Thursday, May 27, 2010

RAW MEAT (aka DEATH LINE) (1972)

Like many travelers, a good deal of my first visit to London was spent underground in the Tube Stations. One of the most efficient mass transit systems in the world, the London Underground rail subway has 250 miles (400 km for the rest of you) of track running between 270 or so stations. In my experience, most of that is under construction, requiring a commuter to acquire the skills of a military general to navigate the correct transferring from one line to another in order to get to your destination. Getting off at Piccadilly Circus, for instance, in order to transfer twice more to reach Westminster Abbey, traveling through endless tunnels, visiting endless platforms, minding endless gaps, sometimes without encountering a single Brit, it’s easy to see why the Underground would inspire a movie like Raw Meat

Also known as Death Line, Raw Meat is what I like to call a “charming little cannibal movie” that takes place almost entirely in the London Tube. A popular urban legend concerning the Tube’s initial construction in the 1850s proposes that a cave-in trapped a group of both male and female workers. The company financing this end of construction went bankrupt and, without the funds to rescue the workers, left them to die. Of course, this being horror movie territory, the workers did not die, but survived in the collapsed section of tunnel, breeding amongst themselves and scrounging for food where they could, primarily subsisting on rats. And, also of course, each other. This horrible existence resulted in a Sawney Beane-style tribe of Victorian-era C.H.U.D.s who would, eventually, claw their way through the walls and stalk the platforms late at night in search of tasty commuters. (Don’t think this idea wasn’t rife in my head the later it got in our return to our hotel in Limehouse.)

In Raw Meat, a well-to-do gent in a homburg haunts ‘70s era London clip joints and strip parlours, paying for an enormous good time. After propositioning a woman he mistakes as a prostitute, he is attacked by (the cameraman) an unseen assailant and left to die on the stairs. An American student and his Brit bird girlfriend stumble upon the dying man. Being from New York, Alex’s instincts tell him to step over the obvious drunk and go about his business, but Patricia urges him to look in the man’s wallet for a diabetic card. They learn that he’s James Manfred, Officer of the Realm (OBE), so his drunken state on the stairs is, at that point in history, a peculiarity. But after convincing a policeman to check on him, the well-to-do not-drunkard has vanished.

Well, we can’t have O.B.E.’s going missing, now can we? This brings Inspector Calhoun and Detective Sergeant Rogers into the mix. Already quite plagued by a cold and a policewoman who insists on serving his tea in bag form, a missing upper-class geezer is all Calhoun needs, but it jogs his memory: other people have been reported missing from Russell Square Station, including a grocer from Kilburn not two weeks ago! At first, he suspects that the arrogant Alex is somehow at fault, but the investigation leads back to the OBE’s flat in London, where they discover a hidden room with a hidden camera. Likewise, they’re discovered by Stratton-Villiers, MI5, who tells them that James Manfred, OBE, is no longer their concern.

“Fuck you,” says Calhoun.

“Beyond even your notable working class virility,” says Stratton-Villiers, MI5.
Not one to be told one’s place, Calhoun resumes the investigation, which entails, for the most part, harassing Alex and Patricia. Meanwhile, the last of the Exceedingly-Lower Class, distraught over the death of his mate and their unborn child, feeds from the remains of James Manfred, OBE, and returns to the platforms to find a suitable replacement companion for the presentation of his bloodline.

Zooming by at a quick 87 minutes, Raw Meat manages to deliver chills, nausea and belly-laughs, sometimes all three at once, and is an exceptionally quirky little horror movie. Granted, we’ve since been fed variations of this story before, usually in a decidedly urban setting—The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, The Hills Have Eyes 2, The Hills Have Eyes 3: The Eyes Are Hillier—but that doesn’t take away from Raw Meat’s enduring effectiveness. At the time of its initial release, a three-minute unbroken 360-degree shot establishing “The Man”’s larder of corpses in varying degrees of decay sent many patrons running for the doors. And for 1972, a shot of The Man slitting Manfred’s throat so the mate can drink was reportedly too much for “proper” filmgoers, and this was after it was heavily edited by the BFC. (Raw Meat wouldn’t be seen in its uncut form until its official release in 2006.)

Apart from some genuine brutality and gruesome imagery, the primary delight of Raw Meat are the performances of Donald Pleasance and Norman Rossington as Calhoun and Rogers. As Calhoun, Pleasance is clearly having the time of his life, expertly utilizing the most effective weapon of the British police: sarcasm. He’s ornery, callous, cynical and positively delightful to watch. Rossington keeps up his end of the repartee as well as the frequently amused and long-suffering Rogers. (While the cameo by Christopher Lee as Stratton-Villiers is amusing, it only gives the viewer a jolt of delighted recognition. Any other actor in the role would have encouraged the editors to slice out the scene to preserve the pace.) It’s this bitter sense of humor courtesy of the coppers keeping the movie from sliding into the deep despair of those living below.

It isn’t too much of a stretch to posit that class warfare is an underlying and obvious theme of director Gary Sherman’s script. The investigation into missing persons doesn’t even start until a titled twit vanishes, and it’s up to the students to lead the working class to those living below even Fagin and his ragamuffins. For his part, Sherman treats his cannibals with as much dignity and sympathy as he can. The scene of The Man mourning his mate’s death is extremely touching, and our empathy is tweaked further when a blow to the head causes more damage than it should have, thanks to his inherited vitamin deficiency and, we learn, suffering of a form of bubonic plague. His attempts to communicate with Patricia at the end consist of the only English words he knows, variations of “Mind the Doors”, announced by the conductor of every train, at every stop, for more than a hundred years.

While the Dennis Gordon-Orr does a smashing job with the set design on the film’s limited budget, Alex Thompson’s use of shadow in near-darkness (cheating where there’s no other choice—how else can you explain a stark shadow cast upon a wall in supposed pitch-blackness?) is remarkable. Particularly striking is a scene between The Man and a trio of rail workers that takes place only in the beams and slashes of their flashlights. What Sherman doesn’t show is also notable. A second long, unbroken tracking shot leading from the lair and down the collapsed tunnel gives us the history that the dialogue hinted at: via sound effects and ambiance, we experience the Victorian-era mine workers just before, during and just after the cave in, with a pitiful ghostly whimper for help coming over the soundtrack just as we’re shown a skeletal hand trapped beneath a pile of rock. Aural memory has rarely been utilized so well in a movie before or since and it’s simply chilling.

Following Raw Meat, Sherman went on to direct the wonderful Dead & Buried, with a terrific Dan O’Bannon script—another sardonic movie about life and death and mostly death. Dead & Buried, in turn, lead to a number of ill-advised productions (Vice Squad, Wanted Dead or Alive) and the movie that nearly killed his career—Poltergeist III. Due to Heather O’Roarke’s untimely death a few weeks before the end of principal photography, Sherman was forced to film the rewritten ending with a body double, which resulted in not only an uncomfortable release, but a critically-disastrous one as well). After the stress of this production Sherman reportedly retreated to the relative comfort of directing and producing movies of the week. In 2000, Raw Meat / Death Line was chosen by a panel of British critics as one of "The Ten Most Important British Horror Films of the 20th Century". Take that BFC!

So before your visit to London, may I recommend picking up the official DVD of Raw Meat, criminally devoid of extras? If nothing else, it’ll remind you not to miss the last train.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010



 Paul Bartel’s Lust in the Dust aside, there aren’t too many “sleazy” westerns out there. The most cynical parodies retain a certain reverence for the genre and even attempts at revisionist or “de-mystified” westerns, ala McCabe and Mrs. Miller or Unforgiven avoid outright salaciousness. True, you’ll get a Hannie Calder now and then, but even that excuse for sagebrush T&A still cloaked itself in western thematic iconography (insert obvious simile regarding Raquel Welch nude-under-the-serape). For the first sixty-plus years of film history, the Western was the American genre. It was well to which all the studios went for both their epics and their programmers. Just as new directors cut their teeth on horror today, fledgling filmmakers had their mettle tested amidst the “horseshit and gunsmoke”. The western was the encompassing symbol of all things American: the hearty settlers carving life out of the wilderness, the taciturn men facing their problems head-on, the lonely gunfighter fruitlessly seeking redemption, and, of course, westward expansion—manifest destiny—the god-given right to the American government to seize the land before them.

Things began to change in the mid-60s for the Western, just as the entire film landscape was changing, for the usual reasons cited: the Viet-Nam War, the Peace Movement, the collapse of the studio system, the rise of filmmakers raised on film, influenced by European cinema (including the so-called “Spaghetti Westerns” coming out of Italy) that had been, in turn, revolutionized from within by American movies—art is often a snake eating its tail. Two films in particular marked the end of “classic” viewpoints: Bonnie and Clyde in 1967 and The Wild Bunch in 1969. These films did more to demystify the programmer genres of the crime story and the western. Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde drove home the idea that crime was a product of nature and nurture and that criminals often came to a more horrific end than a mere clutch of the chest and a face-plant to the pavement. Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch took the graphic depiction of violence even further, splashing blood atop the collapse of the American West. Bad men gunned each other down in the dust all too aware that their world had changed without their permission. The automobile had replaced the horse; the telegraph replaced the romantic (and historically short-lived) image of the Pony Express. With these revised themes came revised filmmaking presentations—slow-motion, fast-motion, special effects and characters whose allegiances weren’t boiled down to the color of their hats. Art reflects the world around it. With the world in turmoil, so, too, was Hollywood.

After the end of Viet-Nam, after Nixon had resigned in disgrace, Americans grit their teeth and either resisted the world as it was, or mourned what they thought they’d lost. Revisionism gave way to cynicism. And cynicism was reflected back at audiences from the movie screens.

Which brings us, finally, to The Last Hard Men. Based on Gun Down, a novel by the original sad tough guy Brian Garfield (whose everyman vigilante novel Death Wish had was adapted to the screen and became a box office success in 1974), The Last Hard Men took the revisionism of Peckinpah and Penn and infused it with the frustration of the ‘60s and heartbreak of the ‘70s, resulting in a movie whose only passion can be found in hatred.

Set in 1908, hardened criminal Zack Provo (James Coburn) kills two guards and escapes a Yuma chain gang along with a half-dozen other convicts. Enticing them with the promise of $30,000 worth of buried gold coins, Provo leads his new gang down a path towards his real destination: the destruction of Sam Burgade (Charlton Heston), the lawman who killed his wife and put him in prison in the first place. Burgade, now both tired and retired, is at odds with the changing landscape. His successor, Pima County Sheriff Noel Nye (Michael Parks), organizes car-driving posses and maintains the law over the phone, more concerned about trains running on time than such antiquated ideas of “outlaws”. Working with Nye, Burgade sets up a juicy bankroll arrival to trap Provo and his gang, but things backfire. Uninterested in a new score, Provo anticipates an ambush and, instead, goes to Burgade’s house and kidnaps his daughter, Susan (Barbara Hershey). Taking her to a Navajo reservation outside of Nye’s jurisdiction, Provo all but guarantees Burgade pursuing him on his own, ensuring the most personal of showdowns. Indeed, this is what happens, with Burgade’s only companion the “civilized” Hal Brickman (Christopher Mitchum), Susan’s fiancée.

Provo’s singular hatred of Burgade is the film’s driving force, and a good number of people caught between the men are hurt or killed, as is to be expected from this type of story. Near the end, to lure Burgade out of hiding, Provo “gives” Susan to his men. They give her a head start down the mountain, but eventually the two worst men of Provo’s gang catch her and make good on Provo’s earlier promise by gang raping her. As shocking as this scene is, what is astounding is that it is Brickman who holds Burgade back, very literally after an impatient Provo shouts—“Burgade! They’re fucking your daughter!” The tenderfoot dandy Brickman is forced to put the butt of his rifle to Burgade’s temple to keep the old man from rushing into the open and certain death.

Until this point in the movie, The Last Hard Men seems to almost revel in its unpleasantness, hence the interpretation of sleaze. The primary theme of modernization devouring all but the most non-receptive of the pioneers gets a bit lost during its time spent with the single-minded and thoroughly awful Provo who is only the worst of the bunch because he’s the leader. Little is revealed about the others in his gang, save that they’re all repellant and unrepentant murderers who turn on each other as quickly as they would on anyone else. Only the young Mike Shelby (CHiPS’  Officer Jon himself, Larry Wilcox), referred to as “the kid” by the other characters, seems out of place amidst the group, implying a less-wholesome prison relationship with Provo. But he too is serving life; unlikely the sentence was for nothing. That he shows tenderness towards Susan, where the others give only lustful brutality, doesn’t let him off the moral hook.

After the rape scene, however, the movie howls with righteous anger and an overdose of testosterone. Some critics have pointed out that, after this point, it’s no longer about Susan, but in truth it never was about her. The Last Hard Men is about two displaced alpha males out to kill each other as brutally as possible. Provo “wants to make it last”; Burgade wants to bring down someone who “beat me once”. Ego begets savagery.

The Last Hard Men is actually at odds with itself from beginning to end. Directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, a protégé of John Ford’s who worked second-unit on The Quiet Man and went on to helm straightforward westerns like Shenandoah and McLintock!, The Last Hard Men certainly looks like a traditional western (thanks to the gorgeous cinematography courtesy Duke Callahan (Jeremiah Johnson). Solid western character actors lead the cast: the usually bombastic Charlton Heston gives a surprisingly underplayed performance to help us believe that he’s old and tired; the nigh-impossible to dislike James Coburn does his best to be repugnant and embraces the only aspect of new technology Provo likes, namely an automatic Colt (which he uses to literally gun down a telephone early on in the film). It sounds like a traditional western, thanks to Jerry Goldsmith’s self-cannibalized score—or at least it does for the majority of the film. Then comes that horrific two-thirds mark. Suddenly the movie picks up a Peckinpah edge with the pursuit and rape occurring in agonizing slow motion and atonal assaults of music. Burgade’s rage becomes physical as he and Brickman set the mountainside on fire to smoke out Provo’s gang. At this point, the movie is meant to turn primal, but McLaglan’s heart doesn’t seem in it. The last act of the film is completely different in tone, as if the narrative was poisoned by the rape, that it seems to want to wrap as quickly as possible. Thus the final showdown, while bloody, lacks any kind of catharsis. The viewer is left feeling exhausted, drained and gritty.

Some of the blame can be placed on Guerdon Trueblood’s handling of Garfield’s tough-guy novel. Trueblood had directed the nihilistic The Candy Snatchers the previous year, so maybe some of that unpleasantness still tainted his blood. But the material, overall, seems wrong in McLaglan’s hands. The director, raised on a love for the material and the trappings of the American Western, fights his own movie from open to close, mirroring Burgade’s bemusement with the modern world, but likely sympathizing more with Provo’s disdain of the changing times. McLaglan himself is one of the “Last Hard Men” in this equation. It would seem that he would be much more comfortable with something more traditional, where the heroes wear white hats, the villains wear black, and shades of gray are relegated to the costumes of the extras. The bitter ‘70s, with its love of anti-heroes, held no more fascination for the director, it would seem, than the turn of the new century did for Burgade.

This suspicion is given weight by the fact that following The Last Hard Men, McLaglan returned to television and worked a good deal with The Wonderful World of Disney for the remainder of the ‘70s, returning to the “tough guy” genre only once more with The Wild Geese, which is morally and politically more straight-forward than The Last Hard Men. Upon its previews, the movie was met with derision and critical disgust, leading 20th Century Fox to cut almost ten minutes from the running time prior to release and was loathe to release it to home video for years. It still has not received a domestic DVD release.

Modern audiences, when referring to the movie at all, lump it in with Spaghetti Westerns, citing similarities between its cold-hearted tone and that of Leone’s “Dollars” Trilogy. But where Leone was just playing in the Western sandbox without really understanding what a “western” really was—an argument for another time, but, in short, the Italians were viewing the genre with a detachment, rather than with a sense of history or, to be honest, a sense of homeland pride—McLaglan was a veteran of the Golden Era. The quintessential cowboy, John Wayne, long a symbol of steadfast Americanism (remaining one to this day), had no place in the ‘70s west (how else to explain Brannigan or McQ?). Wayne’s poignant comment on the Golden Era’s end was The Shootist, which let the West die with quiet dignity. McLaglan’s was The Last Hard Men—a death knell and a wail.


 [Note: This movie is actually the inspiration for the entire column - it just took me longer than I expected to run a copy down. I discuss the ending - highlighted in bold - near the end. If you don't want to know, don't read that part.]

Real life: Documentary filmmaker Rob Spence (Let’s All Hate Toronto) has a bionic eye. Calling himself “Eyborg” (, he intends to use a miniaturized camera, imbedded in the socket of an eye he’d lost as a child, to shoot a movie about privacy. Subjects of the documentary won’t be aware that he’s filming them, making the point that we’re constantly surrounded by surveillance, that we’ve given up all rights to be alone and unobserved.

But with the popularity of reality TV, the very idea of anonymity seems a foreign concept, begetting the home movie monster that is YouTube. Millions of people “acting” for camera eyes every day, scarcely caring if there is a human being on the other end, hoping to record every aspect of their lives. But what about the person who wants to be anonymous? How can a human being live in our modern society without observation, without leaving footprints wherever he or she goes, electronically, virtually, otherwise? We’re becoming a civilization of 1s and 0s; the only proof of our existence is the recordings we leave behind. 

Privacy has become a chief concern these days, or at least a hot-button talking point. But at the same time we’re inspired by pundits to riot against Facebook, many of us can barely work up the energy to be irritated. In our numbed disenfranchised states, the best we can manage is the demand for a “Dislike” button.

Our current society was, almost point-for-point, prophesized by novelist D. G. Compton in his 1974 book The Unsleeping Eye, also known as The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe. Adapted for the screen as Death Watch by David Rayfiel, famed French filmmaker Bertrand Travernier brought the story to life as La mort en direct, a startlingly quiet little movie about the death of one person amidst the dying of a culture.

Katherine Mortenhoe (Romy Schneider) writes admittedly trite best-selling romances by feeding scenarios into a computer which then spits out the novels whole. She lives in a world where dying of “natural causes” has been all but cured by science. Barring the exception of fatal accidents, humans can choose to live for as long as they want, just choose the way to be preserved. Extreme old age is treated with a gradual increase of drugs that allow the elderly to bypass dementia. The drugs simulate natural death, but in reality, they’re merely slow poison. Katherine’s world turns when she is diagnosed with something rare, incurable and fatal. The idea makes her feel abandoned; the disease makes her into a celebrity.

Almost immediately, she’s approached by Vincent Ferriman, a producer for the new show “Death Watch”, a documentary television program that follows people during their last days on Earth. It gives the viewers rare catharsis, allowing them to experience emotion. “I watch it because it makes me cry,” says a young shop girl while working her tedious job. In the background, the televisions blare. But something is wrong—the images and audio are out of synch, revealing the subliminal images and messages hidden between the commercials: “Don’t steal, you’ll feel better. Watch television and escape.”

At first, Katharine refuses, finding the show despicable and Vincent even worse. But her soon-to-be-widower husband could use the money. So she negotiates with Vincent: her last days for $600,000. He tells her to take $500K. Life is cheap; so should be death.

After signing contracts, Katharine manages to elude the producers by buying a wig at a gypsy market and vanishing into the crowds. Ill and scared, the medicine she takes seems only to make things worse. At a hostel, she meets an amiable man named Roddy, a former protester-for-hire—he travels the world and expounds against whatever he’s paid to: war, progress, taxes, etc. He helps her during one particularly painful night and she develops a bond with him, especially after he reveals that he knows who she is, coaxing her out of hiding. What she doesn’t know is that Roddy works for Vincent. He’s a human videographer, with a camera implanted in his eyes, and everything he sees, the world sees. He becomes Katharine Mortenhoe’s secret biographer, showing the world her final moments.

Unable to tolerate darkness for more than a few minutes, or else risk the cameras going dead, Roddy must carry a flashlight with him at all times, to shine directly into his eyes and charge the internal sensors. He cannot sleep, taking pills to prevent this. As a result, he can only daydream, but it’s a small price to pay for the “toy to end all toys”.

Accompanying her to the quiet seaside home of her first husband, the mercenary Roddy begins to have pangs of conscience only when he watches footage he shot, of Katharine, broadcast over one of the omnipresent television sets. Even though he experienced her grief and fear and bravery first-hand, he doesn’t process it until its played back for him. As he says early on, it’s only real if it’s recorded. From Katharine’s point of view, however, “If everything is interesting, then nothing is important.”

Filmed in Scotland, utilizing some breathtaking scenery of the coast as well as gorgeous tracking and crane shots through graveyards, Death Watch is an amazing little movie. Deemed too slow for American audiences, however, it was cut by nearly twenty minutes for the Embassy Home Video VHS release (a fact I was utterly unaware of until I watched it again recently—more on that in a minute). Virtually unknown in the U.S., the movie also stars Harvey Keitel, Max Von Sydow, Harry Dean Stanton and, making his film debut in a small role, Robbie Coltrane, and there isn’t a poor performance to be had. This odd future is also handled subtly, utilizing background billboards alerting citizens to recycle their water and giving options to “Die the Poseidon Way” at sea. Nothing is flashed in your face, screaming “FUTURE!” like so many recent films. The “later” of the setting is only presented in glimpses—the best and longest (courtesy of cinematographer Pierre-William Glenn) is Katharine’s flight through the gypsy market, delivered in a single unbroken four-minute shot that takes us around and through the various vendor tents.

Of course, Travernier plays with point of view throughout the film, as when, in the hostel, the camera comes up over Roddy’s shoulder and immediately assumes his POV, scanning the room for signs of Katharine. Voyeurism is the foremost theme of the film, and we are made into bigger spies than even the “Death Watch” audience or Roddy himself. We are viewing the voyeurs, experiencing everything vicariously through the eyes of someone else. When Katharine wanders alone, unhindered by intrusive crowds of reporters, we’re meant to feel our most guilty. Even without Roddy’s eye-cameras, Katharine is never allowed to be alone.

The sub-theme of corporate exploitation, greed-motivated invasion, is downplayed in the American version of the film. It’s no spoiler to reveal that Katharine dies in both cuts of the film, but the reason behind the means is utterly changed in the longer European cut. In the shorter American-friendly version, with its almost inconsequential pace, Katharine’s only wish is to die alone, on her own terms. When Roddy takes himself out of commission, Vincent and a crew race to Mortenhoe’s seaside home to, it seems, ensure they catch her final moments.

In the European version, La morte en direct, it is revealed that after Vincent’s first subject dies unexpectedly, he cooks up a scheme with Katharine’s doctor. Buying the physician out, they manufacture an illness for her, and it’s the medicine making—harmlessly—sick. Manipulating her in this way will allow for even greater ratings if she’s miraculously cured on camera for all to watch. When Katharine learns of this, she goes forward with her plan to take her own life, and in this context, her motivations are defiance and revenge. The result is the same, but the delivery couldn’t be more different. In either case, it’s triumphant and haunting. Neither version lets Vincent or his corporate greed off the hook. In the European version, he’s just slightly more selfish, slightly more corrupt. In the U.S. version, Death Watch, the lack of manipulation makes him merely a scumbag. And for some reason, this was determined to be easier for Americans to swallow. Hollow inconsideration rather than calculated ambition. The versions of the films say more about the differing attitudes of UK and US cultures than does the actual movie.

Whichever version you manage to run down, do your best to see this movie. Quiet and deliberate, it does require patience to sit through. Any viewer whose sole familiarity with Keitel is via his angry and violent crime films are in for an enormous surprise here, as his portrayal of Roddy is never less than gentle, even while being threatening.

While the parallels between the Death Watch world and our own modern day obsession with technology are more than obvious, and more damning than the prophecy was in 1980, the movie never comes out and states the obvious. Unlike today’s entertainment, insisting on spoon feeding you every bit of information rather than you risk experiencing an original thought, Death Watch treats the viewer like an adult. The movie does the audience a favor by asking it to think.
Hopefully, what Rob Spence discovers on the other side of his camera will bring him more peace than it did to Roddy.