Friday, 28 November 2008

Doctor X (1932)

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The two-strip technicolor stylishness of Doctor X, coupled with a patently ludicrous plot, might qualify it as some early variety of pop-art – the imagery of Doctor X seems directly borrowed from the covers of Astounding magazine and some of its more lurid cousins, with few pretences to depth. Michael Curtiz’s companion piece to The Mystery of the Wax Museum doesn’t have much dramatic weight, but it is sheerly entertaining in its larkish absurdity. A cannibalistic serial killer butchers assorted victims: Doctor Xavier (Lionel Atwill, the only guy in film history to make a career of wrangling five syllables out of "lab-a-ro-tor-y".) learns from the police that the killer has to be someone from his own research institute, due t killer’s very specific weapon of choice. Wouldn’t you know it, there’s at least three potential suspects with some knowledge and possible history of cannibalism in the institute. He begins a series of experiments involving incredible scientific contraptions (which are, in effect, really clunky early versions of a polygraph on a Frankenstein scale) in his home, Cliff Manor, situated in eerie, isolated, storm-tossed Long Island. Can Xavier and goofball newsman Lee Tracy discover the killer before he goes after Xavier’s daughter (Fay Wray)?

One of the suspect scientists, Wells (Preston Foster), seems discounted as one because he’s missing a hand. But of course he’s an evil genius who has invented a form of synthetic flesh, with which he can fashion himself a new hand – and a monstrous face too, just for the hell of it – before setting out on his nocturnal ventures to contribute to his particularly perverted variety of scientific understanding. His ambition? To “make a crippled world whole!” And because he’s trusted for having no hand, he contrives to have his enemies secured during the experiments and fit for slaughter.
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The proto-David Cronenberg themes swirling around the killer, his modus operandi, and his motivation, unfortunately only really come into play right at the end, and then very glibly, so
Doctor X is never in any danger of becoming a mind-melting study in New Flesh. Curtiz never pretends that the film belongs to the poetic brand of horror practised by James Whale and Tod Browning over at Universal, and Tracy’s character is a hangover from the days of The Cat and the Canary on other comic-chillers of the ‘20s, taking up too much screen time. It’s more an exercise in style for Curtiz, evidenced in the dramatic camera angles and lighting effects he toys with, but the story structure hampers his opportunities to show off.
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Despite the hesitations that ultimately limit its possibilities, Doctor X’s script is rife with pre-Code kinkiness – cheeky humour involving the scientist’s sex lives (one reads magazines on “French Art” for “relaxation”), Tracy’s having to phone in a story from a brothel, and the amusingly odd clinch for Tracy and Wray. The film also wryly emphasises a dislocation between intellectual brilliance and emotional health. All of Xavier’s geniuses are weirdoes, and one of them is of course absolutely insane, in a brilliant way.
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The finale is contrived to see intellect pinioned and common human strength triumphant – in a sequence in which Curtiz finally cuts loose with some brilliant editing and lighting – as Xavier achieves absolutely nothing, he and his fellows sit chained to their chairs helplessly as Wells sets about eating his daughter. She’s only saved by the intervention of unlikely hero Tracy, who, with his fear for his job and his being definitely not an exalted genius, is the only one in the end who can take Wells on – finally doing him by throwing a lamp at him with the same technique he used in baseball pitching.
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The film’s grisly suggestions remain just that, suggestions, but in its salacious hints of sadism there’s a vibration of portent that travels along the genre’s history to the modern torture-porn variety as well as to Lynch and Cronenberg. Fay’s at her most devastatingly sultry in two-strip technicolor: that, and the way Foster says “Synnnthetic fleeeesh”, is worth the viewing alone.
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Wednesday, 26 November 2008

52 Pick-Up (1986)

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John Frankenheimer adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel, that doesn’t live up to either man’s abilities. This film confirms the career muddle that Frankenheimer was in at the time, and 52 Pick-Up is an uncomfortable piece of work. What ought to be a brusque, mean, solid little noir film is held back by mishandled ‘80s hype, betraying the familiar cheesy hand of arch schlock financers Golan-Globus in its sloppy production values, including rancid photography, plentiful soft-core nudity, a terrible music score, and the inexplicable presence of Vanity.
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Frankenheimer’s powerful formal mastery and invention, displayed so often in the ‘60s and ‘70s is barely evident, indicating his barely-interested take on the material. Yet he still offers a fair amount of grit and solidity in the storytelling, so the film becomes oddly involving. Another asset is Roy Scheider’s convincing portrayal of a Korean War veteran turned rich businessman, who finds himself dealing with a mob of slimy blackmailers, a feckless band of pornographers, strip-joint owners, and old-fashioned thugs, led by intelligent but perverted John Glover. They’ve got footage of him romping with a young stripper (a very young Kelly Preston), but the film’s most interesting take on the punishment-for-straying narrative is that Scheider’s a canny, tough guy himself, and he stares down these ratbags, only to find they will go well past blackmail into murder to achieve their ends.
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The film hovers alongside other disreputable but interesting thrillers of the mid ‘80s, like The Mean Season, Tightrope, and Shoot To Kill, for making little sense and yet being enticingly tough. Some also find it worthy of attention (but not for me, of course) for taking in a snapshot of the real LA porn community of the time – Ron Jeremy appears briefly in one scene. Ann-Margaret struggles in a wife role, but Glover’s villainy (Glover was at the height of a terrific run of beaming creeps – see also The Chocolate War and Gremlins 2) keeps things bouncing, and leads to a silly but amusing comeuppance.
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Friday, 21 November 2008

The Key (1958)

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Little-known but fascinatingly dark, perverse, melancholy Carol Reed film, based on a Jan de Hartog novel and adapted by Carl Foreman. The setting is the high seas of World War 2, early in 1941. Canadian merchant mariner David Ross (William Holden) arrives in England to take over an ocean-going tug, in a time when that occupation was obscenely dangerous, dodging German aircraft and submarines in trying to rescue torpedo-crippled ships.
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Ross links up with pre-War chum Chris Ford (Trevor Howard), also a tug captain, and is soon initiated into a peculiar brotherhood of other officers – all of them, except for Ford, dead – who have passed along the key to an apartment, within which lives Stella (Sophia Loren), a Swiss refugee. She’s been in hiding since being presumed to have died in an air raid, listlessly giving herself out along with the flat to a succession of men. The flat is itself as precious as Loren for being a decent living space, when otherwise sailors have to sleep in fetid hovels.
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The film’s sense of War-time port life is suitably gamy. Howard and Holden bounce each-other marvellously, Howard particularly brilliant as a stalwart chap slowly going to pieces and leaning on Stella despairingly. An air of faintly supernatural menace hangs about Stella (there is even the hint in her name, evocative of “Stella Marinus”); is she a cursed siren, and can she really sense when the men who pass into her room and arms are going to die? Ford’s eventual death at sea seems to confirm this, and Ross, loaded with self-loathing and booze, berates Stella as a whore, but can’t resist eventually using the key. There's an unspoken kinship between the dangerous but essentially humanitarian ardousness of the tug crews' efforts to safe ships and their crews, and Stella's careless embrace of any man who needs a safe harbour.
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But something strange happens: rather than drifting on in the same anomie, Ross and Stella fall in love, and Stella ventures out of the flat for the first time in months, signalling, both hope, something like regeneration. But threat still lingers, as Ross discovers that his and other tugs are being deliberately used as training targets by U-Boat commanders.
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Reed is often dismissed as a cinematic mechanic who got lucky with two ‘40s classics of bleary anti-romanticism, Odd Man Out (1947) and The Third Man (1949). His patchy subsequent career is nonetheless interesting, like the weird circus melodrama Trapeze (1953), and The Key confirms his continuing efforts to grapple with messy human relations within genre prisms, and an interest in the observation that some variations and definitions of courage can be mutually exclusive. The heroes of Odd Man Out, The Third Man, Trapeze, and The Key are brave in terms of their physical prowess, or their social beliefs and attempts to act on them, but are also cowards, or at least failures, in the private universes (later, in his underrated historical pageant The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), he tackled precisely the incompatibility between life and ideal). Just as Anna despises Holly in The Third Man for choosing a larger good over a private friendship, so in the end of The Key Ross, who has disclaimed belief in curses, finally loses Stella for passing the key along to friend (Kieron Moore).
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The film seems initially set up to confirm a traditional, cheesy Hollywood-Christian morality: a Dutch fellow tug captain (Oscar Homolka) leads a church choir and warns Ross that Stella will destroy him. But in fact it is Holden’s failure to hold onto his lack of credulity, to reject imposed morality and fear of fate, that finally condemns him. Where for Stella he held the promise of breaking a cycle, he falls victim to it. Though he triumphs in a thundering climax where he rams the U-Boat that’s been his black nemesis throughout the film, he returns home to discover he’s actually failed in the worst way. The final scene then very much reflects Reed’s delight in setting up sentimental clinches and then demolishing the promise, as Ross’s rush to catch Stella at the railway station proves too late.
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Excellently shot (by Oswald Morris), well-acted, and affecting in its dour, off-beat soul, The Key is a largely unsung gem.

Battlestar Galactica (1978)

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A friend of mine recently gave me a CD stuffed full of old TV show themes he’d downloaded, everything from a re-mixed version of the Battle of the Planets theme to the Charles in Charge title song to the opening strains for Battlestar Galactica. I immediately did two things: I told my friend he wasn't cool enough to know me anymore, and then I rented the pilot for Galactica. I’ve not seen the highly-regarded re-make of recent years, so Galactica is still defined for me by vague memories of fuzzy, over-used FX shots and ‘70s hair-don’ts in outer space. As it should be. The original telemovie presents the show’s strengths and weaknesses in equal balance.
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The set-up is intriguing and substantial. The human race, far from being limited to one naff planet in the Milky Way, is actually a galactic species with thirteen colonies, each one named for a sign of the Zodiac, with Earth as a near-mythical lost colony. Having waged a long war with the evil, robotic Cylons, who, we’re told, despise freedom and tolerance – no other traits are outstanding – a peace treaty is in the offing.
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But the Cylons have decided extermination is the only solution to the human question, and, being sneaky, have instead worked out how to take advantage of the humans’ gullibility, fooling the space fleet into an ambush and destroying all the ships except for the Galactica, the ship of Commander Adama (Lorne Greene), and simultaneously attacking and nearly exterminating all the inhabitants of the human colonies.
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Their dimwit leaders, like Lew Ayres’ President Adar, are blown to pieces, and the last survivors drawn from the colonies, clustered around the title craft, set out to reach their last known, long-lost colony of Earth. Cue dramatic music and frantic rhubarbing by the extras.
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It’s a tremendous idea for a sci-fi epic, spun from the founding legends of writer Glen A. Larson’s Mormon background. Producer John Dykstra’s effects are of a surprisingly high standard. But ‘70s TV hard-tack hurts it – the bland acting, the flat dialogue, the episodic story arcs. Adama, played with fair stentorian flavour by Greene, is basically Ben Cartwright in space, except that his kids get whittled down pretty quick as one son, Zac (Rick Springfield!) dies in the first attack. His elder son, Apollo (Richard Hatch, who’s pretty damn dull) and daughter Athena (Maren Jensen, who’s pretty damn hot) continue to fight for the Ponder – er, Battlestar.
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Apollo’s best pal Starbuck (Dirk Benedict) is so thinly conceived as the bad-ass on board, complete with cigars and running flirtation with both Athena and a space-hooker Cassiopeia (Laurette Spang), but without any actual grit, that I suspect he may have inspired Futurama’s Bender. A third musketeer is Boomer (Herb Jefferson Jr), whose chief characteristic is that he’s not Starbuck.
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The tech stuff doesn’t bear up to much scrutiny. In this super-technological setting the Cylons wipe out human kind by strafing streets like WW2 fighters rather than dropping atomic weapons or biological agents, and the supposedly formidable Battlestars are oddly vulnerable to hordes of pesky fighters, betraying a lack of much conceptual imagination from director Richard A. Colla, Dykstra, and the writers.
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Essentially two episodes jammed roughly together, the pilot gets the over-arcing plot in motion and then primes the viewer for the expected episodic patterns. It plants the human survivors of the holocaust on a remote mining planet, where a gambling resort provides cover for the insectoid locals to imprison and eat humans, whilst helping the Cylons to make another destructive ambush.
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Galactica reminded me vividly of a rather cornball TV culture that’s virtually vanished, perhaps most identifiable in the proliferation of ad-break cliffhangers. Many of these involve an elevator in the resort which, when it decides to take passengers down to the lowest floor, opens its doors to reveal a sight so terrifying the passengers scream in unholy terror. Battlestar Galactica will return after these messages! The Cylons are strikingly creepy in appearance, until they start to move in battle, where their inability to perambulate faster than an eighty-year-old with a bad hip, and total lack of any capacity to aim a gun and hit a target, renders them awesomely lame adversaries.
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Then again, the humans are hardly more impressive. Between Ayres’ senile Adar, the idiotic traitor Baltar (John Colicos) who gets his head cut off half way through after failing to notice the Cylons’ genocidal tendencies, and the moronic replacement councillors like those played by Ray Milland and Wilfred Hyde-White, it’s a wonder the human race has survived this long, for all the acumen they display. Only Adama’s resolute will and nose for both sniffing out and arranging conspiracies saves the day. Milland has some fun as the greasy politician who lounges in private quarters with a bevy of beauties and pilfered supplies. Now there’s a man who knows how to do the end of civilisation.
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Monday, 3 November 2008

My Bloody Valentine (1981)



My Bloody Valentine begins with a remarkable fetishist image: two people in mining gear make their way through a subterranean labyrinth, before one of them begins to unzip their suit, revealing a nubile female form clad only in underwear. She tries to coax her partner into sex, only for the frustrated man to release a bellow of rage and shove her back onto the head of a pick-axe.


It’s an inventive scene for managing to set context, place T&A and violence into the opening frames, and also for aiming right at the heart of the slasher genre’s usually more voyeuristic approach to violence as a substitute for sexual release. Instantly, the killer is defined not as an observer and executioner of transgressive youths, but by his own impotent attempt to annihilate desire, which soon reaches its psychotic apogee as the year’s most romantic day comes around.



Valentine stands head and shoulders clear of the joyless plethora of ‘80s slasher films almost entirely because of the muscular direction of George Mihalka, maintaining a cracking pace and a vivid atmosphere in its remote, regional, thoroughly blue-collar milieu, in the mining town of Valentine Bluffs.




Mihalka paints in gritty tones the dead skyline, decayed infrastructure, and rough-and-tumble social habits of young, energetic, but bored miners and their girlfriends. Just as the romance-laden name of the town, spelt out in candy-coloured letters on a sign at the outskirts, conflicts with the dour grey sky, so to do the warm hues of the bar the young workers inhabit, and the decorations they plaster in the Union Hall, contradict the ramshackle state of the town and the wind-blasted surrounds. It’s a visually acute presentation of a place where fun, love, and happiness have a bare chance of surviving in an otherwise gnawing environment.



Twenty years after a dreadful mine accident saw a lone survivor driven to cannibalism to survive, and his slaughter the following year of the negligent officials responsible, the town’s traditional Valentine’s Day Dance is finally being allowed to resume, the younger generation ignore the warnings and prove the old adage that those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it. Though an historical underpinning to present-day violence was a constant motif of the slasher film, Valentine gains a force through that idea that eluded the likes of Friday the 13th.



Quentin Tarantino cited Valentine as his favourite slasher film and an influence on Death Proof, in terms of its relatively substantial levels of characterisation and detail of milieu. The rugged, elemental setting puts the film at odds with the terror-in-plastic-suburbia tilt of the sub-genre. At the centre is a love triangle between JR (Paul Kelman, who looks remarkably like a young Ian McShane), son of the town’s mayor and owner of the mine; Axel (Neil Affleck), his old buddy, and Susan (Lori Hallier). JR left Susan behind in his calamitous attempt to make it on “the East Coast”, and now he’s come crawling back, sullen and angered by the sight of his girl and friend together.




Sequences like when JR and Axel try to relate in sharing a beer and playing harmonica , or when JR desperately appeals to Susan whilst walking the grey seaside, have a kind of casual sense of life and humanity usually missing from such fare. Much as JR’s afraid of a life going in endless circles but now has resigned himself to it, so the narrative is defined by a deadly arc of psychological cause and effect where the half-forgotten horrors of the past will return.



The film is weighed down by mechanical efforts to touch all the bases of the mini-genre (the compulsory joker-pest; the sheriff’s breathless attempts to locate records of the imprisoned madman). The first half is badly uneven with poor dialogue, whilst awkwardly contriving a method for getting a decent number of victims out to the mine, chosen setting for the stalk-and-chop. Mihalka has little interest in the inevitable sequences of the killer hunting and butchering necking couples and assorted town fogies (an impression increased by the relative lack of gore, much of which was apparently edited before release), which, ironically, both unbalances the generic arc and gives the film greater dramatic impetus: where the endless teases of most Halloween-influenced films got real tedious real quick, Mihalka’s taunt-the-prey sequences are over quickly, whilst gearing up for the real action.
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Once it gets there, Valentine really takes off, as its young heroes flee for their lives in the guts of the mine, stalked by the killer. The film turns into a superbly handled fight-and-flight melodrama, as JR and killer, who proves to be Axel, traumatised by the murder of his father by the original madman, do battle in a ferociously physical fashion. The last image is appropriately haunting, as Axel, injured and raving mad, retreats into the darkest corners of the mine, raving about his return, promising that once again, the past will surge back to haunt them all.
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Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994)

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Just as shapeless, morbid, and spurious as many another bio-pic – but I liked it. Alan Rudolph’s gossamer, Altman-esque texturing helps: the unforced perspectives, the refusal to childishly indict personalities, the feel for time and place, the smart screenplay and mise-en-scene that catch the widest possible amount of the wit and character of Mrs Parker herself and her fellow unruly smart-arses. Some of it’s possessed with a tender heart-ache (especially in Campbell Scott’s surprising turn as Robert Benchley), others with a loosely flapping comic spirit, and it comprehensively sketches the hows and whys of these people’s place in a window in social and artistic history.
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Rudolph cleverly uses Dorothy Parker’s mordant poetry as a refrain, bemoaning the impossibility of living up to expectations of life, whilst she drifts semi-wittingly between hopeless situations and screwed-up romances, refusing finally to change herself for the sake of some vaguely promised fulfilment. She’s one of those people who alternates between being the life of the party and the drag on it (reminds me of…me!) and for reasons that defy even her understanding.
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Perhaps it’s just Jennifer Jason Leigh, at the height of both her winsomeness, and also her refusal to kiss and cuddle the audience. Her Parker is an expert series of odd alternations, her sandpaper tongue working in a flat-vowel nasal drawl, her self-loathing and razor-edged critiquing humour working on each-other like a hacksaw on bone, and probably should have gained the ’94 Oscar.
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