Based on true events, The Town That Dreaded Sundown details the crimes committed by the so called ‘Phantom Killer’ or ‘Phantom Slayer’ in Arkansas in 1946, the attempts by the police, and Texas Ranger ‘Lone Wolf’ Morales (Ben Johnson) to catch him, and the panic and fear that spread throughout the community when the sun went down. In all, eight people were attacked, and five killed; the victims were initially courting couples in parked cars, but the last attack involved a gun assault on a farmhouse. The killer was never caught, and the film implies that he still walks the Arkansas streets thirty years later.
Various commentators, talking about Charles B. Pierce’s 1976 film, casually drop the term ‘cult classic’, including a couple on the disc extras included here. I’m not so sure. It’s definitely got a certain trash-culture cachet, as a proto-slasher film that introduced many of the elements that would become formula after Halloween and Friday the 13th hit big a couple of years later. It clearly had a certain resonance with the drive-in crowd; the TV ads and radio spots for the film seem to have scarred a generation, and clearly somebody thought that there was enough audience recognition out there to greenlight the recent remake. But I suspect that the film’s reputation was greatly improved by its absence. It has only recently popped up on DVD, and seems to have survived into the modern age through the occasional late-night TV screening, or viewings of much traded and well-worn VHS tapes. It became known as the film with the hooded, silent murderer, anticipating Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers; the film where a girl gets weirdly murdered via a knife taped to a trombone slide; the film where Mary Ann from Gilligan’s Island (Dawn Wells) gets shot in the face.
In actuality? It’s… it’s a bit of a mixed bag to be honest. Pierce worked hard to try to give a sense of time and place, but creating a period film on an independent budget was clearly a stretch, and the production values suffer accordingly, while the music is overly demonstrative and, frankly, irritating. There’s a folksy voiceover track to contend with, and some ill-fitting comic relief from the ‘Deputy Sparkplug’ character played by Pierce himself. One gets the impression that it was made on the cheap and on the fly, with variable results. Much of the filmmaking is perfunctory, but occasional sequences, like the final attack on the farmhouse, are brutally effective and assembled with some skill. The facts of the case are enough to maintain your interest, and the film delivers its version of events with a certain nuts–and-bolts efficiency, but the facts of the actual case, of course, leave the film with no ending. The ‘Phantom Slayer’ was never caught, and the final reel that the film offers, with a shootout and a swampy disappearance (apparently hastily written during the shoot by Andrew Prine, who plays Deputy Norman Ramsey), feels like a bit of a let-down. As a whole the movie is… alright. I’m glad I finally caught up with it, and can tick it off a mental list. But I don’t feel any great urge to see it again.
If Prine is to be believed, the shoot was a pretty boozy, ramshackle, good-natured affair. Pierce was clearly a character, a former children’s TV entertainer turned independent filmmaker, who seemed to get his motion pictures made through sheer force of personality. Arkansas based, he was a populist who clearly knew his audience and gave them what they wanted. I remember his endearingly shonky The Legend of Boggy Creek from its various screenings on BBC2 when I was a kid. He went on to write Sudden Impact for Clint Eastwood. I tend to think a documentary about his life would be more interesting than any of his actual films, Sundown included. ‘Cult classic’ or not.
Read our review of the 2014 sequel to The Town that Dreaded Sundownhere.
When Martin Lepiš (Radovan Lukavský) comes home after a prolonged absence, his fellow villagers aren’t exactly pleased to see him. ‘Dragon’s back.’, ‘Dark days are coming.’, they mutter in terror. Martin’s only apparent connection with dragons is the kiln he uses to fire his whimsical pottery. It’s unclear why the villagers should fear this aging, quiet and artistic man with an eye-patch.
When their cattle are stranded by a forest fire, the villagers blame ‘Dragon’ for bringing them bad luck. He offers to lead the cattle to safety in exchange for being allowed to live once more in his potter’s cottage in the village. But someone must go with him, and the villagers appoint Šimon (Gustáv Valach), the man who married Dragon’s former lover, Eva (Emília Vášáryová), and the one who has most to lose from Dragon’s return.
Eduard Grečner was part of the first cohort of Czechoslovak New Wave directors who studied at the Prague Film School, FAMU. He assisted fellow Slovak director Štefan Uher on his 1962 film The Sun in a Net, generally considered the first film of the Czechoslovak New Wave. Like Uher, Grečner incorporated avant-garde visual and storytelling techniques into his films, ushering Czechoslovakian cinema into the modernist era.
Unfortunately, a combination of events meant that international audiences were deprived of the chance to see 1967’s Dragon’s Return: the Pesaro Film Festival, where it was meant to be screened, was disrupted by the ‘May 68 protests, and that same year Czechoslovakia was invaded by the Warsaw Pact armies. Grečner’s opposition to the Soviet occupation meant that he was subsequently blacklisted.
Now, Second Run have released a miraculously clear transfer of a 50-year-old classic that looks as though it were filmed yesterday. In his engaging and erudite liner notes (which include an interview with the director), Jonathan Owen points out that Grečner was strongly influenced by Bergman and Renais. This film reminded me in particular of The Seventh Seal, with its fateful atmosphere, striking visual composition, and timeless bond with the cycles of nature and local superstition.
Grečner establishes an artistic signature all his own with his 360-degree pans across the mountains, and around Dragon and Eva. The couple is shown in frequent, powerful flashbacks inspired, as the director himself explains, by Surrealism’s insistence on the supremacy of desire. The film’s particular style is also indebted to composer Ilja Zeljenka’s score, which establishes an atmosphere of threat and hysteria early on through its orchestration of human voices, and later develops a sophisticated aural motif from the cows’ bells and their terrified lowing.
In a 20-minute introduction, Peter Hames makes the persuasive suggestion that, in this highly symbolic film, the director is Dragon: an artistic outsider who is hated and attacked for being different. In the films of the later Czechoslovak New Wave, it is hard not to perceive premonitions that the nation’s brief period of grace from the iron fist of political and creative oppression was about to end.
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Screening Dates: 6, 19, 25 September 2015
Venue: BFI Southbank
Director: John Waters
Writer: John Waters
Cast: Divine, David Lochary, Mary Vivian Pearce, Mink Stole, Danny Mills, Edith Massey
***** out of *****
When I first saw Pink Flamingos at the age of 14 on a battered 16mm print in a University of Winnipeg lecture hall, used most nights as a ‘Cinema Gallery’ repertory house, I knew I was seeing something unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Its grimy underground quality, dappled with occasional crispy blue skies, a mix of gloriously overcast and sunny days, mostly (if not all) natural light, almost-fluorescent pinks, blues and reds emanating from various set elements to make the drab look even more beautiful than it seemed and, super-gleefully, an oddly familiar patchwork quilt setting – at once modern, yet anchored in a kind of sad, dilapidated 50s architectural ennui, all contributing to an overwhelming feeling that seemed diametrically opposed to the aforementioned notion of seeing something unique.
The bottom line: I knew this burgh as if it were my own backyard. I’d never been to Baltimore, where the film was shot, and at this time of mid-adolescent purity, I had no idea it even was Baltimore. What thrilled me to no end is that it reminded me of Winnipeg, the sleepy midwestern prairie city in the longitudinal centre of Canada where I was born (in spite of conception in Detroit and a last-minute sentimental sojourn by my Mommy back home to pop me into the awaiting hands of some bushy-eyebrowed gyno with a ciggie dangling from his lips). Even the film’s warped sense of humour, its cast of perverse characters, a blend of trailer trash, cooler than cool freakazoids and some of its skewed, often deliciously viscous, vicious dialogue all crackled with a kind of perverse Winnipegian attention to ludicrous details.
Seeing this movie seemed like having a dream of home, and the world of the movie made me feel like I’d found my true home.
In retrospect, I realise why my immediate connection to the picture was a more-than telling detail, which ultimately reflected just how many friends, neighbors, teachers, priests and relatives regarded me with an occasionally bemused, but mostly wary suspicion.
Big deal! Fuck ’em. I loved the movie so much that years later I connected with regional filmmakers like John Paizs (Crime Wave) and Guy Maddin (My Winnipeg, Keyhole) to produce their early films, both imbued with similarly post-modern familiarity with both art and life. I also programmed my own rep cinema that unspooled mostly ‘cult’ films, managing in those halcyon pre-video-boom days to pack the joint and collect a whole lot of like-minded sickos as regulars, all living in dark corners and deep closets to escape the more repressive qualities of Winnipeg (whilst embracing said restrictively coercive delights with equal fervor).
It’s the dichotomous nature of John Waters’s great film that drives it. Every perverse element is rooted in a love and respect for all that is old, decrepit and yes, even horrifically, titillatingly straight-laced.
The simple plot involving the rivalry for the tabloid-bestowed title of ‘Filthiest Person Alive’ between vivacious Babs Johnson (Divine) and the nastily cruel Marble couple, Connie (Mink Stole) and Raymond (David Lochary), was a magnificently solid wooden coat hanger for Waters to proudly hang all manner of sheer, demented, ever-so-cool sickness upon. (Or, if you will, wellness, depending, of course, upon your particular persuasion.)
Babs lives in hiding in a small trailer on the outskirts of town with her sexually deviant son Crackers (Danny Mills), her jolly, roly-poly, mildly retarded and goofily sexy mother Edie (Edith Massey) and Cotton (Mary Vivian Pearce), the beautiful voyeuristic ‘traveling companion’ to Babs. They’re a happy family; perhaps even happier than ‘normal’ nuclear families in post-war urban housing developments.
For me, Edie proves to be the true spiritual mascot of the film. Unaware of the squalid surroundings, the aberrant qualities of her children and the fact that it might not be entirely normal to live her whole life in a playpen, adorned only in her ill-fitting undergarments, Edie is 300 pounds of innocence, purity, magnificent mounds and folds of milky white corpulence and, ultimately, a one-track mind.
Edie loves eggs. Well, who doesn’t?
Edie wants them scrambled, fried, boiled or fluffed-up into sumptuous omelets. Her greatest (and seemingly only) fear is that chickens might cease to exist and, as such, eggs would go the way of the dodo. Though Babs tries to reassure her that chickens will never become extinct, Edie won’t have any of it and, like a child resembling a record stuck on a skip, she continues to fear the worst until Babs finally has to admit to her, ‘Now, Mama, that’s just egg paranoia.’
All calms down, though, when Edie gets a visit from the friendly Egg Man (Paul Swift). Adorned in his sharp dairy-white duds and sporty sideburns, he opens his traveling salesman’s case full of eggs and provides the spiel that makes Edie’s fretting so much dust in the wind.
‘Just look at these,’ the Egg Man beams proudly. ‘Eggs so fresh you could hardly believe it. How about it, Edie? What will it be for the lady that the eggs like the most?’
Though Edie is placated, her ‘egg paranoia’ seems to rear its head once more, this time in the Egg Man’s presence as she begins to shudder desperately, almost orgasmically, screaming ‘Oh God, Oh God!’ However, the Egg Man will have none of it when he declares, ‘Miss Edie, as long as there are chickens laying and trucks driving and my feet walking, you can be sure that l will bring you the finest of the fine, the largest of the large and the whitest of the white. ln other words, that thin-shelled ovum of the domestic fowl will never be safe as long as there are chickens laying. I am your Egg Man and there ain’t a better one in town!’
So, does anyone reading this summary of egg obsession feel like the events are perfectly normal? Oh, good. I’m glad you think so too.
If you accept this as truth, then you will also accept the Marbles couple kidnapping young women, chaining them in their basement, getting their butler to rape and impregnate them and then to sell the babies to well-heeled lesbian couples.
If you accept the Marbles couple as truth, you will also accept Edie’s son screwing a new girlfriend (Cookie Mueller) whilst shoving live chickens into their mutual pubic areas, squashing them with his manly thrusts and culminating in the decapitation of a chicken and spilling its warm blood upon the naked flesh of his sex partner whilst sexy Cotton spies the proceedings through a window whilst seemingly masturbating.
If you accept the chicken-shack antics as truth, you will also accept how Babs marinates her (stolen) steaks from the butcher shop by shoving them up her dress to rest against her precious petals of liquides du quim.
If you accept all of the above and more as truth, then you, like I, will accept Winnipeg as Baltimore and Baltimore as the world and the universe of John Waters’s Pink Flamingos as the place we’d all rather be living in – a Milky Way of magnificent perversion, nestled in the purity of heart that is Miss Edie and her unbridled passion for eggs.
Every national cinema has its own unique brand of indigenous storytelling, but by virtue of its geographical proximity to the economic and cultural juggernaut that is the United States of America, English Canada has had the unenviable position of maintaining a voice and identity all its own, struggling for half a century to tell uniquely “Canadian” stories to speak to both Canadians and the world. French Canada has always been able to maintain a distinct identity because of the language issues. English Canadian culture has had a tougher time of it, but it’s not simply a more tasteful, literate version of the United States.
David Cronenberg, along with the likes of Atom Egoyan, Guy Maddin, Peter Mettler and a clutch of other visionary filmmakers in English Canada, generated product which can be viewed as Canadian by simple virtue of the fact that both the style and content of the films could only have been made in a North American context that prided itself on uniquely indigenous qualities in spite (and perhaps even because) of the southerly Behemoth of Uncle Sam.
And though plenty of Canadian dramatic product was (and often continues to be) almost unbearably tasteful, this has happily never been a problem for any of the aforementioned filmmakers – especially not David Cronenberg. “Tasteful” has seldom reared its ugly head anywhere near his films.
Videodrome is as Canadian as Maple Syrup, beavers and the MacKenzie Brothers, but with the added bonus of almost hardcore sadomasochistic snuff-film-style torture weaving its way throughout the picture as narrative and thematic elements.
Max Renn (James Woods) is the head honcho of a tiny independent Toronto TV station which specialises in unorthodox programming with an emphasis upon lurid, exploitative and downright sensational stylistic approaches and content. This is clearly a fictional representation of the uniquely Canadian Toronto company CITY-TV which became famous for its soft-core “Baby Blue Movies” and the open concept studios for news and public affairs. Though Cronenberg denies it, Max Renn is clearly modeled upon the real-life Canadian visionary Moses Znaimer who revolutionised broadcasting throughout the continent, and even the world, due to his unorthodox approaches.
Renn finds himself looking for something to take his station and broadcasting in general in far more cutting edge directions. Via his pirate satellites, he discovers a rogue broadcast from Malaysia featuring non-stop BDSM. The actions are vicious, hard-core and clearly the real thing. He searches desperately to track down the direct source of the feed, seeking the learned counsel of Professor Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley) a “medium is the message” guru (based on Canada’s Marshall McLuhan).
Unfortunately, Renn has been exposed to a nefarious virus by watching the footage and soon reality and fantasy begin to mesh together while he engages in an S/M relationship with radio interviewer Nikki Brand (Deborah “Blondie” Harry) and discovers that his body has sprouted its own VCR within his guts.
There is, of course, a conspiracy and, of course, it’s rooted in America where the snuff station is actually broadcasting from. The goal of mysterious New World Order-like power brokers is to use Max to infect the world with total acquiescence.
To say Videodrome is prescient, is a bit of an understatement. Cronenberg brilliantly riffs on early 80s Canadian broadcast innovations and visionaries (like Znaimer and McLuhan) to create a chilling, disturbing look at how a corporate “One-World” government seeks to anesthetise the world (and destroy all those who are not susceptible to the virus of brainwashing).
Videodrome is scary, morbidly funny, dementedly sexy (gotta love lit cigarettes applied to naked breasts, a vaginal cavity in Renn’s stomach which plays videotapes and stashes firearms and, among many other horrors, masked figures exacting violent torture on-screen) and finally, one of the great science fiction horror films of all time.
I will not spoil anything for you by elaborating upon the following, but I will guarantee that you’ll be able to experience the shedding of the “old flesh” to make way for “the new flesh”. Right now, though, you really don’t want to know.
A famous Canadian TV commercial during the 60s-80s featured a variety of British tea-sippers slurping back Canada’s “Red Rose” tea and looking directly into the camera to remark (in a full Brit accent):
“Only in Canada, you say? A pity.”
It’s kind of how the rest of the world can feel about David Cronenberg and his Videodrome. It is precisely the kind of movie that could only have been spawned in Canada, but unlike Red Rose Tea, it’s available worldwide and forever.
Cast:Javier Gutiérrez, Raúl Arévalo, Mar Rodría Varod
Spain, 1980. When teenage sisters go missing in the remote and barren Andaluz wetlands, two detectives from Madrid are sent to investigate. It’s immediately clear to them that the locals, even the girls’ own father, are virtually indifferent to their disappearance, believing that the sisters, with their ‘loose’ morals, have either run away or brought their fate upon themselves. Although the town’s residents remain stubborn in their refusal to help, the detectives soon discover that the girls are not the first who have gone missing from the area, and that a serial killer (or killers) is sexually exploiting the women before callously disposing of their bodies.
Juan (the excellent Javier Gutiérrez) is the experienced detective with a murky past under the Franco regime. Pragmatic, wily, manipulative, he’s better at needling out information over a few drinks, or, if that doesn’t work, using his fists. His new partner is the idealistic rookie, his future already in jeopardy after publicly criticising Franco’s still-powerful generals. Played by Raúl Arévalo, Pedro is the more earnest, less charismatic of the two, his integrity at odds with the casual way business is done in the marshlands.
Director Alberto Rodríguez’s atmospheric Marshland, (which swept the Goya awards on its release last year) can feel at times like a by-the-numbers police procedural, but it’s saved by its backdrop of social upheaval and unrest. The murders are used as a foil to delve into the legacy left behind by Franco, revealing a country struggling to find its way forward. The climate of fear that existed under his regime still permeates the small, impoverished town, where the police don’t ask too many questions (turning a blind eye to the drug running in the region’s swampy rivers), and where powerful business owners are still untouchable. But things are slowly changing, as men strike for better working conditions, and women are lured away to places like the Costa del Sol with promises of hotel work. But as the women become more independent, more sexually liberated, they are shunned by the community, and left vulnerable to the town’s dangerous predators.
Parallels have been drawn between the film and True Detective, but it’s also reminiscent of Arthur Penn’s excellent Florida-set Night Moves. Marshland is a terrifically well-crafted sunshine noir, with the genre’s usual shadows replaced by the searing bright light and heat of southern Spain. Rodríguez is clearly inspired by the atmospheric, treacherous bayous of the deep American south; the marshes are like fetid pockets of water, where bodies and secrets can lurk unfound just below the surface. The flat, open spaces are stunningly captured by cinematographer Alex Catalan, with some remarkable, abstract aerial shots of the land below, the rivers and tributaries, forming resonant motifs.
Though the violence that the women are subjected to, and its casual dismissal, is deeply disturbing, the victims themselves are never really fleshed out by the filmmaker. It’s the relationship between Juan and Pedro, between the past and future, justice and abuse of power, that is the film’s beating heart. Though the crime is solved, Rodríguez refuses to indulge in a neat resolution, either for the murderer, or the two detectives.
Watch the trailer:
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