Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Christina's World

This Andrew Wyeth painting is an all-time favorite of mine. I love the ambiguity of the girl's pose towards the foreboding house on the hilltop. There may be something creepy going on or not. It all depends on what's going on in the girl's head and in the house. Whatever the case, at this point in time she appears safe and unaware. Apparently, Philip Ridley is also a fan of the painting as he visually made it come to life in his 1990 film The Reflecting Skin. The story concerns a young boy, named Seth Dove, who lives and plays amongst the rural wheat fields of Idaho in the post WWII era. It's a coming of age tale of sorts, but of a vastly different variety than the Saturday Evening Post-type to which American audiences have grown accustomed to over the years. All the archetypes are present, from the beautiful rural settings, to the young frolicking playmates, to the quaint country farmhouses. Indeed the first line of dialogue Seth delivers to his friends, "Look at this wonderful frog I've found", serves only to reinforce the Norman Rockwell-ish environment Ridley creates in the opening scene. It is all then subverted by the use to which the kids subsequently put said frog. This horrific scene literally blows up any notion of sweet, well-behaved boys spending lazy summer days down by the fishin' hole.

Seth is subsequently punished for his cruel frog shenanigans by his none too stable mother by being sent to the house of his victim, an English widow named Dolphin Blue. Instead of being upset, Dolphin relates to Seth stories of her own acts of animal tortures when she was his age and gives him her family's whaling harpoon. She also tells him the story of her husband's demise which begins to sow the seeds in Seth's mind that she's a vampire. This is later unintentionally confirmed by Seth's father and his vampire comic book. Seth's obsession with the woman only intensifies when his older brother Cameron comes home from the military and begins a relationship with Dolphin Blue.

In a more conventional film, Seth and Dolphin's relationship would end in some tragic misunderstanding, and the table is certainly set for that, but the movie is anything but predictable. With a variety of odd people populating the locale and an apparent killer on the loose, things just keep getting stranger. In addition, many of the characters in the story seem to live up inside their own heads creating their own warped version of the world and ignoring events around them that contradict their notions until reality comes crashing down on them. Seth and his mother are the prime examples, but there are also minor characters like the weird, keening twin sisters with the dead bird who are clearly traveling their own path so to speak. The odd characters, deaths and all-American setting would certainly suggest something Lynchian but the film isn't as frustratingly opaque or convoluted as a David Lynch film even if it does feel as absurd at times. The Sheriff Ticker character, for example, seems to have a problem with the indigenous wildlife, losing an arm, eye and part of an ear to various creatures over the years. And I don't even want to bring up the dead "angel" that Seth and his friend find to show just how downright bizarre the film becomes.

But all the weirdness doesn't ultimately distract from the message of the film about loss of innocence. Towards the end, Dolphin tells Seth "innocence can be hell" but what she doesn't tell him, and what she knows, is that lack of innocence is hell. Seth's ability to stay in his fantasy world ironically keeps him from being pummeled by reality. And as much as the adults in the story want to build their own constructs to escape the real world, they're inevitable forced to face its harsh unfairness sooner rather than later. Like the ambiguity in the Wyeth painting, innocence appears to be only a temporary state, but it's still preferable to the alternative.

Score 8.5/10 

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

There's Something About Terry

I love the Castle-like "public notice" in the poster above as I've always wanted to learn how to identify mass murderers. And indeed, there were several markers I took from this film that will help me ferret out any killers I may subsequently come across, such as:

1. Forced to rape - if a man is stripped naked and tossed on top of a naked, gang-bang victim by his buddies, he just might become a mass murderer.

2. Overly affectionate mother - if a man's mother insists on being kissed full on the lips by her son, he just might become a mass murderer.

3. Bosco addict - if a man drinks too much chocolate milk, he will most definitely become a mass murderer.

I could go on, but the tips from the movie were kind of needless, because the minute I saw John Savage had been cast in the lead role of Terry Lambert, I just knew there would be something wrong with the mofo. Savage, who looks like the love child of Michael Moriarty and Christopher Walken has made a career of playing damaged characters, and Terry may be the most tightly-wound, over-the-top one on Savage's considerably lengthy resume.

There were a ton of these 'young adult psychopath' movies made in the late sixties and seventies. From Jack Starrett's The Strange Vengeance of Rosalie starring Bonnie Bedilia as a nutty girl who kidnaps and tortures Ken Howard, to Sydney Lumets Equus with Peter Firth as a equine-obsessed loon who blinds a stable of horses, to Frank Perry's Last Summer with Barbara Hershey as a manipulative whack-job who wreaks havoc with her friends, there were a lot of crazy, mixed-up and violent young adult characters presented in cinema during the era. It's not surprising that this generation was often portrayed as crazed, but what's striking is the large dose of Fruedian-like pop psychology that was often introduced into the films as an explanation for the insanity. In The Killing Kind, it's apparent early on that Savage's character Terry is a deeply disturbed person and it's obvious why - Terry's overly involved mother, Thelma.

Screen legend Ann Sothern plays Thelma Lambert, and you just know something ain't right because Terry always calls her by her first name instead of 'mom', and even more telling, she's a crazy cat lady. Terry and Thelma's relationship is just the most uncomfortable thing to watch as Thelma is positively smothering and demanding of affection from Terry, who for the most part, indulges her even though it gets on his last nerve. As Terry gets more and more riled up by Thelma's antics and unwanted attention, it becomes clear he's going to snap at some point.

Thelma runs a boarding house and trouble begins early on with the arrival of Shirley Feeney.

OK, it's actually a younger, sexier, pre-Milwaukee, Cindy Williams who plays the new boarder, Lori. Thelma takes an immediate dislike to Lori, but grudgingly rents her a room. Terry immediately starts peeping her from a tree branch outside her window. Terry, in turn, is being peeped on by the next door neighbor, a young, but spinsterish, librarian who lives with her cranky father. Terry also begins to stalk the trampy, gang rape girl who previously got him thrown in jail. As the story unfolds, Terry begins to act out more and more. He's driven by revenge, frustration, flirtation, affection - just about anything and everything sets him off. Waiting for Terry to lose it and freak out is basically what the movie's all about. How far he will go is tipped off rather early in the film, but it's still fun watching the tension build. Also, the performances are pretty darned fun and somewhat campy especially Sothern and Savage's. Curtis Harrington directed the film and I'd consider it easily among his top three. He seemed to thrive on directing stories with over-the-top, mother/diva characters as evidenced by Shelly Winters in Whoever Slew Autie Roo?, Simone Signoret in Games, Piper Laurie in Ruby, or Ann Sothern in this film. There is also an element of black humor in The Killing Kind, particularly near the end with the trash can scene, that can often be found in  a lot of Harrington's better films. While the film is far from a masterpiece, it is enjoyable on a level with something like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Score 7/10

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Messiah of Horror Collections

Whether they're made by Millcreek, Echobridge, Image Entertainment or some other manufacturer, the multi-movie DVD horror collections are very addictive. Much like a Whitman sampler, there are a variety of tasty treats contained therein including some classics, old favorites and the familiar filler. There's also some odd unknowns that could turn out to be gag-inducing, or possibly, a mouthwatering new discovery. That's what makes these multi-packs fun, biting into a previously unknown morsel and being surprised by its content. And just like the chocolate sampler, there's a tendency to not want to leave anything un-consumed, even if it has been pre-judged unpalatable.

Continuing with the food metaphor (I really need to eat dinner), I'm tearing through this Image 50-movie horror pack like Kobayashi eating hot dogs when I see Messiah of Evil pop up on the menu as the next movie. Now there are only two things I previously knew about this movie - it was made in the 70's, and secondly, I remembered this cover from an old twofer DVD release:

So to my mind, it's clearly some kind of devil cult movie, of which there were about a ka-billion made in the 70's because of Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist and The Omen. Now I don't dislike this type of movie, as much as I'm just totally burnt out on them having been cinematically subjected to the dark lord and his ilk all throughout the disco decade. It's the same feeling I have about The Bee Gees, don't hate 'em, just wouldn't be disappointed if I never heard Staying Alive again. I could have just skipped the movie, but the OCD completist in me wasn't about to let that happen. So reluctantly, and with little enthusiasm, I started watching. But when I saw Walter Hill immediately get attacked by a little girl with a straight razor in the first scene, I was all in.

Synopsis - A young woman travels to the coastal town of Point Dune to find her father and discovers  strange goings on.

This is the rarest of horror films that combines atmosphere, art, imagery and scary set pieces to form a very effective nightmare. With its odd townspeople and strange atmosphere, Messiah of Evil initially brings to mind films like Dead and Buried, Let's Scare Jessica to Death, Lenzi's Nightmare City and Fulci's City of the Living Dead. Despite being shot exclusively in southern California, the film also has a distinctly European feel to it aided in large part by the very cool art work that's scattered around the beach house where the bulk of the movie is shot. This art work not only works aesthetically to create a spooky, omnipresent group of "watchers", but also feeds into the plot and theme of the film. Even a casual conversation by two of the female characters in the bathroom takes on a unique look and feel with these silent, waiting companions.

The house and it's accompanying art work are so visual interesting and distinctive, that I feared the film would lose some of its power when changing to another location. But the filmmakers provide a sense of paranoia, dread and outright weirdness by a variety of methods at a number of locations. The "Point Dune" name, which we learn was formerly "New Bethlehem", sounds uncomfortably close to 'Point Doom'. The movie theater's marquee displays a now-showing title of Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye. The town often appears deserted and dreamlike at night as some of the residents are seen gathered together in an almost trance-like state at the beach, in the back of a pick-up truck, the local Ralph's supermarket or some other location. And then there's this guy...

...who first shows up at a nearby Mobile station to obtain $2 worth of "no-knock", and freak me the f out in the process. I haven't seen every movie ever made, but I'm willing to bet he is the only lazy-eyed, Wagner-loving, mouse munching, albino character in cinema history. He's played by Bennie Robinson who only appeared in this movie, but should have become a horror staple right up there with Michael Berryman and Reggie Nalder. Another actor that does show up briefly to add to the atmosphere and supply some foreshadowing is the always cool and crazy Elisha Cook Jr.

The lead character of the daughter, Arletti,  is played by Marianna Hill who will be easily recognizable to anyone who watched a lot of 60's television. She did a multitude of guest spots on everything from The Outer Limits and Star Trek to Gunsmoke and Dobie Gillis. Although her acting is easily the best out of the younger cast, I found her character fairly nondescript and not too engaging. However, the threesome Arletti runs into while looking for her father, really add an interesting dimension to the story by providing some internal friction among the group. That the three are having a menage-a-troise type relationship is all but explicitly stated and clearly shocks Hill's character much to their delight. Michael Greer's character of Thom is a young man who comes from money and enjoys a nomadic, bohemian lifestyle. He appears jaded and cynical even as he privately pursues the supernatural legend that has led him to Point Dune. The women accompanying Thom, who he euphemistically calls his "traveling companions", are the extraordinarily beautiful Laura, played by the drop-dead gorgeous, proto-supermodel, Anitra Ford, and Toni - a "half girl, half child and half wit", played with just the right amount of cutie-pie, sex appeal by Joy Bang. Ford and Bang aren't the greatest actresses, but what really works for the two is their wildly different looks, uneven physical statures and opposite demeanors. They could have easily been bland, generic characters, but their striking differences make them memorable. Thom and his girlfriends eventually wind up staying with Arletti at her father's house. Arletti, who still can't locate her father begins to slowly freak out, and the interior art design is not exactly helping.

Things slowly but surely go bad for the characters, but the story doesn't ever get predictable or stale. The pacing is slower than the average American horror film and more akin to something directed by Fulci, Rollin or Franco. But there are enough deaths, tension, imagery and general weirdness to keep the film moving at a bearable clip.

Messiah of Evil was written and directed by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, who co-wrote one of my all-time favorite movies, American Graffiti, and co-wrote and directed one of my all-time least favorite movies, Howard the Duck.  In addition, they co-wrote the Temple of Doom entry of the Indiana Jones movies. After viewing the MoE version in the horror pack, which appeared very washed out and public domain-y, I immediately snapped up the remastered Code Red DVD which really brought back the deep blue and red colors. There was also a featurette extra where the couple talked about having been pretentious film school graduates at the time Messiah of Evil was made and being influenced by Italian directors like Antonioni. If this movie was any indication of their pretentiousness, bring it on, I enjoyed every beard-stroking minute.

Score 7.5/10