recognize and trust, and a chemist, Yusuf (Dileep Rao), who designs the drugs that will put everyone in the Inception kind of mood. Already aboard is his trusted associate, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).

The first 20 minutes of the film are completely baffling and obnoxious, and I wanted to pack it in then and there, but when it more or less settled down to tell a story, I thought I'd give it a chance. And 90 agonizing minutes later, I was bound and determined to see it through—no Christopher Nolan movie is going to beat me! Fortunately, there are lots of unintentional laffs to keep it amusing. First of all, the character names—Dom Cobb? Ariadne? Mal? Why didn't Nolan just name 'em Bubble and Squeak? And if dreamscapes can be designed in any way that the architect wants, why are all the battles with the bad guys your typical smash-and-crash, fought with conventional weaponry? Why couldn't Ariadne have built in space-age stuff like flying or time-travel? Or Godzilla?

There's a hilarious scene in which Cobb is describing his life with Mal to his young protege. As he speaks, his monologue is accompanied by hilariously literal images straight out of a high school filmstrip show. For example, when he says something like "We built our life together," his words are accompanied by the two of them building a sandcastle on the beach. And when he takes Ariadne through the imaginary city he and Mal built when they were stuck in Limbo for 50 dream years (don't ask), he points out the houses they lived in, which are all tumbledown and half-submerged in water. Inexplicably, he adds, "We always wanted a house, but we always loved this type of building," accompanying her into one of those impersonal, steel-and-glass high-rises you'd find in Toronto or Dubai. Huh???

I also love the whole jangled concept of Inception itself. The director never shows it explicitly, but the characters must constantly jam intravenous needles into their arms and pump themselves full of drugs to enter the dream state. Nolan even throws in a scene where Cobb is shown to a room full of Inception junkies who voluntarily put themselves under for hours each day because the real world has no meaning for them anymore. It's just like an opium den.

And everyone's always talking about how dangerous Inception is, but no one ever seems to hesitate when it's time to shoot up.

In order to be awakened from their dreams, the team must experience a "kick"—a violent action that will cause them to come back to the real world. It's actually pretty much like a muscle spasm anybody gets that jolts them into consciousness in the middle of the night. (Don't you hate those?) In one of the dream levels we visit during the never-ending climax (There are three; in each level one of the team members is conscious while the others are asleep), Arthur finds the other members of the team passed out in a hotel room in which there is no gravity. He must get them somewhere grounded to administer the "kick," so he bundles them all together like a cord of wood, face to crotch, and "floats" them down the hallway into an elevator. It's hilarious.

In another level, the unconscious team is riding in a van driven by Yusuf that crashes through a guardrail and falls ever-so-slowly off a bridge, so we're treated to repeat slo-mo shots of the actors inside, strapped into their seats but looking like orchestra conductors as their arms wave around in the air. Yet another flipping level is set in some sort of military fort in the Great White North that makes you think James Bond or Wolverine is going to pop in at any moment to join the fun. I can't remember who was passed out in that level. I think it was me.

And Lord help me, about 14 hours into the film, Ariadne tells Cobb that they still have to go somewhere else to do something else, and I realized in horror that she was introducing another act. DAMN YOU, ARIADNE! Man, I really needed a "kick" at that point. I won't reveal the "A-HA!" ending, but let me just say it was really risible.

I didn't recognize the actor who played Fischer's godfather and trusted right-hand man, but just now, as I was going over the credits on IMBD, I see that it's Tom Berenger. My God—was he wearing a mask or did he go to Mickey Rourke's plastic surgeon? Whoops—look at the picture. I vote for Rourke's surgeon.

As for the other actors, DiCaprio displays his trademark intense, eye-bulging snarl throughout most of the film. He's such a committed actor that he brings real dedication to some of the film's most ludicrous lines, adding to the unintentional yucks. Page looks too young for her part, and Cotillard, so magnificent in her Oscar-winning turn as Edith Piaf, is one of those Gallic beauties America can't seem to figure out what to do with.

With his glacial eyes and androgynous face, Murphy always looks like an alien to me, and it's off-putting when he's playing a regular human being. Gordon-Levitt is given the film's very few laugh lines, but they're trampled to death by the frenetic editing and blasting score. Speaking of the score, Hans Zimmer seems to have written enough music for four or five films but decided to use it all. The soundtrack hammers at you constantly to remind you that you're watching a super-duper, "important" action movie.

Inception is certainly not the first film to utilize dreams in its plot. Some of them are much better and cost a fraction of its budget. David Cronenberg's eXistenZ (1999) comes to mind, although the characters are technically trapped in a videogame rather than a dream, but it works the same and is a lot more fun. Alex Proyas' Dark City (1998) combines interesting visuals with an miuch more intriguing plot. And Guillermo Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth (2006) is a true dream masterpiece. Hell, even Douglas Trumbull's 1983 Brainstorm, which was plagued with multiple problems during production—most tragically the accidental death of star Natalie Wood—had more memorable moments than this frenetic, self-important piece of bombast.

And what was that other movie that was set inside a dream? Oh, yeah...

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Patricia Neal has moved on

I just saw a tweet from Roger Ebert that actress Patricia Neal has left us at the age of 84 after a lifetime of notable work and personal challenges.

She co-starred with Gary Cooper in King Vidor's adaptation of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead (1949) and they began a five-year affair during which she became pregnant, and he pressured her to have an abortion.

But she went on to play Helen Benson, who supports the alien Klaatu (Michael Rennie) when he arrives on Earth to deliver grave warnings about the planet's imminent destruction in the 1951 sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still.

She was Marcia Jeffries, the producer of a small-time Arkansas radio program that helped catapult Andy Griffith's contemptibly amoral Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes to national fame in the wonderfully cynical A Face in the Crowd.

For me one of her key roles was as Anna, the housekeeper who fends off the playful advances—and then the attempted rape—of Paul Newman's Hud in Martin Ritt's brilliant 1963 film of the same name. I think it's Newman's best role. And it doesn't hurt that Larry McMurtry was one of the screenwriters, who went on to explore the emptiness of this kind of rural life in 1972's The Last Picture Show and his 2005 Oscar-winning adaptation of Brokeback Mountain.

I first saw Hud on videodisc when I was in my early 20s. For years I thought it was just some Western with Paul Newman, so I always dismissed it when I saw it on the shelf at the video store, but when I finally rented it, I was blown away by the simultaneous richness and bleakness of the story, the widescreen black and white cinematography and the authenticity of the characters.

Neal's Anna has accepted her lot in life, baking biscuits and taking care of three men, and she responds to it with a sleepy acceptance, delivering her dialogue in her trademark lazy purr. She's not really sexy, but she has a kind of sensuality that attracts Hud.

Neal won the Best Actress Oscar for Hud, but she suffered a series of strokes a year later that left her semi-paralyzed and unable to speak. With the help of her husband, children's fantasy novelist Roald Dahl, she recovered and managed to returned to the big screen in Frank Gilroy's 1968 The Subject Was Roses, also starring Jack Albertson and Martin Sheen. But she turned down the role of Mrs. Robinson in 1967's The Graduate because she thought it was too soon after her infirmity. Could you see her in that role? I certainly can. Maybe she didn't have Bancroft's angular face, but that purr...

The Homecoming: A Christmas Story (1971) is another favorite. It serves as the pilot for the long-running series "The Waltons" with Neal as Olivia, the mother of the brood. It's part of my holiday viewing tradition, along with A Christmas Story and A Christmas Memory, with the equally wonderful—and also missed—Geraldine Page.

The scene in which she confronts John-Boy for going into his bedroom and locking the door behind him—you get the idea that she thinks he's been masturbating—but then she asks, "Have you been smokin' up here, John-Boy?"—it's hilarious. Then he reveals his private diaries and ambitions, and the tear ducts get a real workout.

Every time I see it I always think that she and Andrew Duggan, who John Sr., are pretty old to have such a young brood, but maybe they started things late in those days. Neal's performance, as she prepares a meager Christmas dinner while anxiously awaiting the return of her husband, is wonderful to watch.

She was Fred Astaire's wife in the intriguing but flawed 1981 Ghost Story and she also starred with Shelley Winters in the 1989 An Unremarkable Life, which seemed to be their effort at a Whales of August, but I found it kind of...unremarkable.

Ironically, she and Dahl divorced in 1982 when she discovered he'd been having a longtime affair with one of their close friends.

Her last screen credit is for the 2009 Billy Ray Cyrus (groan) film Flying By. I hope she got a good paycheck.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Playing By Their Own Rules

THIS POST IS FOR MATURE AUDIENCES. VIEWER DISCRETION ADVISED.

The world of film is full of fascinating eccentrics. They choose offbeat material, project distinctive screen personalities, and are a hell of a lot of fun to watch. Here are some of my choices:

New York actress Sylvia Miles started her career in episodic television, but her brief, Oscar-nominated turn as the pampered Park Avenue wife who sleeps with wannabe hustler Jon Voight—and then takes money from him!—in John Schlesinger's 1969 Academy Award-winner Midnight Cowboy started her on a career trajectory during which she has moved from mainstream to offbeat with ease.

Her roles in Cowboy and Dennis Hopper's troubled The Last Movie (1971) surely must have brought her to the attention of Andy Warhol's Factory, and she played the faded actress opposite Joe Dallesandro's gigolo in Paul Morrissey's Sunset Boulevard pastiche, Heat (1972). She was memorable in the bizarre and somewhat repugnant The Sentinel (1977), playing half of a Sapphic couple with a young Beverly D'Angelo. She was also fun as Madame Zena, the sleazy fortune teller in Tobe Hopper's 1982 The Funhouse, who manually...ahem...relieves and then is murdered by the deformed killer who lives under an amusement park. On the other hand, she was in the Robert Mitchum classic Farewell, My Lovely and the Agatha Christie all-starrer Evil Under the Sun. Hell, she's even done soap operas and an Afterschool special!

With her hard features and Noo Yawk rasp, Miles makes for quite an imposing figure, yet she is also capable of projecting a kind of motherly warmth. And can you imagine her as Sally Rogers in "The Dick Van Dyke Show"? She was in the pilot! Her latest film appearance is in this year's sequel to Wall Street, reprising the role she'd played in the original.

And I love her line in Cowboy when Voight hits her up for money after they have sex:

"I could kill ya wid my beah hands!"

Here's a clip from Heat with another bizarre character from the Factory, Pat Ast:




Born in England but educated in Toronto, Jackie Burroughs turned premature aging into an asset, building a career out of playing eccentric old ladies even when she was in her thirties. One early credit is "old lady at pool" in 1975's My Pleasure Is My Business (starring "Happy Hooker" Xaviera Hollander)—and she was only 36! She played Christopher Walken's mother in David Cronenberg's underrated adaptation of Steven King's The Dead Zone and had a long run in the Canadian series "Road to Avonlea."

I love her performance as whorehouse owner Mother Mucca in Showtime's "More Tales of the City" and "Further Tales of the City," in which she is reunited with her long-lost son who is now her daughter (Olympia Dukakis). Her mannerisms and expressions are hilarious. Sure, she's hamming it up, but it's Grade-A ham.

In Don McKellar's Last Night (1998), whose characters collide while awaiting the end of the world, she has no dialogue but plays a jogger determinedly running down the abandoned streets of Toronto. She was also paired memorably with Crispin Glover in the remake of Willard (2002). Both are extremely eccentric performers, and the scenes of Willard ministering to his repulsive mother are suitably shuddery. The shots of her thick yellow toenails are...ewww.



Burroughs was married to Zalman Yanovsky, co-founder of the sixties group The Lovin' Spoonful! And her strangest credit? She was in three episodes of "The All New Ewoks" in 1985!

Best known for her work with John Waters, Mink Stole has done films for other directors, but it's three of the Waters films that make her a beloved resident of Weird Movie Village.

Of course, her Connie Marble in 1972's Pink Flamingos is a study in over-the-top efficiency and rigidity, even when she's calling her butler a queen or telling a job applicant to eat shit. The "shrimping" scene with David Lochary is hilarious, but too often the film is cold and mean-spirited, something Waters doesn't do too well. He was out to shock with this piece, though, so I guess it's a success.

Far better is my favorite Waters film, Female Trouble (1974) in which Stole plays Taffy, the incredibly bratty daughter of Divine's criminal Dawn Davenport. The result of a Christmas morning rape, it seems that Taffy was put on this earth to torture her mother endlessly. She likes to play "car wreck" in the living room by twisting a detached steering wheel, making collision sounds and dousing herself with ketchup.

At one point, exasperated Dawn tells her girlfriends, "I've done everything a mother can do—I've locked her in her room, I've beat her with the car aerial. Nothing changes her. It's hard being a loving mother. Taffy goes in search of her birth father (played by Divine's alter ego, Harris Glenn Milstead!) and she kills him when he attempts to rape her, too.

Taffy seemingly finds inner peace by joining the Hare Krishnas, but it only serves to drive Dawn completely over the edge and she is murdered, too. Keep in mind that this is a comedy, though—and a hilarious one, too!

Stole got her first starring role in Waters' next film, Desperate Living (1977), playing the kind of role she specialized in: high-strung, officious and arrogant. She plays a rich housewife, Peggy Gravel, who must flee with her enormous maid Grizelda (Jean Hill) after they inadvertently kill her husband. They end up in the town of Mortville, which is full of sexual deviates and ruled by evil Queen Carlotta (Edith Massey). Peggy is horrified by all the sleaze, but soon finds herself in bed with Grizelda in a sex scene you will never forget.

Peggy's evil side emerges, and she becomes Queen Carlotta's malevolent sidekick, planning to infect the entire citizenry with rabies as a way of quelling an upcoming revolution. My favorite scene occurs when Peggy realizes in horror that she's in a dyke bar and rushes to the safety of the ladies' room, only to see a pair of enormous breasts pop through twin glory holes cut into the stall.

Stole's last great and sizable role for Waters (so far) is Dottie Hinkle, the high-strung neighbor of Beverly Sutphin (Kathleen Turner) in Serial Mom (1994). Turner is a scream in the starring role, making you wish she'd do more offbeat material like this. She's a seemingly normal, happy housewife who takes affront to her neighbors' violations of social rules which escalates into murder. She enjoys making obscene phone calls to Dottie in the afternoon when the husband and kids are away, and after a particularly obscene (and hilarious) rant which climaxes in Dottie screaming "Fuck YOU!" and slamming down the receiver, Beverly calls back and pretends to be a phone company representative. Relieved, Dottie says, "I'm a divorced woman. Please help me!" Later, when they're visiting at a neighbor's house, Beverly leans over to Dottie and growls "pussy-willow," making her realize who the caller's been all along.

When Dottie must take the stand during Beverly's murder trial, Beverly twists her words until Dottie can't stand it anymore and loses it in front of the entire courtroom. I have to say that although I enjoy Pecker and Cecil B. Demented, Serial Mom is Waters' last great film. But I know he's not done yet!

Enjoy the courtroom scene. Lots of nasty language, though:



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