Monday, 25 February 2019

Recent Horror Viewing # 1:
The Hunger
(Tony Scott, 1983)

For no particular reason, I began 2019 by revisiting two arty, New York-set vampire films, both of which faced accusations of insufferable pretention upon their initial release.

Abel Ferrara’s ‘The Addiction’ (1995) was staple viewing for me back in my student days, on recorded-off-TV VHS, and, returning to it for the first time in nearly two decades, it certainly still has its moments (on a purely visual level, it’s great). As much as I generally love Ferrara’s work though, I confess that I now found the film’s sophomoric philosophical musings and confused religious / literary symbolism to be, well… insufferably pretentious, to be honest.

Tony Scott’s ‘The Hunger’, on the other hand, I recall watching on TV way back when and dismissing as insufferably pretentious. I’ve not really given it much thought since to be honest, but, returning to it last month with my critical faculties properly engaged, it actually impressed me a great deal.

True, Scott’s self-conscious, commercial / music video inspired directorial style is so overbearing that at times it obscures comprehension of the linear narrative (a cardinal sin in American cinema, then as now), but whilst it’s probably fair to label the film “style over content”, that doesn’t mean there isn’t any content. On the contrary, ‘The Hunger’s clipped, ecumenical narrative – extracted by screenwriters Ivan Davis and Michael Thomas from its unlikely origins in a novel by future UFO abduction kingpin Whitley Strieber - delivers a singularly affecting variation on the usual vampire mythos.

Presenting a considerably more mature and downbeat take on the subject than horror movies generally dare to hit us with, ‘The Hunger’ largely bypasses the familiar analogues of drug addiction, sexual desire and class conflict, instead using the prism of vampirism to explore issues of aging, mortality and marital fidelity. So, not exactly an easy sell for the youth-orientated horror market, any more than it was for my young self when I watched it on TV all those years ago.

As the film progresses, we gather that Catherine Deneuve’s character – currently named ‘Miriam Blaylock’ – has been walking the earth as an immortal since the time of the Pharaohs. Through flashback, we learn that her husband John (David Bowie) has been sharing her vampiric life with her since some point in the 18th century. Now however, John is dying – his body is suddenly aging at an accelerating rate, adding years, then decades, to his appearance each day.

We are never offered any explanation as to why this is happening - just as we are so often denied an explanation when our loved ones suddenly leave us in real life - but we know that it is not the first time it has happened. Like some gothic mad scientist, Miriam keeps a darkened room in the attic of her Manhattan mansion house, full of dusty old coffins containing the remnants of her former lovers. They are not dead though, to be clear – their spirits, being technically immortal, live on, feeling their mortal bodies decay alongside the wood that surrounds them, and hearing Miriam muttering about how much she still loves them, when she occasionally deigns to visit.

Because, that’s the most terrible thing of all, really. Miriam isn’t some femme fatale or heartless monster, seducing men and women for the sake of her own pleasure and callously abandoning them to this fate-worse-than-death. Seemingly afflicted with an almost childlike need to share her life with someone (and, no doubt, a terrible fear of loneliness), she falls for each of her partners with the earnest devotion of a first love, promising them a life of eternal happiness together. As she tells John, each time, she hopes that this aging thing won’t happen, or that she’ll at least be allowed a little bit longer than last time before it takes hold – but, sooner or later, they always succumb.

I mean… my god. In a sense, it’s just as well Scott goes so completely overboard with the film’s visuals, simply because they help to distract from the fact that this is just about the most comprehensively depressing story I’ve ever seen played out in the realm of fantastic cinema.

If you were feeling generous, you could perhaps argue that the director’s oneiric palette of diffuse blue and golden lighting, drifting smoke and billowing curtains (yes, there are pigeons), together with the film’s languorous, narcotic pacing and jagged, dissociative editing patterns, all serve to reflect the heightened sensory perceptions experienced by the vampire characters.

A stretch perhaps, but, whichever way you choose to look at it, Scott’s approach certainly succeeds in lending ‘The Hunger’ a “European feel”, in keeping with the personas of its French and British stars, allowing it to veer closer to the ‘bande dessinée’ aesthetic embraced by French cinema in the 1980s or, slightly closer to home, the narcoleptic fever dreams of Harry Kumel’s ‘Daughters of Darkness’ or Jess Franco’s Doriana Gray, than to anything one might reasonably have expected of a 1983 American studio movie.

The film’s notoriously disorientating opening sequence – in which footage of Bauhaus performing ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ on a fenced off nightclub stage is aggressively intercut with shrieking, test lab monkeys and a bloodily erotic vampire feeding frenzy – is an example of strobe-blasted New Wave psychedelia as uncompromising as anything found in Slava Tsukerman’s Liquid Sky, setting the tone for a movie in which it feels as if functional exposition has been ditched at every turn in favour of diversions into shamelessly indulgent audio-visual reverie.

I mean, I’m not really sure why we later need to see Bowie’s character descend to some kind of cavernous subterranean ballroom to attack and then pointedly not drink the blood of some guy who appears to be developing an interpretive rollerskating routine to the accompaniment of Iggy Pop’s exquisitely sinister ‘Fun Time’ (Bowie’s suggestion for the soundtrack, no doubt), but, all is forgiven when we notice that the Ankh-shaped dagger slashes the victim’s throat at the exact moment Iggy drawls, “last night I was down in the lab / with Dracula and his crew”. (For a film that famously never deigns to use the word ‘vampire’, ‘The Hunger’ certainly makes up for it with the winks and nods in its musical selections.)(1)

In fact, now that I come to think about it, I like the way that the film begins to establish a musical counterpoint each of the different time periods within which the characters originate. Whilst the frantic art-rock of Bauhaus and Iggy becomes associated with contemporary New York and the grim scientific enquiry of Susan Sarandon’s sleep deprivation experiments, the Blaylock’s home life is soundtracked by the austere classical music (a Schubert piano trio) that they play alongside their teenage neighbour. Providing some of the film’s calmest and most beautiful moments, these musical recitals must represent the good ol’ days for Bowie’s 200-year-old European gentleman.

(It’s a shame I think that the film fails to complete the full circle in this regard, as I would have loved to have heard Deneuve bust out with some long, lost refrain from the ancient banks of the Nile or something – perhaps during her tryst with Sarandon in the final act?)

Beyond all of ‘The Hunger’s elegiac, urban gothic grandeur though, what really makes it work for me I think is the basic, unavoidable humanity of its characters. Though John and Miriam may play the part of lofty, aesthete immortals (a necessary coping mechanism perhaps when one needs to regularly feast upon human blood), when the chips are down, they are just as hopeless and confused as the rest of us.

The sequence of events that leads them to cross paths with Sarandon’s character – seeing a doctor with some crazy ideas interviewed on TV, buying her book and badgering her for an appointment at her clinic – mirrors a pattern of desperation familiar to any number of couples trying to find a magical escape from a terminal diagnosis, as, in a sense, does Miriam’s pathological need to immediately find a new partner to ease her loneliness, forcing herself to forget the awful fate she will eventually end up consigning them to.

True, few of us keep our decaying former partners locked in coffins in the attic, or drink our neighbours’ blood in an effort to regain our youth, but the emotional trajectories being played out within this hyper-stylised world feel painfully authentic.

It’s curious to reflect that, had the late Tony Scott left the film industry immediately after directing ‘The Hunger’, he might be remembered today as some daring, wildcard auteur, rather than, well… let’s just summon the image of a grinning Tom Cruise striding towards us in a bomber jacket whilst Kenny Loggins plays and leave it at that, shall we? [Shudder.]

In fact, with thirty plus years hindsight, ‘The Hunger’ stands out as one of those totally inexplicable one-offs that causes film fans to stop and wonder where the hell it’s evident artistry originated from. I mean, you’ve got a notoriously tasteless director, a trashy doorstop horror source novel, a not-insubstantial Hollywood budget and a studio demanding results. I don’t want to sound like too much of a snob here, but the question needs to be asked: what went right?

(1) Going totally off-topic for a while, I’ve always been fascinated by that particular lyric in ‘Fun Time’. It’s just such a weird non-sequitur. Was Iggy making a coded reference to some druggy associates of his in Berlin’s underground scene, or was he just responding to the track’s sinister vibe by dredging up some garbled references to Universal horror movies? Who knows…

Sunday, 17 February 2019

Noir Diary #1:
Witness to Murder
(Roy Rowland, 1954)

It’s funny how these things happen in Hollywood sometimes, isn’t it? ‘Witness to Murder’, in which Barbara Stanwyck looks out of her window one night and sees her neighbour in the opposite apartment block cheerily killing a woman, was released by United Artists four months before Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window’ premiered in August 1954.

The most likely explanation of course is simply that producer Chester Erskine (who also takes credit for ‘Witness to Murder’s screenplay) got wind of the idea behind Hitch’s next big picture and decided to ‘leap-frog’ it, much as outfits like The Asylum and ScyFy do with blockbusters these days. Personally though, I always like to try to give the little guy a break, so it’s interesting to speculate about other possibilities.

Perhaps Erskine had been independently working up an idea based on the same Cornell Woolrich story that inspired ‘Rear Window’, rejigging it somewhat when (for obvious reasons) he couldn’t get the rights? Or, could both projects have just end up being developed in parallel, growing from a treatment that might have been swishing across studio big-wigs desks for years, or even from some loud-mouth who might have been making the rounds of Hollywood parties with a “hey, I got a great idea for a picture…” routine..?

Who knows. Perhaps Hitchcock scholars might be able to shed some light on the matter (I don’t think there are any Chester Erskine scholars), but in all likelihood the exact circumstances that led to ‘Witness To Murder’s fortuitous release date are now lost to time. Fortunately however, ‘Witness..’ is a more interesting movie than its reputation as a kind of low rent ‘Rear Window’ rip-off would tend to suggest, rambling off in a different direction entirely as soon as the strikingly similar initial premise is out of the way.

Whereas in ‘Rear Window’ for instance, Jimmy Stewart’s attempts to apprehend the killer are hindered by his literal lack of mobility, in ‘Witness to Murder’, Stanwyck finds herself having to contend with the more fundamental lack of societal mobility that results simply from being a woman in 1954. At least her character Cheryl Draper is one of those self-confident, single career–women who tend to pop up with great regularity in Hitchcock’s ‘50s films (funnily enough), so that probably helps, but even so, Stanwyck’s evident bad-assery cuts little ice with the assorted male authority figures whom she is required to convince of the truth of her tale.

So, yes, I’m afraid it looks like we’re dealing with one of those old “I know what I saw, but what can I do to make them believe me?” numbers here, but things certainly perk up a bit when the detectives who initially respond to Cheryl’s call on the night of the murder head over to the alleged scene of the crime, and find none other than George Sanders lounging around in his luxoriously padded dressing gown.

Sanders’ character here turns out to be one Albert Richter, a sort of controversial public intellectual whose work, we are told, celebrates humanity’s violent instincts in aggressively Nietzschean terms, arguing that murder can be morally justified in certain circumstances (such as when intellectually superior specimens like himself find themselves annoyed by their inferiors, for instance). So, uh… yeah.

Despite this however, Sanders manages to charm the cops with his trademark panache, just about maintaining his cool as he distracts their attention from the remaining evidence of his crime (kicking a stray lipstick under the desk, standing in front of the torn curtain, that sort of thing), until he eventually hustles them out of the door, wishing them a hearty good night and casually suggesting that his lady accuser across the hall may have just gotten a little over-excited, or something equally patronising; because we all know how daffy women can get now and again when they’re left on their own, don’t we chaps?

Thereafter, watching the unfolding battle of wits between Stanwyck and Sanders becomes this film’s main selling point, with both delivering far stronger performances than Erskine’s boilerplate scripting really deserves. Clearly, Sanders’ unconventional character provides the most intriguing element here, and thankfully we get to see plenty of him, as he ups his game against Stanwyck, indulging in an audacious bit of Gaslighting (stolen typewriter, false letters) in order to get her committed to an asylum.

Richter’s cause is helped considerably by the sheer level of dismissal that Cheryl receives from the powers-that-be, and, following her brief incarceration in the nuthouse, even she begins to doubt her recollection of events (maybe I did imagine it, maybe I was dreaming, etc). The film misses a trick here I think due to the fact that both the reality of the murder and Richter’s guilt have clearly been established from the outset, thus preventing this temporary weakening of our heroine’s resolve from creating any genuine ambiguity or memory / perception-based uncertainty. (No chance of this one turning into one of those new, fangled psychological thrillers, no sir!)

Never mind though, because there is still a lot of fun to be had with the final act revelation that – as anyone who has been appraised of his rather extreme views might reasonably have suspected – Richter is actually an escaped Nazi fugitive, passing himself off as an American under an assumed name!

This particular bit of post-war paranoia of course takes us straight back to Orson Welles’ similarly plotted ‘The Stranger’ from 1946 (a movie which also perhaps finds an echo in ‘Witness to Murder’s climactic, tall building-based denouement), whilst, for his part, Sanders certainly had good form playing suave Nazis. In particular here, he seems to be drawing upon superbly menacing characterisation he brought to Fritz Lang’s ‘Man Hunt’ (1941), reminding us just what a great villain he could be when he played it straight(ish).

One of the best moments in ‘Witness to Murder’ comes when, driven to the end of his tether by Cheryl’s continued badgering, Richter suddenly breaks his ‘cover’ and unleashes a mouthful of spluttering, German invective, before announcing that no one can prevent the inevitable triumph of the “4th Reich”! Oops.

Even better though is Stanwyck’s reaction to this. Although her character is already aware of Richter’s Nazi past by this point in the story, the withering look of bored non-surprise she gives him (as if to say, “yeah… figures”) is simply fantastic.

So, that’s all well and good, but, the eternal question - is it noir? Well…. long-term readers will be all too familiar with the issues I have with the tendency to arbitrarily categorise all pre-1960 Hollywood thrillers as Film Noir, but basically I think we’re looking at a borderline case here.

Though the film spends much of its time futzing around in more mundane b-movie mystery territory, delineating the space between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ with tedious clarity, the darkness of Richter’s background and the psychotic nature of his infiltration of American life nonetheless lend it a welcome tang of noir-ish societal corruption. (Did I mention that he is engaged to an influential widowed heiress, and has previously left a prostitute strangled in an L.A. park in order to protect his reputation?)

Likewise, the aforementioned asylum sequence recalls the ‘crooked doctor’ / ‘shady clinic’ motifs that proliferate in the work of Chandler and Hammett, and it is realised here with consummate skill. In terms of set design, it doesn’t look as if they had much more to work with than a couple of old bed frames, but the way the sequence is staged makes it truly memorable. In the foreground, a black inmate (future Oscar nominee Juanita Moore) croons a blues lament, her gently defused shadow standing out on the far wall, whilst a catty white woman yaks away behind her, repeatedly telling her to shut up, and an elderly lady sits forgotten in the corner, obsessively repeating the same phrase again and again.

Though hardly progressive in its portrayal of mental illness, this brief, throwaway scene presents a nightmarish extension of the film’s central theme of women’s concerns being side-lined by patriarchal authority; carrying both a raw, exploitation kick and an undertow of dream-like sadness, it attains a notable level of pulp artistry.

Which helps bring us neatly to the main justification for ‘Witness to Murder’s categorisation as noir – namely, the presence of the great John Alton, an inspired cinematographer whose talents helped define the look of many of the very best low budget noirs (‘Raw Deal’, ‘He Walked By Night’ and The Big Combo, to name but a few).

Though director Roy Rowland does competent enough work here, it is Alton’s touch that is most strongly felt in the film’s visuals, with his attention-grabbing compositions and trademark use of single source spot-lighting adding real atmospheric clout to otherwise rather flat stretches of script, turning simple set-ups such as the one in which the pair of detectives walk down the corridor to Richter’s apartment into ominous tableaus of high contrast silhouettes and jagged angles, with the looming threat of violence ever-present; absolute text book film noir, needless to say.

Beyond all this though, the surest indicator of ‘Witness to Murder’s noir cred is the fact that mild-mannered male lead Gary Merrill – playing the affable, pipe-smoking middle-aged cop who provides an unlikely romantic interest for Stanwyck – feels completely out of place amid the brooding shadows and rampaging Nazis. Get back to yer slippers and cocoa, pops, the world around him seems to be saying, cos the nice little murder mystery you thought you were in is going downtown.

Saturday, 9 February 2019

Ten Years.

 That’s a ‘Double Bowie’ on the street, I believe? If not, it should be.

No big celebrations or anything, but just a quiet little meta-post to commemorate the fact that I made the first post on this blog ten years ago today.

In personal terms, a lot has changed since then (which is probably just as well). From a roaming, youthful singleton in February 2009, by February 2019 I’ve become a husband, property owner, pet owner, and, I hope, a more responsible, grown up person in all manner of tedious ways that I need not delineate here.

Thankfully however, my taste in literature and cinema remains far from grown-up, and my enthusiasm for writing stuff and cataloguing my discoveries here remains undiminished, even if the way I go about it has probably changed somewhat over the years.

When I first got started, horror films, pulp paperbacks and related culture were still very much a tertiary interest for me, and I often used to write about them from the point of view of a bemused outsider – deliberately avoiding any background research or fact-checking, and just recording my responses to the artefact before me in a “hey, what is this crazy thing I’ve found?” sort of manner, blissfully unaware of the fact that, in many cases, numerous writers and fans had already exhaustively addressed that question in the decades before I got around to it.

This approach undoubtedly has its appeal, and some bloggers I admire have gone far with it, but in my case it got old pretty quick, and led to a handful of rather snarky reviews whose ill-informed content I now feel somewhat embarrassed about (though, in the name of full transparency, you can still find them lurking around in the archives here).

For better or for worse, it was this early stage of BITR’s existence that proved by far the most successful in terms of viewing figures. I had the good fortune to be picked out early for Blogger’s “blogs of note” feed, which was apparently a big deal back in 2009/10-ish, instantly leading to a massive spike in visitor numbers. Few of these visitors stuck around of course, but at least it served to ‘put me on the map’, so to speak. Subsequently, naughty teenagers typing things into Google during the ‘Twilight’ era led to my review of Jean Rollin’s The Nude Vampire stacking up over a quarter of a million page views(!), whilst a coterie of Australian ‘bikies’ started an impromptu keg party over at my review of the exceptional antipodean biker movie Stone, putting it in a respectable second place. (They’re welcome back any time.)

Things continued apace until September 2014, when some delightful person decided to hit Blogger’s “report inappropriate content” button, resulting in the imposition of the warning screen that you’ve no doubt had to click through to reach this page. On reflection of course, this ingenious means of protecting vulnerable minds from exposure to damaging material seems entirely appropriate, given that any child too simple-minded to figure out how to click the “yes I wish to proceed” button probably would be upset by the kind of PG-13 level content I generally tend to post here.

Nonetheless though, the immediate effect of this change can be easily gauged by looking at the graph below, taken today from Blogger’s Stats tab, and covering this blog's entire history to date:

I considered the idea of moving the whole shebang over the Wordpress or something, but, let’s just say that I had a lot of rather more serious issues to deal with in the second half of 2014, and time simply didn’t allow for anything other than ploughing on regardless. Besides which, I’ve never really given much of a hoot about the overall popularity of any of my creative or critical endeavours – so long as I enjoy them and they give something back to at least someone, I’m always happy to proceed.

As such, the consistently enthusiastic and good-natured comments and emails I’ve continued to receive from readers over the years have been extremely encouraging, helping to reassure me that most of numbers lost in that big fall in page views probably just consisted of Russian bots and random search engine hits, leaving the central core of genuine, human visitors and regular readers untouched. Which is great, actually.

Meanwhile, as my appreciation and knowledge of quote-unquote ‘cult cinema’ and pulp fiction has grown over the years, the pendulum has tended to swing in entirely the opposite direction with regards to my writing, as I’ve become increasingly interested in fully unpacking the cultural context and production histories of the films I review here – sometimes at frankly eye-watering length (the Lovecraft on Film thread, or my recent deconstruction of the reconstructed Lady Frankenstein, are probably good examples).

Though these vast exegeses will continue to have a place here from time to time, I’ve recently decided to start trying to push back a bit on the word counts and grand schemes; writing more concise pieces on a wider variety of movies for my end of year posts has proven to be loads of fun, even if the necessity of producing loads of them in one go proved pretty exhausting.

As such, I’m going to try to this year to get back to basics, attempting to write sub-1,500 word reviews of whichever films/books I’ve seen/read recently and feel like writing about, beginning as many new connecting threads as are needed to cover them, and seeing which ones develop further and which ones die naturally. In between those, meanwhile, I’ll plan to do a bit of work here and there on longer, more developed posts (such as continuing the long neglected Lovecraft thing) and will aim to get them finished as and when, with no particular deadline.

But, that’s probably more than enough State of the Weblog Address / thinking out loud for the present. Thanks once again to everyone who is reading this for reading it. Ten more years? Barring global catastrophe or total internet meltdown (increasingly concerning possibilities, admittedly), I don't see why not.

Sunday, 3 February 2019

Miller Time.

Continuing our tribute to the late Dick Miller, here is a quick run-down of the first five of his trademark one-scene-wonder cameo appearances that spring to my mind this week, in no particular order.

Night of the Creeps (1986): Police Armorer.

“Flamethrower?! What’s the matter, the ol’ snub-nose not good enough for ya anymore?”

Sometimes, I’m inclined to believe that if I were to pull Fred Dekker’s beloved mid-‘80s horror-comedy off the shelf for another go-round, it might not hold up so well, what with it’s heavy reliance on b-movie in-jokery and glib, self-aware humour etc.

Then I remember that it includes a scene in which Tom Atkins and Dick Miller discuss the paperwork required to requisition a flamethrower from the police armoury, and I think, no – it’s still pretty great.

Not Of This Earth (1957): Vacuum Cleaner Salesman.


From my review last October:
“Though he is barely on screen for two minutes before being unceremoniously stuffed in the incinerator, Miller is great here, with his unruly hair, his weary distaste for his own sales patter and his sardonic use of the word “crazy” as an all-purpose acknowledgement all suggesting that his character is actually some down-on-his-luck beatnik reluctantly coerced into regular employment.”

The Howling (1981): Bookstore Owner.

“You want books, I got books. I got chicken blood, I got dog embryos, I got black candles, I got wolf-bane. Look at this - silver bullets. Some joker ordered them. Thirty-ought-six. Never picked 'em up.”

Until I checked IMDB whilst preparing this post, I never realised that Miller’s character in ‘The Howling’ is identified as “Walter Paisley” in the cast-list. Which I suppose makes sense in relation to director Joe Dante’s relentless b-movie nerdery, but it does open the floodgates for some frankly unnecessary alternate universe type queries, vis-à-vis the original Walter’s fate grisly in ‘A Bucket of Blood’ twenty two years earlier.

Truck Turner (1974): Fogarty (Bail Bondsman).

“Hi Turner, hi Jerry, good to see you – I got a real easy one for you here, you’re gonna like this… guy’s name is Richard Leroy Johnson, also known as Gator; his last known address is a vacant lot; Bail is $30,000. He jumped it yesterday.”

The Undead (1957): Leper.

“They call me leper and unclean, and banish me to forest and swamp..”

From my 2017 review:
“Shortly thereafter, most of the characters attend a Black Mass in a cemetery, presided over by the Robin Hood-hatted Satan. He is keen to gather signatures for his black book, and, in return, he hands a big bag of money to some old geezer who complains he’s led a wretched life, and cures Dick Miller’s leprosy (hurray!).”