Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Hellraiser VII: Deader

Hellraiser VII: Deader (2005)
Dir. Rick Bota
Written by Neal Marshall Stevens, Tim Day
Starring Kari Wuher, Paul Rhys, Doug Bradley

    Following the massive, collective shrug that was HELLRAISER VI: HELLSEEKER, Rick Bota again returned to the franchise, surely with the intent of making a memorable, horrifying entry into the series which would restore it’s legacy and make Pinhead fans happy. Or possibly to crank out another generic cash grab with the minimum possible amount of effort, how should I know. The end result does seem to support the second possibility more than the first: again, we’ve got a generic horror script loosely adapted as a HELLRAISER film at the last minute; again, we’ve got a dismal surreal DTV feel where reality is constantly shifting, again Pinhead only appears for like five minutes at the very end. Honestly most of it is virtually indistinguishable from the last two entries, except --if anything-- it seems cheaper, more convoluted, and less ambitious. It does star a lady who has the same last name as the bartender from the Mos Eisley Cantina, though, so that’s a plus.

    Although it’s convoluted and uninvolving, this one does have a slightly more interesting premise than the last two. Kari Wuher plays plucky reporter Amy Klein, a reporter so plucky that we first meet her shooting smack in a grimy junkie’s den, just to get a story. That’s commitment to the profession, and I believe it qualifies as some grade A pluck, at least from a technical standpoint. Pluck, she has, but luck, not so much. So when her boss (Simon Kunz, the guy who gives Ourumov and Xenia Onatopp the Goldeneye in GOLDENEYE, here under the mistaken impression that he’s a scenery-chewing DeNiro-esque character actor) shows her a video which appears to show a weird cult murdering and then reviving one of their own, you can bet she’s on the case. Conveniently, the cult is located in Romania, which means that unlike most of these DTV films that shoot cheap in Romania, this one is actually set there and doesn’t have to half-heartedly try to impersonate New York City. 

Enjoy the familiar face, you won't be seeing much of it.

    The leader of the cult is Paul Rhys, honestly a classier actor than you would think they could get at this point, having worked with Robert Altman (portraying Theo, Vincent Van Gogh’s brother in VINCENT AND THEO) and Richard Attenborough (playing Syndey Chaplin in CHAPLIN. What is it with the guy and playing brothers of great artists?) Judging from his performance here, though, he’s probably aware that a DTV HELLRAISER sequel is a significant step down even from being 10th-billed in FROM HELL (that’s four lower than Jason Flemyng, who plays “coachman”). He looks like he’s devoting 30% of his energy to the scene and 70% to imagining how he’s going to fire his agent. Plus he looks sort of like Ted Raimi, so it’s a little hard to take seriously the idea that a bunch of suspiciously-attractive women and men think this guy’s the shit, even if he does bring people back from the dead*. All this has something to do with the puzzlebox, and Pinhead seems royally cheesed off by the whole thing, although it’s never exactly clear what the deal is or why Pinhead cares if some jerk in Romania is continuing the work of the late Dr. Herbert West. First he’s teaching people lessons about morality, now he’s playing grim reaper, what the fuck, is he the only denizen of Hell who does any work around this joint? I hope this guy’s got a nice Christmas bonus this year.

Anyway, getting to the Paul Rhys cult involves some mystery-solving, which is the most interesting thing here because the mystery is so convoluted and nonsensical that they have some fun coming up with random steps in the process of getting to the cult. The best, and by far the most memorable part of the whole movie, involves Amy pluckily climbing aboard some sort of metaphysical hedonism train to talk to this guy Joey who seems like kind of a big deal, I dunno. It looks like they spent most of their budget on this crazy ass hedonism train, which is just packed with naked chicks, needle drugs, vague graffiti, strobe lights, and sadomasochistic hijinks. In fact, there are more titties in this one scene than in the entire series up to this point, and given that this is a feature to both of Rick Bota’s entries into the series so far I’m going to have to assume it’s a major aspect of his auteurial vision. Anyway, the scene is over-the-top enough to at least seem perverse, which is closer to an actual feeling than anything else this series has evoked for some time now. Later she comes back and everyone on the train has been slaughtered and there are just a bunch of limbless torsos hanging in sex harnesses and so on, it’s pretty rad. I guess they died doing what they loved, though, so don’t feel too bad.

I can't see any harm in opening this ornate evil cube I pulled out of the hands of a corpse.

I should also say something nice about Kari Wuher, the actress who plays our plucky heroine. She’s not exactly the world’s best actress, but she commits to the part pretty respectably. When she screams “NOOOOOO!!!!!” you can see her suck in her breath and really belt it out, heroically overdoing it in a series which has been marked by listless, mopey nonperformances for the last couple installments. She’s also ballsy enough to do a pretty crazy scene where she wakes up topless and in her panties to discover there’s a huge kitchen knife sticking out of her back. It’s one of those what-the-fuck scenes like when Virginia Madsen wakes up covered in blood in CANDYMAN where it seems like it has to be a dream and then it just keeps going. You gotta give the gal credit for doing a scene where she’s basically nude but instead of looking sexy she’s screaming and whimpering and covered in blood on the bathroom floor, helplessly trying to pull out a foot-long kitchen knife jammed into her spine (when she can’t get it out, she wraps duct  tape around it and puts on a coat to conceal the fact that she’s gonna be spending her day with a knife handle sticking out of her clothes. That may actually go a little beyond simple pluck.)

    So, Wuher is clearly hustling, but in general the movie is not. For evidence, look no further than the tag-line on the cover of the box, which attempts to pique the interest of the casual viewer with perhaps the tamest come-on ever, “the latest, most terrifying evil.” Seems kind of unfair to call Pinhead evil after all the good work he’s been doing lately to teach people to be nicer, although he’s admittedly kind of villainous here. But “The latest”? Why not just say, “It’s a new one, what the fuck, you’ve got nothing better to do.” I guess since they got shy about putting numbers on these after part 5, they want to make sure people know that yes, this is the new one. It probably also doesn’t help that the covers of HELLRAISER I, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, and 9 are all essentially identical, so it doesn't hurt to have a little reminder that even though this looks exactly the same** it’s actually “the latest” one. I can only assume the marketing guys thought the series would end here, because, of course, the existence of part 8 definitively establishes that part 7 is no longer the latest (and a long way from the most terrifying, but that’s a little harder to prove in court) but now it’s doomed to claim it’s the most current forever, just like poor FREDDY’S DEAD: THE FINAL* NIGHTMARE (*The use of the word “final” does not actually denote that this is the final one).  

It's pretty bright on this debauchery train, so the sunglasses make sense.

    What does this mean for our beloved series? Well, it simply means the series is still treading water, pulling the exact same bullshit that shamed them and sullied Pinhead’s good name for the last three movies. In fact, HELLRAISER V-VII are so similar you could almost look at them as a kind of trilogy -- they’re all about driven, amoral loners who are forced to face the truth about themselves through a hallucinogenic journey brought on by Pinhead and vaguely related to opening the puzzlebox. They’re all developed from other scripts, they’re mostly about muddled, unimaginative surrealism rather than the grotesque mythology originally developed by Clive Barker for the original (and to a lesser extent parts II-IV), and none of them have much Pinhead or seem to make sense with his character even when he does show up. The difference in number VII is that now this shit has been going on long enough that we can’t really pretend it’s a fluke anymore; this is the new definition of the series. And to celebrate the new, lowered standards hardcore fans now held for the franchise, Rick Bota decided that after part VII came out he’d call up Lance Henriksen, stop trying, and really just run the whole thing into the ground once and for all. Prepare yourself, dear reader, for HELLRAISER VIII: HELLWORLD.  

1: HELLRAISER (1987)

Who wants a hug?

*They say this douchebag is the descendant of the original L’Merchant, but that seems questionable because he’s not played by Bruce Ramsay and as we know from HELLRAISER IV: BLOODLINES all descendents of L’Merchant looked exactly like him for at least 300 years. Why couldn’t they just have gotten him back? It would have been nice for the continuity, and Rhys could have gone back to playing the brother of famous artists way sooner.

**Part 8 looks a little different because Pinhead’s face is made of a collage of MATRIX-y 1’s and 0’s to artistically communicate the fact that it’s about video games.

Yep, there's a few solid back-and-forths between our protagonist and some female cultys.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Hellraiser VI: Hellseeker

Hellraiser VI: Hellseeker (2002)
Dir. Rick Bota
Written by Carl V. Dupre (DETROIT ROCK CITY, wha?), Tim Day
Starring Dean Winters, Ashley Lawrence, Doug Bradley, Michael Rogers

HELLRAISER VI begins Rick Bota’s 3-movie run on the series with the minimum possible amount of effort, basically remaking the already tepid part V, but less interesting. Bota was director of photography for THE GLIMMER MAN, so shit, why not direct a HELLRAISER sequel? This one tries to regain some of the series’ lost legitimacy by bringing back original star Ashley Lawrence as Kristy, but don’t get too excited sports fans, she’s barely in it and was obviously just an afterthought added to an already-written generic horror script. All is not lost, though, because you got the guy from those “Mayhem” progressive commercials as our lead here, sleazing it up as Kristy’s now ex-husband. That sounds good, right?

    Basically, the premise here is that Trevor (Duffy from 30 Rock) wakes up after a bad car crash to find that his wife, Original Kristy, is missing and that he is suffering from those hallucinations that all HELLRAISER movies have now and can’t remember key elements of his past. Random women keep making out with him and claiming he’s been having affairs with them, but he doesn’t remember and doesn’t buy it. Doesn’t seem like him. He may be Dean Winters, but he’s a nice guy, he wouldn’t have been cheating on Kristy, he’s pretty sure. He’s the only one around who seems to share that assessment, though, and to make matters worse there are two detectives who are pretty sure he had something to do with Kristy’s disappearance, especially after they find out she was secretly rich thanks to the life insurance money from ‘ol Dad and Uncle Frank (didn’t seem that way in HELLRAISER II: HELLBOUND, but I guess these things take time. I’ll trust to HELLRAISER VI’s superior knowledge of the insurance system). 

One of maybe 5 times you'll see Ashley Lawrence on-screen.

OK, so we’re stuck with Liz Lemon’s deadbeat boyfriend in the lead, Pinhead’s nowhere in sight and no one is “Hellseeking” anything as far as I can tell. But surely there’s an upside, right? Well, sort of. Bota isn’t as good a director as part V’s Scott Derrickson (who went on to direct the pretty-good SINISTER) but it looks like he has probably watched JACOB’S LADDER* in the past couple of years, so there’s some fitfully good dreamy paranoia in there. Yes, it was already done better (and still not that well) in the last sequel, but taken by itself this one does OK and at least seems like it’s trying to be a real movie and not just a cheapie cash grab. There’s virtually nothing imaginative or memorable, but at least we’ve got some hints of atmosphere here and there.

The most interesting aspect of the movie is one that I’m not sure the filmmakers realized they had, and that’s actual structure of the story here. The mystery angle --what happened to Kristy?-- is labored and underdeveloped, but the more interesting mystery here is what is happening to Trevor, and more importantly just what the fuck is this guy’s deal, anyway. In a way, the script actually mirrors the unusual main conceit of TOTAL RECALL. Trevor can’t remember much about himself, but knows he’s basically a nice guy who loved his wife. But everyone around him seems to have a different opinion of him. They keep trying to get him to commit various misdeeds and act confused and annoyed when he brushes them off. There’s an interesting horror angle for a better move in there -- what happens if you wake up one day, and suddenly aren’t the person you thought you were? Was Trevor actually an asshole and is just now waking up to how everyone else perceived him, or should he trust his instinct that he’s a good dude and this is all some kind of misunderstanding? Winters plays him as kind of a scuzzball, but also possibly the kind of scuzzball who has a good heart underneath all the asshole posturing, so you’re never quite sure how to interpret the mounting evidence that everyone in Trevor’s life thinks he’s a self-centered scumbag. And there’s a sort of nagging question of what happens if he does turn out to be really an awful person -- does he just go back to his life of debasement, or does he get to start over again with a new personality courtesy of a clonk to the head? And that leads one to think, oh shit, Pinhead’s teaching people lessons about morality again. He really needs to stop doing that.

So, here's Trevor visiting his acupuncturist when she's suddenly replaced by Pinhead. How is it possible that this sequence leads to absolutely nothing memorable?

So there is a tiny grain of something interesting in here, but everything is just executed with such resounding mediocrity that it’s hard to care too much. It’s not bad, exactly, just mediocre. Ever notice how you never really see bad acting in these DTV movies anymore? I mean, back in the 80’s you had bad acting. INFERNO (that's Dario Argento's INFERNO, not HELLRAISER V: INFERNO) doesn’t have a single performance in it that even remotely resembles a real human being. It’s crazy and terrible and stylized and awesome. Now, post-MATRIX, every dipshit actor seems to realize that if they just act morose and listless they won’t look ridiculous like the cast of WATCHERS. It’s moderately more respectable but also way more boring. Nothing makes much of an impact, it all just feels responsible and perfunctory, sort of like... like they were contractually obligated to make a movie based on this franchise and wanted to do it with the minimum amount of work but without looking like total fools. Hmmm. The end result is mostly professional but entirely unremarkable. By the time we finally get to some cenobites and hooks at the very, very end it’s way too late to get anyone to care. Which is kind of a shame, because it actually picks up a little steam as it gets there, finally finding a few fun nightmare gimmicks (the two-headed detective, for example, is an idea crazy enough to be memorable even if it looks about as convincingly real as Sid from TOY STORY).

It feels like a bummer to say this, but there’s just no getting around the fact that this is an entirely unnecessary retread of the last movie with a worse twist and even less Pinhead. It’s not embarrassing so much as tedious, not poorly made so much as underimagined. But in just about every way that counts, that’s worse than just being bad. Let us hope that Part VII’s unpromisingly named “DEADER” has a little more reason to exist and doesn’t just describe the franchise after HELLSEEKER.

*it even has a kindly masseuse, although this one is played by a girl who looks like Counselor Troi and takes off her top instead of Danny Aiello. Weirdly, she's an acupuncturist, but this does not turn out to be important at all or even mentioned.

There are a few pretty good cenobites who show up at the end. Believe it or not, you can actually buy this actual prop.

1: HELLRAISER (1987)

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Album Review: Ghost City Searchlight - "Wasted on the Young"

Ghost City Searchlight
“Wasted on the Young” 2012

    In the interest of full journalistic disclosure, I have to tell you right up front that I’m not an entirely objective source on this topic. I’ve known singer/songwriter Tommy Coupar for the vast majority of my life and have followed the evolution of his band, Ghost City Searchlight, for years. But as Tommy himself will certainly know by now, I love music too much to be dishonest about it. In fact, I wrote a pretty negative review to the album he made with his last band, the jammy-metal outfit Sultry Surfers of the Apocalypse (where Tommy was manning the drum kit as he learned the ropes of the Detroit music scene). But the good news is, it looks like I won’t ever have to do that with this new band, because along with guitarist Dave Brandt, accordionist Jesse Miller, bassist Joe Sleep, percussionist Jess Hanna and vocalist Sian Miller, Tommy has crafted here a fantastic album, summoning from these five tracks a primal and deeply honest --not to mention catchy as hell-- dingy barroom folk punk singalong.

    The album gets right to the point with the menacing guitar fuzz and racing drum march of “Once Upon a Time,” with Tommy spitting snaking, winding rhymes like he’s trying to outrun the drummer (even outnumbering him three to one, the rhythm section can barely wrest control of the tempo from his bluntly snarling delivery). From there, the next four songs wander between haunting melancholy (“Ghost Light) and crunchy Iggy Pop-fueled punk throwdowns (“Five Year Plan”) -- but even at their most aggressive never lose sight of the warm, earnest humanity at the center of each song. Six musicians might seem like a lot for these simple, sometimes sparse punk-folk nuggets, but when a whole band is working together like this well-oiled machine is, you might well wish they were a 20-piece.

    Guitarist Brandt conserves notes like they were bullets in a besieged fort, never generating a single sound that’s not absolutely necessary. But his conservative style allows him to shape each vibration like a fastidious artisan. From the rough jangle of “Five Year Plan” to the barely-perceptible whammy tremolo on “Ghost Light,” he’s a man utterly in control of his sound -- and the result is nothing short of assured, minimalist perfection. The closest comparison I can make is to Keith Richards, and buddy, that ain’t a comparison I make lightly. Unlike Keith, though, Dave’s minimalism offers a generous amount of room for his fellow musicians to play in, allowing accordionist Miller to step in when some flashy showmanship is required. Miller’s great too, utilizing his accordion for a surprisingly versatile sound and evoking everything from a pipe organ to a bagpipe to a poppy keyboard riff. They’re backed up by the rolling thunder of Joe Sleep’s bass and Jess Hanna’s eloquently primitive drumming. 

But of course, the real star here is Tommy Coupar, and his oddball sensibility is all over this recording. His rough-hewn vocals are sweetened slightly by the high counter-point of vocalist Sian Miller, but ultimately sound all the more weatherbeaten for it, matching his haggard, road-weary protagonists step for step. He’s a chronicler of those who’ve chosen --for better or for worse-- to blaze their own path through life, from the angry idealist of “Once Upon a Time” to the unrepentant hedonist of “Smell of Success” and even to an obvious real-life hero, The Clash’s Joe Strummer in “The Future is Unwritten.” His heroes are deeply flawed --often beaten and broken down-- but there’s a love in his voice for each one of them, even as there’s a knowing acknowledgement of their failings. Appropriately, Tommy saves the most optimism for himself, railing against those foolish souls who settle for playing someone else’s game in the jaunty, angular “Five Year Plan.” When he sings, “maybe I’m the only one crazy / maybe I’m the only one sane / maybe I’m the only one / laughing at the rules of the game,” he’s not musing about the question himself so much as challenging us to answer it.

Even as every band member gets a chance to shine, there’s a winning cohesiveness here -- an unmistakable vibe of family and genuine affection which ensures that the sometimes bleak lyrics don’t tilt the balance from Strummer to bummer. And that sense of affection and fun is infectious -- even as Tommy is belting out the lyrics he’s rarely singing alone for any extended period, and his enthusiasm for getting everyone in on the action is equal parts invitation and dare. In Tommy’s barrooms, it’s clear everyone should be singing; and it’s inclusiveness make it all the more punk rock. Frankly put, when you’re invited to a party this full of wild fun and earnest humanism, you’d be crazy not to join in.

At the end of “Smell of Success,” you can hear someone effusively shout, “Nailed it!” Damn right.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Chainsawnukah Holiday Wrap-Up

It's been a wild Chainsawnukah that took more than a month to wind down. What have we learned? Let's break down the numbers!

LOVECRAFT ADAPTATIONS: I’m counting 5. Although NECRONOMICON was actually three adaptations in one movie, and FEAR OF THE UNKNOWN is more a documentary. Two of those adaptations, DUNWICH HORROR and DIE, MONSTER, DIE, are Arkoff/Nicholson productions by the same director, and they’re both somewhere in the vicinity of vaguely faithful translations of his stories. But really, I think only the Chris Gans segment of NECRONOMICON really comes anywhere close to getting Lovecraft’s tone and iconography right. And it’s mostly pretty boring. Funny enough, the grimness and weird imagery of his documentary biography might be the closest thing to a legitimate full movie in the Lovecraft vein. You even get the classic Lovecraft framing device of reading a story about someone else making disturbing discoveries!  

BOOBIES: 15. That’s 15 movies which include boobies, not individual boobies observed. You can safely assume that number would be at least 30, and maybe higher since I feel like a few of these had more than one set on display.

> or = HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS LEVEL GORE: 20. I’ll be honest, nothing was really quite worthy of the great HGL title. But there was some pretty good gore in there. I tried to only report things which had some good over-the-top splatter in them and ignore the smaller-scale violence. Surprisingly, I think the clear winner in this catagory is HELLRAISER III, which features some pretty epic slaughter and it’s exquisitely detailed aftermath.

SEQUEL: 5 sequels, 6 that have sequels (some --looking at you HELLRAISER-- both are sequels AND have sequels).

OBSCURITY LEVEL: Based on my arbitrary appraisal. I went with “low, medium and high” for levels of obscurity, but that proved insufficiently expressive so I moved to a sliding scale, as observed below. Obviously by this point in my career, I’ve seen most movies that might be low obscurity, but I was glad to at least get a good spread. The scale is from the perspective of a normal informed filmgoer, with “Low” being something like STAR WARS which practically everyone knows and “High” being something like CORRUPT which probably the stars don’t even remember filming.

Low                                          Mid                                       High
              III                   IIII     IIII III     IIII  III             IIII IIII    IIII           IIII  

MONSTERS: 16. Personal favorite? The skittering centipede-things from ABSENTIA. Ick, Ick!  

SATANISTS: 4. Less numerous than I assumed they would be, but always memorable when they appear. Next year I may transition to the more inclusive “cultists,” which would have pushed this number way, way higher. I thought Ernest Borgnine would be pretty much impossible to top as a Satanic maniac in THE DEVIL'S RAIN, but Tom Noonan gave him a pretty good run for his money later on in the running in HOUSE OF THE DEVIL.

ZOMBIES: 5. Turned out to be more nebulous a category than I first assumed, as not all reanimated dead people seemed to fit neatly. Are the reanimated corpses that Pinhead makes into shitty cenobites in HELLRAISER III zombies? I mean, they ARE dead bodies reanimated. But still. And what about a guy like Nix from LORD OF ILLUSIONS? He definitely came back from the dead, but not exactly like a zombie, more like a crazy wizard or something. Actually I’m beginning to think this confusion is all Clive Barker’s fault.

VAMPIRES: 2. And man, do I want the vampire from V/H/S to hang out with Boya from BLOOD AND DONUTS. I think he would be a good influence on her and help her be less shy. Unfortunately she seems to have a much lower tolerance for incredibly annoying douchebags than he does, so that might be a stumbling block. Or, maybe she’d be a good influence on him too.

SLASHERS: 5 (non-slasher serial killers: 2). I’m not super into the whole slasher genre, it just does nothing for me, so it’s no surprise that I only really watched one movie which could be honestly called a straight-up Slasher film (OPEN HOUSE) and that one was the worst piece of crap I watched all month. The others were horror films of other types which had at least a small part of the Slasher formula that was identifiable enough I could include them. A couple others had serial killers, including serial killers who did kill *through* slashing, but I dunno. I feel like “Slasher” has a certain specific connotation of the way the killer is presented and the way the story is told.  

CURSES: 10. Various. But I’ll always treasure the explanation from Comrade Exposition at the end of THE SHRINE. When someone finally has the brains to ask him what the hell has been going on with the demonic possessions, permanent fog and aggressive statuary, he helpfully explains: It’s a curse. From a long time ago. Oh shit Captain Obvious, thanks for the explanation, I had assumed that hammering big ass nails into growling women was just a quaint local custom, but now that you’ve said that I think we all understand so much better.

And then, of course, the Alex category. I was curious to see if she’d spent more movies awake or asleep I season -- it was neck and neck all the way throughout, but a final push at the very end of the season put wakefulness on top.
ALEX N/A: 18

I watched 42 movies this Chainsawnukah season, a pretty impressive number by my standards (though it still doesn’t touch the nearly 80 movies watched by my friend, compatriot and movie-enabler Dan Prestwich (see his journey here). They all had their charms and eccentricities, but I was surprised at how many genuinely great things I watched this year. I feel like I ended up stumbling on some unexpected new classics, which certainly doesn’t happen every Chainsawnukah season. Even when they weren’t the best, though, I had fun with all these movies and the bizarre flights of fancy they sometimes took. So without further ado, five convenient categories to tell you if you should watch these turkeys!






HAPPY CHAINSAWNUKAH everyone! See ya next year!

Thursday, December 6, 2012


Magic (1978)
Dir. Richard Attenborough
Written by William Goldman
Starring Anthony Hopkins, Ann-Margret, Burgess Meredith, Ed Lauter, 

    MAGIC is a 1978 psychological horror film directed by Academy Award-winner Richard Attenborough (GANDHI) scripted by Academy Award-winner William Goldman (BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, THE PRINCESS BRIDE) and starring Academy-Award winner Anthony Hopkins, Academy-Award-nominated Burgess Meredith, Academy-award nominated Ann-Margret, and the Academy-Award-worthy boobs of Ann-Margret. It’s about a evil killer ventriloquist dummy.

    Wait a second, what? Those guys have enough Oscars between them to field a professional baseball team, and they made a killer dummy movie? Does that mean that when James Wan made that ridiculous DEAD SILENCE movie that looked like an adaptation of a Goosebumps book he was actually setting himself on a path to make some of the most classy and beloved films of the next few decades? Maybe Wan can finally make that Gandhi sequel where he comes back to seek revenge against everyone who fucked with him. GANESH SENTENCE, perhaps?

    Anyway, obviously I had to see this thing. Problem was, when I first heard about this movie it was impossible. It hadn’t been seen since 1978, when it received some lukewarm praise and promptly disappeared mostly without a trace, precluded from appearing on video due to byzantine legal mumbo jumbo which was not resolved until, as near as I can tell, around 2006. I had searched fruitlessly for this movie in my youth, eventually giving up until the box suddenly and unceremoniously appeared on my netflix queue. I was elated -- a cinematic gem which for years was beyond my reach could and, obviously, now would appear at my door. But could it live up to the obvious greatness that was its destiny?

The answer, amazingly, is yes. This is a pretty fuckin’ great movie. It’s a artfully made, well-acted, subtlety creepy little mesmerizer, full of wonderful touches and memorable moments. It has pretty much everything you’d want out of an evil dummy movie, but also a lot of things you wouldn’t expect -- things like emotions, drama, pathos. You know, girl stuff. In fact, rarely have I ever seen such a pulpy concept pulled off so classily without completely betraying it’s basic genre premise. I was worried Attenborough was too classy a guy to really find the meat in a evil dummy slasher movie, but actually I think he’s kinda into it. He just finds other things interesting too, and manages to balance the highbrow with the lowbrow pretty successfully. I guess I should have known he had some pulpy impulses (he starred in serial killer flick 10 RILLINGTON PLACE and ghost story SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON) but man, he freakin directed GANDHI. His brother narrates nature documentaries. I mean, the guy’s basically the Man With No Name of classiness, drifting into town with a monocle and top hat and using nothing but his erudite diction to teach the rowdy outlaws how to properly appreciate high culture, opera and aged brandy.

Anyway, the movie begins with skinny, youthful Hopkins as fledgling magician Corky Withers. Corky lives with his dying mentor, and has just --after years of preparation-- performed in public for the first time. Only, it was a crowded, noisy open mic night, no one way paying attention, and he was too nervous to effectively sell them on how impressive his trick are. His moves are flawless, but when stuttering, sweating Hopkins tries the ultra-difficult “rising aces” trick and no one even notices, he snaps and flips out a little bit. It’s our first hint that although Corky seems like a nice, shy guy, he may not be all that stable.

Cut ahead to one year later: Corky has the place packed, and his cigar-chomping agent (Burgess Meredith) is close to signing him for a lucrative television deal. So what’s changed? Only one thing: Corky has added a bawdy dummy named “Fats” to his act, allowing him to stay the shy straight man while giving his act a much-needed boost in the charisma department. Of course, it seems like Corky is almost never without Fats these days, and in fact Fats has the uncomfortable habit of talking inappropriately even when he probably shouldn’t, for instance during business meetings. But you know how artists are, with their wacky eccentricities. Everyone’s fine with it until Corky suddenly panics at the prospect of a routine medical exam and secretly flees to a remote town in the Northeast, where he finds boarding at the residence of an old high school flame (Ann-Margret). She’s married, but it’s to that asshole Ed Lauter (hey Ed, Brian Posehn called, he wants his beard back) so she’s sort of intrigued by this odd duck from her past. And. uh, his new dummy pal.

Well, we can all see where this is headed. Corky’s cracking up and trying to keep it under wraps, and Fats is getting increasingly bossy about pursuing more aggressive solutions to Corky’s problems. Basic dummy movie stuff, but Hopkins and Attenborough add an unexpected layer of sadness to all the out-of-control dummy escapades. Without belaboring the point, they impress upon us that Corky really is a fundamentally nice guy. He’s just a insecure, sensitive kid who wants to make a living doing his magic tricks, but unfortunately the stress of trying to live his life has caused him to crack. Or become possessed. Or something.

One nice thing about the movie is that it’s very deliberately ambiguous about where exactly Fats is coming from. Sort of like Calvin and Hobbes, the movie never seems particularly interested in explaining the nature of his reality, instead focusing only on the fact that to Corky, he’s very real, and to everyone else it’s obvious that he’s just a dummy. Fats talks on his own, but never moves without Corky touching him -- is he some kind of malicious spirit that acts through Corky, or is Corky just hearing his own crazy thoughts filtered through the made-up personality of someone less inhibited? Attenborough’s not telling, but he correctly identifies the more interesting strand as Corky’s psychological instability and hence focuses most of his attention on that. Whether or not there’s anything else going on here, he wisely (and with unusual discipline for this genre) leaves to your imagination -- though he can’t resist leaving in one single gloriously suggestive shot where Corky gets up from the couch and Fats --normally corpse-still when not being operated-- follows him with his eyes. Woah, is that a game changer, or just an isolated window into how Corky sees the world?

There’s plenty of good creepy dummy action, of course (particularly for you sufferers of automatonohobia, as you can plainly see from this terrifying early trailer, which if you believe the real-life ventriloquist in the DVD interview was only ever shown once before it had to be pulled from the air for freaking people out). Fats is a particularly unnerving dummy, --even more so once you realize he’s sort of an exaggerated parody of Hopkins’ own face*-- but the creepiest thing about him isn’t his appearance or his screechy 30s-gangster voice (also provided by Hopkins, though as far as I can tell not through ventriloquism) but the control he exerts over Corky. Interestingly, he doesn’t come across as entirely villainous. He’s sometimes encouraging and even helpful, but he’s also an out-of-control id, your friend who always goes too far. Fats is Tupac from JUICE, but he’s in your head and he can make you do whatever he wants.**

This changes the whole dynamic of the horror from what could be a malicious/supernatural angle to one of control. There are murders here, but it’s Corky’s lack of control over his own actions which is truly terrifying. He’s helpless, reduced to standing around and getting his better nature shouted down time and time again. Possession is always a deeply creepy concept, and here we get to see it uniquely literalized.*** Corky’s a prisoner in his own head, well aware that what he’s doing is wrong but utterly unable to stop himself. Which brings us right back to that undercurrent of sadness which runs at least as deep as the horror. He wants to be sane, he really does, but that boat has sailed long ago if there ever was a chance to board it to begin with. He knows he’s nuts, he knows he’s out of control, he knows this can’t end well, but he’s completely and utterly powerless to stop himself. Hopkins’s performance as the stuttering, flop-sweating psycho has all the desperate tension of a trapped animal, pathetic and dangerous at the same time and all the while never quite grasping the enormity of it’s predicament. It’s pretty phenomenal, actually. Hopkins and Fats are the showpiece here, but it should also be said that Ann-Margret, Burgess Meredith, and even ol’ Ed Lauter add layers of humanity to their characters, making them more than just potential victims. There’s an unforgettable scene when Meredith’s character finally figures out just how far out into the deep end Corky has gotten, which plays out tense and awkward and might even be funny except for the look of profound, quiet sadness that suddenly ages Meredith what looks like ten years. He’s not horrified, not even afraid -- but it kills him to suddenly see this promising young man’s hopes and dreams vanish in the blink of a dummy’s eye. Although I guess it doesn’t kill him as much as being literally killed, which is certainly one upside.

Attenborough knows when he has a good thing going, so as director he mostly stays out of the way, not getting especially fancy with the photography and never letting the pace get too slack. He’s got some good atmospherics in the New England location, particularly an isolated lake which feels simultaneously stagnant and menacing. But really, the only other element of the production which asserts itself is Jerry Goldsmith’s excellent and imaginative score. It’s a typical moody orchestral score for the most part, but whenever Fats is getting up to trouble, this maddening, atonal harmonica lick clambers over top of everything. It’s nothing by itself, but its occurrence is so random and out-of-sync with the normal score that it’s deeply disconcerting (and actually nicely musically illustrates the dominating, abrasive presence of Fats in Corky’s brain). Man, when was the last time you heard a score that honestly struck you as innovative? Probably the last time Jerry Goldsmith gave a shit, sometime back in the mid-70s before Hollywood broke his spirit.

Apparently, Gene Wilder was originally up for the part of Corky over the then-unknown Hopkins, which needless to say causes the mind to practically reel at the potential (producer Joseph Levine said no). As great as Wilder would obviously have been, though, I think the combination of these particular elements on this story at this point in their careers would be pretty much impossible to top. Everyone brings their A-game, delivering everything you’d expect from this kind of high-class professional, and then, amazingly, each also brings something unique and unexpected which somehow end up still meshing together into a highly cohesive, deceptively elegant package. The end result is probably too impossible to categorize for most audiences to easily embrace it -- to genre for the arty crowd and too staid for the horror nuts -- but if you’re willing to just accept it for its own weird dichotomous self, there’s enough power in this sad, eerie and strange tale to take you just about anywhere it wants you to go. Presto chango! This is one dummy you won’t mind taking control of your mind.

*Supposedly, Hopkins asked for the dummy to be delivered to his apartment when it was completed so he could get a feel for it’s weight and mobility. A few hours later he called the producers and told them that if they didn’t come get the thing right now he was going to chop it up. He didn’t know it was going to look like him, and it freaked him out so badly he almost quit the movie. When you can make Hannibal Lecter panic at the very sight of you, you’re probably doing pretty good for a horror movie icon.

**And also he’s made of wood and has Anthony Hopkins' hand up his rectum, so in that sense a little different.

***Actually it also has some things in common with that Not of The Living Dead series I did on Romero. It would fit nicely into that sequence, I wonder if Romero ever saw it?


LOVECRAFT ADAPTATION: No, William Goldman adapts his own novel.
BOOBIES: Some of the very finest, in a sex scene that even the ventriloquist interviewed for the DVD explicitly points out is completely gratuitous. Richard Attenborough, you old dog.
OBSCURITY LEVEL: High, especially considering the cast. Out of print until recently.
SLASHERS: Actually if the movie was from a different perspective it would make a good slasher. But no.