Saturday, 29 May 2010

Dennis Hopper
1936 – 2010

Well this has come as a bit of a shock this evening – I didn’t even know he was ill, to coin a phrase.

Obviously there’s a hell of a lot more, both good and bad, to be said about Dennis Hopper than I’m going to say here (he’s one of those rare people who lived a life so packed with incident it actually *demands* an exhaustive doorstop of a biography).

Beyond all the tales that immortalise him as a maniac, a legendary fuck-up, the ultimate Hollywood beatnik outlaw etc. though, I’ll personally remember Hopper as the guy who proved his artistic worth beyond question by getting his shit together long enough to direct one of my all time favourite films, Out Of The Blue.

So yeah, Hopper sure was quite a fella, and pulled off some tremendous stuff in his time both on-screen and off, but you’ll have all the obits in the papers and on proper movie blogs to tell you about that tomorrow. Like I say, for me it’s all a distant second to that one movie. R.I.P.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Demon Lover Diary.

You remember our friend Donald Jackson, the man who brought the world Roller Blade, Hell Comes To Frogtown and, by extension, the reality-defying trauma that is The Roller Blade Seven?

Well a few years before he moved to Hollywood to get the ball rolling on that lot, Jackson was still living in his native Michigan, and made his directorial debut in 1977 with ‘Demon Lover’, by most accounts a reasonably bizarre/enjoyable regionally produced b-movie that did ok business on video in the ‘80s.

For ‘Demon Lover’, Jackson and co-producer/star Jerry Younkins hired a guy named Jeff Kreines, who drove in from out of town to work as the cameraman/DP. Kraines’ girlfriend Joel DeMott, a budding documentary-maker, tagged along to shoot some “making of..” footage and…. well let’s just say she got a lot more than she bargained for on that slippery slope between documentary gold and stark raving terror.

The video below is a ten minute montage of clips from the resulting ‘Demon Lover Diary’ (1980), and I think it speaks for itself:

If your jaw hasn’t hit the floor by the time they get to Ted Nugent’s house, well… I guess we must just be very different people.

I would dearly love a chance to see the entirety of ‘Demon Lover Diary’ (far more than I actually want to see ‘Demon Lover’), but sadly by attempts to track down a copy have thus far proved fruitless. If you can put me on the right track, please get in touch.

An excellent feature on the film can be found over at Bleeding Skull, who also give us the skinny on DeMott’s equally excellent-sounding Seventeen (1983).

Friday, 21 May 2010

Bad Lieutenant:
Port of Call New Orleans
(Werner Herzog, 2010)

Ok, so, not a full review here, but I’m just gonna write a few paragraphs to let you know that I went to a preview screening of Werner Herzog’s “Bad Lieutenant” a couple of weeks ago (yeah, I know it’s been out in the States for a while, but it’s released in this country this week I think), and, well…. good grief, it absolutely blindsided me. Probably the best Hollywood film I’ve seen in years. And I’m not just saying that because it’s directed by some legendary genius German guy either – I mean, it’s actually more action-packed and tightly plotted and characterful and above all funny than anything the folks in LA who are supposed to specialise in such hearty fare seem to have been able to manage of recent.

I went to the screening on a whim, mainly because I was interested in seeing why a defiantly independent director like Herzog would suddenly drop everything and make a cop movie staring Nicholas Cage, and what kind of flawed, oddball movie would emerge from the process. But I certainly wasn’t expecting to enjoy it half as much as I did. Maybe the key here is: I didn’t know it was a comedy. The pre-release publicity for the film has conspicuously failed to make that point clear, and with a high-minded, non-genre director taking on subject matter that touches on crime, corruption, poverty, addiction, prostitution, racism and god only knows what else, screwball shenanigans weren’t exactly what I was expecting. But the fact is, this film is just freakin’ hilarious.

I guess I saw it with a more appreciative crowd than one might find at the local multiplex, but still, people were almost literally rolling in the aisles, applauding between scenes, laughing ‘til they choked – I can’t remember the last time I went to a screening in which the audience shared such a collective “wow, this KICKS ASS” sort of feeling. I think I got a taste of the same experience an audience in the ‘60s might have had, going to see “Dr. Strangelove” for the first time, expecting a dark meditation on the cold war. And if William Finkelstein’s screenplay for “Port of Call” is obviously not on a level with the Kubrick/Southern script (too caught up in it’s generic cop-procedural logic to fully engage with its near-apocalyptic social context, perhaps?), you’ll understand that it’s still the highest possible praise if I say there were at least *moments* in “Bad Lieutenant” that approach the same chilling sane/insane satire.

I was going to say something along the lines of “Werner Herzog is not best known for his sense of humour”, but thinking about it, that’s not quite fair. All the Herzog films I’ve seen have had definite elements of humour, even if they’re sometimes hard to spot. Like David Lynch, I suspect he’s one of those guys whose idea of funny-ness is so outside the norm that things he thinks are a tremendous gas are often missed entirely or just mistaken for bloodyminded weirdness. Tune into the right wavelength whilst watching, say, “Fitzcarraldo” though, and I’m sure you could find yourself in stitches.

And if the humour in “Bad Lieutenant” arises primarily from the script and the extraordinary performances (more of which later), things are only intensified by moments in which Herzog seems to step out from the shadows and burst the film’s bubble of headache-inducing post-CSI faux-realism completely, throwing in outbursts of outright gonzo wackiness so jarring it’s hard to believe the studio let him keep them in the final cut. And the brilliant thing about such zaniness is that it’s so completely contrived; it’s as if Herzog is hopping from foot to foot shouting “comedy, huh? Yes, I can do comedy! Look – I am one real crazy guy!”, whilst everyone else looks on baffled, willing to let The Great Director have his fun with rubber crocodiles and visible boom mics and so forth before they get back to the proper furrowed brow, drained colour stuff.

And in a way, this renders these ‘wacky’ scenes more gut-bustingly funny than they could ever have been if Herzog actually WAS the absurdist funster we know he isn’t… y’know, it’s kinda like the whole glaring inappropriate-ness of them, combined with Herzog’s misfiring enthusiasm for his idea of making a cer-azzy movie…? If you get what I mean..? Anyway, it’s great.

Well assuming you don’t get me, and assuming you could care less what Werner Herzog thinks or does, here is a phrase I never imagined I’d find myself writing for Breakfast In The Ruins: the real reason you should watch this movie is Nicholas Cage.

Now we all know Nicholas Cage has been in some shitty movies recently. Ok, so actually he’s been in a lot of shitty movies over a sustained period of time. In fact, his name may be on the verge of becoming virtually synonymous with shitty movies. To be honest, the only thing he had left in the ‘plus’ column for me before I saw this was his turn in “Wild At Heart” all those years ago. So take it from someone who went in not really giving a damn about the guy: he absolutely knocks it out the fucking park in “Bad Lieutenant”.

I know I’ve already thrown around a lot of superlatives in this review, but he really does turn in one of the greatest comic performances I’ve ever seen in a movie. It’s simply breathtaking. Over the top in all the best possible ways, but never verging into cartoon-ish Johnny Depp territory, Cage bestrides this film as a beserk, tragic colossus, tearing chunks out of his co-stars as his character lurches around through a haze of cocaine psychosis and severe back pain like some crackhead Richard III.

Alternately shuddering with rage and staring desperately into the middle distance as chaos piles up around him and occasionally collapsing into perversely touching moments of sentimental reverie, Cage’s exaggerated mannerisms and inspired line delivery not only succeed in rendering just about every scene laugh-out-loud funny and unpredictable (no mean feat over the space of two solid hours of screen-time), but also in bringing a staggering intensity to the film that I think allows Herzog in turn to raise his game, elevating what could have merely been a cynical black comedy into a magnificent example of one of his trademark one-man-against-the-world epics, operating on the same cosmic scale as his earlier masterpieces, in spite of the frenetic pace and blunt American brutality.

Throughout the film, we’re never sure quite what Cage’s character is trying to achieve or where his sympathies lie, and I don’t think he knows either. Like Herzog’s other quixotic protagonists, he’s just ploughing on tirelessly through obstacles and mental/physical trauma that would lay a lesser man down in a matter of hours, in search of something he won’t even recognise until he hits it headfirst. To make the grindingly obvious comparison, Cage really seems to pick up here where Klaus Kinski left off in the Herzog classics of yore, and if you think a comparison between the two actors is patently absurd, well – wait ‘till you’ve seen this movie, then come back to me.

In fact, whoever you are and whatever you think: just see this movie. I fear “Port of Call” is liable to be one of those films that will miss its true audience in the cinema - Werner’s rubber crocodile moments probably render it a bit too off-beat for mainstream audiences, and its toxic combination of grotesque depravity and moral ambiguity is unlikely to win it many fans in squaresville, but sadly the eyes of the art-house crowd are also liable to glaze over as soon as they get to “Nicholas Cage plays a cop..”.

(I can't help but note that the American posters for the film were universally horrid, going for the full mianstream thriller approach, whereas the European efforts have been slightly rejigged to take the 'critical plaudits / cult hit' route.)

Like “The Big Lebowski” before it though, I predict “Bad Lieutenant” will gain a whole new life on video, as news of its uncanny greatness travels by word of mouth. In fact, I’d put money on its being ranked as a future classic, but until then I guess it’s up to us weirdos to try and ensure it gets some recognition as the astonishing work it is. So please: see it, see it, tell your friends to see it and then see it again with them when they go to see it. It’s worth seeing.

Phew, rave reviews for two newly released films in the space of a week? I’ll have to rename the blog if this carries on...

And shit, that was *quite a few* paragraphs, wasn't it? Sorry.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Kamikaze Girls
(Tetsuya Nakashima, 2009)

As regular readers will surely have noted, I don’t tend to bother writing about many new movies, largely due to the fact that I don’t tend to bother watching any. But nonetheless, I’m extremely glad that fate threw a copy of Tetsuya Nakashima’s “Kamikaze Girls” into my path.

A film both fascinating and hugely entertaining, “Kamikaze Girls” has given me a rare insight into the nature of teenage sub-cultural identity in modern Japan. It has bombarded my senses with avalanches of incongruous cinematic imagery and cultural detritus the likes of which I have never before seen. It has introduced me to characters who exist in a world utterly removed from my own, but whose travails can’t help but remind me poignantly of my own formative years. It has touched my heart with its hymn to the virtues of friendship, non-conformity and self-definition, and has helped me both reflect on and strengthen my own philosophy of life.

And furthermore, it has succeeded in communicating all this exclusively via the medium of pretty Japanese girls flying through the air, riding motorbikes, turning into cartoon characters, singing awesome punk-pop songs and fighting with baseball bats, in a frantic, colour-saturated explosion of continuous excitement.

Verily, it is a GOOD FILM.

Young Momoko, played by Kyoko Fukada, is heavily in thrall to the ‘Lolita’ subculture, a phenomenon I daresay Nabokov never saw coming wherein Japanese girls model themselves upon an antiquated extreme of femininity, wearing incredibly elaborate, hand-stitched dresses along with bonnets, parasols and the like, generally making an effort to appear as sweet and dainty and beautified as they possibly can as they stomp around the streets of Tokyo.

Not that Momoko often gets the chance to stomp around the streets of Tokyo, stuck as she is in a featureless rural backwater, where her outlandish mode of dress and long journeys to stock up on threads at her favourite Tokyo boutique are treated with outright disbelief by the crude locals (haven’t you heard, they tell her, the supermarket has everything, and cheap).

As is common when imaginative kids discover fashion and culture in isolation, Momoko has managed to invest her chosen sub-culture with a weight of meaning that extends way beyond anything its instigators are likely to have intended, daydreaming about the excesses of the French Rococo period and fervently wishing she’d been born in 18th century Versailles. Taking the hedonism of France’s pre-revolutionary aristocrats as her inspiration, Momoko has in fact developed her own personal belief system, prioritising the relentless pursuit of personal pleasure above all things, and rejecting human relationships and earthly loyalties entirely – a belief that proves particularly useful when it comes to acquiring the necessary cash to fund her clothes habit.

It is through one of these scams (selling her deadbeat ex-Yakuza dad’s stash of counterfeit Versace gear online) that Momoko meets Ichiko (Anna Tsuchiya). Ichiko is something called a ‘Yanki’. Like some kind of post-modern Japanese mods, the Yankis, it seems, are violent girl biker gangs who ride outlandish-looking modified motorscooters and wear an odd mixture of baggy brand-name clothing and long, militaristic ‘Kamikaze coats’ embroidered with significant messages and symbols.

It occurred to me whilst watching that obviously naming your film “Kamikaze Girls” must carry a lot more resonance for a Japanese audience than for those of us in the rest of the world, and it is presumably from these Yanki coats that the title is derived. Whether they’re modelled after coats worn by WWII Kamikaze pilots, reclaimed in the manner of Western punks and bikers taking on Nazi paraphernalia for secondary level shock value (as seen on the coat of one of the 'bad' biker gangs above), or something else entirely, I’ve no idea, but I loved the way that “Kamikaze Girls” keeps throwing in fascinating details like this, showing us these previously undreamt of bits of DIY pop culture in full flight, without ever making a detailed knowledge of them a prerequisite to enjoyment of the movie.

Despite clearly identifying herself as a ‘tough chick’ (by tried & tested means of frequently spitting, headbutting, threatening and bragging), Ichiko still goes gaga over Momoko’s stash of fake Versace, and covets her grandmother’s ‘80s Honda scooter – certainly behaviour that will have any devotee of Western mod/biker subcultures scratching their heads, but such, we assume, is the way of the Yanki, a few decades and thousands of miles removed from all that junk.

And despite her tough talk of gang loyalty and comradeship, it soon becomes clear that Ichiko is just as much of an idiosyncratic loner as Momoko, apparently also stuck in the middle of the same square, rural dead-zone, and seemingly with plenty of time on her hands, despite her gang member duties. So you probably see where this is going – in spite of their obviously antagonistic cultural identities and bafflement at the other’s lifestyle choices, the unlikely friendship ™ between Momoko and Ichiko is very much the heart of this film, an opposites-attract pairing that might have seemed pretty hackneyed were it not for Tsuchiya and Fukada’s blindingly likeable, lightning-in-a-bottle performances, as played out against the film’s myriad of other delights and distractions.

To relate the assorted scrapes that Momoko and Ichigo get into together once their awkward allegiance blossoms would obviously be surplus to the plot synopsisin’ requirements of this review, but suffice to say, there is little more director Nakashima could have done to render the proceedings any more *fun*, determined as he is to reflect Momoko’s hedonistic philosophy in the appearance of the film itself, transforming this simple(?) tale of mismatched friendship into a hyper-kinetic avalanche of visual data that would make for a hugely pleasurable experience, even if one were to blank out the storyline altogether.

Every colour in “Kamikaze Girls” is as bright as it could possibly be, every action or image is as strong and stylised and rich in detail as filmic technology allows, even as the maniac-child editing piles up information about as fast as the human mind can process, an endless whirligig of tricks and gimmicks, flashbacks, fantasy sequences and films-within-films. If there is a complaint to be made that the film’s narrative drive becomes somewhat lackadaisical at times, the constant visual stimulus renders that observation akin to complaining that somebody who keeps giving you free cakes and beer isn’t doing so in an orderly and consistent enough fashion.

By way of example, here is but a sample of the audio-visual delights that zoomed by in my DVD-Player window as I watched the movie again to get some screen-grabs:

Doubtless comparisons will be made to post-MTV music vids, video games, anime and the like, but more than anything “Kamikaze Girls” reminded me of the ADD-afflicted insanity of Nobuhiko Obayashi’s “Hausu” (1977 – recently reissued on DVD, fans of A-grade lunacy take note). Both films exhibit a determination to throw every visual trick in their arsenal at the audience at every possible opportunity, to the extent that normality effectively collapses into a hyperreal blitzkrieg of fun n’ games – the only difference being that the strong, real-world characters and convincing performances of Nakashima’s movie keep things nicely grounded, whereas Obayashi spirals off down the rabbit-hole never to return. And if some of the devices utilised in “Kamikaze Girls” may thus seem a little too familiar and cutesy when taken in isolation (y’know, cartoon-ish family history montages and stuff), it’s hard to object too stringently – the “heart-warming indie-comedy” alarm bells will barely have time to start ringing before the next batch of dazzling, hallucinatory antics turns up to keep us entertained.

Unsurprisingly I suppose, the Western film to which “Kamikaze Girls” perhaps bears the closest comparison is Terry Zwigoff’s adaptation of “Ghost World”. But whereas the Clowes/Zwigoff story ultimately explores the way in which its characters’ self-created identities and cultural aspirations are routinely frustrated by the limitations of plebeian reality, the characters in “Kamikaze Girls” exist in a more privileged (post-internet, post-iphone) world in which the drawbacks of the outside world are scarcely even a CONSIDERATION.

Momoko and Ichako’s cultural identities rule their entire existence, with both offering direct veneration to their Lolita and Yanki gods (fashion moguls and legendary gang leaders respectively) throughout the film – an idea that is made more explicit when the film’s ritualistic bike gang showdown takes place in the shadow of a giant, beatific Buddha, both the statue and the girls’ ‘Kamikaze Coats’ reminding us of the presence of an older, pre-cultural overload Japanese history still peeking through the cracks.

When the Lolita and the Yanki first meet, there is a lot more at stake than just some goofy “jock meets nerd” encounter between different participants in the same system of social exchange. Here, their respective worlds, walled off by technology and isolation, are incompatible on a level John Hughes never imagined. Their mutual incomprehension is such that on their first encounter each seems to be making contact with an alien race – they can barely even figure out how to talk to each other, or undertake a commercial transaction, making their inevitable allegiance and Breakfast Club-like exchange of values even more of a fragile and unpredictable thing.

For all of this concentration on isolation and obsession though, “Kamikaze Girls” still manages to reach far happier conclusions than “Ghost World” did, with Nakashima’s film broadly coming out in FAVOUR of the importance of defining ones own world against the squares and grown-ups who would seek to undermine it, of the joys offered by fantasy, individualism and pre-emptive myth-making, and of…. well I forget what else, but everybody’s happy, and this totally kick-ass pop-punk song plays over the end credits, so we can all leave punching the air and feeling better about our own social clumsiness and teenage fashion mistakes.

Naturally tales of teenage outsiders fighting to defend their place in the world always go down well in this neck of the woods, be it in ‘Out Of The Blue’, ‘Billy Liar’ or ‘Spider Baby’, so thematically-speaking, “Kamikaze Girls” had me from the word go. But even taking such bias into account, I can’t remember the last time I saw a modern, teen-orientated film that was anything like as insightful, beautiful and berserkly enjoyable as this one. Heart = Warmed. Result!

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

VHS Purgatory:
Exorcist II: The Heretic
(John Boorman, 1977)

In collaboration with a selection of the finest film blogs the infranet has to offer Breakfast In the Ruins is proud to contribute this quality post to Blair Week, a six day extravaganza expounding on the virtues of Linda Blair and her legacy of quality motion pictures. Don't believe me? Just read on...

How weirdly appropriate it is that as the New Labour era in the UK finally grinds to a sad and desultory halt, I should be invited to help celebrate BLAIR WEEK. In fact, I’m sure this grand ironic gesture is exactly what my primarily American horror-blogging colleagues had in mind all along, the wry devils! Um… well anyway, thanks to Seth of the excellent Lost Video Archive for inviting me to take part, and let’s get down to business 1977 style.

Now tell me where to stick it if you want, but I’ve never really been much of a fan of ‘The Exorcist’. Not that I think it’s a terrible film by any means – in the context of William Friedkin’s confounding filmography of troubled and troubling movies, it’s pretty fascinating viewing. But when it comes to the film’s vast success and cultural influence, the inexplicable weight of critical attention and analysis it seems to command… I just don’t get it, man.

In fact, it bugs me to the extent that I get pretty riled whenever I see somebody casually declare The Exorcist “one of the greatest films ever made” or somesuch. I mean, sure, each to their own, but really..? This weird, incongruous mess of grindhouse shock tactics and chest-beating, post-Taxi Driver male angst? This pompous meditation on Catholic guilt that keeps collapsing into some kind of hysterical terror of female sexuality? Were we watching the same movie here? I mean, if people got all hot and bothered about, say, ‘Cruising’ instead, I could kinda dig that (or at least it would be funny), but Citizen Kane> Battleship Potemkin> THE EXORCIST? Gimme a break.

So naturally I loved the idea of ‘Exorcist II: The Heretic’ long before I’d actually seen it. What’s that you say? They made a pointless, nonsense-filled sequel that’s universally hated and reviled by the bores who champion the first film? And they put JOHN freakin’ BOORMAN in charge? Oh man, bring it on!

Actually, whilst writing this it occurs to me that Friedkin and Boorman had quite a lot in common – both obviously talented but deeply eccentric directors who accidentally managed to turn incredibly unlikely subject matter into massive commercial success during the mid-‘70s (‘Deliverance’, in Boorman’s case) and spent the next decade or two furiously proving that lightning rarely strikes twice, much to the delight of fans of weird, flawed, perverse films the world over.

On the surface, Boorman may have appeared a safer guiding hand for transforming a one-off hit into a high profile horror franchise, but if you put all of his movies side by side I don’t think you’ll find one that is even REMOTELY normal. ‘Point Blank’? ‘Deliverance’? ‘Excalibur’? ‘Zardoz’? Oh my god, fucking ZARDOZ… I mean, if you ever needed proof that the guy was off his nut – just try watching ‘Zardoz’. It’s unbelievable. But unlike Friedkin’s career nosedive post-‘Sorcerer’, somehow they kept on giving Boorman money, access to a-list stars, marketing campaigns… and the chance to direct The Exorcist II.

With all this in mind, I guess I must have been one of the few people to ever sit down to watch ‘Exorcist II: The Heretic’ with the expectation that it’s gonna be completely amazing. And… well to be honest, I was *slightly* disappointed. Don’t get me wrong – I mean, it was still pretty damn good as far as weirdo Hollywood horror films go. Certainly a lot more fun than ‘The Exorcist’ ever was, so I can still instigate pub arguments by loudly proclaiming that I like this one better without being dishonest.

The relentless logic of b-movie mathematics makes the point abundantly clear. ‘Exorcist II: The Heretic’ has a drunk looking Richard Burton belting out exorcisms, a grown up Linda Blair suffering a seizure whilst performing a tapdance routine, fuzzed out rockin’ from Ennio Morricone, and a bethroned James Earl Jones playing the demonic king of some kind of weird African locust cult. ‘The Exorcist’ does not. ‘Exorcist II: The Heretic’ wins. That’s just the way it is.

And like all of Boorman’s movies, ‘The Heretic’ is a pretty spectacular visual experience, full of wild editing, unhinged special effects, insect-wing flights across desert landscapes and dream-like collages of overlapping imagery, all serving admirably to distract the viewer’s attention from the general vagueness re: what’s actually going on.

Weirdly, I also think the film’s aesthetic seems notably ahead of its time. You’ll have to bear with me on this one, but prior to looking up the 1977 release date for this review, I’d naturally assumed that ‘The Heretic’ was made sometime in the early/mid ‘80s. The special effects and cinematography, the music, Linda Blair’s Chrome Art Deco penthouse, the mystic, neo-hippie, yuppies-listening-to-Peter-Gabriel approach to African culture – all seem to yell NINETEEN EIGHTY THREE loud and clear…. or maybe it’s just me? Pretty freaky, anyhow. Maybe we can add ‘unintentional prophet of minor cultural trends’ to John Boorman’s already impressive list of achievements, and just thank our lucky stars that Sean Connery running around in PVC pants taking orders from a giant stone head in ‘Zardoz’ didn’t have a similarly prophetic effect.

Anyway, for all this, ‘The Heretic’ wasn’t quite as great a raspberry in the face of conventional film-crit wisdom as I’d hoped. Based on what I’d previously read about the film, I was kinda expecting that Boorman would have ditched the legacy of the first film completely and set the controls for another jaw-dropping excursion into whatever makes him tick. But no – with enough co-producers and script assistants on-board to form their own football league, ‘The Heretic’ is never allowed for one second to escape its position as a SEQUEL.

Apparently, before Boorman and scriptwriter William Goodhart got involved the producers were planning to just string together a bunch of ‘unused footage’ from ‘The Exorcist’ with some thin wraparound narrative and call it a day. And whilst the finished product is obviously far more ambitious and worthwhile than that, references to the events of the first film still predominate, going as far as to integrate reconstructed flashback sequences in a rather desperate “hey, remember why we’re all here” sort of fashion, and in the grand tradition of Hollywood sequel-think, Regan, Pazuzu and the brow-furrowing emissaries of the Holy Catholic Church all return, clumsily reunited for a bigger budget THIS TIME IT’S WAR throwdown.

I can’t claim to know much about this film’s creative gestation beyond what wikipedia tells me, but ‘The Heretic’ gives the impression that Boorman and co essentially set out to make this wicked movie about Richard Burton as a renegade Catholic priest rampaging around Africa investigating witch cults, and somewhere along the way the ghost of ‘The Exorcist’ attacked that film and gutted it, wearing it’s skin like some kind of gnarly, ill-fitting disguise. To switch to another unwieldy metaphor, it’s a cuckoo film, if you know what I mean – full of imagination and talent and great ideas, but the Exorcist stuff takes over the nest and gobbles it all up. So, uh, more like a ‘cuckoo victim’ film I suppose? An unsuspecting-Sparrow-mother film..? Oh, I dunno, forget about it.

Point is, as much as I hate to agree with the outraged “but it makes no sense!” IMDB pundits – I, who eats drug-addled Czechoslovakian new wave movies for breakfast and asks for more! - ‘The Heretic’ is indeed a mess. Thankfully though, it’s a mess so full of great stuff, it makes you wonder who the hell decided ‘order’ was such a good idea in the first place.

First off, there’s the reason I’ve been asked to write about this movie for you and perhaps the reason you’re reading: the unmistakable mutant charm of Linda Blair. Ah, Linda! I’ll freely admit that I haven’t actually even seen many of Linda Blair’s films (an oversight that participation in this week long Blairfest will hopefully encourage me to correct), but as a cultural icon, I’ve always known she’s untouchable.

There’s something completely wonderful about the way that Blair’s participation in both ‘The Exorcist’ and the super-notorious made for TV sleaze-fest ‘Born Innocent’ in ’74 automatically raised her to the level of a top-billing cult/horror starlet, a name whispered in playgrounds around the world, synonymous with defiled innocence, original sin and Satanic, pre- pubescent mayhem of all descriptions…and all before she was old enough to vote.

We often don’t realise, I suppose, the extent to which the ideal of an ‘actress’ is subconsciously thrust upon us by movies both great and small. It’s worth remembering that, even in the lowliest slasher flick, filmmakers and casting directors in this none-more-patriarchal industry are predisposed to seek out the girls who are flawless and beautiful and charismatic and able to act with, at least, a competent, easily digestible proficiency. Which is not to say that Linda Blair lacks any of those virtues of course, but we’re so used to seeing women on-screen who exemplify this slightly stultifying ‘actress ideal’ that when someone like Linda, who’d probably get dropped at the first round of auditions for a leading lady role for just being a bit odd lookin’, a bit stroppy, a bit UN-actresslike, is able to pull rank based on her childhood notoriety and stomp commandingly across our screens…. well it’s just a plain beautiful thing to see, making the grown up Linda (kinda – she was eighteen circa ‘Exorcist II’) a truly distinctive screen presence.

And boy, she really plays a blinder in ‘Exorcist II’, reprising her signature role with sullen, ham-fisted grace, initiating us into the day to day life of a lonely young woman with a mind full us psychic detritus left over from a debilitating demonic possession, trying to grow up and find her place in the world, splitting her time between Louise Fletcher’s high tech paediatric psychiatry unit (or whatever it’s supposed to be) and her absent mother’s Bladerunner-like futurist Manhattan penthouse.

It’s a strange and lonely life indeed, and it’s hard not to feel for young Regan as she feeds her pet doves (DOVES/LOCUSTS – you see the kind of deep symbolism shit they’re going for here) and stares at the cold New York skyline at dawn, before heading off to spend the day forging psychic connections with handicapped children, doing creepy, precognitive surrealist drawings and fending off the enquiries of furtive priests-on-a-mission.

The aforementioned scene in which we see Regan rehearsing her part in a school production of Westside Story is probably the highlight of the whole movie. She’s enjoying herself. Her eyes lock with this moody saxophone-playing boy she fancies, and YES, for a brief moment, Regan sees herself stepping into a normal, healthy life… but NO, just at that vital second as she grins at him, Father Lamont’s demon-hunting farting around on the other side of the world send her reeling into a psychic hell-spasm, and everyone thinks she’s nuts. Camp, crazy and utterly tragic – total genius from the Blair/Boorman team.

Richard Burton is pretty memorable too as Father Lamont, a sort of Papal Dirty Harry who defies his Church superiors by takin’ crazy risks, forming a psychic bond with Regan and trace the path of Pazuzu back to Africa in order to… um, track down this guy who is able to resist demonic possession and thus represents the future evolution of mankind…? Or something like that. In a fairer world there’d be a great series of airport novels in it anyway.

Unsure how to play such an odd role, and presumably wondering throughout whether taking part in this movie was a huge mistake, Burton just sorta lunges around breathlessly, gritting his teeth and sweating a lot more than is strictly healthy as he’s regularly called back to Rome to be shaken down for his unconventional methods, emerging all the more obsessive to the extent that he spends most of the film seeming pretty unhinged, despite his ostensible role as the hero and voice of righteousness.

I loved the opening sequence, where we meet him in the middle of performing some wing-and-a-prayer exorcism on some girl in the middle of a terrifying African witchcraft ritual – another totally killer scene.

Speaking of which, it goes without saying that I also loved the whole hallucinogenic James Earl Jones locust-king sequence where he tests Richard Burton’s faith by making him walk across a bed of spikes. Great stuff.

And I loved the fact that Louise Fletcher’s psychiatrist character has some kind of machine that allows doctors to directly enter their patients’ minds, travel into their past and interact with their memories, and instead of being completely stunned, everyone’s just like, “ok, cool, let’s give it a try”.

And I love the f-ing awesome fuzz guitar n’ female choir rocker that Ennio Morricone put together for the trailer, although I don’t recall hearing it in the actual movie.

Basically I want to kiss ‘Exorcist II: The Heretic’ all over, even though it’s essentially quite rubbish.

And if there’s an obvious chauvinistic joke in there to tie this review up nicely…. I’m not gonna make it.

Enjoy the rest of Blair Week!

Our colleagues are bringing fresh Linda related content all week long:

May 10:
Lost Video Archive - Savage Streets
Satan's Hope Chest - Chained Heat and Savage Island
Camp Movie Camp - Grotesque
The Horror Section - Hell Night.
Illogical Contraption gets Repossessed
Lines That Makes Things drops original Linda inspired artwork
Breakfast In the Ruins - Exorcist II
B Movies and Beyond - Summer of Fear
Camp Movie Camp - Nightforce
The Manchester Morgue - Rollerboogie
Happy Otter - The Chilling
Lost Video Archive - Born Innocent
Unflinching Eye wraps it up with a look at Linda's fall from grace.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Pope Jacynth and More Supernatural Tales
by Vernon Lee
(Peter Owen Ltd. Hardback, 1956)

I found this remarkable looking volume last year whilst browsing the ‘Horror’ section in Booth’s Bookshop in Hay On Wye.

Shelf after shelf of identikit Stephen King and Dean Koontz, until – oh my GOD, what the hell is *that?* Clearly I must own it.

In contrast to the slightly deranged outsider art style cover design, it turns out that Vernon Lee (1856 – 1935) was an extremely well-regarded writer in her day, and certainly had some friends in high places, although her work has subsequently been somewhat neglected.

The cover leafs and frontispiece tell you everything you need to know, I think. Click to enlarge;

That Sargent portrait is incredible, isn’t it? A picture worth a thousand words, etc.

Having now read a few of the stories within, I must say I’ve quite enjoyed them. Ms Lee seems to have specialised in refined, vaguely supernatural mystery stories, richly textured with classical allusions, obscure Roman Catholic lore and digressions into Italian history. Clearly about as far removed from the rest of the ‘Horror’ shelves as it’s possible to get, but perfect, relaxing Sunday night reading.

I can't find any significant info online about Wendy Des Moulins, who was responsible for the cover art here.