Friday, May 8, 2020

American Satan

American Satan (2017)
Dir. Ash Avildsen
Written by Ash Avildsen and Matty Beckerman
Starring Andy Biersack, John Bradley, Jesse Sullivan, Booboo Stewart, Malcolm McDowell, with Bill Goldberg, Bill Duke, Mark Boone Junior and Denise Richards whaaaaaaat?

AMERICAN SATAN is a fucking mystery. I never heard anyone, in real life or online, talk about it. Never saw an ad. Never saw a review. I stumbled across it only because I noticed it was listed in Malcolm McDowell’s filmography and so I looked up the trailer. But it’s not just some scruffy indie film funded on kickstarter; there’s more than a dozen listed producers and executive producers (including ROCKY director John G. Avildsen and Rob Zombie producer Andy Gould), and somebody obviously spent some money on this thing, providing it with a crisply professional crew, a gallery of recognizable actors in medium-sized roles, dozens of locations, and even a handful of huge crowd scenes. And a score co-written by Ko“Я”n’s Jonathan Davis! Holy moly! Spare no expense! They even claim there’s going to be a spin-off series? So obviously someone must have seen this, or at least someone must have had reason to believe someone would see it. But, ah. Why?

            Having now seen it myself… it’s still a fucking mystery. I can tell you a little about what happens in it, but I still can’t claim to understand it, or explain who it was made for. What I can say for sure is that I think teenagers are involved somehow, either on the supply or demand end. Because one thing that’s beyond dispute is that AMERICAN SATAN is an adorably earnest, mixed-up muddle of angst and anger and horniness and anxiety and teenage stoner philosophy, like it poured straight from the notebook doodlings of some earnest high school senior with dyed black hair and T-shirt that says “Fuck the world.” All of it is deeply and spectacularly terrible, but it’s also so adorably sincere and emo that I have no choice but to kind of love it. Can’t help myself. Oh jeez, I just realized – is the American Satan me?

The plot is less simple and clearly articulable than I’m about to make it sound, but in essence AMERICAN SATAN depicts the sad tale of youthful rocker Johnny Faust, lead singer of a band called The Relentless. Faust (yes, that seems to be his real last name – his mom is called “Mrs. Faust!”) is played by Andy Biersack, real-life singer of the band Black Veil Brides, a casting decision that makes sense --the role requires quite a number of musical performances-- until I tell you there’s a credit for “Johnny’s singing voice” and it’s another guy, vocalist Remington Leith of a band called Palaye Royale.* Which raises the question, what kind of crazy movie hires a non-actor professional singer to play the lead role of a singer, but then dubs his voice with some other singer? The mysteries of AMERICAN SATAN go deep.

            Anyway, we first encounter Johnny “The Doctor” Faust as a gloomy high school senior who lives in Columbus, Ohio with his mom (Dr. Christmas Jones herself, Denise Richards!?) and assures his mewling virginial Christian sweetheart Gretchen (beauty pageant winner Oliva Culpo) that although he has to move to LA to start a band, he’ll be back just as soon as he becomes a huge mega-star by playing unlistenable Hot Topic rock music and can afford to do what he really wants, which is to return to Ohio and marry her and settle down and live a life of quiet suburban domesticity. The first part of the plan goes amazingly well: he quickly meets a trio of bandmates (BooBoo Stewart, HE NEVER DIED, Ben Bruce of the band Asking Alexandria, Sebastian Gregory, Australian musician and actor), and the four of them recruit bassist Lily (Jesse Sullivan “Creature XXX” in the short film FUCKKKYOUUU) after a brief and unfortunate debate about whether they should let women in the band. But the second part of his plan encounters some turbulence due to the apparently unexpected perils of being a huge megastar, most of those perils instigated by the openly sinister Lily, who insists on maintaining an air of suspicious mystery when she is not manipulatively provoking trouble for everyone. Can’t a guy just become a huge superstar in a sensible, responsible manner and make enough money to buy a house in the Ohio suburbs for his sexless, blank-eyed high school prom date? Oh, the cruel caprice of fate!

            The movie does not treat any of this as a joke, by the way. It is, if nothing else, incorrigibly earnest and committed to making sure we understand the tragic gravity of this tale. And that’s part of what makes the movie so alluringly befuddling, because frankly put, the inherent wrenching tragedy of becoming a huge rock star and being deluged by money, drugs, and gorgeous naked groupies might be a little hard to relate to. But AMERICAN SATAN seems only barely aware that any of those things might conceivably sound appealing. This guy Johnny Faust is the most reluctant rock-and-roller it would be possible to invent; despite all the tattoos and the persistent gothy attitude, the movie insists on treating him as a naïve but obstinately fuddy-duddy wet blanket, who wants no part of the rock n’ roll lifestyle and would rather drink responsibly, get to bed early, file his taxes, and exchange promise rings with his abstinent, blankly wholesome high school sweetheart. He’s the most innocent cinematic rock star since everybody else in Queen except Freddy Mercury as portrayed in the movie BOHEMIAN RAPSODY. He seems apologetic and a little chagrinned even at going to a nice, quiet, oak-paneled restaurant bar booth for a few pints with his bandmate.

            And well he should be, as it turns out, for it is here that they encounter one Mr. Capricon, (Malcolm McDowell, TANK GIRL) who addresses the band (minus bass player Lily, who is always mysteriously and suspiciously absent when he shows up) with a sinister proposition: if they commit one murder, he will make them huge superstars. He seems, --well—a little devilish, but due to his British accent is demonstrably not the title character.

            Obviously this is a moral turning point. On one hand, instant mega-stardom would certainly expediate Johnny’s lifelong dream of investing in midwestern real estate. But on the other hand, is it worth a human life? They mull this over for an appropriate 30 or 40 seconds before deciding to kidnap some kid who they heard was a rapist and is definitely an asshole who calls them a homophobic slur, and lock him in their beat-up band van and set it on fire, symbolically burning the honest, humble home they had built together and becoming corrupted. Standard deal-with-the-devil stuff… except that Johnny immediately has second thoughts and sets the kid free. But then the dumbass would-be sacrificial victim, now completely safe, tries to run away and five seconds later manages to die accidentally entirely through his own stupidity. So I guess the band is off the hook, morally speaking.

But it still counts with British Satan, apparently, because they do become famous, and even their van appears again! Man, lucky break! But as they tour the country spreading their message of whatever it is that they’re shouting about in their songs, things start to turn rotten as they succumb to the lures of easy sex and omnipresent drugs, find themselves constantly under attack by angry protesters, and also, --oh yeah!-- discover that their music is inspiring a nation-wide wave of vengeful murderers. Which makes one recall that some guy who is probably the Devil seemed really invested in making them famous and may possibly have had sinister motives for doing that, especially since he continued to be real helpful even after they kind of bungled the whole “murder a guy” thing and are probably at most guilty of kidnapping and reckless endangerment, not actually murder.

This little incident with the original deal, in fact, is emblematic of the film’s spectacularly confused message. I mean, in theory, this is a pretty easy little parable about selling out your morals for fame and material excess. That’s, like, the only possible point of structuring your movie around a “deal with the devil.” But then it never quite sets this up correctly. Johnny –the only character the movie is even a little interested in—keeps getting unwillingly pushed into things, and the movie keeps refusing to make him responsible for his choices. There’s no hubris here to support a cathartic fall; he never seems like an ambitious libertine who lets his insatiable desires corrupt his soul. He seems like a humble small-town kid who doesn’t quite have the confidence to say no to peer pressure. Even when things start to get out of control and everyone is banging groupies and doing heroin and causing murders, he just keeps sort of mumbling that this isn’t a good idea and he doesn’t really want to do it. Does “He that loves pleasure must for pleasure fall” apply if he’s sort of ambivalent about pleasures and just doesn’t know how to politely decline? It’s enough to make you wonder whether his last name is actually a weird coincidence and not a literary reference. Which, uh, --well-- let’s just say the screenplay doesn’t make one confident its authors had read a lot of Marlowe.

The pussy-footing refusal to allow the central character to actually enjoy --or even aspire to-- the copious debauchery depicted here is so pervasive as to feel out-and-out destabilizing, like there’s some crucial context that I’m missing. In fact, for long stretches, I kept wondering, is this some sort of weird Christian-propaganda cautionary tale? That would certainly explain its overwhelmingly and persistently sordid portrayal of what should be, by any reasonable entertainment standard, a wish-fulfillment fantasy. And it would explain why it’s so poisonously afraid of the spiritual debasement of the rock-and-roll lifestyle and so bizarrely uncritical of the implication that what Johnny should do is keep himself pure for marriage to his vacant-eyed young-Republican teetotaler hometown girlfriend. Ultimately I don’t think that’s what the movie intends (nothing I could find about any of the filmmakers backs up that hypothesis, anyway), but it’s hard to miss how blithely reactionary the movie feels.

This vague sense of judgmental hectoring is augmented by the fact that the movie is openly suspicious of bassist Lily, who is always agitating for trouble and mysteriously vague about her origins and never around when the Devil shows up. She’s proudly bisexual and liberated and confrontational, which one would assume a rock-n-roll themed horror movie would be enthusiastically in favor of. But we have a weird feeling she’s probably the Devil and she keeps goading them into situations where they get in trouble and is also revealed to work at a Baphomet-themed bordello which is just a few cenobites short of a HELLRAISER set, where she gets everyone hooked on drugs and debased sex with Satanic hookers and one of them dies. So… is the movie anti-sexual liberation, or… what? What are we supposed to make of that? It, ah, doesn't seem to have the most positive view of women, anyway.

Nevertheless, She Persisted.

 There’s definitely something that feels unhealthily repressed about the way the movie seems equal parts fascinated and horrified by rock and roll excess. I mean, there’s enough wild, out-of-control sex and drug orgies to make Hunter Thompson blush. In particular, the movie is absolutely drowning in female nudity (seriously, the most I’ve seen in a movie in years; Jean Rollin would find this excessive) but never in a positive or fun context where it seems like we’re supposed to be enjoying it, although obviously we are going to anyway… so? Johnny eventually ends up fucking everyone under the age of 80 who takes their top off in front of him, but he keeps weakly mumbling that he shouldn’t and it will ruin his life and his definitely-going-to-last-after-she-moves-to-college-wink-wink relationship with his virginal Christian high school girlfriend. But then he does it anyway, but looks sickened and horrified and disgusted with himself. The movie is obviously seriously getting off on this -- it spends like half the runtime salaciously ogling topless women banging the band-- but never for a moment allows it to pass without a stern lecture that this is degraded and obscene. And just in case we weren’t sure that Johnny is going down the wrong path, he also texts during a heartfelt teary speech at a funeral, which is very rude and Millennial of him. So surely this whole rock and roll thing is bad news, right?

            On the other hand, maybe not, because the movie can’t seem to make up it’s mind about whether the band is making the world better or worse, and it seems to be on-board with them in some occasionally eyebrow-raising ways. We learn that their music has been inspiring waves of violence as young people murder their bullies. Uh oh, sounds like they’re basically facilitating a wave of school shootings! No wonder the Devil wanted to make them America’s most beloved musical institution! Except that the movie seems weirdly ambivalent about whether or not that’s a bad thing. In fact, it offers several apparently earnest speeches suggesting that while it is, on the whole, probably a bad thing to murder people, well, maybe it’s time for society to change, and maybe murdering a few assholes will inspire a kinder, gentler society in the long run. Maybe this is what the revolution looks like, you know? Which is pretty, um, wow.

Similarly, it often seems like the Devil is making good points (McDowell gets some charmingly plummy speeches), and maybe even working with fellow supernatural being Gabriel (Bill Duke! What the?!), who is probably a good guy inasmuch as he speaks entirely in aphorisms. But come on, this guy’s literally the Devil and he’s played by Malcolm McDowell. There’s no way we’re supposed to think he’s right. Right? But then, if the Devil is trying to push their dangerous rock and roll excess, should we reject rock and roll and turn to Jesus? The movie sure doesn’t seem to think so; the Christian protesters and the angry rednecks they fight with are definitely not portrayed positively even though we know they’re right, this band literally is working for the dark one. At the end, after murders and arrests and random meaningless sex with dozens of teenage groupies and also possibly having sex with the Devil and getting hooked on heroin and overdosing and then coming back to life, when Jonny wants to get his head straight he goes to a Hindu guru. So, I guess the correct answer is Hinduism? But, like, the Devil and Angels are also real? And as long as you stay off the drugs, a few mass shootings are probably not such a bad thing after all? Like, what in the fresh fuck are we supposed to do with all this madness? A lot of people offer a lot of philosophy, and I have no idea who the movie thinks is right.

Like, this is definitely a sign things have taken a bad turn, correct? Can we agree on that?

 In fact, the movie’s oddly negative relationship with rock n’ roll recalls the strikingly negative portrayal of heavy metal music during the metalsploitation cycle of the 80’s. It’s hard to remember now, but in the 1980s, during the satanic panic, quite a few people genuinely believed that heavy metal music was dangerous and evil, and the metalsploitation movies of the time broadly reinforce that view, rather than challenge it, despite the fact that the presumed audience was heavy metal fans! As I noted back when I watched the quintessential metalsploitation classic BLACK ROSES in 2015,

“The only people on Earth who would conceivably enjoy this dumb movie are metalheads, so why would you write a plot where it turns out the parents are right, metal is dangerous and should be censored and condemned? My only guess is that [the filmmakers] … were banking on something I’ve long suspected: every true metalhead secretly wishes metal really was evil.”

With AMERICAN SATAN, we see something similar: although we have a movie whose whole hook is about rock music, which stars several professional musicians, and was directed by the CEO of a record label (more on that later), the life of a professional musician is almost without exception portrayed as miserable and corrupting, and the effect of their music is depicted as potentially destructive for the listener. But unlike with heavy metal, where you can see the appeal of the fantasy that listening to Dokken would summon slimy demonic puppets or whatever, I can’t see a similar tongue-in-cheek joy at playing into the stereotype here; watching someone despairingly bottom out just isn’t as much fun. That’s not the appealing part of the fantasy, right? That’s the boring second half of the VH1 Where Are They Now. And I can’t imagine even the most cynical rock n’ roll fan finds much appeal in the fantasy that listening to rock music would inspire you to become a school shooter, right?    

This is further complicated by the weird and inescapable parallels to real life: Beirsack really was a bullied teen from Ohio with some regrettable Batman-themed tattoos who dropped out of high school to move to LA and form a crappy rock act. This is basically his 8 MILE! So maybe this is a story shaped by the perspective of a young kid who indulged too much in his initial burst of fame and now looks back with disgust and regret at those years, and that colors the way the film portrays them? In a Huffington Post interview about the movie, Director Ash Avildsen (2015’s WHAT NOW) stresses this point: “With the exception of the physical manifestation of Satan, everything in the film is based on real events. Either myself, or these guys, or the producers have had these experiences in the rock music scene. It didn’t take that much crazy imagination, even though when people see it they’ll say ‘how did they think of that?”’ (Note: No human being has ever or will ever watch this movie and say “how did they think of that?”). Fair enough, so I guess this is all about gritty reality, then? But wait, in that same interview, Beirsack draws a clear distinction between himself and the character. While noting that their origins are identical, he says, “The difference is I didn’t make a deal with a deity… [T]here’s so many divergences in paths that you can take to success… You can sometimes forget where you came from initially… I don’t know what I would have done if I had the chance to become very successful out of nowhere. When you’re hungry and you want nothing more than to have that success, who knows what you would do if someone presented you with the keys to the kingdom?” So it sounds like he took a very different path than the one we see here.

In fact, while Avildsen is the founder and CEO of Sumerian Records (who, predictably, rep Black Veil Brides, Asking Alexandria, Palaye Royale, and Jonathan Davis, along with Between the Buried and Me (!) and briefly the Dillinger Escape Plan (!!)) and is obviously in a good position to have heard the tales of some of those “real events” the movie depicts, the whole approach has a weirdly dated feel. The legendary drug-fueled groupie-banging excess AMERICAN SATAN wallows in was a feature of 70’s and 80’s metal bands, and sure enough, those are the bands that get name-checked as a reference point. But the movie is aggressively set, like, RIGHT NOW. Avildsen is explicit on this topic: “…I wanted to have the music sound like what a big band might sound like today… I wanted to be like “Okay, what if Tool was a more mainstream heavy metal band with more raspy punk vocals?”. So I strayed away from having the band sound classic rock, I wanted it to sound modern and relevant. We weren’t ambiguous with the time frame… We wanted to make it clear that this was present day.” But do the kids today do this shit? I feel like Biersack’s actual bandmates are probably teetotalers who took their rock and roll money and prudently invested in it.
            In fact, I’d go out on a limb and hypothesize that the “real events” Avildsen is recalling were likely related to him by members of an older generation (he was born in 1981).** And that’s part of the movie’s weird vibe; it’s the story of a bunch of distinctly modern millennial kids who are for some reason living out a particularly 1980’s experience that doesn’t really exist anymore. The result of this generational mismatch is that the film curiously smothers a tale of unmistakably bygone 1980’s debauchery with a thick layer of fretful millennial anxiety. But those two mindsets sit very strangely together. In the cocaine-dusted innocence of the 80’s, a hedonistic focus on the pleasure of the moment made sense; placing a bunch of painfully self-aware burnt-out twentysomethings –who, remember, have on average way less sex than their 80’s counterparts did and with a great deal more stress-- into that same scenario feels bizarre and unnatural. In order to get the characters to work themselves into a respectable heedless decadence, they require some direct pressure from the Devil himself – and even then they still feel anxious and guilty and conflicted and certain that they’re ruining everything.

Speaking of modern anxiety, there’s also a truly wonderful amount of time spent discussing stoner occult conspiracy theories. I think someone even gets a dollar bill and does the thing where you fold it up and reveal a secret message. There’s definitely a lengthy discussion of the famous Apple 666/original sin conspiracy. Why? No idea. Maybe just generalized awesomeness? But probably for the same reason, whatever it is, that the movie includes about 60,000 words of intertitles during the credits quoting various musicians talking vaguely about dark magic. Like all movies with “American” in the title, it obviously feels certain that it’s really getting at something universal and potent about the cultural moment (or at least that it’s close enough to hide behind that claim as an excuse to trop out a bunch of tits and a promotional CD for the director’s label, which is, if anything, probably a more venerable tradition). But unlike AMERICAN GANGSTER, AMERICAN PSYCHO, and AMERICAN HUSTLE (“it’s about Capitalism, man”) or AMERICAN PIE and AMERICAN BEAUTY (it’s about sex, man”) or AMERICAN SNIPER (“it’s about brittle authoritarian masculinity… or maybe we’re just awesome?”), I genuinely emerged from the entire none-too-brief, densely-packed-yet-oddly-uneventful 112 minutes without so much as a solid guess as to what the point here is supposed to be. Is it about the dark side of ambition? About the corrosive effect of fame? About a sinister satanic conspiracy to corrupt the youth? A sinister satanic conspiracy to liberate the youth? About being careful what you wish for? About just, like, not doing heroin and maybe not fucking so many groupies?

There’s something like 25 minutes devoted to a weird tangent where a nice suburban mom talks her way into bringing her virginal teenage daughter onto the tour bus to be deflowered by Johnny (!), and then while they’re at it she ends up fucking someone else, maybe even Bill Goldberg (HALF PAST DEAD 2, who, unless I dreamed this, shows up as their tour manager or something?) and it’s this nutty thing, but despite the somewhat disturbing implications it seems like both mother and daughter are into it and maybe even having a kind of weird bonding experience. Again, this sounds like something that Poison had to deal with more than anything that’s happened to any band that became famous in the past 30 years or so, but I’ll take it: it seems to be a rare lighthearted moment of debauchery where everyone had a good time. But then a few scenes later, we cut to mom and daughter at home, when their husband/father finds out what happened, grabs a handgun, and blows his brains out! What the fuck, dude! Nothing narratively substantive comes of it but it’s such a weirdly specific little vignette that you gotta figure it means something—but what?

Oh yeah I forgot to mention, that Game Of Thrones guy is in there. Not Hodor, the other one. Hurley. No wait, that was Lost. You know the one I mean. That guy.

            The movie’s most baffling turn comes at the finale, which has already started to get a little narratively abstract (long story short, Booboo Stewart, who plays a guitarist apparently named “Vic Lakota,” does a CNN interview on acid where Larry King appears as himself, and may genuinely not have known he was interviewing a fictional band). ---PLEASE NOTE: I’m going to spoil the ending, I guess, although I’m not really sure what I’m even describing here.-- “Mr. Capricorn,” alarmed that Johnny seems to be increasingly ambivalent about the whole experience, starts dating his mom (?) and meanwhile Johnny has been fucking Lily, who of course we suspect is probably the Devil in disguise (man, what is it about this movie and weird parallel incest tropes?). In the big finale, Lily vanishes and Mr, Capricorn appears and tells Johnny that he wants him to commit a murder on stage to, like, ignite the revolution or whatnot. And to further provoke him, he reveals what we’ve suspected all along, that haha, it was he, Malcolm McDowell, who has hiding inside the nubile body of the Relentless’s bisexual liberated female bassist all along, spurring them forward to this climactic point (and although he doesn’t specifically mention it, that means our boy was banging beloved character actor Malcolm McDowell in disguise!). Oh shit!

            …Except not, because after this huge reveal there’s a little coda with one line of dubbed dialogue at the end which tells us that none of that was true. I guess the Devil was just lying and all that suspicious stuff Lily did was just a coincidence and she’s just a normal human, except sort of a bitch I guess (we’re told she’s a heroin addict who is now in recovery, and she never appears or gets mentioned again and nobody seems to think her behavior requires any further explanation).*** A baffling turn for an inexplicable character in a indecipherable riddle of a movie. Or, alternately, a desperate last minute re-write so they could spin off a series (and, less charitably, possibly also to safely assure us that don’t worry bro, no homo shit here). Either way, it kind of raises the question of, what did the Devil actually do here, anyway? I’m not sure how he helped them, and Johnny doesn’t even seem to think it would be altogether a thing bad if he did – the movie seems to ultimately adopt the stance that maybe God and the Devil are both a little right, and maybe the thing to do is to kind of let them balance each other out. Which, in practice, means that a few school shooting are probably a necessary evil, but we don’t want to start a whole revolution here, that would be going too far.

            Actually, I feel the movie would probably have benefited from going too far; as it is, it feels tentative and vaguely formed, with plenty of provocation but not a lot of real substance, or, hell, even any real narrative arc. For a movie with some real crazy turns, it’s an oddly passive, languid thing. Still, I kind of admire its goofy, earnest, mixed-up spirit. Almost certainly without meaning to, it captures something that feels kind of real about the teenage experience, when the world feels overwhelming and oppressive and everything –God, the Devil, Good, Evil, Sex, Partying, Sick Riffs, Identity, The Man, Society, The Future, Texting, Responsibility, Stoner Conspiracies, Porn, Bitchin’ Tats, and everything else in a young person's**** life just sort of spills over without any real structure or logic. It’s all very dumb, but that doesn’t mean it’s not deeply felt. That doesn’t exactly make for a good movie, but it does make for one which is probably more charming and unusual than a more traditionally good version would be. It stinks, but at least it smells like teen spirit.   

*I know this, of course, from my usual high level of background research; you can rest assured that I had no prior knowledge whatsoever of what a “Palaye Royale” or whatever might be.

** It occurred to me that this tracks with the fact that he might well have grown up around hard-partying celebrities, because his dad was John G. Avildsen (ROCKY, NEIGHBORS, the KARATE KID). But then I read this rather heartbreaking interview which makes it painfully clear that he never met his father and probably didn’t even benefit from his financial success (the one time he saw him as a child was at a family court hearing over child support, where John refused to acknowledge he was present. Jesus! Although since the elder Alvidsen is a producer on this movie, one assumes they must have met at least once since that 2015 interview. But unless they made up for lost father-son time by exclusively discussing John’s partying with Stallone in the 70’s, I doubt he was the source for these anecdotes.) So I dunno. Maybe he heard these stories from grizzled old roadies? He did work with Steve Adler from Guns N’ Roses in his 2015 movie WHAT NOW, so maybe this is all stuff that specifically happened to Steve Adler.

*** I notice actress Jesse Sullivan is the only person to be recast for the spin-off show; I’m not sure exactly what happened here, but that’s obviously a clue of some sort. It’s a shame, though, because she’s giving far and away the most interesting performance in the movie, although the fact that she’s the only character who isn’t utterly passive about everything probably helps.

**** I say young person, but the movie is utterly oblivious to the idea that there might be a perspective other than a young man’s; the only female character who isn’t a completely passive object for male characters to act upon is Lily, who is a destabilizing bitch, and also a sex object. I don’t think the movie is aware of this at all, but its complete disinterest in the inner lives of its female characters is another way in which it feels startlingly dated.

Monday, April 20, 2020

The Haunted Palace

The Haunted Palace (1963)
Dir Roger Corman
Written by Charles Beaumont, "from the poem by Edgar Allen [sic] Poe and a story by H.P. Lovecraft.”
Starring Vincent Price, Debra Paget, Frank Maxwell, Lon Chaney Jr.

THE HAUNTED PALACE is one of the less faithful of Roger Corman's Poe adaptations, in the sense that it’s actually not a Poe adaptation at all: it's an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s novella The Case of Charles Dexter Ward(h). The credits actually say “Screenplay by Charles Beaumont, from the poem by Edgar Allen [sic] Poe,” and then add, “and a story by H.P. Lovecraft.” As in Corman's THE RAVEN, Price does read about eight total lines from Poe’s 1839 poem The Haunted Castle, four at the beginning and another four at the end. Plus they changed the home of the villainous Joseph Curwen to a castle instead of a house, as per the title. And I guess you could claim there is a haunting of sorts which occurs there, if you want to stretch the definition of “haunting” to something so broad it has basically no meaning. But come on, in literally every other respect, this is actually a broadly faithful, if somewhat streamlined, version of Lovecraft’s novella, and there’s not a hint of Poe in there. Maybe misspelling Poe’s middle name in the credits was a cry for help.

Anyway, ROGER CORMAN PRESENTS EDGAR ALLAN POE’S H.P. LOVECRAFT’S THE HAUNTED PALACE BASED ON THE NOVEL PUSH BY SAPPHIRE is vintage Corman, with all the spooky, dry-ice haunted graveyards and gloomy, spartan castle sets you could want. As per Lovecraft’s story, it chronicles the sad case of Charles “Dexter” Ward (Vincent Price, that guy who played Joseph Smith in 1940’s BRIGHAM YOUNG), a mild-mannered modern (1963) dude who has recently inherited a Haunted Castle in the stagnant, dismal villa of Arkham, Massachusetts. You don’t pay Massachusetts taxes on a property like that without wanting to spend at least a little time there, and so Ward and his wife Anne (Debra Paget, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS) decide to move in, only to find that the townspeople are suspicious and hostile to them.

Oh right, their hostility makes sense, now that you mention it, because we saw in the opening that back in 1765, the townspeople lynched the then-occupant of the Not-Yet-Haunted Castle, one Joseph Curwen (Vincent Price, DEAD HEAT), on strong suspicion of being a warlock. And while you hate to endorse mob violence, they might have had a point in this case, inasumuch as Curwen cursed the town and its inhabitants with his last breath, and it seemed to, uh, take. To this very day, the descendant of the original townspeople are saddled with debilitating deformities. So Curwen's subsequent promise to rise from grave and take his revenge carries a little more weight than it otherwise might, and you can imagine the townsfolk are none too pleased when his great-great-grandson, who turns out to be a spitting image of the old wizard right down to being exactly the same age and sporting identical facial hair, shows up at the castle and makes himself at home. And those little physical similarities do not go unnoticed by Joseph Curwen himself, whose evil spirit seems to have taken up residence in a gigantic painting which will serve nicely as a conduit to take possession of his descendant’s mind! Charles himself, alas, has no idea about any of this and no way to prevent it, so he, ah, doesn’t turn out to be much of a character.

This is, at least in broad strokes, exactly the plot Lovecraft had written some 36 years earlier in 1927 (though it was not published until 1941, after his death). It is, apparently, the very first Lovecraft story to ever be adapted for film, (the next would come in 1965 with AIP’s adaptation of The Color Out Of Space as DIE MONSTER DIE!) and even though Lovecraft was not yet a marquee name in the mainstream, it's far more faithful than most of the trash that would follow it. The script by Charles Beaumont (who worked on PREMATURE BURIAL and THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH from Corman’s “Poe Cycle,” among his other work in a busy and influential career) heroically doesn’t shy away from the classic Lovecraftian craziness, though he uses a light touch; Curwen even owns a copy of the Necronomicon, and both Cthulu and Yog-Sothoth get name-checked, though the former doesn’t even appear in the story if memory serves (maybe it’s from the Poe poem?). But despite the much-appreciated color that brings, the tone of the story is unmistakably rather dour; it is, after all, essentially the tale of a mild-mannered guy who gets his life stolen from him by a sinister magician for no real reason other than bad luck.

Bleak nihilism doesn’t exactly play to the strengths of either Corman or Price, and it’s a colder, meaner movie than their usual fare, with a colder, meaner Price in one of his more hissably villainous turns. You could fairly argue it’s less fun –and certainly less colorful-- than the other films in the, ah, "Poe" series, but it also maybe hits a little harder; Corman’s corny B-movie effusiveness isn’t a great fit for the material, but Price is an actor with sufficient range to make the sadistic Curwen a genuinely threatening figure. I prefer him in deliciously mincing mode, of course, but it’s always nice to be reminded that he was capable of a lot more. In a showy double-role, he carries the movie more or less by himself, aided only by Debra Paget’s affecting commitment to the role of Ward’s distressed wife who suspects her husband is no longer entirely himself.

Which is not to say there’s any shortage of acting talent on hand here, but other than Price they’re not used to their potential; Lon Chaney Jr. (in his sole Corman production, if you can believe it!) and Elisha Cooke Jr. (ROSEMARY’S BABY, THE BIG SLEEP, THE KILLING) are wasted in minor roles, while the bland local doctor (Frank Maxwell, MR. MAJESTYK) eventually wins the musical chairs of who will emerge the protagonist, since it’s certainly not going to be a woman (Paget does fine work, but it’s a thankless, somewhat demeaning role, as I suppose befits a female lead inserted unnaturally into a Lovecraft story).*

Speaking of protagonists, the film’s major problem is doesn’t really have one. As with so many possession stories (from BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB to LORDS OF SALEM), we once again discover that having a main character who is subject to possession leaves the film stranded without any character capable of advancing the plot or experiencing conflict. “Charles” spends the majority of his time on-screen under the influence of Joseph Curwen’s mind whammy, and even if we’re told he’s “fighting” Curwen’s influence, this is a visual medium and just taking it on faith that the main character is taking action we can’t see is not going to cut it. That leaves Curwen as the functional protagonist, since he motives every single narrative action, but since he’s a rather loathsome villain, somebody eventually has to turn up to take action against him. Like I said, this was made in 1963 and it’s adapting Lovecraft, so that hero obviously can’t be the only person who has a meaningful emotional stake in this conflict, since that would be a woman (his wife) and she must inevitably end up a damsel in distress. So, uh, I guess get excited for an unnecessary minor character, who has heretofore only existed as a vehicle for rote exposition, to suddenly turn into an action hero in the final reel. What, do you find that unsatisfying in some way?  

  Lovecraft’s story has the same problem, of course, and in fact it’s something of a feature of his work (see the even more narratively broken The Dunwich Horror and the subsequent film version of the same name). But Lovecraft's oeuvre tends to be structured in a deliberately antiquarian style, often using multiple framing devices and epistolary in a way which gives the stories some unique flavor as written objects, but transitions to more traditionally structured film narrative less than gracefully. At any rate, it's an affectation which doesn't have a very neat parallel in the medium of film, and it's a chief reason why his work has such a dismal track record on-screen. It's fitting, then, that Lovecraft should first make it to the silver screen riding on Poe's coattails, since if there is any other artist more celebrated and influential whose work has suffered more wretchedly in the translation from page to screen, I certainly cannot name them. The problem, I think, is that while both Poe and Lovecraft had a certain gift for clever scenarios and memorable --even iconic-- details, neither one is especially celebrated for tight narrative plotting. They were artists who excelled in cultivating a feeling, not through their stories themselves, necessarily, but through their medium. As clunky and easily parodied as it is, Lovecraft's trademark archaic writing style is part of that feeling, and simply transferring the basic components of his plot to the screen in an otherwise contemporary cinematic style loses something of that feeling. Poe, of course --even less devoted to gripping plotting and far more gifted as a writer-- tends to fare even worse. 

That remains the case here, though at least there are enough other things to enjoy (Price's sadistic charisma, the cyclopian sets and murky, inimitable Corman spook-house atmosphere) that it feels like a less crippling loss. THE HAUNTED CASTLE, as an independent object, is a perfectly enjoyable Corman production, and certainly captures enough of Lovecraft's charm to be in the top tier of his film adaptations (though that's a perilously low bar to clear). But it's still a reminder that to successfully adapt great art** requires equally great art, but of a radically different kind. It's not enough to merely enjoy the artist you're adapting; you have to be able to find the fundamental strength of that art, and then transfer that strength into an entirely new medium which is constructed with equal craft towards evoking that same ineffable feeling. Not a thing which is easily done. But thankfully Price and Corman were artists enough in their own right to make this an entertaining version of the thing that they did well, even if it loses something from its literary source. And as Lovecraft adaptations go, hey, at least this is better than BLEEDERS.   

* One irritation once things get going is that Price-as-Curwen, as well as his eventual villainous collaborators Lon Chaney Jr. and third wheel Milton Parsons (prolific bit player, with uncredited roles in everything from WHITE HEAT to MARNIE), wear mud-facial makeup, I guess to give them a corpse-y look, or to visually distinguish Price-as-Curwen from Price-as-Charles. But it’s never applied evenly (the faces are brown-gray, but their necks and hands just look more bright pink by comparison!) and it's really distracting to look at. They should probably just have trusted Price to differentiate the roles via his performance (though poor Charles doesn’t really get to do much to distinguish himself). I don’t know what make up artist Ted Coodley (PANIC IN YEAR ZERO, THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM) thought he was doing here, but it’s not a winner. Maybe it was less noticeable in a grainy grindhouse print? Sometimes the era of HD has its drawbacks.

** Not that I would claim Lovecraft as a great artist (though Poe indisputably was), but he was certainly one who made deliberate and, broadly, successful choices in his chosen medium.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

The Guard From Underground

The Guard From Underground (1992)
Dir. and written by Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Starring Makiko Kuno, Yutaka Matsushige, Hatsunori Hasegawa

            THE GUARD FROM UNDERGROUND (more literally translated, I gather, as The Guard From Hell) is a minor but crucial entry into the filmography of the other monolithic Japanese auteur named Kurosawa. It's minor because it is, in itself, not so hot. But it's crucial because of its place as a clear turning point in his early career. After his initial journeyman’s years directing comedies and Pinku eiga films —or, why try and class this up with fancy foreign lingo? I mean softcore pornos*--, Kurosawa had just made his first horror film with 1989’s SWEET HOME. He probably didn’t know it yet, but he was taking his first steps down a path that would define his career; while he hasn’t worked exclusively in horror since then, (he’s dallied with crime thrillers, yakuza films, sci-fi, drama and even romance in his lengthy, now-four-decade-long career!) it is the horror genre which made him an international icon, and it is within that genre that he established the distinct aesthetic for which he is most known for today.

But you’d never guess all that from a casual viewing of his first experiment with the genre. Far from his trademark glacial, clinical remove, SWEET HOME is a frenetic, special-effects-driven fun-house ride. If it gives us any glimpses of the Kurosawa who was to come, they are oblique and far outnumbered by material which seems distinctly unlike him. In fact, the movie is widely reported to be at least equally influenced by producer Juzo Itami (THE FUNERAL, TAMPOPO), who may have (or may not have; details in English are pretty sketchy) exercised an outsized control on the production and final cut, perhaps akin to the rumors which have always surrounded Spielberg and POLTERGEIST, minus, presumably, the mountains of cocaine. Of course, SWEET HOME’s atypical broad tone and zippy pace might just as easily be the result of a relative neophyte director still finding his feet and considering what he wants to do with the medium; you never really know these things. But at any rate, it’s beyond argument that the director’s first sojourn into the horror genre is scarcely recognizable as the work of the distinctive artist who would make such a big impression less than a decade later with CURE.

            So it is meaningful, then, that THE GUARD FROM UNDERGROUND, Kurosawa’s next film** after SWEET HOME, very much is the work of that same artist. Even in a somewhat embryonic state, the aesthetic is unmistakable, which makes this something of a historical landmark: the debut of Kurosawa the auteur, rather than Kurosawa the journeyman. Even if it had nothing else going for it at all, that would make it essential viewing for any true scholar of horror cinema. It’s all here, more or less, right from the get-go: the camera pulled back to a dispassionate distance, the quietly alienated performances which barely seem aware of each other, the detached sense of social isolation, the icy, patient long takes, the blunt matter-of-factness of the tiny bursts of violence.

            What is not here, on the other hand, is a more typical enigmatic Kiyoshi Kurosawa plot. His movies, by and large, tend to be motivated by inexplicable supernatural horrors; even when he’s dealing in recognizable sub-genres (serial killer flick with CURE, ghost story with RETRIBUTION) the details are often elusive and unexpected. Consequently, much of the horror stems from the nebulous, ambiguous nature of the danger, which never resolves into something comfortably comprehensible and hence retains its ability to haunt.

            THE GUARD FROM UNDERGROUND takes a very different approach. It's almost shockingly straightforward, and, at least on the surface, that makes it one of Kurosawa's most clearly classifiable genre efforts. In fact, in another director’s hands, this script might well seem so baseline generic as to need some kind of further hook. It is, well and truly, a slasher film, and one which mostly seems to be content to be purely that. And as such, it also seems content to play by standard slasher rules: we are introduced to a “final girl,” who will end up trapped in a foreign environment with some disposable body count characters, only to be menaced by a mysterious, frighteningly effective killer with a yin for colorful flair in his murders and a relevant backstory.

            All this is textbook slasher movie boilerplate, and all of it is very much present here. And not even in some deconstructed, meta-textual way; whatever else the movie may be trying to do, it is obviously genuinely committed to being a meat-and-potatoes slasher. Our final girl will be Akiko (Makiki Kuno, MUSHISHI), a recent hire at a Department 12, apparently a section of Akebono Corp, some sort of large and vaguely defined international business. Her job seems to be to advise the department on the purchase and sale of  paintings, which seems like it’s gotta be a metaphor but I’ll be damned if I can figure out for what. Meanwhile, the same day she starts work, the company gets another new employee: a hulking, silent security guard named Fujimaru (the debut role for now-veteran Japanese character actor Yutaka Matsushige, who has parts in RINGU, RASEN, ONE MISSED CALL, SURIYAKI WESTERN DJANGO, GODZILLA 2000, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s CHARISMA, two out of there Takashi Kitano OUTRAGE movies, and a movie called ADRIFT IN TOKYO, definitely not to be confused with TOKYO DRIFT). Fujimaru, with his silent, spacey near-catatonia, seems a little “off,” but we wouldn’t have cause for concern except that we heard on the radio that a disgraced ex-sumo wrestler is on the loose, despite having murdered two people already. That seems like it might be, --gulp!—relevant information.

            Fujimaru, of course, takes a shine to Akiko when he finds one of her lost earrings, but Akiko doesn’t realize she has a secret admirer until she discovers a makeshift shrine with her face on it in the, um, weird creepy basement (?) of this huge multinational corporation (she actually goes back to work that very day! Damn, these Department 12 employees need a union). But this is not just a sign of an unusually friendly office culture. Before long, Fujimaru has locked her and a handful of co-workers inside the building (which seems to be an uninsurable firetrap, where every door locks from the outside and the lighting is a sickly green that makes the Matrix look cozy) and is methodically embarking on a murderous rampage. So it’s pretty much DIE HARD if Bruce Willis was a crazed ex-sumo-wrestler-slasher.

            That probably sounds like more fun than it actually is, unfortunately. Despite plenty of precedent, I’m afraid this Fujimaru character’s sumo background doesn’t much inform his side hustle as a murderous security guard. For starters, he doesn’t exactly fit the physical body type you’re probably imagining when I use the phrase “ex-sumo-wrestler-slasher.” He’s definitely physically imposing – at 6’ 2’’, Matsushige absolutely towers over the rest of the cast—but lanky rather than bulky, even with his blocky security guard uniform accentuating his shoulders and torso and giving him a distinctly regimented look, somewhere between a military officer and a bellhop. And I’m absolutely devastated to have to inform you that he doesn’t seem to devote his wrestling skills to the task of murdering a bunch of nerdy office workers; he’s not, like, superplexing people to death, or whatever the sumo equivalent of that would be. And he never struts down a walkway to the ring flanked by a posse of belligerent hangers-on while shitty rock music plays, which popular culture has led me to believe is the single most important aspect of wrestling other than barely-suppressed homoeroticism and hating Vince McMahon.

           Fortunately it’s not a total loss; while he never wears one of those asscrack-hugging sumo-wrestling thongs,* his great strength affords him a wide range of options in the field of murder, and he nearly always settles on the most brutal one available. Like I said, this is a Kurosawa who seems perfectly comfortable --if never exactly desperate— to provide some cheap thrills.

This makes it an interesting experiment for Kurosawa, who accommodatingly plays by standard slasher rules, and yet doesn’t ever quite do what you’d expect, either. He knows how to stage a satisfying setpiece death scene, as when Fujmaru elects to bash a victim into every single dangerously fragile steam vent in a narrow hallway, or when somebody gets tossed into a locker which Fujumaru then crushes like an empty soda can. But he’s just as likely to indulge in his characteristically simple, matter-of-fact framing of shocking events, which make the sudden bursts of brutal violence seem shocking and unexpected.

It’s an interesting effect, and it works like gangbusters in some of his subsequent films, most notably CURE. But I’m mixed as to how well it works in this context; slashers tend to work best in a purely visceral flight-or-fight mode, and Kurosawa’s general refusal to play the game of amping this shit up may not be the best approach to the material. His unblinking straightforwardness in the face of bizarre horror is aces at pumping up dread, but maybe not the best approach at generating excitement in something so literal. Not that it’s boring, exactly; it’s positively zippy by his usual standards. But while a static, medium shot of the killer smashing someone to pieces with no music or editing packs a sickening sort of punch, it doesn’t exactly pump up your adrenaline.

Still, it does make for an interesting approach to the killer; there’s no doubt even from the start who he is --there's no whodunit angle here-- but Kurosawa’s purposefully restrained approach extends to the way he frames him. Slashers, of course, are really about the slasher. Sure, there are characters who will become his victims, but come on, we know Freddy is the star of the show, not Heather Langenkamp. And the camera tells us as much; even when the typical slasher is kept visually obscured, he still dominates the film, relentlessly taunting us to search the shadows for a glimpse of him. And when he finally appears, we can be certain to get a thundering money shot of an introduction, the camera lovingly framing the villain as the subject of our awed terror, and consequently the dominating force of a horror film.

Kurosawa does something distinctly different. He doesn’t exactly avoid showing Fujimaru, he just steadfastly avoids making him the center of attention. He’s usually going to be found in the middle distance of a shot, perfectly visible, not in any way concealed, but with no apparent awareness on the camera’s part that he’s important. Despite his hulking stature and fierce savagery, he tends to blend into the background, a passive object rather than a functional protagonist. Like Jason, he is an inscrutable force of nature, but a more opaque, less comprehensible one. He doesn’t seem angry, especially, doesn’t seem disturbed, doesn’t seem like he’s sadistically enjoying this or perversely disgusted by it. He simply does it. He remains calm and methodical, even as he’s bludgeoning someone to paste. Even his psychotic fixation on Akiko takes a decidedly remote cast, avoiding anything resembling carnality. He’s more black hole than raging inferno, impassively absorbing rather than lashing out. When he must appear as an object of the camera’s interest, he’s nearly always obscured in shadow (sometimes in striking silhouette) allowing his giant frame to define the character, rather than his boyish, unremarkable face. Kurosawa is very interested in his body, in the deliberate, savage violence of his movements – but not in the logic that motivates them. As such, he remains an enigma, a nonentity, defined for much of the movie, in fact, by his boss, a jovial older fellow who turns out to be surprisingly comfortable with the idea of having a loyal underling he can direct to murder people he finds inconvenient. In fact, the first murders that Fujimaru commits (beyond the lovers’ quarrel slayings which happened before the events of the movie) are done at the behest of his boss, further calling into question his basic autonomy.

There are, in fact, little hints here that this is all about something more than a crazed loner with nothing to lose who turns to violence. Much of the movie, maybe even the entire first half, in fact, is more about a different kind of horror altogether, the alienated, powerless dread of office life. Like many of Kurosawa’s movies, the horror seems to bubble up in some indirect, sublimated way from the rigid, alienating structure of Japanese society, here summed up within the microcosm of an office building (virtually the entire film takes place there), a blandly grim concrete-and-glass tombstone which literalizes both the isolating effects of the workplace inside (“Department 12,” apparently a new venture, seems to be connected to the rest of the company by a shared elevator and nothing else) and its stratification, with eccentric, arrogant HR head Mr. Hyodo (Hatsunori Hasegawa, GAMERA 2: ADVENT OF LEGION, Ultraman 80sitting atop the heap and coldly judging his underlings to be pathetically wanting, while he apparently fools around doing nothing in his spacious, upper-tier office. And even within this crushingly dehumanizing environment, Akiko is an outsider, uncertain of her place within the culture and openly objectified by both her sleazy, sexually aggressive boss Mr. Kurume (Ren Osugi, CURE, AUDITION, HANA-BI) and another co-worker. In fact, Mr. Kurume’s lecherous advances hardly seem less appropriate than Fujimaru’s inexplicable fixation on her. Fujimaru, at least, has reason to see her as a kindred spirit: neither one of them fits in here.

Now, all that is rather more interesting to talk about than to actually watch, understand; like I said before, the film primarily aspires to be a simple slasher, and while loading it up with a bunch of hazy, gloomy metaphors adds a little psychological kick, it is, if anything, somewhat detrimental to any hope the movie ever had of evoking the visceral, fight-or-flight adrenaline rush which is the only thing that really matters about a good slasher. Which leaves us with a movie which is interesting, but arguably not a very good slasher. Not that it’s a terrible slasher, either; the overall quality of the slasher genre writ large is so dire that even moderately competent attempts probably work out to be in the top percentiles, and this is far more than moderately competent. But that said, is isn’t exactly gripping stuff, either. It is merely interesting, and more as an artifact from the career of a notable artist than as an independent object. ‘Which do you think has more value?” Akiko, the former museum curator, is asked, “Is it a masterpiece by a lesser artist, or a lesser work by a master?” Akiko thinks the former, because “the value of a painter can change in the future, but the fact that it’s the masterpiece of the painter never changes.” By that logic, THE GUARD FROM UNDERGROUND is clearly a lesser work by a master, and probably of little real value to most casual fans. But of course, she doesn’t point out there’s another factor involved in value: the interests of the buyer. As a huge fan of a particular master named Kiyoshi Kurosawa, I find quite a lot of value even in a lesser work like this, though I’ll acknowledge that much of that value is more academic than aesthetic.

*On 1983’s KANDAGAWA PERVERT WARS: “Also I don't want to spoil the whole storyline, but in the end we'll see a sexual intercourses between Aki's friend Masami and Aki's boyfriend Ryo and Aki will seduce that boy which had sex with his mother. How this will all happen? You'll know after you'll watch this movie, but one thing which you can say now - there is a plenty of erotic scenes in this film.” – IMDB reviewer Zenka_LT, 2009.

**IMDB lists an interim film called ABUNAI HANASHI MUGEN MONOGATARI which they claim is from 1989, but it seems pretty likely to me that this is actually 1988’s DANGEROUS STORIES, apparently an omnibus film featuring a segment by Kurosawa, as well as Banmei Takahashi (TATTOO HARI) and Kazuyuki Izutsu (BREAKTHROUGH! [2004]). Neither one appears to be available in America, and neither one has one single review on IMDB (“DANGEROUS STORIES” doesn’t even have a listed cast) so I think we can currently feel safe skipping that one until we can say with any confidence what the fuck it actually is, or if was ever even released, or what.

*** Research indicates that this garment is known as a Mawashi, and I was originally going to just write that, but I already went the pretentious route by calling Japanese softcore flicks by their Japanese name and I don’t want to give the impression that I’m some kind of basement-dwelling anime creep who could casually drop the term waifu at any given moment and feel confident they understand what it means. It ain’t like that, I swear!