Saturday, December 02, 2006

The Skinny on Dario Argento's "Pelts"

Meat Loaf Aday takes a closer look at a fellow cast member who has run afoul of "Pelts," Dario Argento's latest contribution to MASTERS OF HORROR.

Last night, Showtime's MASTERS OF HORROR presented the sixth episode of its second season, and the first I could call a qualified success. Up to now, the season has been a disaster, pairing uninspired veteran directors with shapeless, simplistic stories that have sought to please the show's viewers in the dumbest way possible: by seeking new and ever more inventive ways to tear the human body apart. It has not been until this latest episode, Dario Argento's "Pelts," that the season has attempted to explore horror in any sense other than graphic violence and dismemberment. "Pelts" is itself overloaded with both, yet it also contains moments of dark magic and enchantment and provides Argento's fans with set pieces that echo some of the "greatest hits" of his feature filmography. With very few exceptions, the directors working on this show have checked their known personalities at the door and delivered fairly anonymous results; but here, especially in the episode's closing minutes, there are enough echoes of classic bits from DEEP RED and TENEBRAE that most horror fans could probably guess who was behind the camera. True, "Pelts" seems more like the work of a fan of Dario Argento than Argento himself, but that's been largely true of Argento's work since OPERA (1987) -- the ferocious vitality of THE STENDHAL SYNDROME (1996) notwithstanding.

Scriped by Matt Venne (who wrote the forthcoming sequel to WHITE NOISE) from a short story by F. Paul Wilson, "Pelts" is the magic realist tale of Jake (Meat Loaf Aday), a seedy furrier who cranks cheap coats out of his low-rent sweatshop by day and hangs around a stripclub by night, indulging his obsession with an exotic dancer named Shanna (Ellen Ewusie). He pays for private lapdances, but what he really wants is anal sex, which doesn't interest Shanna, who is a lesbian on her own time. When Jeb Jameson (John Saxon), one of Jake's hillbilly trappers, calls with word that he's lucked into a dozen or more raccoon pelts of unbelievable quality, Jake makes a house call and discovers the trapper and his son dead... and that the pelts, left hanging in the cellar, are all that were promised and more. The celestial, intoxicating quality of these furs (digitally accentuated by visual effects supervisor Lee Wilson) is such that Jake is immediately convinced that they could be his ticket to claim anything in the world he might desire, including Shanna. What he doesn't know is that the pelts belong to a supernatural species of nocturnal animal native to the forest surrounding an ancient ruin -- or is it rune?

Argento has always demonstrated a tender affinity for animals in his work, and though "Pelts" necessarily involves some nasty violence toward animals (all faked), the episode's admiring shots of the animal skins are invested with the appropriate sense of sorrow and sacrifice. And the violence inflicted against the animals is subsequently turned in kind against those who have derived pleasure from their furs. For all the bludgeoning horror of the episode, it finds its greatest strength in a scene where Jake, desperate to find a pair of these special raccoons to use for mating purposes to keep the coats coming, takes a bottle of moonshine to "Mother Mater," a toothless old cackler who lives in a shack near the runic temple where the animals were first trapped. The character's name obviously hearkens back to Argento's Three Mothers (heralded in SUSPIRIA, INFERNO and the forthcoming THE THIRD MOTHER -- a movie whose title really must be changed), which keeps the attentive viewer on edge throughout the scene, and Argento's "fourth mother" helps the scene build to the nerve-rattling pitch hoped-for. Better still are the scene's cutaway shots to numerous raccoon faces assembled outside the shack's windows, which strike a complex note of eerie otherworldliness that the series hasn't touched since Stuart Gordon's "Dreams in the Witch-House" in Season 1. That the barbarism of animal skinning results in the ideal garb for a fashion model also tickles an old and much-missed nerve in Argento's work, namely the relationship between violence and haute couture. And it's fun to see John Saxon back in Argento harness, for the first time since TENEBRAE (1982).

Like a SAW-era updating of Robert Bloch's oft-filmed story "The Weird Tailor," "Pelts" tempers its savagery with just enough allusion to unearthly fantasy to arouse the imagination while it offends our other senses. An improvement on Argento's first season episode "Jenifer," I believe, and a welcome change of fortune for a show that we'd all like to see succeed artistically as well as commercially.

Friday, December 01, 2006

For The Film Criticism Blog-A-Thon

Andrew Horbal of the blog No More Marriages has launched a "Film Criticism Blog-A-Thon," lasting from today, December 1, through Sunday, December 3. Since I've already blogged about my own process of reviewing films, I thought I might contribute to the party by writing about film criticism from the standpoint of career, and how I've seen my identity as a critic develop in fits and starts over the course of my own.

I've been reviewing films since the age of 14 or 15, when I sent three reviews on spec to Fred Clarke at CINEFANTASTIQUE: a longish review of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and capsule reviews of HORROR ON SNAPE ISLAND and GODZILLA VS. THE SMOG MONSTER. The SNAPE ISLAND review was accepted and published, while the other two were turned down -- reluctantly, I was told, in the case of the CLOCKWORK review, which had been promised to reviewer Dale Winogura. My own review of the film never appeared anywhere, but I still have a copy on file, typewritten on yellow paper, and plan to include it in the collection of my criticism I am planning.

Some might consider it the height of good fortune that I embarked on my career so early, and it's true that I never suffered, as so many do, from career indecision. However, because I started so early, my work had appeared in an internationally circulated magazine before I started publishing my own first fanzines, even before I started reviewing films for my high school newspaper in my freshman year. This means that I started out with nothing more than a grade school education -- which I find incredible now that I have nieces and nephews -- and my own audacity. I also started publishing before I had read anything substantial in the field of published film criticism, which is surely impossible today for anyone attempting to pursue this line of work. In the early 1970s, I had never read James Agee, Pauline Kael, or John Simon, though I had seen Simon's cross-legged, cold-blooded aestheticism in action on THE DICK CAVETT SHOW. My reading of film criticism at that time was limited to the CASTLE OF FRANKENSTEIN Movie Guide and the industry-minded reviews I had read in a stack of old BOXOFFICE magazines given to me by a branch office manager of a local independent distribution company. I was much too green to know anything about movies, but I knew a lot about horror movies and therein lay my saving grace. I somehow accured a body of work before anyone knew that I was too young to have done so, and breaking this fundamental rule in some ways saved my life. Had I known what I was doing, I might never have attempted it -- but I've always had an autodidactic nature. Even now, I prefer to play the bass rather than learn how to play the bass.

My first year was timid and restricted to short pieces. It was not until Fred Clarke assigned me a feature article on Robert Fuest's THE FINAL PROGRAMME (aka THE LAST DAYS OF MAN ON EARTH), to write about the film at length and to incorporate some interview quotes provided by a pair of British journalists, that I first embarked on a larger canvas. To this day, I can remember the pressure and exhilaration of pushing into new territory with that piece, which resulted in my first large font byline and "About the Author" sidebar. Over the next ten years, my tenure at CFQ allowed me to develop as a more in-depth writer and also as a film journalist, visiting film sets, interviewing cast and crew people, and assimilating the various pieces into solid reportage.

The experience of being on a film set and gaining insights to the actual process of making films is invaluable to anyone who writes about films. Of course, the critic is writing about the end result, but it is important to know that (for example) performance often has less to do with what is accomplished on-set than shaped in the editing room, and the extent to which budget can restrict the fulfillment of what is on the page. Too many critics blame faults on the writer, director or actors that would be more correctly laid at the door of the producer, the editor, or even the cinematographer. (I won't go into details, but I know of one occasion where I was less than impressed by a certain actress in a certain role, and I later realized that my response had more to do with the way she was photographed than her actual performance. I later heard gossip from the set about how the actress and the cameraman had not gotten along, which just goes to support the maxim that it is a wise actress who stays on the good side of her cameraman.) Thus, one of the great dangers of writing film criticism is saying the right things while innocently giving the wrong account of them, which turns the positive into a negative. One of my own key definitions of a good critic is anyone capable of making such fine distinctions.

Another definition is a critic who is not confined by genre, which has become more of a problem in recent years, as film coverage has become more specialized. After CFQ, I spent two years writing for VIDEO TIMES, which subsequently became VIDEO MOVIES, and it was there that I learned to break through my own genre barriers, and also how to write about films in a less scholarly and more entertaining manner -- even a personal manner when the subject matter called for it. I can remember (I'm doing it now) permitting a certain degree of first-person reminiscence to enter into two reviews I wrote in the space of one month, and my editors later referred to the issue in which they appeared as their "Tim Lucas Confessional Issue." I was taken aback when I heard that phrase, but no... they liked it, otherwise they wouldn't have run the reviews or edited out the personal stuff. Learning how to infuse my criticism with personality and confession was an important leap in my professional development, not only for the sake of my criticism but because these elements were useful to my later development as a novelist. It was also during my time at VIDEO MOVIES that the "Video Watchdog" concept was born, which would naturally have a vast impact on my future.

Filming the "Video Watchdog" segment for the first issue of Michael Nesmith's OVERVIEW in 1986 gave me camera experience and more insight, and writing the "Video Watchdog" column for GOREZONE helped to cultivate the audience for the spin-off magazine to come. This latter experience confirmed for me that the most valuable assets for anyone writing criticism is a reliable and personable homebase where one can attract a constant readership and, if at all possible, a unique angle. To this end, most film bloggers probably have an advantage over the young critics who are trying to make their names in magazines today, and print critics of any station would probably be wise to blog -- to have a place to work and a place to promote oneself. Too many current magazines feature interchangeable criticism or, worse, flavor-of-the-moment froth of no permanent consequence; even if I read something in a magazine today that I like, I can have a hard time remembering where I read it. Likewise, if a magazine's personality is distinct, it's often easier to remember that one read something in, say, SIGHT & SOUND or FILM COMMENT rather than the name of the writer responsible.

Seventeen years ago, as the first issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG was taking shape, I set about writing material for that first issue and the issues to come -- and none of it would have been considered acceptable anywhere else. I was writing at unacceptable length about subjects that would not have been countenanced by any other editor. It was Fred Clarke who had instilled in me (and all the CFQ contributors) the ideal of "definitive" coverage, but even he would have thrown something like my three-part "The Trouble With Titian" article (about how an obscure Yuoslavian film called OPERATION TITIAN was acquired by Roger Corman and turned into three different movies stateside: PORTRAIT IN TERROR, BLOOD BATH and TRACK OF THE VAMPIRE) back in my face. There is risk in breaking ground like that, and a certain arrogance may be necessary in the act. With projects like this, one risks exceeding the interest of even interested readers, but I told myself that, if I was interested, others would be as well. Obsession invites obsession, as long as the writing can communicate that obsession vividly; so, to an extent, it doesn't matter if the reader is actually interested in the subject at hand. The level of obsession shown by the writer makes the material interesting and all the more identifiable with the writer. Over the years, we've received a number of letters from readers telling us that "I have no interest in most of the films you cover, but you write about them in such interesting ways, I never miss an issue!" -- and I can't imagine higher praise. Without question, VIDEO WATCHDOG has been the most important chapter in my writing career, from a personal viewpoint, because it has offered me a livelihood as well as a byline; it's well-nigh impossible for a freelancing critic to undertake such work as anything more than a hobby. Even now, it's my work as a publisher and editor that makes my work as a critic -- and novelist, and screenwriter, and most certainly blogger -- financially feasible.

As my writing in this area matures, the less I find myself less concerned with the banalities of identifying good performances. This has its place in writing an essay on the worth of a specific performer, where the ups and downs of their individual craft must be noted, but in terms of film criticism, a good performance has as much right to invisibility as good editing. Making a point of such things is the very hallmark of the most basic, entry-level film criticism, and therefore to be moved beyond. Absolutes in general become more and more meaningless, and I find myself no longer particularly interested in the question of whether a film is "good" or not. No one ever sets out to make a bad film, and part of the challenge of writing quality criticism is to find the good, or at least the conviction, in whatever you're writing about. For the same reason, I am against the ideas of star ratings and thumbs-up/thumbs-down shorthand because these discourage the consideration of a film's worth at a glance.

People want a lot of different things from film criticism: suggestions of what to see, confirmation of their own opinions, infuriation, education, diversion, literary pleasure. Likewise, critics surely write about films for any number of reasons, ranging from the desire to see free movies or get free DVDs, to the wish to be recognized for the value of their opinions. My own reasons have more to do with the autodidactic impulse I referenced earlier. When I started out, I reviewed films as a matter of asserting (indeed solidifying) my own personal taste; but, as time has gone on, it's developed into something else entirely. Now, unless I write about a film I have seen -- and soon, before another replaces it in my thoughts -- the time I spent viewing it might just as well be chalked up to wasteful pleasure, because criticism is the means by which I arrive at a better understanding what I have seen. It's akin to keeping a diary to make sense of the events of one's life. In short, I now write criticism primarily to educate myself, to better know myself, and it's been my good luck that a select group of others seem to get something out of eavesdropping on the process.


J. Madison Wright reads to brother John Corbett in Joe Dante's THE OSIRIS CHRONICLES, also known as THE WARLORD: BATTLE FOR THE GALAXY.

In addition to the excellent work he's done in feature films over the years, Joe Dante has also put in a lot of time on television projects. In addition to his recent lauded work for MASTERS OF HORROR, he directed two episodes of AMAZING STORIES (one of them, "The Greibble," gave him the opportunity of working with Hayley Mills and is a must-see for fans of Rob Bottin's work); one episode of the 1980s TWILIGHT ZONE revival ("The Shadow Man," in which he paid hommage to Mario Bava's BARON BLOOD); an offbeat Western story for the limited run Showtime series PICTURE WINDOWS (featuring Ron Perlman and Kathleen Quinlan -- "but the real fun was Brian Keith," says Joe); a pair of stories for the Fox Network series NIGHT VISIONS (neither of which was edited with his input); several episodes of EERIE, INDIANA (on which he also served as creative consultant); and, for my money, the two funniest episodes of POLICE SQUAD! ("Ring of Fear" and "Testimony of Evil," which features Leslie Nielsen going undercover as a nightclub entertainer and performing a riotous version of "I've Got A Lot of Livin' To Do"). For some reason, the IMDb doesn't credit Joe (or anyone) with directing these episodes, but his name's on them and Dick Miller's in one of them.

Dante's feature work for television is some of his most interesting. RUNAWAY DAUGHTERS, his in-name-only remake of a 1957 AIP film, was made for the Showtime limited series REBEL HIGHWAY in 1994. It's been awhile since I've seen it, but I remember it best for its delightful cameos by a grinning Roger Corman and his wife Julie, presiding over a backyard barbecue, and an inversion-of-sorts that allowed his stalwart supporting actor Dick Miller to essentially take the film's unofficial lead role for a change. It was sneaked out on DVD last year by Dimension Pictures, as was Jonathan Kaplan's REFORM SCHOOL GIRL, another title in the DRIVE-IN CLASSICS series.

THE SECOND CIVIL WAR, scripted by Canadian writer-director Martyn Burke (THE LAST CHASE) was made for HBO in 1997 and turns up the volume on the political shadings that became more pronounced in his 1993 feature MATINEE. THE SECOND CIVIL WAR was sneaked out on DVD by HBO in the fall of 2005, without Dante being notified. He regrets this as he considers the film one of his best and because he has in his possession a half-hour or so of deleted scenes that the disc could have used. I've seen the deleted scenes (which lend valuable delineation to Joanna Cassidy's character in particular) and plan to write about them, and the disc, in an upcoming VIDEO WATCHDOG. The film is also notable for the casting of the late Phil Hartman, who was killed by his wife two months prior to the release of his final theatrical feature, Joe Dante's SMALL SOLDIERS.

Dick Miller cameos as a futuristic junk peddler in THE OSIRIS CHRONICLES.

Perhaps Dante's most obscure television feature, and one well worth seeing, is the one broadcast under the title THE WARLORD: BATTLE FOR THE GALAXY on UPN (United Paramount Network) in January 1998. If you happened to miss it -- and frankly, I don't know anyone who caught it, as Joe's name was probably not featured in any on-air or print advertising -- your only way of seeing it is to score a pressing of the Hong Kong laserdisc (Paramount CIC Video, PL1297) that was issued under the title THE OSIRIS CHRONICLES. (I'm told there was also a German DVD under that title, but it no longer seems to be available.)

Scripted by novelist Caleb Carr (THE ALIENIST), THE OSIRIS CHRONICLES was the pilot for a science fiction series that never happened. This sticky little fact hobbles the film's resurrection value, as the movie only exists to introduce a group of characters and to set up a series of adventures that the interested viewer will never see. The film is set on the planet Caliban 6 in the year 2391, some three hundred years after the people of Earth began to desert their overcrowded planet and colonize the worlds in other star systems. John Corbett stars as Justin Thorpe, an outlaw abandoned by his parents as a youngster and left to fend for himself and his younger sister Nova (J. Madison Wright). They enjoy a close relationship, with the bookish Nova teaching her somewhat illiterate elder brother to read the classics of literature. The story takes off when Justin discovers that Nova has been kidnapped by a group of ruthless aliens, who insist that she accompanied them willingly. Justin doesn't buy this, and his only hope of getting her back is ruin a carefully mended relationship with his planet's warlord Heenoc Xian (John Pyper-Ferguson) by plundering his spoils, and acquiring a starship that he manages with the help of Nova's 15 year-old best friend Maggi (Elizabeth Harnois) and her grandfather General Sorenson (Rod Taylor, in his first substantial screen performance since the 1970s, excellent in a role that Christopher Lee accepted, then had to turn down because of tax reasons).

Rod Taylor adds another bravura performance to his list of credits as General Sorenson.

What we have here is a subversive space opera that peels away the obligatory sci-fi lingo and metaphorizing to get at the human story underneath, which happens to be an inspired sf-reweaving of THE SEARCHERS and SPLIT IMAGE (the 1982 religious cult deprogrammer drama starring James Woods), as Justin searches for the wise child who gave meaning and hope to his life in a prison as boundless as the galaxy. Upping the ante here is the fact that the abductors, when we meet them, have a philosophy that is not so easily discounted. The Engineers, as they are called, are a peaceful if unpleasant-looking breed that have worked hard to obliterate all conflict from their way of life -- which extends to the omission of the family from their society, families being "the basic unit of all conflict." (They are still working on the problem of the conflict between the sexes.) The aliens, led by a character who resembles a more reptilian, fish-lipped George Macready, live on an invisibility-cloaked planet and have the usual plan of galactic conquest, but their aim is tied up with their ideal of achieving true galactic liberation. The viewer is thus torn between what we want to see happen for emotional reasons and what we might like to see happen philosophically, which is a more rigorously involving stance than most TV drama bothers to take. Things take an even more interesting turn when Heenoc Xian pursues Justin's ship into the danger zone in order to have his revenge upon him, only to have the two natives of Caliban 6 forced to sort out their differences so that they and their planet might survive and give them both what they want most from life. Furthermore (and here's where SPLIT IMAGE comes in), when Justin and the others find Nova, while visiting the stealth planet, they discover that she did go with the Engineers voluntarily because she had the intelligence to understand their argument and their ultimate goals. Can her rescuers persuade her of the importance of family, and how solid is their argument when the members of the rescue mission are either at odds with one another, synthetic, or involved in broken families? If sworn enemies can work as partners, perhaps anything is possible.

The leader of those icky Engineers, barring your view of The Supreme Plenum.

In a sense, THE OSIRIS CHRONICLES is the perfect link between EXPLORERS and Dante's more political later work, because it shares the same ravishing look and wide-eyed idealism about outer space as the former film, while braving a narrative tapestry that's more ambitious and politically-minded than the usual space opera. If the film has any weakness, it's that John Corbett doesn't quite earn the Captain's chair in his starship, but that might have been a subject explored or a question satisfied in subsequent episodes. This introductory chapter is dominated in many ways by Rod Taylor, the experienced officer on the bridge, who embodies not only the authority on the starship but the conscience of the science fiction genre itself, knowledgeable and appreciating his moment in time much as he did as George Wells in 1960's THE TIME MACHINE. The production values are impressive, as is the makeup and costume design; the production, in fact, received the only Emmy nomination yet attracted by a Dante film -- for hairdressing! The supporting cast is also exceptional, with Elisabeth Harnois especially good, Marjorie Monaghan striking as the android Jana, Dick Miller appearing briefly as a street peddler, and J. Madison Wright (at 12 years of age, already a TV sci-fi veteran of EARTH 2) making the perfect impression in her limited screen time of a memorable and valuable character well worth the effort of recovering. I was so impressed by the warmth and intelligence of Wright's performance, in fact, that I looked her up on the IMDb. I was initially surprised to discover that she was a fellow Cincinnatian... and then heartbroken to learn that she died under tragic circumstances earlier this year. You can read her sad story here.

Shelved for two years before it was finally aired, THE OSIRIS CHRONICLES first came to my attention in the form of the HK LD, which I managed to win on eBay. It's a standard ratio, subtitled presentation with stereo surround sound, and the subtitles cover a mostly inactive area of the frame that can be zoomboxed out for playback on widescreen sets, without hardly any disruption of the compositions. I watched it without knowing that the story is was going to tell was incomplete, which is probably the best way to go at it. It leaves the viewer with a breastful of unresolved emotions, questions and daydreams about The Show That Never Was, which is testament to how appealing this opening chapter really is. The WARLORD broadcast version reportedly had an alternate ending, I assume to make it more self-contained.

Over the years, Paramount has issued a pile of science fiction programming on DVD as high as the mountain peak of their logo. THE OSIRIS CHRONICLES is more thought-provoking than most of it, even if its grand scheme was only just begun. I hope they'll someday consider this bittersweet might-have-been for domestic DVD issue, with a director's commentary and both endings included. It's an interesting film with an equally fascinating production history worth detailing.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Joe Dante: Anarchy in L.A.

Today is Joe Dante’s 60th birthday, strange as that may seem. It’s hard to think of another filmmaker whose outlook has been, and remains, so perenially youthful; his protagonists are often children or child-like, and his projects have leaned toward stories of conflict between childlike idealism and the oppressive realities and counter-ideologies that would place barriers in the path of imagination in full flight.

Dante’s films are often caricatured as being heavily adorned with pop cultural references and in-jokes, but to simply note this element is not to understand it. The proliferation of fish and water jokes in PIRANHA (1978), for example, or the “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf” clip in THE HOWLING (1980) are in place to acknowledge the difficulty of doing anything completely serious or original with such familiar material; it shows us how much cultural noise stands between us, as viewers, and fresh entertainment we should have every expectation of meeting head-on. And this brings us to the point where Dante’s work becomes so much more than merely pop-referential and -reverential. In a sense, his films use this material like a matador uses his red cape: he flaunts our familiarity with the territory, only to peel it away like a layer of skin and leaving us disoriented and newly vulnerable to attack.

Beginning with HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD (1976) and continuing through the recent acclaimed MASTERS OF HORROR episode “Homecoming” (2005), the films of Joe Dante have always found ways to circumvent genre expectations, by daring to make us uncomfortable. The last reel of the comic HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD suddenly posits us in the midst of a gory slasher film; even earlier than that, a rape scene in a sexploitation flick being shot in the Phillippines is shown crossing the line between cinema and reality, to the surprise of the movie’s star (Candice Rialson). Any director would play this joke just long enough to get the point across, but Dante holds the take until it scrapes our nerves and reminds the raincoat crowd of the violent crime that rape is. At the time of the film’s release, these points were either forgiven, on account of being in part of an exceedingly cheap maiden effort, or criticized for their tastelessness, but time has shown these aspects of Dante’s debut to be surprisingly consistent with the master plan (he said, tongue-in-cheek) of the work that followed.

Joe bumps into an old friend at Wonderfest in 2004.

In PIRANHA (1978), the genetically engineered “frankenfish” swimming upstream toward a children’s summer camp actually succeed in reaching the place, placing dozens of gaily splashing kids in the midst of serious danger, with camp director (something of a double entendre, that) Paul Bartel suddenly transformed from a fatuous figure of fun to a palpably tragic character. The heroine of THE HOWLING (1980) is not only voluntarily assassinated on national television at the end of the movie, but her death is quickly glossed over with a vignette culminating in the product shot of a hamburger pattie being fried up on a grill. Even a hit film like GREMLINS (1984) has to undercut the joyous warmth of its old-fashioned Christmas setting with Phoebe Cates telling the story of how her father met his untimely end by disguising himself as Santa and attempting to descend with holiday gifts through the chimney of his home, getting stuck and not getting discovered till the smell gave his caper away. EXPLORERS (1985), a movie that deliberately romances the possibility that a group of kids could build a working spacecraft with help from friendly aliens, works toward the epochal moment of communication with extraterrestial lifeforms only to expose them as beings braindead from being inundated with all the garbage broadcast into space on our airwaves. The creepy people who move into the derelict house in Tom Hanks’ suburban neighborhood in THE ‘BURBS (1989) are imagined to be cannibals or worse, and just when we give them the benefit of the doubt... they turn out to be malevolent after all! The element of surprise has always been one of Dante’s great strengths and he is especially adept at turning it against us, in the manner of a truly Swiftian satirist.

A number of the comic vignettes that Dante shot for the John Landis-produced omnibus AMAZON WOMEN ON THE MOON (1987) were omitted from the theatrical release “because John didn’t think they were funny” (as Joe once told me) – a mind-boggling prospect when one sees the stuff that made the cut, including a deliberately agonizing two-part skit (“Critics’ Corner” and “Roast Your Loved One”) featuring Archie Hahn. He stars as a regular guy who suffers a fatal heart attack while seeing his personal life scathingly reviewed on television by a pair of Siskel & Ebert stand-ins, and whose funeral is subsequently turned into a proverbial celebrity roast featuring the likes of Henny Youngman and Slappy White. Looking back, seeing this diptych in a theater was one of the more surprisingly expansive incidents in my movie-going life, perhaps as close as any movie-goer of my generation could get to experiencing the fresh taste of the “sick humor” (that is to say, confrontational humor) launched in the 1950s by Lenny Bruce, a comedian directly referenced in MATINEE. (Another “sick comic,” Brother Theodore, was prominently featured in THE ‘BURBS.)

Both of these skits made me extremely uncomfortable on the first pass, and I could also sense the discomfort of others in the auditorium with me, given the sudden epidemic of coughing, candy box-rattling, and noisy leg-crossings that broke out. There was a hushed sense of “Thank God that’s over” when the first part ended, and something just this side of an actual groan when we all realized we were only halfway done with this character. I can’t speak for anyone else who was with me that day, but I was intrigued. I was interested enough in my own reaction, and solid enough in my trust of Joe’s directorial instincts, to come back and see the film a second time; that second time, I could see this Mack Truck coming, knew what it was, and rolling with its punches instead of against them, I started laughing my ass off. I still do, when I see AMAZON WOMEN ON THE MOON today (though some of its deliberately funny material has lost some of its lustre over the years). In a sense, what Dante was doing here was Reichian comedy: pounding away at our emotional armor until our inner defense systems gave way, allowing us to experience at full strength the humor of our own worst fears – that the media might tap into our own worst secrets (the worst being our inconsequentiality in the great scheme of things), that we might be denied respect even in death, that our funerals might turn into a cheap burlesque where even our loved ones would laugh. “Reckless Youth,” the bizarre Dante-directed coda that ends AMAZON WOMEN -- a parody of the baleful Dwain Esper “teen pregnancy” exploitation reels of the 1930s -- has a similarly confrontational edge in that it shows us, beneath the impeccable surface layer joke of its camera and acting technique (both inept), how uncomfortable Americans continue to be when it comes to the matters of our own bodies and sexual education.

Dante’s “It’s A Good Life” remake for TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE (1983) initiated a thematic thread that would blossom into fuller expression in his two GREMLINS films (the second being the wonderfully no-holds-barred GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH, 1990), namely the idea later revisited by the Spider-Man films: that with great power comes great responsibility. Dante gets to the heart of “It’s A Good Life” in a way the original TWILIGHT ZONE episode did not, showing that little Anthony (Jeremy Licht) is not inherently a monster but has become one because his family has allowed him to mature without the firm guiding hand that enters his life only with the accidental arrival of schoolteacher Helen Foley (Kathleen Quinlan). The Mogwai of the Gremlins films are analogous to Anthony’s reality-bending powers in that their potential for hazard is entrusted to the hands of young people who learn what can happen if you’re careless even once. Appropriately, when the Mogwai comes into contact with water, the resulting Gremlins are the very embodiment of antic, rampant Irresponsibility. And Joe Dante being Joe Dante, he couldn’t have experienced the irony of seeing his murderous, anarchic Gremlins merchandised as toys for children without responding with the underrated SMALL SOLDIERS (1998), in which we see the consequences of G.I. Joe-type action figures being beefed-up with military technology... which, of course, takes us back to the fine, finny, science-bred war machines of PIRANHA.

Dante, of course, was a child of the Vietnam War era and his collective works reflect an uneasy regard for the military, for politicians, and for big business, in all of which he sees a soullessness equal to that of the pods in Don Siegel’s INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1955). Indeed, the shadows of war and partisan contretemps send a chill through the majority of his collected works, whether it’s overtly as in SMALL SOLDIERS, the military intentions behind the flesh-eating fish of PIRANHA, and the Cuban Missile Crisis backdrop of the magnificent MATINEE (1993, a classic killed at the boxoffice by a non-descript title), or more subtly, as in the microcosmic-cum-analogous war strategies THE ‘BURBS (with its suburban sergeant Bruce Dern), and the personal-cum-national politics of his impressive made-for-cable feature THE SECOND CIVIL WAR (1997, which assembles one of the finest casts of its decade).

But for much of Dante’s career, his own personal war has been with Hollywood – whose play-it-safe policies have been in increasing conflict with the kinds of movies he wants to make and stories he wants to tell. In the decade between 1993 and 2003, he directed only three theatrical features, working increasingly on cable and commercial television films and series (like EERIE, INDIANA), and devoting much of his time to projects that did not pan out (like the Charlie Haas script TERMITE TERRACE, a no-go that Joe has called the “heartbreaker” of his career), or did not pan out as planned (like the 1996 film of Lee Falk’s comicstrip THE PHANTOM, which he ended up executive producing rather than directing). Joe’s biggest opportunity of the past decade, LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION (2003), saw the either moribund or commercially sold-out cartoon characters of the Warner Bros. stable finally entrusted to the only director still living who understood them; unfortunately, with the film’s immense budget came even more immense second-guessing from the front office (“Why does he have to say, ‘What’s Up, Doc?’”). Though Bugs, Daffy and their celluloid cohorts live and breathe here as they haven’t done in decades, the end result is an amusing but overwritten conglomeration of the divine (the Louve sequence, for example), the magnificently apt, and the you’ve-got-to-be-kidding. BACK IN ACTION was Dante’s DANGER: DIABOLIK – a good movie, but a disappointing personal and artistic misadventure that seems to have redirected him back to the spirit of independent American cinema, where creative freedom can still thrive.

Joe bumps into an even older friend at Wonderfest 2004: Me.

For the last couple of years, when not filming standout episodes for MASTERS OF HORROR, Joe has been travelling the globe in search of funding for THE MAN WITH KALEIDOSCOPE EYES, a comedy script written by this writer and Charlie Largent about Roger Corman’s experiences prior to, during, and after his filming of his LSD epic THE TRIP (1967), and its role in the founding of the US independent film scene. In the time since Joe has optioned it, Charlie and I have done some rewrites, and there’s been an intermediary rewrite by Michael Almereyda and James Robison, and our script, as it now stands, reads like a bonafide Joe Dante movie, and one we’d all dearly love to see – a fascinating experience for me, as a writer and as a fan.

But it’s most of all as a friend that I want to wish Joe a happy birthday. We’ve known each other, though at a distance, for more than 25 years. I first got in touch with him back in 1980 to request an interview for a piece about contemporary horror trends I was preparing for HEAVY METAL magazine. I was nervous before calling him for the first time because I’d known his name since my boyhood, thanks to his bylines in CASTLE OF FRANKENSTEIN, and I was taken aback when he responded to my self-introduction with an undisguisedly familiar and impressed “Oh, HI!” (He knew me from my writings for CINEFANTASTIQUE.) I also spoke to David Cronenberg, George Romero, John Carpenter and Tom Savini for that article, but I felt the strongest personal affinity for Joe; by the end of that first call, we were finishing each other’s sentences. A decade later, he became one of VIDEO WATCHDOG's first subscribers, and a letter written in his own hand appeared in the Letterbox of our first issue. We first met face-to-face in 1993, around the time of MATINEE’s release. Later that year, he allowed me to co-host with him a 1993 Mario Bava retrospective at the American Cinematheque, where we talked, answered questions, and interviewed the likes of John Saxon and Harriet White Medin. (That night I also had the pleasure of speaking with Harriet’s escort, actor Robert Cornthwaite, whom I congratulated on his “virtuoso… or skilled" performance in Joe’s classic movie-within-a-movie, MANT.)

Some years ago, before he joined our pages with his “Fleapit Flashbacks” column, I told Joe that I had it in mind to devote an upcoming issue to his films. But, as fate would have it, when the time rolled around to begin that issue, I was well into my surprise obsession with Andy Milligan, which resulted not one... not two… but three feature articles. For some reason, Joe still talks to me, and I’m grateful. I still intend to do that Joe Dante issue, but I want to do it when I really feel it... and looking at the length of what I've written here, maybe that day was today! Anyway, until that mythic issue finally materializes, I hope this birthday blog will do – along with the other Blog-A-Thon offerings of the day.

Come to think of it, I have still more to say on this subject, so there just might be a Part 2, devoted to one of Joe’s lesser-known projects, later in the week.

In the meantime... Have a great day, Joe!




The Exploding Kinetoscope:

Joplin John:

Film Ick:

KGB Films:

The Horror Blog:

This Is Not A Dark Ride:

Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule:

Monday, November 27, 2006

Should Old Acquaintence Be Bloodshot

Gene Evans holds satanic children at bay with a golf club in DEVIL TIMES FIVE.

DEVIL TIMES FIVE is known, like the Devil, by many names. It was produced and previewed under the title PEOPLETOYS, then became THE HORRIBLE HOUSE ON THE HILL for its first theatrical release, before settling into the moniker that's stuck. I first saw the film in 1974 at a private screening under the PEOPLETOYS title, probably before it was acquired for release by Jerry Gross's Cinemation Industries, and being 18 and frankly stoned, was sufficiently impressed by what I saw to fire off the following "Capsule Comment" postcard for publication in CINEFANTASTIQUE (Vol 4 No 2):

"Titanic, nightmarish horror-of-personality film about a team of 'special' children who walk together in a VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED type pack. They invade a household and destroy its dull, vanity-conscious occupants in various jolting ways. One of the most thought-provoking works of horror in recent years." (TL, +4)

"Plus-four" being CFQ's very highest rating, and only one notch higher than the gratuitous accolades I had accorded around the same time to MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR. Hey, I was a teenager. It was the Seventies.

Ten years later, I reprised those red-eyed comments into a toned-down but still-excessive three-star entry for my VIDEO TIMES paperback compendium YOUR MOVIE GUIDE TO HORROR VIDEO TAPES AND DISCS (Signet Books, 1985):

"Five wandering homeless 'special' children are offered shelter in [Gene] Evans' handsome winter retreat, where his haughty and privileged guests are unaware that the kids have just escaped an asylum for the criminally insane. This unsettling, moralistic horror story sees the affluent adults gradually falling victim to the sudden reality of the children's true natures (the most memorable scene shows one guest beaten to death with chains in a chilling sequence of grainy still photographs). Promising director Sean McGregor [sic] never made another feature after this sleeper, also known as PEOPLETOYS and THE HORRIBLE HOUSE ON THE HILL." (p. 39)

It's hard to believe that almost 30 years have passed since that initial screening, and I've been wary ever since of seeing the film again, because I knew it was unlikely to be even half of what I wrote it was. For one thing, though the memory of the picture stuck with me for awhile, that's not the same thing as provoking thought -- a distinction I wasn't critically equipped to make in those green days. In fact, aside from an extended slow-motion sequence (not "grainy still photographs") that couldn't have possibly have lasted as long as it seemed to (could it?), I was very soon unable to remember much about the film at all.

The mind-boggling drop-piranha-in-the-bathtub scene.

Last week, DEVIL TIMES FIVE was released on DVD for the first time, courtesy of a new label called Code Red, distributed by Media Blasters. After spending part of a day last week blogging about CFQ's mutation into GEEK MONTHLY, I was in a mood to reminisce about my fledgling days in my profession and this traipse down Memory Lane inevitably intersected with my long-postponed reacquaintence with this work credited to director Sean MacGregor. When I first saw this movie, MacGregor's name leaped off the screen at me much as Oliver Stone's did when I saw SEIZURE (the two films have things in common), and I expected to hear more from him; I never did. Media Blasters' excellent disc goes a long way toward explaining why. (MacGregor is credited or co-credited with the direction of two subsequent pictures, supposedly neither of which he completed.)

This is one of those DVDs as important, if not moreso, for what it reveals about the facts of production as for the main feature itself. As a horror movie of its period, DEVIL TIMES FIVE doesn't hold together very well (the film's first victim is played by three different people, one of them THE BROOD's Henry Beckman!), but it contains its share of scenes and images exert a certain disturbing quality. There are things in this movie that would never be permitted in today's climate; for example, in one scene, a little girl and a novice nun (!) dump a bowl of piranha fish into a bathtub with a very full-breasted, naked woman, and her naked body is later shown being dragged through the snow by a group of kids whose average age is 12. To make matters even weirder, we later learn that the actress in question (Carolyn Stellar) was the mother of two of the children (Leif Garrett and Dawn Lyn). The audio commentary's willful overlooking of this point -- "Wasn't it weird seeing your mother naked, much less dumping piranha fish on your mother naked?" -- is proof of the film's still-valid discomforting quality, and its use of children directly interacting with graphic violence and adult nudity remains creepy, as does its unexpectedly but very Seventies nihilistic ending.

The even more mind-boggling Leif Garrett-drags-his-mother-naked-through-the-snow scene.

Furthermore, remember that extended slow-motion scene I mentioned earlier? It wasn't just the pot; it really did last as long as I remembered, running a full six minutes -- because the producers had to s-t-r-e-t-c-h the movie out when the director's cut, filmed at Lake Arrowhead over a four-week period, amounted to only 38 minutes of footage!

And here's where the value of this disc truly kicks in, because the supplementary materials -- the audio commentary and on-camera interviews with cast and crew -- reveal that Sean MacGregor was fired from the production and sued by the producers following those four weeks, after which time the balance of the picture was completed in only one week, under the shared direction of uncredited production consultant David Sheldon (a production executive at AIP) and Sandra Lee Blowitz, the film's production manager and the wife of producer Michael Blowitz. She also revised the original screenplay to make the film completable within the short allotted time. DEVIL TIMES FIVE thus earns the unsuspected distinction of being one of the few horror films of the 1970s (THE VELVET VAMPIRE, BLOOD SABBATH) directed by a woman, and one of the very few in history to be written and directed by a woman.

I spent most of DEVIL TIMES FIVE wishing it was more cohesive, but the best scenes do appear to have been shot after MacGregor's departure and pretty much forged from the fires of desperation. The producers, to their credit, lament that the alledged incompetence of MacGregor (whose name appears nowhere on the packaging) made it impossible to film John Durren's script as it was written, and -- given their repeated endorsements of its quality and difference from the end result -- viewers will lament that the script wasn't included on the disc as a PDF file. As moderator (and sometimes VW contributor) Darren Gross points out in the commentary, the slow-motion sequence -- which features stand-ins for the victim as well as the novice nun played elsewhere by MacGregor's girlfriend, Gale Smale -- is nightmarish almost in spite of itself, with its gritty snuff-movie quality striking chords associated with Andy Milligan's THE GHASTLY ONES or perhaps MARAT/SADE.

The 16:9 presentation is splendidly colorful and crystal clear, and the pristine source element sports the HORRIBLE HOUSE ON THE HILL title. An alternate sequence consisting of the Cinemation Industries logo and a DEVIL TIMES FIVE title card is also included. Actors Joan McCall and Dawn Lyn are featured in on-camera interviews and the audio commentary, along with producers Blowitz and Sheldon. The theatrical trailer is curious for name-checking VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (as I did in my original notes on that preview screening... coincidence?), a film older than more than half the film's cast list.

Seen again after all these years, I must revise my original overblown opinions and declare DEVIL TIMES FIVE a mess, but it's an interesting mess. Maybe, just maybe, a two-star mess. And the Code Red disc makes for a very interesting, three-star evening's entertainment as an illustrated, annotated lesson in independent genre film production. BTW, for those who love to live dangerously, take a peek at the Code Red trailer supplement. Tucked away there are unbelievable coming attractions for the renowned necro-sickie LOVE ME DEADLY, the mind-boggling SCHOOLGIRLS IN CHAINS (it's incredible to think that theaters ever played trailers like this!), and other toxic untouchables that we're glad to know are soon forthcoming.

P.S. BLOGGERS! Remember the Joe Dante Blog-A-Thon tomorrow!

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Question Mark

Does Monsters HD realize they are showing THE MYSTERIANS right now in Japanese... WITHOUT English subtitles?