Sunday, January 22, 2006

I Saw The Horrible THING... and Survived!

Just a short time before settling down to watch "Pick Me Up" -- the latest installment of MASTERS OF HORROR (this one directed by Larry Cohen and written by my buddy and Rondo Award-nominated VW contributor David J. Schow, based on his own story) -- I received a foreboding e-mail. My friendly correspondent didn't enjoy the episode, it seems, and was asking me how it could have possibly been written by the same discerning DJS who writes those great articles for VW.

This e-mail put me on pins and needles because I've written about all the MOH episodes in detail on this blog; if I didn't like "Pick Me Up," I'd have to find some way of expressing that without being hurtful to David. Mind you, I knew, going in, that it probably wasn't going to be one of my favorite episodes, simply because of its orientation. DJS is Mr. Splatterpunk -- he likes the smell of bacon in the morning, mixed with a little burning hair, and as much gunpowder as you can pack into the skillet. Whereas I tend to gravitate to the genre for its qualities of poetry and stylization, irony and subtlety, its propensities toward surprise and the bizarre.

To my great and unexpected pleasure, the two very different roads we walk find a meeting place in "Pick Me Up," which I found to be one of the most devilish and delicious MOH episodes to date. It's cut from the same general cloth as Don Coscarelli's "Incident On and Off a Mountain Road" -- i.e., "There's a killer on the road / his brain is squirmin' like a toad" -- but what it makes out of that cloth is closer to an Armani suit than a deer-skin coat. It had me laughing the way a Tarantino movie makes me laugh: because a) I get the references, b) the smoothness of the ride makes me giddy, and c) I know I'm in the hands of a maniac who has shocked me before, with great glee, and will most assuredly do it again. Here, the maniacs are two... in more ways than one.

When a bus driver spots a rattlesnake in the road ahead, he maliciously swerves to run it over and damages his vehicle in the process, stranding it out in the middle of nowhere. One lone passenger, a bitchy young divorcée (Fairuza Balk), decides to walk to the nearest sign of civilization while the few other passengers, equally bitchy, decide to stay with the bus. A helpful but eccentric trucker (Cohen regular Michael Moriarty) happens along and offers a lift to two passengers, the most he can accomodate. Not long after the truck rumbles away, a lone drifter (Warren Kole) appears from the woods carrying a dead rattlesnake. After exchanging a few pleasantries with the driver, his dark side emerges and two of the three people still with the bus are left dead, the third fleeing the scene screaming. When the story cuts back to the trucker and the passengers he's taken to the nearest restaurant, we learn that he too is a psychopath -- he's hung one of his pick-ups on one of the many meathooks in the refrigerated compartment of his truck. In the first of many deft cat-and-mouse maneuvers on his part, the wily Mr. Schow returns to his bitchy divorcée heroine (if she can be called that) as she reaches a remote motel, where she unwittingly takes a room that sandwiches her between Mr. Trucker and Mr. Rattlesnake. The muffled, carnal sounds she hears emanating from the room next door are not sexual, but the taped-up squeals of a young woman whom Mr. Rattlesnake is skinning alive.

I don't want to spoil the experience by going into too much detail about what follows. Suffice to say, "Pick Me Up" ultimately succeeds in introducing to the splatter genre its most interesting ironic dimension since Mario Bava's TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE [ECOLOGIA DEL DELITTO, 1971] -- a film so steeped in misanthropy that, basically, everybody killed everybody else. Here, again, there's not a single likeable character -- they're all pissy and bridge every other word with the f-one; the two monsters are the most civil, philosophic, and polite of the bunch, at least until you're alone with them. But what is most ingenious about it is that the story becomes a cat-and-mouse game not between killer and prey, but a mutually amused, tongue-in-cheek contest between two "civilized" killers over their "right" to claim the last survivor of a roadside smorgasbord. The penultimate scene of the episode finds the Balk character handcuffed and strapped into the trucker's rig, and Mr. Trucker stopping to pick up a hitchhiker who happens to be Mr. Rattlesnake. After driving back to the motel they've all escaped from for a final showdown, they stop the truck to allow a rattlesnake to pass... and, not long after they are moving again, both killers are pointing their guns at Balk's screaming head. But it's the payoff of the final scene that puts everything that comes before into perspective -- it belongs to the same family of completely unexpected, riotous twist as Bava's TWITCH, which Joe Dante (as a young reviewer for CASTLE OF FRANKENSTEIN) called "the greatest ending since CITIZEN KANE!" The fates that Mr. Schow has reserved for his characters bring his story to an equally ironic and misanthropic full stop, but one possibly more clever and unexpected.

Nasty and unpleasant, you're damned tootin'. Especially in the skinning scene, the episode crosses a line where even ironic laughter isn't possible. But the performances of the three principals are outstanding, with a strangely bloated, slurry and limping Moriarty giving the sort of performance that will have you thinking of Kinski or Palance or Walken or any other tall glass of I'm-playing-this-however-I-please. He was probably a handful to work with, but I can't imagine any other actor playing the role with his quality and unpredictability quotient. (I love the way he runs his lighter along the length of his cigarettes, warming his tobacco before he smokes it -- Mr. Trucker is a true connoisseur of his vices.) Fairuza Balk, whose work I've enjoyed since RETURN TO OZ, is often hilarious as the eternally put-out damsel-in-effing-distress. ("I think every one of Fairuza's 'asides' is priceless," DJS tells me.) Newcomer Warren Kole is a talent to watch; he plays his wicked "Western gentleman" with such a poker face that took me offguard more than twice. One of the joys of watching this episode is not only not knowing what's going to happen next, but how these two guys are going to play whatever happens. I'm assured that everyone's ad libs were brilliant, but I can't tell where the writing ends and the ad libs begin. The end result is beautifully layered, and that's what counts.

The auteuristes among you are doubtless grumbling that I haven't mentioned director Larry Cohen's contribution to this episode, and rightly so. I've been a fan of Cohen's work since his early days as a teleplaywright (CORONET BLUE, THE INVADERS, THE FUGITIVE) and I've always found his specific talents as a writer intrinsic to his appeal as a director. DJS tells me that he approached the job of directing this episode with the writing and its most accurate representation as his greatest concerns. That he kept everybody reined in and focused is to his credit, and the episode has a number of brilliantly timed and executed moments -- like the hypnotic POV shot of the curving sameness of the road, as one hitcher notes that the scenery around every next bend is so unchanging that it feels like you're not going anywhere. "Maybe you're not," Moriarty offers with a smile. The overhead camera shot that reveals the rooming arrangements of Kole, Balk and Moriarty is also pretty sweet. I actually liked Cohen's direction of this piece -- like I said, "the smoothness of the ride" -- better than much of what he's directed of his own work.

The title of this blog refers to a compelling side-ingredient that floats into view a couple of times in the episode: a broken-down billboard for something called "The Horrible THING," which Moriarty explains is some kind of exhibit in a travelling carnival, the skeleton of a two-headed baby or something like that. The sight of this billboard struck a chord with me, reminding me of all the non-existant horror movies that have invaded my dreams, usually in the form of similar advertising. In an exceedingly clever bit of writing, or directing, or set dressing, we are shown included among the many souvenirs of Mr. Trucker's kills a giveaway button that boasts, "I Saw The Horrible THING... and Survived!" Unfortunately for that person, there was something even more horrible they hadn't seen yet: the next guy to offer them a ride.

I'm not a button collector, but I'd love to have that one.

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