Author Archives: the mentaculus

Armchair cinema savant. Short form fact poet. Wannabe samurai. Life goals: direct a movie, and see a UFO.

Searching (2018)

 

Searching is not an audacious work simply for the merit of running heedlessly into a cinematic stunt, guns blazing (as in, this film’s events take place on various device screens, a la Unfriended). Searching is audacious because it works. The so-called stunt folds itself into the story it’s telling as, God help me, a cinematic device that enhances the motivations of its characters, and the unfolding of its central mystery. Even when the idea spreads itself to the brink of collapse, it holds true to its form and finds new ways to explore its telling as a part of its conceit. You can’t divorce the method from the narrative without taking a part of its soul away, and as a result, Searching is one of 2018’s mainstream film surprises.

It’s actually a slight shock to think that Sony Pictures has released one of the premiere films this year seeking to expand a cinema form; and, that such a creative expansion is woven neatly within a lost child mystery-thriller. True to genre: we have a struggling man, David (John Cho, doing a commendable job with FaceTime as an acting partner) working out pain in his recent past – his wife’s death – thereby making parenting a 16-year-old girl, Margot (Michelle La) a heavier burden than usual. Soon after the film opens, with a delightful montage starting with Windows’ “Bliss” and traveling through years of historical YouTube updates and an introduction to FaceTime, Margot goes Missing, and the film follows David going full technological Liam Neeson trying to find her. It’s a simple enough, well-worn story, and it stretches itself arguably too thin in its third act, but the genre lends itself very well to a mystery unraveling in a tech-centric world.

As the film progresses and the use of screens, software, media and metadata folds itself into the story itself, one slowly begins to realize that our daily media saturation has desensitized us to the high pedestal these media play in our experience and internal communication with the world. Or, we are somewhat blind to the part our technology plays in our daily story: the pregnant pause of being ‘left on read’, the breathtaking anticipation of the ‘typing awareness indicator’, or how much is left unsaid by a draft of a tweet unsent. What degree of our development as a person can be alluded to via our browser history, our app engagement, or who we follow on YouTube? Searching is on the same spiritual path as Big Data algorithms: seeking to uncover more about the story of ourselves than we may actually know about ourselves, and predict the climax based on these patterns of behavior. Our use of these tools to communicate our everyday thoughts and beliefs, as the behavior of David and Margot throughout the film implies, is then quantified by the use of these tools. As the mystery of Searching unravels for its characters, the answer finally does appear, much like the result of an equation. We may not accept it, but the math is sound.

First-time director Aneesh Chaganty does an admirable job smashing as many relevant and irrelevant details into the film as possible. There is a slight joy to be had seeing how browser windows interact with one another in the frame, or noticing the characters’ past Google searches autocomplete, or even messages from colleagues and family untouched in the background – sidebars for another day, but all somehow relevant to Searching’s central mystery. It is perversely obvious that the film’s numerous FaceTime chats act as traditional close-ups and crosscutting, with the 180-rule in synchronicity with the front-facing cameras at play. Websites and computer screen backgrounds perform as just that: backgrounds and setting. The cursor is itself a prop. The method of film language miming everyday experience is, of course, now assimilated into the communication tools we use.

So to its credit, the final payoff – that David “never really knew” his daughter, that their familial estrangement following a shared tragedy may have led to her death, is also fed by the use of the computer screen as our method of communication. The film’s late use of local news, YouTube comments and posts, and online social media harassment is a chilling (and timely) reversal of the truth these tools provide and how red herrings are allowed to flourish by the apparent anonymity and loneliness of the film’s/screen’s four walls. Late in the film, we (through David) discover Margot’s hobby of live-streaming her life; the screen as her confessional, and strangers her confessors. It’s a device that again makes sense, not only highlighting how little the father was connecting to his daughter, but how fractured we as a society may be when finding connections to others, and with ourselves, through these mediums. Searching is less about the hunt for a missing girl but more about the individual pursuit for meaning by way of real interaction. The final image hints that despite our reliance on these technologies, the technology itself is not the end-all to our story. The gimmick is no longer a gimmick.

Silence (2016)

I’ve been doing quite a bit of reflection recently: on the last year of life, on the purpose of the cinema in our current society, on my professional career, on this blog (yes! I know it has been a while). Yet here I am again. For some reason, all this reflection brings me back to this film, Silence (2016): what may just be Scorsese’s most important and prescient film, hiding in plain sight. With First Reformed (2018) currently out and spiritual cinema on my mind, I thought I would take this opportunity to shift away from previous posts towards something equally on my heart and soul.

Scorsese’s other films seemed to be coming to this. His filmography is littered with the desperate passions of men struggling with degrees of incapacitating personal atonement, and of a Christ complex – men taking the sins of the world upon themselves, only to fail, and then succumb to exile. For Scorsese, and for any Christian, this is an acknowledgment of our fallen state, and the impetus of the Faith: the strange humility necessary to give up one’s fears, desires, and sins to a Higher Power. This is the moral of The Last Temptation of Christ, sure, but is also evident as early as Mean Streets, and followed by KundunBringing Out the Dead, and The DepartedGoodfellasShutter Island, and Raging Bull are variations on the theme. Silence, therefore, is a passion project in the true use of the word, a witness to a master artist’s lifelong (and truly felt at times) painful examination of the Problem of Evil in a world that also consists of Christianity – which presupposes an active, personal and righteous God. For God is Love, and if God so loved the world, why does He allow for the suffering of any of His creatures, especially His faithful?

Silencefollows Jesuit Fr. Rodrigues (a surprisingly convincing Andrew Garfield), and briefly, his compatriot Fr. Garrpe (Adam Driver), to 17th century Japan in pursuit of their mentor and spiritual leader, Fr. Ferreira (Liam Neeson) who rumor has it has apostatized (or, formally renounced his Faith, a word repeated enough to explain a bit) and “lives as a Japanese” – a religious shame with a racial tinge. (“There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by His Grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”) Not believing such a thing could ever possibly be the case and to save Fr. Ferreira excommunication, a fate worse than death, Frs. Rodrigues and Garrpe stow away in secret to the isolationist nation of Japan, now hostile to Christianity. In one of the film’s many subtle ironies, they recruit the meek Kichijiro (Kubozuka Yôsuke), an apostate with his own spiritual struggles, to lead their way.

When I read Endo Shusaku’s original novel years ago, I felt echoes of Joseph Conrad’s Hearts of Darkness and its companion novel, H.G. Wells’ Island of Dr Moreau – after viewing Silence, a comparison to both novels still holds up well to Scorsese’s vision of the material. Particularly, in Wells’ tale, of a Man who believed himself to be a God – and part-way through, is killed, so the Outsider bears witness to the social ramifications of his Creation. Fr. Ferreira is, by the time Fr. Rodrigues finally finds him, a nonentity; and the last half of the film explores the spiritual as well as social consequences of Christianity in Japan – a struggle of this civilization forever tainted by a foreign faith. The film, and the novel, justifiably ignores the political and social background justifying the savagery against Christianity, for the better, creating a nihilism and dread required to explore the problem of indiscriminate evil with greater potency. But a historical context for the Kakure Kirishitans can still inform a reading of the film. The city of Nagasaki, the final location of both Fr. Rodrigues’ and Fr. Ferreira’s Jesuit walkabouts, was an insignificant port city until the Portuguese Missionaries came, and soon became a heart of both international commerce and spirituality in Japan – so the irony of the location as their spiritual graveyard is uniquely charged. Without the Missionaries’ presence, Nagasaki might be just another small seaside farming village. Now, the bustling port of trade is a religious prison. For the modern viewer, Nagasaki is an apocalypse: a city of atomic death, ironically, one brought about by a Western power that did not agree with Japan’s methods. Both perspectives resonate into a reading of the film.

The film’s title leaves out yet implies the operative, capital “G:” God’s Silence, and this all-encompassing, laser-focused centrality on hard spiritual questions makes for a film that has virtually no appeal to a mainstream audience (evidenced by the film’s bleak box office returns). Paramount had no idea how to market the film, which is both surprising, and not at all. Surprising: in that the film had an initial screening at the Vatican, and was met with cautious optimism by the faithful in attendance. Silencehad a potential to appeal to the “Christian audience” kept at an arm’s distance but still begrudgingly pursued by the Hollywood elite after the financial success of The Passion of the Christ and American Sniper. Not surprising: because this is a deeply cynical spiritual film. Its magnification of death, torture, and spirituality – narratively fueled, let’s face it, by a nationalist fervor against foreign ideas, and minority religious views – apparently has no place in the worldwide sociopolitical echo-chamber currently found in America and the UK. Ironically, the “sleeper believers” participating in the current political discourse are arguably the English-speaking audiences most likely to see the film, but least likely to care.


Which is too bad, because Silenceis consummate if not defining work by a master filmmaker at the top of his craft; and I would also argue, at the top of his thematic and symbolic interests. Scorsese’s casting of the Japanese cast, in particular, needs emphasis because their stories carry the film – directly reflecting Fr. Rodrigues’ stages of uncertainty, faith and anguish. First, the guide: The audience I was with in the theater laughed at almost every entrance of the hapless Kichijiro, which I think is telling. Kichijiro is a kind of Gollum to Frodo – an active, perverse reflection of the effects of sin. Fr. Rodrigues sees himself – perhaps more than he cares to admit – in the hapless Kichijiro, who also represents the very human instinct to survive, at constant odds with the consequences of belief. (“By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?”) Kichijiro’s appearances at the most inopportune moments, and outlandish actions, for a believer can be interpreted as sin – showing up when we least expect it, shaming us by its tenacity, and humbling us by its consequence.Tsukamoto Shinya’s performance as humble Mokichi anchors the second part of the film, and is as good as any in the classic films he himself directed. And in contrast to Kichijiro, Mokichi reflects the best of Fr. Rodrigues’ faith, before Japan’s cultural and spiritual estrangement starts to eat away at his soul. Mokichi’s unwavering belief is possibly the only evidence of such a thing in a film about the subject, and perhaps as a consequence, only his character is given a Christ-like death. (On a cross, beaten by the tide, his last words entreat God to allow his dead companion a place in Heaven. If memory serves, he lives on the cross for three days – a potent number.) Although it is unsaid, his death rattles Fr. Rodrigues to the foundation of his faith, as if the false purity of the priest’s religion dies with the martyr.

For the functional remainder of the film, Tadanobu Asano (Ichi the Killer himself) feeds Fr. Rodrigues the seeds of doubt plucked from the metsuke (“inquisitor”, again: an irony), the dreaded, infamous and rather affable Christian persecutor, Inoue Masashige. (Issey Ogata slays the performance – he clearly alludes to the historical character Inoue’s rumored homosexuality, without ever going there. One particular deflating of tension steals an entire sequence.) During Rodrigues’ imprisonment, he is allowed to minister to his flock in prison, but remains powerless to free them of their physical suffering. Rodrigues is seemingly blind to this rather refined form of psychological torture; all the better to lead him to his eventual apostasy. On that subject, some have written that Liam Neeson is underutilized and “wasted” by his limited performance, here – but I think that’s the point. He will not find you, he will not kill you – Neeson plays Fr. Ferreira / Sawano Chūan as a man of fortitude and ferocity forever sapped of clear potential.But the thematic crux of Silenceis carried by Andrew Garfield – whose documented Jesuit crash-course deeply affected his real, personal spiritual Walk. It shows. His is the great Scorsese spiritual impulse: mistaking his responsibility as a shepherd of his flock with God’s ultimate sovereignty, and collapsing under the weight. (“If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me.”) His self-centeredness is slyly emphasized by the film’s internalized narrative style; with a casual narration, formally lifted from Endo’s novel. This formal style is convenient for a proper dwelling on the intangibility of faith and belief – or, what something invisible and personal ultimately looks like. Can religion still be unspoiled by stepping on the fumi-e, or through resistance? Is it found in excommunication or rebellion? The face of Christ, shown repeatedly in an unnerving El Greco closeup, is eventually seen in Fr. Rodrigues’ own reflection in the water. God is but an Echo, and Fr. Rodrigues shares the fate of Narcissus.

“No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.”The final reveal – in the context of the overall stoical film, an audacious push into burning flames, revealing the hidden character of the dead, former priest – is the kind of privilege only allowed to God. It is an odd moment in an otherwise opaque film. This may be meta, and perhaps intellectual overreach, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized the camera may act in the place of God (a device Scorsese has used before, particularly in the sweeping opening shot of The Last Temptation of Christ). The implications of this, given the themes of Silence, are profound. After all, the camera, the method of cinema, cannot speak; but it bears silent witness to the atrocities against these Kakure Kirishitans. It peers into the souls of the priests, feels their loneliness, and hears Fr. Rodrigues’ prayers. If the audience, through cinematic technique, bears witness to the Silence as God in the film, then there is, somewhere, a level of intellectual, emotional, and spiritual interaction. This reading also validates the curious voiceover that – may – have a Divine origin. (An Echo?: “I was with you, always.”) The evidence of Divine voiceover enhances the central mystery of why Evil persists, if God might also.

Ultimately, I came away from Silence not only mulling over these questions, but reflecting on my own belief, asking whether our current absence of religious conflict in our precocious, privileged Western world has softened or cheapened the impact of the experience of religion. (“”I tell you the truth, if you had faith even as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it would move. Nothing would be impossible.””) Staying with that thought, I also reflected on the persecuted Christians of our present day – in Egypt and China and Syria; and the current oppression of other faiths in similarly oppressive regimes. Still, faith is met with a guarantee of violence. So although Silence dwells in the past, it draws attention to the present. Scorsese’s film may just then be a masterpiece, directing the silent but affected audience to a pandemic, timeless trait of what it means to be human: to believe, to suffer, and against all hope, to empathize.

A Month of Horror on the Fringes (Day 31): Kotoko (2011)

For the last and final entry to October 2017, for Halloween, is a film I have been wanting to share for a long time, a favorite and possibly one of the great unsung films of the last decade. Tsukamoto Shinya’s Kotoko is a film like an atom bomb. Witnessing it is like witnessing pure terror, and pure honesty; humanity stripped bare of all superficiality and left naked. Kotoko is that rare work that finds emptiness in the psyche left unnoticed, and starts working mental muscles long left atrophied. While watching it, I felt the cinema form expand ever so slightly outward. Tsukamoto somehow outdoes even himself by creating a film that is so real to the human experience it is genuinely alarming.

Kotoko (Cocco) is a woman that sees double. That is, she sometimes sees two of people – one benevolent, and one malevolent. And she is never truly sure who is who. In the film’s earliest scene, Kotoko sees a father with his child, and the father’s double; one of the fathers lunges towards her, and she screams. Parenthood is desperately frightening. The film Kotoko opens on a beach – a young girl dances in silhouette as a flute pleasantly plays in the background. The flute becomes violent, and the young girl’s dance less playful. She disappears in a flash, and the image – literally – screams in agony. This is all fine and in line with psychological horror films until we see Kotoko at home, where there’s a baby crying in a crib. Oh no.

Kotoko is caught between protecting a life not her own and contemplating her own self-destruction. Early on, we see her cut her wrists in a bathroom, then beat up a woman on the street she thinks is threatening her baby (she’s wrong. It’s the nice, real double). To protect them both from her own violent distrust, she tries to isolate herself and the baby in a new apartment, but her baby doesn’t take. They go to the roof for air, and Kotoko drops her baby off the side (it’s “so dangerous,” she tells herself). In horror, she runs screaming down the stairs at what she’s done. But there’s no baby to be found – her child is resting safely in her crib. The baby has now doubled, and Kotoko herself cannot be trusted with a life needing her protection. Let alone her own.

All is well if Kotoko is singing. In an early standout scene, Cocco provides a performance – just to herself, although the film’s camera is conspicuously present – on the roof of her building, in the rain. This is clearly a cleansing ritual: The lens of the camera itself is covered in water droplets, allowing for our voyeurism, immersion, yes, but also manifesting tears – happy or sad, I don’t think it matters. Singer/songwriter Cocco, in her first starring role, gifts her character Kotoko a piece of her personal vitality, her soul peeling off on the celluloid like the rain on the lens. Cocco’s urgency with the camera is equal to the masterpieces of the genre: Shelly Duvall in The Shining, Isabelle Adjani in Possession, Charlotte Gainsbourg in Antichrist, but notably Björk in Dancer in the Dark. Her plight is painful because she, herself, is painful. It’s an all or nothing role, and we still get more than we bargained for. Cocco leaves nothing concealed – her eyes show bewilderment and horror in equal measure, like a human on an alien planet, or a rabid dog briefly aware of its surroundings. Tsukamoto said the idea for this “doubling” of characters in the film, and the anxiety is causes, actually came from Cocco’s personal experience – she suffers from this rare spiritual diplopia herself. Tsukamoto embraced this brilliant truth, and takes it to its far extremes.

To pry into Cocco’s and Kotoko’s internal states, Tsukamoto plays subtly with the film’s color palatte – we have not one but five different states of mind presented. Tsukamoto himself alludes to four of them: there is “the city, the landscape of Okinawa and the pinks of Kotoko’s room. White was also an important color because of her emotions, which I wanted to be “blank” at some point” – so, gray, green, pink, and white. And red. In an incredible one-take shot of Kotoko attempting to make stir fry with her baby in her arms, all her internal violence and danger bubbles up to the surface – it’s palpable – and she breaks down. Kotoko sends her baby to her relatives in the country (all the green) because she loves her daughter, but she also knows that with her screaming and writhing and self-imposed isolationist tendencies, she is the harm. At this point the picture dips into the darkest recesses of her psyche – reds and blacks, like the colors of the self-inflicted scars on her wrist.

At this point writer/director Tsukamoto enters the film as a character, seeing Kotoko in a state of despondence on a bus, singing to herself. Since Kotoko doesn’t see double when she’s singing, she at least trusts this stranger that much, and lets him into her life, but this is a life that accelerates her own masturbatory self-pain and self-hurt. Seitaro Tanaka (Tsuakmoto) and Kotoko here enter into a dance of torture and bondage, praying on their own doubts of themselves, one-upping their internal suffering by a gaudy and bloody display of one-upsmanship. The film stays here far too long for comfort, but it is a deliberate pain.

Tsukamoto here plays a similar role to his role in the brilliant A Snake of June – an outside instigator, a manifestation, of internal, repressed states of mind. He is a successful writer – his latest book is titled, “The Man Who Brightens the Moon.” In a way he understands her – each time he breaks into her apartment and finds her bleeding, or allows her to cut and beat his face to an unrecognizable mass of flesh, it’s a kind of connection that inhibits her fear of closeness. It helps her build callous on her fear of rejection. But eventually Kotoko starts to feel badly about his place as a self-sacrificial punching bag – during one harrowing scene (also one take), his statement, “I’ll be fine,” slowly becomes a repeated, “You’ll be fine,” sending Kotoko into a rage that he has to put down violently – it actually is the closest Kotoko gets to real connection, because it cuts right down to the marrow of her ennui and pity.

It’s much like Terence Stamp in Teorema (or since this is Halloween, Dr. Frank-N-Furter of The Rocky Horror Picture Show), where a character enters the fray of the character’s internal chaos for a one-night stand, adds sexual malaise, and leaves the place a mess without paying the hotel bill as thanks. All she has is the blood she licked off his cheeks before he eventually, disappears. The way its done leaves us to wonder whether he was ever actually there.

At this point, Kotoko’s child (now a toddler) arrives back home, and the film enters five-alarm terror mode. The stakes are real – besides the bodily harm we’ve seen Kotoko inflict on herself and Tanaka, one of the very first things that happens is the toddler accidentally stabs himself in the eye with a sharp pencil, the same one Kotoko has been using throughout the film. We see the eyepatch so it must have actually occurred. Soon, she starts to imagine all kinds of harm done to the child – reality and fantasy distort and conflate one another. Throughout Kotoko, Tsukamoto has been using long takes and to create discomfort, before resorting to extreme close-ups and quick edits to stop the heart. The climax of the film is a liberation through editing, building to an impossibility we always saw coming, but we (and Kotoko) refused to fully accept.

It’s hard to imagine after his three Tetsuo body horror pictures, but Tsukamoto has crafted quite an oeuvre of supremely feminist texts in his short time as filmmaker. In Tokyo Fist, two suitors beat each other to a pulp for the love of the woman, while she transcends them both, left thrashing in their masculine banality. In A Snake of June, a depressed housewife finds her sexual awakening and inspires her husband to rediscover her on her own sexual terms. In Kotoko, we have the last of an unsaid trilogy – we’ve gone from dating to marriage to motherhood. The end of each, much like his body horror films, is emancipation from Self. After a heart-wrenching sequence where Kotoko’s fears are manifested against her will – and her worst and deepest ambitions realized in what is, perhaps, infanticide – she is able to stand outside an asylum’s walls and dance in the rain in white. It is cleansing, her soul at rest, the fear of failure of protection finally released in an interpretive burst of physical beauty. When she comes back inside, a boy visits her, and gives her a gift – an origami crane. The teenager leaves, calling her Mom. We are left to wonder if this is a double, a fiction, or her reality. As this horror series has proven, what is imagined and what seen is – both, together in their terrible dance – always the truth.

A Month of Horror on the Fringes (Day 30): The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds (1965)

A man on the run. A woman in chains. Cannibals in the swamps. Preserved corpses in a chapel. And a mysterious, naked female spectre slaying men who wander too close to her riches. All of this would make a much better film than The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds. Technically, The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds has all of these things, but in theory it never feels or accepts these things. The narrative unfolds in a hallucination of earnest indifference – so much so, that when the nasty bits come they lose any visceral quality they could have had. It is a film of such remarkable ineptitude that you mostly view it in slack-jawed awe, and when it has flashes of brilliance (and it does) you wonder for the briefest of moments whether you stumbled onto genius. The next shot always proves otherwise.

This took me at least 15 minutes of reflection while watching the movie to figure out so I’ll spare you the confusion: Johnson (writer/director/star/wunderkind Bert Williams) is a cop hot on the heels of some dangerous moonshiners when he is almost caught and escapes into the Florida swamps. In the retreat from gangsters and escape from the gators, he sees a naked woman – white as porcelain – dancing in the deep wood. Exhausted and mildly confused, he stumbles right into the Cuckoo Bird Inn, overseen by Abe Lincoln’s curmudgeonly inbred second cousin (twice removed) Harold (Chuck Frankle), and a Frau Farbissina archetype MRS. Patt (Ann Long). We never see an expository shot of the Inn, but it’s apparently large, although we only see about three rooms; one of them keeps Mrs. Patt’s secret daughter Lisa (Jackie Scelza) locked away from prying male eyes. Trying to escape from the Cuckoo Inn takes more effort than Johnson realizes, especially when the naked white woman keeps popping up in the dead of night.

It’s amazing how the film synopsis sounds way better than the film actually is – it takes effort to underperform to this level. According to Brian Albright’s “Regional Horror Films, 1958-1990“, the film was produced by the so-called Experimental Camera Workshop, located in an around Miami, Florida. One would hope, then, that any deficiency in The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds is purposeful, but this assumption only leads to more confusion. Bert Williams’ character Johnson never once looks anyone in the eye – every conversation, and wholesale scenes, are filled with dialogue that makes little sense, said by people who never look each other in the face. There is one amazing moment where Johnson and Patt try to explain the importance of having tea together to Harold, and their banal dialogue is intercut with split-second closeups of Harold looking confused. If it is purposeful, it is prodigious avant-garde, all right.

What does come across are two or three single shots of surprising ingenuity – when Johnson is hit on the head, the film itself seems to skip reels with the tail end of scratchy film stock. When the porcelain woman kills her first victim on camera, the murder occurs in a quick series of the actress posing in still shots, yet the film stock is still running, although she holds still. These quick-cut, moving pictures actually are pregnant with shock and doubt – and are far and away the best part of the entire film. The score for The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds’ was apparently thanks to Fulford Methodist Church organist Peggy Williams and the Florida Skyways Hotel house band, The Four Bits. The theme song pops up in the worst possible spots, while the rest sounds like Ennio Morricone on the Bongo Drums, doing the Goron’s Theme Song from The Legend of Zelda. So, I loved it.

But the lynchpin of The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds is the clear mastermind, Bert Williams. One would say he is clearly miscast and underprepared (some scenes he appears to forget his lines and make them up as he goes along, because, you know, film stock is expensive and you only get one take), but that would probably be disingenuous to his creative vision for the whole project. I have no doubt in my mind this is a fully auteuristic film, made by someone who truly cared, and shot in alignment to his fullest creativity. Johnson flails in the swamp with little grace; thrashes his arms in torment when he gets emotional; darts his eyebrows like a redneck John Belushi in razor-sharp confusion when he encounters taxidermied corpses and dreaded ceiling beams in the dark. Did I mention Johnson has a sexy girlfriend (Sherry Sax) pining for him back home? Of course he does – Johnson is the Floridian Superman. The high level of ego is so perfectly matched by the creative instinct, and so wildly unmatched by creative quality, it reminded me of Ray Dennis Steckler’s The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies, with only a slight step downward in overall charm. At least you feel sorry for Flagg.

As the film ends, it is a kind of relief. A song cuts in, completely muting the reconciliation scene that was clearly filmed (their mouths are moving, but nothing is heard), and there is a slight pain of loss. Slight. That there is no more of this glorious inept delirium to witness. Bless you, NWR and the Harvard Film Archive, for showing us that any film can be appreciated, even if it is incompetent. Blissfully so.

A Month of Horror on the Fringes (Day 29): Even the Wind is Afraid (1968)

Mexican auteur Carlos Enrique Taboada has been cited in appreciation by the likes of filmmaker fanboys Guillermo del Toro and Quentin Tarantino, but his work is sorely underappreciated outside of his home country. Specializing in Gothic dramas with a fantastical realist bent, Taboada was prolific in both television and cinema, with an impressive list of filmed chillers to his name; in a way he had to adapt to these genre pictures, which were salacious enough to hold their own in international markets, especially true after the slow and painful collapse of the Mexican Golden Age of cinema. Par the course, Taboada often suffered bouts of depression that saw him retreat from the medium. Yet he always returned, like a ghost from one of his own pictures, to scare us again.

Even in work that was flawed, there was an honesty present to Taboada’s interpretation of character that provided universal appeal on the often cliche and arbitrary tales of ghouls and ghosts. This is especially true in perhaps his most famous picture, Hasta el Viento Tiene Miedo (aka Even the Wind is Afraid) – a film that focuses on generational distance, young women navigating ownership over their bodies and sexualities, but above all, guilt. Perhaps it is the overwhelming presence of that guilt – one that, once discovered, cannot be exorcised from any of the film’s situations or frames – that gives Hasta el Viento Tiene Miedo its continued attraction. This narrative focus on guilt no doubt justified Taboada’s final, visual personification of the film’s apparition. It seems strange for an avowed atheist and anticleric to show the supernatural in such a direct and objective way, unless it is human guilt – not religion – that manifests this evil.

Hasta el Viento Tiene Miedo begins with a young woman writhing in a nightmare, only to awaken to an image of a human figure, hung by the neck, above her bed. As she screams, the camera pans to the trees, the manor, the grounds of the estate, giving us our bearings while also insinuating that this particular vision has its origin outside the girl. This is a boarding house – more of an exclusive school to teach welltodo women the household arts – run by the stern Bernarda (Marga López), who in mannerism and austerity directly resembles the Evil Stepmother from Walt Disney’s Cinderella. Both characters serve the same purpose – keep the young women subservient, repress their budding sexuality, and restrict their movements. On the other side of the gardens, there is a Tower that is Forbidden – but several of the young girls, including the lead Claudia, discover the lock left open, and their curiosity gets the better of them. When they explore the upper rooms, Claudia exclaims this is exactly the same place in her nightmares – where the image of the hanged woman is.

This spooks them enough to leave, but they are also discovered on the way out. As punishment, Bernarda forces them to stay at the school over Spring Break (cue horror music!). This encourages the squabbling and infighting among the girls as for whose fault it is, but also helps the ghost choose its victims more readily. As the girls help each other learn how to striptease and play the piano and pass the time, Claudia’s nightmares get worse. Her sleepwalking starts to spook the other girls – some start to imagination a voice on the wind (or do they?). And someone keeps unlocking the door to the Tower…

The legacy of Hasta el Viento Tiene Miedo is definitely felt in del Toro’s early works, particularly The Devil’s Backbone, which follows the same trajectory of ghostly retribution that haunts the forgotten youth (it’s practically a remake in spirit of this film, even sharing its political subtexts). Both really have their sights set on the adults, who are truly culpable in the evil. The ghost is a strong memory, repressed but never forgotten, seeking release by personifying its evil onto unsuspecting victims, and the girls just happen to be there to get the brunt of it. There is a justifiable subtext to be made of the sins of the fathers (mothers) coming to host the sons (daughters) – and I cannot help but see it as a commentary on Gustavo Díaz Ordaz’ PRI party. After all, the Tlatelolco demonstrations and massacre took place the same year of Hasta el Viento Tiene Miedo’s release.

At times the pacing in Hasta el Viento Tiene Miedo seems to embrace its sidebars too long – in the middle, for example, the girls learn to dance and striptease from one of their more seasoned members. While I’m sure this helped in advertising, it somehow also demonstrates a certain care toward the characters. Each of their personalities shines forth, which helps us care once the ghost tightens its grip on the young women, especially the naive, pure-of-heart Claudia.

The film is shot in a direct, no-nonsense manner, in medium shots with plenty of primary colors. In horror films one gets used to the dutch angles and wide-angle lenses and visual panache – so its lack, here, is disarming. What adds to the spook factor is the score; it’s that bombastic old-fashioned type that comes in horns blazing and strings screeching. It fills a dark room – and by the end, the film is enveloped in darkness. Taboada embraces black voids in the frame for his introduction of the ghost, a young dead girl by the name of Andrea. This again furthers the idea of cross-generational guilt – Andrea to Bernarda to Claudia, or the ABC’s. But it ends there. Once Andrea and Claudia meet to serve their purpose to Bernarda, the cycle of evil is broken. That alone may be Taboada’s political statement – a call to action. The cycle of violence ends, here.

A Month of Horror on the Fringes (Day 28): The Cars That Ate Paris (1974)

There are two ways a joke can go too far. The first is when a good joke runs deliriously passed its own expiration, like a David S. Pumpkins animated special. The second is when a joke doesn’t even know it’s a joke, and takes its own naturally twisted premise to its logical end. Peter Weir’s directorial debut, The Cars That Ate Paris, falls comfortably into the latter category. There are moments of humor and moments of horror, but you never know precisely how to respond, or how to feel, throughout the running time. It’s a mystery of tone and function, but you are never quite upset, because it always stays true to its own twisted (metal) wavelength.

The film begins with a dapper, bourgeoisie couple on a holiday in the country, buying antiques and sipping Coke on their Australian provincial jaunt – complete with distractingly happy music. As they approach the backwater town of Paris, Australia, the wheel falls off their convertible and they go careening off the side of the mountain. A sound of an attacking cat is heard in the background. Cut to Arthur and Charlie Waldo, a couple of blokes looking for jobs traveling from job agency to job agency in the same back country. After seeing mysterious lights in the distance, they meet the same fate as the unnamed couple.

But not before they see, oddly enough, a cow being stuffed into the trunk of a small jalopy by four grown men. This is the thread of the film’s bizarre logic: the film is built on various polite perversions of consumerism/ing. It’s found in the Coke of the couple before they careen to their death; the steer being effectively “eaten” by one of the first cars we see; the way the townsfolk dismantle wrecked cars like ants on a carcass. The first shot of Arthur and his brother are of them eating by the side of the road. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, only one dog is people and the other are the cars.

After the wreck that kills his brother, Arthur wakes up in a hospital with a mysterious despot of a headmaster, who wastes no time playing psychological experiments on him – asking him to name objects from a series of photos, but interspersing pictures of car wrecks and his brother’s freshly mutilated carcass among the pictures. This scene ends with the doctor receiving some canned fruits from a nurse: “Oh, you’ll spoil me,” he says whimsically. Arthur is horrified. The Doctor is a schizoid.

The rest of the town shows some cursory sympathy to poor Arthur, but there is an ulterior motive behind their actions. At a town meeting, the Mayor (played by seasoned character actor John Meillon) tells the men ominously, Arthur will stay. “He’s a Parisian, now.” Every member of the community greets Arthur outside the courthouse like the villagers from The Wicker Man, and participate in his brother’s funeral. The Hearse leads the villagers like a shepherd to slaughter. During the eulogy, the Priest decries the fate that brings men to their untimely demise with these damned automobiles.

Only it’s not fate. It turns out each of the villagers has some kind of agenda or hatred of cars, and have built various psychological traps along the roads leading into the village, like a bug zapper. The people salvage all the goods in the vehicles; while the mad doctor performs experiments on the survivors (if there are any). It’s a curious arrangement of casual societal madness. Only every once in a while, the town youth cause a ruckus in their demolition derbies, various freaks of technology culled from the murdered cars. They are like the car undead – reminding the peaceful villagers of their bouts of nighttime sadism – and they must be disposed of. When they finally step out of their cars late in the movie, they look like Western villains – we’ve entered into a technological Wild West in the Outback.

Arthur is made the town Parking Officer (he has a deathly fear of cars, thanks to an earlier vehicular manslaughter charge), which angers these young ruffians and their zombiemobiles. Each side escalates their violence against the other – the cars destroy the Mayor’s lawn; he burns one of the cars in murderous immolation; one of the drivers kills the village priest. It’s this moment that is particularly difficult to find an emotion as a viewer. The kid (Bruce Spence, in one of his first roles) strolls proudly into town wearing a bloody clerical collar, and the priest’s corpse is revealed in particularly gruesome fashion. Is this a joke anymore?

Cars are not just a family-friendly animated series, but a longstanding societal fetish. Ford’s Model-T drove American industry to world leadership; cars become the status symbol of the post-War American middle class. During the war, its vehicles were already talking, a cocombatant in the fight against Evil. Cars then became synonymous with rebellion, notably, a coconspirator in death in Rebel Without a Cause and Pit Stop. But something happened in the 1970’s – cars turned against their makers. Duel, The Car, Vanishing Point, Mad Max. Soon they were personifying our worst fears, whether it was puberty in Christine or sexual perversion in Cronenberg’s Crash. The Cars That Ate Paris came just at the tipping point from good to ill, possibly when the idealism of society itself fell apart – cars were the mirror. As the film begins, Weir carefully chooses his “Directed By” card superimposed on an image of a gas attendant sipping a Coke, flanked by signs like, “Arrests!”, “Big Oil Price Rise Coming”, “Love Baby Mother to Wed”, “Financial Crisis: Pope Prays.” This world is steeped in pessimism, wars and rumors of wars, real and imagined.

The film’s climax – where the town goes to hell during the most depressing town ball you’ll ever see – apparently inspired Roger Corman to make Death Race 2000, which is not a surprise given Corman’s wiles. But The Cars That Ate Paris may have more in common with Paris, Texas than Corman’s film or their inbred offspring (like the Twisted Metal video game series). Weir’s film is actually a careful examination of smalltown Australian life – the mild insanities communities sometimes participate in to survive, especially in a place just on the edge of disaster. The Mayor often invokes the Pioneer Spirit to justify his crazed actions (at a town meeting he quotes from an American President, but forgets just which one; the Sheriff holds up one of the Mayor’s racist lawn ornaments to the young hooligans after their rampage, “Look! You busted the Mayor’s Aboriginal!”) – which underscores the idea that they are on a mental threshold, not a physical one. When the cars come crashing into Paris, Australia, the “sane” members of the community are dancing at their ball with inmates of the psych ward – one of them in blackface, but all of them victims of their vehicular destruction. Weir’s direction is on point yet measured – just shy of anarchy. It seems to mirror the very subjects of these early films, which also includes The Last Wave and Picnic at Hanging Rock. The unifying theme is madness, kept at a distance by decorum.

The righteous retribution that ensues is, like the rest of the film, odd. It is rather tepid. The most famous car – the silver, spiked one, like a Knight decked out for a Crusade – gets one good moment to impale a good member of the community on its hood. But mostly, the cars destroy the town’s things, its outward trappings, and not its people. Like the now toppled Town Hall, the house of cards has fallen. The people scramble to gather their things and escape the town, on foot. Only Arthur, the victim once scared of vehicles, drives his car out of town. He murdered a car in the battle, and lost his fear. Arthurs mastery of himself mirrors his mastery of the car he drives – his animalistic instinct subdued, as he drives himself out of town. At least, for now.

A Month of Horror on the Fringes (Day 27): The Blood Drinkers (1964)

At the risk of sounding grandiose and literary, there truly is something to celluloid itself as an evocative medium. What I mean is, film has texture. It makes its presence known. It shows its age over time; it has a three dimensional quality to it that acts on the subconscious like a stereogram: if you cross your eyes, perhaps something will pop out. When the grain of film matches a moonless night, or backlit fog, it speaks volumes in silence. To best appreciate The Blood Drinkers is to embrace the evocative character of film itself. The medium elevates the material.

The Blood Drinkers is unmistakably a Filipino horror feature – its correct title is Kulay dugo ang gabi, aka Blood is the Color of Night, but neither title is really wrong. Although it is the first Filipino horror film shot in some color, that junk was expensive, so much of the film is shot in black and white but tinted into various monochromatic hues. The effect is directly addressed within the movie as a narrative device – it is, as a film schooler would say, diagetic. When the presence of the evil Dr. Marco and his vampiric minions reach proximity of the characters, the film itself will shoot to blood red, and the characters themselves will look around and exclaim, “It’s all red!” Tinting is a beautiful mechanism for generating menace, atmosphere, and meaning on a miniscule budget. If Guy Maddin thought of it, we would call it High Art.

So when we are in blue tint, evil has no power; when it is red, Darkness has dominion; when we shoot in color, God’s presence is invoked. Christianity is all over The Blood Drinkers, effecting its ultimate moral and even the reveal of the third act. Such a thing would seem out of place, until you reconcile the fact it is a vampire film, with striking integrity to genre tradition – while adding Filipino tradition to the mixture. The Christian philosophizing and narrative reconciliation seems forced into the narrative when taken out of its context. Indeed, it may turn off modern viewers. But something about its earnestness makes it refreshing (more on that in a moment).

The film is much the same as Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” – a mysterious aristocrat with a penchant for blood arrives on an unsuspecting community, and is stopped in his killing spree by a Van Helsing-ish religion and faith authority figure. But it is also a bit of the Coppola filmed version, as well – the Count (in this case, Marco) has his long lost love as emotional baggage (the voluptuous Katrina), and his aim in The Blood Drinkers is to resurrect their passion, and therefore her. Katrina is a vampire, but barely – she needs a new heart. Who better for a new one than Katrina’s estranged twin sister, Charito?

This introduces what may be the most interesting component of The Blood Drinkers: its tale of deep-seeded familial decay. Charito and Katrina have a mother, Doña Marisa, who is in cahoots with the vampire Marco, and actually wants to see him take Charito’s heart, and have Katrina live as a vampire. As long as Katrina is some kind of alive, that is all that really matters. Like Marco, Doña Marisa is a landowner and local royalty, so has political and social sway over the rural village people, including the police and Charito’s foster parents. When Doña Marisa left to go abroad, she could only take one of the twins – Charito stayed, and Katrina left. It was destiny that brought Katrina and Marco together abroad, but a cruel twist of fate that made it Katrina. One is left to wonder if the same thing would have happened anyway if the names were swapped. Regardless, Doña Marisa has a strange, unsaid contempt for Charito that allows her to offer this daughter for the other.

Soon, Charito starts to wander off at night, and is stalked by a giant rubbery bat – a minion of the evil Marco. She slowly starts to fall under Marco’s spell; the heart has to be turned, too, it turns out. This is made more difficult by the presence of the suave Victor, who is always there to bring her around, and get in trouble with the police in his pursuit of the evil Marco. Victor’s presence is clearly window dressing, but he does have on screen charisma – often resembling Nikkatsu Diamond Guy, Ishihara Yujiro. But despite all his efforts, it is not really he and his buddies that save the day, but the power of God.

The Blood Drinkers has its moments of vibrant color – but interestingly, these are left to un-horror moments of peace and, it is inferred, the presence of God, which in this film, is simply the absence of evil. It is a fascinating device and a kind of madness I have not seen in a film of its kind before. It is holy/wholly (sorry, I couldn’t help myself) unique, and serves the film’s entire climax. After Charito is brought out of her spell by a light exorcism at the church, complete with a heavenly chorus and a Divine Light, Charito urges the Van Helsingish Priest to say a prayer for Katrina. He does – and the whole film changes. The stained glass becomes vibrant, and Dr. Marco seems astonished – he and Katrina look at each other and they exclaim, “We’re free.” They literally frolic in slow motion in the woods and profess their undying love for each other. The film falls back into sin, of course, for its monstrous showdown, but this incomprehensible sequence is framed by the following pontifical narration:

“The power of prayer is beyond our comprehension. For a time it might have appeared that we had conquered and overcome the monstrous evil that was in Dr. Marco.” (emphasis mine)

“Yet there is no power in prayer without faith, and this faith must be in our own selves. And so the Devil again had his way.”

So The Blood Drinkers is often overbearing, sentimental, and frankly bizarre in its narrative execution. Yet, it is religiously a superior picture, trying to say something important in perhaps the worst possible environment. Whatever one may think of this religious turn of events, the cinematography revels in its inky blacks and chiaroscuro; the music is full of synthy goodness; and the memorable images are consistent. To quote from another film, I’m not even mad. I’m kinda impressed.

A Month of Horror on the Fringes (Day 26): Mindwarp (1992)

Stupidity, chaos, cruelty, pain. Reality, a failure worse than any nightmare. There was no fixing it. Nothing to be done, except… escape. 

These opening words of Steve Barnett’s Mindwarp sit ominously on top of footage of a nuclear explosion. Immediately, they create an internalized space for viewership, triggering more in the intellect than in your emotions. There is no longer a knee-jerk response to the ‘fight or flight’ feeling one would associate with the end of the world – if it were to really, really happen – because by now, apocalypse films are, frankly, blasé. We’ve become strangely accustomed to our own demise, whether this is provided by Dr. Strangelove, Mad Max, or George A. Romero. Part of it, I think, is that on a level of absolute logic, the post-apocalypse genre makes no sense. If there is a true End to All Things, there would be no narrative, because there would be no humans, and no human experience. The contradiction was astutely realized by Stanley Kubrick, as human experience literally ends to Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again”. The next notch down, and probably a better explanation of the genre, is that these texts exist as an apocalypse of the known, giving way to a new, unknown, reality. An old world has ended, and a new one begins – with its own logic and spirit, very naturally at odds with the humans that led us there with the stupidity of their actions. So, the human condition is in conflict with external forces, and has to crawl itself back to the top of the shit heap.

So Mindwarp the film begins with the end of the world and ends with a new beginning. It exists solely within that liminal space between the here and after – but a fairly violent and gory transitional space – both within the mind of its protagonist and in the “physical” “reality” it inhabits. Virtual reality is a primary component of this post-apocalypse. Our main character, Lucy, is introduced by directly addressing a soothing infomercial, and the film’s camera, with a firm, “Bullshit.” She is this internal conflict, manifest. Along with Lucy, we are then transported immediately to the mysterious System Operator, an overseer of-sorts for the manufactured, virtual reality used by the movie’s post-apocalyptic inhabitants.

But Judy, you don’t ever know what you’re fighting against.

We get the foundation of Mindwarp’s narrative from this interchange between Judy and the System Operator. She is unsatisfied with the virtual falsehoods presented to her in this faked reality to occupy her time – there is an intangible something that leaves her unsatisfied. Let’s call it the Human Condition. When she unplugs from the System (Infinisynth – get it?), Lucy does some push ups and tries speaking to her mother, with whom she shares a room, which doesn’t work out so well. Her mother is addicted to her dream state, but Lucy dreams of the outside. The great irony is that Lucy is also addicted to her own state of mind – of escape – she just isn’t aware of it yet.

So it should also be said that apocalypse films, in their exploration of humans coping with the unknown, are really about internalized spaces manifesting externally – often in a threatening posture. It is fairly obvious after The Walking Dead’s weekly bloody soap opera and mass appeal that the zombies in its origin text, Night of the Living Dead, are more about the people encountering the enigma of these undead, and the people coping with other people, as it is about ‘zombies’. At this point in Mindwarp, Lucy interfaces again with Infinisynth (the “plug” to virtual reality is the same as The Matrix – a physical interface in the back of the neck – but apparently, virtual reality was in VGA in the ’90’s) and injects herself into her mother’s dreams. Lucy kills her mom in her virtual reality. But when Lucy wakes up, her mother is dead. It’s all a dream, the System Operator said. You can play God, he said. After this healthy dose of accidental matricide, men in black come into Lucy’s room, bag her, and burn her Infinisynth I.D. She has now been cast out of Paradise, er, I mean, Inworld.

She wakes up on the Earth’s scorched and arid surface, what Inworld was meant to protect her from – a land ravaged by nuclear waste, Outworld. Everything is suspect. There are sinkholes leading to underground caverns full of cannibalistic mutated humans: Crawlers. Other Inworlders, like herself, that are also expelled are left curiously (for cannibals, anyway) crucified on the surface of the planet and bake under particularly harsh nuclear elements. During an initial bout with some nasty Crawlers, the legendary Bruce Campbell comes to save Judy’s day. After an expository montage of them getting to know each other, and fall in love, and establish a home life, they are sieged by Crawlers and Lucy is captured, like Persephone – taken down into the bowels of Hell and the Crawlers’ underground lair; Bruce Campbell’s character Stover dives in like Hermes to save her.

Mindwarp was the first of only three productions by Fangoria Films – the gore and horror magazine’s film production arm – and from what I’ve seen, the clear prestige project for the experiment. Mindwarp is lent a certain cult clout and even grace by the appearance of Bruce and His Chin, as well as the Phantasm himself, Angus Scrimm, in a dual role that is also a spoiler. Both give, unsurprisingly, admirable performances, even under narrative duress. The only time I’ve seen Bruce clearly distressed was in the pre-Samwise Gamgee rape of Die Hard: Icebreaker. There is class especially to Scrimm’s role as the ‘Seer’, a religious leader of an underground community of Crawlers. Himself, a ‘fallen angel’, as it were, from the heaven of Inworld, has become its Lucifer in the bowels of the Crawlers’ underground tunnel system, establishing an unholy religious system that keeps the cannibals placated, its community structured, and himself off the dinner menu. There’s an unsaid Fatherly element to Scrimm’s Seer that is always left unsaid even in moments of sexual nuance between Lucy and himself.

Lucy: I’ve never seen a real book before.
Stover: This is the Bible.
Lucy: I’ve heard of it. But who needs Bibles in Heaven?
Stover: Then what do you believe in? Have you no hope in eternity?
Lucy: If you want eternity, Infinisynth can give it to you. It’s just a sensation. If you want to shake the hand of God, you do it. It’s a program.

So, as Stover navigates the tunnel system, fighting off cannibals in gory fashion to save Lucy, Lucy starts to at least appreciate the Seer’s condition, even if they don’t see eye-to-eye on the religious methodology of grinding people into bloody pools and drinking their blood from hollowed-out skulls. Which is to say, it is a rather magnificent gore film, but its gore is always kept at arm’s length. It is just on the other side of a cartoon, allowing for some breathing room; and actually, some meditation on the surprisingly accomplished narrative themes. This is needed since the majority of the film wallows in these depraved depths, bathed in red and augmented by some truly great makeup work, and some definite emphasis on the color red. You do feel like you’re there too long, and you do feel like you are in Hell.

The film’s conclusion inverts our appreciation of many of our main characters – but what matters is, the Seer gets his appropriate due, after some narrative invention, by falling down the bloody, knife-covered slide, becoming ground meat for his congregation. Lucy escapes, and ends up back at Inworld, to take her Father’s place at the console of illusion for her fellow Dreamers. The whole experience of Mindwarp is an esoteric ritual, combined with the experiential philosophy of the (later, it should be said) The Matrix, but bathed in blood. For me, the gore is simply window dressing. Mindwarp is a straight-to-’90’s-video scholcker on the mind’s post-apocalypse, with an unbelievable fidelity to myth and initiation rituals, hiding beneath poor line readings and gory makeup effects. It’s everything you sign up for when exploring the netherworld of bad movies – because deep beneath the surface, there is so much more than first appears.

A Month of Horror on the Fringes (Day 25): Daydream (1964)

I will completely understand if Daydream is not necessarily horror overtly – but it has hints of vampirism and malice and psychological terror so I’m going there. For the uninitiated, Daydream is one of the most important films to ever come out of Japan, yet its presence is sorely missed in Western film appreciation. Perhaps it’s the tangential relationship to pinku eiga, and that genre’s sordid tryst with pornography. After Suzuki Seijun’s classic Gate of Flesh, Daydream is one of the first mainstream Japanese films to contain nudity; it is also a trailblazer for what has become modern Japanese censorship with the introduction of “fogging”, or blurring of any offending images from incessant, prying eyes. After viewing director Takechi Tetsuji’s film, I have to admit I completely understand the method behind the creative madness. There was a time – and it is certainly not this time – when nudity and sexual provocation, as tools within the artistic medium, were viewed as political extremism. To depict sex was outside the bounds of decency and thus the law, and therefore the equivalent of an act of (culture) war. As the director himself says in a prelude statement, translated as best as I can make out the Japanese between the poor subtitled version I obtained and my own best guess:

In this work, Daydream, I deal with the problems of human nature and society in a dual statement. In this film, nudity stands as much for man’s extreme circumstance as it does for human alienation. It (film) is a medium prone to elevating a simple statement into social protest. – Takechi Tetsuji

Film does this better than any other genre by its unholy marriage of moving image and sound. Daydream’s title sequence is a brilliant assault on the psychological senses; a cacophony of disorienting imagery and suggestive sound design. In it, we get first a few violent dashes of white paint against canvas, as a woman makes heaving sounds off camera. As the credits progress, the paint intermingles with other shades of gray as the woman’s vocalization becomes more and more suggestive. The end of the montage is a visual whirlwind of sex and violence, without ever a bit of nudity or a single human presence.

Every image in this film is charged with sexual energy. We begin in a dentist’s office; he like to see two persons at once, probably to keep costs down. As he oscillates between the first and second patients, the camera dips and twirls, hinting suggestively that the apparati have more in mind than helping the dental hygiene of the patients. Through clever intercutting, very phallic technology is suggested to molest the mouths under the dentist’s care. The whole first 10 minutes feels like an awkward but deliberate offense of technology upon the human body. Things become even more important and awkward when Chieko (Michi Kanako) and Kurahashi (Ishihama Akira) arrive at the office. There is something immediately alluring to Kurahashi about Chieko’s presence but it is left unsaid. Soon, they are both opposite each other in the dentist’s office: what’s inside their mouths hurts, a little. They are offered brandy and sedatives. Soon, Kurahashi looks over to the young woman only to see the dentist unbutton her shirt, and stuff his face in her breasts.

Each day all through October, I’ll be writing my two cents on 31 horror films from the dark alleys, lost highways, and unexpected corners of cinema history. Here’s to the fringes!

A Month of Horror on the Fringes (Day 24): The Keep (1983)

And now I have the esteemed pleasure of introducing to this series a movie directed by Michael Mann, starring Gabriel Byrne, Jürgen Prochnow, Scott Glenn, and Sir Ian Freaking McKellen. It is a difficult proposition to see why this is, that is, until you see it. The Keep is a true filmed disaster, a rare archetype in the annals of cinema history, like an albino alligator, alongside Ken Russell’s The Devils, David Lynch’s Dune, Matthew Bright’s Tiptoes, David O. Russell’s Nailed, and most recently Paul Schrader’s The Dying Of The Light and Justin Chadwick’s Tulip Fever. The Keep is a film that was inopportune from its inception, forced into place with possibly the wrong creative staff; and then bungled from pre-production to post in a litany of cinema sins. The studio abandonment of all of the above movies (with, possibly, the exception of The Devils, which I still think is a masterpiece) is directly influenced by that critical dichotomy in cinema: Is it art, or entertainment? Each film, including The Keep, is the result of a forced perspective – the work simply must be one or the other, dammit; and from the studio to the director to the audience, no one got what they signed up for. Time usually heals all wounds, and most films abandoned by its producers eventually find some kind of audience and posthumous life. For me and The Keep, the jury’s still out.

The Keep wasn’t exactly slumming it. On a $6 million budget (around $15 million today), this was a solid mid-level production, perfect for the breakout director of Thief (currently out on Criterion Collection). The source was a popular horror novel, and it was a cross-genre dream: blending religious occultism, war films, haunted houses / castles, and Nazis. What could possibly go wrong?

According to online sources, mostly a 210 minute cut of a genre film, and the death of its SFX lead, Wally Veevers (of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Zeppelin, et al.). The film’s production tumult is well-documented by more interested parties. All that really matters is, the footage is cut beyond oblivion, blown to cinema hell.

But the pieces are there to make a cult item. The film begins with Capt. Klaus Woermann (Jürgen Prochnow) in a kind of dream state, after the camera descends from on high, through fog, delicately, to an army in advance. His squadron arrives in an isolated Romanian town, living in the shadow of an cryptic citadel known to them only as The Keep. They are there to protect their army in the Dinu Mountain Pass during Operation Barbarossa. This is the first interesting thing about The Keep: good Nazis. Or, at least, we are meant to side with, and generally support the decisions of, Capt. Woermann, who without the typical blood-red red swastika on his arm is surprisingly sympathetic. (When he catches one soldier trying to pry the nickel crosses out of The Keep’s walls, he respects local heritage over his footsoldier’s greed). Eventually, when SD Sturmbannführer Eric Kaempffer (Gabriel Byrne) comes a callin’, we have a Nazi to hate – the first things Kaempffer does are murder some villagers and call out the clearly pragmatic Capt. Woermann on his ineptitude. And Kaempffer wears a swastika, which makes hating him easier.

The second key piece to The Keep’s continued fandom is its clear visual fidelity. The shots are generally impeccable – with Mann’s trademark detail work evident in every aspect of the production design. In one long take, somehow left in the 96 minute cut, a boat approaches the Romanian seashore at dawn, and the camera pans from left to right, in the true Magic Hour, revealing the boat in darkness to appear in silhouette as the sun just touches the horizon. It’s the kind of shot that takes one’s breath away. Cinematographer Alex Thompson began with fare like Dr. Phibes Rises Again before upgrading to Nicolas Roeg’s Eureka and John Boorman’s Excalibur. Then The Keep. What is remarkable about his work is that it retains that distinctive 1980s fog and grit, while simultaneously representing everything that would come to define Michael Mann’s visual flair: carefully executed alignment of details within the frame, periodic dynamic use of bright light, a distinctive color scheme cascading towards monochromatic cerulean. Frankly, the work often surpasses the objects in the frame.

And then there’s the music by Tangerine Dream. While it doesn’t fit the timeline of the story at all, it fits the mood, offering the visuals a perspective outside of time, much like falling into meditation. Like Vangelis’ iconic Blade Runner work, or Kenji Kawai’s Ghost in the Shell pieces, the repetitious horns and chords create a feeling of ritual, adding an otherworldly character to already outlandish visuals. While there are only five to six leitmotifs, they lend the proceedings an air of respectability not otherwise derived from a story about a rock demon that may be Jewish in a Christian castle inhabited by Nazis and under siege by an angel-alien played by Scott Glenn.

This is where the film falls apart, as a film. If The Keep were a 96 minute screensaver with Tangerine Dream’s soundtrack and no dialogue, it may hold more interest than the movie as it currently exists in its truncated form (and, actually, that may make a fantastic Guy Maddin picture; or an opportunity for someone to go all Rose Hobart  on the existing footage). Going from 210 reported minutes to 96 means all kinds of inconsistencies – Glenn’s character, Glaeken Trismegestus, is hardly Thrice Great because he’s hardly in it at all, and his existence is never appropriately explained. Ian McKellen’s Dr. Cuza arc seems more lunatic than nuanced (his character makes more sense as a Smigel under a time crunch). And Alberta Watson’s Cuza is embarrassingly underutilized – when she makes love with Glaeken (about 10 minutes after she’s raped by German soldiers), it feels like another violation because it’s so abrupt – the character is practically raped by the script. By that very point, the film loses me each time. The narrative is either on autopilot or overdrive, and the subsequent litany of scenes consist of either undercooked dialogue or overbaked contrivances.

Which is to say, it should be scary, but frankly isn’t. The evil Golem(?) of The Keep, Molasar, is most probably a vampire of fear and of light – as the Nazis release his power from The Keep and he begins his subterfuge of the humans’ lives, he steals some kind of light/soul essence from each; the villagers, especially the village Priest, go slightly mad by the film’s end. But there is no single scene of explicit or even insinuated exposition to frame the goings-on for us. The Keep was a great opportunity for Lovecraftian madness in ancient Romania with Nazis, complete with a sealed underground city of terrors and ancient evils with world-shattering power. The result doesn’t have enough menace to intimidate McKellen’s apathetic performance. Scott Glenn shows up to save the world from Molasar once he puts on his Rob Liefeld neck.

So when all is done and the credits roll, everything is truthfully left unresolved. The experience feels unsatisfactory, because you know deep down it is. The cult surrounding the film is fed by this nagging doubt. The impulse to want to know more is self-perpetuating. Indeed, a lot of The Keep interests me still, even though every trip into its underground caverns leaves me wanting. Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does an audience. The Keep becomes a film more about what is left unsaid than what is – a strange meditation on loss, on creative powers cut down. Perhaps its inherent unsettled nature, its curious abandonment of both art and entertainment, is the pull that continues to drive us into The Keep.

Each day all through October, I’ll be writing my two cents on 31 horror films from the dark alleys, lost highways, and unexpected corners of cinema history. Here’s to the fringes!