Monday, December 21, 2009


You’ve really got to hand it to Anthology Film Archives on this one – they’re the only ones who are crazy enough and cool enough to host this mammoth thirteen-film Roger Corman retrospective, easily one of the best NYC film programs all year. One of my favorite NY theatres, Anthology is an actual film archive as well as regularly operating theatre. Their film selection leans mostly toward the experimental and avant-garde (it was founded by some of the field’s heavies) but they’re also relentless when it comes to those who produce independent films outside of the art community, even when they may be as bent as the likes of outsider mavericks like Jim Van Bebber (DEADBEAT AT DAWN, THE MANSON FAMILY) or in this case, “indie”-before-there-was-such-a-thing impresario Roger Corman.

Ultra-sexy Barbara Steele in the excellent PIT AND THE PENDULUM.

Of all 60’s and 70’s exploitation filmmakers, Corman is probably the most famous. In a way he almost serves as a figurehead for “cheap movie directors”, a title he deserves for a myriad of valid reasons. In addition to this title, perhaps because of his cable and video offerings in the 80’s and 90’s (I’m having BLOODFIST flashbacks, WHOA … !), he is also well-known for making “bad” movies. Although some films to Corman’s directorial credit may be considerable as drek, nothing can take away the power and genuine craftsmanship of his best work. The recent Anthology program entitled “Roger Corman: Poe and Beyond!” represents some of this work, including almost all of the “Corman/Poe Cycle” (absent is the superb HAUNTED PALACE (1963), actually based on Lovecraft’s writing; I say it still would have been nice to see in this line-up) as well as a smattering of other Corman classics, mostly from AIP’s hey-day in the 60’s.

Although Corman worked on small budgets and had massive time constraints (AIP produced an average of nearly six films per year) he wasn’t a film director who looked down on the medium like many other Exploitation film directors did. In fact, with his distribution company New World, Corman imported many European films ranging from simply saleable to crucially classic (Bergman’s CRIES AND WHISPERS and Herzog’s FITZCARRALDO falling into the latter category). He was a fanatical film fan, consistently enamored by cinema and not afraid to utilize this affection when directing. A fine example would be the Bergman-esque touches on MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1964). Widely considered the best of the Cycle, it showcases several of AIP’s strongest links: the clash of the gothic and the psychedelic, captured brilliantly here in the cinematography of future director Nicholas Roeg; Vincent Price’s studied cruelty in the role of Prince Prospero – a truly ideal part for Price, who’s class blends with murderous nastiness that would’ve no doubt delighted Poe himself; and a solid script that spans more Poe than just MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (the lesser-known Hop-Frog tale is prominent). Charles Beaumont (one of the three writers of the Twilight Zone and also this program’s PREMATURE BURIAL, 1962) and R. Wright Campbell (who wrote the superb Lon Chaney biopic MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES, 1957) collaborated on the script. Another writer, the legend Richard Matheson, penned the Cycle’s HOUSE OF USHER (1960), THE RAVEN (1963), TALES OF TERROR (1962), and PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961) and the Robert Towne scripted TOMB OF LIGEA (1964) completes the Cycle entries in Anthology’s program, and the consistency of all these films is fascinating. Floyd Crosby was the cinematographer of most of these films and the look is always wonderful and a little insane. The creativity of his camerawork blends the stark almost documentary feel of someone at the forefront of his artistic awareness with some rather madcap camera wielding and positioning.

X: THE MAN WITH X-RAY EYES (1963) is a cool, bizarre flexing of Crosby’s massive talent, from peering thru flesh and organs to undressing an entire dance party, from hospitals to the seedy carnival circuit to the bright-hot desert chase at the film’s conclusion, Crosby displays lush perspective and color for all sorts of settings and tones. The beyond-impressive low budget effects really kick in when THE MAN (with X-Ray Eyes)’s vision starts to intensify further and he can see through things SO much that his vision is reduced to insanity-inducing splotches of colors, bone, and blinding light.

A BUCKET OF BLOOD (1959) is an invigorating achievement. It’s a small budget horror story fueled by excellent acting, madcap characters, and a brilliant script (by AIP staffer Charles B. Griffith). With A BUCKET OF BLOOD, something has been made out of nothing, an achievement Roger Corman accomplished many times over. The low budget film is cinema’s answer to the one act play, and like the one-act play there’s no reason that a low budget film can’t pack in just as much drama, excitement, emotion and intensity as its heavily funded contemporary.

A BUCKET OF BLOOD is the story of Walter Paisley (Dick Miller’s best performance), an almost-retarded coffee shop bus boy who spends his time daydreaming and trying to fit in amongst the fancy artiste-types he serves coffee to. The setting is a mad and cinematic stereotype of a 1950’s beatnik dive, an even cartoonish backdrop. Poets and jazzbos, painters and bikers - everyone in Walter’s world looks down on him. Even those who like him treat him as an inferior – including the girl he loves. It doesn’t stop him from smiling though, or believing that he too could be an artist. One night in a fit of frustration, Walter accidentally kills his landlady’s cat. He takes some molding clay and does the only think he can think to do – hide the cat as a work of art, which of course rockets him to art-stardom.
As Walter soaks in this undue fame he begins to distance himself with the ideals he had as a failure, and then things go wonderfully, bloodily wrong. It’s absolutely one of Corman’s finest moments. LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS is A BUCKET OF BLOOD’s contemporary in many ways, and it’s also the only other film in this series that showcases what Corman was doing in the 1950’s. Even in it’s silliness and impoverished appearance the creativity does shine through in LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (the remake is great evidence) and almost shockingly it remains a unique, budget-less wonder.

All of Corman’s films for AIP were genre pictures except for one. Called the lone “serious” picture in the Corman/AIP canon, it performed poorly at the box-office and both were scared enough of not turning a profit again to ensure only genre outings from then out. And it’s a crime! This lone exception is THE INTRUDER (1962), a harrowing tale of a spineless racist instigator named Adam Cramer (played by William Shatner).
He arrives by bus to a small southern town soon after desegregation laws have passed that will integrate blacks and whites in American public schools. Using this as an opportunity to stir up the townspeople enough to create a Ku Klux Klan following, Cramer travels the south doing this “duty” for modern American white supremacy, getting the Klan going wherever he can. As ugly as it sounds, THE INTRUDER is perhaps the most attractive film of the whole set. It’s a brazen low-budget take on serious social concerns, and Corman, armed with a razor sharp script by Twilight Zone alum/AIP staff screenwriter Charles Beaumont (based on a his paperback), delivers a powerful piece of raw filmmaking that seems to inspire raving praise from all who cross it’s stark, black and white path (seriously, check out the User Comments on IMDB). THE INTRUDER spits in the face of average filmgoer expectation on all fronts – not only did Corman execute a perfect and lyrical parable proving the gross injustices of prejudice and fear, but William Shatner, whom laymen seem to consider a ham, shines so darkly as the sick-minded racist instigator that many a pea-brained Shatner-detractor are transformed after experiencing perhaps the finest role of his career. THE INTRUDER has chunks of painful realness that make it stand out from so many similarly themed but less effective films - in the beginning of the film the town’s newspaper editor is quite distasteful towards the idea of his daughter going to school with blacks, but wants to go along with the school integration because, as he says, “it’s the law”. It’s Shatner’s Cramer that incites the violence that convinces the same man that racism itself is an act of violence that only begets more violence. Charles Beaumont makes an appearance as the school principal, and many Corman AIP regulars flesh out the townsfolk.

It was a rare batch of films, and it was an absolute treat to see them given appropriate status at Anthology Film Archives. Roger Corman gets a lot of credit for a lot of different things – he gets credit for being absurdly prolific and for setting some trends in the world of pop culture filmmaking. He gets credit for being a hack and stealing ideas from both art house and mainstream films, and he wrongly gets credit for simply being talentless. It’s quite welcome and all-to-rare to hear his name in association with the thing he really was passionate about – making good movies. It’s something he did quite a few times, and finally, thanks to Anthology, Roger Corman got some of the credit he deserves.

Monday, October 12, 2009



They’re both two of the more anticipated horror films of the last year, but DEADGIRL and BAD BIOLOGY are from very different places. While the dark hype surrounding DEADGIRL was priming horror hounds for the film’s intense, “Cronenberg-like” message, BAD BIOLOGY marked the directorial return of Frank Henenlotter, who’s films BASKET CASE, FRANKENHOOKER, and BRAIN DAMAGE are widely-respected masterpieces of trashy, smutty, New York City horror.

After watching DEADGIRL, I thought I liked it quite a bit. I wasn’t exactly sure why, but I sort of convinced myself I had seen “one of the better horror films of 2009”, at least. It wasn’t until days later when I saw BAD BIOLOGY that I realized how wrong I was.

DEADGIRL tells the tale of two young, directionless men who find a near-dead girl in bondage in an abandoned mental institution. Knowing about this much beforehand, I readied myself for what I imagined would be a nearly unwatchable horror show that would hammer home the terrifying detachment of modern sexuality, particularly in males. Yes, it’s a theme Cronenberg has explored (mostly successfully), and one that if updated properly could make a shocking and even important modern horror film. DEADGIRL leaves us with something else however. The film’s message comes through clearly, but filmmakers Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel took too few risks to really convince us of it (I do wonder if Trent Haaga's script bears exact resemblance to the final product) – there's a consciousness of good taste here, and I mean that in the worst possible way. It’s too clean and slick to evoke the true grittiness of the level of human depravity at which people keep others for unwilling sex slaves. The relationship between the two lead boys is thin, and with some adjustment that could have been the glue that held DEADGIRL together. The protagonists would have stood a chance against being boring if they were simply more real, which would have made them far more disturbing and offensive. I’m reminded of a few other (much better) films, Vincent Pereira’s 1997 masterpiece “A Better Place”, Otto Preminger’s “Compulsion” and R.L. Frost’s 1965 definitive Roughie “The Defilers”. “Compulsion” is based on the true story of Leopold and Loeb (two teenage boys who tried to literally get away with murder because they felt the were superior to other humans) and the portrayal of the “in the grey” male relationship that occurs so often in real life is one of "Compulsion"'s most successful devices. Pereira’s “A Better Place” utilizes this aspect and magnifies it with brutal high school realism while “The Defilers” is an all-out smut fest, where everything goes wrong and the dialogue sizzles with the cheapness of a 60’s porno novel. DEADGIRL lies in the murky netherworld between these approaches, stretched thin in its efforts to not offend and offend at the same time. Views of sex as well as the act itself are at a unique moment in time. People train themselves to want what they’re told, others hide what they know they want for their entire lives and although no one is actually satisfied, everyone is vehemently sure that they’re right. Tearing down these kinds of false conventions is perfect for making viewers squirm, and it burns that the opportunity was wasted here. A film with this insane and nasty of a concept shouldn’t be pulling punches, it should be going over the top completely at all times.

DEADGIRL isn't terrible, don’t get me wrong. But we’re dealing with a film that basically lies to us about how much guts it has – and with a brazen mission to provoke intelligent thought in its pornography-obsessed, mostly-male audience, you’re gonna need a lot more guts.

It was in the midst of watching BAD BIOLOGY that I realized DEADGIRL's flatness. I’m not exaggerating when I say BAD BIOLOGY is a masterpiece. A new film so glorious in its ignorance of the rotten state of cinema today that it will startle fans into realizing how good, and how original, an independent horror movie can still be. Everything about BAD BIOLOGY defies the sad, contemporary model for horror that’s infected both Hollywood drek and the so-called “indies” nowadays. Now more than ever we are exposed to horror films that attempt purposefully to offend us, the filmmakers of which have long forgotten that art can only be truly offensive when it is backed up by a genuine idea. In this respect BAD BIOLOGY, like Henenlotter’s other films, excels – every scene, every line, and every concept is born out of ACTUALLY HAVING bad taste. These guys aren’t faking it, they’re not TRYING to think of “offensive” ideas, they’re trying (and succeeding) to simply come up with GOOD ideas. It just so happens that BAD BIOLOGY’s filmmakers’ best ideas are bat-shit, jaw-droppingly, laugh-out-loud SICK! Henenlotter teamed up with rapper R.A. The Rugged Man (who I hope will have a very long career making films) to deliver this work of true sickness and depravity in a time when horror films desperate need it.

The intensity of Henenlotter’s vision is completely unique, and shockingly he’s somehow managed to make another perfect installment to his oeuvre, even though his last film was “Basket Case 3”, a long 16 years ago. The trademarks of his best work are all over BAD BIOLOGY: physical deformity, huge sexual problems, incredible over-the-top perverse dialogue and of course – unrequited love. Underneath all the flesh and blood Henenlotter always has some sort of heartache and bittersweet, missed romantic opportunity.

Make no mistake about it; BAD BIOLOGY is a passionate work of art. Aided in no small part by The Rugged Man’s understanding of the genre, an element that pairs so well with Henenlotter’s world that the viewer is lovingly barraged with a constant stream of wonderfully whacked-out concepts and scenarios. The opening scene and shot had me instantly glued to the screen – medium shot of an elegant blonde girl in a crowded dive bar … we’re looking right at her, she’s beautiful; in a pretty dress. Her voice over kicks in –

“I was born with seven clits. Or at least seven that the doctors know about …”

As she sizes up the males in the bar she fills us in on her story … Born with excessive and highly stimulating female genitalia, Jennifer desperately hunts for sex nightly; and as she tells her tale we begin to sense how deranged she’s become from her situation. She spies a suitable piece of meat in a leather jacket and catches his eye. He smiles at her, knowing he’s going to get laid, and in perfect faux-shyness she quickly breaks their eye contact and stares at the ground, smiling coyly. Voice over again –

Got ‘im!”

In less than half an hour he’s dead, of course. The rest I won’t give away!

Jennifer is an insane, sociopathic sex fiend, destined to never find “the one” … enter Batz, a nervous loner with a penile affliction that would without a doubt peak Jennifer’s interest. Slowly, as both have empty, loveless one-night-stands, their paths inch toward each other. Both characters are so totally damaged that it becomes quite romantic to imagine the two actually finding each other. Jennifer’s obsessive attitude over her individual connection with God and the future of mankind lead to some of the film’s tastiest bits, and Batz’s conversations/fights with his mad member are classic Henenlotter. Jennifer is played by Charlee Danielson, in her first starring role. Danielson has enormous potential, reminding me somewhat of Mira Sorvino in “Mighty Aphrodite” and even Sissy Spacek in “Badlands” (with all those great voice-overs she does). Sneed, whom producer The Rugged Man apparently found on myspace, is perfect as an antisocial 20-something New Yorker, hardly looking anyone in the eye, pushing out his words in thick and nervous New York-ese. Disregard any reviews that you see that claim BAD BIOLOGY’s acting is bad, although I guess I’m not surprised – I mean, “Surrogates” grossed over 7 million dollars this weekend, so most people are clearly IDIOTS when it comes to what good acting is. BAD BIOLOGY has PLENTY of acting chops actually, and Charlee Danielson and Anthony Sneed both bring their roles to life with endearing and hilarious awkwardness (Sneed shouting “I was the only fifteen year old in the world who couldn’t JERK OFF!” is a highlight).

As a filmgoer, I needed Henenlotter back in my life. I needed to be reminded that as a self-respecting horror fanatic I didn’t have to settle for DEADGIRL. I didn’t have to settle for anything less than the realest of real, and the nittiest of gritty. The possibilities really are endless, and not everything has been done before, not even close. I'm reminded of something Mark Mothersbaugh once said about the illusion of freedom in America - we're told that we have the Freedom of Choice, but the choice is between Coke and Pepsi. He was right, and now this structure has existed for so long that most of us believe that it's actually "a choice" - of course, it's not. So don't believe the lies. Horror should exist without limits, without boundries and without good taste - and BAD BIOLOGY has NONE of these!

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Less You Know Dept.

Excited, obsessive, and sixteen - my high school friends and I had to be the most passionate and off-the-wall kids to ever haunt the hallways of Middletown South. By the end of 9th grade I think I had inspected every Horror, Sci-Fi, Cult, and Foreign section of every video store in Monmouth County (no joke). Whether it was a Peter Sellers/Blake Edwards vehicle, something by Jean-Luc Godard, or a 70’s George Romero film that you can only get as a bootleg, I just had to see it. I remember forcing a roomful of people to watch Murnau’s Nosferatu (an scoreless VHS version no less) at 2:00 AM one morning. I remember watching North By Northwest in high school and thinking I was going to throw up because of the intensity of the airplane sequence. I remember my elation and bewilderment after watching Badlands on VHS, then rushing over to the VCR in order to rewind the tape and watch it again - immediately.

For me, it was and is all part of this grand notion I got in my head as a kid that "I KNOW NOTHING". Now don't take that in a negative, self-deprecating way - think of it as enlightening; or progressive even. As deeply 'into' things as I get, I can never shake the feeling that I'm only scratching the surface. And that's where the fun is. Most people are unconsciously against this (while unfortunately some are consciously against it), and very quick to state their uninformed opinion. Not knowing everything is an exciting feeling, for as intense as a piece of art can be to me, I will always have a quiet inner-dialogue telling me "if THIS is out there - and you didn't know about it before ... well, shit - anything's possible!"

When I was young and I would read Michael J. Weldon’s essential ‘Psychotronic Video’ magazine, the descriptions of (and even just the titles of) some of the films would strike such a chord of fascination in me, it was like there were entire worlds of meticulously executed art out there; art that was SO dark, or SO intense, or SO wild that nothing I had seen before was like it. Getting to those “worlds”, as well as paying attention to the journey, is where we learn things.

Other people I've encountered seem to have some sort of (self-imposed) WALL OF COOL in front of them that not only preserves their cool exterior - but also creates a surface impenetrable to all things fascinating. That's a waste of life. And to put it bluntly (and to paraphrase Harlan Ellison), that's what makes someone "one of the slaves".

Once, in high school, before I had figured much of this stuff out, my friend Jason and I were discussing (as we often did) favorite films. Jason mentioned The Usual Suspects. He admitted to its popularity (this was the 90's, folks) and then said something that's really stuck with me:

"I get physically affected at the end. It's like a feeling washes over me, and it happens every time I watch it. I can't argue with that feeling."

His admission to undecided adoration was eye-opening - how much do we choose what we tell people we like? The question is always on my mind. Although much of its usage is light, I believe the term "guilty pleasure" to be quite insidious. While it can be humorous to refer to things as a "guilty pleasure" the idea that we are afraid of exposing our true feelings about art to each other is far too real and horrifying for me to accept usage of that phrase. People crave intellectual superiority over art and over many of the things they see. People often want to break down the things that are presented to them in such a way as to prove that -

A) They know exactly what they're looking at.


B) It's just not that good.

or, alternate for B):

C) It's stupid.

Now, as anyone can see, when this WALL of COOL is up, and A, B and/or C are in effect, there can be no feelings of enchantment or wonder had by the spectator. People's self-importance and fear have blended into a sickening muck of ignorance. For it's the truly ridiculous and even evil things that get the OK - look at where the film industry is, or turn on your TV (if you dare) - THESE are the things that the masses approve! Worst of all is what happens to art that is the work of true passion. Great art, art that the artist was desperate to make, art that has profound personal significance; is often the main target of this moronic, pseudo-intellectual behavior. It is the individuality and uniqueness of things that make them an easy target for the Terrified Mind.

The Terrified Minds will tell you “it's OK to express yourself - as long as it is the same as everyone else's expression.”


Total Crap.


Call it what you will, but it makes me MAD.

You don’t have to be a part of it; and you don’t have to help those who want you for a slave. Help yourself. Help those in whom you see authenticity and substance. The genuine are persecuted now and desperately need validation and protection. Our society’s chance at birthing another Thomas Edison or Ray Bradbury stands in direct opposition to our ability to build another shopping mall; filled with the same stores, that are filled with the same crap, as every – other – stupid mall in the country.

The world is rejecting beautiful things and burying them because it is too afraid to think for itself.

And, to quote Harlan Ellison again: “It’s a dumb world.”

And like I said – You don’t have to be a part of it.