Friday, July 19, 2013

Satan's Spawn

Book Report: Satan’s Spawn
Written by Richard Jay Silverthorn
Based on FEAR NO EVIL, written and Directed by Frank LaLoggia

"little Andrew will capture your heart..and devour your very soul."

Every once in awhile, you run into a work of art so strange, so ill-considered, so patently bizarre, that it ceases to be good or bad and becomes mysterious. Who made this? What in God’s name were they trying to do here? Who did they honestly think would be into this? How did they convince people to give them money to pay the hundreds of other people they somehow managed to rope into helping them make it? How is this still available, and not yet lapsed into the public domain?

Such is the case of Frank LaLoggia’s baffling 1981 highschool horror enigma, FEAR NO EVIL. I watched it in ever-escalating amazement with some of the most fluent cinephiles I am aware of, and each was forced to admit that they’d never seen anything like it. About halfway through its bizarre 99 minutes, we all had to turn to each other and acknowledge that this little film was so completely alien to us that we honestly had no idea where it was going. When it ended, we still didn’t know. It’s full of recognizable elements, but they simply refuse to add up in any kind of predictable (or discernable) way. When I wrote my review of the film, I said:

What makes this one kind of interesting is that despite all the worn 80s high school tropes on display, the film is surprisingly ambiguous. Everything is so familiar that you feel like you know where this is going, but the film craftily (or perhaps obtusely) confounds your expectations and does something weird instead...It's a Frankenstein's monster kind of movie [built from disparate parts of other films] and I genuinely cannot say with any confidence if that reflects ambition or incompetence on the part of the filmmaker... But the ambiguity makes it more interesting.”

Well, what kind of movie nerd can resist a mystery like that? Certainly not Dan Prestwich, who managed to acquire a copy of the novelization by Richard Jay Silverthorn. Even at a Baby-Sitter’s-Club friendly 247 pages, a novel gives more opportunity than a film to elaborate and offer commentary on the proceedings, so I dove into the reading hoping to tease some answers out of the mysterious tale of Andrew Williams, teenage Antichrist.

Andrew Williams, second row, second from left.

Fortunately for our comparison, the book is pretty similar to the movie. The plot, in fact, is almost identical, which is somewhat surprising considering the book has a different title and the copyright page dismissively acknowledges that the novel (we can call it that because it also states, “this work is a novel.”) is “Based on characters appearing in the motion picture FEAR NO EVIL, written and directed by Frank LaLoggia.” Sounds like the author is distancing himself from the source material, but no, it’s all here: Andy Williams (yes, Andy Williams. And yes, his father is again named John Williams. And no, I still don’t get it) is an 18-year-old high school outsider, bullied by a bunch of exaggerated jocks while slowly initiating his plan to bring about the reign of Satan. Again, you have the prologue with an elderly priest stopping just such a plan that occurred in the past, again you have said priest’s sister teaming up with a milquetoast local virgin to save humanity. Most of the major scenes from the movie are quoted more or less verbatim in the book: the boiler-room sexcapades, the death-by-dodgeball, the dog eating, the supernatural boobs, the passion-play-gone-wrong, the castle, the zombies. Yes, the famous shower-room naked open-mouth kissing prank. It’s all there. The author does elaborate a little bit, offering a few new sequences and a slightly more in-depth explanation about the history of these Satanic kerfuffles. But otherwise, it’s basically a direct adaptation. The additions feel like they could be deleted scenes more than major game-changers.

This is fortunate, because we get to relive these classic sequences through the eyes of an omniscient narrator, who clues us into what everyone’s thinking and helps us resolve some of our major questions, the first and most obvious being “what the fuck?” OK, that one’s a little harder to answer, since a lot of the inexplicable weirdness is still there, reported with the possibly overconfident notion that just because it’s explained it’ll also make sense. Why bestow supernatural breasts on perennial jock asshole Tony Indivino? In the movie it’s completely out of the blue. In the novelization, however, Andy explains himself: “You warned me pot would make me grow tits! Your words seal your fate, pot-head. You will have tits like a woman all your life.” (pg 235)

But, uh, does that really explain anything? Why would that pop into his head? Is the Antichrist anti-pot? As you can see, the explanation the book offers usually raise more questions than they answer.

Still, there are answers here. The most satisfying is the resolution of the question of Andy’s sexuality. As you recall, the film (where Andy is portrayed by Warren Zevon collaborator Stefan Arngrim) gives Andy a distinctively effete manner, seemingly completely uninterested in women and subject to some sexually-suggestive teasing (for instance, the eyebrow-raising naked shower kiss scene). Here, though, he’s all man, even lusting after our terminally uninteresting female protagonist and going so far as to murder her boyfriend out of jealousy. It’s a little less interesting, but somewhat of a relief in such a petulantly Catholic horror story to not have the villain be some kind of swishy pervert. It’s also a good thing because in keeping with the movie --and despite some homophobic language being tossed around by the jocks-- this book is probably the single gayest thing that doesn’t directly involve Jackie O since gayness was invented. I mean, I think every major male character has his genitals described in the sort of poetic detail the book usually reserves only for first-hand encounters with the divine, or, even better, the genitals thereof. Let’s take a look:

  • …”he began to stroke his long, thin penis into semi-erection. The pointed end [the pointed end??] began to redden and expand as his breathing deepened.” (pg 87)

  • “He tugged at his crotch, showing her his dripping stiffness, no underwear under his wet-spotted jeans” (pg 66.) By contrast, the girl here just gets a quick mention: “She also was wearing no underwear”

  • “Tony yanked his bulging crotch through his jockstrap (pg 98)

  • (My personal favorite): “But a downward glance to the the reddening, flaring staff with it’s one-eyed corona, probing, probing upwards to her spread thighs was nothing like the little dimple of her hairless baby brother. It was a serpent” (pg 121).

  • "As with victims of hangings [charming metaphor by the way, thanks for that] the naked lad's penis ejaculated a thin stream of semen into the murky pool" (pg 209).

  • And another weird comparison (by a different girl) to a baby's penis: "...She'd seen her baby brother naked many times, but wasn't exactly prepared for the proportions of a mature adult," (keep in mind, these are graduating high school seniors) and it goes on: “He guided his virgin girlfriend's hand to the rubber stretched over the flaring end of his excited cock. Tonight he'd get in her!” (pg 215).

And those are just a few highlights that a quick flip through the book reveals. But wait, you say, everyone likes penises, that’s not necessarily gay. Perhaps, but then you’ve got a few gems like this laying around..

  • “...Steve glanced admiringly at his smooth, tanned physique” (pg 98)

  • “Ivory bars of soap dripped in gooey semenlike streamers,” (in the all-male locker room shower).

And if you want ultimate proof that this guy Richard Jay Silverthorn does not have a large body of experience with women, well...

  • “ His penis filled her, burst her hymen like a nebulous soap bubble, not a barrier of leather,” (pg 121)

Right? First off, nebulous soap bubble? That’s a highly questionable use of the word "nebulous." But seriously, “a barrier of leather” is the most hilariously inappropriate description of a woman’s anatomy since “you grab a woman’s breasts and they feel... like a bag of sand.” If this dude wasn’t gay before, he better learn quick because once the fairer sex gets a look at his fiction I think his options with women are gonna be pretty limited.

The famous naked show kiss from the movie. Don't be thrown off by the long hair, these are both dudes. One of them is the Antichrist, though, which makes this totally not gay, for real dawg.

More than just gay, though, this is a super gay Catholic novel, so it has that wonderful conflict between wanting to be pervy and transgressive while also needing to feel intensely guilty about it. There’s always someone around to lament that these kids with their drugs and sex and swearing all violate god’s holy law, which puts both the reader and the writer in the awkward position of reading a book with a singleminded fixation on those things but also a profound revulsion of them. It compensates, I think, by making the heroine the blandest possible goody-two-shoes (she chides her boyfriend for profanity!) which makes her blameless in the eyes of God and therefore acceptable to side with. However, it also makes her one of the most profoundly tedious characters ever to grace the blank side of a page. I feel like this carries over to the movie, too, except that she’s so boring I just kind of have a vaguely defined empty space in my memory regarding whether or not she was in the movie at all.

Along with the Catholic guilt comes a nice helping of weirdo Catholic mythology, a welcome addition of color into an otherwise somewhat dry yarn. I mentioned in my original review of the movie that I didn’t realize (if it’s ever explained at all) that the heroine, her crazy old lady sidekick, and the priest from the prologue are supposed to be the reincarnated angels Gabriel, Michael, and Raphael. Here, though, that’s more than clear: it’s elaborated on in detail which borders on the obsessive. God --apparently not the helpful type-- has sent them to be reincarnated on Earth at different times, in different bodies, with no memory that they’re angels or way of getting in contact with each other. Which presents kinda a problem because they’re all boring ass shut-ins who don’t really mingle much. All they need to do is find the Antichrist and read a paragraph or two in Latin (which is probably about all they’re up for anyway) so it should be no surprise that they can barely manage even that.

I actually like this nutty side of Catholicism, though, because it leads to some wonderfully convoluted weirdness that only a true believer could really wrap his or her head around, like the suspiciously “don’t worry it’s not sexual because we’re both angels!” “bonding” that happens between the two female protagonists, or the fact that towards the end the author casually drops, “the rapture had begun... they were the first of the faithful to be taken into Heaven as promised,” and then doesn’t feel the need to elaborate any further or mention it again. That’s the kind of olde-tyme religion I can get behind; the kind where the rapture warrants three sentences of explanation, but by God there’s not a single opportunity to describe male genitals which goes unexplored.

Like any story which appears genuine about it’s kooky religious angle, there’s still some uncomfortable ground to be covered. As with last month’s DANTE’S INFERNO (which unfortunately did not turn out to be the sequel to DANTE’S PEAK that I assumed it would be), there’s enough punitive moralizing here to make you start to wonder what the hell God’s problem is, anyway. When one strapping young lad commits suicide to avoid having to worship the Dark One, the Devil laughs,”for no self murderer shall attain heaven,” which seems like a pretty dick move on God’s part. Seems like there ought to be some extenuating circumstances, and one of them obviously should be when you’re about to be raped to death by the Devil as punishment for articulating your loyalty to God. And of course, it goes without saying that the heroine’s virginity is a matter of no small obsession to the text, which finds her rejecting her fiance’s sexual advances on several distinct occasions (the text tells us, “he loved her enough to stop” -- as opposed to what, raping her?). Most unexpectedly, the book also confirms one of the more interesting aspects of Arngrim’s portrayal in the movie version: although Andy is indeed the Antichrist, and isn’t above a little murder, he also seems to have human emotions, feeling affection and insecurity and even, at one point, regret. I guess this is easier for Catholics to deal with, since they’re already down with seeing Jesus as both wholly human and wholly divine (which according to my math totals 200%, not an easy feat even for the creator of the universe), but to us heathens it makes it hard to be completely unsympathetic to the Antichrist when you’re given an intimate view of his more vulnerable moments. Kinda weird, particular since I suspect anyone reading this novel probably has some experience being bullied by the high school jocks to whom Andy eventually serves up an overflowing antique china platter of piping hot revenge. But wait, are we supposed to be siding with the murderous Antichrist? I guess I’ll never understand religion.

There’s also, predictably, a dig at atheists: In one chapter, Andy has a long conversation with a priest, demolishing the guy by asking completely legitimate questions about the reality of God (“funny that there have been no miracle since the advent of photography and television” he scoffs). Thanks asshole, doubters are living in sin, we get it, go back to writing your Satanic rape scenes like Jesus obviously would want. That’s kinda a  bringdown (especially since the priest doesn’t even bother to meaningfully answer him, and we’re supposed to think it’s a good thing). But my favorite uncomfortable Catholic line comes later, when the non-virgins (who, predictably, will all die horribly by the end of the book) give their friend a condom with the words: “Since you’re Catholic you can’t get an abortion and your folks will make you keep it,” as if us everyone else gets abortions like they’re impulse buys at the checkout counter. “I’ll need a pack of smokes, a lottery ticket, and, hmm, better throw an abortion in there. Ooh! And some skittles.”

Alas, there is no "About the author" to accompany this image of him.

Ultimately, all these details add up to an inescapable conclusion. The book makes one thing clear about the movie: It’s a really weird plot. Even when explained in more detail, the whole thing seems kind of inexplicably put together. It feels like John Waters doing a high school remake of THE EXORCIST. Or a ham and butterscotch taco. These are good tastes, but what are they doing together? And when you add the mystery of why in the hell someone would go on to write a novelization of the same plot under a different name, I think we may just have proof of direct intervention from extra-dimensional superbeings. I mean, how else do you explain that? 

Writer Richard Jay Silverthorn did have one connection to the film: he appears in it (as Lucifer, an image of whom amazingly is actually in my original review) and also did makeup and visual effects. Other than that, he has done nothing else whatsoever that leaves any record that could be revealed by an exhaustive internet search. However, IMDB does note one other work: “COLOR ME GAY (1973) - this student film was written, filmed, produced, directed, and edited by Richard while he was at the University of Rochester, New York.” Now, I’m not saying a straight guy couldn’t have directed a gay (or colored, I guess) film while attending the UoR. But uh, I still think that might be a relevant piece of evidence, if I may say so. IMBD also claims that LaLoggia sold him the novelization rights for $1*, so that at least means it wasn’t a huge financial loss for the poor guy. Other than that, though, the enigma of FEAR NO EVIL / SATAN’S SPAWN appears as impenetrable as ever. What's the deal with all this weird crap? Like the Satanically-reanimated zombie near the end of the book who wonder aloud who won the 1963 World Series, ("he had been a baseball fan in life," the text tells us unhelpfully) we'll never know for sure**. But, at least when the inevitable remake arrives in a few years, we’ll have already learned to embrace the mystery.

*although it also calls the novel “Satan’s Child,” while my copy and the only image available of it on the internet clearly names it “Satan’s Spawn.” So take that with a grain of salt.

**Incidentally, it was the Los Angeles Dodgers, sweeping the Yankees in four games for the first time in history. Not sure if that's a metaphor or something.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Vampire Circus

Vampire Circus (1972)
Dir. Robert Young
Written by Judson Kinberg
Starring Adrienne Corri, Anthony Higgins, Laurence Payne, John Moulder-Brown, etc, and also David Prowse is in there.

As we painfully learned in DRACULA: A.D. 1972, by 1972 Hammer was not doing so hot. They had been a boundary-pushing hit machine back in the late 50s and through the 60s, firing up horror fans with then-shocking violence and lurid sexuality that shook the genre out of its corny 1950’s funk. But by 1972, times had changed. THE WILD BUNCH and BONNIE AND CLYDE had already pushed the boundaries of violence far beyond what the British censors would allow, to say nothing of the competition from indie schlockmeisters like Roger Corman and Herschell Gordon Lewis and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and like, literally the entire nation of Italy. Hammer’s gothic, stagey style seemed embarrassing and dated, and the studio was in financial trouble, desperate for a new audience. Soon, they would be cranking out awful tripe like SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA and the martial-arts head-scratcher THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES which would conclusively demonstrate that chasing newfangled trends leads to utter failure.

But, just before the slow, final disintegration really began, we got this, arguably the last Hammer film that really felt like classic Hammer.* It’s gonna check most of the boxes you’d want from a Hammer Horror classic: Period setting, slow build, mysterious atmosphere, baroque but stagy sets, sexual taboo, a bucket or two of red stuff, a British B-movie actor who would later be in STAR WARS. It has that uniquely Hammer feeling of being classy and a bit uptight while still being trashy and exploitive. How do they always pull that off? Leave it to the Brits to make bloody, button-pushing sexually deviant horror feel like it comes with a polite apology.

You will never know happiness like this.

Anyway, what we got here is the story of the shithole little town in 19th century Austria which is for some reason peopled entirely by townsfolk with aristocratic British accents. In a scenario ripped from today’s headlines, they’re having some problems with the local government, in this case an insane Vampiric Count who lives in an evil castle and steals people’s wives and children for his twisted sexual pleasure/blood fetish/food source. That’s not gonna fly with the local peasants, so they storm the castle, stake the bastard, kill everyone inside, and burn the ruins for good measure. Our somewhat-protagonist, local schoolteacher Everyman Q. Müller (Laurence Payne, in his last film role before he retired to become a crime novelist) is down with the regime change, but not so comfortable with all the murder, particularly since his wife was one of the Count’s sexual conquests recently and (even though she’s completely unrepentant) he’d prefer not to see her whipped to death by a mob. He negotiates her release, and she flees into the night.

 And that’s that, right? I mean, it’s not like you can bring a Vampiric count back to life by sacrificing a certain number of the children of the people who killed him, right? And even if you could, it’s not like our recently departed villain had relatives and friends who would eventually return to town as part of a traveling circus of evil in order to do it. And even in the unlikely event that both those things were to somehow happen against all odds, you could always just leave town and escape. I mean, unless there were a plague or something and the town was quarantined by  Austrian soldiers at gunpoint. Which would be so outrageously unlikely you might as well just dismiss the possibility, I don’t even know why I mentioned it in the first place.

The cool thing about this concept is the Circus itself, which is full of nifty stuff. Although this particular vampire circus is indeed on a rescue mission, if this is a cover they really sunk some time into making it seem legit. You got a crazy awesome dwarf carnival barker, David Prowse as a strongman, these acrobat twins who also do magic**, a guy who can turn into a black panther, a naked tiger woman dancer unrelated to the panther guy. Although I guess they’re out to revenge themselves on the townspeople and steal their children and/or blood, they also put on a pretty good show. If you’re going to steal their blood, always leave ‘em with a smile, I always say. Their show is smaller and less flashy than you might imagine, but that kind of fits with the dirt-farming, plague-stricken, superstitious desperation of the time. Even when your wives aren’t being penetrated by aristocratic Eurotrash vampires, it doesn’t look like 19th century Austria is a very fun place to live. You can genuinely see how even this small-time 3-cart circus would be the talk of the town, a window of a more promising outside world which they so rarely get a glimpse of.

I don't know what you call this, but I'm obviously in favor of it.

I think that’s the most interesting thing about the movie. Yes, the circus gimmick is fun, but you’ve seen that done more elaborately elsewhere so it’s not quite the hook it might have been. Moreover, I’m quite of the opinion that circus horror works better when it exaggerates the already surreal, vaguely grotesque qualities of this age-old institution, and here they play it (mostly) pretty literal and straight. These classic Hammer films tend to have a pretty restrained style, so even though it’d be fun to go full-on FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS on this evil circus, it ain’t gonna happen here. But the movie has something more interesting going on in its Hobbesian portrayal of this world of poverty, ignorance, and death. These are desperate, brutal times these people are living in, where brutality and mortality are the rule instead of the exception. Although we’re shown that the Count in question is pretty much an awful asshole, the lynch mob of villagers who show up to murder him and whip his lady friends to death don’t seem much better. So when the Vampire Circus shows up to settle the score, you can’t really get too mad at them for it. In fact, even though they’re a bunch of supernatural bloodsucking carnies, they are also shown to be intensely loyal to each other, and honestly come across about as sympathetically as the townsfolk. I almost wonder if setting this in 19th-century Austria is a way of telling us that this is not exactly a fight between good and evil, but more like an example of the kind of petulant tribalism that would eventually plunge Eastern Europe --and the whole world-- into so many senseless wars and conflicts over a bunch of meaningless nonsense.

Even if not, the film has an interesting kind of nihilism about its characters and their motives. Müller, for example, spares his wife from an awful death at the beginning, even after she’s spurned him. But it ends up not working out so good for everyone, and the purveyors of the Vampire Circus requires a somewhat more blunt approach. The movie doesn’t exactly condemn his act of mercy, it merely assures the audience that he will not be rewarded for it. This kind of bleakness is pretty unusual, even for a horror movie. It adds up to a startlingly gloomy and hopeless world, where we can little expect good deeds to be repaid in kind, nor villainous ones punished, but instead expect horrible and arbitrary misfortune at any moment with no warning or logic to it.

The village, incidentally, attributes its long string of bad luck to a curse by the vampiric Count, as a result of their having, you know, killed him before he got a chance to bone every last one of their women and a selection of the less hirsute men. And there seems to be every indication that this is a correct interpretation of the facts! Normally a curse in a horror movie is the result of having genuinely wronged someone, a gypsy probably, and having that particular wrongdoing continue to haunt you. Not this time though; you can either accept vampiric ravaging of women or you can deal with the curse, and also fuck you. Pretty harsh.

The only problem I really have with the movie is the Count who causes all these problems to begin with. First off, his name is Count Mitterhaus, which makes him sound like a Nazi CPA. Secondly, just look at him:


This is the guy who causes all this fuss? He looks like the brunette cousin of that creepy white hairdresser from GOOD HAIR. Let’s have some higher standards, women of 19th century Austria.

Obviously, this would make a lot more sense.

Anyway, nice to have one last waltz with Hammer before the final curtain. Of course --just like any vampire-- they refused to stay dead, and managed a minor comeback in the late 2000s. In retrospect, I’m still glad I sacrificed all those children to resurrect them, but even pretty decent horror movies like the Potter-enhanced WOMAN IN BLACK and the icky WICKER MAN take-off WAKE WOODS don’t quite capture that unique Hammer-ness the studio had back in its heyday. But hey, as Hammer itself learned in the 80’s, sometimes it’s better to not try to be something specific, but just to be what you are. Sometimes, if you get really lucky, what you are will synch up with where the world is. And sometimes you’re born in a 19th Century Austrian village ruled by a sex-crazed doofus vampire count. Hey, win some, lose some.

* FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL being the other possible contender for that title, though it's from 1974 and noticeably cheaper than this one, where some small modicum of Hammer's trademark faux-opulence is still on display.

**One of them, incidentally, is Lalla Ward, now married to Richard Dawkins. I wonder what he thinks of this movie?