Sunday, May 23, 2010

Final Girl Film Club: 'City of the Living Dead'

(Best thing ever, btw: the backwards E's on this DVD cover. Silly zombies, they can't write good!)

My first Fulci! One hears about the ruthlessly baroque gore of Italian maestro Lucio Fulci -- his work even makes a cameo in "Juno" -- but nothing can really prepare one. "City of the Living Dead" (or, as fancy-pants IMDb has it, "Paura nella città dei morti viventi"*) should really be watched with a crowd, so everyone can bob heads to the catchy organ music and scream "Oh my God" during the gore sequences, and most particularly so everyone can say "What in the name of God just happened?" after the head-scratching ending. The Final Girl Film Club is the next best thing.

Plot's not really the point here, but briefly and with spoilers: During a seance, a comely psychic (Catriona MacColl) has a vision of a priest hanging himself in a cemetery and thereby opening the gates of hell. Paralyzed by fright, the psychic is buried alive and rescued by a cigar-chomping reporter (Christopher George, of "Pieces"! (Or as IMDb has it, "Mil gritos tiene la noche." What is with you, IMDb?)). The two of them set off together to find the cemetery and close the gates before all hell breaks loose. While they're getting their act together, lots of craziness starts going on in Dunwich, the town with the cemetery in question. (Nice Lovecraft reference there, Fulci babe.) This movie doesn't make much sense and it's not really good, per se, but it is a blast to watch.

First, the live burial: This entire sequence is just fantastic, starting with the eerie shots of Catriona lying in her coffin. I wasn't expecting this to go the live-burial direction; I figured she'd just be a zombie or something; and when her eyes flew open and she started gasping for breath and clawing at the coffin lid, oh my, the effect was very chilling. The big lesson here is that if you are going to get buried alive, make sure ANYONE rescues you besides Christopher George. He waits about an hour to respond to her shrieks and then nearly puts a pickaxe through her skull. It's worth it for you, the viewer, because the payoff is the fantastic image below.

Meanwhile, particularly unpleasant things are happening in the town of Dunwich. The gates of hell are being unleashed in the form of a zombie plague; I expected the zombies to advance upon the townspeople in a straightforward manner, but since these are the devil's zombies, their ways are more roundabout. They like to appear and disappear, often covered in earthworms (not a lot of gardeners in Dunwich, apparently, since no one is happy to see the worms). Other strange things happen: a mirror cracks and the shards begin to bleed; a cat freaks out; the streets are filled with creepy sounds, like howler monkeys and crying babies.

But mainly it's a plague of zombies, who bring about some very baroque deaths! The most vivid of these is the famous intestine-vomiting scene -- oh, I am so grateful not to have seen this as an impressionable tyke, because I would have been scared of throwing up to this day. (I mean, I still don't like it, but damn.) A girl sees the priest zombie standing outside her car, a nice scare in itself, and within seconds she's bleeding out the eyes. Then stuff starts coming out of her mouth. I actually put down my tea and started repeating "Oh my God. Oh my GOD." If watching the buried-alive sequence is like sipping a fine chilled martini, this is like slamming a shot of tequila. I mean, damn.

Also famous is the drill through the head sequence, which is just what it sounds like! My favorite thing about this is how early you see the drill. By this point, even the Fulci virgin knows he's not going to power up a drill and let it just sit there without poking a hole in somebody. You (and the victim) get to watch it coming, and watch, and watch, and watch. It's a little like the steamroller sequence from "Austin Powers." Again, this is where it would be fun to have a room full of people screaming "Here it comes!"

And then there's the ending. I found a couple Web reviews that referred to the "much-discussed" ending, but I didn't find much discussion. What, ah, what happened there? Johann, Peewee, Final Girl, help!

Also, I loved how game the cast is. They had goofy dialogue and inexplicable plotlines to deal with but they all just seem really committed. I particularly adore the actresses, who nearly all have to bleed out of their eyes at some point, and most of whom have to do something worse; even the heroine is willing to foam at the mouth. Plus all the main cast members get covered in writhing maggots in one memorable scene. (It's nothing like Argento plunging Jennifer Connelly into a maggoty pit in "Phenomena," but I am not getting into the Argento-Fulci discussion right now.) The point is, these people are troupers! Fulci must have been quite persuasive. "You weel wear maggots on your face! Eet ees perfect."

*I guess this means "Terror from the city of the living dead," in case it wants clarifying that the living dead are scary.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

So my friend made a movie and it's gorgeous, or, You shouldn't have come here.

There are a handful of movies that authentically replicate the feel of a dream: "Evil Dead"; "Don't Look Now"; "Carnival of Souls"; "Picnic at Hanging Rock"; parts of "Edward Scissorhands" and the 1992 "Last of the Mohicans"; even fragments of the vigorously campy "Night of the Comet." And then there's Robert Beaucage's Spike, which is part nightmare and part love story and part fairy tale, and all dream. I just finished watching it for the third time and I'm anxious to just go to sleep, all swathed in the mood of it (I did that one night last week, and ladies, it was lovely), but tonight I just want to write about it. Around middle school I used to stay up past midnight writing in my diary (my version of rebellion) and this movie puts me back into that exact mood. It's deeply, deeply unsettling. I mean, how does this movie reach that place? How does it know? Even I had forgotten.

I have been dithering with how to write about this movie here, because I wouldn't have seen it if I didn't know the director -- it's not out on DVD yet and I missed its showing at Shriekfest earlier this year. This isn't a situation I've really come across in LA yet, and I've had the little Homer Simpson angel and devil on my shoulders saying "You just like it because it's your friend's movie" and "Shut up, you!" and "Yes sir *poof*" and frankly it's very tiring for a middle child like me. Dammit, I'm not a professional blogger, I'm just a person, and if I didn't like his movie I would just tell him "Well, that was very interesting" (that's what we say back home for "God almighty, get me out of here") and not worry about it here in Emma-land. But all I can speak for is myself, and this movie just gets to me. It's unsettling as hell.

The plot is pretty simple, really. Two couples are driving at night through the woods in a relentlessly quaint vehicle (what is that thing, a Suburban?) and crash, and they find themselves at the mercy of sinister and primal forces. Or you think that's the plot, until it becomes clear there's really only one sinister and primal force, and he's got a major, primal crush on one of the occupants of the Suburban. (If it is a Suburban. I don't know. I try not to get bogged down in this stuff.)

The dynamics change abruptly and decisively: The one guy in the car is severely injured by this hostile force in the forest. His girlfriend goes after him and promptly, in manner of helpless damsel, gets herself bitten by a rattlesnake; perhaps the hostile force in the forest can save her. The other two people in the car, a lesbian couple, get bogged down in a hopelessly fatalistic argument about what to do next. You could get snarky, and part of you kind of wants to -- but the movie is so sincere and so earnest, it defeats your attempts at snark. (Though the dialogue shows flashes of wry self-awareness: "That is the cheesiest line ever." "Marry me!" "Um, what's for dinner?")

What it turns into is a big meditation on relationships. This hostile spiky thing in the forest, it turns out, knows the straight girlfriend -- they grew up together. A bizarre past is hinted at involving her dad, his Harley, and his fear that his daughter might be harmed by her strange little friend. A lullaby is sung: "Your dad sang it, so I sang it to you." It's dark. The damsel's not as helpless as she seemed. Things get confusing.

I've always had a thing about movies shot in the woods, and this film was shot entirely in Angeles National Forest. (I drove up there winter before last, homesick for snow; I got to some snow and walked on it, blissfully, then turned around and went home. That spring the Station Fire happened. It burned up all the locations used in this film.) When the characters go stumbling into the thornbushes, cliffs, undergrowth -- you know where they are. No matter who you are, it's a place you have to recognize. You've been there. They're in the Forest of Arden, Prospero's island (Spike helps you by quoting "The Tempest"), the bramble forest of Sleeping Beauty. It's not just that there are monsters there: this is the primal setting where you find out what you're made of, whether you're Red Riding Hood or just a Star Trek red shirt. As Alan Moore put it in his "Swamp Thing" series: This is the place. This is the story. And you shouldn't have come here.

Yeah, it turns into being about relationships. But is there anything else more enduring or haunting? Before I had ever heard of this movie, I had nightmares about turning into a monster for someone I loved; you know someone's deepest, darkest secrets, and when you leave them it's as if suddenly you had become a daisy-cutter bomb for them, suddenly turning from their sweetest friend into a weapon that can level sharp weapons at their most vulnerable places. It's something only someone in a relationship can do.

And the cruel truth this movie has for you is the worst one imaginable: You can never, in a thousand years, run from it though you may, escape from hurting the person you love. Just by loving them you do them unimaginable harm. But you have as little choice in it as any creature of the forest. This is the story. And you shouldn't have come here. But you can never help it. You'll be back.

Sweet dreams.

Top: Anna-Marie Wayne faces a nightmare; below, Edward Gusts adorns a poster.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The world as we know it

So I finally got around to reading "The Stand." I love Stephen King, I really do. I have never read anything by him that I haven't enjoyed -- "Carrie," "The Shining," "Misery," "'Salem's Lot." I wanted so much to like "The Stand" and I hated it.

This bothered me a lot, not least because it dawned on me something like 300 pages in and I knew I had a long way to go, because it was the uncut version. Maybe I should have started in with the shorter one instead. My first complaint about the book was that it was bloated beyond belief. I can tell from the introduction that he's incredibly proud of the descriptive passages involving heroine Frannie and her nasty mom, who embodies the sort of oppressive suburban strictures that King is excited about taking out with his superflu plague. I appreciate what King's trying to do here, especially as a fellow Shirley Jackson fan -- yeah, these social strictures are unpleasant, aren't they? But oh my God, he goes on and on and ON. Some editor needs to stand on his head and say "Steve, enough!" But people love the uncut version of this book, so what do I know. Just every sequence is like that -- it goes on and on and ON -- and you think there's going to be some major payoff by the end, but no. I was so crushed by this. I don't know what I was expecting (maybe something related to the iconic cover art, above), but it just, ugh.

Has anyone besides me not read "The Stand"? Quick summary: Army-developed superflu takes out civilization. A few individuals are left. They gradually find each other, and find that they are all having dreams of an old black woman in Nebraska; they make their way to her, and find she's real and she's amassing a force to resist the other figure in their dreams, a violent white man. Good people line up against bad people. Except not really, but kind of, at the very end, and then not.

I don't know. If I had never heard of this book and someone had handed me a short version, I might well have loved it. I loved the superflu taking people out (misanthropes love plague) and I enjoyed the awkward social interactions between the survivors, who comes from all different backgrounds. But the eventual society that the survivors form is so weird and crazy and mad sexist, it read to me like a 1960s-era husband's daydream. "What if everyone died and we had to PROTECT THE WOMEN?" This of course led me to thinking about my favorite Ray Milland film, "Panic in Year Zero":

Which pretty much reads like a daydream some henpecked husband has on a fishing trip. "What if we couldn't go back to the city and I had to lead us? What if I had to find us rifles and food supplies and care for the WOMEN?" Well, bleah, is what I say to that.

The best thing about "The Stand" was the idea that you would never, never get away with writing a book like that today. We now live in a world that's rich with apocalypse fiction -- and we owe "The Stand" a great debt, I am sure -- but it is not all about Fertility and Saving The Women anymore. The women will be right up front firing automatic weapons at the rapists and zombies, not huddling in the back all pregnant and scared, thank you.

Oh, and the theology involved with this gave me the utter willies. Maybe it's just, again, a sign of the times: the godlike-old-black-woman trope was tired when "The Matrix" busted it out a decade ago. Does it serve anyone to divide communities into absolute good and absolute evil? The people who don't laugh at your hero's jokes are automatically going to decamp for the evil site? The creeps and the outsiders and the ones who just never fit in, they line up with the dark man? Jeepers. I appreciate that it's just a potboiler, but -- leave me out of it, please.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Happy Mother's Day!

Moms = royalty. Hope all of you have a beautiful day!