Saturday, December 03, 2016

FRETLESS: JACO (2015)



Much has been said and written about the receiving and processing of music as a spiritual experience, either in the religious sense, as a way of attempting a connection with God, or in terms of feeling the lift to one’s emotions, the rush of excitement that a great piece of music well-played can offer to the human body and mind. The emotional aspect of musical transportation is pretty easily accessed, on its basest and highest planes. (Just ask any fan of screamo or Yo-Yo Ma.) And there are plenty of folks who will talk to you about how contemporary Christian artists as varied as Keith Green, Becoming Saints and Andre Crouch provide an aural pathway straight to the ear of God.  For me, true incorporeal experiences with music are fairly rare. But when I hear the music of late, indisputably great jazz bassist Jaco Pastorius, or see him play, I often feel as though I’m entering a genuine realm of the spiritual. 

And yet, at the beginning of the documentary Jaco (2015), now streaming on Netflix and other VOD services, here this great musician sits, seen being interviewed by fellow bassist Jerry Jemmott just three years before his death in 1987, his celebrated ego still apparent in his mastery of his instrument, and in his relatively muted acceptance of Jemmott’s complimentary inquisitiveness. “You’re able to play, with real sincerity, every style of music, and not just every style, but all parts of a given piece at the same time on this one instrument, the bass,” Jemmott begins, all while we observe Pastorius’ body language begin to betray signs of a man caving in on himself, haunted by demons too inexplicable for counsel or applied chemistry. Jemmott continues: “Because of this, a lot of people have gone crazy trying to duplicate what you do, and many people have become big fans of the bass and given it a lot of attention. How do you feel about that?” Pastorius pauses, lowers his head for a moment, and then pops up with a laugh: “Give me a gig!”

At the point when this interview was conducted John Francis Anthony Pastorius III, nicknamed “Jaco” by his mother, had already risen from a middle-class life in Florida, the son of big band singer and drummer Jack Pastorius, to an association with nascent guitar great Pat Metheny in 1973, and then to an introduction to Blood, Sweat & Tears drummer Bobby Colomby, who arranged the circumstances for Pastorius’s debut album in 1976, a record which was considered a breakthrough for his instrument and featured jazz heavyweights such as Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Lenny White and Hubert Laws, among several others. By the time Pastorius began his run with Weather Report in 1976, he was widely considered, particularly by himself, as the greatest bass player in the world, and continued working with other artists like Metheny, Joni Mitchell and Al Di Meola while laying the foundation for the expansion of his own solo career.


Yet by the time he sat down to talk with Jemmott for that television interview Pastorius had already seen record company corruption and resistance to his brilliant solo album Word of Mouth morph into out-and-out anger from the suits over his refusal to allow himself to be sculpted into just another pop jazz fusion artist. The drugs and alcohol he had always eschewed in the early stages of his career were now routine indulgences and had undoubtedly contributed to his increasingly destabilized mental health, and by the time he self-deprecatingly answered Jemmott’s question his erratic behavior on and off stage had contributed to a situation where the greatest bass player in the world could not find a job. At the time of the interview, scrambling for work, battling bipolar disorder (for which he was hospitalized for a year) and living off the occasionally beneficial remnants of his reputation, Jaco Pastorius, who singlehandedly reinvented what the bass guitar could do, was a year or so away from homelessness, living in a city park, and only a few years more removed from a tragic, violent death.

The film about Pastorius, directed by Stephen Kijak (Scott Walker: 30 Century Man) and documentary editor Paul Marchand (Good Hair, The 50-Year Argument), details the meteoric ascent and ignominious crumbling of its subject’s life largely in familiar, talking-heads fashion. Those heads—among them Jemmott, Bootsy Collins, Geddy Lee, Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo, Joni Mitchell and Weather Report drummer Peter Erskine— recognize the disturbing elements of Pastorius’ ego and some of his choices while indulging the usual sort of praise and secondhand confirmation of the unassailable talent of the man they’ve been gathered to celebrate. In its form, the documentary doesn’t find a correlative in the language of film to translate and illuminate the musician’s mastery, or especially his demons. Thankfully, however, Kijak and Marchand’s relatively conservative approach is free of the sensationalistic desire to wallow in grim details of their subject’s decline. They trust the eloquence, the passion, the genuine sadness of the people who care to honestly remember who Pastorius was, what his music meant.

What makes Jaco special, transporting, is Pastorius himself. The film features a treasure chest’s worth of archival footage of Pastorius creating and expressing music, as well as interacting with family and his peers, in moments of triumph, exhaustion and vulnerability. Those eyes, guarded and haunted in moments of self-reflection, lose their furtiveness in performance, and Pastorius’s slight frame takes on a tensile, almost organic unity with his instrument as he wields it on stage. As this brilliant musician runs his fingers along the neck of his fretless bass, sliding and massaging and plucking notes and chords from his electric instrument and coaxing it into making sounds that are rooted in the familiarity of an upright acoustic bass yet somehow new, otherworldly, untethered by the usual expectations, set free to roam past the usual boundaries, it’s easy to believe, as I always have when listening to the music he made, that no one else could ever do what he did. (It’s somewhat shocking, and heartening, to see a close-up late in the film of fingers scampering across another fretless bass, liberating the sort of glorious arrangement of tone and emboldened, flirtatious, difficult melody that could only be Jaco, which pulls back to reveal  the player is actually Jaco’s son, Felix.)


The music created by the merging of Jaco Pastorius with a bass guitar is among the only music I’ve ever heard which can make me begin to understand what a burdened soul suddenly shorn of unreasonable gravity might feel as it begins to float free. What’s left behind is not so much corporeal reality as the limiting expectations of what jazz, rock, classical, even country—all genres for which Pastorius professes love in the film—can ultimately become when given over to genius. The music Pastorius made joyfully reflects both the depth of his exploratory ambition and the arrogance necessary to sustain that ambition, while the sad circumstances of his shortened life insistently round out the warm buzz and staccato chord formations which emanate with no lack of mystery from his fingerboard. To its everlasting credit, Jaco recognizes the pain and blessedly indulges our desire to experience the fusion of all those warring elements within Pastorius’ music at its peak, to feel our collective souls, if only for the moment, fly, fly away, the beneficiaries of Pastorius’s troubled, transcendent mastery.

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Sunday, November 20, 2016

A SEASON FOR THANKSGIVING



Thanksgiving. After the past year of tumult, anger and divisiveness we’ve experienced in this country and around the world, to say nothing of the past couple of weeks, the concepts of thankfulness and appreciation may seem somewhat more distant and difficult to access than they might otherwise normally be. At any rate, Thanksgiving Day itself seems of late to be more about gorging on gigantic meals and, more distressingly, rampant consumerism, as Black Friday ever threatens to overtake the spirit of the day, and even the day itself—how many more seasons before it officially becomes Black Thursday?

Yet here we are, a few days before that very American occasion inspired by the desire to show our gratitude for our many blessings. So in the hope of reclaiming some of the original intent of our national holiday, I’d like to send out some brief thoughts on a few of the things I’m most grateful for as Thanksgiving Day draws near. Some of them may seem obvious, or even trivial or silly, but they’re all on my mind and my heart right now, the things that have made my life richer, more interesting, happier. I don’t need an official day to acknowledge them, but since I have one, here’s a list of a few of the things I’m thankful for as the trying and terrible year of 2016 comes to a close, in no particular order of significance.


I’m grateful for the fact that Vin Scully, the Hall of Fame announcer who retired this year after calling 67 seasons of Dodgers baseball, will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and while that honor still retains any meaning. Just last week Scully won the MLB Call of the Year award for his description of the walk-off home run, hit by Dodger journeyman Charlie Culbertson, which sealed the team’s fourth-straight National League division win. I’m grateful not only for the memories conjured by Scully over the years, but also for the privilege of being able to be at some of the games he called, even listening to him on the radio I brought with me into the stadium, and for being able to be there on his last weekend at Dodger Stadium for Vin Scully Appreciation Night, to see him get the love and honor he so richly deserved.

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I’m grateful for Rio Bravo, a movie film critic Charles Taylor recently described as a movie "in which people who have been undervalued come together to defeat a murderous thug who believes his power gives him the right to ignore the law." He wrote that early on Election Day, imagining, as many of us did, the result of the voting would be somewhat different than it ended up.

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I’m grateful for Filmstruck, the brand-new streaming channel for film lovers created through a collaboration between Turner Classic Movies and the Criterion Collection. Criterion’s entire streaming library will be available, as well as new titles premiering every week and a rotating schedule of programs curated by the likes of the eminent and surpassingly intelligent film critic Michael Sragow. And speaking of TCM, I’m grateful that, after three or so years in the wilderness, I’m finally able to afford to have that essential channel back on my big screen at home. The DVR is already feeling the strain.

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I’m grateful for the continuing opportunities for movie fans in cities like New York, Chicago, Austin, Los Angeles, and anywhere it might be happening, to see revival, repertory, alternative cinema on the big screen. May we here in Los Angeles never take for granted the American Cinematheque (at the Egyptian and Aero Theaters), the New Beverly Cinema, the Cinefamily and the Art Theater in Long Beach, as well as the multiple chances we have to attend and support rich and broadly scaled festivals year round. Just one treat coming next month: the 40th anniversary screening of the 1976 King Kong is coming to the Aero on December 10, with a discussion featuring legendary makeup artist Rick Baker, the movie’s cinematographer Richard Kline and others, moderated by the creator of Chucky the Killer Doll, writer-director Don Mancini.

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I’m grateful for Johnny Cash and June Carter’s recording of “If I Were a Carpenter.”

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I’m grateful for Martin Scorsese’s My Voyage to Italy, probably the most encyclopedic and insightful documentary we’re ever going to get on the vast influence and history of Italian film. I’m currently trying to learn Italian (my daughter and I are taking a class together), and I can’t wait to dig into this director’s very personal enthusiasms once again, as a way of enriching my own experience with the language.

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I’m grateful for Shelley Duvall, God bless her, for Suzanne, for Ida Coyle, for Keechie and L.A. Joan and Mrs. Grover Cleveland, for Pam (Alvy Singer’s Dylan-obsessed date), for Millie Lamoreaux and Wendy Torrance and, most especially, for Olive Oyl. May she get the medical treatment she needs, and the respectful treatment at the hands of the media she deserves.

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I’m grateful for the impulse to turn away from the usual outlets of alarm and cynicism on talk radio, and the incessant “analysis” of 24-hour TV news, and spend some time with Ernestine Anderson and Charlie Parker and Count Basie and the like on KJazz 88.1 FM while I’m in my car. I turned it on a few days ago as was treated to John Williams’ “Swing, Swing, Swing,” from his soaring and brilliant 1941 score—this is the tune played during the movie’s justly celebrated USO dance sequence. Any radio station which plays that without being asked gets my tune-in.

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I’m grateful for the Hammer, perhaps my favorite pizza ever, at Track Town Pizza in Eugene, Oregon. It’s not the reason I come to visit my old University of Oregon hometown, but when I’m there a stop at this joint has become absolutely required.

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I’m grateful for The Vista Theater in East Hollywood. It’s been at the intersection of Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards for around for 80 years or so, on or near the sites where some of the first and greatest silent films in Hollywood history (Intolerance, anyone?) were made. These days just about every big-ass blockbuster on the schedule gets at least a week’s play here, which means my daughters and I end up here a lot, in our favorite seats-- center, a third of the auditorium back from the screen. Some of the best sound and picture in the city, a beautifully maintained art deco interior (Egyptian themed), with a curtain that gets pulled back and everything, all for about six to ten dollars cheaper (depending on when you attend) than what you’d pay at one of the reserved seat, luxury showcases in town, like the Arclight or the Landmark in West Los Angeles.

And your ticket is likely to be torn by the theater’s manager, Victor Martinez, who dresses up like the main character of the film he’s showing and always poses for pictures for before sending you inside. (“Enjoy my movie!”) We’ve been welcomed by the likes of Rorschach (Watchmen), Harry Potter, Matt Damon’s astronaut-suited character from The Martian and, most recently, Doctor Strange. Now, that’s entertainment!

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I’m grateful that it seems as though “autumn” is finally settling on Southern California, if only in drips and drops. The clouds are out in force this morning as I write, always a solid source for inspiration, and the last few nights I’ve actually been cold when I’ve gone to bed, all the better for utilizing every bit of cover.

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I’m grateful for moments like missing the company of my eldest daughter, then stepping out into the morning after a movie, as I did yesterday, to hear music from Nino Rota’s score for The Godfather, music she loves which has only caused it to gain in significance for me, wafting over the open courtyard of the theater entrance.

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I’m grateful after the free-floating disillusionment caused by the election last week that strangers can and will still talk to each other on the street. A short conversation I had yesterday with a woman, who did not look or dress like me or the women in my family, while she played with her six-month-old baby outside a bookstore in Pasadena, did wonders to restore my faith in such simple pleasures, and that such simple pleasures were still possible.

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I’m grateful for the return of film critic Jim Emerson as an online presence, if only right now on Facebook. Jim has had health issues related to his heart and had recently been hospitalized. He’s home now, convalescing under the care of doctors and his beloved German shepherd Lolita, and though he’s not had the energy or ability to see many movies, his political voice has found fire again and his postings on Facebook have been full of the usual Emersonian clarity, stimulating logic and, as appropriate, righteous anger and disbelief. Jim has been instrumental in the development of my own writing and my adventures in critical thinking, and I’m so glad to be able to read his impressions of the world once again. It may sound odd, but Jim is probably the best friend I’ve never actually met, and I hope someday very soon we’ll get to shake hands in 3D.

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I’m grateful for the eloquent understatement of Jeff Nichols’ Loving, one of the three movies I saw yesterday which feel so much like absolutely vital movies of the moment that the cumulative effect of seeing them all together left me shaken and overwhelmed. It’s a movie which illustrates, among many other things, how the gaining of freedoms taken for granted by many these days was hard-fought, freedoms which might now, despite recent progress, again be in jeopardy for another long-marginalized community. (More on those other two in a second.)
Nichols dares to tell the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple in Virginia who married in 1958 and spent the next nine years as the subject of persecution and exile before becoming the nexus of Loving v. Virginia, the 1967 federal ruling that abolished anti-miscegenation laws nationwide, with spellbinding, hushed confidence. And naturally the movie is being dinged by some for not being dramatic enough. But there’s enough drama for two or three movies in the way Ruth Negga, as Mildred, draws a hesitant breath while reticently considering the family she’ll have to leave to maintain her new one, or the way Joel Edgerton’s Richard preserves his dignity while furrowing his brow and deflecting his gaze from figures of authority, stealing a microsecond’s glance before resuming a position of deference.

Loving
never sacrifices the integrity of character for the momentary juice of effect, and despite the seductive call of the typical Hollywood take on true-life drama, it never becomes about big moments, or self-righteous expressions, or even the resolution of the courtroom decision as it is been delivered. I kept thinking how often important stories like these have been butchered and falsified, their focus and weight shifted from the real (usually non-white) protagonists to peripheral figures of (white) authority like savior cops, lawyers and government agents at the hands of directors like Alan Parker (Mississippi Burning), and I was made even more grateful for Jeff Nichols’ approach, which exudes gentleness and a basic honor he recognizes in the characters and transfers to his film.
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I’m also grateful for the quiet purposefulness of Arrival, which managed to keep me riveted with a suspenseful tale built not around a laser-blazin’ alien invasion, but instead a visitation in which the interpretation of language, in this case one that has never been heard, seen or used by humans before, is the source of the drama. As one of the characters in the film observes, learning a foreign language requires your brain to become rewired; it causes you to rethink the way you see the world and the way you communicate within it. This has certainly been my experience as I go through the earliest stages of learning Italian. When you suddenly “understand” the words and the way they function together in a sentence to suddenly expand meaning and create context, the experience can be similar to what happens in Arrival; “seeing”/feeling the Italian (or whatever language) transmogrify into something fluid, like alien text suspended in a smoky atmosphere, something that can, in a rudimentary way, be understood. 
Director Denis Villeneuve structures his movie as a series of puzzle pieces which build on each other until we see not what we think we’re seeing, but what actually is—a mode of experience we weren’t privy to before which, in its own way, resembles decoding language. This is old-school science fiction based on ideas rather than sensation, and it’s a visual and philosophical beauty. The movie insists that words are important, that they do matter, and articulates how the context in which they are spoken can manipulate, alter and even hinder understanding. As we go through the looking glass into Trumplandia,
Arrival caused me to exult in the possibilities of language and simultaneously despair over how often those possibilities, through misuse and ignorance, can be overwhelmed by fear or stagnation, or be discarded altogether.

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And I’m grateful for the fearless narrative thrust of Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, the Dutch director’s first movie in over four years and the first to see an American release since 2006’s Black Book. The movie begins with a horrifying sexual assault (heard, but not seen), followed by the inexplicably matter-of-fact response of the victim, Michele (Isabelle Huppert in perhaps a career-best performance). Why does she silently sweep up the broken glass from the floor where the assault took place, and then take a bath, rather than report the crime? It’s behavior like this that has driven some viewers to distraction, but even the most inexplicable responses in Elle begin to resonate with psychological acuity as the details of Michele’s world, and more specifically her relationships with the men in her life, begin to accumulate. The movie is the last thing from a position paper—it’s an incredibly tense character thriller that had me on edge for the entirety of its running time—but once again, with almost providential timing it serves notice on the squirmy misogynistic contempt currently moving from a subterranean position to overt expression in our culture, and how one female response to it might be more complicated than could easily fit as a slogan on a bumper sticker. Elle certainly means to provoke, but that provocation isn’t perverse, it’s subtly, artfully pointed, and as such it’s definitely of a piece within the work of the man who made Starship Troopers and Showgirls.

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Finally, I am of course grateful for the apparently bottomless love of my wife, the happiness of my two daughters, the (sometimes) quiet company of our three cats, and all the cherished people with whom I have the privilege of interacting every day on social media and in my non-virtual life. And I am of course grateful to Joe Dante and Charlie Largent for allowing me free rein in this space each and every week. I do not take any of this for granted, and I want you all of the above to know how much your continued presence in my life means to me, my state of mind and my everyday survival. Happy Thanksgiving.


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Saturday, November 05, 2016

HAL PHILLIP WALKER, ALBUQUERQUE, NASHVILLE AND ELECTION 2016



From the first time I saw it until this moment, two days before what might just be the most important, potentially resonant (for good and ill) American presidential election since the days of the Civil War, no other movie has expanded in my view more meaningfully, more ambiguously, with more fascination than has Robert Altman’s Nashville. We often hear of movies which “transcend” their genres, or their initial ambitions or intentions, and often built into that alleged transcendence is a condescension to said genre, or those ambitions or intentions, as if the roots were somehow corrupt or unworthy, in need of reconstruction. If the form of Nashville transcends anything, it’s the shape and scope of the multi-character drama as we’d come to know it in 1975, which was dominated at the time by disaster movies and their jam-packed casts filled with old Hollywood veterans and Oscar winners. But it doesn’t “transcend” the arena of political and social commentary so much as attempt to fill in the gaps that usually accompany such filmmaking endeavors-- movies which can often feel like treatises tricked out in dramatic dressing-- with artifacts, reminiscences, instances of exterior image-making and interior conflict, performance, bravado, anxiety, the sort of breathing room that somehow comes to resemble the real world.

I used the term “expanded” to describe my experience with the movie because Nashville’s vision hasn’t seemed to have left anything about its original context behind in the past 41 years—it still reverberates, means something in the context of where we were at as a nation getting ready to celebrate our 200th anniversary. And yet the film seems to have demonstrated a prescience, an ability to reach forward, to expand its glancing observational acuity toward an age that it surely anticipated, where celebrity and politics have become intertwined in unpredictable and often grotesque ways;  where the citizenry has become ever more divided in the face of national and global shifts that have taken place since 1975 and which continue to occur; which seems, despite the sophistication of technological innovations like social media, even less inclined toward real community and communication than ever before.

But even the complex canvas conjured by Altman, screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury and the marvelous actors which bring Nashville to life hasn’t been able to fully anticipate the degree to which the American public would become subject to the cynical manipulation of partisan politics at the hands of politicians, outsiders as well as those inside the beltway. In 1975 fictional candidate Hal Phillip Walker, himself most certainly an outsider to Washington beltway politics, appealed to the everyman intellect in his front-porch approach to political reasoning:  

"Fellow taxpayers and stockholders in America, on the first Tuesday in November, we have to make some vital decisions about our management. Let me go directly to the point. I'm for doing some replacing. I've discussed the Replacement Party with people all over this country and I'm often confronted with the statement - 'I don't want to get mixed up in politics,' or 'I'm tired of politics,' or 'I'm not interested.' Almost as often, someone said, 'I can't do anything about it anyway.' Let me point out two things. Number One: All of us are deeply involved with politics whether we know it or not and whether we like it or not. And Number Two: We can do something about it. When you pay more for an automobile than it cost Columbus to make his first voyage to America, that's politics."

It shouldn’t be too difficult to remember how such a simplistic rendering of complex issues might have seemed so attractive to a populace, urban or rural, which had seemingly had its fill of a political system saturated with systemic racism and violence, one so quick to exploit a growing generational divide and unembarrassed by its contempt for its own diverse constituencies, one which had just endured a national crisis, a presidential implosion and, as the ultimate cynical kiss-off, a pardon by that president’s ascendant replacement from any criminal responsibility. Who wouldn’t, on one level or another, have been for some replacing?


And Walker’s campaign, gathering steam in small steps in the summer of 1975, its collective eyes on the big contest to come a year later, seems to have been at least initially underestimated. Listen to ABC news anchor and political commentator Howard K. Smith, in the hours just before what will turn out to be a horrifying watershed moment in the Walker campaign, summarize the Walker effect and reflect in a way that, in retrospect, knowing what we know about presidential politics in 2016, can only now seem terribly, quaintly insufficient in its self-satisfaction:

"Little more than a year ago, a man named Hal Phillip Walker excited a group of college students with some questions-- "Have you stood on a high and windy hill and heard the acorns drop and roll? Have you walked in the valley beside the brook, walked alone and remembered? Does Christmas smell like oranges to you?" Within a commencement speech, such questions were fitting, perhaps, but hardly the material with which to launch a presidential campaign. Even those who pay close attention to politics probably saw Hal Phillip Walker and his Replacement Party as a bit of frost on the hillside. Summer, if not late spring, would surely do away with all that. Well, now that summer, along with presidential primaries, is heavy upon us and the frost is still there, perhaps we should take a closer look. Hal Phillip Walker is, in a way, a mystery man. Out of nowhere with a handful of students and scarcely any pros, he's managed to win three presidential primaries and is given a fighting chance to take a fourth-- Tennessee. A win in that state would take on added significance, for only once in the last 50 years has Tennessee failed to vote for the winning presidential candidate. No doubt many Americans, especially party-liners, wish that Hal Phillip Walker would go away, disappear like the natural frost and come again at some more convenient season. But wherever he may be going, it seems sure that Hal Phillip Walker is not going away. For there is genuine appeal, and it must be related to the raw courage of this man. Running for President, willing to battle vast oil companies, eliminate subsidies to farmers, tax churches, abolish the Electoral College, change the National Anthem and remove lawyers from government-- especially from Congress. Well, at this point, it would be wise to say most of us don't know the answer to Hal Phillip Walker. But to answer one of his questions, as a matter of fact, Christmas has always smelled like oranges to me."


Yet in 2016 the man whose image and impact seemed to most accurately reflect the unpretentious impertinence of Hal Phillip Walker, H. Ross Perot, the wealthy businessman who mounted an influential, if still unsuccessful, bid for the presidency in 1992, seems almost like a distant memory. (Almost.) Like Walker, Perot hailed from the South and had a penchant for boiling down complex issues into sound-bite-sized “solutions” that could appeal to those voters whose attention to the wonky minutiae of political logic and practicality was as deficient as his own. “I’ve got a lot of experience in not taking 10 years to solve a 10-minute problem,” Perot said during one debate during his campaign.
If Perot’s cut-to-the-chase braggadocio sounds familiar it should, echoing as it does from the fictional past of Altman’s movie all the way through to the unexpected steamrolling of the American political process at the (some would say tiny; many people are saying it) hands of Donald Trump.

However, the folksy pretense to honesty which links Walker to Perot is inapplicable to Trump. Yes, the same sorts of appeals to his base and potential voters are being made by this year’s Perot, but the key element absent is any sense that Trump, like Walker or Perot, is really “one of us.” The trappings of glamour, wealth, urbanity and grotesque excess that have characterized Trump’s public life, long before he became interested in a presidential candidacy, are many times removed from Walker’s assumed of-the-people stature. We can only guess, given the lack of information in the movie itself, as to Walker’s personal financial holdings, but certainly Perot’s own status as a rich mover-and-shaker was only enhanced by his own inescapable persona as a straight-shooting Texan. Trump has, improbably, extended his appeal to the very sort of voting base who might previously, as in the case of Perot and certainly in the case of Walker, and perhaps in a moment characterized by more clarity and less purposely fomented outrage, have found the self-aggrandizing real estate mogul irredeemably suspect.

Nashville is fascinating not only for what it told us, and continues to tell us, about the way American politics have been altered, the way the idealism of the ‘60s was assassinated and replaced by overwhelming political opportunism, hued by language delivered in familiar cadences and wrapped in the facile trappings of patriotism. It’s also pertinent and enriched by its concern for the people who make lives amid the exuberant chaos of the American landscape, who are indeed often the source of that chaos, who revel not only in the insanity and sometimes unforgiving indifference of that landscape, but also in a measure of hopefulness to which every citizen can, or should be able to lay claim.


Of all of Nashville’s celebrated 24 characters, all of whom dart in and out at one time or another from the periphery and into the center of the action captured by Altman’s camera, the one I’ve been thinking about a lot in these days before the 2016 election is the one that in some ways seems the most peripheral, the woman known only as Albuquerque, played by Barbara Harris. Albuquerque, as hinted at by the name she calls herself, is certainly an outsider to Nashville, but also to the city’s music scene, which she hopes in some way to penetrate on the way toward the sort of career embodied by singers like Barbara Jean and Connie White, women with whom she will share some very significant space over the course of the three days depicted in the film. She’s traveled to Nashville with her husband, Star (Bert Remsen), but somewhere along the way Star has grown impatient with Albuquerque’s relentless fantasies of country music fame and fortune, so much so that Albuquerque has made a break from him and spends the duration of the film trying to avoid being caught by him and dragged back home.

She chatters on about her talent and her desires to anyone who will listen. Unfortunately for her, not too many seem to be interested in listening, so caught up are they in the swirl of their own concerns and interests. She weaves among the cacophonic ambience of Altman’s portraiture of Nashville’s busy world, invaded as it has been by the Walker campaign and its hangers-on. At one point, self-absorbed as always, Albuquerque stumbles across a highway, indifferent to and completely unaware of the traffic accident she has inadvertently caused. While cars crash together behind her and Walker campaign staffers, decked out in red-white-and-blue decorated straw hats, scramble to assist the possibly injured drivers, Albuquerque dithers on. She may be unaware of the chaos surrounding her, some of which she herself sets in motion, but it’s clear that on some level, conscious or otherwise, she thrives on it, which makes her a perfect drifter to navigate, on our behalf, the whims of the wind, to say nothing of the compressed and readily unleashed energy and opportunism floating through Altman's musical city.


And wherever the talent and the audiences gather, the observant viewer will catch glimpses of Albuquerque perched just off stage, or milling around backstage without permission, soaking up the milieu, hoping some of the good luck that has graced the performers she sees in the positions of prominence they enjoy will somehow be also visited upon her. But in the same way she seems to be able to slip out of the grasp of her pursuant husband, that lucky break seems to elude Albuquerque at most every turn. She can’t even seem to crack the open mic at a club which sets up the spunky charm of a duo like the Smoky Mountain Laurels against the tone-deaf warbling of another would-be star, Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles).

And the one gig where we do see Albuquerque on stage isn’t exactly a dream venue. One of my favorite sequences in Nashville is the one which contrasts the various Sunday worship services attended by some of the characters-- the sober formalism of the Catholic mass attended by Wade (Robert DoQui) and Star (Bert Remsen), and Miss Pearl (Barbara Baxley) with head covering that looks more like a doily-- Sueleen is there too, wearing a fuller mantilla, singing in the choir where she and her musical abilities are finally afforded a modicum of grace; the Presbyterian service where Del (Ned Beatty) brings his kids, a big, ornate Protestant service befitting the mainstream of the Nashville religious community (there's even a sign language interpreter for the benefit of the many deaf worshipers, the Reese children among them) which sees country star Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) in choral robes, yet no less pompous in this sacred mode-- like everywhere else, he's there primarily to be seen; Linnea sings with the gospel choir (presumably the one she's seen with at the opening of the film) at a black church-- Tommy Brown (Timothy Brown) is also there-- where the choir provides the background setting for a baptism; and finally, Barbara Jean, seated in a wheelchair at the front of the modest hospital chapel, engaged in a heartrending rendition of "In The Garden" ("Well, He walks with me and He talks with me/And He tells me I am his own...") while her husband Barnett (Allen Garfield), Pvt. Glenn Kelly (Scott Glenn) and Mr. Green (Keenan Wynn) listen intently.


In immediate contrast to the reverent observance on display in the church sequence, Albuquerque is next seen singing at a car race, to a “congregation” whose lack of receptivity to her message can at least be blamed on the screaming wheels and grinding gears of the culture at large, and not just spiritual vacuity or, perhaps more generously, the potentially hollow habits of worship. But the thing that makes Albuquerque stand out amidst the madness, regardless of whether or not she can actually be heard, and regardless of whether or not she can even sing, is that Albuquerque gives the opportunity and the performance her all. After all, this is, she thinks, her one moment to shine.

As Nashville moves toward its conclusion, the focus shifts to a Hal Phillip Walker rally at the Parthenon, a replica of the ancient Greek structure which stands as the centerpiece of the city’s Centennial Park, the event for which John Triplette (Michael Murphy) has spent the duration of the film relentlessly courting and recruiting the elite among Nashville’s country music stars, including Connie White, Tommy Brown, Haven Hamilton and Barbara Jean. Throughout the film we’ve had glimpses of Kenny Frasier (David Hayward, also seen above with Barbara Harris). Like Albuquerque, Kenny is another outsider, a quiet, socially reticent fellow who creeps through the movie, fiddle case in hand, as if looking for a gig he’s already sure he’s unqualified for. But he doesn’t seem to be a musician, and unlike Albuquerque, he makes no attempt to ingratiate himself within the community of musicians and entertainers. He seems to have an interest in Barbara Jean, but his true motivations remain unspoken. And there he is, near front and center in the audience.


Among all those gathered at the Parthenon on stage waiting for the rally to start, there seems to be a certain unease. Musicians and Walker representatives mill about the stage, yet the only person we see exhibiting any sense of seeming natural and in her element is Albuquerque. How she got there is anyone’s guess, presumably slipping in under the relaxed radar of Walker security, but there she sits, poised like the family cat at the feet of other performers like Sueleen Gay (how did she get there?) and that gospel choir, waiting for a crack at the door, another possible moment.

Those who have seen Nashville know that for Albuquerque her moment does indeed come—she finds herself leading a stunned assembly in a seemingly endless chorus of the movie’s signature anthem of blinkered optimism, “It Don’t Worry Me,” after seizing the stage in the aftermath of a horrifying occurrence which seems like nothing if not an unwelcome echo of the senseless political violence of the ‘60s lurching its way into newer, unplowed ground. Screenwriter Matthew Wilder recently wrote that, as Altman’s camera slowly pulls back from this scene and tilts to the sky, it feels like nothing less than the director raising his gaze to heaven in disbelief. And indeed, Altman ends Nashville on a note that is exquisitely difficult to pin down, one of the most gloriously ambiguous refrains in the history of American movies, at once chilling, exhilarating, cynical, defiant and sanguine, yet laced with resignation and apprehension.


Which makes it the perfect film to encapsulate the strange brew of corruption, racism, malfeasance, boorish sexism and general upending of decorum and tradition that marks this weirdest of all political seasons. However Nashville ends up reflecting back on the era we’re about to usher in, if the descendants of Hal Phillip Walker have their day or if the Albuquerques adrift at sea in the American political system can seize their moment and make what they can of it, obviously no one can yet say. But as vital as this singular artistic achievement has remained over the course of 41 increasingly tumultuous years, I suspect it might just find some way to sing a uniquely American tune to those who have ears to hear. That, at least, don’t worry me.

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Sunday, October 30, 2016

AN ELECTRIC DREAMHOUSE OF HORROR, plus TWO HAMMER GREATS FOR HALLOWEEN


Yesterday, amid a crush of sweaty people desperate for last-minute props, I visited a local Halloween superstore with my daughter, looking for a Pikachu mask. Well, there wasn’t much to choose from in the Cute Kid Division. But this particular hall of Halloween hell definitely had the adult sensibility covered. Of course there were the usual skimpy or otherwise outrageous costumes for purchase —ladies, you can dress up like a sexy Kim Kardashian-esque vampire out for a night of Hollywood clubbing, and gents, how about impressing all the sexy Kim Kardashian vampires at your party by dressing up like a walking, talking matched set of cock and balls! It’s been a while since I’ve shopped for fake tools of terror, but it seems there’s been a real advance in sophistication in the market for “Leatherface-approved” (I swear) chainsaws with moving parts and authentic revving noises, as well as axes and machetes featuring self-contained, ever-flowing spattered blood. And the masks, of course, are even more grotesque and gruesome that ever—flesh-eating zombies (some with flesh stuck in between their mangled teeth), up-to-the-minute super-terrifying clowns, mutants of every misshapen sort and, of course, the most terrifying of all, Donald Trump in mid-rally shouting form.

We walked out sans the countenance of my daughter’s beloved Pokemon favorite, and I was reminded once again that when it comes to Halloween, and especially movies for Halloween, I am definitely a classicist. I prefer the mist-laden moors, the graveyard overgrown with thickets of weeds and thorns and low-hanging trees, the figure moving through said graveyard draped in a shroud, the bolts of lightning illuminating a laboratory crammed with elaborate, spark-spewing coils and rotors and other evocatively eerie equipment, over the extreme envelope-pushing nihilism of the average modern gorefest. Make no mistake—I like the gore, especially the variety found in a typical Hammer horror from the ‘60s and ‘70s, when pushing the envelope was a decidedly quainter, if slightly salacious proposition. I just don’t like my nose rubbed in it for nose-rubbings’ sake. Endurance tests tend to lack the element of genuine pleasure, a perspective which might seem counterintuitive to horror fans who groove on the indiscriminate all-stops-out cornucopia of perversion evident in the average episode of American Horror Story. But I prefer my horror movies to have a touch of elegance and style, no matter how outdated that style might be to modern eyes, as a counterbalance to the relentless chills and fear.


Which is why I’ve spent this Halloween in the company of some of my old favorites, like Son of Dracula (1943), one of Universal’s least-seen and most underappreciated horror sequels, starring Lon Chaney Jr. as the titular heir to the legendary vampire’s bloodsucking legacy and directed by the splendid Robert Siodmak who when he made this terrific chiller was only a year or two away from terrific pictures like Christmas Holiday, a 1943 psychological thriller with Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly (seek this one out if you haven’t seen it), The Spiral Staircase (1944), The Killers (1946), The Dark Mirror (1945), Criss Cross (1949) and The Crimson Pirate (1952). And when it comes time for Halloween, I always rely on Hammer. This year I’ve already spent time in the company of Ingrid Pitt, Madeline Smith, Peter Cushing and The Vampire Lovers (1970); Peter Cushing, Dennis Price and, of course, Madeleine and Mary Collison as the Twins of Evil (1971); and two of the very best Hammer productions, both directed by Terence Fisher—Curse of the Werewolf (1961) and the movie I consider to be the pinnacle of Hammer’s achievements in horror, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969).

All of which, but particularly Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, lead me straight up to the doors of Neil Snowdon’s Electric Dreamhouse. Neil is an editor and genre expert based in the UK, and Electric Dreamhouse Press, under the umbrella of PS Publishing, is the new cinema imprint he’s conjured to focus on genre-oriented writing from all over the world. This past summer Snowdon kicked off a very exciting project entitled Midnight Movie Monographs, a series of in-depth writings in short book form, somewhat in the vein of the BFI Classics or Devil's Advocates series, dedicated to “the less reputable side of the cinephile universe,” the idea behind which is to bring together genre authors, filmmakers and passionate critical voices to create a collection of writing intended to illuminate some of the less-discussed entries in the horror film genre which have somehow escaped much in-depth critical consideration up to this point.


The first two titles out of the gate this past year have both been greeted with quite a bit of critical acclaim themselves—John Llewellyn Probert’s consideration of the Vincent Price-Diana Rigg classic Theatre of Blood (1973), and a volume dedicated to Martin (1977), George A. Romero’s underappreciated twist of vampire psychology, written by Jez Winship. (Both volumes are now available directly from Electric Dreamhouse.)

And Snowdon has a lot more in store. Here’s a quick rundown some of the Midnight Movie Monographs books and authors projected for 2017:

Eyes Without a Face by Michael Brooke, critic for Sight & Sound magazine, DVD and Bluray producer;

Martyrs and Slumber Party Massacre by Stacie Ponder, writer/director/critic/comics artist and author of the popular Final Girl blog;

Carnival of Souls by Stephen R. Bissette, comics artist and writer (Swamp Thing, Tyrant) and film critic for Video Watchdog, Gorezone and Fangoria;

Sinister by Mark Morris‎, author (Toady, The Black, The Immaculate, The Wolves Of London, Albion Fay) and screenwriter (Doctor Who);

Let’s Scare Jessica to Death by Lynda E. Rucker, author of The Moon Will Look Strange and columnist for Black Static magazine;

Black Sunday and The Karnstein Trilogy by Angela Slatter, World Fantasy Award-winning author of Sourdough and Other Tales, The Bitterwood Bible, Of Sorrow And Such, Vigil;

The Tenant by Kevin Jackson, writer, broadcaster, film maker and author of BFI monographs on Nosferatu, Withnail & I, and Lawrence of Arabia;

The Devil Rides Out and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me by Maura McHugh‎, writer of prose, comics and film, including Twisted Fairy Tales and Witchfinder: Mysteries of Unland;

Freaks by Johnny Mains, author of Plugged into the Mains, and A Little Light Screaming and editor of Dead Funny, Best British Horror and Aickman: A Centenary Celebration;

The Fury by Howard S. Berger and Kevin Marr, film critics and directors of Original Sins 
and the documentary A Life In The Death Of Joe Meek;

The Stone Tape by Fiona Watson, screenwriter (Twisted Tales, Let Us Prey) and writer for the online film journal Senses of Cinema;

Island of Lost Souls by Jonathan Rigby, author of English Gothic, American Gothic, Euro Gothic and consultant on A History of Horror;

Blood on Satan’s Claw by Kimberly Lindbergs, writer and critic at Movie Morlocks and Cinebeats;

Eraserhead by Anton Bitel, film critic, Sight & Sound;

Messiah of Evil by Maitland McDonagh, film critic and author of Broken Mirrors, Broken Minds, the first book length study of the films of Dario Argento;

Face of Fire by Stephen Laws, author of Spectre, The Wyrm, Chasm and Ferocity;

Phase IV by Neil Mitchell, film critic for Sight & Sound, Total Film and Electric Sheep, and film programmer for the Australia and New Zealand Festival of Literature and Arts;

Manhunter by Philip Simpson (Making Murder: The Fiction of Thomas Harris, Psycho Paths: Tracking The Serial Killer through Contemporary American Film and Fiction) and Scott Bradley (The Book of Lists: Horror, The Dark).


And I’m excited to announce that I’ll be among those authors as well. My contribution to the Midnight Movie Monographs series will be a volume on Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, which as I said before is the movie that most fully sums up what makes a Hammer film great, as well as one of the most seminal influences on a life (mine) spent appreciating the signature elements of the genre and what a superlative horror movie can achieve. So perhaps as a warm-up, here’s a look at a piece I wrote in 2010 on Terence Fisher’s aforementioned masterworks, The Curse of the Werewolf and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, in anticipation not only of my own upcoming monograph but all those bearing the Electric Dreamhouse imprint and the expansive vision of editor Neil Snowdon, and of course Halloween, the rising moon of which is, if you haven’t heard, just a few hours away…

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Director Terence Fisher began his 21-year run at Hammer Films in 1952 with a film noir entitled The Last Page, a.k.a. Man Bait. But in 1957 he kicked off a fruitful 17-year stretch by doing nothing less than fleshing out the template for the studio’s greatest financial and artistic successes, which would send them all on an impressive run of lurid yet stately horror films whose budgets were rarely betrayed by their production values. Hammer began life in the mid-30’s, the inspiration of two father-son pairs, James and Enrique Carreras and Will and Anthony Hinds. They specialized in under-the-radar low-budget fare that touched on all tones and subject matter, but found their greatest success since the studio’s inception when they released 1955’s science fiction thriller The Quatermass X-periment (known in the U.S. as The Creeping Unknown). In the wake of a successful sequel, Quatermass II (aka Enemy from Space), Hammer wisely decided to focus more or less solely on horror and science fiction output. They embarked upon what would ultimately turn out to be a reinvention of the Universal horror film stable, and their first four efforts, The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Horror of Dracula (1958), The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958) and The Mummy (1959) were directed by Fisher (and all four starred the venerable team of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee). Fisher would turn out to be the director whose style and career would become the most closely synonymous with Hammer horror.


 Fisher’s somewhat more stately approach to the framing and pacing of his films indeed provided the template to which other directors for Hammer would both adhere and from which they would depart, with varying results from each approach. It’s entirely possible that horror fans of a younger generation than the one I come from might find a movie like Fisher’s The Curse of the Werewolf entirely too restrained. Seen from the vantage point of 1961’s keepers of morality, the heaving bosoms and generous splashes of blood ensured that this would not the case, of course, at the same time that it kept everyone else glued to the screen. What puts off impatient viewers who are accustomed to the more instant gratification-friendly filmmaking most prevalent in the last 20 years or so is Fisher’s complete sense of control and appreciation of the story’s rather epic perspective, his insistence upon taking the time necessary to tell the story properly. It is, after all, a movie whose ostensible main character, Leon Corledo (Oliver Reed), the recipient of the titular curse, doesn’t even appear until nearly an hour of running time has passed.

Fisher’s sure directorial hand conveys more confidence through a single pinky than his contemporaries can muster with both fists, and this confidence serves the storytelling trajectory well. The film begins by recounting the misfortune of a beggar who makes the mistake of intruding on the wedding party of a particularly foul and arrogant marquis. The beggar is tossed into a dungeon, where his sanity slowly slips away after years of imprisonment. The only person who has shown the least sympathy or concern for the beggar’s predicament is the buxom deaf-mute daughter of the marquis’s jailer, but her humanity is soon subjected to the most undeserved of horrors. Assaulted by the marquis after a failed rape, he orders her thrown into the cell with the beggar, who has lost all control over his behavior and his appetites. She is soon raped and impregnated by the animalistic prisoner and, after escaping and murdering the marquis, flees to the forest where she spends the next few months foraging for food and hoping to survive her pregnancy in secrecy.


As Movie Morlocks writer suzidoll notes in her thoughtful essay on The Curse of the Werewolf, the movie’s sense of a sprawling, epic narrative is not facilitated some much by splashy budgetary indulgences, but by the depiction of class strata that is fairly typical of British productions. “Issues of class are often part of Hammer’s horror films, either directly in the storyline or subtly through the fates and misfortunes of the characters,” she writes. This is certainly is the case in Curse of the Werewolf, where the poor and unfortunate are made to bear the brunt of the extremities of an aristocracy’s sense of entitlement and sexual rage, thus unleashing forces of evil that end up ravaging the society at large as a result. Indeed, Hammer’s own Plague of the Zombies, which was released five years later, in 1966, nimbly navigates the subject of class-related exploitation in a way that connects it on a line of social horror films from Val Lewton (I Walked with a Zombie) to Wes Craven (The Serpent and the Rainbow).

But in Curse of the Werewolf those class scenarios are infused with the same kind of sexual awareness and legacy of symbolism that enlivened Hammer’s take on the Dracula legend (also at the hands of Fisher). In just the first phase of this multi-generational tale, the director, working with screenwriter Anthony Hinds, who himself adapted a novel by Guy Endore, lends a ripe, sexualized foundation to this take on the legends of lycanthropy which resonate throughout the film. It is a subtext unfamiliar to the many tales of Larry Talbot’s woes, the ones spun by Universal Studios, of course, but even the most recent incarnation directed by Joe Johnston. Even in those films the werewolf’s anguish has always been entangled with suppressed desire, blood lust and impulses that are at the very least unacceptable, and often hostile to civilized society.


But here that traditional subtext, often nearly buried out of sight, is openly discussed, perhaps for the first time in a major genre film. The themes are rather brilliantly woven into the very fabric of the sets (red being both the color of passion and, according to Fisher, the color of fear), the heightened, almost fairy-tale sense of dislocation—this werewolf tale takes place not on the moors, but in early 19th century Spain—and the stirrings of desire that get all tangled up with inexplicable dread. These impulses all find their expression in the impassioned restraint of Fisher’s directorial temper and Arthur Grant’s gorgeous cinematography, itself engorged on the lifeblood of the story and that which is, in the grand Hammer tradition, occasionally spilled or splashed on screen.

The young woman is rescued by a wealthy don of a much more empathetic temperament, but she soon dies in childbirth. However her son, the boy who will grow up to be Oliver Reed, survives and is soon experiencing inexplicable physical compulsions—mysterious patches of hair, an accidental taste of blood which moves from repulsion to sweet attraction and soon to a ravenous thirst— a lycanthrope’s pubescent confusion. He also dreams of running at night and killing like a wolf, and one morning the don discovers the boy in bed, bloodied, soaked with sweat and wounded by the steel ball of a hunter’s rifle. A kindly priest, the kind who often appears in stories like these with a wisdom of the unnatural that always comes in very handy, suggests to the don that the impulses that torment a man who may also be a wolf may be held at bay by the knowledge of being loved, but that the reverse—love’s trampling under the hooves of savage, bestial desire—is also possible. The don rears the boy successfully in a life of familial care until he becomes the grown Leon, who soon finds himself at the mercy of lustful cravings that he doesn’t understand, cravings that have dire consequences for him and the citizens of his village.


Reed is wonderful in the movie—his red-trimmed eyes, in full werewolf mode, spilling tears of anger, frustration and hunger—are seen in terrifying close-up over the movie’s opening credits, an accurate indication of the painful depths which his performance will plumb. And he is well served by Fisher’s fascination with those painful depths. Reed is given room here to create a characterization that collaborates both with the audience’s sympathies and with our desire to luxuriate in the rich palette of horror concocted by Fisher and the Hammer artisans, all in service to their gory vision of a familiar tale. (The movies violence, as I was pleased to discover upon a recent viewing, still has the power to shock.)

The Curse of the Werewolf is by no means ashamed of its familiarity, yet the glory of the movie is in its willingness to push not only the boundaries of the violence, but the very tactile sense of the world it depicts into ever more heightened realms that never disengage from its essential emotional undercurrent. The movie never parlays style or shock as simple ends in themselves. In a conversation with the Horror Dads on the Movie Morlocks site, I attempted to express why horror moves us, or at least me. “It is essentially a conservative genre-- the order, once disturbed, must be restored--” I said, “that can easily accommodate the most radical, satirical, political and comic of perspectives.” I went on to say that one of the elements best expressed by a great horror film is “the moan of a creature who is slave to his/her baser instincts reaching out for a human connection and destroying, with intent or not, the thing he/she most wants to love.” Though I wasn’t thinking of any movie specifically when I offered these thoughts, The Curse of the Werewolf seems perfectly emblematic of these familiar horror themes executed to near perfection.

By the time he made Frankenstein Created Woman in 1967, Terence Fisher had revisited the well of the vampire twice (1960’s highly-regarded The Brides of Dracula, with Cushing’s Van Helsing battling David Peel’s incarnation of the blood-sucker, and 1966’s Dracula: Prince of Darkness which brought Lee’s sophistication back to Bram Stoker’s vampire, this time sans Cushing) and seemed ready to do something different with the Frankenstein formula. He and screenwriter Anthony Hinds delivered a brilliant genre-twisting and gender-bending idea: Frankenstein, still up to his usual existentially inspired hi-jinks, has a body—that of a beautiful young woman—whose skull ends up housing the brain of a wrongly executed man. But the brain is loath to cede its identity, and soon the woman begins a campaign of vengeful murder on those who caused the young man’s fate. There’s some rather neat (for its time) consideration of crossed-gender behavior thrown in the mix as well, and the absence of an actual monster provided exactly the right downbeat note to keep the level of inspiration in Hammer’s now four-film-old series running high.


Fisher returned for the fourth time to the continuing saga of Dr. Frankenstein in 1969. But something about staging the battle of the sexes within a body at war with itself seemed to have rather unhinged the good doctor. In fact, whereas in previous episodes it was fairly well understood that Cushing’s Frankenstein, as misguided as his methods were, as blind as his God complex may have made him, had intentions that were almost always good, regardless of how much death and destruction were their result. In Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969), Fisher and scenarists Bert Batt and Anthony Nelson Keys waste absolutely no time putting whatever remains of Frankenstein’s altruistic tendencies to their final rest. If it was to be understood that Colin Clive’s obsessions to bring Karloff’s monster to life were put into perspective by the monster’s inability to control the impulses his damaged brain was sending to his stitched-together body, then Clive’s characterization of Frankenstein, even through the first two sequels, at least retains some measure of sympathy due in large part to his own empathy for his creation.


This was true of Cushing’s Frankenstein too, despite the more graphic stylization of the violence perpetuated by the monster, reflected in the violence with which Cushing's Frankenstein had pieced together his creation’s visage. But Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed opens with a memorable sequence that makes audience identification with the titular surgeon unlikely right from the start—Frankenstein, wearing a frightening rubber mask that looks like a Captain Company version of Dustin Hoffman’s old-man makeup in Little Big Man, stalks and decapitates a colleague with a spray of the brightest Technicolor red, then threatens to do the same to a wino who stumbles upon his storefront laboratory. Luckily, the wino ends up only with the victim’s head in his lap—he gets to keep his own—and it’s not long before Dr. Frankenstein has to dump his current project and find other, more shadowy digs.

Cushing occupies Frankenstein here with an actor’s supreme confidence in his own ability to hold an audience. He knows the direction the character is headed is in one of irredeemable megalomania and condescension for those less intelligent than he, but he never winks or otherwise elicits anything resembling a plea for understanding. Instead, Cushing grabs the character by the throat and steers the ride to hell through some truly harrowing territory. His icy stare and vaguely regal air of superiority, mixed with a cunningly choreographed charm that morphs out of his sharp, angular features whenever the need arises, have rarely been put to better use than they were here. And few were better, in either timing or timbre, with the kind of florid speeches, here laced with seething anger and potential violence that were hallmarks of Hammer film dialogue, than was Cushing.


Frankenstein eventually checks in and lays low, under an assumed name, at a boarding house run by Anna Spengler (Hammer siren Veronica Carlson), where he berates other medical professionals for their dismissive attitude toward his own experiments conducted in concert with another like-minded surgical maverick, a Dr. George Brandt. He soon discovers that Anna’s boyfriend Karl (Simon Ward) is a doctor at the mental asylum where Brandt, gone crazy before he could reveal to Frankenstein the secret of successful brain transplantation, is being caged. Karl is also involved in procuring illegal drugs for Anna’s ailing mother, and Frankenstein uses that information to blackmail the couple into facilitating, and taking part in, the continuation of his shrouded surgical experimentation. 



It’s soon clear that Frankenstein’s motives go far beyond simple advances of science for the benefit of mankind. This mad doctor truly is drunk on the idea of pursuing success for his own name’s sake, but also in exercising that power in rougher, more salacious and sinister ways. Already acknowledging that murder is but a messy fly on his moral windshield, he also takes time out to assert his dominance over Anna (and Karl) by humiliating her as often as possible and finally, for no reason other than that he can, raping her. (This sequence, now restored to the recent DVD release, was cut from the theatrical prints released in the U.S.) And he eventually forces Karl to help kidnap the dying Dr. Brandt from his cell and transplant Brandt’s brain into yet another body, that of one of the asylum’s directors (Freddie Jones).

Frankenstein Must be Destroyed was, of course, notable for the increased level of violence of its tale, an appeasement to clamoring Hammer fans made possible by the concurrent loosening of content standards both in the U.K. and in the U.S. at the time. (The MPAA had only recently adopted its rating system, which tagged FMBD with an “M”-- suggested for mature audiences—and later re-rated it the perplexing yet somehow equivalent “GP,” while it garnered an “18” certificate in Britain, limiting attendance to those over 18 years of age, the equivalent of an “X” in America.) It was, I’m sure, the first time I’d ever seen a decapitation (implied) on screen before, followed soon after by a generous display of the bloody head. (Most horror fans my age probably witnessed their first full-on separation of head from body courtesy of The Omen in 1976.) Upon seeing it again as an adult, what it seems most notable for now is as another piece of evidence in the case for Terence Fisher as perhaps the genre’s most underrated and under-regarded director. Fisher’s style was lurid as the subject matter demanded—he took advantage of every rich color splashed onto the sets by Hammer art director Bernard Robinson and knew exactly how to maximize the erotic appeal of heaving bosoms traversed by a trickle of blood. But his hand as a director had a measure of stateliness, which is assuredly not a backhanded way of suggesting his camera was static or unresponsive.


He knew, as the well-trained and observant directors of his time all knew, where to place the camera to emphasize the story and the effect that the actor was going after. His films are quickly, expertly paced without being over-edited or stuffed full of tricks meant to distract from the director’s lack of confidence. And Fisher, given that somewhat classic style, was never one to condescend to his material, even when, on occasion, it deserved derision. (Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell was considered an inauspicious way for such an elegant director to end his career, but you’d never know it from the way he visually signed the film.) Fisher was unafraid of seeming callous and brutal due of the behavior of his characters. Yet he more often carried with on the violation of a cranium by hand drill or surgical saw just under the frame, without plunging the camera headlong into open cavities and gushing wounds, thus freeing the imagination to do its worst while the camera kept its sturdy gaze on the determination of the demented Frankenstein, or on the revulsion of his reluctant assistants. He combined and balanced directorial economy and lightning reflexes with the grand, velvety, bloody flourishes that were the bread and butter of the Hammer film in a way that other directors at the studio could occasionally approach but never truly match.


Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed carries on with the downbeat, nihilistic horrors that were amplified and expanded in Woman, itself yet another instance, like its predecessor, of a Hammer Frankenstein film absent the iconographic lumbering monster so often misidentified by its creator’s name. Freddie Jones, not typically an actor associated with subtlety, is allowed to paint a portrait of exceptional pain as “the creature,” whose brain (that of Dr. Brandt) cannot process or accept the reflection of another man’s body, shaved bald and sporting a ragged stitch to hold his skull cap tight, in his mirror. And neither can Brandt’s wife, to whom he returns one night, unable to reveal himself for fear of her inability to understand what he is telling her about who he is. (He hides behind a silk changing curtain as he speaks to her, and his pessimistic presumption turns out to be agonizingly accurate.)

Jones draws us in deep, through his eyes welling with tears, into the tormented state of this doctor, once Frankenstein’s colleague, now a victim of the same arrogance he once perpetuated. This portrait, seething with confusion, rage and newfound empathy for those in his own past whom he subjected to callous experimentation in the name of a greater good, is among the finest in the entirety of the Hammer Films catalogue, a catalogue already not unfamiliar with good actors who choose to rise to the occasion instead of bend down to pat it on the head. It is Brandt’s helpless anger, illuminated by Jones’ heartfelt and committed portrayal, and Fisher’s sensitivity toward the character’s plight, that finally lifts Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, despite its rather clipped finish, above the usual fare and into the realm of the finest treatments and variations of the Frankenstein legend ever filmed.


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