Friday, November 27, 2009

Silent Scream

Labels can be very dismissive because of how narrowly they are perceived. They can totally denigrate a work and group it with the worst offenders of that label. An example of this is the "slasher" label that has been lazily attached to Denny Harris's Silent Scream ('80), an early 80's gem finally released on DVD by Scorpion Releasing.

To me, a "slasher" film is a work that focuses primarily on the actions of a mysterious or mindless killer. The Good, Bad and Ugly that fall squarely into this category are Halloween, Friday the 13th, Final Exam, He Knows You're Alone, Curtains, Madman, The Mutilator, Girls' Night Out, The Burning, and My Bloody Valentine. One stupid list on the internet suggests that Mother's Day is a slasher. I cry foul. Same with Henry - Portrait of a Serial Killer. Henry kills, sure, but the film is NOT a slasher film because its focus is not on people being slashed and cut up.

I first saw Silent Scream at the movies in 1980. I took a trip to the city with a lovely gal I'd just started dating and we saw it at one of Melbourne's newest cinemas, The Bryson (now a multi-story parking lot on Russell Street). Immediately, I liked the movie because it begins like a police procedural with a slomo flash-forward then rewinds to tell its tale.

Scotty (Rebecca Balding), a uni student, is looking for a room. After striking out on several possibilities, she manages to rent one in a large, beachside house. Although the house is owned by Mrs. Engels (Yvonne De Carlo, who once played the unforgettable 'Lily Munster'), Scotty is obliged to deal with Mason (Brad Reardon), Lily Munster's odd son. Scotty befriends a couple of other boarders, and ends up bedding down with Jack (Steve Doubet), so life in the old, white house is looking up.

Well, if she had bothered to, literally, look up, she would have seen the face looking down at her from behind an air grate in the ceiling. The face belongs to a member of the Engels family who isn't the full dollar. In fact, she has a history of violence and is thought to be incognito by the local constabulary. Played with great intensity by the super-sexy Barbara Steele (Jesus, there is something so hot about her!) Victoria is the Engels' family's dirty little secret.

Not content to establish Victoria as a nut, set her loose, then make THAT the story, the writers cross-cut between what Scotty's up to and what Mason's struggling with -- namely, the filthy family secret that is destroying his life. Victoria starts killing again because, for the first time in years, the Engels' sorry financial state has forced them to rent out rooms to boarders. This gives Victoria access, and access is everything for a murderess. So good news for the the crazy Steele is bad news for boarders and Mason, who is jealous of his mother's dedication to Victoria's "problem" and fixated on his dead father's military history.

Silent Scream has been pretty much unavailable since its original release, so almost thirty years passed between my seeing it last week and seeing it one time only in 1980. Immediately, the great Roger Kellaway score struck me as quite brilliant and much imitated. Although parts of it clone sections from Herrmann's Psycho score, the quieter, more subtle cues with a creepy piano really gave me the willies (in the best way, of course). Interestingly, Kellaway also scored Evilspeak and an obscure favorite of mine, The Mafu Cage ('78).

By today's ADD-ridden standards, the film is slow, but it is directed with great skill, attention to small architectural details, and is big on atmosphere. You never get the impression that director Denny Harris is trying to capitalize on the success of John Carpenter's Halloween because the killings are minimal and the focus, as stated, is on Scotty's discoveries and the family's efforts to protect a nutter in their midst.

Brad Reardon, who is extremely sympathetic as Mason Engels, did not go on to do much after Silent Scream and that's a terrible shame. He invites us to sympathize with the tragic aspects of his family situation, and he takes us with him when he finally loses his head in a most interesting way.

Silent Scream is not a slasher film; it's a very good film (not perfect) performed, directed, and written with care. And Scorpion Releasing's DVD, which boats a terrific print of the film, commentary, and interviews, is a must-get.

Oh, yeah. I've decided that I could live with a dirty little secret like Barbara Steele in my attic.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Larry Wessel's All Access Pass

Cover art by Tora Wessel, Larry's co-conspirator

Documentarian Larry Wessel does not deny you access. He chooses a subject, fucks it, feels it, fondles it, finds its G-spot, X-rays it mid-coitus, then brings it to a simultaneous orgasm of Truth with the audience.

In Iconoclast (2010), his soon-to-be-finished documentary on Boyd Rice, a fellow who's been called everything under the sun from Prophet to Nazi to Racist Cunt to Stand-Up Guy, Wessel (whose production company is Wesselmania) uses his All Access Pass to birth a portrait of Rice that is fascinating and invigorating.

'Tiki' aficionado Boyd Rice

Quite clearly, the only person out there who knows Rice is Rice himself, and the doco doesn't pretend otherwise. Like all smart people with an evolving consciousness, Rice is complex, brilliant, musically gifted, provocative, and silly. The film states this, but it isn't so arrogant as to settle for absolute judgments.

Between '91 and '93, Wessel shot in the bloody bull rings of Tijuana and assembled the extraordinary Taurobolium, a confronting, uncompromising look at the religious fervor of bullfighting. The shedding of blood is never far from the worship of God and god-like entities, so to witness so much horrific bloodshed in these temples of war is to witness the embracing of primal drives.

After the fighting has faded, a group of women surround a matador (in Latin, it means 'one who subdues or kills') with autograph books. One young woman (a attractive young Latin) appears almost unable to make eye contact with the matador. As she waits her turn, she steals glances at him, but she seems to fear that her deep desire to be penetrated by him will be exposed. Wessel wisely zooms closer to this woman, isolating her from the others, and, in the process, communicates the God-like status of the sport's heroes . To fuck a god is the ultimate communion, is it not?

The fighting scenes are stark and gory. Bulls are stabbed, cut, speared and driven (by the matador) to excruciating levels of anxiety. Several sequences involving confrontations with matadors on horses are shockingly brutal, and it is a curious experience to listen to the cheering coming from the stands in these moments of defeat, surrender, and victory.

Wessel's way is not to comment, editorialize, or provide the predictable opposing view. His documentaries give us access to a culture, a way of life, and modes of thought that are rarely given a decent hearing because, lo and behold, it takes intelligence to listen; we already know the opposing view; we don't need to hear it again and again; it already dominates and stinks the place out.

When a defeated bull is carried from the stadium and immediately prepared for the dinner plate, a strange sense of natural process occurs. And that's the magic of the filmmaker at work.

More striking cover art by the indefatigible Tora Wessel

Wessel's approach to unearthing Truth is direct and unafraid. In Sex, Death, and the Hollywood Mystique ('99), stalwarts of an industry far crueler than any bull ring spill ugly truths and torch prevailing lies about the industry. Forry Ackerman takes us on a tour of his 'Ackermansion' (a priceless museum of silver screen ephemera) that, in retrospect, feels terribly sad because, prior to Forry's death, not a single Hollywood bigshot (and so-called friend of the man) contributed one penny to the preservation of the Ackermonster's priceless legacy.

Curtis Harrington, arguably one of the industry's greatest practitioners, ruminates on yesteryear from his humble Hollywood Hills tomb, and hints at the the forces that contributed to his contemporary irrelevancy. Author John Gilmore, a scribe and actor who knows where many of the corpses are buried, scratches scabs to remember his friendship with James Dean and the dubious hiring practices of the Hollywood studios.

Wessel's ability to get subjects to spread and smile results in works that are deceptively simple in structure, technically basic, but searing in their intensity and Truth.

He's a One-Man Cultural Coroner.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Masturbation in the Rue Morgue

I was contacted by Rue Morgue magazine's John Bowen (of "It Came From Bowen's Basement" fame) a couple of month's ago. He informed me that he wanted to do a piece on my film/vid The Masturbating Gunman aka Masked Avenger Versus Ultra villain in the Lair of the Naked Bikini.

True to his word, the piece appears in the November issue.

It would be unfair to the mag for me to scan the entire page here, so I'm just providing proof that the piece does exist.

Back when The Masturbating Gunman initially blew his load on VHS, Bowen wrote the first ultra-positive appreciation of its merits. He "got" the movie, which, considering the majority reaction, made my week, if not my month.

I'll leave you with his opening paragraph. Once again, Mr. Bowen has made my month:

Dig SPLATTER? OF COURSE YOU DO. How about chopsocky? Frankenstein? Troma? John Woo? Mexican Lucha Libre? Nunsploitation? Japanese "Pink"? Coffin Joe? Monty Python? Softcore porn? Theatre of the absurd? Goats? I wouldn't be surprised to hear a chorus of "Fuck, yeah!" to all of the above, but how many of you have seem them all deployed -- almost seamlessly -- in a single micro-budget film? I have, and if loving 'Masked Avenger Versus Ultra-Villain in the Lair of the Naked Bikini' (2000) is wrong, I don't want to be right.

An AntiChrist Worth Heiling

AntiChrist, from director Lars Von Trier, possesses a purity that lifted me high.

It pans its unblinking lens towards a couple (Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe) whose relationship disintegrates in the aftermath of a tragic event (the death of a child).

Tragedy compels us to re-examine ourselves and our relationship with those around us. When my ex-wife's mother died stricken with pancreatic cancer, she (the ex-) began a re-evaluation of priorities that led, ultimately, to the abrupt dissolution of our relationship. We would have parted eventually, anyway, for we had been drifting in different directions for some years, but the death of her mother encouraged expedience.

Much has been written about Von Trier's alleged "misogyny". Many reviewers have called the film misogynistic. I have problems with the term and its casual application. A misogynist is a man who hates women. Hates them. Loathes them. Would rather stay clear of them. Unless you're a crackpot, you usually stay away from the things you hate.

Von Trier's producer, Meta Louise Foldager, a smart, creative, tough woman I've enjoyed brief correspondence with, is a woman. She produced AntiChrist, and she'll be producing his next film. If Von Trier's hate for women is as palpable as some critics suggest, Miss Foldager must be a masochist. If that isn't true, and she's not a masochist, it follows that Von Trier must not be a misogynist.

When a man depicts the genital mutilation or rape of a woman on-screen, he is accused of misogyny. When a woman such as Catherine Breilet does it in a film like the excellent Fat Girl, she is praised for powerful filmmaking.

Von Trier's AntiChrist is powerful filmmaking for reasons that include the graphic scenes but are definitely not confined to them. To me, the film is an honest, gentle exploration of both human nature and, as the top poster trumpets, "Nature as Satan's church" (an essay on how nature exists in a state of anarchy). In Von Trier's world, our primal instincts are easily triggered because they reside in shallow foxholes barely beneath our skin. When we appear to go haywire (embrace our primivitism), as Gainsbourg does, our "crazy" behavior becomes fascinating to ourselves and others, and we become participants in our own personal freakshow.

Dafoe's character, a psychiatrist, attempts to "cure" Gainsbourg as she flails in the midst of grief and depression. His cold, clinical response to her condition (treating her as a patient rather than a partner) becomes part of the engine that drives her animosity towards him.

The genital mutilation scenes are fairly graphic. Gainsbourg does slice off her clitoris as she gathers up her vagina lips. Dafoe's penis gets a serious beating, too, although we don't see much of its post-beating state. Oddly, the most disturbing act of violence in the film does not involve genitalia, but I'll leave it to you to discover it.

Is the film shocking? Not to me. It's simply a film of serious merit.

"Chaos reigns!" says a fox in one of the film's most surprising and hilarious sequences, efficiently expressing the glee with which Von Trier is attacking his subject. Although the set-up is deadly serious, the resolution underlines the fact that everything comes full circle, and nothing lingers forever.

In a world where unoriginality is currently reigning, AntiChrist is evidence that hope, at least, is circling the compound.

Stylistically, the film occasionally employs an effective super-slow motion technique that almost but not quite freezes the image.

This technique was employed by Tony Kaye in the superb American History X, and there is a shot of water cascading from a shower in Kaye's film that is replicated here -- coincidence perhaps, but worth noting.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Back to Basics with Pulpy Porn

Simple erotic imagery doesn't get old (not for me, anyway). This iconic illustration from Ray Todd's The Horny Hitchhiker is a superb example of pornographic pulp.

As I am currently in production on a new movie in which a (possibly perverted) preacher plays an important part, this Greenleaf oldie is more relevant to my "pulp as a way of life" by-line than ever before.

Since a Pervert Preacher was not enough, the publishers spiced up the pot with some bestiality and bondage.

Is that dog food in the preacher's bucket? And is the holy man offering the gal a little fried chicken before Rover does his business? That's kind of him if he is.

More bestiality rears its furry head.

Has the lady slipped her panties down to entice the dog? Are dogs susceptible to titillation?

If you take a close look at the mutt, it becomes clear that he's not even looking at the woman. He's looking at something outside the picture.

This may explain the need to titillate the four-legged lothario. A vulgar display of bare flesh won't do it for him. On the other hand, a hint of ass will do it.

Before you could advertise your wares on the internet or in a free newspaper, you had to advertise them on a park bench. They weren't called the Good Old Days for nothing.

He's My Loving Beast, not My Lusting Beast or Horny Beast. That implies it's more than just sex for him. He's willing to share the household chores, support his gal, walk down the aisle, andbark "I do!" at the appropriate moment. What a guy.

You need a permit? Is that the permit she's holding?

Beautiful black and white image from Liverpool Press. The publisher's two-tone artwork was always high quality and extremely erotic. They even bothered illustrating backgrounds.

Ray Todd strikes twice in one post. Hot, trashy illustration from another Greenleaf classic.

She gets tortured before she spends her married life torturing him. The "tortured bride" theme was a popular one amongst porn paperback writers. Strangely, it's rarely been explored in realms outside literature.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Deathdream of a Vietnam Veteran

When Andy Brooks (Richard Backus in an Oscar-worthy performance) inexplicably comes home from Vietnam, his parents explain to him that they were told he was dead.

"I was," he replies, not skipping a beat, then smiles.

This exchange sets the tone for an extraordinary film from director Bob Clark and writer Earl Ormsby (Deranged).

Made in '74, when Vietnam still lingered heavily in the public psyche, it is the best example I have seen of a film dealing with what is essentially PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder); Combat Shock also tackled the issue with sensitivity and intelligence.

It is also a prime example of how the horror genre can address serious issues in a fascinating way.

You see, Andy IS dead, but he's not yet buried or completely retired. He lingers in a sad, desperate, pain-ridden deathdream, and he survives by drinking blood.

His parents and sister embrace him immediately, but it soon becomes obvious that the Andy who left to go to war is a very different Andy now.

Some of the film's most effective scenes are of Andy immersed in replays of horrific memories mixed with the pain of a limbo-like existence.

Much of Andy's frustration is triggered by the inability of others to comprehend the hellish experiences he still carries with him.

When the local mailman greets Andy and begins callously discussing who died in Vietnam and who should have died ("...and there are some we should have lost...", Andy can barely stop himself from ripping the man's throat out.

As the returned soldier's psychological condition becomes more brittle, a fissure develops between father (John Marley) and son.

The fissure represents a classic generational clash, and Clark handles it like a conventional father-son conflict. Although there is a supernatural element underpinning Andy's actions, this aspect is allowed to simmer beneath the surface. As a result, it is much more effective as horror.

It is tragic to see Marley ordering Andy from his house ("Get out of my house!") only days after he was tearfully embracing his lost son.

Andy's mother (Christine Brooks) quickly falls out with Andy's father and focuses her protective nature on the disintegrating returnee. She gains greater strength after lapsing into emphatic denial of Andy's true nature.

Easily one of the saddest horror films ever made, Deathdream features a number of powerful sequences in which the torturous side of living death is explored. The short story on which it is based, 'The Monkey's Paw', gives the drama a deep foundation.

Andy enters a cemetery at night and begins inscribing his own name on an old tombstone. His wish to die and rest in peace is palpable. That he cannot do so, that he is being driven by a force beyond his command, makes for a devastating viewing experience.

It's understandable that Deathdream (also known as Dead of Night) has always been marketed as a horror film -- and it certainly is that.

Unfortunately, its deeper virtues have not been universally recognized.

"Something unspeakable has come home", the DVD cover art trumpets, but it's really the other way around.

SOMEONE HAS COME HOME TO SOMETHING UNSPEAKABLE is more accurate, for the film is about a veteran (like many) who comes home to a world in which his experiences can never be truly understood, appreciated, or acknowledged. As a result, he is totally alienated, and death seems preferable.

When Andy is visited by a group of local kids...

... he becomes frustrated and angered by their banter and trivializing of his wartime service.

Naively, they question him about weapons and ask him if he's ever killed anybody. His ultimate response to this is to shoot to his feet and wring the neck of his father's barking dog.

The denouement of this sequence is shocking, and it underlines Andy's displacement in a living, post-war world.

Unable to share his pain and confusion with anybody living or dead, Andy appears defiant.

With Andy's decline almost absolute, he is rushed to the grave by his caring mother, and she is forced to bury him in order to rid him of a life that begs for closure.

Andy's last minutes are a superb marriage of the macabre and humanistic, and director Clark achieves a watershed in the genre.

RIP Andy Brooks... and RIP Bob Clark, who died in a grisly auto wreck in 2007.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Li'l Girls Blue

It's amazing how innocent Joanna Williams' Little Girls Blue (VCX, '78) feels today. It's like an Afterschool Special with Genitals.

A product of the late 70's, and released just after Debbie Does Dallas, it is a much more accomplished piece of erotica than Debbie. Though a notorious "stick film" due to its availability at the time, Debbie is a (mostly) drab piece of pornography with an occasional flurry of fully erect sexuality.

Little Girls begins with a surprisingly arty credit sequence, then launches quickly into its storyline.

Director Joanna Williams (perhaps a pseudonym for a male director?) was responsible for the relatively rough but overpraised Expensive Tastes, another '78 effort released prior to this.

Often referred to as a roughie, Tastes does feature light rape footage, but it's not a terribly visceral affair, and was easily eclipsed by works such as Zebedy Colt's Unwilling Lovers ('77)...

... and Shaun Costello's Forced Entry ('73).

Fans of Don Coscarelli's Phantasm will recognize the location standing in for a girls' school in this film.

Known as 'The Morningside Mortuary' in Coscarelli's surreal horror flick of '79, it is a boarding school for sexual shenanigans in this soft-hearted, hardcore effort.

I say "soft-hearted" because the sex scenes are extremely conventional and affectionate by today's pornographic standards. Although the content is definitely XXX-rated, the staging is surprisingly subdued and playful.

As turn-on material, it's very effective. The lighting is more than adequate and the couplings (and triplings) are allowed to develop and grow. It's refreshing to see a lady gradually losing her garments.

Personally, I can't stand extended blowjob scenes in pornography of any kind, so Little Girls loses a point or two for me for spending so much time on these.

Perhaps I'm alone on this matter, but filmed blowjobs do not make for exciting erotic footage. They focus primarily on a man's penis (for a hetero audience), and use up valuable screen time that could be better directed towards oral servicing of a woman's sexual regions.

Do male porn fans really demand on-screen blowjob, or do lazy producers just think they do?

Guys love lesbian porn because it's all about the female parts. Is that not instructive?

This fine frame grab redresses the balance and is an example of the film's superior lighting and naturalistic production design.

Several years later, directors Svetlana and David I. Frazer gave the world a wonderful, highly erotic trio of Hawaiian-set porn movies that included Surrender in Paradise, Hanky Panky, and Pink Lagoon.

This duet, who were also responsible for the great Sex Boat...

... and Bad Girls, had an intrinsic understanding of eroticism that does have its roots in films like Little Girls Blue.

Just as films like Saw have, unfortunately, redefined what horror is to some (thus turning them off a genre that is about so much more), so, too, has grotesque gonzo porn (from the likes of Max Hardcore and Rob Black) redefined what porn is to those who always feared the worst. It's a shame because the porn genre has many magnificent classics that could be enjoyed by a much larger section of the population if only it was prepared to take the plunge.

For every Saw VI there's a Grace or The Children.

And for every Cumstains 10 or Rough Sex there's a Little Girls Blue, Buttman's Revenge, Hanky Panky, 3AM, Blonde Ambition, Night Dreams, or Opening Of Misty Beethoven.