Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Other (1972): Old-timey horror, just like grandma used to make

It's practically October and it's time for my yearly ritual of watching (virtually) nothing but horror movies all month long. I know, I know, you're saying, "Will, you always watch horror movies, tell us something we don't know." Well, I go by the old William Burroughs adage that you can't tell somebody something they don't already know, and hence, this post. Monday night I trudged through 1972's The Other, a sloooow-moving period piece about young twin brothers, based on an interesting, pre-Stephen King horror bestseller by Thomas Tryon.

Tryon's a minor figure in the annals of '70s horror fiction. Once a pretty-boy actor in B movies and television, he ended up leaving that field for literature, and produced two bestsellers in the "show don't tell" school of quiet horror in the very early 1970s, long before Stephen King came along and revolutionized the genre. (His other horror novel was Harvest Home, and both books are long out of print, although you can buy them for probably like a quarter at any decent used bookstore).

Director Robert Mulligan, who also directed that masterpiece of idyllic--or not-so-idyllic--childhood, To Kill a Mockingbird--doesn't nearly reach the heights of that film (it would be unfair to expect him to) but does a decent job here. Actually the film is more like a made-for-television movie, and indeed, it only had a very short theatrical run before being relegated to TV reruns throughout the decade, which is where it gained status as a minor cult film. And I'm fairly convinced I saw The Other when I was a kid (thanks mom!), because certain images and revelations filtered through a recurring nightmare I used to have, and watching The Other the other day I was surprised and bemused to find that the major twist of the story was my nightmare exactly. Forget the movie, remember the nightmare.

Niles and Holland Perry are twins in the country town of Pequot Landing, Connecticut, running about their family's farm during the long hot summer of 1935. You remember how it was: apple cellars, hay lofts, jalopies, knick-knacks like amputated fingers, secret treasures, old Russian grandmothers, dead fathers, the Lindbergh baby. Just need the Pepperidge Farm man and some Country Time lemonade. And you know you have to ask: just what is it with the Perry twins? Something, as is so often said, ain't right.

"I'm not the creepy one! Honest I'm not!"

The twins are played by Chris and Martin Udvarnoky, who never, ever made another film. This lends them a timeless quality in The Other that makes them creepier than if they'd grown up in the public eye, although of course [insert obvious Olsen twins joke right about here]. Their acting is a bit wobbly, and the rest of the cast is just so-so, although the great theater actress/teacher Uta Hagen does a nice, just slightly-hammy job as Ada, the twins' grandmother. Guess what happens to her! That's not very nice.

"I'm the creepy one! But it'll be our little secret."

I'm not even going to get all into it; I cheated and fast-forwarded through a lot of the DVD with the subtitle function on. You know how it goes: mysterious deaths, accidental "accidents," lanterns in old barns filled with straw. Someone noted it was like "The Waltons meet The Omen." Still and all, it had its moments of slow, creeping--well, not horror, exactly, but I'm of the firm mind that children are... horrible. So this movie confirms my favorite prejudice. It's not a bad film by any means; the DVD looks great, the cinematography has some really nicely done aerial shots of the farmland, and the tension between the psychological/supernatural aspects of the story is provocative. But the pace is so languid, even tepid in places, so dated to the early '70s that it can be tough going.

If you're interested, you could just watch the trailer, which does an excellent job of mashing the 2-hour film
into three minutes, and with a menacing voiceover and eerie music to boot!

Two points if you can figure out just what Holland did with the baby!

Friday, September 14, 2007

Johnny's Gonna Die

Up from the red-leather remains of the New York Dolls rose the Heartbreakers, founded by ex-Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders (né Genzale) and handsome-devil drummer Jerry Nolan in 1975. Leaving their former band members in Florida with some guy named McLaren so they could score smack back in the Big Apple, Johnny and Jerry tapped proto-punk poster-boy Richard Hell for their new ensemble. CBGBs and Max's Kansas City were their battlefields and they were an integral part of this febrile, fertile spawning ground. You know the litany of names: the Ramones, Television, Blondie, Talking Heads, etc. etc. Though Hell froze up and departed, the Heartbreakers, eventually released only one album, the sonically-challenged L.A.M.F. (Like, of course, a motherfucker) in 1977. This recent mix, from re-discovered tapes, sounds wonderful, less muddy, and all sleaze.

What makes the Heartbreakers great is simplicity. They reduced twenty years of rock and pop and rhythm and blues into 3 minute rave-ups that always leave the listener wanting more. Johnny's guitar-slinging rings true, always teetering on the edge of collapse: it's chaotic and exhilarating. Blistering leads, solos that sound like a strangling cat, chugging rhythms like the subway trains roaring beneath the city streets.

Songs like "Get Off the Phone," "Going Steady," "Baby Talk," and "Let Go" are trashy rock'n'roll rave-ups, with all the requisite elements: catchy choruses, sleazy good-time lyrics (the ones that make sense, anyway; Johnny weren't no English perfessor), driving drums, and immediate gratification. A song like "One Track Mind" is a beautiful thing, all irresistible chorus and air-guitar glory. "It's Not Enough" is a reflective ballad-sorta thing, with Johnny lamenting how "You can give me this/You can give me that" but it's not enough. "Pirate Love" exists only for the dual-guitar solo that rivals anything the Dolls ever laid down.

Then there are the classics, the signature tunes that no Johnny Thunders performance was complete without: "Born to Lose," (or, alternately "Born Too Loose") which opens the album with an out-of-tune guitar whine, and lyrics revealing again just what a poet of the streets Johnny was: "Nothin' to do/Oh nothin' to say/Only one thing that I want/It's the only way/I said hit it!/Baby, I was born to lose."

"Chinese Rocks" is perhaps Thunders' most famous song even though it was written by fellow junkster Dee Dee Ramone. Anyone unsure as to what the song refers can be sure, it ain't nothing like Pop Rocks.

"The plaster's fallin off the walls
My girlfriend's cryin in the shower stall
It's hot as a bitch
I shoulda been rich
But I'm just diggin a Chinese ditch
I'm livin on Chinese rocks
All my best things are in hock
I'm livin on Chinese rocks
Everything is in the pawn shop"

These songs depict the downside of downtown and how the jungle could eat you alive. Johnny's status as a stylish, decadent loser who strutted those mean streets is legendary. As Wayne Kramer (MC5) said of Johnny: "He could snatch defeat from the jaws of victory."

The Heartbreakers weren't really a punk band, even though they rounded out the legendary Anarchy tour of the UK in late '76 with a couple bands you mighta heard of, the Sex Pistols and the Clash. Rumor has it--actually, it's more than rumor, it's fact--that the Heartbreakers introduced heroin to the much younger and more naive UK punks, and Nancy Spungen went looking for Jerry Nolan and followed them there. You know what happened after that.

The band was never able to secure a record deal with an American label due to their, uh, extracurricular activities, so eventually they broke up. Johnny would put out a decidedly mixed solo album a year later (So Alone) and continue to travel the world as a performer. Shows were plagued by his drug use, his attitude, his poor guitar-playing. I never got to see him perform, and odds are that if I had, I'd've seen a shambles of a set. In April of 1991 Johnny Thunders was hauled out of a grimy New Orleans hotel, his lifeless body doubled over from the effects of countless drugs. It's not enough, is it, Johnny? No, I guess it never is.

Well, all that don't matter. What does matter is that if you care about real rock'n'roll you need this album. It rocks like nothing else I know, but fits kinda between the raunchiest Stones and the Replacements (whose "Johnny's Gonna Die" is an ode to Thunders), Guns N' Roses, my beloved Hanoi Rocks, very early Motley Crue (like just their first album) and other (good) hard rock of the '80s. Practically every hard-rock/glam/metal guitarist that tosses a mane of out-of-control hair with a sneer and screech copped it from Johnny (who of course copped it from Keith Richards, let's be honest here). Johnny deserves to be remembered for his single-minded rock tunes, his dedication to the rock'n'roll lifestyle, and also for one of the coolest rock "nom de guerres" ever--I mean, "Johnny Thunders" how cool is that?! Thanks Johnny Rock on RIP!

I said hit it...

"Well, anybody can be just like me, obviously"

I just saw the new trailer for the upcoming Todd Haynes film I'm Not There. And I'm thrilled. Ecstatic. Positively chuffed. Waiting with bated breath, and whatnot. This "biography" of (as far as this here blog is concerned) the mighty Bob Dylan promises to capture the impressionistic, symbolic and freewheeling (natch) nature of Dylan's best song lyrics, constrained neither by time or logic, but only feeling, memory, image. Dylan is played alternately by Heath Ledger, Christian Bale, Richard Gere as the elder Dylan, (although Adam Sandler in Reign Over Me looks just like Dylan does now), and most astonishingly, Cate Blanchett.

Why not have Dylan played by the luminous Cate Blanchett (god, Kate Hepburn and Dylan and Queen Elizabeth? Is she going for the Gary Oldman Award for the most iconic figures portrayed on film?) That shows the same type of daring and balls that Dylan showed when he decided to follow not Woody Guthrie any longer but (as far as this here blog is concerned) the mighty Arthur Rimbaud, or plugged in at Newport, or tossed out an entire album’s worth of songs and recorded them again (which he did for Blood on the Tracks).

Plus, take one look at Blanchett in character; does she not carry the hipster haughtiness that Dylan exemplified in ’65-’66? The poise, the delicacy, but yet still with the ability to deflect any and all who strove to pigeonhole or predict him? Who's playing Bobby Neuwirth? Sarah Silverman!? No. Not really. But David Cross is playing Allen Ginsberg! Holy holy holy holy shit. Cannot wait to see if they re-enact the evisceration of that poor snaggle-toothed English journalist from Don't Look Back.

I think it's gonna work, and work bad-ass. You just watch. I don't know how it's gonna play in Topeka, Kansas, as the industry wonks are wont to expound, but who is more middle America than Dylan? Wait. Don't answer that. I know he's no Toby Keith, but come on--who'd play Toby Keith? Rosie O'Donnell?

Don't forget to cast your gaze upon the trailer. Is "Like a Rolling Stone" still the most majestic song ever? Well, duh.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Vincent Price gets pwned

One of my favorite actor/director exchanges took place during the making of Witchfinder General (1968). The director, 24-year-old Michael Reeves, and veteran horror icon Vincent Price, repeatedly clashed on set. At one point an exasperated Price snarled, "I've made 87 films. What have you done?" To which Reeves replied, "I've made three good ones."*


As it's never before been released on DVD until now, I myself have not seen all of Witchfinder General in its entirety, except for a truncated, commercially-interrupted version showing on AMC some years back at Halloween. It was so long ago, in fact, that I used an honest-to-god VCR to record it, messed up the time setting, and got all of it but the last 15 minutes. That's how they get you. Actually right now I have it DVR'd from a showing on TCM when Rob Zombie showed it as part of his Underground series under the American retitling by its distributors, Conqueror Worm, after the name of a Poe poem to try and fool people thinking it was a continuation of the Price/Poe series of movies directed by Roger Corman. Ah, gotta love those exploitation filmmakers. I'm waiting for the DVD version, since it will continue in that long-hallowed tradition of movie-making, the uncut director's version, since it was edited into various forms by both UK and US censors of the day.

Based on the real-life witch hunter Matthew Hopkins the film has a reputation as being a grim and realistic historical horror film, with Price eschewing his usual acting campy turn at the request of director Reeves. Despite their production hostilities, Price came to regard his performance in the film as one of his best, while sadly, Reeves overdosed on alcohol and antidepressants not long after the film was completed, leaving behind a small batch of films in which he worked with such industry and genre giants as Donald Sutherland, Christopher Lee, Boris Karloff, and Barbara Steele. There's a retrospective of Reeves and his work at the amazing Horrorwood site. Check it out, then set your Netflix queue accordingly!

*As told in Kim Newman's masterly 1988 study of horror film, Nightmare Movies.

TV is good for you: Friday Night Lights

When I tell people that I positively love Friday Night Lights and that they should check it out for themselves, I always get the same answer: “Oh, it’s about sports. Enh.” Which is driving me crazy. It's about sports, yes, kinda, but in the same way that The Sopranos is about the mob or The Office is about about a paper company. Football is simply a backdrop upon which the show acts out its dramatic arc.

But in fairness, I guess I can understand that indifferent reaction, because on first glance the show does indeed seem to be about not only sports, but also about teenagers, and religion, and takes place in a small rural Texas town. I can see why my urbane and sophisticated acquaintances of the demimonde would shun such programming.

But why didn’t just plain folks dig on the show? Why are they avoiding it in droves? Americans loves sports, they positively ooze Christianity, most of them are teenagers and the flyover states are made up solely of small towns--all things that I myself avoid as much as I can--so why won’t people watch? Is it because the show combines all those elements, transcends the clichés, and then turns it all into something special and rare and satisfying? FNL deals with each subject reverently, seriously and with true artistry. Maybe that’s confusing to people. Americans apparently only wants to watch TV shows about CSI agents, superheroes, castaways, grumpy doctors, or Zach Braff's hair.

But enough about what Americans want. What I want is for people to watch Friday Night Lights (and, oh, the coincidences, they do occur—the DVD of the show’s first season has arrived! And for a piddly $20!) The show is so many things I’m not interested in in real life, and yet it soars, and I have to follow.

Set in the fictional Texas town of Dillon, the series begins with the arrival of the new high school football coach, Eric Taylor, (Kyle Chandler, once Grey’s Anatomy’s doomed bomb squad technician, and seen in Jackson’s King Kong doing a hilarious Ronald Reagan impersonation) and all eyes are on him to take the Dillon Panthers to the state championship. He brings with him his wife Tami (Connie Britton, reprising her role from the 2004 film) and 15-year-old daughter Julie, who isn't quite impressed with her father's newly "heroic" status in the town.

The show gets the difficult things right without being sentimental or obvious: the pressure Coach Taylor feels to live up to his position as a sort of holy man to the small town; the give and take of a marriage in which both partners are committed to one another yet also ambitious in their own careers; the drama of high school life, with its minor events that seem to those involved of epic importance; the easy and unostentatious way the players pray before games; and tensions in race relations that are still never far from people’s minds even in the “new” South.

(from left: Saracen, Riggins, Smash)

The characters besides the Taylors are filled in well in the first episode, especially the football players themselves: the "dream couple" of team captain and star quarterback Jason Street (whose polite, deferential manner to the town's female mayor prompts her to advise him, "Listen to early Black Sabbath; it'll make you mean") and head cheerleader Lila Garrity; the awkward, insecure backup QB Matt Saracen (easily my favorite character, played by Zach Gilford), mostly waiting out games on the sidelines, taking care of his ailing grandmother while his father is in Iraq, or hanging out with his dorky friend Landry, who himself wants to start a Christian speed metal band; the driven and charmingly egotistical "Smash," who gives himself his own nickname and dreams of one day endorsing both Pepsi and Coke; the troubled--and quite often drunk--Tim Riggins, who has a volatile relationships with Smash, his older brother, and his girlfriend, the cynical, scheming Tyra who loves to dismiss Dillon's obsession with football... and a good handful of folks more. The pilot episode deftly weaves the fabric of the characters' lives and the town's livelihood together.

This is helped by the hand-held cinéma vérité camera work, which enables the show to achieve a verisimilitude rare for television (some people, I guess still nauseated from Blair Witch Project, find this irritating; the show's only one-star review on Amazon blames this sole aspect for the show's lack of success. Feh). The actors don’t use standard marks for positioning as the camera roams around—actually, struggles to keep up—to give their performances an effect more natural and spontaneous; actors’ rehearsals are kept to a minimum, and what we get is as realistic a portrait of regular people’s lives as we’ve seen on TV. Witness the encroaching dementia of Matt Saracen’s grandmother, or the fights between the Taylors when their daughter Julie tries to assert her individuality by dating Saracen; the bipolar breakdown of Smash’s new girlfriend and his attempt to console her; Riggins’s confrontation with his errant father; Landry’s dogged pursuit of the just-out-his-league Tyra; used-car salesman Buddy Garrity’s constant meddling with the Coach’s decisions about the Panthers (obviously because he has no sons old enough to be on the football team; his daughter is Lila, the head cheerleader).

Well, of course, I don't want to give away any spoilers for those of you about to watch it on DVD, or even on the NBC website--which for some reason removed the credits, so you don't get the very good opening music by W.G. Snuffy Smith. Check it out in this clip, and listen to the understated, elegiacal, yet somehow still defiant and hopeful score that truly captures the show's spirit:

Fortunately FNL avoided cancellation after a season of lackluster ratings and is set for its second season, beginning October 5. But it’s being moved to the prime-time wasteland that is Friday night at 9:00 p.m.—hey, don’t high schools have football games on Friday nights? Did the execs at NBC think people were confused that a show with “Friday night” in its title was shown on Tuesday night? Hm. Questions worth asking. But not here. Good luck, Friday Night Lights. See you soon.

And look! Cheerleaders! Well, one, anyway.