Groovy & Wild Films from Around the World

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Shit from the Thrift Store – 1.

“Shit from the Thrift Store” is a blog series on thrift-store-bought DVDs that came to me in the shower one morning, about a week after having exhaustively written and scheduled 17 articles for the Delirious Cinema blog and 1 horror article for the next Absolute Underground – apparently my sleep-deprived brain felt it needed even more to tackle, so it went on making more things up to do without so much as a consultation. But I thought this might actually be a fun sideline for film-writing, as I had been sidestepping into the Thrift Store on my way downtown sporadically (when I've been able to waste a few minutes without completely missing the seabus from North Vancouver to downtown) – and in a self-conceived notion of competition, I've used said time to feed the friendly competition that probably exists only in my own mind between myself, finding the best,out-of-print DVD and forgotten cinema gems, and my friend-slash-imaginary-competition who runs an online webstore for sought-after DVDs and VHS tapes. Said friend seems to have more luck than I do acquiring the really cool stuff from the same couple of thrift stores the exist around the Lower Lonsdale area (or LoLo, as the local businesses call it), but I'm not just in it for the competition – no, I'm in it to find those forgotten-about nuggets of something special from the Hollywood and Canadian Tax Credit films of yesteryear. And indeed, I always keep the corner of my eye sharpened for those little slices of culture and film that I may have missed the first time around – you know, things like Staying Alive and Flashdance.

Although never having seen either of these films, I retain a childhood memory (which admittedly may have gotten warped, somewhat, over time) of both of these films, plus John Landis' Trading Places, having been fake-reviewed in a Mad Magazine spoof of Siskel & Ebert's movie review show which was on the air in 1983, “At the Movies”. Two things always struck me about Staying Alive, other than the fact it is a direct and official sequel to the late-seventies hit that made John Travolta a Hollywood superstar – Saturday Night Fever – and that is 1.) it was directed by Sylvester Stallone, and 2.) is appears to thoroughly and unapologetically exploit John Travolta, as he appears in all of the film's promotional stills mostly naked, mostly sweaty, quite oiled-up, and pretty damned ripped. (When did he do Blow Out again? Before? After? Anyway, he was pretty popular around this time. Which reminds me, I still need to see Perfect, which also starred Travolta alongside Jamie Lee Curtis, which is probably another entertaining take Hollywood take on how narcissism will get you everything). Where was I? Whatever, I can move onto Entertaining and Narcissistic.

In fact, Stayin' Alive is sort of an exercise in Hollywood meta-narcissism – as it's a bizarrely narcissistic story about a narcissistic character told by Sylvester Stallone himself, who somehow manages to ooze his very own style of narcissism, which used to be somewhat attractive in the 1980s. In Stayin' Alive, Travolta's Saturday-Night-Fever character flip-flops between two intimate relationships between two women, neither of whom seem to mind his promiscuous wishy-washiness in regards to either relationship, while he unscrupulous climbs over his professional peers to gain a top spot in a high-profile Broadway dance-musical – and we're meant to be on his side through his unprincipled “dilemmas” as the movie asks (expects) us to see this all as some sort of existential crisis that he's going through (and we are on his side, because aren't we all just a tiny bit narcissistic ourselves? Well, it is the 1980s, and Travolta is a little bit irresistible, even if he spends half the film in his tighty-whities).

So what of Flashdance? Surely the alluring girl form the wrong side of the tracks with the heart of gold who only wants to dance her way to success isn't a Regan-era narcissist, is she? Well, I'm still mulling over an inner debate about that one, but it seems to me that the movie was telling me that if you are this type of girl, then you'd better find an older and slightly more experienced white male to fall in love with you so that he can help you out by pulling some strings on your behalf in that prestigious dance academy to get you that major audition that will launch your professional career, or else don't bother, because you'll probably just become a stripper like your old friend Jeanie.

The really amazing thing here is that both Staying Alive and Flashdance are actually two wildly entertaining films – because Hollywood in the 1980s knew damn well how to pull our strings – with flashy movies filled with electrifying choreography, dazzling set-pieces, ups and downs in just the right places, attractive leads and supporting cast members, and a constant barrage of upbeat music tracks. Not like the Hollywood movies of today, where far more sophisticated means of storytelling and a focus to modern audiences are...

Ah, hell, I'm going back to the thrift store.



Sunday, March 18, 2018

Vertigo/DePalma - II

* * * Part II

Back in the mid-nineties, the films of Alfred Hitchcock had their own section in video stores, including Blockbuster Video, and Hitchcock even had his own featured display at Universal Studios, along with the famous “Psycho house” set – but the early films of Brian DePalma and pretty much any film by Dario Argento were pretty difficult to come by. I was able to find and rent DePalma's The Fury on VHS from an independent video store close to where I lived in North Vancouver; and after searching around different video stores in Vancouver, Surrey, North Vancouver, and West Vancouver, I finally came upon (in that last city) a videotape copy of Argento's Suspiria and DePalma's Sisters. Rented the former and asked the video clerk if he would be willing to sell me the latter – and he agreed, letting me know that Brian DePalma's 1973 film was not exactly a hot renter. Well, he didn't exactly use those words, but I was thrilled that he was willing to sell me the Warner Brothers VHS tape for ten dollars. Bringing that tape home, it would be the first time I'd see what is DePalma's first foray into the ultra-stylish, erotic, and bloody gory realm of his mystery horror-thrillers – exactly the type of dark, sexy, and violent mystery-thrillers that he would be celebrated for (and become the center of controversy by) in the first half of the 1980s. Sisters would also draw the definitive line where DePalma began experimenting with dual- and alternate-personalities, a subject that would mark (and somewhat define) his later works through Dressed to Kill and Raising Cain. The idea of “doubles” that also comes about in Sisters when we're introduced to Margot Kidder's twin sister, had been toyed with by DePalma previously in his thriller Obsession and of course was taken from Vertigo, the “double” in Hitchcock's film the object of much anguish and obsession to leading man Stewart.

* * *

The “double” in Hitchcock's Vertigo appears after the wife of Stewart's lost friend suddenly commits suicide after leading Stewart, suffering the affliction of the film's title, up the freakishly steep steps of an old cathedral to the top of the interior of a bell tower. Stewart witnesses this suicide, not by sight, but by hearing first Novak's scream and then discovering that she's jumped from the bell tower to her death. DePalma one-ups this witness-to-the-death scenario in his own Body Double (1984) by having his protagonist, played by Craig Wasson, actually see the heroine getting brutally murdered with a constructionist's power drill. In both Vertigo and Body Double this death of the heroine appears at the halfway points through each film. For all intents and purposes, DePalma's Body Double is a remake of Hitchcock's Vertigo.

DePalma cleverly employs the idea of Hollywood's body double – a model who steps into place for a film actress when nude close-ups are required – into the actuality of his thriller-plot for Body Double, a film that DePalm never even had intended to direct in the first place, but yet would mark the cumulative film of his masterwork trilogy (Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, Body Double) from 1980 – 1984.

Columbia Pictures, the Hollywood studio responsible for producing Body Double, actually flatly refused to produce the film for DePalma unless he himself directed it. Even the studio know that Body Double would not succeed with the auteur taking a backseat as writer/producer; he needed to helm the project himself. When DePalma finally agreed to direct (dropping an unproduced pet project to do so), Ccolumbia Pictures greenlit the project and filming commenced in Los Angeles in 1984 – amongst much controversy. By 1984, DePalma had already acquired a reputation to rival any of his own fictional split-personality characters – he was revered as an auteur, a maverick, and decried for being nothing more than a Hitchcock rip-off artist, and at worst, a misogynist. Displaying the violent and bloody deaths of attractive women in his films were commonplace. Or the femme fatale might be a deranged maniac herself. But there was always an undeniable beauty in his shots; it always seemed to me that DePalma loved women, and he wanted to celebrate them in the very same manner he strove to celebrate his greatest influence – Hitchcock.

Culture uses art to dream the deaths of beautiful women” – Elisabeth Bronfen

Everything about Body Double is done in extreme excess, including the nearly endlessly flowing and spinning camerashots used to comprise the often over-complicated sequences (like when Wasson follows the object of his curiosity and desire, Deborah Shelton, through the Escher-like maze of the multi-leveled Beverly Hills mall, utilizing elevators, escalators, and store windows to construct the framework for both the scene and the scene's satirical criticism of the changing times – in Vertigo, James Stewart may have been able to follow Kim Novak around the city without much question from outsiders – in DePalma's version, Wasson is made to feel like, and look like, a leering pervert). Adding to the excess of Body Double is the intricately-shot series of voyeuristic set-pieces, the abundant nudity, the ease with which DePalm shifts his backdrop from the B-movie Hollywood movie industry to the hardcore Los Angeles pornography industry while we, the audience, never blink an eye. And finally, of course, the violent and bloody deaths that occur to propel the mystery plot along. The death of what may have been the leading heroine, Deborah Shelton, as also infused with electrifying suspense and action as Wasson, having witnessing the murder actually occurring, is literally running for her life as he tries to save her – although he must (impossibly) cover the distance between the scene of her murder, in her own house, and the hilltop house he was spying on her from through a long-lensed telescope.

Dispatching with the leading heroine halfway through a film was a plot device that intrigued Alfred Hitchcock – although he employed this device in his masterpiece Vertigo, he would revisit it sooner than later in Psycho, a film based on a book by celebrated horror author Robert Bloch. Of the book, Hitchcock had been known for saying: (The death of the leading lady) was the only interesting thing about the book. You'll notice that this statement wasn't in quotation marks as I'm paraphrasing though keeping within Hitchcock's spirited feelings about the book and its plot. In fact, however, the character of Marion Crane is killed before the end of the third chapter in Bloch's book. It's just that up until then, she had been the main focus, although Norman Bates was actually introduced on page one. But Hitchcock really was a master of cinematic plotting, and his changes to Bloch's novel served the film version of Psycho in unprecedented, iconic ways at that point in film history.

One of the key differences between Hitchcock's Vertigo and DePalma's Body Double is that in Hitchcock's film, after the death of the heroine, James Stewart finds her double purely through coincidence and accident. In DePalma's version, Wasson, still obsessed with Shelton and now spiraling downward with guilt and regret, decided to take matters into his own hands and turn himself into a very convincing amateur detective. In Vertigo we get the idea that James Stewart feels something is not right after seeing Novak's double. The uncertainty simmers under his outward actions in trying to romance this double. In Body Double, Wasson more overtly conveys the fact that he knows something is amiss, albeit after a twist on Vertigo's key scene – where James Stewart runs into the double on the street, in front of a storefront, by accident; Wasson's character sees Shelton's body double – essentially the person he'd actually been tricked into spying on – performing the same open-curtain striptease routine on a trailer ad for a porno film on late-night cable one night while drunk and brooding over the murder of Shelton. Where James Stewart recognizes the face of the double, Wasson recognized the body and sexualized dance of Shelton's double. The body double in DePalma's film is played by Melanie Griffith, daughter of Tippi Hedren, who made had her own cinematic mark by starring in Hitchcock's films The Birds and Marnie.

Craig Wasson begins his amateur detecting by first visiting the porn section of a Hollywood videostore, of course. This is not atypical behavior for DePalma's characters, which I'll get into in a minute. DePalma is clearly all too happy to show us the interior of this videostore location from 1984 – shelves stocked with all manner of videotapes, both VHS and the doomed BETA cassettes, the lavish cover boxes from the movie studios all arranged across meters and meters of shelving units, leading (or guiding) Wasson to the back of the store – in to the depths, where the “Adult” movies are categorized and kept. In 1984, the porn industry was the key pillar to the videotape-rental industry. Even in 1991, a high school friend of mine who worked at the largest Canadian videostore chain, Roger's Video, told me that without the “Adult” section in the rear room of the store, the location she was working at could not survive financially. Blockbuster wanted everyone to believe that the family-aspect of videostore rentals was what was defining the industry. This was an outright lie, it was the porn industry. Blockbuster tried to change the industry by being the only video store/chain that did not house an “Adult” section and had studios create specific non-NC17 version of films for them (both Last Tango in Paris and Showgirls had been re-cut for Blockbuster specifically). But the truth was that porn ruled. In North Vancouver, where I was living at that time, there were two video-rental stores called Red Hot Video that dealt only in “Adult” movies, and that business was thriving. These stores were also the center of their own controversy when a women's group claimed responsibility for bombing these stores in 1984 – the same time DePalma was filming Body Double in California.

(To be continued...)

Sunday, March 11, 2018

50 Pages a Night – Vol. 4

The introduction to Jessica Amanda Salmonson's “Tales of Moonlight II”, published in 1989 by TOR Horror paperbacks, show us an underworld that existed in the late eighties and early nineties of horror fiction... The genre-writers' horror 'zines, or, the “Shoestring and Small Press Horror Magazines”. This was a viable outlet in the 80s and early-to-mid 90s where talented amateur horror authors could get their start by having their short stories published and circulated through a lot of magazine outlets and retailers, or even by mail-subscription. Huge talents came out of this launching pad, including Stephen King (in the 70s), Richard Matheson (earlier than that), Thomas Ligotti, Charles L. Grant, Spider Robison, Stephen Gresham, and the editor of “Tales by Moonlight” herself. In the sequel to her first paperback anthology hit, here in Part II Jessica Salmonson once again complies, curates, and edits a collection of stories and authors who made a huge creative impact on some of the best and most creative Horror Magazines that existed in 1989. Her resulting book is a little more intense than the usual horror-lit anthology, a little deeper, a little more hallucinogenic, experimental, and nightmarish – and all the better for it. The stories on Salmonson's book are best devoured two or three at a time; no one is more memorable than any other, they all stand out in their own personality. It's easy to see why some of these authors went on to enjoy popular careers as horror writer in the 90s.

The final pages of Salmonson's book are two appendixes, which will serve to showcase the world of horror-lit at the end of the 80s; with a high spirit of independence and creativity – Appendix I: How to Start Your Own Shoestring Horror Magazine, and this detailed advisory runs three pages. The following four pages, Appendix II: Current Small Press Horror Magazines, where up-and-coming and starting-out horror authors could legitimately send their work to be critiqued and hopefully published, is nothing more than a publishing obituary now.

The underworld wonderful and sometimes awe-inspiring (as it was to Jessica Amanda Salmonson) was undone by newer, faster, independent publishing abilities with the introduction of the World Wide Web – and the incomprehensible amount of BLOG outlets. [blog(a truncation of the expression "weblog"] For a hardcopy press Horror Magazine to exist as a viable business within this world, even at $5 per issue for their mail-out subscriptions, was impossible. Yet the facilities of the publishing and the curating of genre-lit anthologies still maintain a sort of importance, a go-to for a snapshot of literary horror from a particular era.

And no book (or series of books, if you count it as three) accomplishes this more importantly that David G. Hartwell's epic horror anthology, “Dark Decent”. Hartwell's anthology (also published by TOR) is probably one of the longest-running reprinted horror anthology ever published, and boasts one of the most thought-out, respectful, impressive and important literal recollections of the Horror-lit world from the late-seventies to late-eighties. It's also an an anthology that was so big, that its three “parts” were actually published as three separate collections in the mid-nineties under the “Dark Descent” moniker. (Since then you can find it all put back together again, in one omnibus, as it was originally meant to be). This collection is also important as it represent horror fiction prior to the “splatterpunk” movement of the late-eighties to late-nineties, with some of the “splatterpunk” authors crossing over.

Funnily, I came across a copy of each of these two books very recently, and completely randomly (meaning that I was not actually book shopping, or even in a bookstore, at the time I found these titles), which led me to believe that there was something important and interesting to relay here. I admit that the reason my eyes went to these titles (and the reason for their subsequent purchases) was that I had been, for over two decades, on the lookout for a particular Charles L. Grant short story that I'd read about, but had never had the opportunity to actually read. And I find myself, at present, still on the lookout for this elusive short horror tale... 



Sunday, March 04, 2018

Death Laid an Egg

I had no idea what the title “Death Laid an Egg” could have possibly meant until the watching the first scene, for the first time. Chickens. The movie is all about Chickens.

I'd heard about this title back when I was trying to consume as much giallo cinema as humanly possible, but it never seemed to be available or accessible on any home video format – or if it was, it was never readily available when I was keeping an eye out for it. And then late in 2017 Cult Epics released this late-sixties gem onto Blu-ray, where I was finally able to see it, and I was not disappointed. This sexy sixties giallo stars Eva Aulin, whose claim to fame was playing “Candy” in the British cult film of the same name – Aulin is incredibly alluring in both films, in “Death Laid an Egg” she plays a young co-owner of a chicken farm who, along with Gina Lollobrigida (the striking sophisticated beauty and subtle femme fatale of the film) and Gina's character's husband played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, have just laid off all of the hired farm workers while executing a plan to replace them with new machinery and experimental technology. Right off the bat, it appears someone is trying to put at least one of the owners in harm's way, and the workers make and easy and immediate red herring. But soon, other suspects pop up as we're introduced to a sort of mercenary biologist and an untrustworthy, and highly suspicious, marketing designer who appears to have a relationship with Aulin's character. Amid all of this, the owners of the farm are dead-set on hosting a lavish party at their home, leading up to the point in the film where our giallo killer appears to finally make his (or her) first move – but wait... Strangely, though, at this key point in the film, co-writer/director Giulio Questi (who also directed “Arcana” and “Django, Kill...”) decides to take the narrative in an experimental turn, and it starts to look like we may have a giallo with no giallo killer, and with a death told via a very cleverly-edited and extremely stylish flashback that was not really a very giallo murder at all, but is rather a past event that is not even directly related to anything happening in the present at all, save for our lead characters' state(s) of mind. Even the socio-political aspect of the farm workers' plight has been long dropped from the plot, and at this point I started to wonder if Questi was just fucking with us.

Well, mind-fuckery or not, it was impossible for me to stop watching at this point, because the film is almost hypnotically engaging, it's astoundingly and imaginatively well-edited and it's got style and sixties fashion to burn; and Questi's film oozes eroticism with deceptive ease without actually being exploitive whatsoever. But when his plot suddenly switched gears halfway through from a chicken-industry conspiracy to a noir-style adultery/revenge scenario, I suddenly knew damned well he was fucking with us. It's at this point in the film where Gina Lollobrigida brilliantly takes the lead away from Jean-Louis Trintignant, with Ewa Aulin and her suspicious-marketing-guy boyfriend being the string holding everything in a line. 

There is some slightly lurid sexual exposition in this second half of Questi's arthouse giallo that eventually does lead to a murder, as well as the much-anticipated giallo twist-ending, meanwhile Lollobrigida doesn't so much steal the show, as much as she quietly, and most welcomingly, overtakes it with her dangerous beauty and magnetic screen presence.