Wednesday, March 24, 2010

UNDERWORLD (a.k.a. Transmutations) (1985)

In 1985, Stephen King wrote, "I have seen the future of horror, his name is Clive Barker." This quote announced the British writer’s arrival on America’s shores with The Books of Blood fiction collection and his novel The Damnation Game. Raw, weird and visceral, Barker’s prose elevated his gruesome stories above “splatterpunk” and the gore-hungry public quickly established him as a literary giant for dark fiction. His horror wasn’t guts and gore for the sake of it, though, and always had an underlying thematic purpose for the bloodshed. His recurring theme was corruption of the spirit and body via either sex or religion (or both), and he favored the notion that there were alternate worlds co-existing with our own that themselves were seductive doorways into things better left unknown.

The following year saw the first screen adaptation of one of his stories, Rawhead Rex. Barker wrote the script and director George Pavlou handled the directing duties. The result was an uneven but not altogether unsatisfying story about the physical and philosophical results of a carnivorous pagan god rampaging through Ireland. The movie wasn’t a commercial success and developed a loyal cult following.

There was another film, shot previous to Rawhead Rex but not released until afterward called Underworld. It got a few issues’ worth of build up through Fangoria then came and went without much fanfare. Because of his experience on these two movies, Barker decided to take up the directorial reins himself on the seminal film Hellraiser, making horror movie history and launching a franchise that has fascinated and frustrated fans for twenty-five years. But what of Underworld?

Barely released in the United States as Transmutations (in a clumsy reference to alchemy), Underworld started as an original story by Barker which was then distilled into an uninspired script by James Caplin. It started off with promise. A high class hooker named Nicole is kidnapped from her brothel by a group of strange, bedraggled people who keep the shadows. A businessman named Hugo Motherskille (played by Beverly Hills Cop villain Steven Berkoff) tracks down Nicole’s former lover, a painter named Roy Bain (Larry Lamb), to find her. Starting with Nicole’s madam, Pepperdine (the underused Ingrid Pitt), Bain learns that Nicole had an active social life outside of prostitution and his investigation leads him further to Dr. Savary (Denholm Elliott, appearing sans shame). Dr. Savary is responsible for a strange drug that causes euphoria and physical mutation. The addicts transformed by the drug have moved underground, waiting for a cure for their condition. Nicole has proven to be immune to the drug and may be the catalyst for a vaccine. And it’s there that Bain finds himself smack dab in the middle of a little Mexican standoff. Blood is shed. Guns are fired. Miranda Richardson pops up here and there. Things end badly.

On the surface (ironically), Underworld sounds like a fascinating little horror-thriller, a hard-boiled monster movie. But the execution is clumsy from start to finish. Bain merely meanders from one leather bar to the other seeking out people who may have known Nicole or her associates, while Elliott plays hide and seek (as well as meet and greet) with the mutants. Pavlou displays either keen disinterest in the material or a lack of directorial talent. Even the usually fine (or at least animated) Elliott is stiff and forced in each scene he’s in. Lamb’s Bain is dull, the mutants are barely glimpsed for the first hour and when they finally do emerge from the shadows, their make-up is uninspired. They’re simply lumpy variations of The Elephant Man. Compare this film to the inventive Nightbreed years later and you’ll see just how blah Underworld’s design really is.

The parallels between Underworld and Nightbreed end there, by the way. There’s no explicit moral gray area at work here. Everyone but Bain is apparently a bad guy and there’s little attempt to empathize with the addicted underworlders. There’s no attempt to make them interesting or even stand out from one another. By the final showdown, there are simply two groups wielding guns. You can’t care which side wins or even if Bain succeeds in his mission. There’s not emotional hook to hang your hat on. Certainly there’s none of Barker’s otherworldly mysticism at work in the story. Human excess creating angry mutations has been explored more cleverly before and since (the gleefully gory Accion Mutante comes to mind) and the idea of a drug that destroys inside and out was actually handled much better and with superior make-up in J.R. Bookwalter’s Ozone.

Sluggishly paced and shot in cramped rooms and dark alleys, Underworld just doesn’t succeed to do much at all. Little of Barker’s creativity is able to bubble up from the lackluster soup. It’s not very surprising that this and Rawhead Rex inspired him to turn to filmmaking himself. That he ran into problems on his own productions is neither here nor there. At least the one making the mistakes on the outset was the creator himself. And for whatever the studios did to Hellraiser, Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions, at least you can point to those movies and see the Clive Barker inside.

Underworld/Transmutations received a VHS release here and a DVD release in the UK. Both sources are out of print and that isn’t really something to mourn in this situation. If you’re a dyed-in-the-wool Barker fan, you can’t be blamed for wanting to sate your curiosity to hunt this down. As usual, the argument applies: you’ve seen worse. I’m not saying it’s a train wreck…because that would be implying that something actually happens.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


To all who decry the endless glut of remakes and sequels that seems to be pouring out of Hollywood and splashing all over our theaters, I’d like to offer some faint reassurance that this is nothing new. The biggest difference between the “sequel-itis” afflicting modern studios is lack of creativity in titling (Father of the Bride 2, really? Would “Father’s Little Dividend” really have gone over people’s heads?). Franchises have always provided the suits-that-be with quick no-brainer cash. Why do you think the Universal Monsters Classics sets come packed with so many “Bride Of The Son Of The Ghost Of The Return Of…” variations? It’s only when the laziness set in that we started numbering the rehashed sequels that we entered into Saw XIII ridiculousness.

As for remakes, today’s argument can be applied just as easily to the past. Audiences want something new, even if it’s merely something old in disguise. At least that’s the thought ingrained in the minds of studio-heads. When you further analyze why that thought exists, you run into William Goldman’s terror philosophy—all executives are terrified of losing their jobs, so they spend most of their time avoiding decisions. When it comes down to it, they’d rather do something that’s already been done before than dare anything new. Really, this is the human condition at work and it isn’t singular to the movie business. It’s only when the crackpot arrives on the scene that we learn the world is round or the Earth revolves around the sun. Lunatics challenge the establishment; the rational prefer the status quo. The opposite is only true when it comes to religion and politics.

So if you’re dismayed over all the retreads in the theaters—all the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street “reboots—let me put forth this example: over the course of just ten years, Warner Brothers produced three versions of Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Maltese Falcon. And through this example we can take away an exception to the accepted “rule” that “the original is always better”. At least in this case, it took them ten years and three tries to get the damned thing right.

It is unlikely that I’ll get much hate mail or argument if I make the bold statement that the 1941 version, the one we think of as The Maltese Falcon, directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor, is the best of the three (if you do take umbrage, will you at least concede that it’s better than the George Segal vehicle The Black Bird?) and deserves its respected status as bona fide classic. For whatever faults modern eyes may find with the filmmaking of the fourth decade, the 1941 version still holds its own as a taut, intelligent and entertaining hard-boiled mystery. As for the previous versions…

The first on-screen adaptation in 1931 starred Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels in the roles of Sam Spade and Brigid O’Shaunessey (renamed Ruth Wonderly, presumably to “un-Irish” the character). Cortez and Daniels were popular silent actors who made the rare transition to the talkies and seemed like good choices for the roles. Cortez’s Spade is more glib playboy than detective; his introduction after a woman emerges from his office, adjusting her stockings. He removes a sign from his doorknob reading “Busy”. His affairs with both secretary Effie (Una Merkel) and Iva Archer (Thelma Todd) are more explicitly outlined here as well, as is his animosity with his partner Miles Archer (a much older Walter Long), who knows all about the affair. Also played broader are the novel’s homosexual undertones: Effie facetiously describes Joel Cairo (Otto Matieson) as “gorgeous”; Wilmer the gunsel (Dracula co-star Dwight Frye) is blatantly referred to as Guttman’s (Dudley Digges) “boyfriend”. Ruth is even stripped naked (off screen) and searched late in the film. As Spade, Cortez smiles all the way through, never hinting that he feels in danger at any time and exhibits not even the slightest remorse when Archer is killed early on in the film, which is the impetus for Spade to turn in O’Shaunessey/Wonderly in the end. Without this motivation, his refusal to “play the sap” for Ruth comes off not only as callous but misogynistic. He’s had his fun, he got his reward, he’s done with her. On to the next dame. Cortez also lacks the sense that he is controlling the situations, as Bogart does easily through presence and delivery. Though following the novel just as faithfully as the 1941, right down to the now-familiar dialogue, the 1931 movie has no gravity to it. Under the creatively bereft Roy Del Ruth’s indifferent and unimaginative direction, the movie is light and disposable—Guttman poses no threat, implied or otherwise—and seems to just float away after it ends.

Soon after its release, the Hays Production Code kicked into full gear in Hollywood and the 1931 Maltese Falcon was declared too racy for the suddenly delicate audiences. Unable to re-release it, Warner Brothers exercised their copyrights and decided to remake the movie from scratch. Brown Holmes returned to retool the script for the stylish director William Dieterle and crafted a comedy to star Warner darling Bette Davis. This time around, Spade, Archer, Effie and O’Shaunessey—in fact, everybody—is jettisoned in favor of sideshow performers. Swashbuckling leading man Warren William appears as the morally-questionable “Tom Shane”, hired to find the legendary “Horn of Roland”, now supposedly filled with jewels, for Davis’ Valerie Purvis, thwarted along the way by the actually-pleasant-for-a-villain Madame Barabas (Alison Skipworth). More screen time is given to ditzy secretary “Miss Murgatroyd”, which isn’t a bad thing considering she’s embodied by Marie Wilson (often considered the inspiration for future dizzy blonde characters like those personified by Marilyn Monroe). Wilson is daffy, compared to William’s sleazy and obsequious Shane, who again shows no real concern over the murder of his partner (Winifred Shaw as a fussy Astrid Ames) and even carries on openly with Ames wife in his own home. In the end, there is no nobility in his selling out Valerie and is so robbed of his reward. In fact, she allows a washroom attendant to turn her over to the police in order to screw over Shane, which is actually the most satisfying scene in the movie.

Moving with a better pace than ‘31’s The Maltese Falcon, Satan Met a Lady benefits from moving out of the apartments and offices that kept Cortez’s Spade confined. The biggest benefit to the film (which pains me to say as I’m no advocate of the actress) is Bette Davis. While Marie Wilson is fun, Davis dominates the scenes she’s in, bringing control to the all-over-the-place performance of her co-star Warren Williams. Davis’s Valerie doesn’t even attempt the charade of the damsel in distress and pleasantly manipulates Shane into one situation after another in order to gain the ram’s horn (and later just to see if she can maneuver him out of her hair entirely). Davis famously detested this role and the production, demanding “better things” from Jack Warner, which resulted in a suspension for failing to report for filming early in the production. She acquiesced for monetary considerations only (her mother’s failing health a primary concern) and to her credit brings the nearly-thankless role to life. She’s a bright spot amidst the mugging, the milking and the winking at the camera.

Better thought-of now than during its release, which was criticized for looking cheap and dull by the New York Times (which also called for a “Bette Davis Reclamation Project (BDRP) to prevent the waste of this gifted lady's talents”), Satan Met a Lady still pales (actually, it virtually vanishes) in comparison with the Bogart/Huston/Lorre/Greenstreet 1941 version (which all but beats up and takes the lunch money of the pitiful 1931 Cortez catastrophe).

With disappointing box office returns met by both 1931 and 1936 outings, it’s actually a bit of a surprise that Warner Brothers opted to revisit the story and produce the 1941 classic. The prevailing attitude at the time seems to have been that since they owned the story, they might as well get the most out of it. It was virtually a tossed-bone to first-time director Huston and meant as a vehicle for hoofer-turned-leading man George Raft, but he famously turned it down because he refused to work with first-timers and felt that appearing in a remake was beneath him—a clause he actually inserted into his contract. Raft’s notorious ego may have been a detriment to him, but it was a boon to mankind as his refusal of projects led to Bogart’s continual success (he also turned down High Sierra, which ignited Bogart’s career). Huston rewrote the script sticking very closely to the novel (though careful to downplay anything that would annoy the censors) and his cast and direction brought Hammett’s carefully-crafted world to immortal life.

So the next time you moan to the gods “why o why” are they remaking this or that or the other, maybe—an admitted longshot—the new version will improve upon the original. Or, as in the case of The Maltese Falcon, prove that the third time is the charm.

That being said, I await in cautious trepidation for the Coen Brothers’ take on True Grit.

(Both films are available on one Warner Brothers DVD for all of your comparing and contrasting delight. All three can be had on anniversary DVD of The Maltese Falcon.)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Hey, Did You Ever See (Either of These Movies)? HICKEY AND BOGGS / FREEBIE AND THE BEAN

For all the peace and love touted during the ‘60s, the main entertainment by-product of the era seems to be disillusionment, which didn’t become readily apparent until the decade ticked over. When Richard M. Nixon took over the Presidency in 1969, his election was primarily based on his promise to end the Vietnam War. Troop reduction was implemented during his first term, but so were secret bombings, which gave way to the “credibility gap”. By 1972, amidst disintegrating cultural values and near-complete distrust of the government—coming to a head in 1973 with the Watergate Scandal—the American people who marched and sang and protested finally hung their heads in defeat. There was no joy in “tuning in, turning on and dropping out”, and only the latter two seemed to give any escape from the corruption, Capitalism and consumerism.

At the same time, Hollywood was waging a war of its own, still competing for audiences with the rising standards and production values of television. The studio system had shattered to pieces and executives were getting job applications from weirdo types with film school degrees and crazy ideas. And it was then established that the new motto of Hollywood would be “whatever works”. War pictures, science fiction, fantasy—all the genres the film school kids had grown up with—were getting a major overhaul.

While the new Turks started concentrating on creating pictures that would speak to their generation, the older dogs, who’d gone into the ‘60s with a little perspective and came out angry and tired in the ‘70s, had a few things of their own to say about the state of the world.

Enter Hickey & Boggs. On the surface it seemed like “more of the same”—a crime-drama about a pair of wrung-dry private detectives hired to find a missing girl—starring a pair of likable actors introduced to the majority of the population due to the success of their mid-‘60s television show, I Spy. Robert Culp and comedian Bill Cosby broke new ground with the Sheldon Leonard-produced NBC series with one small decision: to make a statement without “making a statement”, by never explicitly calling attention to Cosby’s race. He was not a black sidekick to Culp’s groovy white spy. They were partners and equals, relying on each other as partners and friends would. By treating this relationship as completely normal, I Spy gave the Civil Rights movement a boost and established a team that audiences would tune into week after week. I Spy also told grittier, down-to-earth stories than their gadget-heavy, James Bond-influenced contemporaries like The Man from U.N.C.L.E., which hipper audiences also responded to.

So when it was announced that the acting pair would team up again on the big screen for the first time since the show went off the air in 1968, the audiences of all ages caught in the “credibility gap” were interested. But Hickey and Boggs was not I Spy. Not even remotely.

Quickly establishing the characters as hard-luck, burned out private detectives, Al Hickey and Frank Boggs (Cosby and Culp) rely on the local police for both back-up and their private licenses. New legislation is coming down that will make private eyes little more than “process servers” and the cops are looking forward to that day coming. When their new case starts turning up bodies, Hickey and Boggs realize that they’re not the only ones searching for a Mexican woman named “Mary Ann”. The Syndicate is after her too, as she’s holding $400,000 of their money stolen by her incarcerated boyfriend. Each lead ends with either a dead body or massive property damage, and the crime fighting pair start thinking about alternate lines of work while the cops pile on the charges. Facing jail time and about to call it quits, the partners are made by the Syndicate and are sent a violent message to drop things entirely. When it’s finally personal, Hickey and Boggs upgrade their weaponry and set out to solve the problem once and for all.

Much to mainstream America’s surprise, Hickey & Boggs was not I Spy. Far from it. With Culp himself directing Walter Hill’s grim screenplay, Hickey & Boggs details the life of two very tired men who are sick of the game, sick of their lives, but see very little way out. Hickey’s relationship with his girlfriend, Nyona (Rosalind Cash), is strained to say the least, so there’s no solace there. Boggs pines for a stripper who wants nothing to do with him until she needs something. Their own relationship is primarily professional, and while they may bicker about the others’ personal shortcomings, neither plays a great part in the other’s life. They are both middle-aged, their dreams are behind them and now everyone around them wants to “burn them up”. They’re not the glamorous, playboy secret agents from I Spy. They’re the two guys you see drinking their lunch in the middle of the day in very dark bars. And the world they inhabit is ugly, violent and as angry at them as they are at it.

Upon its release, Hickey & Boggs was not a financial success for all of the reasons listed above. With disillusionment the atmosphere of America, audiences didn’t want to see a pair of beloved TV buddies so worn down by life. But the era of the private detective—declared officially glossless two years later in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye—was over, summed up by an exhausted Hickey after a shootout in a slum: “It doesn’t mean anything, Frank. Nothing means anything.”

Refreshingly, the “straight” cops are not portrayed as crooked or inept. They’re doing their jobs just as the title pair, only they have stricter rules to follow and, perhaps, more to go home to every day (as illustrated by a late-night call to Woods where he is roused from bed, in his underwear, his children woken by the phone, to hear about the latest catastrophe caused by the detectives. His reaction is not only appropriate but understandable.). Those on the side of law and order are not the bad guys—they’re not “pigs” by any means—but by the end, there’s little distinguish them, even in their own eyes, from the villains.

In 1972, audiences were still too shell-shocked, still at “credibility gap” ground-level, to accept the harsh reality of the movie. Viewed through modern eyes, Hickey & Boggs is a tough, tense thriller, hard-boiled in all senses of the word and filled to the brim with now-familiar faces in supporting roles including Vincent Gardenia, Robert Mandan (later hysterical on television’s SOAP), James Woods and Michael Moriarty. But the movie still may have missed its audience for now, modern viewers may be shocked at the sight of familiar funnyman and family man Cliff Huxtable coldly blowing people away with a .44 magnum. Al Hickey is not Ghost Dad—he’s even a far-cry from the angry paramedic in Mother, Juggs and Speed—and Cosby plays him perfectly. Anyone who grew up associating the actor with The Cosby Show and Jell-O pudding is going to have a rough time—perhaps just as rough as those who did seeing the antithesis of I Spy’s “Alexander Scott”.

And that is likely the best explanation as to why Hickey & Boggs does not yet have a DVD release. An exceptional movie both ahead of and behind its time because it was, exactly, of its time.

To that end:

FREEBIE AND THE BEAN (1974) is the flip-side of Hickey & Boggs. Taking advantage of the disillusioned audience’s feeling of powerlessness, Freebie and the Bean filtered the “break all the rules” attitude into an action comedy that simultaneously defined both the “buddy cop” and the “mayhem” movie. Using the establishment for the benefit of the anti-establishment, the title characters played by James Caan and Alan Arkin, are two plainclothes detectives of the “intelligence division” of the New York police force. When we meet them, they’re sifting through the stolen garbage of a local transportation boss, who they suspect of racketeering. Finding a piece of evidence, they beat some information out of a local snitch and discover that there’s a contract out on a man who can prove the case for them. They spend the rest of the film bickering like old ladies, beating up suspects and driving recklessly through the city—at one point they fly off the freeway and into the apartment of an elderly couple watching television. “Hello, dispatch, we’re gonna need a tow,” Freebie says after asking the couple to borrow the phone. He gives the address and then, “Yeah, apartment 304. Third floor.”

Obnoxious, loud, homophobic, misanthropic, irresponsible and racist, Freebie and the Bean was, of course, a hugh hit in 1974, spawning countless imitations and a short-lived television series. Under the muddy direction of Richard Rush, who would later go on to make the exemplary The Stunt Man, the chase sequences are well-edited, but the dialogue is difficult to hear and the story nearly unnecessary. The partners scream at each other and physically assault one another all the way through the movie. Much is made of “The Bean’s” Mexican heritage, but Alan Arkin makes a less-credible Latino than Valerie Harper (who plays his wife in an extended cameo wherein he loudly accuses her of infidelity because, among other things, her “dousche-bag” is missing from the bathroom). Caan’s “Freebie” shoots first and asks questions later, maybe, if he remembers. They wound numerous bystanders during their gunfights and chase escape vehicles into crowded areas. At one point, both the heroes and the villains run over participants of a parade, wherein much hilarity ensues.

Viewed through the eyes of the era, there is no question as to why Freebie and the Bean became such a hit. Our two inept heroes are part of the system but are accidentally destroying it from the inside. They don’t play by the rules because the rules, apparently, have never been explained to them. It’s okay to identify or even root for these assholes because they’re utterly make-believe. They’re “hero pigs” fighting people only slightly worse than they are. Indeed, everyone around them wallows in the same shit; their superiors are corrupt or ineffectual; the villains are rich and despicable; the only by-standers ever spared are a pair of hippies who escape arrest time and again when cars crash into police vehicles (they’re never seen explicitly, but the unfortunate hippie pair can be glimpsed in cuffs at the side of the road throughout). Authority is stupid, blind and violent. And so is everyone else. That seems to be the message, and that was a message people were ready to hear. In fact, Freebie and the Bean was simply preaching to the choir.

The movie even parodies the now-familiar down-beat ending of anti-establishment establishment movies like Hickey & Boggs, with the resurrection of an apparently dead character, which underscores just how nonsensical the precedings were. Al Hickey said it best: “It doesn’t mean anything, Frank,” but he said it about the wrong movie. Hickey & Boggs is very much about the death of American trust. Freebie and the Bean is a celebration of that death. And to that end, it succeeds beautifully and at the top of its chaotic lungs.

In the following years, ‘70s audiences watched as familiar genres morphed and reflected the times they were in. Dramas got heavier as more taboos were addressed, comedies became cruder and the popular genres were re-imagined to be relevant (2001: A Space Odyssey) or brightly-polished and much-needed escapism (Star Wars) (or both, ala Silent Running). During that era, very little was left unexplored, for better or worse. Movies today would not be what they were without the disillusioned of that period and you can take that for what it’s worth. Even the cynical among us may actually prefer Freebie and the Bean (which is actually easier to find on DVD thanks to TCM) to Hickey & Boggs because the former is easier to mock while the latter’s truth may still be a little too bitter to taste.

Saturday, March 13, 2010


Humphrey Bogart is deservedly remembered for his tough-guy roles, even the “soft-centered” tough guys like Rick Blaine in Casablanca or The African Queen. Sure, he may have cowered a little from Cagney in The Roaring Twenties but you didn’t believe it. He just didn’t do “scared” very well. When Death finally came for him in ‘57, I like to think Bogey slapped him around a little.

So it should come as no surprise that he was taking on the Nazis before it was fashionable. The year before he landed in Casablanca and film history, and begun just two months after The Maltese Falcon hit the screens, making him a star, Bogart headlined a wartime gangster comedy called All Through the Night.

Often described as a “Bowery Boys” wartime movie, All Through the Night is a Runyon-esque story about dapper gambler “Gloves” Donahue and his band of misfit miscreants who get involved with some Fifth Columnists when Gloves sets out to discover who murdered the baker who made his favorite cheesecake. (Pause for disbelief… I ain’t gonna repeat myself here.) Gloves uncovers a Nazi plot right there in New York and neither he nor his boys are gonna stand for that sorta stuff on their main turf. As is declared at one point: “We got ‘em by the seat of their Panzers!”

Relatively lightweight throughout, you’re not putting on All Through the Night for the deft storytelling, though the script by Leonard Spigelgass and Edwin Gilbert (based on a story by Leo “The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N” Rosten) is a blast not for the plot but for the fun characters set loose on the Nazis. Conrad Veidt, who would be much more formidable as Strasser in Casablanca, plays chief conspiracist Ebbing, but Bogey and his boys run roughshod over him. Among his group are such wonderful character actors as William Demarest as “Sunshine”, Phil Silvers as “Louie” , and other familiar faces include Peter Lorre and Barton MacLane in smaller roles. Heck, even Gloves’ Ma, played by Jane Darwell, gets into the act. Last but not least is Jackie Gleason as “Starchy”, a master of grifter “nonspeak” which provides Gloves with some hilarious double-talk during a classic auction scene. Possibly the highlight of the movie, Gloves is on the run from both Veidt’s bad guys and the cops, who suspect him of murdering a rival crook. Ducking into an auction house, Gloves has to use some fast talking to delay both parties. It’s here that Bogart’s under-appreciated comic timing is displayed. Up until The Maltese Falcon he’d primarily played rock-bottom villains and second-banana hoods. His lighter side, on display in All Through the Night is what makes the movie such a treat.

Other familiar faces include Peter Lorre and Barton MacLane in smaller roles. Heck, even Gloves’ Ma, played by Jane Darwell, gets into the act. Some of the dialogue seems corny today, but that’s only because we’ve had to suffer through seventy years of Three Stooges shorts that made use of the same kind of malapropisms employed by the Donahue Gang. Get down off your high-horse, Prince Mishkin, and enjoy the movie.

Unfortunately for all involved, All Through the Night began production very shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and a Nazi-themed comedy seemed doomed from the start. Warner Brothers rushed production through, hoping to recapture some of the sneering propaganda spirit of pre-Pearl Harbor while injecting a little bit of gravity into the story by citing Dachau and the Normandie Bombing. But All Through the Night got lost among headier fare hitting the screen as the U.S. officially joined the war effort. It was still fun propaganda, but the portrayal of Nazis as buffoons wasn’t as popular in ’42. That was fine and well for Bugs Bunny, but people wanted to see Bogey taking on the enemy in a big way, leading to Across the Pacific and Action in the North Atlantic. The hoods vs. Germany just didn’t cut the mustard.

Sixty-nine years later, though, we have a little more perspective, not to mention healing time, so we can now safely enjoy All Through the Night without fear of making light of the matter (besides, the movie was an afternoon television staple through the ’50s and‘’60s, prompted by Gleason’s success with The Honeymooners and Silvers’ home run with Sgt. Bilko, so I’m sure our tender sensibilities have toughened by now). It’s an almost-forgotten little classic but the good news is that it’s readily available on DVD. So whaddya waitin’ for? Christmas? Get learnin’, Herman! There’s more to this than meets the FBI.

Friday, March 12, 2010


The ‘70s saw the return of lot of environmental horror. Not just the mutated monster insects borne of atomic testing, but the twisted and nasty things that can come about when man mucks about with nature and nature decides to fight back. Most notorious among these may be John Frankenheimer’s Prophecy involving mutant bears going Jason Voorhees on campers and scientists. On the far end of this spectrum comes the Ray Milland as industrialist eaten by amphibians in Frogs. Somewhere in the middle lies Nightwing because, like the vampire bat referred to in the title, the movie is neither fish nor fowl.

While investigating a series of unusual cattle mutilations, Deputy Youngman Duran of Hopi Maskai Tribe (played by a still-Italian and not-fooling-anybody Nick Mancuso) runs up against tribal councilman Walker Chee, who wants to sell the holiest of holy land to an oil company after shale has been discovered there. Because of this, tribal medicine man Abner tells Duran that he’s decided to end the world and will be dead that very night. With enough on his plate already, Duran, raised by Abner and used to this sort of talk, dismisses his claims and returns home.

The next morning, Abner is dead on the floor of his cabin. A few miles away, a shepherd is found trampled and some of his flock have been mutilated in the same way as the cattle. Duran fights against his own ingrained tribal superstitions that the deaths may be in some way connected to Abner’s curse. But it doesn’t help that, as Duran buries Abner, the corpse begins to bleed through the shroud. Meanwhile, a scientist named Philip Payne arrives on the reservation after tracking a species of South American vampire bats to the same Maskai Canyon where drilling is to begin. The bats are carrying bubonic plague, which is what has been killing off not only livestock, but a missionary group as well. This leads to a harrowing climax tying science and religion together as Duran and Payne team with local Doctor Anne Dillon to exterminate the bats and stop the spread of the disease through the species’ migration.

Based on the novel by Martin Cruz Smith (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Steve Shagan and Bud Shrake) and directed by Arthur Hiller, is at times poignant, disturbing, beautiful and ludicrous. There are even moments when it achieves “all of the aboveness”.
By the end, Duran isn’t fighting just nature, but peyote-induced visions of Abner and other departed Maskai who want to see the world ended before the White Man eliminates all “humanity” (referring to all American Indians). Wrapped in trappings of environmental horror, Nightwing explores some heady subjects including the subjugation of the Native Americans by both whites and their own kind and just how strong superstition can be in even the most rational of men.

But chances are, if you stay for the debate, you’ve come for the bats and let me tell you… the years have not been kind to Nightwing. Created by Carlo Rambaldi, the man behind the naked monkey look of E.T., the fledermauses are okay en mass in the air via front and rear projection, swarming around shrieking Bible thumpers like flapping piranha, but in the frequent close-ups, where a single bat hangs in mid-air screeching at the camera, you expect the animation to kick in and transform said bat into Bela Lugosi. If you have a phobia about the spasmy little disease-ridden mosquito-eaters, then the swarming scenes may prompt you to put a box over your head, otherwise, they alternate between cute, silly, and fluttery masses. When tribal politics becomes more fascinating than a bat attack, you know you’re in some serious guano (which is primarily ammonia: fun fact learned from watching Nightwing!).

The cast is very game for the story—which is helped by Henry Mancini’s score—elevating it beyond such latter-day tepid fare as, say, Bats with Lou Diamond Phillips. While you may think that Mancuso is the sore thumb sticking out in Nightwing, the surprise is that it’s really Warner. He gives lines like, “I live to kill bats,” a little too much gravity. Most of the time he comes off like a mad scientist about to put Schlermy Beckerman’s brain into the body of a gorilla (see The Man With Two Brains for that reference). He’s a freelance bat exterminator with endless funding and kudos to Duran for pegging him as a madman during their initial meetings, though the plot demands that they team up for the climax despite all logical conclusions.

Still, it’s well-worth your time to seek out, if only for Hiller’s sweeping shots of the New Mexico deserts and mesas and the admittedly nail-biting sequence inside an electrified mesh cage. Columbia Pictures had high hopes for the production, releasing a photo-novel along with Cruz Smith’s source book, Nightwing didn’t fare too well at the box office (notoriously bitchy Vincent Canby referred to it as “third rate”) but became an HBO staple during the early ‘80s. Oddly, the generation that grew up with it screamed louder for a DVD release of Flash Gordon, so Nightwing can only be had in full-frame VHS, though a nicely-letterboxed print does show up occasionally on cable, but then it’s arbitrarily mutilated to accommodate commercials. But if you run across it, give it a shot. I promise you that Mancuso is no worse an Indian than Mel Brooks in Blazing Saddles. Isn’t that good enough?

SOCIETY (1992)

Class warfare has always been ripe for satire. Oscar Wilde, Moliere, Luis Bunuel, Alice Cooper, National Lampoon—all the majors have tackled the idea that the rich feed off of the poor, that proper standing and breeding are more important than human decency. In 1989, horror producer Brian Yuzna took the themes and ran with them for his directorial debut, Society, and wound up with a very strange movie indeed.

As well-bred Bill Whitney (Baywatch’s Billy Warlock) approaches his eighteenth birthday, he starts to suffer the onset of existential angst. Yes, he has it all—fancy girlfriend, wealthy parents, the high school presidency all but locked up, but he just feels so alienated by it all. Dr. Cleveland, Bill’s therapist and an old family friend, chalks it up to normal post-adolescent angst, shoves some pills down his throat and sends him on his way. But then he runs into Blanchard, his sister Jenny’s creepy and bloated ex-boyfriend, who gives Bill an audio tape containing what sounds to be his family involved in a perverse and squishy murder-cum-orgy. When he plays the tape for Dr. Cleveland, however, Bill hears only the delighted sounds of Jenny’s “coming out” party.

Only Bill’s lower-upper-middle-class best friend Milo believes his story. Blanchard’s sudden death in a car accident confirms their suspicions that something is amiss. At a high-class party, the insufferable upper-upper-class Ferguson boasts to Billy that not only was the first tape real, but he was there and he had sex with Jenny. In quite a huff, even a huff-and-a-half, Bill leaves the party with the genetically-perfect Clarissa. At her house, they have sex a contortionist would envy—at one point, Bill enters the bedroom convinced that he sees both her front and backside aimed in his direction.

Things get even nastier for Bill at home. At one point, he walks in on his parents and Jenny oiled up together on the bed, grooming or preening in their underwear. Which, face it, has to be worse than anything you’ve ever caught your parents doing.

After a series of misadventures, Bill winds up back at his parents’ house, where he is caught in an animal-control snare and dragged into the dining room where another party is being held. All the upper-and-upper-still-class members are there—his parents, Jenny, Ferguson, Dr. Cleveland, Clarissa (the Professor, Mary-Ann, etc.)—and they want to confirm his fears. He’s not blue blood-related at all and the rich really are different from us. To prove it, they drag a stripped-down Blanchard into the middle of the room and corral him for “the shunting”. All around him, Bill sees the people he’s known all his life, their bodies elongating, melting and merging, changing form—his father’s head, for instance, literally pokes out of his ass as he, mom and Jenny have “sex” for lack of another word. The upper-classes start to ooze around each other, becoming a single organism as they literally absorb Blanchard’s nutrients, reducing him to similar fleshy ooze while he screams. And Bill is meant to be next—he’s been bred his whole life for just this night.

“Surreal” doesn’t begin to describe the climax and it must be seen to be believed—just don’t make the mistake of eating while you watch. Reducing pompous rich folk to malleable slugs must have been satisfying to all involved but particularly Yuzna and effects-maestro Screaming Mad George. The climax is especially effective because it’s clear that’s where the movie’s entire budget went. The rest of the movie looks low budget, cramped and cheap, which it was. Made at the tail-end of the ‘80s direct-to-video hey-day, getting a weird movie in the can and to the audience was the main goal. And like the best of that era, Society is not your run-of-the-mill horror entry.

Occasionally referred to by fans as a black comedy version of From Beyond, which Yuzna produced in 1986 with Stuart Gordon at the helm. The Lovecraft-inspired Yog Shoggoth story also featured body horror in the form of molecular change. While Society lacks Gordon’s polished panache, Yuzna keeps things moving admirably. It still feels like a “first film” in a lot of places, but it doesn’t feel like anyone else’s first film, that’s for damned sure. The plastic atmosphere generated by the low budget actually works to the film’s advantage in this case, accentuating the artifice in which the “Society” lives outside of their marble palaces, where they retreat to be themselves.

Unfortunately, Society may have proved to be too pointed in its satire as it had a hard time finding an audience. Completed in 1989, it didn’t reach home video in the U.S. until 1992 and then in only limited release. But it did quite well overseas. Europeans in particular found it clever, disturbing and wonderful. Which seems to add gravity to the argument that Americans can’t make fun of themselves in the same way as the Europeans. We have thinner skins and unless Hollywood is lampooning itself (ala The Player), the suits in charge certainly don’t take well to some indie upstart pointing a finger at them.

Now in the DVD era, Society is a little easier to locate, thanks to Anchor Bay. The stand-alone edition is out of print, but it can be found on a double-feature disk with another underappreciated entry, Tobe Hooper’s Spontaneous Combustion. You are now free to view society in all its squishy, slimy glory, but from the safety of your own home. It gives you a solid reason to appreciate being an outsider. Seriously, tell me you couldn’t see Donald Trump melting down like that in a sex orgy with Oprah Winfrey? …Actually, don’t tell me. I don’t want that image in my head. Bottom line: the rich are different.

Thursday, March 11, 2010


[Reprinted from the unjustly disintegrated Hey, Did You Ever See the Movie...?]

In the late 1920’s anyone who was anyone liked to be seen not in mid-town Manhattan, but in Harlem, specifically at the hot night spot, “The Cotton Club”. Owned by notorious gangster Owney Madden, “The Cotton Club” was known far and wide for its on-stage talent, jazz musicians (and magicians) like Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Lena Horne and many others. At this period in time, only blacks performed on stage and only whites were allowed on the floor. Even the performers themselves couldn’t get a seat in the house and had to enter through the back door.

Into all of this is thrust talented white jazz coronetist Dixie Dwyer (Richard Gere), who not starts out playing in smaller negro-owned dives—including one owned by another notorious gangster, Bumpy Rhodes (Larry Fishburne, playing a variation of Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson—who he would later go on to play in Hoodlum)—and winds up as a driver for the lunatic Dutch Schultz (James Remar). This being a tough-guy movie, Dixie also winds up in bed with the Dutchman’s girl, Vera (Diane Lane), which naturally complicates things further. Making things worse, Dixie’s off-his-rocker brother Vincent is trying to muscle in on Schultz’s territory. In the meantime, Sandman Williams (Gregory Hines) just wants to get into two things: the spotlight as a great dancer, and into the … heart of showgirl Lina (Lonette McKee, playing a character based on the very light-skinned Lena Horne), but running into the racism of the times, not to mention the seduction of fame.

There’s a lot going on in The Cotton Club, particularly musical numbers, so it’s occasionally tough to keep track of the ins, the outs and the double-crossings. We jump back and forth over the course of several years, finding ourselves dumped into whatever stage of life the characters happen to be in—Dixie’s sudden rise to fame as a Hollywood star in the fictional movie Mob Boss (the character based on both legendary (and doomed) jazz man Bix Beiderbecke and, more loosely, George Raft), Vera’s rise and fall as the owner of her own (Dutchman-backed) club, Sandman’s quarrel with his brother and dance partner, etc. But, as a viewer, you’re surrounded by rich characters and just fantastic music—even if you’re not that into jazz you can’t help but feel like dancing to so much of the score. And it’s a manly musical, after all, and you testosterone-proud fellas can feel confident watching the dancing and singing because it’s often punctuated by very, very violent death scenes. Jazz and booze and gangsters—The Cotton Club has it all.

Though far from a success when it was released in 1984, it went on to be a cable staple and developed a mild cult following over the years. Personally, it’s my favorite Francis Coppola movie if only because, at its heart and beneath all the squabbling, racial tensions and machine-gunning, it’s really about finding joy in your life, however brief, particularly joy in music.

What really put this movie on the map, however, was its lunatic production. Originally conceived as a vanity vehicle for himself, producer Robert Evans eventually bowed out and handed the reins over to Coppola. Allegedly, other producer Richard Sylbert decided to play both sides against the middle by telling Evans that Coppola hated Hollywood and would deliberately try to sink the film, while telling Coppola that Evans thought he was crazy and no one should work with him. Coppola resented Evans lording over him but couldn’t quit because he was in debt up to his eyeballs after losing his shirt on One from the Heart. And prior to any of this madness, Evans’ own extravagance had already spent millions of dollars before the first frame was shot. And speaking of shot, other producers consisted of lovely folks as arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi and promoter Roy Radin—the latter of whom was found murdered in 1983, presumably by a trio of thugs hired by his onetime partner and (possible) drug dealer Karen De Layne Greenberger (and, also possibly, members of the Puerto Rican mob).

Still, when all is said and done, The Cotton Club is noisy, atmospheric and delightful. If you give it a chance, you’ll feel the 128 minutes breeze right by. It’s not hard to find, either, despite it being “technically” out of print—copies can be found online, in the Wal-Mart bins, even little clearance stores that are Meccas for cheap DVDs. If you haven’t already, swing by the Club