Wednesday, November 28, 2012

DUST UP (2012)

In 2008, Roger Ebert wrote a piece for his SunTimes blog titled, “This is the dawning of the Age of Credulity”, in which he relates a conversation he had with Taxi Driver author Paul Schrader.  “He told me that after Pulp Fiction, we were leaving an existential age and entering an age of irony. ‘The existential dilemma,’ he said, ‘is, 'should I live?' And the ironic answer is, 'does it matter?' Everything in the ironic world has quotation marks around it. You don't actually kill somebody; you 'kill' them. It doesn't really matter if you put the baby in front of the runaway car because it's only a 'baby' and it's only a 'car'.’ In other words, the scene isn't about the baby. The scene is about scenes about babies.”
Which I feel was more than adequately boiled down by Rene Magritte in his painting, The Treachery of Images (La trahison des images, 1928–29), a painting of a pipe which he captions, "Ceci n'est pas une pipe": “This is not a pipe.” And it isn’t. It’s a painting of a pipe. “The famous pipe,” Magritte lamented. “How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it's just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture "This is a pipe," I'd have been lying!” (Torczyner, Harry. Magritte: Ideas and Images. p. 71.)
Taking this all further, Ebert noted about the cinematic culture around him, “We may be leaving an age of irony and entering an age of credulity. In a time of shortened attention spans and instant gratification, trained by web surfing and movies with an average shot length of seconds, we absorb rather than contemplate. We want to gobble all the food on the plate, instead of considering each bite. We accept rather than select.”
Modern movies, from this point of view, are neither self-contained nor created in a vaccuum. Every movie is made of particles from other movies. “Homage” has moved beyond the in-joke, background detail or set-piece and into literal and thematic presentation. So much of this is personified by Quentin Tarantino and his contemporaries. They’re not making movies, they’re making their versions of movies that had come before. “I told Robert [Rodriguez], ‘You made your Fistful of Dollars with El Mariachi, now’s the time to make your epic, your Once Upon a Time in the West”, sez the world’s most successful fanboy on the audio commentary for Once Upon a Time in Mexico. It’s like the self-referential humor of The Family Guy: “That’s funny because I get it.” The Inglorious Basterds was neither a remake of The Inglorious Bastards nor simply a World War II adventure, but it was Tarantino’s WWII movie. Coming up is Tarantino’s spaghetti western, Django Unchained
For better or worse, we’re slowly coming out of the age of irony and/or credulity because the most recent crop of movie-goers, including but not limited to the Twi-hards, are simply unaware of what came before, so every movie cliché is new to them. I remember a Twilight fan swooning over Edward because, “When he says cheesy stuff, it’s sincere because he doesn’t know it’s cheesy!” And thus we get Total Recall for this generation, Red Dawn for this generation. And this generation doesn’t know that they’re cheesy retreads, thus, they’re sincere. 
All of this is a backhanded way of introducing Ward Roberts new film, Dust Up, because it lands somewhere between ironic and post-ironic. Produced through his Drexel Box production house, Dust Up at first glance is a loving send-up of ‘70s exploitation, the “grindhouse” genre that is all the rage. Ironic because it takes the market-driven selling points of gratuitous sex, violence and mayhem and embraces them. Post-Ironic because it takes the most ludicrous of these elements to their logical conclusion. And post-credulous because it does it with sincerity, honesty and a passion for all of the sources that came before it. And in the end, Dust Up is not “Ward Roberts’ exploitation movie”; Dust Up is Ward Roberts’ Dust Up. It takes all the other-movie particles and molds them into something from his point of view and his sensibilities, and those of his collaborators, and makes something that’s both familiar and outrageous at the same time, but never seems derivative. It’s a balancing act to be sure, and on either side of the tightrope lies disaster. Fortunately, Roberts and company manage the middle walk very well. 
Dust Up is about the accidental—if not destined—collision of five people. New mom Ella and her junkie husband Herman, and two opposing forces: the stoic and enigmatic peaceful warrior Jack (Aaron Gaffney) and his Indian sidekick Mo (Devin Barry) on one end; the twisted and gleefully evil narcissistic personality Buzz on the other. Jack wears an eyepatch, a constant reminder of a tortured past as a violent soldier; Mo wears a Jay Silverheels outfit and yellow-striped tube socks, to both honor and mock his Native American forebears who have gotten rich and fat off of casino living. Buzz (Jeremiah Birkett) ingests chemicals, tortures people and declares everything to be his: “This is MY house. The House of Buzz. In the Land of Buzz. In the Time of Buzz.” 
Ella (Amber Benson) is a young mother living in a house with severe plumbing problems. Her husband Herman (fellow filmmaker Travis Betz), a roadie for Hoobastank (of all things), went a little loopy after the birth of their daughter, Lucy, and is now holed up at Buzz’s in a drug-induced, debt-heavy sabattacal. In need of clean water, Ella picks Jack’s name out of the phone book—the way of this peaceful warrior is that of the handyman. This is before Ella learns of her deadbeat spouse’s debt to psychopath, Buzz. Actually, Buzz is much more than a psychopath, more than a sociopath. He’s a charismatic, amoral, self-affirming bar owner-cum-cult leader who promises those he doesn’t like—or happens to notice—with death via dismantling at the hands of his chief thug, Mr. Lizard. What’s more amoral than a sociopath? An anthropath, perhaps? Whatever, you don’t want to owe money to Buzz. 
You know what annoys Buzz more than being owed money? Owing money to someone else. In this case, the corrupt, racist Sherriff Haggler (The Hills Have Eyes remake’s Ezra Buzzington), who wants his payoff and demands it in a most demeaning fashion. The laws of physics dictate that shit rolls downhill, to Buzz calls in poor Herman’s marker, gives him 24 hours to get the money and then has Mr. Lizard eject him from the bar in a most unfriendly fashion. 
Over the course of a few scenes, Jack becomes involved in Herman’s plight because it has become Ella’s plight. Jack is cut from the same cloth as most wayward heroes on the path of redemption—particularly Shane, according to an interview with Roberts at the Daily Grindhouse—so he isn’t likely to leave a damsel in distress. Before you jump to conclusions, he’s doing this out of pure spirit. Yes, Herman is a junkie, a bad husband, irresponsible, lazy, most likely unwashed and very much an ungrateful jerk, but these facts aren’t lost on anybody. The deeper he drags Jack (and Mo) into his pit of karmic despair, the more everyone—even Buzz!—questions why they’re bothering to help him out at all. The lesson to be taken away is if you’re going to be a selfish schlep of a person, you’d better have a pretty and capable wife and an adorable baby at home. Otherwise even Mother Theresa would be inclined to throw you to the wolves. 
As can be expected, things spiral out of control, epically and apocalyptically. Jack attempts to make good on Herman’s debt by lending him half of the money he owes Buzz in a show of good faith, but Buzz isn’t one to focus on problem-solving. In a matter of minutes, the casual morning meeting results in Buzz accidentally blowing up his bar—it’s a Rube Goldberg-esque chain of cause and effect, but the end result is that Buzz accidentally shoots one of his meth chemists mid-cook and, as we all know, meth is a most volatile and tempermental chemical potion. Emotionally, it’s the fourteen-year-old-girl of drugs.
The rest of the film could be titled “Buzz’s Bad Day”, as he punishes everyone in his path for his own misfortune. He and reason aren’t even in the same time zone, and if you’re wondering if depravity has a baseline, as far as Buzz goes, the answer is ‘no’. He does know how to whip up a freak frenzy. Unfortunately, he doesn’t choose his followers wisely. Drug-addled desert-scum aren’t known for their stamina, no matter how many barbecued human bodies they’re fed. This is best demonstrated when Buzz declares, “It’s orgy time!” and receives the same dismayed reaction as if he’d announced a pop quiz. 
Dust Up was obviously crafted to be a fun time for all, and it’s one of the rare movies, indie or otherwise, that is as much fun to watch as apparently it was to make. Behind it all are smart filmmakers who know which conventions to turn on their heads and which ones to embrace. As wacky as Dust Up is it never once tries to act like it’s better than either the genre or its audience. Unlike recent “grindhouse” movies like Hobo with a Shotgun, Dust Up wasn’t designed as a party tray of excess and nihilism. It asks you to care about its characters and then gives you characters to care about. Every one of the actors is pitch-perfect in their performances so it’s hard to single any one out. Gaffney’s a terrific hero archetype, violently opposed to violence lik Billy Jack, but with the smooth vocal tones of Joel McCrea. Barry brings just enough dry wit to Mo to comment on the insanity of things—even his own actions—without becoming hipster about it all. As Herman, Travis Betz—whose amazing allegorical demon cabaret, Lo (starring Birkett as the title character), introduced me to the majority of the versatile cast—gives the jerk of a catalyst an affability that earns a little bit of redemption at the end. Birkett doesn’t so much steal every scene he’s in as he attempts to corner the market on it. Buzz could all too easily be a cartoon villain, the word “Evil” given bushy eyebrows and pop eyeballs, but Birkett hints at a humanity buried deep beneath the viciousness and drug-induced paranoia. Both he and Jack project a loneliness and sense of loss, making them each other’s dark mirror. Perhaps the hardest job was placed on Benson’s shoulders. The filmmaker/author has the dubious honor of portraying the lone sane person in this sea of multi-colored insanity. Like Bob Newhart in all incarnations, she’s the only rational one in the room at any given time, and she does it with a sense of humor that anchors all the madness together. 
Roberts, Betz and Benson not only love film but understand it as well, as they’ve proven through this movie and previous offerings like Betz’s Joshua and Benson’s Drones (which she co-wrote and directed with Adam Busch). They’re not into the popular mash-ups of movie iconography and theme so much as they are into creating new forms from previously-used clay. As far as Dust Up goes, Roberts has taken the history of movies he loves and built upon it, rather than attempt to reflect it in some mirror he fractured himself. The result is both familiar to those who know the territory and unique at the same time. A ‘70s sex ‘n death-fest with an altruistic attitude taken from Howard Hawks westerns. A salute to what came before even as it moves forward. 
As the saying goes, “This is Dust Up. There are others like it, but this one is…” Roberts’, Drexel Box’s, and now ours. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012


One of the most difficult things to learn as a critic of any kind is objectivity. Most critics fall victim to their own preconceived notions at some point in their careers. In many cases, it’s because the movie they watched isn’t the movie they expected to see. The most blatant example I’ve ever seen was from a reviewer who gave the low-budget indie adventure Project:Valkyrie a lousy rating because he, for whatever reason, expected giant fighting robots in the movie, instead of the lone man-sized one that was actually in the film. (Above image found at
In a perfect world, all critics would approach every piece of art with an open mind, judging it only against itself in terms of success or failure. But since critics are human beings, and our knowledge is based on past experiences, that approach will never happen, so we have to rely on intellectual filters to avoid bias. If, as a critic, one can attain self-awareness and avoid self-righteousness, then your reviews will reflect fact and opinion honestly.
Obviously, this isn’t just the failing of critics. Everyone dislikes at least one movie for not being what they expected. I’m just as guilty as anyone. I did not review Cronenberg’s History of Violence when it was released, not because it departed so radically from the graphic novel it adapted, but because it went in a third direction I didn’t anticipate. I wasn’t expecting David Cronenberg, of all artists, to take the storyline into familiar action movie territory. Because the movie didn’t live up to my ill-conceived expectations, I felt resentful towards it for some time. (Maybe I should be proud of myself for not expressing those feelings in print, instead of the more-reasonable reaction of being disgusted with myself for setting my own trap.)
Fortunately, I knew going into it that I was going to be biased, both pro and con, towards Killer Joe. First, I was already pre-disposed to liking it because of director William Friedkin’s first adaptation of a grim Tracy Letts’ play, Bug. Bug was my intro to Letts’ surreal Southern Gothic gallows humor and Killer Joe is the only of his plays I’ve seen performed live. It’s a violent, crass and grotesquely funny slice-of-horror involving a white trash family and a hired killer. People are violently assaulted and bloodily murdered on stage throughout the course of the film (effects in this case courtesy of A Far Cry From Homes Benzy). There’s also a better-than-fair amount of nudity in the play, made much more graphic by my position in the front row, about a foot or so from the stage. Plus, these were local actors who I knew for the most part and, considering the play opens with the lead actress bare from the waist-down, again, a little over a foot from my face, it’s hard not to get involved. The second act opens with the titular character, a corrupt Dallas police detective, completely nude, feet from my face, and during which time seemed to slow down to eternity (again, small theater).
in background, from left) John Gresh, Lissa Brennan, John Steffanauer 
and Hayley Nielsen, and (foreground) Patrick Jordan in 
barebones productions' Killer Joe. Photo by Ilya Goldin.]
  I was blown away by Letts’ script, shocked by the violence (I dodged a flying chicken leg during the climax), and astounded by several of the performances. In particular, I was struck by Haley Nielsen, who played the family’s possibly brain damaged pseudo-Lolita, Dottie. Dottie sleepwalks and sleeptalks, says odd things at inopportune times and appears almost psychic at others. She’s damaged and fragile and is the audience’s anchor to the story—even if you couldn’t care about the other characters, doomed and damned by their own bad decisions, you want to see that Dottie is safe in the end. Nielsen, a local actress I wasn’t familiar and thus wasn’t saddled with any of my personal baggage, performed Dottie with a far-away, almost ethereal quality, fully aware of what was happening, yet at the same time far-removed and emotionally stunted. Dottie is the key character in Killer Joe, all of the action revolves around her to some degree, and I think any performance of the play would hinge on the actress playing her. 
So, as a fan of the play, I was simulataneously excited and trepidatious about a film adaptation. Given Friedkin as a director, I figured the story was in good hands, particularly with Letts adapting his own script for screen. Because Billy F. never struck me as a guy who particularly gave a shit about mainstream success, I figured all the violence and sex would remain intact. My biggest fear, though, was not who would play Joe but Dottie. Friedkin could stick Adam Sandler in the title role and still pull off a good movie. But Dottie… no Hollywood actress even came to mind. 
Just like the play, Killer Joe begins with Chris (Emile Hirsch) banging on his father’s trailer door, begging to be let in. He is answered by his stepmother, Sharla (Gina Gershon)—she’s naked from the waist-down and her crotch is in his direct line-of-sight. This is how both Letts and Friedkin establish the sophistication of the crowd. “You answer the door like that?” Chris demands. 
To which Sharla replies, “Shut up—I didn’t know it was you!”
“Class” is not an issue with these people. So it comes as no surprise that Chris is in debt to drug dealers and wants to hire someone to kill his birth mother for $50K worth of insurance money. It’s less of a surprise when his wet-brain father, Ansel (Thomas Hayden Church), less than a generation older than his son, puts up little argument against the plan. Somebody told Chris “about a guy” who does murder-for-hire, Dallas cop Joe Campbell (Matthew McConaughey), aka “Killer Joe”, and Chris figures that the guy might be charitable enough to do the job on spec and take a cut of the insurance money after. But Joe isn’t the kind of guy to give away murder services and demands twenty-five grand up front, non-negotiable. The story might have ended there, with the Smith family returning to their no-class hovel, if it weren’t for Dottie (Juno Temple). As a baby, Dottie’s mother tried to suffocate her with a pillow because “she was young and didn’t want to give up her life.” It didn’t work, obviously—Dottie just “wasn’t” for a short while—and returned to the land of the living as a constant disappointment. When Joe asks Dottie how she knows this happened, being an infant and all, Dottie replies, “I remember it.”
Dottie is part of the family without serving any specific function. Ansel treats her like a little girl; to Chris, she’s the only shred of anything good; to Sharla, she’s just around, to make dinner or run errands. Emotionally, Dottie is twelve and no one does anything to help her mature. The only giveaway that she’s older is her body and her unconsciously-hyper sexuality, which disturbs Chris’ dreams and enchants Joe. Joe agrees to do the job as long as Dottie is his “retainer”.
Joe and Dottie’s “first date” starts off uncomfortable enough. She rebels at wearing a cocktail dress and is sobbing when Joe arrives. He speaks kindly to her, but matter-of-factly, without condescension, without walking on egg shells around her. Midway through their meal, he puts an end to her incessant absent-minded and skittish babbling by having her stand up, remove her clothes and put on the dress for him. As in the play, this is an electrically creepy moment but for completely different reasons. On stage, Nielsen stripped in front of Joe and, thus, in front of the entire audience, rendering herself completely vulnerable and not just to him, but to the audience. It’s meant to draw forth instinctual protectiveness from everyone watching, accentuating that Joe is a predator. But in the film, Friedkin stages the action in a single shot where Joe stands with his back to Dottie as she changes. The camera doesn’t focus on her nudity but it doesn’t shy from it either. What we focus on, then, is a similar transition in Joe’s character, but one with far more menace. Never once does he face her, and barely looks at her even when he moves her in front of him, and instead keeps his eyes on some faraway spot on the ceiling. “How old are you right now?” he asks. 
“So am I.”
By now if you’re expecting any kind of happy ending, I wish I could live a day inside your mind. 
The underlying violence begins to ripple forth at this point, as Joe installs himself in the family’s trailer and their life. Chris’s sense of morality keeps butting up with his instinct for survival and he continually flip-flops over the plan—kill her, Joe; don’t kill her, Joe—and then he focusses purely on rescuing Dottie, who at this point may not even need to be rescued. But since Chris hasn’t made a single winning move since the film started, the outcome, to quote the Magic 8 Ball, “is doubtful”. 
Friedkin plays Letts for all its worth, squeezing every drop of amorality and depravity onto the screen. Even if you know all the beats of the story, the violent beats are still shocks of cold water. And everyone in the film holds their own. Matthew McConaughy is a stand-out as the cold-blooded Joe, who is sweapt out to sea by the dotty Dottie. There is a moment, after Sharla has been beaten and humiliated, where the camera stays in tight close-up on Gina Gershon’s face and you know she’s never been better. Emile Hirsch as Chris and Thomas Hayden Church as Ansel keep our sympathies in the air like a heated game of volleyball. None of the Smiths are remotely bright; their desperation drives their mundane existences and there’s no real loyalty lost between them. It’s almost too easy for a reptile like Joe to slide in and dominate them all, especially when they think they can use chest-beating to gain the upper hand. 
So it all comes down to Juno Temple as Dottie. Not an illogical choice, given her impressive performance in Atonement. (Hey, it got her into four collective minutes of The Dark Knight Rises.) In Killer Joe, she is uninhibited and unashamed, her vulnerability is communicated by her big doe eyes and post-pubescent movements. And it’s here that my objective dissonance took hold. It’s entirely unfair to compare Temple’s performance to an actress in a regional production of the play, but Hayley Nielsen was my introduction to the story and her performance defined the character to me. As Dottie, Nielsen was ephemeral and on another plane of existence than the rest of the characters. Most of her lines were delivered in a breathless and excited monotone, every line a declaration and, thus, a non-sequiter. For me—and only for me, obviously—Temple was too grounded in her portrayal of Dottie. Within tight close-ups her Dottie was never farther from me than Nielsen, spacially-speaking, and her fragile, damaged persona is in perfect service of the story and script. But she had a physical presence that Nielsen intentionally abandoned, and it drags the rest of the story, and all of its horror and grit and despair, down into the gutter where it began. Temple Dottie struck me as too real. The rest of the family you could meet at any Wal-Mart in the country. A physical realization of Dottie, even though she is a “pure” character, brings these low-lifes into too-sharp of a relief. 
But a real Dottie allows for a more believable Killer Joe. I have no real proof in my suspicion, but I think it would be an easy temptation for actors to play Joe as a bad-ass, smooth and over-the-top thug who is only in control because he’s slightly smarter than those around him. Everyone in the story is in danger of characature, just a few millimeters off in either direction will result in something balloony and lumpy from a Ralph Bakshi movie. But McConnaughy plays Joe as a well-oiled psychopathic watch, a mass of coiled springs contained by the exterior. His interaction with Dottie brings out a different man, a man used to control but unused to an unpredictable factor like Dottie. Though he does manage to possess her, there’s something of her at work on him beyond her childish sexuality. She mentions “pure love” several times throughout the film, and what Joe feels for her is obviously far from pure, but maybe to his mind it is. His interest in her may be a result of something human unlocked inside of him. As with Dottie’s nudity, Joe’s interaction with her allows for something vulnerable to shine out. It isn’t redemption, but it isn’t the revulsion you’re meant to feel during a live performance. 
It could be quibbling, but this leads to one point of genuine disappointment in the film. In the play, Joe’s dominance and subjugation of the family is presented at the beginning of the second act. Having been brutally beaten by the drug dealers, Chris collapses through the trailer’s front door. Instead of Sharla, he encounters a completely naked and gun-weilding Joe. Thinking Chris might be a burglar, Joe has lept out Dottie’s bed and onto Chris as the complete alpha male. On stage, it’s shocking, naturally, and awkwardly funny and uncomfortable, but it establishes Joe’s new position in the dynamic. Like Beowulf, he’ll face his greatest challenges with only a weapon and the skin he was born in. 
In the film, Friedkin declines to show McConaughey in his full-frontal glory. It’s obvious that he’s completely nude, but the reveal isn’t as strong. We stay on a neutral point of view as Chris crashes through the door and Joe is already waiting for him on the other side. Visually, it removes a great deal of dynamism from both the scene and Joe’s character. In the film, instead of a Grecian athlete or an unbridled predator, he’s simply a naked guy with a gun. An argument can be made for many things—that it cheapens Temple’s and Gershon’s nudity, that it was staged thusly to avoid further problems with censors (even though Friedkin allowed the film to go to theaters unrated, which waters down this latter argument). All it does is diminishes the ferocity of the scene. I’ve thought it over and come to the conclusion that this is a thematic mistake. My issues with Juno Temple’s performance are my own hang-up. 
With all the other fearless choices made with the material it’s disappointing that Friedkin and/or McConaughey--to quote an actor I’ve worked with who is accustomed to nude scenes--“pussied out on the dick shot”. 
Ultimately, a play isn’t a movie and a movie isn’t a play and critics should remember that before they waste time writing a review. Report on the art you saw, not the art you expected. And definitely don’t watch Killer Joe without a designated moral compass.
[Special blame goes to Eric Thornett (writer/director of A Sweet and Vicious Beauty) for originally dragging us to the play in 2009.

Friday, November 16, 2012

THE PHYNX (1970)

 (Image from Vintage
Let us bow our head in thanks to Bob Rafelson and Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper, to Mike Nesmith, Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork and the late Davy Jones. For they resisted the temptation to make a two-hour Monkees episode and rather made the wonderous Head, effectively destroying the “Pre-Fab Five” for the betterment of all. Because if they’d given the fans what they’d expected, it would have been The Phynx.
Starting with a baffling sequence in which a man who is later revealed to be an American spy repeatedly hurls himself over a wall only to be captured by a foreign general played by Michael Ansara. He’s then summarily booted back over the wall. On the third attempt, the spy goes to a conveniently-located carnival and fires himself out of a cannon. But the wiley General Ansara—I mean, Col. Rostinov—is waiting with a team of men and a fireman’s catch. The spy bounces so hard, he soars into the animated title sequence. Like most animated title sequences, it’s the best part of the movie. 
What seems like days later, he finally identifies himself as “Agent Corrigan” (Lou Antonio). He enters the secret headquarters of the SSA (Super Secret Agency) via a super secret men’s room stall, complete with a pair of decoy feet showing behind the door to deter the … curious? Embladdered? Anyway, he drops a coin, the toilet and wall spin and he’s in the bowels of the agency. No pun intended.
Now make no mistake, the SSA is powerful. They have divisions for everything. SSA “Sock It To Me” Division, a “Bigotry Department” and a “Hooker Division”, a Bureau of Invisible Men,  Madison Avenue Undercover and the Underage Undercover Department (filled with boy scouts).
His superior is Mr. Bogey and is played by character actor Mike Kellin. His impression of Bogart more resembles Wallace Shawn doing George Raft but, you know, whatever. Their superior is “No. 1”, who wears a suit and a box on his head with a face drawn on it. His voice is provided by Rich Little doing an impression of Rich Little. There’s big trouble here in the God-fearing United States, great world leaders are going missing. “World Leaders” in this case being George Jessel, Dorothy Lamour, Butterfly McQueen, Charlie MacCarthy and Edgar Bergan, and “the one and only Col. Sanders”. Before you can say “No big loss”, the two non-boxed agents rush to MOTHA (“Mechanical Oracle That Helps Americans”) to manufacture a plan to rescue their missing leaders. Like Hitchhiker’s Guide’s “Deep Thought”, the computer spits out the strategy: “form a pop group and stage a concert in Albania.”
The SSA “recruits” the disparate young men by abducting them. Michael D. Miller is a student protester hoisting a sign reading “Space Available”; Ray Chippeway is a American Indian college graduate whose father declares “White man make son pansy”; Dennis Larden, college athlete, is working a barbell while his latest conquest is awaiting in bed to be conquested when he is literally sucked into a vent via a giant magnet; and then there’s Lonny Stevens, stutteringly referred to as the “Young Negro”, the “Colored Guy”, and finally the “Afro-American”. Lonny is a seemingly successful commercial actor, doing an ad for beer. When he’s wrapped, a white guy takes his place as the producer announces, “Now let’s shoot one for the southern states.” And that, dear friends, is the height of the satire. 
What follows is a series of gags that are either hysterical or painful depending on your state of consciousness while viewing. Clint Walker is their drill instructor, Richard Pryor serves them “soul food” (looking like he has no idea where he is or how he got there and surely pissed that he didn’t get the punchline), and after they’re thoroughly trained in the art of both military spy-stuff and music, they are given a seal of approval by Dick Clark. MOTHA provides the group name: “The Phynx”. …You know, like “finks”? A ‘60s word for “narc”? “Snitch”? “Stoolie”? Shut up, it’s funny (which I think was the movie’s tag line). 
To make them stars, the SSA hires “Philbaby”, a music guru played by Larry Hankin, best known as Larry David’s first choice to play Kramer on Seinfeld. He creates a wall of sound for their song, “What’s Your Sign?” The Phynx debut on Ed Sullivan (who is held at gunpoint in front of his live studio audience) and the fans go absolutely Beatlemania over their softboiled Rutles song. Their first record leaps to Gold in twenty minutes (awarded to them by James Brown, the Ambassador of the Record Industry of the United States). Soon they’re loved and lusted after all over the world. Which shows the absolute power of Ed Sullivan more than anything else.
Now that they’re pop sensations, now comes the spy stuff, right? The trip to Albania? Well, no. The next hitch in the geddy-up arrives by a staggering Martha Raye (literally staggering because she’s supposed to be dying of some sort of wound—the location of which changes depending on where she’s clutching). There’s something about a map to the palace of Albanian ruler Markevitch (veteran second-to-third banana, George Tobias)—to keep it secret, Foxy (Raye) tattooed a third of the map upon the stomachs of her three daughters, located in London, Copenhagen and Rome. Because she’s in such a hurry dying, Foxy doesn’t give the girl’s names, but does provide three pictures of the girls with their faces obscured.
So before you can say “PG-rated Get Charlie Tully”, The Phynx are off on a girl-filled scavenger hunt, filled with schemes to get endless girls out of their clothes (including a young Sally Struthers in her first big-screen role)—x-ray specs in Rome, a take-a-number bang-me line in Copenhagen (which hysterically leaves the three non-black guys drained of fluid and lividity by around girl 1000. Lonny appears with the right girl and just quietly calls for a medic). This eats up a good chunk of the second act.
Finally they get to Albania and learn that the conspiracy is even worse than they imagined! More world-leaders have been abducted—Joe Louis, Huntz Hall, Leo Gorcey (the latter two the only reason I watched this in the first place, I’m not ashamed to say), Jay Silverheels and the replacement Lone Ranger, John Hart (identified only as their character names), Buzby Berkeley and his original Gold Diggers—and are being held inside the palace to… sorta hang out with the royal family, including Joan Blondell as the Mrs. Monarch, Ruby. It seems that the actual rulers of the government are being held captive by Col. Michael Ansara, and that it was his plan to bring in The Phynx to “give the proletariat what they want” while still ruling the country on whatever vague form of Communism is being utilized. Fortunately for every one, Huntz Hall himself comes up with the plan to escape: “Radishes!”, he proclaims as a very sick-looking Gorcey hits him with his hat. 
(Image from Age of
Then comes another song, the final escape and, proof that there is a God, the end credits. 

Now, many—okay, few, those who’ve actually seen this mess—have declared this overlong Monkees episode to be one of the worst movies ever made, but that’s not true by half. It’s simply a low-rent, no-budget “star-stravaganza” along the lines of future Love Boat and Fantasy Island. The music comes courtesy of Mike Stoller who, with his partner Jeff Leiber, wrote “Hound Dog”, “Jailhouse Rock”, “Is That All There Is?” and reams of other pop songs, to The Phynx’s sets are pleasantly familiar-sounding, with knowing little nods to Herman’s Hermets, the Beatles and the Monkees, and the Moody Blues.  (Poster courtesy of Unseen Films)

Veteran TV director Lee H. Katzan does the best with the borcht-belt gags and lame attempts at “hip” humor from writers Bob Booker, Stan Cornyn, George Foster, but much of it is still from hunger because it’s just not that funny. Amusing, yes, at times, if you dig this sort of thing. The biggest problem is with The Phynx themselves. Except for Lonny Stevens, who has actual charisma and was the only one of the four to make a go at a real acting career (near as I can tell), the three other guys are virtually indistinguishable from each other. A running gag has Chippaway bristling at casual “racist” remarks (When one girl leaps onto him with a cry of “Geronimo!”, he mutters, as if afraid he’ll be heard, “Is nothing sacred?”) then proceeds to speak Tonto-ese himself. Worst of all—he has no interplay with Silverheels (also speaking his trademark Tonto-ese) so the gag you figure they’re building toward never comes.

Depending on your affection for the guest stars, you’ll either be angered that their time is utterly wasted or you’ll just end up feeling sorry for them. For many, this was the plumbest role they’d landed in a while (Gorcey, at this point, was incurable alcoholic and was dead before the film was even released; many of the others would follow suit throughout the decade), and for the others you start to wonder if they really had been abducted for the film, being World Leaders and all. Not one of the “special guest stars” is given anything to do. It just seems as if the green room of Laugh-In had been tipped into a cart and carried off into the night.
At the end of the day, during the final tank and radish-cart chase as the end credits scroll, you’ll be no better nor worse off for having seen The Phynx. After many, many years of VHS bootlegs taken from a single television airing (complete with animated station bumpers every ten minutes, no matter who is talking or if they’re done), Warner Brothers Archive has restored the film in all its 1.85 glory and mono-to-stereo sound mix. Now, you too can have The Phynx play for you in your very own living room. 
Meanwhile, the Monkees have reunited for a world-reunion tour after never once doing anything remotely like this again. 
…Okay, 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee notwithstanding.

Thursday, November 15, 2012


(Image from Wrong Side of the Art)
If we’re going to maintain our open and honest relationship here, I have to confess that I’m more a Hammer afficianado than an outright fan. Even during their heyday in the mid- to late-‘60s, their budgets were minimal and it showed all over the screen. My favorite of their dubious trademarks included towns located on some strange time-split where it was often and simultaneously daylight on one side and misty night on the other. But where they lacked in money their movies made up for in atmosphere and a sense of otherworldliness. More importantly, they employed a pair of actors who lent gravitas to the proceedings: Peter Cushing and / or Christopher Lee. As long as one or the other appeared in the film, you were guaranteed some level of enjoyment.
For me, Hammer movies seemed to follow a standard beat sheet: Intriguing opening, usually bloody; then came the long middle part where carbon-copy young lovers, usually star-crossed, are introduced, their family feuds established, and perhaps hidden amongst all of this you’ll get a fun set-piece involving fangs or monsters but always cleavage. Finally, an exciting climax and a bloody ending. Since Hammer was competing with larger companies they continually pushed their “blood ‘n boobs” formula as hard as they could against the membrane of censorship also known as the British Board of Film Classification. Long before the board caved to pressure from self-appointed Minister of Decency, Mary Whitehouse, the BBFC during the Hammer years were actually pretty progressive, as far as censoring outfits go. This is largely due to the presence of Secretary of the Board, John Trevelyan, who saw his role in and of the board as men who are “paid to have dirty minds”. From 1958–1971, Trevelyan attempted to work with filmmakers and explain what cuts had to be made prior to a film’s release.
Of course, that’s his point of view. Some filmmakers, naturally, felt that he was the ultimate enemy. Roy Ward Baker, who directed The Vampire Lovers and Scars of Dracula for Hammer, notoriously called Trevelyan a “sinister mean hypocrite”, who played favorites with those he felt were in the “art house crowd” as opposed to commercial film directors. Acording to Baker and echoed by others, Trevelyan “kissed ass” with the bigger names in British Cinema. This relationship was sorely tested by Ken Russell and his still-controversial masterpiece, The Devils. While the two men warred over a sequence dubbed “the Rape of Christ” (a ten-minute scene that has only recently been restored to prints of the movie), John Hough took advantage of the distraction as he readied Twins of Evil for screens.
Twins of Evil is the third film of the so-called “Karnstein Trilogy”—the previous being The Vampire Lovers with Ingrid Pitt and its follow up Lust for a Vampire—all based on J. Sheridan LeFanu’s ode to the sapphic vampiric, Carmilla. Adapted by future rabble-rouser and trade unionist, Tudor Gates, the “Karnstein Trilogy” are perceived by some to be the last “great” films of the Hammer era, before their slide into utter poverty, and are notable for daring depictions of lesbianism, a theme that had gotten ten minutes chopped from “art house” film, The Killing of Sister George, in 1968.
As a trilogy, the “Karnstein” storyline doesn’t really work, having no real continuity to speak of, except for the name of the evil family and their matron, Mircalla (aka Carmilla). The first film of the series, The Vampire Lovers, set film-goers all a-twitter with its boundary-leaping scenes of blood and nudity and girl-vampire on girl-vampire action. The next two installments were toned down for British sensibilities.
While tamer than its predecessors, Hough’s Twins of Evil exploits some of this newfound exploitative freedom by casting Playboy’s first twin playmates, Mary and Madeleine Collinson, as the titular characters (no puns, please, we’re British). Maria and Frieda Gellhorn arrive in Karnstein from Venice, two years after their parents died. They show up at their Aunt Katy’s house in green, instead of the customary black-for-the-rest-of-your-lives. This enrages puritanical Uncle Gustav Weill (Cushing). “What kind of plumage is this? Birds of paradise?” But don’t be too hard on Uncle Gustav, he and The Brotherhood have been busy burning witches all night, doing God’s work. And by “witches”, these Bible-weilding psychopaths mean “unmarried women”, “women walking alone on a road”, “old crones”, anyone who has ever thought about having sex—you know, witches. In fact, the title sequence portrays one of these boys-being-boys bonfires after dragging a teenage girl forcibly from her home, lashing her cruxifix-style to a tree and then setting her on fire. And she screams and screams as the “devils” flee from her “purified” body. In the back, Pat Buchannan nods approvingly.
Within seconds of arriving, the more-willful Frieda is ready to skip town as soon as she can find someone appropriately handsome and dangerous. One of Gustav’s primary adversaries is Count Karnstein himself (played by Damian Thomas, best-known as the baboon prince Kassim in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger), a decadent lover, vague ruler and admitted Satanist who takes great delight in humiliating Gustav and his puritanical ways. Which, this early in the film, is a point in his favor since thus far Gustav has failed to win the hearts of the minds of the viewer.
But then we are whisked away to Castle Karnstein where the Count is being bored out of his mind during an actual Satanic pageant. Once he angrily dismisses the players, he finishes the sacred “stab the naked girl” ritual himself, evokes Satan but winds up with Mircalla instead. She makes him into a vampire (in a nifty shot in which she stands behind Karnstein but he alone is reflected in the mirror, and he watches himself fade away as he turns fangy).
Before long, Karnstein is out to find something of Gustav’s to corrupt and sets his sights on Frieda. Frieda is loved and admired by schoolmaster Anton (David Warbeck of Fulci’s The Beyond)—literally, he can only see her, the rest is vaseline on the lens—when he really should be attracted to the more-demure Maria because… well, hell, she looks just like Frieda but she isn’t a bitch. Besides, as everyone—everyone—points out, the two sisters simply cannot be told apart. Frieda exploits this by sneaking about at night and making Maria pretend to be her, so that Maria gets beaten twice (it’s implied by not only Gustav but every patriarchal figure they’ve ever encountered). Strangely, Maria can sense when Frieda is hurt, but either Frieda can’t feel Maria or just doesn’t give a damn.
As typical of Hammer, no one heeds the vampire warnings (even though, apparently, there’s already one running around long before the Count is turned during sex with his dead relative), more busty girls are either bitten or are flame-broiled by Gustav, and Frieda tramps around with Karnstein until she, too, is a mistress of the night. Her first task is to bite into the plump breast of Luan Peters (aka singer Karol Keyes) before the camera quickly cuts to anything else lest Trevelan wield his scissors.
If you’ve seen a Hammer film—any of them—you know what’s going to happen. But Hough and Gates pull some nifty turns along the way. When Gustav catches neice Frieda feasting on one of the Brotherhood, he has her locked up so that he can make sure the rest of the family is safe, planning on burning her later. Sorry, purifying her later. But Karnstein manages to switch Maria for Frieda and soon it’s the nice slutty twin that’s heading to the stake and Hough plays this sequence to the hilt of suspense. 
The second twist is far more subtle and involves Gustav’s character, which more than proves Cushing’s a master thespian. After he almost turns the incorrect neice into jerk chicken, Gustav’s faith in his own crusade gets shattered. This is never discussed openly, but you can watch it work on Cushing’s face. Used to the seat of power, when Anton presents Maria with a crucifix and she kisses—rather than sizzling beneath it like Fried did—Gustav is visibly shaken. While he never says it, it’s clear he’s wondering how many other innocent women have been put to death under his pious wrath. We see a glimpse of his regret just as he’s about to put the torch to Maria, refusing to pass it to his second in command—this isn’t some random wench to be roasted for fun and, you know, “God’s will”; this is his neice, who he swore to protect. The realization that he could very well have killed his own flesh and blood in the same manner as he had “purified” so many others chills him.
After this sequence, Gustav still leads the Brotherhood but defers to Anton. “You’re sure a stake to the heart will release [Frieda]? That her pure spirit will be saved?” For the first time in the film, we see all his noxious, prideful bull-puckey summed up in a question. Maybe the others in The Brotherhood were just out for a rolicking witch-burning, but Gustav honestly—honestly—believed he was saving the innocent souls of the wicked. Without the subtlety of Cushing’s performance revealing the man beneath the zealot, Gustav could have remained a villainous figure for the rest of the picture.
While Count Karnstein is really the villain of the piece—with his fangs, his coiffure and cape—but more than anything, he’s just kind of a dick. He spends the climax in a vault, shoving out or dragging in one sister after another and locking the door again, taking few steps to take the upper hand. Gustav, for all his evangelical lunacy, was a man of action and principals. Yes, he shared Karnstein’s arrogance, but he wasn’t out burning witches every night because he was bored.
It’s this last-act transformation that allows Twins of Evil to rise above its formula. It’s not the first time Cushing has helped this elevation; each of his turns as Baron Frankeinstein in the Hammer series shows a different man beneath the madness. But beyond the sex, blood, atmosphere and pretty photography, Twins of Evil gives the viewer something to think about, namely: think long and hard before you’re convinced of your own righteous. 

Friday, November 9, 2012

FEDORA (1978)

Before we begin, I have two caveats: First, I will ruin both the ending and the beginning of this movie. Second, this is less an essay than it is an apology, but more on that later. 

Now then:
Fedora opens with the titular character, a one-time movie star with a literally ageless beauty (played by Swiss actress Marthe Keller), hurls herself in front of a moving train, ending her life and her legacy. (That she does this after having fallen in love with Michael York, playing himself, is revealed later and should come to no great surprise to anyone, really.) Her funeral is an event unto itself and chief among the mourners is her once-upon-a-time lover and soon-to-be-has-been producer, Barry “Dutch” Detweiler (William Holden). Just two weeks before her suicide, Dutch had visited her in the hopes of convincing Fedora to return to the screen as a new Anna Karenina.
Not only does she refuse the role, but she tells him a strange tale that she’s being held captive in a private Villa on an island near Corfu, Greece. Her gaolers included her shady chauffeur Kritos, her shadier and jumpier servant Miss Balfour, her personal physician and possible plastic surgeon, the mysterious (and shady but less-jumpy) Dr. Vando and, last but not least, the extremely old Countess Sobryanski. When Dutch tries to help Fedora escape, Kristos clonks him unconscious, in which state he remains for over a week. By the time he recovers, Fedora has killed herself.
Dutch flashes back to the time when he first met the beautiful and (supposedly) talented Fedora, when they were both young, when he was an up-and-comer and she was an already-there. In the form of Stephen Collins (an almost-acceptable choice for a younger Holden), they begin their brief and torrid affair. As Dutch’s career ramps up, Fedora disappears for a spell, then reappears years later without having aged a day. Her only affectation seems to be for shoulder-length gloves, which she wears everywhere. It’s even in her contract that she be permitted the accessories on film, regardless of the role or the temperature.
Fedora resumes her stardom with nary a hitch. But she starts to get weird after meeting and falling for Michael York. Prior to their first scene together in a new film, he confesses that he was so taken with her as a child that he wet himself in the theater. And if that isn’t a turn-on, you tell me what is.
Thus, the film drags itself along like a man dying of a gunshot wound. Constantly, we’re reminded of Fedora’s stature, her beauty and her second-to-none talent. That we’re shown little of Fedora’s acting seems to be neither here nor there, and in the presence of the actors around her—Holden, Henry Fonda in a cameo, Jose Ferrer (constantly looking for an escape hatch as Dr. Vando)—Ms. Keller does not hold her own. (Truthfully, she is less-wooden than York, but what English writing desk isn’t?) 
At the same time, we’re also constantly reminded of what a sleazy, degrading, sweatshop of a business that is show. Hollywood, as described by Dutch and portrayed by its citizens, is the literal polished dog-dropping of the world. Beneath all the marble and champagne and chandeliers is the churning stuff Hell wishes it were made of. And the older Dutch gets, contrasted with the still-youthful Fedora, his own star begins to fade, then dim, then get lost under a couch. This Anna Karenina deal is his last shot at staying relevant in the world obsessed with youth.
And when Fedora takes her own life, something snaps within him. In Fedora he saw not only her youth but his own as well. She was a perfect thing and obviously the fame and her keepers had poisoned her mind.
Now here’s that spoiler I warned you about: when Dutch confronts the Countess at Fedora’s funeral and accuses her and her accomplices of this complicitness and murder-accessory, the truth is revealed: Countess Sobryanski is actually Fedora. The dead girl was her daughter, Antonia. It seems that one too many “treatments” from Dr. Vando disfigured the star and she forced Antonia to take up the role, playing Fedora in public. Therefore the gloves, for only her hands would give away her real age. When Antonia wanted to run away with York, her madness was finally revealed… uh, the jig was up, so to speak, so the Countess, Kristos, Miss Balfour, Vando (the Professor, Mary-Ann…) kept her drugged and secluded until Vando could come up with a cure for York-love. As a way of proof, the Countess offers Dutch the contents of Antonia’s room, in which are kept drawers full of gloves, and diaries filled with the sentence “My name is Fedora.”
Dutch then sees that Hollywood has no incorruptible corner, that innocence is its eternal meal, and it will never be cheated of its hunger for youth.
Billy Wilder was at the top of the food chain by the time he made the daring, The Apartment in 1960. After that, his career started on a more downward spiral. It had a brief recovery for 1966’s The Fortune Cookie, which netted Walter Matthau an Academy Award, Wilder unfortunately followed it with The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, which was brutalized in post by the studio and has never been fully restored. Never a big fan of the business in which he worked, descended even further into bitterness and anger—the bitching in Fedora makes Sunset Boulevard seem like a dirty fork in comparison.
Fedora was Wilder’s penultimate film and it seethes and gnashes against Hollywood. Based on a novella by actor-turned-novelist Tom Tryon (wrote The Other, starred in I Married a Monster From Outer Space), Wilder had trouble securing financing for the film. Hollywood suits claimed that the failure of recent “Hollywood movies” W.C. Fields and Me, Gable and Lombard, etc., made Fedora automatically uncommercial. Wilder showed them! He found some wealthy Germans and shot in and around Europe. Like Dutch, he spent a good deal of time trying to Woo Marlene Dietrich for the title role, but the actress hated the book, the script and allegedly Wilder’s tie. (I may have made that last part up.) The resulting film is a slog and has little of Wilder’s twinkle, his grin in the face of doom. Holden was often a screen surrogate for Wilder but there’s little satire in the frustration here. It shows in the faces of the actors, especially Ferrer and especially Holden (who would be in 1981 (after completing a slightly more-Wilderish Hollywood movie, Blake Edwards’ S.O.B.), of a headwound sustained by a drunken trip into a nightstand, and his body wouldn’t be discovered for four days). Holden looks tired and in some scenes he is clearly inebriated. Whatever it took to get through his director’s painful personal struggle.
The film was a commercial failure—it kept audiences laughing, but in all the wrong places. While some critics were kind to it, for the most part it was reviled in the press. It was the first movie Wilder had made in four years (following the most bitter adaptation of The Front Page) and he wouldn’t make another one until Buddy, Buddy in 1981. Following this film’s failure he ostensibly retired from the business he so loathed and spent his twilight years cultivating a world-reknowned art collection. To his credit, he never slapped on a pair of shoulder-length gloves to hide his age.
Now for the apology: since we first met, my wife Amy talked about this “gloves” movie she saw on TV as a kid. We consulted other film scholars, including my father and even Josh Becker (who’s seen, like, everything), but nobody could recall seeing a movie “where the daughter of this old actress wears long gloves so no one would know she was younger than she could have been. And she had notebooks filled with ‘My name is Fiona, or Folana’, something like that”. Even the ever-reliable internet offered no help. The closest we thought we’d come was an episode of either The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits (yeah, my memory ain’t so good either). After a while, it became a family joke at Amy’s expense. Anytime anyone was at a loss for a movie title, someone would chime in, “Are there gloves in it?” And we talk about movies a lot in the Watt household, so we all decided that, obviously, Amy was nuts. “No,” she’d say, “I saw it with a babysitter.”
“Did this baby sitter give you little activites like licking stamps or eating special brownies?”
Which would usually result with me suffering from a throat full of teeth.
And as oh-so-smart as we all are, peerless in our movie knowledge, I found Fedora by accident. I was on a Wilder kick while researching him for a book and tried to run down all of his unreleased stuff by, uh, grey-area means. I’d never even heard of Fedora at the time I downloaded—er, procured it. So when I popped it in, not only was Amy vindicated, but I realized that I’d seen it as well, as a kid around her age and probably on the same TV station. I instantly recognized the scene where the young Collins met a topless Keller swimming in a marble pool. The scene caught my eyes at such a young age for two reasons: 1) I had been a devotee of Collins’ short-lived adventure series Tales of the Gold Monkey (long before he got all Jesus-y on us), and 2), dude, there were boobs on regular TV! HBO was not unknown to us in 1982, so people my age knew what boobs looked like, but here they were right after a commercial! Yeah, they were distorted by the water but, still. I was lucky my grandmother hadn’t made me turn it off.
So after eighteen years of being together, my doubts of my wife’s sanity were washed away, along with a good dose of crow. (Sorry, sweetie!) When I excitedly called my father about this fact his response was underwhelming. “Oh, okay, sure. I think I saw that when it came out. Awful movie, isn’t it?”
Yes it is, dad. Yes it is. (See for yourself and watch the whole thing HERE.)
But like the most famous line from one of Wilder’s best movies goes: “Nobody’s perfect.”

  Image courtesy of Billy Wilder Blogspot

Thursday, November 1, 2012

THE PYX (1973)

Canadian Det. Sgt. Jim Henderson (Christopher Plummer) is called to the scene of a death that could have been suicide or murder, and he’s leaning towards the latter. The body of a prostitute was found on the ground outside a tenement building, in one hand a necklace with an upside-down crucifix, in the other, a small round metal container on a chain. Henderson quickly learns that the woman’s name was Elizabeth Lucy (Karen Black), that she was a high-priced call girl working exclusively for a Montreal madam and that she had a relatively severe heroin addiction. Following his leads, Henderson’s suspects start turning up dead as well, murdered in perfunctory, if gruesome, fashion.
Parallel to Henderson’s investigation, we witness the last days of Elizabeth Lucy’s life. After an appointment with a regular John, she helps a younger and similarly-addicted hooker escape the life to a Catholic rehab clinic. Her madame, Meg, rewards her big-money score with a fix, then tells her about an arrangement with a real high-roller who’d asked for Elizabeth personally. She meets the reptilian Keerson (played by Jean-Louis Roux, actor, playwright, staunch anti-separatist senator and, according to Wikipedia, “briefly the 26th Lieutenant Governor of Quebec, Canada” ) on his private yacht, driven there by his personal driver. Keerson tells her to strip and then demands that she tell him personal facts about herself, her life and her background, leaving her more naked than she’s ever been.
Clues lead Henderson deeper into previously-unknown territory. The metal container, he learns, is a “pyx”, a lunette used by Catholic priests to transport a consecrated host to someone sick, in-firm or otherwise unable to physically make it to receive communion. Combined with the inverse crucifix, Henderson uncovers a Satanic cult, with Elizabeth right in the middle of an important ritual—one that may or may not have succeeded, depending on how Miss Lucy died. 
This is a pyx.
Based on the novel by Canadian author, John Buell, and directed by casual Star Trek director Harvey Hart, The Pyx is primarily a straightforward police procedural, naturalistic in the pattern of Serpico or The French Connection. The viewer is never an active participant in the investigation, always held back as if by some line of invisible police tape. We watch Henderson interact with his partner, Det. Paquette (Donald Pilon); we see him violently interrogate a frustrated suspect, but we’re not part of the mystery.
Conversely, we’re much more involved with Elizabeth’s story, drawn into her life with intimate close-ups, put at a distance only when Elizabeth closes off to the people around her—particularly when dealing with Meg—or when she’s shooting up. In these moments in particular, the direction is to make us feel like intruders.
The biggest problem with The Pyx as a film is with its structure. It isn’t readily apparent that the parallel storylines are subsequent, that we’re witnessing Elizabeth in a previous time, even though we’ve seen her lying dead beneath the opening credits. There are no visual or even textual indicators that we’re in the past when Elizabeth is on screen. When the body is identified as “Elizabeth Lucy”, then we’re introduced to the woman alive, then told of another hooker who has disappeared, at least I was duped into thinking that perhaps this was a matter of mistaken identity. The missing hooker was mis-identified as Elizabeth, her storyline was happening concurrently with Hendersons and at some point the two would come together. There’s a definite disconnect once the realization of time-shifting hits and it takes a while to get back onto track.
   Whether or not this was intentional on the part of the filmmakers is open to debate, of course. For my part, I had to stop after Keerson’s interrogation of Elizabeth and restart the movie to see where or if I’d missed something. It’s a definite misdirection and since the movie spent many years in the public domain (I first found it as part of a multi-disk horror collection), I started to wonder if this print was missing footage, or if this was a different edit entirely. A quick glance at a second “official” DVD told me otherwise; this was apparently the intended edit.
Strangely, the title character, the Pyx itself, barely figures at all in the movie. Little attention is drawn to it in way of close-ups; it is explained in almost off-hand dialogue (delivered by Pilon via clumsy American dubbing), and its signature scene, featured so prominent in the film’s trailers, is nothing more than a quick cutaway during the climax.
If the above weren’t enough to give one pause, there’s also the matter of Karen Black’s inconsistent performance, which is predominantly flat when she’s attempting to appear aloof and soul-dead. It’s difficult to tell when she’s supposed to be smacked-out and when she’s just shut off from Meg or another john. She only shines during her first scene with Keerson, and it really is a powerful sequence which left me feeling as emotional exposed as she was. On either side of this scene, however, it’s hard to generate any sympathy or concern for Elizabeth. She’s just not that interesting. (And speaking as one who could never get past Black’s wandering eye, which I’ve always found distracting—my problem, not her’s—Black never seems present in the film, as if she’s being directed by two conflicting points of view, but not in service of the character.) 
Christopher Plummer is Christopher Plummer. If you liked him in everything else he’s ever been in, you’ll like him in this. As Henderson he’s alternately determined or blandly appealing. The scenes were he attempts to be a tough guy fall flat. Pilon, for what little he has to do, is far more intimidating, possibly because his character is in service of the story and, as a result, a cypher.
As stated, there are multiple prints of The Pyx floating around, some under the title The Hooker Cult Murders and in various degrees of watchability. It’s actually pretty easy to luck out and land a widescreen copy on one of the numerous portmanteau collections, but there are also some dreadful full-screen copies as well, with no panning-and-scanning to speak of, so beware of versions focusing on tables with knees at either side. It’s an unusual movie and, at risk of being racist, a very Canadian thriller as well: low-key and lacking urgency, but getting the job done in the end.