Friday, July 8, 2011

This Week In Mommy Issues: THE STRANGLER (1964)

Before I launch into my appreciation of the unfairly neglected gem of mama’s boy mayhem that is The Strangler, I have to give an appreciative shout-out to W.B. Kelso at Scenes From the Morgue for alerting me to the film’s existence. I don’t know how I never heard of this one before, but the super-stylish vintage newspaper ads posted by Kelso convinced me I had to see it, pronto—and after checking with Netflix (no DVD release, alas), I found it on YouTube, complete and uncut, and nice picture quality, too (another thank-you to the lovely individual who uploaded this to their YouTube channel). That easy. What an age we live in.

The very first shot in the film—in which the image of a curvaceous young beauty stripping down to her undergarments is reflected in the avid, unblinking iris of a lurking stranger—pretty much sums up the whole movie: rather tawdry, but surprisingly artful. Released just three months after the apprehension of alleged Boston Strangler Albert DeSalvo, The Strangler was an unabashed quickie exploitation cash-in, packed with the requisite shocks and titillation that kind of thing demands (there are probably more shots here of curvaceous young beauties stripping down to their undergarments than in anything you’d find outside of a Russ Meyer nudie-cutie), but it’s done with style and wit that not only elevates it above its class, but makes for more entertaining viewing than the better known, big-budget (and no less fanciful) Tony Curtis Boston Strangler movie, which The Strangler beat to theaters by four whole years.

Fresh off his Oscar-nominated role as oily ivory-tickler Edwin Flagg in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, Victor Buono here plays Leo Kroll, another misfit with mommy issues. Make that serious mommy issues, as in hates-her-so-much-that-he-has-to-go-out-and-kill-women-who-remind-him-of-her issues. But who could blame him? As played by Ellen (Grandma Walton) Corby, Mama Kroll is a Psycho-inspired, nasty, neurotic, co-dependent nightmare who’s dealt with her disappointment in men by raising her son to be an emotionally crippled eunuch so that she can have him all to herself. Biding his time till the hateful old bag finally succumbs to her weak heart, Leo woos, in his own socially maladroit way, a pretty girl working at an amusement park ring-toss booth, and keeps his frustration and rage at bay by strangling a woman for every doll he wins with his ring-tossing expertise. After Mrs. Kroll finally kicks the bucket, Leo decides to give up his woman-strangling ways and propose to the girl, but it doesn’t go as he’d hoped, and he skulks off with one last doll, promising her she hasn’t seen the last of him….

Of course, sinister, supercilious characters like Leo were Buono’s specialty, and The Strangler crackles whenever he’s onscreen, especially in the scenes with Corby. Nobody projected barely-contained fury quite like him, and watching Leo mouth bland assurances of love and devotion to his horrid mother while his eyes burn with homicidal rage is both darkly humorous and more than a little unnerving: you can practically feel the air pressure spike when these two are in a room together, and you’re just waiting for Leo to clap his meaty paws around the frail old woman’s throat (which he doesn’t do, incidentally—he actually comes up with a better, more gratifyingly sadistic way to be rid of her, which I won’t spoil for you here). Not so exciting are the plodding police investigation scenes, where you have time to notice the various loose threads and holes in the plot, but fortunately these don’t take up too much screen time. You can watch the movie here!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Monkey Monday

(Thanks to FRIGHT-RAGS for the Stephen King monkey; check out their lovely website, where they’ve got lots of neat-o Tees for people who like to dress scary.)

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Day of the Dad

For some fascinating food for thought, check out Rob Ager’s 3-part video analysis, from which I procured this screen grab. Rob's a brilliant decoder of Kubrick's secret language of cinema, and even though I've seen the movie fifty times already (a conservative estimate, probably), he points out lots of stuff I never picked up on before. And he's got one of those authoritative, sonorous British voices, which are always fun to listen to. Do it now!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Now With Extra Timeliness: THEY LIVE (1988)

After reading a disturbing but none-too-surprising expose on Fox News overlord Roger Ailes in Rolling Stone the other day, I was in the mood for some politically-themed horror, and what better choice than John Carpenter’s goofy/smart election year monster movie They Live. One of those movies that just gets more and more timely as real life gets more and more ridiculous, They Live was as prescient in predicting Fox News as Network was in predicting reality TV, and it’s a fun movie for the most part as long as you don’t think too hard about how true it turned out to be.

Backstory: I was too young to vote for president in 1988 and wouldn’t have known whom to pick, anyway. I was a teenager and couldn't care less about the world of politics--but one thing I did care about (besides masturbating) was horror movies, and the release of a new John Carpenter film was always a big deal. So it was with great interest that I read an interview Carpenter did with Cinefantastique magazine to promote They Live, and it was interesting all right, just not in the way I expected. I wasn’t sure how hot I was to see the movie (I was disappointed to learn that it was more of an action movie than a horror movie), but Carpenter’s explanation of why he made They Live was a revelation.

I didn’t follow the news or seek out political commentary back then, so the only politics-related stuff I encountered was in entertainment: comics, music videos, TV, and of course movies. But it wasn’t enough to form a worldview; criticism of the president and his policies was either couched in satire that went over my head, or limited to gags about jellybeans and naps. I was aware that some of the adults in my life weren’t too keen on Reagan, but they never explained to me why, and I never asked them to. Most of what they said I didn’t care about, anyway, but John Carpenter was interesting and cool, so when he talked I listened.

And it was under the guise of discussing his new movie about alien invaders that can be only be seen with the use of magic sunglasses that Carpenter explained to me how things were and why I should care. It was a political awakening for me, in the pages of Cinefantastique, of all places. Which I guess makes perfect sense, actually.

As for the movie itself, well, it’s about as good as I remember it being the last time I saw it twenty years ago or something like that, which is to say, good, but not good enough that I felt the need to watch it again before twenty years (or something like that) went by. It’s half a great movie, with the first half neatly laying out the clever (and not too farfetched) premise that Republicans are really avaricious aliens from outer space who are keeping the human victims of their destructive profiteering docile with subliminal mind control. Rowdy Roddy Piper is a solid Kurt Russel substitute as two-fisted everyman John Nada, who joins up with an underground resistance movement to expose the aliens for what they are, and the movie chugs along at a brisk, entertaining clip till we get to the infamous back alley brawl where Nada and his construction worker friend Frank (Keith David) get into that reeeeeeealy long, knock-down, drag-out, kung-fu, bare knuckle smack down because Frank doesn’t believe Nada's story about aliens and won’t put on the sunglasses to see for himself. By the time that’s over, the film’s momentum has slowed considerably, and it’s like Carpenter has lost interest in the story he was telling, with the rest of the film collapsing under increasingly arbitrary and preposterous plotting that puts expediency before suspense or surprises.

Ah, but what a premise—and for the first half of the movie alone, They Live is worth revisiting all these years later. I bet right now, somewhere, some politically indifferent teenaged horror fan is watching it and totally having their mind blown. With the film now placed in historical context, though, I don’t think they’re gonna buy the happy ending.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Who Is Vandenberg? (And Did He Really Deserve To Get Blown Up Like That?)

If there’s one character in John Carpenter’s Stephen King adaptation Christine (1983) I’ve always felt kind of sorry for, it’s Vandenberg. And whom, you might well query—even if, like me, you’ve seen the film a good half dozen times—is Vandenberg? A peripheral character who appears onscreen only briefly in a few scenes and has only one line of dialogue, Vandenberg attracted my attention because he’s played by Stu (credited here as Stuart) Charno, an actor I’ve always liked for his earlier (and considerably larger) role as Ted in Friday the 13th Part 2.

You remember Ted, right? The only character besides final girl Ginny (the delightful Amy Steel) who had an actual personality, Ted was the obligatory prankster for F13 Part Deux, the one tasked with making smart alecky quips and pulling false scare shenanigans. Also known as “The Annoying Jerk”, the prankster is a thankless stock role (he’s always the one guy who doesn’t get laid), but Charno made Ted a surprisingly likeable annoying jerk, so much so that he was allowed to stay behind in town and drink beer while the other counselors in training were getting chopped, slashed and skewered back at the camp. Usually you look forward to the prankster meeting the stabby end of Jason’s sharp implement of choice, but Ted was so darn cute you were glad he made it to Saturday the 14th with nothing worse than a hangover.

And that’s why I always felt kind of bad when Vandenberg gets blown up in Christine. It happens shortly after the character, a mechanic at the garage where a couple of punks on Christine’s shit list have led the rampaging Plymouth Fury, speaks his first and only line (“Hey, is that Cunningham?”). Then Christine rams her way into the garage, some gasoline gets spilled and a spark ignites and Blammo! the poor guy gets barbequed in a spectacular explosion. It was the one death in the movie that seemed cruelly arbitrary. I didn’t know who this guy was (we only find out his name later on when Detective Junkins (Harry Dean Stanton) happens to mention it), but he seemed to me like a nice enough guy who was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

At least that’s how it appeared the first half dozen times I watched the movie as a kid. I was too young at the time to see it in the theater in all its widescreen glory so I had to settle for watching it panned-and-scanned on cable and VHS, which was alright with me, it was still an awesome movie no matter the size or shape of the screen. Ah, but years later I’d realize what I’d been missing. For hiding in the cropped margins of Christine was the answer to the burning question of Who is Vandenberg? Now, a quarter century after first stumbling upon this maddening riddle, I’ve discovered the answer at long last, thanks to the miracle of DVD.

I don’t know why I waited so long to watch Christine again, I guess I just watched it so many times as a kid that I burnt out on it—but seeing it in the splendor of crisp digital video with its original widescreen composition intact was a revelation. Not only did the improved presentation reveal previously unnoticed background details, it also restored important stuff going on in the periphery of the camera frame, which is where Vandenberg—literally a peripheral character—spends most of his time before the garage explosion.

Actually, he is in center frame in the first of his scenes, if only briefly. We get our first glimpse of Vandenberg when we’re introduced to sadistic dirt ball Buddy (William Ostrander, sporting the most evil-looking sideburns ever), chief tormentor of poor put-upon nerd Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon). Buddy swipes Arnie’s brown-bagged lunch and holds it hostage with a switchblade, while standing between them in the background Vandenberg can be seen, arms crossed, watching with an amused expression on his puss while Buddy taunts the hapless, frightened Arnie.

Well, so that’s not nice. But still, did he really deserve to get blown up like that?

Then, a minute later, Vandenberg appears behind Arnie just before Arnie slips on the yougurty remains of his punctured lunch, and though there’s a quick shot of a foot going out to trip Arnie, it’s hard to tell for sure if it was Vandenberg who tripped him, or, if so, if he did it on purpose.

All doubts as to Vandenberg’s culpability, however, are erased with the introduction of previously unseen evidence. In the film’s widescreen version, Vandenberg can be seen on the right side of the frame, sneaking around behind Arnie just before Arnie slips—proof positive of malicious mischief, and a crucial piece of the puzzle that went missing from the cropped cable and VHS versions of the movie.

So there’s that.

But still, does that deserve him getting blown up? Maybe he just happened to be there at the shop class when Buddy and his delinquent pals started picking on Arnie, and in an effort to look cool he had a momentary lapse in judgment that led to actions that he really, really regretted later on. It happens, right?

I was willing to give the guy the benefit of the doubt. But then came an even more shocking widescreen revelation later in the film, another appearance by Vandenberg in a memorable scene that the pan-and-scan versions of the film had cut him out of entirely.

During a football (game/practice), Arnie’s friend/protector Dennis (John Stockwell) is running with the ball when he gets distracted by the seriously fucking weird sight of his formerly nerdy buddy making out with Leigh (Alexandra Paul), the knockout who politely rejected Dennis’ overtures in an earlier scene. So distracted is Dennis that he runs right into a brutal sacking that’ll land him in the hospital. While all this is going on, there’s a shot of Buddy watching the game, flanked by his cronies Moochie (Malcolm Danare) and Rich (Steven Tash). One, two, three, three people. At least that’s how many I counted watching the movie on cable and VHS.

But then what do you know, widescreen reveals one more member of Buddy’s entourage, standing next to Rich at the far right end of the frame. Of course it’s none other than Vandenberg, the son of a bitch. And when Dennis gets creamed Vandenberg joins in with the other hooligans, hooting and applauding. Boy, did I have this Vandenberg guy wrong.

But. At least he doesn’t participate later in the always difficult to watch, frenzied orgy of vintage car vandalism at Darnell’s, where Buddy and his cronies take sledgehammers and knives and any other handy implement of destruction to the meticulously restored, show room condition Christine. That scene officially elevates Buddy, Moochie, and Rich from trouble-making ruffians to human scum that must die, and I had to give Vandenberg points for not being there. He wasn’t, right?

I never saw him. But rewatching the scene the other day, I noticed for the first time that four—not three—skulking figures can be seen sneaking into Darnell’s while Arnie is parking Christine, and four—not three—people can be seen gathering around the defenseless automobile before the smashing and slashing starts. But here’s the thing: in these two long shots you see four people, but in the rest of the scene, you see only three. The fourth member of the demolition crew doesn’t get a close-up, and I had to go back and watch the scene over and freeze frame and squint really hard with my nose pressed against the screen to figure out who the fourth guy was.

Well, you can tell by now where I’m going with this so I don’t have to tell you. And I already knew, of course, but I didn’t want to believe it. How could anyone who looks like Stu Charno be a bad guy? But there he is, definitely him, taking a sledgehammer to Christine’s classy chassis.

And maybe my reluctance to believe that Vandenberg was a scum bag who did, in fact, deserve to get blown up like that offers a clue as to why we see so little of him. While the other actors are classically thuggish in appearance (though even Danare looks a little too cuddly to be a sociopath), Charno looks like an affable goofball even when he’s wielding a sledgehammer. This isn’t a knock on Charno’s acting talent, it’s just the same as why you’d never see a Rondo Hatton character sitting cross-legged sipping a Stoli Sea Breeze.

Well, go figure.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

That Darn Car

In the liner notes for my treasured DVD of THE CAR, a film critic for the New York Press makes the (apparently straight-faced) argument that this movie about a demonic automobile terrorizing a small town in New Mexico is not the classic of ridiculous plotting, terrible acting, and goofy dialogue that it’s generally regarded as, but rather an unacknowledged gem of existentialist horror; a cerebral, symbolic, Ingmar Bergmanesque inquiry into man’s struggle against evil in a godless world. I'm not going to mention the guy's name here, because it seems likely the guy had some kind of drug problem. Still--

It’s an interesting perspective, and admirably serious and well considered, as it’s all too easy to ridicule or dismiss a movie with THE CAR's rep. But after giving it another look, I still couldn’t quite see the profundity and depth that the New York Press critic claims is lurking just below The Car's schlocky surface. And I even smoked out before I watched it.

Alas, the only thing that runs deep in The Car is its silliness. It really can’t reasonably be deemed a good movie, but it does have its fans, and I’m among them (hence the DVD in my possession).

Then again, maybe “fan” is too strong a word, but I do hold a peculiar affection for it. It has its strong points, like a lot of picturesque desert scenery, some nifty action sequences and stunt work, and James Brolin is actually pretty solid as the sheriff tasked with putting an end to the car’s murderous rampage (on the debit side, the usually solid Ronny Cox is almost comically hammy and overwrought as Brolin’s sniveling, alcoholic deputy, and Kathleen Lloyd, as the girlfriend, delivers an exquisitely irritating performance that never fails to set my teeth on edge).

And the car itself, it must be said, is pretty cool. A dark, heavy slab of joyless automotive engineering, the car's tricked out with an oversized grill that looks like snarling teeth, close-set headlights fixed in a perpetual scowl, and a front bumper designed for destruction rather than safety--not to mention a blaring, air-splitting horn taken from the semi in Duel. It’s not exactly a scary car, but if Satan was a motorist, I imagine this would be the vehicle for him (maybe Dick Cheney has one of these, ha ha). But most importantly, the director keeps the action moving, and it's hardly ever dull; even the quiet moments are good for some laughs.

I wouldn’t say any of it is exactly thought provoking, but it's every bit as fun as you could hope a bad movie would be.