Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Olde Review: The Rocky Horror Picture Show

"I would like, if I may, to take you on a strange journey."
The following was part of a series reviewing the ASUW film series at the University of Washington that were broadcast on KCMU-FM in 1976--I found the old scripts and thought it might be interesting to post them here--with no editorial alteration. I have no doubt that my attitude to some of these films has changed over the years--ageing does that--but to just erase my opinions from back then and tack on my new-found objections would do a disservice to the reviewer who was just a "stinky kid" back then. It'd be like --I don't know--talking over a movie or something! Or throwing bread at the screen!

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Jim Sharman, 1975) This Saturday's films at 130 Kane Hall are The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Private Parts. They're a little freaky. No. They're not. They're a LOT freaky. Take, for example, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Rock biggie Lou Adler produced it. Jim Sharman directed it with assistance from a lot of other people's work, notably Brian DePalma's Phantom of the Paradise. And like ...Paradise, it's a rock-musical-horror-picture hybrid. Unlike ...Paradise, Rocky Horror has a sci-fi element and a great deal less subtlety.

You know the plot. Two nice people--two niiiiice people (Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon)--are driving down the road during a rainstorm. They get a flat tire and look for a phone, and, of course, they come upon a light in the House of Dr. Frank N. Furter, scientist.
Dr. Furter (Tim Curry) refers to himself as a "trans-sexual transvestite from Transylvania" and when he first appears in stilletos, garter belt and heavy make-up, there's more than enough evidence to take him at his word. As with Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein, the sexuality that's only hinted at in the early "Frankenstein" films of James Whale is made overt. No longer do we have the Father-Creator/Son-Creation love of the first "Frank.." film, this scientist creates "Rocky" as a...toy.
It's bizarre. Maybe too bizarre for some.* But as long as the thing takes itself so lightly, it's harmless and engaging. Half-way through the third reel**, however, the film begins to take itself somewhat half-way seriously and bogs itself down.
But there are things to recommend: the special effects of Wally Veevers, who worked on 2001, the performances of the actors familiar and unfamiliar, especially Susan Sarandon (JoeThe Front PageThe Great Waldo Pepper) and one of my favorite actors Charles Gray--he plays every role the same way, and his, by no means, small role as the Narrator of the film is in his finest arch tradition. But the actor who steals the show is Tim Curry, mincing around the thing like Carol Burnett playing Gloria Swanson. Whatever reservations you may have of the film, it is his force of personality and presence that makes the whole thing work as well as it does.
I sound like such a prude with this. But, it was 1976 and that was a long time ago.

One can't argue with Rocky Horror as a cultural phenomenon, but it still doesn't hold up too well as a film. Perhaps that's why it ended up as such an "audience participation" project (well, that and the music and the dancing--duh!)--"Mystery Science 3000" never took on any classics. It offers a chance for the audience to camp-out and out-camp the film.
And it bears a re-visit: the print I saw of it had severe sync problems--10 minutes out of sync, actually. That can spoil your appreciation of anything! And Tim Curry vaulted from this into mainstream films--but he's never had a role that so dominated a film as this one.
Also...and this has nothing to do with the movie...there was a teaser trailer attached to the film for a film I'd heard a couple of rumors about and was interested in seeing: a little movie called Star Wars.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is part of the National Film Registry. Bra-vo to the Library of Congress. Let's do the Time-Warp again.

* This was written in 1976, and Rocky Horror had only been released the previous year and died a grisly and unprofitable death at the box-office. You know...the rest of the story. The Rocky Horror Picture Show was, appropriately, unearthed and brought back from the dead at revival houses and turned into a Midnight Movie staple--not so much for the film, but for the lively audience participation. The Rocky Horror Picture Show struck a chord in the youth market and any excess displayed in 1975 became a part of the popular culture...to the horror of some. But you can't argue with success. FOX did a remake of it and aired it on October 20, 2016...on broadcast television. Times change and culture changes with it.

** I was watching a 16mm print, but I would hazard a guess to say that I'm referring to the point in the big "RKO" extravaganza where Frank N. Furter must face his demise. Bummer.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Don't Make a Scene (Redux): Unforgiven

It takes a lot of time to do the "Don't Make a Scene" feature that I put up every Sunday (all those screen-caps!), so while I'm preparing a bunch more, I'm going to take a break and re-post the ones that have gotten the most "hits," and others that I think are exceptional—it is no surprise to me that they couldn't be more different. This one sticks with me a lot and I've expanded my look at it a bit

The Story: Even as this scene unspools in Clint Eastwood's valedictory western Unforgiven, you know that it is a classic scene—a moment of summing up and reflection on violence and its effects, something that doesn't occur in most westerns, certainly most modern westerns. Certainly most of the westerns that starred Clint Eastwood when he was working with such masters of the form as Sergio Leone and Don Siegel. Both directors were interested in taking their genre films and doing something more. Now their star, after some twenty years of directing films, moved into a new deepening understanding of not only what film could do, but what it was capable of. Unforgiven is dedicated to those directors who had gone before, "to Sergio and Don."
Eastwood's elegant picture-compositions start from the first image. His work has always been notable for the occasional "perfect" shot here and there, but the work was mostly concerned with efficiency and clarity, the cornerstones for beginning film-makers trying to get attention of the front-office and bean-counters. But, Unforgiven, tells its story a bit differently (his previous movie was The Rookie, after all), where image is important and you tell your story with pictures and less with quote-worthy dialog.

So, there wasn't a BIG surprise for me in the theater when this scene started. The first shot is another deep-focus landscape with figures dwarfed in the foreground, another simple tree as a point of focus. But, the scene, with the second image—of a distant figure riding out of town to meet those men—already anticipating what comes after this scene, undercuts the weight it holds.

It's just two guys by a tree waiting. Talking about what just transpired, recovering from it—if recovery is possible—and talking about death, no longer an abstract, but a very real thing.

One of the themes of Unforgiven is its look at the use of violence to solve problems, as its a trope of westerns and certainly of Eastwood's of the past. The inclination towards violence is inspired by those who are low enough to use it...and those wanting revenge for it. The revenge motivation seems so ingrained in our entertainment now—certainly, it makes up so much of the super-hero genre—that it is no longer even questioned.

But, it needs to be questioned. It's a sick inclination, looking at life like a game of win or lose, who's on top and who isn't, a narcissistic view of life where only the self matters and not the impact that self has. That philosophy may be important only to the life of a hermit, and then, only in a limited way.

Which is why that last line is so devastating. "We all got it coming, kid." It says that no revenge will save you or make your life longer. No one gets out alive. Win all you want. You'll lose everything eventually. It's like the devastating last line of Barry Lyndon: “It was the reign of King George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled; good or bad, handsome or ugly; rich or poor…they are all equal now.” 

I can't tell you how many times I've replied to "They probably deserved it" with "We all got it coming, kid."

Life is just not a game.
The Setup: Former gunslinger William Munny (Clint Eastwood) takes on a bounty hunter job to save his failing pig farm. But he finds that old habits die hard, but men die just as easy. He and his partner "The Schofield Kid" (Jaimz Woolvert) have just taken care of part of the job, and are awaiting payment.

When you're ready....

Open country at sundown seen from a low hill, and you can
barely make out a lone RIDER approaching in the extreme
Standing on the rise and watching the rider in the distance.

THE KID: Is that what it was like in the old days, Will?... Everybody ridin' out shootin'... smoke all over the place an' folks yellin' an' bullets whizzin' by?

The Kid is behind Will sitting under a large oak drinking
from a whiskey bottle.

MUNNY(absently): I guess so.

THE KID: Shit... I thought they was gonna get us.
The KID: I was even... scared a little... just for a minute.
The KID: Was you ever scared in them days?

Munny turns from watching the rider's slow approach and walks over to The Kid who can't see the rider from where he's sitting.

MUNNY: I can't remember. I was drunk most of the time.

The rider is a little closer now and the sun is a little lower. It is very beautiful.

THE KID (drinking heavy): I shot that fucker three times. He was takin' a shit. He went for his pistol an' I blazed away... first shot got him in the chest...

The Kid wipes whiskey from his chin. He has been working hard to make the hysteria he feels into a high... but it won't quite come.

THE KID: Say, Will...
MUNNY: Yeah.

Munny is watching the rider and the rider is closer.

THE KID: That was... the first one.

MUNNY: First one what?
THE KID: First one I ever killed.
MUNNY (preoccupied with his vigil): Yeah?

THE KID: You know how I said I shot five men... it weren't true. (long pause) That Mexican... the one that come at me with the knife... I just busted his leg with a shovel... I didn't kill him or nothin,' neither.

Munny is watching the rider and the rider is much closer but coming at a walk and and he's trying to make The Kid feel okay when he says...

MUNNY: Well, you sure killed the hell outta that fella today.
THE KID (forced bravado): H-hell yeah. I killed the hell out of him... three shots... he was takin' a sh-sh-shit an'... an'...

The Kid is shaking, becoming hysterical, he can't go on.

MUNNY: Take a drink, Kid.
THE KID (breaking down, crying): J-Jesus Ch-ch-christ... it don't... it don't seem... real... How he ain't never gonna breathe no more... e-ever. How he's dead. An' the other one too... On account of... of just... pullin' a trigger.

Munny walks back to the edge of the rise and watches the rider and it is a lovely sunset happening and he is talking to no one in particular.

MUNNY: It's a hell of a thing, killin' a man. You take away all he's got... an' all he's ever gonna have...
THE KID (trying to pull himself together): Yeah well, I gu-guess they had it... comin'.
MUNNY: We all have it comin', Kid.

Pictures by Jack N. Green and Clint Eastwood

Unforgiven is available on DVD on Warners Home Video.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Cronos 1993

Cronos (Guillermo del Toro, 1993) Okay, Cronos is not Citizen Kane. Nothing is. But, for the feature film directorial debut of a new film-maker, it is very, very impressive. That the film-maker's previous film, a short called Geometria, looks as amateurish as can be. But, Cronos is lush, complex, and fascinating to watch. That it is also a vampire movie (of a sorts) makes it a curiosity. That it is the product of Guillermo del Toro, and one of his original works (rather than an adaptation) makes it quite essential to watch.  

It begins with a prelude, setting a historical, supernatural context to its modern story of greed and selfishness.

"In 1536, fleeing from the Inquisition, the alchemist Humberto Oganelli disembarked in Veracruz, Mexico. Appointed official watchmaker to the viceroy, Oganelli was determined to perfect an invention which would provide him with the key to eternal life. He was to name it the Cronos device. Four hundred years later, one night in 1937, part of a wall in a building collapsed. Amongst the victims was a man of strange skin, the color of marble in moonlight, his chest mortally pierced. His last words: Sua tempore. This was the alchemist. The authorities located the residence of the dead man. What they found there was never fully revealed to the public. After a brief investigation, the mansion and its contents were sold at public auction. Never on any list or inventory was the Cronos device mentioned. As far as anyone knew, it never existed."

Nor did anyone know that a bizarre, grisly tableau was found in the mansion: a man hung like a rack of meat, his body drained of blood that was contained in bowls on the floor. But, one man knows the story. Industrialist-millionaire Dieter de la Guardia (Claudio Brook) is dying and has been acquiring statues of archangels that have been rumored to contain the Cronos device that for so many centuries had kept Oganelli alive. Confined to a private hospital room in his complex, de la Guardia dispatches his ruthless American nephew Angel (Ron Perlman) to hunt down any archangel statue he can find that might have come from the Organelli ruins in order to prolong his life. Despite desiring his inheritance does his bidding, if only to maintain the lifestyle he feels he deserves—and for a nose-job operation he craves.
Which brings Angel to the humble antique shop of Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi), a humble religious man who has just been sent a parcel containing an archangel statue for dispensation. Angel throws his weight around the antiguery and tries to wheedle the statue from Snr. Gris, but the parcel has only just arrived and he won't let it go until he's examined it and tried to determine its worth. Angel leaves reluctantly, but threatens to be back.

Examining it, Gris realizes that the statue is hollow and opening its base finds an ornate gold watch-like device, which fascinates both him and his mute granddaughter Aurora (Tamara Shanath). It is very old and piques his curiosity and he becomes determined to find out its secrets. In the meantime, Angel comes back and acquires the statue, thinking he's now obtained the Cronos device.
Alone in his shop, Gris examines the mechanism for the device and engages a fob on it. Six mechanical legs pop out of it, making it resemble a scarab. All well and good, but the old man is surprised when the legs suddenly clamp down on his hand painfully. Then, to his horror, the mechanism unfolds a large needle out of its pattern and jams it into his flesh. Unbeknownst to him—but revealed to the viewer—inside the Cronos, living among its gear-works is a pulsing grub-like creature which injects Gris with a liquid that weakens him. He is tended to by his mistress Mercedes (Margarita Isabel), who worries about the wound but tends to it, removing a stinger, and bandages it.
That night, Jesus can't sleep. Thirsty and feverish, he can't slack his thirst with water. He's drawn to the Cronos and engages it again and, despite the pain, feels better. He goes back to bed, but in the morning, the light is blinding and he draws the curtains. But, looking in the mirror, he appears younger, some of his wrinkles having disappeared. Inspired, he shaves off his mustache, and Mercedes is surprised at how more youthful he appears. He moves better, too, and is more energized. 
But, going to his shop, he finds it vandalized. The Cronos not being found in the archangel statue, de la Guardia has stepped up efforts and doing so less circumspectly. Jesus is brought to the millionaire and feigns ignorance, but de la Guardia gives him a history of the device and of his own worsening condition. Jesus is determined to not let the Cronos go, but the efforts to get them escalate, even as Jesus begins to be stronger to survive them. He even survives Angel locking him in the trunk of a car and tossing it off a cliff. Although appearing to be dead, Jesus survives, but his skin has begun to peel off, exposing a paler, shinier skin underneath. And, as he's discovered before the murder attempt, he has developed a taste for human blood.
Although at times grisly and a bit perverse at times, Cronos fascinates. Del Toro turns the old vampire story on its pointed ear by taking the victimization out of it and any faux-romantic niceties that have perfumed the animalism of it for decades. Oh, there is blood-letting and an instance of neck-sucking, but the violence by the particulars has more to do with common greed and selfishness than with any acquiring of blood. In fact, a lot of blood here goes to waste. It would make a vampire fangs rattle in fear.
But, the artistry with which its done is so far ahead of what others have, that one could see that del Toro would be a unique film-maker with a future that he seems to be living up to.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Dracula (1931)

Dracula (Tod Browning, 1931) Filmed version of the stage-play* featuring its matinee-idol, Bela Lugosi. As with "Frankenstein," there had been other versions of Count Dracula's British Invasion, including one (Nosferatu by F.W. Murnau) that got around copyright issues by calling its "vampyre" "Count Orlok."** As with Universal Picture's earlier productions of The Phantom of the Opera, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Man Who Laughs, the film is heavy on theatrics, but, this time, is a bit lean in the make-up department, although Lugosi did wear painful silvered contact lenses to enhance his seductive glare. Lugosi's elegant monster, with his slash of a mouth, and eyes wide open while balefully squinting with a laser-like intensity manages to still evoke "the creeps" to this day.

Tod Browning's direction is full of subtle touches--the sudden appearance of the Count's "brides," for example--and not-so-subtle--a shot of Jonathan Harker on Dracula's staircase is shot through a spider web, and Dwight Frye's performance as Renfield is babblingly over-the-top, as is required of so many actors in the horror genre.

As we wrote of the primal homosexual aspects of Frankenstein, Dracula is the straighter blood-brother--the heterosexual aspect of humanity gone hysterical. Dracula's attacks start as seductions, but his acts are akin to rape--animalistic and savage--and linked to sexuality--penetrative, taking blood and passing on the disease of vampirism to his victims. sapping life-strength and energy. And it's all under the guise of civility and position, of manners and societal restraint. But underneath throbs the bestial urges--hidden by day, and only alive at night. Sure, it's nice to bask in the glow of celebrity, but make sure the smile isn't hiding fangs.
Count Dracula, then, is one big hard-on, that by light of day, crumbles to dust. That his bane are religious icons and his own lack of reflection (self-knowledge) only reinforces the metaphor. He's never gone out of style, no matter how straight-laced or free-loving the times. Dracula is one popular "playa."
With the times, the incarnations of "Dracula" have become increasingly sexual over the years, *** only making more obvious what Bram Stoker and Tod Browning buried in the sub-text. "Dracula" is, and always has been, the personification of serial criminal sexuality--which can only be curbed by the light of day. Dracula is The Forbidden, and carries the risk of damnation for seeking it. Besides the purifying rays of the sun, the surest way to kill a vampire is a blessed stake...through the heart.
Frankenstein-homosexuality. Dracula-heterosexuality. Of course, these haunts were conjured during the repressed Victorian era. But what horrified them, still carried a tingle, just as their stories intrigue us and our children, thrill us, and haunt our dreams. No wonder the Religious Right condemn them, or any aspect of the occult.
Hollywood makes a vain attempt (or stab) at killing them, but these monsters of the Id keep coming back, rising from the grave (or the ashes) to stalk another day...er...night. How do you handle these monsters/urges?

The answer next Friday

*Adapted from Bram Stoker's 1897 novel by Hamilton Deane and John L. Baderston. A Spanish-language version was filmed simultaneously (the English version during the day and the Spanish at night) using the same sets, directed by George Melford and starring Carlos Villarias, Lupito Tovar, and Eduardo Arozamena. BOTH versions are in the National Film Registry.

** "Dracula" did not go into the public domain until April, 1962.

*** A guided tour of coffin-dwellers (PLEASE, no flash pictures!): Christopher Lee's athletic, animal Dracula in the heaving Hammer films, Frank Langella oozing Byronesque charm in the 70's stage version and 80's film version, Barnabas Collins, cutting a swath through the ladies of daytime soap-opera on "Dark Shadows," Anne Rice's tortured, damned rock-star vampires, and right on up to current day with the throbbing vampiric (though chaste) teen romances of the "Twilight" series.