Thursday, October 7, 2010


As much as I love first wave slasher flicks, I will be the first to admit that my love for them has as much (if not more) to do with the IDEA of the flicks as it does for their execution. Take 1980's Prom Night, for instance. Not a bad flick. An obvious Halloween rip-off, Prom Night is one of several impressive Canadian slasher movies that hit theaters in the early 80s. Slasher archetypes abound: the Bitch, the Clown, the Virgin, the Jerk, and the Final Girl (played by Jamie Lee Curtis herself!). This film is interesting primarily as an artifact of a moment in time when the 70s were dying, the 80s were being born, and pop culture was a mishmash of the two. I can tell you that by the time this movie hit theaters, Disco was dead in my age group, but the Prom in the movie (themed "DISCO MADNESS!!!") is an over the top disco fantasia. While those wanting gore in their slasher films will be disappointed overall, this film does blow an impressive gore wad in one brief but fantastic slash sequence which leads to a prom panic and stampede: the Jerk gets decapitated and his head rolls down the disco-lit catwalk meant for the prom king and queen. It's an amazingly tacky sequence, but well-executed and fabulous! Also, the stalk and slash sequence where the Bitch gets offed is great until she actually gets killed and you can't see a thing. The fact that you're actually rooting for her by the end of the sequence is a testament to how well it's done, but there's no pay off: it seems like a wasted opportunity. Overall, this movie is a great time capsule with good production values and a decent amount of suspense. It's very glitzy and glam in that late 70s/early 80s way (think the 2nd half of Boogie Nights), which is probably why it was a sizable hit upon release (raked in nearly $15M on a $1.5M budget. BTW $15M 1980 dollars = $38.5M 2009 dollars, which ain't chump change). Some might argue that the best thing about Prom Night is its poster, and they'd have a decent argument: I mean, I love the way that leather-gloved fist holding that mirror shard pops out at ya. In the end, though, Prom Night is an entertaining, low gore, high camp, uber disco flick for those who like that sort of thing.

Speaking of posters that are arguably better than the movies they are designed to promote, 2008's Prom Night is pretty much in the same class as the original when it comes to glam, glitz and execution. Which surprised me, cauz I was all ready to trash the new version until I rewatched the old version and realized how tame it was. The new one does have an impressive poster: kind of glam and grime at the same time, promising you some kind of sexy, messy shit. Unfortunately, it fails to deliver. The new Prom Night is a slasher movie for Tweens. It's well-made and decently-acted as far as slasher movies go...but sadly limp, with no gore and a teeny tiny barely noticable amount of suspense. Basically, the film fails too hard to be enjoyable. But that's not its biggest crime.

There are 2 types of slasher flick fans: those who are in it for the gore, and those who respond to the subtext, which just happens (coincidentally) to be illustrated by the gore. :p I fall into the latter group. People who are in it for the gore are the people who get off on watching movies like Hostel. I am not one of those people. I am not a huge splatter fan. The thing I love about slasher movies is that they are all about subtext. First wave slasher flicks represent a collective fear of punishment for the wild, carefree, druggy, sexy ways of the baby boomers. "If it feels good, do it" may have sounded like a good code to live by, but those of us in Gen X had the feeling that if we really lived like that, we'd ultimately be punished for it. So the killers in first wave slasher flicks are really a metaphor for not only our collective guilt and shame about sex and unchecked inhibitions, but for what became AIDS in real life: the other shoe dropping. Up on screen, our guilt and shame stalked and slashed our contemporaries while we had to beat it off (no pun intended) to survive. Up on screen, AIDS came in the form of Jason, and other killers just like him.

So, what's the subtext being delivered in the new Prom Night for its young audience? First off, the killer is a TEACHER! Those evil teachers! In a baseball cap. With a goatee. He's like the evil killer from the 90s! Ooooooh! BTW, the only other teacher depicted in the film is a LESBIAN GYM TEACHER with a crush on the main girl (Amber VonTussle from the Hairspray remake). The main characters deride the lesbian to Amber ("She's so into you." Snicker, snicker), which seems totally unnecessary when all the dyke is doing is being supportive, since Amber's got a tragic backstory that I won't go into. So far, the subtext of this film is aimed at conformist heterosexual assholes who hate teachers and gays. Then you've got your sassy black girl who so wants to be Prom Queen, right? Like, she never shuts up about it. And she keeps saying that if she wins Prom Queen then that'll be making a statement for black girls everywhere, blah blah blah. Which is all fine and good. But then, what does she do? Right before they're about to announce Prom King and Queen, the bitch goes upstairs to have sex with her boyfriend. Which, when you read this as subtext, is TOTALLY EFFING OFFENSIVE, right? It makes no sense. So basically she's like this sassy little black girl living in a white world, and she's really likable up to the point where she ditches her dream of being prom queen (not to mention her chance to be a game-changing role model to future generations of sassy young black girls living in a white world) to go upstairs to do her boyfriend. Because...I don't know, pleasing her horny boyfriend is more important than being crowned Prom Queen? people can't help but succumb to their primal sexual urges? I'm not quite sure, but whatever it is, I'm not buying it. Before actually screwing her boyfriend, however, she leaves suddenly b/c she realizes she's seen the killer and must warn the others. And her boyfriend takes out this ring after she's gone, like he was gonna ask her to marry him, if only she'd stayed...and fucked him. It's fucking RETARDED. Remember, subtext. Then, she goes from being the sassiest black girl in the slasher universe to being the stupidest slasher bitch of all time, and she basically breaks down into hysterics and gets murdered more brutally than any of her contemporaries in the flick. Later on, after it becomes rather obvious that she's been murdered, her boyfriend sits down on the curb outside the hotel and cries, clutching the ring, looking up into heaven as if to say: if only I hadn't tried to fuck her first. It's retarded. And don't even get me started on the hapless latina hotel maid named Maria...

Anyway, the plot doesn't matter, it's your basic Disney-fied slasher b.s. The white blond Aryan girl almost gets killed but not quite, and then everyone around her gets killed, and then she almost gets killed again, but then she gets SAVED BY THE COP. Which is more total bullshit! She's supposed to save herself! That's the whole point of a slasher movie, right? Final girl and all that? HELLO! But no. This being a Tween slasher flick, girls are being taught that they must be SAVED to survive. IT'S LAME!

Then there's the making of doc, which I was stupid enough to watch. Let me tell ya, after the director very defensively tried to rationalize the lack of gore in the movie ("It's so much more effective to see the characters react to the violence than it is to see the actual violence!"), and dismissed the original as having absolutely nothing to do with his fabulous remake, or reimagining, or whatthefuckever, ("The only thing these movies have in common is the title!") he went on to try to compare this piece of garbage to Se7en and Silence of the Lambs. That's when I realized he is a FUCKING TOOL and I just got done watching A PIECE OF SHIT. He’s all, "It’s not just a slasher movie, it’s so much more: a cop thriller, a killer on the loose, a coming of age drama..." BITCH, PLEASE! It’s a half-assed slasher movie with a big budget and no balls that got rated PG-13 and should have been rated G! A movie that reinforces homophobic, racist and sexist stereotypes and teaches kids (the obvious intended audience) that conformity and 1950s gender roles are what's most important to survival in this world. Hey Mr. Director (Nelson McCormick), you know what? You suck! And so does your movie.

In the movie's defense, I'll say this: It's shot and acted well. It's got the actress who played the crazy fake-pregnant wife of the music teacher on Glee Season 1 as Amber's aunt. And while there is no gore, there is violence, and the violence is, at times, disturbing. I must also say, in all fairness, that it did go on to rake in just under $44M on its $20M budget. Whatever, it still sucks.

Anyway, the winner: PROM NIGHT (1980). Not because it's one of the greatest slasher flicks out there, but because (1) The new Prom Night's subtext totally sucks ass, and I'll be damned if I'm gonna promote a movie that teaches girls that conforming to regressiver gender roles is the way to go; (2) The original Prom Night has the best Disco Prom on celluloid (not to mention-which I didn't-the most BITCHEN disco dance routine by JLC and her date!); and (3) The original Prom Night's got Jamie Lee Curtis kicking psycho killer ass, teaching young girls everywhere that they can be self-reliant survivors and not hot mess victims who need to be saved by men! Need I say more?

Monday, September 6, 2010


CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS: I first witnessed Brian DePalma's Body Double at the drive-in upon its initial release. That would have put me at just a few months shy of 19. I remember the film left me feeling like I'd just had unsatisfying cheap sex with an attractive stranger in an attractive setting...the kind of sex that is all the more disappointing because everything indicates that it should have been great...but it wasn't. Emptiness among the shimmer. Very L.A., right? And so is this movie.

I will get right to the verdict before I even present the evidence: this movie is a big hot steaming mess, but it's also very compelling. Now I watched it WITHOUT the benefit of director's commentary in FULL SCREEN mode (GIANT FAIL, BITCHES AT NETFLIX!), so I don't know what DePalma's intentions were, YET. But this movie is obsessed with four things: Sex. Porn. Vertical Blinds. Hitchcock. It's also a great 80s time capsule. But it's ice cold and makes no sense. Because DePalma seems to have decided that images supersede any semblance of plot, this post will be presented more visually than any other post I've done. Let's begin, shall we?
So, we begin with the credits superimposed over a sort of creepy but mostly tacky graveyard shot. The font are gooey, blood-dripping letters. Very Vampira. Then a Billy Idol/Vampira type girly-vampire-man in his coffin startles us by awaking suddenly, baring his fangs and staring into the camera. Staring. Staring. And the director yells "Cut!" Seems Idol/Vampira/acula is claustrophobic and is having some sort of panic attack. The sleazy director of the B Movie tells the actor to take the rest of the day off.
Cut to the 1st penetration scene: hot dog to the mouth (and hot dog to the camera) style. This film is filled with phallic symbols and penetration. While there is no queer quotient in this film to speak of, there are a few cute 80s guys, like this one with the short shorts and big thighs. Takes me back to the days of 80s gay porn, for sure...
Here we see DePalma aping Hitchcock with the obvious rear screen projection as the protagonist drives home to surprise his girlfriend with some hot dogs. The protagonist in this flick is a loser. He's creepy. He's skinny. He's an actor. He's kind of a rodent. Nobody really likes him, and neither does the audience. Well, long story short: the dude gets home and he's so stupid that he realizes his girlfriend is fucking some guy in the back of the apartment like 10 minutes after the rest of us do. He leaves all dejected, falls off the wagon, gets drunk, sleeps on his bartender buddy's couch, goes on some auditions, goes to acting class, and then basically winds up housesitting some super space age (via the 80s) bachelor pad for some other creepy douchebag who picks him up outside an acting audition.
None of the characters in this movie behave like people in real life. And perhaps that's the point. But since I didn't have the director's commentary, I don't know for sure. Ultimately, it disconnects the viewer from what's happening on the screen. Here's the swinging bachelor pad. It's some octagonal shaped house up on stilts in the Hollywood Hills. It's fucking lame.
So the creepy new bff of our creepy protagonist shows him the neighbor lady who likes to do sexy dances in the window for the whole neighborhood to see. She dances, she shakes her tush, shakes her titties, flips her hair...but that's not all. She masturbates, she opens her safe and takes out all of her diamonds in plain view of any pervy neighbors who might be looking out their nearby windows in her direction. She's a fucking retard, and we pretty much dislike her from the get go.
But our creepy protagonist and his creepy bff think it's HOT! Because they're retards too, in a retarded movie filled with people who have nothing whatsoever to do with reality or any fantasy world I'd ever want to have anything to do with. And yet, I'm compelled to keep watching.
Creepy protagonist is enjoying the circular rotating bed when he finds out he's been fired from his movie. So he decides to go down to the set to find out WTF happened!
This cap is very important to remember! Notice the new Billy Idol/Vampira hybrid in the background. This image returns later, so please take note. So creepy protag gets humiliated (again) and chewed out and thrown off the set for good.
Later that night Creepy Protag is busy peeping on his horny neighbor lady when he notices that, hey, there's some ugly cro-mag guy with a blow torch working on...the base of a satellite night...for no reason. The ugly cro-mag guy is peeping on the horny neighbor lady too. Creepy Protag suddenly feels protective of the horny neighbor lady, so the next day he stalks her through a Beverly Hills shopping mall.
The whole stalking sequence is excrutiatingly slow and just beyond believability...I mean, we didn't have as much technology back then, but we would know if some perv was following us like 5 feet behind. The whole execution, obviously paying "homage" to Hitchcock's Vertigo, falls flat. It's like bad parody. The only good thing about this sequence (the mall part, anyway) is the 80s fashion on display. Headbands and polos and feathered hair, oh my! :)
So, creepy protag follows horny neighbor lady to the beach, where she rents a hotel room and speaks to her lover, who apparently keeps jilting her, and all she does is grovel very badly for him. It's kind of sad. But then you realize how awfully weak and retarded and unfeministy she's being, and then you just wind up hating her. It's like, come on! It's 1984! Get your shit together, girl! You're rich, you're beautiful, and yet you're acting like a sniveling, groveling piece of shit. You suck! Also, this creepy protag peeping perv is practically breathing down your neck stalking you, and you haven't even noticed!
Oh, but she HAS noticed. And right there at the beach, at the orifice of a tunnel, the creepy peeping protag and the horny neighbor lady fall prey to their inner sexual urges and start to make out big time RIGHT THERE AT THE BEACH! They totally overdo it and she actually says: "No!....YES!" IT'S FUCKING RIDICULOUS. I was laughing my silly ho ass off! And it's shot like it's the most fascinating, erotic piece of cinema ever seen. It's tragic!
So then they keep going at it, and finally she pulls away and says "No, I can't! Not like this!" Like what? Like the stupid whore that you are? Ugh! She is very annoying!
Believe it or not, she gets more annoying. After a string of events that I haven't mentioned, the ugly cro-mag guy robs her safe and then attacks the horny neighbor lady in her posh 80s pad. This is the next big penetration scene in the film. Ugly cro-mag guy pretty much penetrates the screen with this big drill, and the horny neighbor lady screams and yelps and acts helpless and then trips over the bed and knocks herself out. It's like, by the time he finally kills her, you're cheering him on because she is so annoying. And the actual penetration, while not shown explicitly, is implied quite graphically, and in a very PHALLIC manner. I mean, you don't get much more PHALLIC than that. This scene is straight out of any one of those low-budget 80s splatter pics like Sorority House Massacre of Driller Killer. It's FUCKING RIDICULOUS. But hey, it's DePalma. Maybe he was Making A Point.
Enter Melanie Griffith (in one of her first starring roles) as A PORN STAR. Remember, this is the mid 80s. Home video is exploding and so is the new realization that YOU CAN RENT PORN AND WATCH IT IN THE PRIVACY OF YOUR OWN HOME! No more creepy porn theaters with sticky seats and nasty floors and ugly trolls on the hunt for desperate straight penis to suck off. (Sorry, ugly trolls!). So, here's how genius this movie is: after witnessing the brutal murder of the horny neighbor lady (and FAILING TO SAVE HER...LOSER!), creepy peeping protag is sitting around getting drunk and watching porn when he sees this Holly Hollywood porn chick do the SAME EXACT DANCE AS THE HORNY NEIGHBOR LADY DID IN HER WINDOW. Holy crap! This makes him realize, all on his own, that PERHAPS THE HORNY NEIGHBOR LADY WAS NOT THE ONE DOING THE DANCE, AND MAYBE IT WAS THE PORN STAR, AND MAYBE HE'S BEEN SET UP! Set up for what, you ask? Good question! I have no fucking idea!
So creepy peeping protag goes down to the Porn Office, which just happens to be holding auditions that day. And, this being straight porn, and him being male, he gets hired on the spot. NATCH!
Then there's an apparent INTERMISSION in the film while we are treated to a music video performance of Frankie Goes to Hollywood's hit single "Relax" starring our creepy peeping protagonist as well as Frankie Goes to Hollywood! (Oh, so here's your Queer Quotient). But it's actually creepy peeping protag's first big porn scene, which ends with him screwing the Melanie Griffith character, and making her kind of act like she actually came. Of course. Because this is starting to look like some straight loser's fantasy about his loser self as hero in some fucked up twisted fantasy, right?
Then all of a sudden creepy peeping protag is all slicked out in sleazy porn producer garb and lying to the porn actress and saying he wants her to star in his next big porn production. Melanie has this scene where she's like "I don't do this, I don't do that, I don't do anal, blah blah blah" and apparently back in 1984 it was so refreshing to see a young actress playing a sassy porn star and listing her do's and dont's that she got a Golden Globe nomination. Good for her! Not good for women, but good for her!
Then he takes her back to his pad and she climbs on top of him, because he's promised her a fabulous porn part that is just the be all and end all of porn roles...but by now it's all just a bunch of b.s., right, cauz he's trying to find out her connection to the dead horny neighbor lady. But pay attention, because this is when it all starts to come together. Holly Hollywood identifies the creepy peeping protag's creepy bff as the man who hired her to dance in the window and impersonate the horny neighbor lady. Then, pissed that creepy peeping protag's not a real porn producer, she leaves in a porn star huff.
She hitchhikes to get back to the Valley (I'm speculating), and gets picked up by the ugly cro-mag guy. Creepy peeping protag is right behind them, and he watches ugly cro-mag bash the porn star with a tire iron, right there in his Bronco, at a road block, with tons of cops around. But of course, no one notices. Ultimately, creepy peeping protag tracks down ugly cro-mag to a field beside a resevoir and they fight, but creepy peeping protag winds up in a real grave, claustrophobia hitting him full tilt boogie, and his ex-bff (who turns out to be disguised as the ugly cro-mag guy) burying him alive.
Then, the creepy peeping protag is back in the coffin having a claustrophobia attack...except he's not in costume, he's in the clothes he was wearing in the last scene where he was geeting buried alive.
He talks to the director and asserts his ability to finish the scene in spite of his fear, unlike the last time when he wussed out, which resulted in him losing his job, catching his girlfriend in bed with another man, getting duped by the fake bff, etc. So he goes back and does the scene.
Then we're back at the grave site, where he overcomes his claustrophobia, pushes the fake bff /cro-mag guy into the resevoir, and saves the porn star.
Then we're back on set at the shower murder scene (see above with the other Billy Idol/vampire wannabe in the shower with the actress-above left). Except this time a female body double with big fake hooters is standing in for Little Miss Muffet (again, above left) and the Billy Idol/girly vampire man is now our creepy peeping protag. And the porn star is in the studio, watching the scene being filmed, telling Little Miss Muffet that she's going to get LOTS of dates because everyone is going to think that the body double's big fake hooters are actually hers.
Then there's a gratuitous booby shot with blood and stuff as the credits roll.

This movie makes absolutely no sense to me. But, fuck if I'm not compelled to find a version of it with director's commentary and watch it and listen to WTF Brian DePalma thought he was trying to do. Because until I hear his side of it, I will not be able to dismiss it as total bullshit. And, as much as I just want to hate and dismiss Body Double outright...I just can't do it yet. It's a big hot steaming spectacle of style over substance, that's my take on it. Nevertheless, it's worth a look.

Plus, there is no homophobia in this film. That's refreshing (and rare) for a movie from the 80s.

UPDATE: I guess I was misremembering b/c there's no version of this movie with DePalma commentary. I did read, however, that he discusses the movie in depth in the book Double DePalma by Susan Dworkin.

Thursday, July 22, 2010


CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS: Whenever I revert to my slasher habit, I always worry about all of the delicate little flowers out there I'm going to offend by spending blog energy on "that trash." It's low culture, it's juvenile, etc., etc. But now I just figure: those bitches don't read past the blog post title anyway, so fuck 'em. This is for those who, like myself, appreciate the subtle nuances and artistry of the slasher genre.Budgeted at a mere $425K and later raking in nearly $4.5M within a month of its initial release, this oft-forgotten slasher nugget is, like most in the genre, flawed. The acting from many actresses is questionable, and the role of the house mother, which is one of the main characters, was completely (and noticeably) dubbed. However, the director of this film obviously had high aspirations. Unlike most slasher films, the set-up is quite gothic (a house mother with a secret; a crazy mongoloid in the attic) and the director seemed to be going for a Dario Argento type atmosphere. Argento is an Italian director known (by me at least) for his over the top Giallo slasher operas (the best known in America is probably Suspiria) which don't make much sense but look stunning. To balance out the bad you've got a film with a sense of humor, several comedic scenes, and some great chase and murder sequences, all followed by the obligatory final girl showdown and ambiguous ending. Also, in this film you at least buy into the premise: a group of stupid sorority girls, led like sheep by their bitchy head sorority sister, make a really bad decision after a prank goes awry and wind up paying the ultimate price for their bad choice. The rest of the film takes place on the day of the big graduation party being held at the sorority house, so you've got a lot of funny 80s hair, an insufferable 80s party band, and a group of sorority sisters with the most ridiculously convoluted sense of 80s fashion I've ever witnessed in one film. It's a good romp through to the end, and it contains the critical element of all the great 80s slasher films: it's FUN.
Fast forward to 9/11/2009 and the hot flaming mess that is Sorority Row. Loosely based on the original, it too is flawed, which, when it comes to this genre, is beside the point. This movie has the same sheen as I Know What You Did Last Summer and films of that ilk: its frame of reference appears to be the mid 90s. I mean, look at that poster for heaven's sake; you don't get more 90s than that. In its favor, there are some creative kills and quite a bit of man candy running around drunk and nearly naked. Also, it stars Carrie Fisher as the house mother, and any movie that stars Carrie Fisher as anything is all right in my book. Primary problems with this film are as follows: 1. The characters are all vile, so you never care which ones get bumped off and which ones don't. Since the sorority sisters are all skanky ho bags that appear to hate one another from the get go, the whole premise of them "sticking together to keep a secret to cover each others' asses" doesn't add up, and doesn't carry the movie. 2. It comes off as a vehicle for Rumer Willis, when the character she plays is only marginal until, inexplicably at the end, after sniveling and shrieking and being annoyingly weak throughout the entire movie, she experiences a last-minute power girl transformation, turns Die Hard and blows somebody away, for no apparent reason other than she's Bruce Willis's daughter. 3. While the film gives a couple of nods to the original, some story elements are obvious parallels, and there's some attempt at comedy with funny dialogue ("I'm going to the basement to turn on the power." "Ok, well I'm gonna go take a shower then."), it's played completely straight and nasty, so it's hard to tell where the irony is supposed to be planted, or if it's supposed to be there at all. 4. While some of the kills are respectably unique and gross, most of them are L-A-M-E! Never good for a slasher movie. Also, CGI kills (when done badly, as they are in this movie) just aren't that entertaining or disturbing. They seem watered down, and since this is a SLASHER movie, the kills need to be disturbing, not easy to digest. 5. Final problem is, it's one of those 90s-styled "slasher mysteries" where there are a dozen twists and turns until the end, when finally the killer is revealed, then there's a final battle, not between a Final Girl and the killer, but between the killer and 1. the Final Girl, 2. a friend, and 3. a random character thrown in to ensure a sequel. During the final battle, the killer all of sudden can't fight for shit and gets offed.

And herein lies the rub for me: I realize it's a generational thing. Those of us from Gen X and the original wave of slasher flicks liked our solo Final Girls because we're self-directed, results oriented latch key kids and we like to finish the job on our own. Gen Y, on the other hand, are all collaborative and shit, and they like to solve their problems (including their psycho killer problems) together. So, since Sorority Row is not aimed at a middle aged homosexual like myself, but at Millenials who totally have a whole different way of approaching the world and problem solving, and also apparently need everything carefully explained to them, and also apparently can't deal with ambiguity in their endings, I can't really apparently, in good faith, fault it for messing with the Final Girl thing. Even though the Final Girl is one of the primary tropes of the genre, but whatever, have it your way Gen Y you little wimps. Ultimately, the film approaches High Camp because it's pretty ridiculous, and for a slasher film, that's a GOOD THING! But in the final slasher analysis, the film fails because the scariness diminishes (instead of builds) as the film progresses, and any fun derived from it comes from the camp factor, which was unintentional.

WINNER: THE HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW (1983). Put it in your Netflix queue! It doesn't appear to be available to rent on dvd, but you can stream it on your PS3 or Xbox!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


War of the Worlds is probably one of (if not the) first sci-fi event movies. It's the Independence Day of its era. There's a lot to like about the movie, and for the most part it holds up extremely well. It's hard to imagine how completely flippin' old this movie is when you consider that it was originally released more than half a century ago. Something about that fact just does not compute. I remember seeing this on t.v. as a kid and being impressed more than I ever was with Godzilla movies, which I actually enjoyed was just that the aliens in this movie were so menacing, and I remember wondering how they made everything look so real. Well, now that I'm an old middle-aged fart living in the age of CGI, the efx in this movie aren't quite as impressive today...but when you consider this flick on its own terms and in the context of when it was made and released, you can't help but be totally blown away.

The first thing to know about the movie is that it clearly signals to its audience the cold war gender roles of the 50s. Now, as you can probably tell from this cap, the film was made in the early 50s, which means the 40s are still a heavy influence. Look at that unsuspecting crowd noticing what looks like a meteor as it falls from the sky and lands in a fiery blast of light just over the first hill on the horizon outside of town. There isn't a juvenile delinquent among them, no rock-n-roll influence, no black people. (There is, to be fair, a latino, which is a step in the right direction). This movie is telegraphing a new society that is post WWII, Cold War, Christian (notice the priest) conformist culture. An idealized conformist culture under attack by EVIL ALIENS!!!
I imagine the character of Sylvia Van Buren must have been cringe-inducing to the many women who had worked during the war years only to be forced back into the kitchen and motherhood once their husbands returned and the war was over. Even though she's got an advanced degree, she spends the movie either (when she's being productive) praising the male characters, serving coffee and donuts, or (when she's not being productive) fainting, screaming and having hysterics. Now, not to bag on the actress that plays Sylvia, she does a great job. It's just that Sylvia is most definitely a woman of the 50s: no femme fatale, no gritty know it all, none of that 40s b.s. Like I said it's all about the new conformism, and Sylvia conforms quite perfectly.

Believe it or not, there is a QUEER QUOTIENT in this film and if you blink you'll miss it. It's at the beginning, right before the crowd outside the theater reacts to the falling meteorite. Look at that big hunk of early 50s man working the marquee! Look at the ass on that guy! Not to mention the legs just itching to burst out of those painted-on jeans. YUM!
Here's the hapless trio of volunteers who are charged with keeping an eye on the smoldering rock overnight, who decide that, once the rock opens up and an alien being comes out, that being friendly is the best way to respond. Comic relief abounds. One guy says, "What do you say to an alien from another planet?" or something to that effect, to which the other guy replies "Welcome to California." The commentary comes in handy during moments like these to shet some light on how impressive, scary and spectacular this movie was in its day. Joe Dante (director of Gremlins) provides commentary along with some older guys who saw the film upon its initial release when they were like 12, the perfect age for boys to see a movie like this.

Of course, we all know what happens when those peace-loving, tree-hugging, commie pacifist namby-pambies try to make nice with the alien invaders: THEY GET DISINTEGRATED by the ALIEN HEAT RAY! Let the attack begin!
The attack sequences are still pretty impressive even if you can tell they're done with miniatures. Still, even in this age of CGI perfection, it's fun to watch a movie like this made so long ago and see what a great job they did of pulling off such visual illusions. The commentary, again, comes in handy in explaining how they made those death rays shoot out, how big the space ships were, etc. Remember, this is 1953. These efx, while dated, are certainly nothing to sneeze at and are quite impressive and deserving of admiration.
Unfortunately, somehow in the digital transfer and stuff, the contrast is different and in some scenes you can clearly see the strings holding up the spaceships, even though according to the commentary they were not visible on the film when the movie played in theaters.
But onto some of the more successful efx. Here's a general getting zapped and disintegrated by one of the mysterious green SKELETON BEAMS that shoot out of the alien ships.

Here's a tasty breakfast Sylvia manages to whip up while she and the hot scientist she's got a crush on hide out in an abandoned house. Of course, bacon and eggs are the perfect relief when the end of the world happens! In fact, I'll just take the bacon, thanks, that'll be enough for me. And I don't need the end of the world to happen. I'll just take the bacon. Please.
Oh, but damn! Before bacon can be consumed, another of those pesky alien meteorites nearly destroys the house, trapping Sylvia and the hot scientist inside. Again, an impressive effect for its time and for several decades after, IMO.
Then there's the whole "beat the clock" portion of the flick, where humanity tries to figure out how to beat the aliens once they (humanity) have realized that conventional weapons don't work. Here they've hooked up a camera and monitor to a severed alien eye/anal probe thingy, and so they get to "see what the aliens see." It's a cheesy scene that borders on the psychedelic but you can just imagine how hi-tech it must have seemed at the time.

And here's the money shot, that of L.A. City Hall being blasted to smithereens. Didn't I tell ya it's just like Independence Day? Except no African Americans. None. We've come a long way!

At the end of the day, humanity is saved when the aliens dare to try destroying a church in downtown L.A. were our protagonists have managed to reunite after a long, horrific separation. As the heterosexual couple embraces inside the church, and as the alien beings aim their deadly weapons, something...MIRACULUOUS happens. All of a sudden, the aliens succumb to GERMS and they all simultaneously die. Humanity, heterosexuality and cold-war conformity are all SAVED by the implied hand of a Christian God, who apparently has all the other religions of the world under his umbrella of safety as well.
There's also a gorgeous shot of the building I work in, which is always fun for me. Being the old War Dept. Building in L.A. it tends to pop up in films from back then and it's always a thrill to see it. I think I'll start a collection of screen caps from old movies, just to see how many I can collect.

Overall, this movie is a classic sci-fi popcorn blockbuster event and it's definitely worth watching on a Saturday afternoon when you have no errands to run and nothing else you feel like doing but sitting around in your undies, eating popcorn, forsaking the gym and vedging out. The commentary track is definitely worth checking out if you are a film buff, sci-fi fan, or some other geek who likes to hear other people discuss a movie as you watch it with them. There's also a well-made documentary that is typical of its kind...not exactly ground-breaking, but you do get to see many of the film's leads and production staff and hear a lot of anectdotes about acting in the movie, and how they made the special effects, and reactions to the film at the time it was released. Hey, if you've read this far, renting this flick if probably a no-brainer. Or you can buy it for $6.99. There's not really anything wrong with it. It's perfect, distinctly American, crowd-pleasing sci-fi popcorn fare from another era.
And how can you pass up a chance to experience Sylvia's many hysterical outbursts?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE (1931)

Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1931) is a dazzling gem from old Hollywood that surprised me in so many exciting ways. It's one of those stories that is so embedded in our cultural history that you just assume you know everything there is to know about it. What I didn't know was how sophisticated this movie is, both in content and execution. Frederic March plays the title role, for which he won an Oscar, so that gives you a sense of the prestige the film had at the time. The director is Rouben Mamoulian, someone I never heard of but will definitely make a point of investigating. (It turns out I have seen one of his other films and enjoyed it: Blood and Sand starring Tyrone Power). Of course, the story is about a respected gentleman who, constrained by the social mores of Victorian society, decides that the only way to rid oneself of one's inner "nasty" urges is to bring them out, and then let them go. Conveniently, he is a doctor who has discovered a potion that he believes will do just that.Now, Dr. Jekyll is engaged to a beautiful, prim, respectable, rich girl and they love each other dearly. He's pressuring her to marry him right away despite her father's insistence that they wait for several months. The sexual tension is apparent in their first scene together, or, at least Jekyll's sexual tension is apparent. The subtext here is that he wants to have sex with her ASAP, and screw convention and screw her father, and he does a good job of trying to talk her into it. Of course, her virtue is stronger than his lust, and eventually wins out. The early scenes in the movie are so idyllic and stylized, the characters so noble and virtuous, and it's a great set up. It's beautiful, but it's also suffocating.

Another fabulous discovery I made watching this movie is an actress by the name of Miriam Hopkins, who plays a low class wench who's all too willing to provide sexual company in exchange for some money. Dr. Jekyll saves her from her brutish boyfriend, and she proceeds to seduce him in the first of several fantastic scenes these two have together. This movie is post Hays Code, so the overt sexual behavior and symbolism in this scene is quite a surprise. On the commentary you find out that much of it was excised for many years in subsequent releases of the film, and even upon its initial release in certain parts of the country. This is the scene in which Dr. Jekyll's inner demon is summoned, and unfortunately for the seductive summoner (Ivy is her character's name), the demon doesn't forget her.

Mamoulian used a lot of symbolism and directing techniques that frankly I had no idea were in existence at the time this film was made. Think about it: this film was shot just after the stock market crash of '29 during the Great Depression. It was practically the 20s, as the 30s had just started. And yet, this director is using techniques I thought were invented by the likes of Jonathan Demme, Hitchcock and Brian DePalma. The cap above is one example, which happens right after Jekyll and his colleague leave Ivy's apartment. As they leave, she whispers to Jekyll "Come back!" in a seductive whisper as she dangles her bare leg over the side of the bed. The men leave, continue walking down the street, discuss the business of keeping onseself respectable, and all the while her voice continues to whisper its invitation, and the image of her dangling leg never leaves the screen. The men have left her apartment, but she hasn't left their heads.

Another interesting technique the director uses is that of a subjective camera. The first time we see both Jekyll and Hyde, we see them as reflections of themselves in mirrors. Mirrors, as a matter of fact, figure prominently throughout the movie. It really is an interesting (not to mention effective) method of making the viewer identify with both the good and evil personas of the main character.

Another interesting aspect of this film is that Hyde is not a monster, as I had always assumed, but a man. He's just a man who is not constrained by the social and moral rules of society. So when he first makes his transformations, he is presented as an almost comical figure, not a monster. He's like a big kid acting out on his impulses without restraint. And this, at first, isn't scary. This part of the movie also delivers one of its best elements: the acting fireworks that goes on between March and Hopkins. Hyde tracks her down and meets her on her own turf (a tavern), where he basically overpowers her and makes her his own. The verbal and physical sparring between the two is a sight to behold. On the commentary track you learn that Hopkins was quite the diva, hated by the likes of Bette Davis and tons of other actors of her era due to her tendency to upstage everyone else. She's amazing in this flick, however, and the energy between her and March is electric.

One quick note about these subjective shots of characters looking directly into the camera at various points throughout the film to convey a wide range of emotions. I thought Demme used it to great effect in Philadephia as a way to make the viewer feel the pain of homophobia and prejudice face to face. Here, it's used to much greater effect because of the wide range of emotions the actors show you: fear, seduction, love, lust, it's all here.

Eventually, Ivy becomes Hyde's kept woman in an apartment in SoHo. This cap is great for showing how, even though he becomes uglier and more wild with each transformation, so does he become more vain and cocky. I can't say enough about the acting dynamic between these two actors in every scene they share. There are about 5 or 6 of them and they are all magnificent to behold. This film really belongs to these two characters, and specifically, to these two actors.

Mamoulian also makes use of the split screen throughout the film to highlight the dual nature of Jekyll/Hyde and the compartmentalization of his life as his two selves live out their roles. Of course, what happens is that, once Hyde is let out, Jekyll loses control of him and the two lives threaten to collide. I, as a gay man (and I doubt I'm alone in this), can definitely relate to this aspect of the story. But it's men in general who feel this type of duality, which I find interesting. I wonder if women just don't, as a rule, deal with the same type of issues of needing to control their inner wild animal, or if as a society we're just taught (and therefore assume) that it isn't an issue for them. Note that the women are not having any struggle with who they are: the virgin and the whore are separate characters who never try to escape their assigned roles. It's the men who talk about the struggle, and it's Jekyll/Hyde who acts it out. And yet, it's the women who come to represent each side of the male's identity.

This cap is from March's and Hopkins' final scene together, and it's amazing: melodramatic and brutal, it's when Hyde's emotions and instincts boil over into something beyond human. There have already been allusions to the sadistic sexual nature of Hyde and we know by this point that Ivy suffers at his hands as he satiates his perverse desires. Nevertheless, even though she's a bad girl, we've come to empathize with her and it's sad to see her demise.Going back to the idea of the women representing the male's indentities, it's interesting that the male decides to destroy that which represents his wicked self rather than the actual wicked self...

This flick is a really great rental. The commentary by Greg Mank is informative and entertaining, not just about the film but about the actors and the era. The 1941 version of the film starring Spencer Tracy is also on the disc, and it's sadly inferior in almost every way (in spite of its stellar cast, which includes Ingrid Bergman as Ivy and Lana Turner as Jekyll's virtuous fiancee). The gem here is the 1931 version, and it's certainly a sight to behold. It includes restored scenes that were thought to have been lost for decades (which you'll only know about if you listen to the commentary). Considering that this film is nearly a century old, it's amazing how well it holds up and still resonates. Aside from the obvious theatricality of it and the slower pacing of the era, it's an outstanding movie and I highly recommend it.