Film4 FrightFest 2010: Inventive Killers and Sinister Dreamers

F

Film4 FrightFest

26-30 August 2010, Empire, London

FrightFest website

This year, Film4 FrightFest presented one of its most ambitious, diverse and satisfying programmes yet. The festival cast its net wide, pulling in not just monsters, killers, zombies and hoodie tormentors, but also hippies, dreamers and misfits, exploring horror and fantastic cinema in the largest sense possible, and it was all the better for it.

Sadly, FrightFest was forced to pull A Serbian Film out of the programme after the BBFC imposed 49 cuts. The FrightFest organisers said, as their reason for the cancellation, that ‘a film of this nature should be shown in its entirety’ and we entirely agree with them: the extreme imagery of the film is meant to make a political point about Serbia and any cuts would alter its effect and meaning. Of course, the short-sightedness of British censorship is notorious and long-standing, as we were reminded by a timely screening of a documentary on the ‘video nasties’, which provided a wider context for the BBFC’s latest misguided decision.

Elsewhere there was much to enjoy. Tobe Hooper was in attendance to introduce his rarely seen 1969 first feature Eggshells, a wonderfully trippy, loose document of the period and a reminder of the influence of experimental cinema on 60s and 70s horror film. Other highlights included Mexican cannibal tale We Are What We Are, harsh and tender murder story Red White and Blue, giallo reverie Amer and brutal Hong Kong property-slasher Dream Home. Below we review some of the high and low points of the festival in more detail.

Hatchet II

I nearly gave Hatchet II a miss because of the paucity of ideas in the first instalment. Inexplicably popular, Hatchet is an unimaginative re-tread of 1980s horror films featuring a handful of stars from the genre – Robert Englund (A Nightmare on Elm Street 1-8), Tony Todd (Candyman 1-3)and Kane Hodder (Friday the 13th parts 7-9). It follows the misadventures of a boatload of tourists who visit the haunted house of a deformed boy presumed dead, only to be dispatched one by one.

In his introduction to the sequel, which premiered as the opening film of FrightFest 2010, director Adam Green assured the audience that it was much better than the original and I’m happy to report he got the formula right this time. Hatchet II is also a love letter to 80s horror, and Todd and Kane return, joined by ‘final girl’ Danielle Harris (Halloween 1-2 and 4-5) and a less annoying cast of victims who get variously disembowelled, hacked in half and turned into paté. Needless to say, this isn’t a film for the squeamish, but the deaths are so over the top, they are clearly intended as a parody of the genre.

The casual homophobia and risible, relentless titillation of the original Hatchet have been left behind and the enjoyment of the cast is obvious on screen. That said, having seen Green’s more laudable thrillers Frozen and Spiral, it is clear that the world doesn’t need a Hatchet 3. Alex Fitch

Dream Home

Mixing spectacular violence and a concern with the harsh realities of the Hong Kong property market, Dream Home is difficult to categorise and full of surprises. Cheng Li-sheung is a young woman working in a tedious sales job at a bank. Obsessed with buying a flat with a sea view, a much sought after and astronomically-priced commodity in Hong Kong, she will stop at nothing to achieve her dream.

Dream Home works well as a slasher, featuring some very brutal and sadistically inventive dispatch methods, but also offers a provocative take on its central theme. The violence Li-sheung inflicts on her property rivals and potential neighbours, although extreme, does not feel entirely gratuitous: it appears to be an angry reaction against the greed and corruption from both the state and criminals that have priced ordinary people out of the property market. But Li-sheung herself is not quite the people’s avenger, and her ruthlessness ensures the film never falls into any facile sentimental explanations for her actions. Virginie Sélavy

Cherry Tree Lane

Cherry Tree Lane, the latest from London to Brighton and The Cottage writer/director Paul Andrew Williams, is a home invasion movie in which a middle-class couple are brutalised by a gang of hoodies lying in wait to ‘fuck up’ their son when he gets home from football practice. You can tell Williams wants Cherry Tree Lane to work on the associative level, tapping into the rich vein of suburban paranoia as mined by Lynch, the Coens and Haneke before him. The trouble is, it just doesn’t.

The naturalistic performances from the really quite excellent young cast, coupled with their characters’ prosaic reason for being there in the first place – the son is a snitch – marks them as individuals rather than representative types. With the exception of the opening shot of the house, all shots are internal. The only glimpse at a context for the film comes from TV news reports on the anniversary of the July 7 London bombings, which might suggest a general climate of fear in the UK. However, under such isolated scrutiny, terrorist to hoodie is too much of an imaginative leap to make.

So, in this instance the couple’s suburban paranoia is justified, but why are the hoodies like this? Is this just a contemporary problem, or is there something deeper about human nature at work here? Williams does not give the audience enough elements with which to speculate. Alex Pashby

Cherry Tree Lane is released in the UK on 3 September.

We Are What We Are

This Mexican cannibal film was another FrightFest selection that was not easily pigeon-holed. Gritty, realistic and slow-paced, it had the feel of an art-house movie, but was punctuated by moments of startling, grisly brutality. When the father dies, the rest of the family has to figure out how to provide for themselves. As the eldest boy, Alfredo is expected to take on that role, although he does not feel up to it. Power shifts in the group as his sister Sabina, clearly the brains of the family, makes plans, their violent brother Julian mostly messes them up, and their formidable mother struggles to assert her authority. Despite a certain lack of direction, the film presented a disturbing study of family dynamics and a chilling portrayal of those on the poorest margins of Mexican society, literally forced to eat one another. Virginie Sélavy

We Are What We Are is released in the UK on 12 November.

Eggshells

An experimental film with a loose plot based around the experiences of four teenage friends who share a suburban house, this is more of a ‘tone poem’ or artist’s film than an ur-slasher movie. Combining moments of comedy, science fiction, surrealism and kitchen sink drama, this is a sweet-natured portrait of the end of the ‘summer of love’ as the kids hang out together, go for walks in the park, take communal baths and throw parties.

The closest we get to horror are scenes set in a supposedly haunted basement where one of the characters has encounters with a pink light that resembles HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey – which must have influenced the visual light effects in the more hallucinogenic scenes. Elsewhere, scenes where a character has a date in the park surrounded by balloons, or another attacks the group’s bubble car before setting fire to it and throwing all of the clothes he’s wearing into the conflagration, recall The Monkees as much as the darker elements of the end of the 1960s. The final scene sees the cast sucked into a prop from a science-fiction B-movie before being extruded as sludge and smoke, which, although it sounds like horror, is less horrific than many scenes from Monty Python.

Padded out by scenes of presumably improvised inane dialogue recorded at such a high level the speech is distorted into incomprehension, the film is occasionally unintelligible, soporific and obtuse, but includes enough visually stunning and memorable scenes to make it worth a watch. Comparable to Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead and John Carpenter’s Dark Star, this is an intriguing experience that suggests that outside of the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Hooper never reached his full potential as a director (or was allowed to, as there is a persistent myth that Steven Spielberg directed half of Poltergeist). Alex Fitch

F.

F. is a very enjoyable and well-made film clearly modelled on John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 but takes place not in a near-empty police station, but after hours in the empty corridors and classrooms of a contemporary British college. After being attacked in his classroom and finding no support among his colleagues, English teacher Robert Anderson (David Schofield) turns to alcohol and eventual burn-out. One of his pupils is his daughter, with whom he has lost connection, and as he tries to repair this relationship while facing his other demons, he finds himself confronted by a relentless attack on the school by a group of faceless thugs and bloodthirsty killers in the guise of those folk devils du jour, the hoodies.

The cast universally contribute to the film’s success but David Schofield is especially effective and notable for his role as Anderson. While steeped in conventions and plotlines with which we are all too familiar, F. is nevertheless an interesting, clever and very watchable low-budget film, which has both relevance and panache. Definitely director Johannes Roberts’s best work to date. James B Evans

F. is released in the UK on 17 September.

Bedevilled

A beautiful but unkind young professional from Seoul goes back to the remote island where she grew up for a break. There she is reunited with her sweet-natured childhood friend Bok-nam, married to a violent man and badly mistreated by his family. Bok-nam bears the beatings and indignities she is subjected to for the sake of her daughter, but one day, a tragic event tips her over the edge and she turns from subservient wife into violent avenger.

This South Korean film felt like a folk or fairy tale. The story had a compelling quality but the two-dimensional characters were painted with broad strokes and the film was heavy-handed in its denunciation of the oppression of women in Korean society. It was very slow-paced for the most part, making the sudden change of tone, sadistic killings and final bloodbath all the more shocking. Virginie Sélavy

After.Life

The plot of After.Life oscillates between the possibilities that Christina Ricci’s character is dead and can only be seen by a creepy funeral director played by Liam Neeson, or he’s a serial killer who has kidnapped her and is trying to convince her she’s that way. This is a relatively rare subject for cinema, as few films cover the existential experience of the recently departed – outside of the occasional zombie movie shot from the point of view of the undead, or comedies featuring ghosts (Ghost, Beetlejuice, Casper). But this isn’t new ground for TV – Dead like Me, Six Feet Under and Being Human have all had lead or reoccurring characters that are ghosts – so this film will feel familiar to fans of telefantasy – and actually might have worked better as an episode of an anthology show like The Twilight Zone.

The film toys with the necrophiliac possibilities of the plot, but is generally more interested in displaying Ricci’s naked flesh as much as possible than in considering the psychological implications of the various traumas experienced by the cast on screen. Running for nearly an hour and three-quarters, the movie outstays its welcome by at least 20 minutes, but convincing performances by everyone involved keeps the atmosphere reasonably unnerving. Compared to some of the more hysterically scary movies shown at Frightfest, it was refreshing to see something a little more low-key. Alex Fitch

After.Life is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK on 6 September by Anchor Bay.

The Dead

A zombie movie set in Africa was a great idea on paper, but The Dead failed miserably to do anything interesting with it. As a horror film, it was actually boring and as slow and directionless as the shuffling undead hordes. The two central characters fighting the zombies, although both military men, were so inept they might as well have been already brain-dead. Watching Africans killing black zombies with machetes inevitably brought to mind the Rwandan genocide, but the film did absolutely nothing with this. In fact, there was something slightly patronising and Western about the film’s approach to Africa, from stereotypical details such as a preposterous witch doctor to the fact that the main character was a white American. The end was not only a cop-out but it was also nauseatingly sentimental. Virginie Sélavy

Isle of Dogs

American director Tammi Sutton (Killjoy 2, Welcome to Graveland) elected to come to the UK to shoot this screenplay penned by Sean Hogan (Little Deaths, The Devil’s Business) and therein lies the first problem with the film – what should have been at times a subtle, British Ortonesque black humour at work in the script becomes in this director’s hands obvious, over-the-top gags, which muddy the tone of the film. What she evidently thought were clever post-modern references recede into triteness and near-camp.

The film concerns itself with Darius (Andrew Howard), a criminal gang boss and psychotic bastard who is married to a Russian former prostitute, Nadia (Barbara Nedeljakova). While heaping physical and verbal abuse upon her, he comes to learn that she has been sleeping with Riley (Edward Hogg) and determines to seek revenge. He offers Riley one way out – kill Nadia or be killed. Thus commences the orgy of killing that will occur during the evening.
This is a story about the lengths to which humans will go to survive and contains some neat plot twists and sharp dialogue – that is when the dialogue can be discerned – which brings me to the second and biggest problem with this film. Someone in post-production clearly went mad with the audio levels. The cacophony of sounds that bludgeon the viewer – and oftentimes the script – into aural submission serve only to undermine specificities of dialogue and mood. This bombastic and unrelenting John Zorn-like score is really quite unbearable as well as irritating. When the director revealed that it was a showcase for the music of her boyfriend it became clear: Isle of Dogs served partly as a lengthy horror pop-promo for him. A shame because as mentioned, there is a much subtler film here waiting to get out from underneath the wall of sound. James B Evans

Red White and Blue

Erica likes to fuck and run. She doesn’t fall in love and she doesn’t ‘do friends’. But when the dangerous-looking, craggy-faced Nate moves into the same lodging house, some sort of relationship develops between them. Soon, however, the dysfunctional tenderness that unites them is disrupted by the re-appearance of a former lover of Erica’s, who brings bad news.

This was one of the best films in the festival, unpredictable and complex, sweet and gruesome, moving without being sentimental, with fully rounded characters who, although they were capable of the most terrible acts, were neither good nor evil, but always achingly human. Virginie Sélavy

The Last Exorcism

Coming from the production stable of Hostel director Eli Roth, the closing film of the festival, predictably, has its fair share of moments to be labelled ‘not for the squeamish’. Director Daniel Stamm similarly took the mockumentary format into macabre territory with his 2008 feature debut, A Necessary Death, which claimed to follow the final preparations of a suicidal volunteer. Under his hand, The Last Exorcism is clearly as comfortable manipulating its audience’s emotions as it is manipulating its own generic format. As with The Blair Witch Project, however, one can’t help but feel that, were you to strip away the shaky cam conceit of the frame, you’d be left with a remarkably formulaic script. That is not to say it is not grimly effective.

In the end, perhaps the most consistently disturbing feature of this film is not the apparently psychotic teenage girl, or the demon that is supposed to be possessing her, but her control-freak fundamentalist father. And it is in the light of this that The Last Exorcism is very much an Exorcist for our times. Robert Barry

The Last Exorcism is released in the UK on 3 September. Read the full review and listen to the Eli Roth podcast.

Chianti Cowboys and Spaghetti Westerns

Django

Format: DVD box-set

Release date: 21 June 2010

Distributor: Argent

Titles: Django, Keoma, A Bullet for the General

Directors Sergio Corbucci, Damiano Damiani, Enzo G. Castellari

Cast: Franco Nero, Gian Maria Volonte, Klaus Kinski, Lou Castel, Martine Beswick

Italy 1966-1976

300 mins

I prefer the concept of Chianti cowboys to the over-used term ‘Spaghetti Westerns’ as it maintains the spirit of the former while more accurately describing an enhanced viewer enjoyment of them: sit down with a decent glassful and savour the film. It works. And with all those violent scenes and mutilations there is the consoling thought in the back of the mind of how well Chianti and bloody human organs go together – at least according to that bon vivant, Dr Hannibal Lecter.

This month sees the new release by Argent (in this form anyway) of a box-set of Cult Spaghetti Westerns – God, how I loathe that appellation, ‘cult’; talk about capitalism’s ability to appropriate culture! – replete with interviews of Franco Nero, Enzo Castellari, Damiano Damiani and an introduction to each film by Alex Cox in what is described as ‘the style of his epoch-making Moviedrome BBC series’. The set includes Django (Sergio Corbucci, 1966), A Bullet for the General aka El chuncho, quien sabe? (Damiano Damiani, 1966) and Keoma aka Django Rides Again (Enzo G Castellari, 1976), and as such constitutes a collection of some of the high points that this very special and unique genre had to offer. Each is a great exemplar of a tradition of Italian filmmaking that held sway in the period of 1964-1976 (be warned, accounts vary). This re-invention of the Hollywood Western appeared during a time of genre exhaustion in both film centres: Hollywood was giving up on the Western genre in favour of adult-themed contemporary dramas, youth-orientated films, epic VistaVision-type productions, spy stories and fantastical fare in an attempt to lure the television audience back to cinemas. Meanwhile, Italian studios were looking to cater for an audience that was fed up with the pepla cycle of classical mythological motifs – sword and sandal epics to you and me – with which they had made great profits in the late 50s and early 60s.

From 1964 to 1976, Italian studios made hundreds of Westerns, often invoking franchise characters like Django, Sabata, Trinity and Ringo, though in the Wild West of Italian producing, many plot devices, characters, and storylines were cavalierly ‘borrowed’ and passed around from writer to writer and director to director. It has been speculated in various accounts that it was the condition of Italy itself in the 1970s – corruption, uncertainty, terrorism, political incompetence, Mafia control, dirty bankers, tampered juries and bribing of officialdom – that inspired these largely left-leaning directors and that drew disaffected, largely working-class Italian audiences to the cycle. There is some evidence of this social criticism to be gleaned in most of the ‘Spaghetti’ films where the stock characters of Hollywood Westerns such as the sheriff, the Indian, the banker and the wagon trains full of ‘civilised folk’ are played down in favour of the individualistic, lone anti-hero. An anti-bourgeois, free-spirited main character (another trope of 60s cinema) whose morality and behaviours are steeped in ambivalence and who usually finds himself, if not the good guy, then the least bad guy, in the face of incompetent sheriffs, corrupt businessmen and impotent authorities, including the Catholic church, which is often presented as just as corrupt and corrosive an influence on the fictional under-classes populating the films. Popular settings for many of the films are also redolent of 60s and 70s European socio-political upheavals: many are set during troubled times, the Civil War (or the reconstruction period that followed it), in decaying and run-down towns (not new frontier towns, which should look pristine) and during the Mexican Revolution (an ideological class war). One of the best made in this sub-genre of Mexican Revolution films – arguably one of the best of any of the Spaghetti Westerns – was Damiani’s El chuncho, quien sabe? which influenced Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 Mexican Revolution film The Wild Bunch, which in turn influenced many Italian directors’ efforts. Enzo Castellari, for one, acknowledges the debt to Peckinpah and points out actual homage sequences that show up in his film Keoma in the interview extra that comes with the DVD. Certainly, Castellari’s film surpasses Leone’s enervated 1971 attempt, A Fistful of Dynamite aka Duck, You Sucker.

Outside of neo-realist traditions and vérité styles, Italian audiences have always leaned to the operatic, the excessive, the theatrical, the transgressive, the comedic and the carnivalesque (commedia dell’ arte for instance) and especially the raw visuality of these in their popular culture, and this is perhaps due in no small part to the influence of the Church – itself anxiously concerned with many of those social expressions. Hence it was the Italian filmmakers Gualtiero Jacopetti and Paolo Cavara who cinematically travelled there and loosed upon the world the first mondo films, Mondo cane (1962), Mondo pazzo (1963) and Adios Africa (1966), which offered documentary and pseudo-documentary visions of weird and exotic sex, violence and bizarre rituals – the original shockumentaries. At the same time, a re-invigoration of the horror and thriller genre arose with the films of Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava in 1956 and 1960 respectively, which developed into a particularly Italian form, the giallo. The excessive threads of these three – pepla, mondo and giallo – can be seen to be stitched into the ‘Western all’ italianana’ – the Spaghetti Western. Saturated in blood, steeped in sado-masochistic overtones, crowded with ‘fallen women’, whores and Madonnas and chock-a-block full of ‘the old ultra-violence’, the films reinvented the Western genre – ‘violence vérité‘, as Damiani described them. They appeared at a time of history where drive-ins, youthful baby-boomer audiences, film societies, repertory houses – and most importantly, liberalisation of censorship standards – reigned supreme. Of course, by 1976, when Keoma was released, the cycle had rode the long, hard genre trail from innovation to the establishment of codes to the parody of these codes, finally resulting in the Trinity series – more spoofs than genuine, full-blooded genre pieces. As inevitably happens, the cycle had come full circle and in Keoma, the gunslinger returns to his home town to find that it is ruled by a gang of sadistic bullies. A reminder perhaps of Italy’s own troubled situation at this time, with organised crime and the rise in the drugs trade, political kidnappings, murder and the crises of government institutions. It also marked the beginning of privatised takeovers and the eventual monopoly of much media and film production by the Fininvest Group, run by one Silvio Berlusconi.

In Keoma, one of the last of the Spaghetti Westerns, this sense of the hero’s return is evident and signals a finality. ‘The world keeps going around and around. So you always end up in the same place,’ says Keoma. Franco Nero is starring again in a style of Western that he helped invent, and although Keoma does not feature a character named Django, it was re-titled Django Rides Again for markets outside of Italy, so inextricably linked was Nero to the role. And while his role in the film tries to shake off the character of Django that made him a star, and in spite of the fact that there had been dozens of other Django character rip-offs and actors in the role, he was after all the original, and in a sense the final one in this period. Corbucci has been oft quoted as saying that Ford had the Duke, Leone had Clint and that he had Nero – though the two later fell out. Nero only returned to the role once more in the 1987 film Django 2: il grande ritorno aka Django Strikes Again (directed by Nello Rossati and co-written by Corbucci) in the unlikely form of a monk whose daughter is kidnapped. Setting out to save her, he digs up his old Gatling gun, which is buried in a coffin under a headstone that reads ‘Django’. But perhaps it should have stayed buried – along with Rambo, Indiana and John McClane.

El chuncho, quien sabe? genuinely aspires to be a political Western, its most obvious credential being that it is based on a script adaptation by the Marxist author and polemicist Franco Solinas, who penned such ideologically-driven entertainments as The Battle of Algiers, State of Siege, Burn! and The Assassination of Trotsky. As Damiani puts it in the interview extra, interestingly disengaging himself from the genre: ‘the film is a tribute to Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata… I have always to remind critics that it is not a Western. Westerns happen north of the Rio Grande. South of the Rio Grande is Mexico, which has nothing to do with the American West. It is not a film about revolution either, I would say that it is a film about rebellion and revolution. It is a historical film because it depicts the upheaval in a South American country that is exploited by a selfish ruling class… The only thing it has in common with a Western movie is the horses.’

Damiani was not the only director who felt that there was some mileage in raising political consciousness via the Spaghetti Western. Sergio Sollima made two films in the genre, which were criticised as ‘disguised anarchist cine-texts’. In his book Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans From Karl May to Sergio Leone, Christopher Frayling notes that although the directors were utilising Hollywood techniques to tell their stories (a cause for complaint amongst leftists critics), ‘Pasolini certainly thought that A Bullet for the General represented an authentic form of political cinema (one that reached the displaced peasantry, perhaps) for it was as a result of this film that he agreed to appear (as a revolutionary priest, again with Lou Castel) in Carlo Lizzani’s Requiescant (1967), which concerned the struggle against foreign financiers who were propping up the counter-revolutionary federal government.’

The film title poses a question: Quien sabe? Who knows? And given the various twists in plot and especially in the characterisations, it is a good question. The main character, Chuncho Munos / El chuncho, played with great bravura by the talented Gian Maria Volonté (who had appeared in the Dollars films), starts the film as a half-hearted revolutionary bandito robbing trains and stealing weapons to sell them on to ‘General’ Elias, the leftist commander. During one of these raids, he takes an instant liking – that turns into an attraction (and a queer subtext as in many of Damiani films) – to a mysterious American gringo and interloper, Bill ‘Nino’ Tate, played by Lou Castel as the stereotypical outsider and immoral existential drifter character that re-surfaces in almost all Spaghetti Westerns. He has been paid by government officials to assassinate the ‘General’, for which purpose he carries a golden bullet. The box-set presents the film in its most complete version (114 mins), with all of its many plotlines and narrative developments restored after previous editing (butchering) jobs gave it a running time of only 77 mins in order to fit in a double bill. In its full telling it is quite an exhilarating journey – as well as a vast and spacious, visual and textual one – for both the audience and the characters. Damiani says: ‘The many shots of landscape and space contrasted with the deep feelings of the characters and the actors represent this will to live… an open outlook to things, not a narrow view… When dealing with characters who are larger than life and with wide landscapes and deep feelings, as well as the will to live, the result is a necessity for an open outlook to things – not a narrow view associated with more intimate films and inner psychological studies… Here the characters have moments which match the grandness of the landscape.’

It is El chuncho who travels furthest as he slowly comes to grip with his past, his present and his future. His future is as a true and dedicated revolutionary who finally realises the difference between random killing for personal gain and killing for higher political aims. Damiani again: ‘The psychological turning point is the sudden realisation by the main protagonist that he has fallen prey to greed instigated by a cunning man [the American gringo] whose main motivation is money. Suddenly the protagonist understands that these are the people to destroy: the people who take advantage of the suffering of the poor for money, these are to be eliminated… “Quien sabe?” means “who knows?” It is a title that reflects and sums up the main character who doesn’t know where he’s going, but little by little discovers his calling. I didn’t know – quien sabe? – what my life would be. Now I do, I have found out.’

Now, put the film on, pour a glass of Chianti and quien sabe?

James B Evans

Oedipus Wrecks: White Heat and Bloody Mama

White Heat

Title: White Heat

Format: DVD

Distributor: Warner Home Video

Director: Raoul Walsh

Writers: Ivan Goff, Ben Roberts, Virginia Kellogg

Cast: James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Edmond O’Brien, Margaret Wycherly

USA 1949

114 mins

Title: Bloody Mama

Format: DVD

Date: 29 June 2009

Distributor: Optimum

Director: Roger Corman

Writers: Don Peters, Robert Thorn

Cast: Shelley Winters, Don Stroud, Robert De Niro, Bruce Dern

USA 1970

86 mins

Got an itchy Oedipal rash? Whatever you do – don’t scratch it! It can only lead to murder and mayhem, crime and punishment. And that way, as we know, lies madness. At least, this is the fabula as it unfolds in several cinematic accounts. The volatile chemistry of excessive, unresolved mother love and poor (single mother/absent father) parenting skills can be explosive, and in the case of poor little Jarrett Cody in Raoul Walsh’s White Heat (1949), literally explosive: he ends his days at the centre of a massive explosion. ‘Made it Ma. Top of the world!’ he shouts as the giant gas tank where he makes his last stand ignites and blows him to Kingdom Come – where he will no doubt be able to enjoy sitting on Mama’s knee again.

Two differently nuanced – but none too subtle – accounts of mama love and its inevitable and inexorable pathway to criminality can be experienced in White Heat and Roger Corman’s 1970 Oedipal opus, Bloody Mama. Both stories place the source of the criminal sons’ behaviour clearly at the feet of the dominating mater.

This accounting of the environmental causes of crime – being ‘made bad’ – is one of several psychodynamic themes that dominate the criminal film genre. The criminologist Nicole Rafter has suggested in her book Shots in the Mirror: Crime Films and Society that movies on the causes of crime fall into three categories: the just mentioned ‘made bad’ environmental category, the ‘born bad’ biological category and the ‘twisted psyche’ abnormal psychology category, which although it is a stand-alone classification can overlap with either of the other two, as seen in both of the films under discussion.

Another common point between them is the source material on which they are loosely based: the criminal life of Ma Barker and her boys. Several film storylines emanate from real-life gangster stories, and the headlines made by the Barker gang caught the public imagination with its violence and hints of unhealthy family relations. Ma Barker was active in the gang with her son, Arthur ‘Doc’ Barker, his brother Fred and their friend Alvin Karpis. Ma and Fred Barker died together resisting arrest in January 1935, gunned down by the FBI. Arthur was shot dead a few years later trying to escape from Alcatraz. Famously, his last words are supposed to have been, ‘I’m shot to hell’, which echoes Cody’s last exit words. In his autobiography, James Cagney, who played Cody, comments: ‘The original script of White Heat was very formula… For some kind of variant, I said to the writers, “Let’s fashion this after Ma Barker and her boys, and make Cody a psychotic to account for his actions.”’ In the film, Cody is an epileptic, mother-obsessed criminal who, while married to a gorgeous moll, only has eyes (and ears) for ‘Ma’. He confides in her, plots with her, and always takes her advice over anyone else’s. She showers affection and approval upon him as he does upon her. There is no room in this relationship for any third parties and when his wife runs off with his first lieutenant Cody shrugs it off – he still has his mother.

His undoing, however, is brought about by finding a mother replacement – he loses Ma while serving his prison stretch – in the figure of Hank Fallon (Edmond O’Brien) who is an undercover cop assigned the task of buddying up to Cody and getting him to talk and incriminate himself. They share a cell, and while initially suspicious of Fallon, Cody comes to trust and then rely on him. Fallon saves him from another inmate’s murderous attack, then soothes and rubs his neck when he has an epileptic fit – having faked headaches as a child to gain the attention of his mother he eventually developed the condition. Later, Fallon helps him following his berserk dining hall fit triggered off when he hears of his mother’s death – his wife shot her in the back. When Jarrett makes his escape from prison he insists on taking Fallon along with him. Back in the gang he favours his now best and most trusted intimate, Fallon, with the exact same cut of the criminal takings as he used to give his beloved Ma. The proxy mother scenario is complete. It can be left to the present generation of Queer theorists to do with that text as they like.

The film adheres to the pre-war characterisation of a criminal’s over-indulgent mother (and lack of male authority figure: we are told that Jarrett’s father was put into an insane asylum) as Ma Jarrett pampers, indulges, nurses and soothes wild Cody. What is unusual in this account is the degree to which she encourages and aids her son in his criminal doings, in addition to counselling him in how to deal with ambitious and unruly underlings. This is no good boy gone bad who breaks a mother’s heart, this is a match made in Oedipal hell. Finally, bereft of Ma and betrayed by Fallon, the lone, crazed Cody is trapped in a chemical plant during his final heist. He ascends to the top of a gas tank, is shot by Fallon and finally pumps lead into the gas tank, which ignites it. He dies in a spectacular fireworks of an explosion that causes a massive mushroom cloud to appear, which, as many commentators have noted, looks like the aftermath of a nuclear bomb – a concern very much on American minds during the post-war years. With an emphasis on explicit and cold-blooded violence, extreme emotional displays, suggestive sexual scenes and Oedipal complexes played out, this is certainly a movie that shows how the Production Code of censorship was breaking down in the more world-weary post-war years.

By the time Roger Corman came to make his ‘Bonnie and Clyde meets the Manson family’ drive-in classic, Bloody Mama, in 1970, there was – in terms of freedom of expression – everything to play for. The strict Production Code of 1934 had been abandoned for a regulatory classification system in 1966 and movies – which had been denied ‘Freedom of Speech’ protection in a 1915 decision – were, in 1952, included under that constitutional safeguard. This paved the way for far more adult themes, topics, sexualities and addictions to be explored on the cinema screen. Corman took full advantage to probe the Oedipal psyche as could only be hinted at in the dark dreams of Jarrett Cody.

Corman took the story of Ma Barker and her sons and fashioned a twisted tale of familial relationships, desires and dysfunctions. Ma Barker and her boys inhabit a backwoods world of incest, homosexuality, drugs and murder – a pretty perfect drive-in movie concoction. Played with wild sensual abandon by the always reliably on-the-edge actress Shelley Winters, Kate ‘Ma’ Barker is a depraved, transgressive, neurotic and alluring harridan of near-grotesque proportions. The film opens with a barely pubescent Barker being raped by her father while her brothers hold her down. ‘Don’t know why you ain’t hospitable, Kate,’ the old man declares, ‘blood’s thicker than water’. We hear the ravished girl then vowing that one day she would have sons of her own to love and protect her. Flash forward to the present day – far-fetched and far from historical accuracy – and we see her giving baths to her grown-up sons, sharing beds with them, seducing her other son’s bi-sexual lover, making sensual overtures to another son’s girlfriend and finally trying to seduce a kidnap victim – an older, strong male type who threatens to challenge her matriarchal dominance over the boys. What a steamy Oedipal stew is on the boil here.

Naturally, all the misfits come to very bloody dead ends and what is so noticeably different from the conventions of pre-war gangster films is the emphatic shift away from ‘my mother never loved me’ as an explanation for the sons’ criminal behaviour to ‘my mother loved me too much’, which came to dominate contemporary discussions about juvenile delinquents and other moral trespassers. In both these films, these momma’s boys are either indulged, spoiled, molly-coddled (even aided and abetted in their crimes) and given too much infantile attention or, as in Bloody Mama, all of the above with sexual favours thrown in. As in many criminal films that attempt to ‘explain’ this aberrant behaviour, the subtleties of psychotherapeutic theory are abandoned wholesale and reduced to the one-size-fits-all primal scream, ‘Blame the Mother!’

Apparently, all that Jarrett Cody and the Barker boys needed was a good old-fashioned fatherly thrashing to sort that itchy rash out.

James B Evans

Buy White Heat [1949] from Amazon

Buy Bloody Mama [DVD] [1970] from Amazon

Toronto International Film Festival 2008

Birdsong

Toronto International Film Festival

4-13 September 2008

Website

Films followed by * are showing at the London Film Festival, 15-30 October 2008.

‘Returning to Toronto was like finding a Jaguar parked in front of a vicarage and the padre inside with a pitcher of vodka martinis reading Lolita.’ This quotation is from an article in Maclean’s magazine in 1959, and 49 years on, the vicarage is now a film festival, the padre a media publicist (some things never change), the martinis still flowing and Lolita has become flesh and hangs out at festival parties.

The 33rd Toronto International Film Festival held last month was a hectic, well-run film bonanza which was rather low on sparkling Hollywood fare – the lacklustre Appaloosa (dir. Ed Harris) was a sub-Fordian western that added nothing new to the genre and starred a miscast Renée Zellweger as ‘the widder’ woman’ and Jeremy Irons as a more camp than crook ‘baddie’; his American accent put me in mind of the one-octave-lower school of Yankee voice exemplified by Hugh Laurie in House. There was Spike Lee’s worthy, sometimes touching, but ultimately under-edited and slightly unfocused film, The Miracle of St Anna* along with the the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading and Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married.

More promising (and rewarding) though, was to push beyond the galas and premieres and dip into the plentiful screen space given over to other cultural players. Several programming strands – and a very well appointed and excellent army of press and publicists – provided plenty of scope for off-mainstream viewing like the Discovery programme, which highlighted ‘provocative feature films by new and emerging directors’. It offered two strong films, one a notable and clever first film from South Korean director Noh Young-seok with the irresistible title Daytime Drinking, the other a flawed but nonetheless very interesting film set in the days of Pinochet’s Chile, Tony Manero*, which was a second film by Pablo Larrain.

The Vanguard programme of ‘innovative filmmakers and bold films that challenge our social and cultural assumptions’ revealed its strongest works in Thomas Woschitz’s broad portmanteau Universalove, which had a significant soundtrack provided by Austrian indie band Naked Lunch, and the Filipino/French co-production Serbis (dir. Brillante Mendoza), an excellent story of a matriarchal family who own a run-down soft-core porno cinema ironically named ‘Family’, which is swarming with various misfits and characters on the societal fringe – a real discovery, this film. The Visions (‘Filmmakers who challenge our notions of mainstream cinema’), Contemporary World Cinema, Real to Reel, and Midnight Madness programmes were likewise repositories of promising and challenging films. I especially enjoyed the poetic and atmospheric black and white meditation, El Cant dels Ocells (Birdsong)* a second film from the Spanish director Albert Serra which had echoes of Tarkovsky’s work, the Cassavetes-like film of Mika Kaurismäki, Kolme viisasta miesta (Three Wise Men), and finally what was for me probably the most rewarding film of the festival, the small and wonderfully formed Goodbye Solo* (dir. Ramin Bahrani), a film set largely in a taxi cab and in which we are immersed in the character’s lives from the very outset. The film boasts a brilliant script, which the actors make seem improvised, and two fantastic performances by the leads, Red West (formerly of Elvis Presley’s Memphis Mafia) and Souleymane Sy Savane. Savane has a terrifically charismatic screen presence and easily embodies the goodness of his character Solo, in striking contrast to the darker demons and disillusionment internalised by West’s character, William. It offers an honest and accurate portrayal of the character’s stories and avoids the slick resolution that a Hollywood treatment would have required. The Real to Reel documentary programme likewise held many pleasant surprises; one notable film, which also caught my attention at the Brit Doc Festival earlier this year, was the Richard Parry film Blood Trail, which comes with the tagline ’13 Years, 3 Wars, 1 Photographer’ and follows the fortunes (and misfortunes) of war photographer Robert King. It is to these alternative strands that, I suspect, most readers of Electric Sheep would have found their cinematic radars pointed, and if there is any cultural justice in this world these festival gems will be picked up and given distribution and exhibition.

The festival was dominated by two themes this year: the much bandied about perception of a ‘New Realism’ in recent cinema (sounding very much, I recognise, like a themed issue of Granta magazine), and the triumph of screen veterans who we didn’t know we cared about in the first place, namely, Mickey Rourke and Jean-Claude Van Damme in The Wrestler and JCVD respectively. Electric Sheep bills itself as ‘a deviant view of cinema’; well, here’s one: Mickey Rourke is one of the greatest screen actors of his generation. OK, I admit to more than a bit of hyperbole there, but his performance in Aronofsky’s fine film (don’t look for the over-wrought significations that characterise the rest of the director’s work) is exquisite: it is well-paced, well-judged, well-balanced, incredibly nuanced, thoughtful, deeply committed – and I can hardly believe that I’m stating all this in print. But I am.

Of course, Rourke looks like hell – a combination of who knows what boxing blows, steroids, botox and surgery that makes him look like a walking, talking plasticination artwork by Prof Gunther von Hagens. But it’s one hell of a bravura performance that he creates and it could fit comfortably in a list of best-ever sporting performances, just narrowly eclipsed by Robert De Niro in Raging Bull. A bet: Oscar nomination forthcoming. Any takers? His performance notwithstanding though, the film does have flaws, with a storyline that entails the proverbial hooker with a heart of gold, the estranged daughter who all too quickly reconnects with the father figure and the near-obligatory contemporary text of masculinity in crisis.

Jean-Claude Van Damme in the Belgian/French/Luxembourgian film JCVD is also a bit of a revelation. Directed by Mabrouk El Mechri, the film is an action-comedy examination of the nature of fame – particularly Van Damme’s own – in a very surprising and highly intertextual film reminiscent of Being John Malkovich. In fact, intertextual and self-reflexive narratives as well as elliptical story lines were found in many of the films shown in the festival.

It would be remiss not to mention the many films – short, documentary and feature length – that were made in the host country and are screened annually at the festival. Canadian cinema has had a bumpy history: sometimes shining, more often good rather than great, and full of sub-Hollywood, sub-European cinematic compromises. Too often worthy and aspirant, it has produced few genuine masterpieces – among which I would cite Claude Jutra’s Mon Oncle Antoine, Denys Arcand’s The Decline of the American Empire and, for historical reasons, Don Shebib’s Goin’s Down the Road. The best directors, like Atom Egoyan and David Cronenberg, have often sought funding and facilities outside the country. The two ‘Great White North’ hopes this year were Passchendale (dir. Paul Gross – he of Due South television fame), a First World War epic, and Toronto Stories (dir. Sook-Yin Lee, Sudz Sutherland, David Weaver and Aaron Woodley), which is very reminiscent in structure of the multi-directed New York Stories (1989). Both films share some of the previously mentioned national qualities: worthy, aspirant and just short of truly major Canadian/international statements. Hold out for Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg.

There remains only one highlight of the Toronto Festival to note: the return to filmmaking after a self-imposed sabbatical of 17 years in which he developed his painterly skills, of the great Polish director, Jerzy Skolimowski, the maker of several significant international films including Deep End (1970), The Shout (1978) Moonlighting (1982) and the rarely seen Ferdydurke (1991). His new film, Four Nights with Anna, is an intense portrait of a romantic loner who becomes increasingly bold in his obsessive spying on a local nurse who he had seen raped years before. He eventually penetrates her personal space by entering her apartment, unseen and unheard, while she sleeps. The slowly unfolding, carefully framed and atmospheric filming tells a slightly sinister, deeply psychological story. Excerpts from an interview with the director will appear in a later ES issue.

James B Evans

DUSK ‘TIL DAWN MADNESS! HOMMAGE TO 75 YEARS OF THE DRIVE-IN

review_drivein.jpg

The cinema has always been both valorised and demonised as a major player in the movement towards sexual liberation in the twentieth century. The intersection of socio-cultural realities and the cinematic imaginary are fairly well charted waters, as are the names of the major figures involved. But among the unsung movers and shakers of cinematic history towards this sexual reordering, I propose a lesser known name be added to the roll call: that of Richard Hollingshead Jr, who 75 years ago this year opened the first ever drive-in movie theatre.

It was on June 6, 1933, that his legendary US Patent No. 1,909,537 for ‘The Park-In Theatre’ was actualised in Camden, New Jersey, where the preferable final appellation ‘Drive-In Theatre’ was adopted. The first ever drive-in movie to be screened was, appropriately enough, Wives Beware (Fred Diblo, 1932), a British film aka Two White Arms which is reputably about trying to, in Tom Waits’s words, ‘getcha little somethin’ that you can’t get at home’ – one of a number of staple slogans which would come to sustain drive-in business for the next 50 years.

A second drive-in appeared in California in 1934 and soon Hollingshead was franchising his invention across America, suing anyone else who dared to build an independent one. But in 1945, a time when there were only 100 drive-ins in the United States, the Supreme Court ruled that Hollingshead’s drive-in patent was null and void and consequently that anyone had the right to open one. As it was, this legal decision happened to coincide with the end of World War Two, the end of rationing and the end of the American economic depression. It also came at the start of the post-war baby boom, the start of the migration of young families from town centres to the newly emerging suburbs and with the rise of a new prosperity that now meant almost everyone could own an automobile. In brief, the conditions were ripe for an explosion in drive-in construction. Anyone with a little land – land outside towns was, like gasoline, cheap then – could build their own drive-in. The audience could watch a movie with the whole family – saving on babysitters, parking and the more expensive indoor town cinema ticket prices, all the while enjoying the comfortable environment of their steel household pet – the family car.

The latter part of the 1940s saw the evolution of sound systems, which went from loudspeakers booming out the soundtrack (and outraging homeowners nearby) to the small in-car speaker on a pole, ‘Don’t forget not to drive away with it!’ Minute revisions were made to the angle of the vertical pile of earth which optimised parked viewing when 500-2000 cars were positioned in semi-circular rows. No car? No problem! There was even a ‘fly-in drive-in’ built, which accommodated a couple of dozen small aircrafts. Then came the introduction of family-friendly niceties like barbeque pits, picnic tables, swings and playgrounds, clowns and circus acts, uniformed attendants, huge neon signs and the single most profitable innovation of all: the legendary concession stand and the ubiquitous intermission film trailers inducing the audience to scarf down loads of buttered popcorn, ice-cream, hot dogs, candy bars and soft drinks – sometimes beer. By 1949 there were 155 drive-ins, but the golden age was just around the corner; by 1951 there were 820 drive-ins and in 1958 close to 5000, though this development came at a cost: in that same year a similar number of indoor cinemas closed their doors.

The growing number of young children and families in 1950s America who were living in suburbia and filling these drive-ins were catered to in every way possible. Drive-ins were known as nice family places – for a mainly white, aspirant middle class, it has to be said. There was some concern about stories and rumours of various amorous activities taking place in the back seats of cars – made evident by the steaming up of windows – but it was not until these baby-boomers emerged from their cocoons and became that culturally and economically distinct market group, the teenager, that things really hotted up – both on and off-screen. It was also at this time that a number of new factors entered into the cinematic equation. The major studios had always resisted distributing first run films to drive-ins and reserved them for the ‘classier’ cinemas in town centres. But by the late 1950s and early 1960s seismic cultural shifts were occurring which changed the face of the industry, among which may be noted the challenges hurled at Hollywood from television, the more liberal sexual content of European (often dubious) ‘art-house’ films, publications like Playboy magazine, challenges to censorship laws, more relaxed attitudes to sexuality, and of especial significance for drive-in owners: the raging hormones of 16-18-year-olds. Affluent enough to drive their own jalopies around and to control their own social lives, they had one big problem – where to go out on a date that was (superficially) acceptable to parents yet provided good cover for the more frisky pursuits of adolescent affection (lust). Thus did the ‘sin pit’ designation of back-row indoor cinemas morph into the ‘passion pit’ designation for drive-ins. And most crucially and importantly to all of these factors was the development of a market niche which the big studios were slow to react to: the low-budget teen’sploitation film, into whose eventual canon masters such as Roger Corman, Samuel Arkoff, and Herschell Gordon Lewis were operating. As the 60s moved on, drive-in film cycles and sub-genres popped up in these shady venues like transgressive mushrooms: biker flicks, rebel flicks, bad girl flicks, JD flicks, beach party flicks, nudie flicks, rock ‘n’ roll flicks, women in prison/caged women flicks, and later the counter-culture flicks featuring anti-heroes and student activists (always an obligatory reefer rolling scene), psychedelic flicks, and gore fest flicks – all this and they were often screened in dawn till dusk marathons; which is how, dear reader, the present writer of this piece came to know all about the de Sades, the Phibes, the Captain Americas, the Ilsas, the Emmanuelles, the Gidgets and the Shafts of this world, alongside gaining – after many futile and frankly fumbled attempts – some modest mastery of the complex ergonomics of the bra strap clasp, a skill which seemed then to rank alongside any kinaesthetic feat of Houdini’s.

This period (60s to mid-70s) was in fact the high cultural and historic cinematic watershed of the drive-in theatre, in spite of the fact that profits weren’t quite as good as in the 1950s, in spite of the fact that the incorporation of daylight saving time was forcing back starting times, in spite of the fact that the rival indoor cinemas (soon to be multiplexes) were improving their facilities and offerings. And it was likewise the golden age of the drive-in film. Roger Corman himself was involved with the production of some 200 movies, and a quick glance at books like Cult Flicks & Trash Pics or Slimetime: a Gudie to Sleazy Mindless Movies will provide plenty of other choice examples.

But then came the crash: with ever-diminishing returns, desperate drive-in managers moved from exploitation films to screening XXX and porno films thus alienating many audiences and outraging neighbourhoods – it was said that car accidents were caused by drivers gawping at the giant roadside screens and that people were subject to 40-foot-high fornication scenes from their home windows. Added to this, fuel crises, the baby-boomers distaste for suburban life and the consequent return to inner city dwelling, and the dampened enthusiasm for the novelty of alfresco movies all contributed to the fall of the drive-in. The hearty drive-in owner soldiered on, but from a peak of 5000 screens in 1958, there were only 1500 in 1988 and less than 500 in 2000 (Sources of all figures from The Drive-In Theatre History Page). But the final nails in the coffin came with VCRs, cable channels and the massive sell-offs of drive-in properties, whose value had sky-rocketed as suburban malls, retail superstores and drive-in eateries swallowed up the out-of-town areas.

A few drive-in theatres still operate but the rest are cultural dinosaurs; rotting brick-and-wood behemoths hidden behind overgrown greenery and trees, unlisted architectural monuments to a period in American cultural and social history where cars, movies and making out were a kind of youthful holy trinity. But as Joe Bob Briggs writes, ‘They can burn us up. They can knock us down. But they can’t close the drive-in in our heart.’

So let’s all raise a CHILLING! BLOODY! BEASTLY! TERRIFYING!, NAKED! 75th ANNIVERSARY drink to that great genius of cinematic innovation, Richard Hollingshead, Jr.

James B Evans

A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews