Archive for January, 2012

Dracula Schmacula

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 25, 2012 by dcairns

SON OF DRACULA, “starring” Harry Nilsson, “directed” by Freddie Francis and “produced” by Ringo Starr, seems to have been brought into being solely to disabuse me, decades after its creation, of several of my most long-cherished beliefs. These are ~

(1) The 1970s were cool (THE GODFATHER and PULP can be seen advertised in the background of a couple of shots, but they can’t compete with the awful guff going on in the foreground).

(2) The presence of Dennis Price in a vampire film is always a good sign (VAMPYROS LESBOS).

(3) Ringo Starr is a fundamentally well-meaning man who wants me to have a good time (HELP!, CANDY).

(4) Rock musicals with Frankenstein elements are the key to human happiness  (ROCKY HORROR, LISZTOMANIA)

(5) Keith Moon was exclusively in very great films (TOMMY, SEXTETTE)

(6) T Rex had alchemical powers which transmuted everything they touched into gold.

(7) Jenny Runacre can make anything cool (THE FINAL PROGRAMME).

(8) Dracula films with motorbikes are cool (THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA).

(9) Freddie Jones is the kind of guy you can depend on to learn his lines.

(10)  Shakira Caine was only ever in THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING and never made any films where she turned into a housecat.

All of these self-evident truths, previously held to be inviolate, are thrown into question by this shambling travesty — how shall I go on in a world where NOTHING is certain?

Harry Nilsson is a new kind of Dracula — quiet, authoritative, ginger. He plays the whole thing straight, which might have worked if everybody had gone along with it. After all, the script, by actress Jennifer Jayne working under a pseudonym (wisely), doesn’t actually provide any gags — apart from Dracula Jnr being called Count Down, for no reason. Ringo, as Merlin (what’s Merlin doing in this???), is Ringo. The rest of the rock stars just play music, which is a bit of a waste. The way to redeem this farrago would have been to play it absolutely straight, cutting all the “comedy” which would have taken about three minutes of script revision, and casting inappropriate musicians in all roles. THEN it might have been funny. Freddie Jones as Baron Frankenstein tries, apart from the aforementioned difficulty with the lines (which are often unspeakable sci-fi gibberish, to be fair), but think what Keith Moon could have done! Seized the role by the throat and worried it to death, I should think. And Dennis Price as Van Helsing? Sure, he seems to have sobered up for the day’s work, and Francis shoots him as if he was actually there, in the scene with the other players, which must have been a bewildering change for Price, who was usually filmed to  look as much like stock footage as possible (see HORROR HOSPITAL if you don’t believe me), but this has the effect of depriving Peter Frampton of the opportunity to wear a goatee and operate lab equipment. It’s a terrible injustice.

I was slightly surprised that this seriously obscure film, lost in the mists of time and hard drugs, features songs I recognized — that echoing yelling number (Jump into the Fire) that plays during Ray Liotta’s last day as a goodfella in GOODFELLAS, and this

Extra points for recognizing the space footage swiped from A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH. At least Freddie Francis worked on AMOLAD. Did David Niven feel raped? Probably not — he was too busy making VAMPIRA.

Francis apparently had a horrible time on this film — not the world’s greatest director (but one of the greatest cinematographers, as THE INNOCENTS and THE ELEPHANT MAN testify), he found himself employed on a rock folly tax dodge, where the professionalism which was his main attribute as director was not respected or required. He says it led him to give up directing, although one notes that he had not hit bottom yet — he made CRAZE the same year, with Satanist Jack Palance trolling for sacrificial victims in the Raymond Revuebar. The following year’s THE GHOUL and LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF are shoddy, but mark a slight step up.

The Revuebar is glimpsed here too, in a Swinging London travelogue which actually contains the film’s only moments of visual felicity — a girl walks past and a neon light flicks on offscreen just as she catches the vampire’s eye, causing her to flare red — and the Coke sign’s red wave lights up from top to bottom EXACTLY like a pool of blood flowing downhill.

One odd thing among many — SON OF DRACULA is actually set in the future. An opening title gives the date of Dracula’s staking as “the 1880s” — which is strangely vague, as if the writer is unsure of her facts — and Count Down’s coronation, which takes up most of the plot, is set “a hundred years later” — also, he gets from Transylvania to London via the Channel Tunnel, which did not yet exist in 1974 (it’s represented by an underground car park — this is, after all, a film which boasts of being made “entirely on location”). Yet despite all this, Piccadilly Circus still boasts ads for THE GODFATHER.

Francis would show this blithe disregard for setting again in THE DOCTOR AND THE DEVILS, Dylan Thomas’ Burke and Hare script, belatedly filmed in 1985. Relocating the story to London would have been a perfectly reasonable action, since the characters are all re-named anyway, but Francis inexplicably keeps the Edinburgh locale (with a single location shot of Arthur’s Seat) but has everybody talk in cockney accents. I can understand him not wanting to give himself a migraine by reading the SON OF DRACULA script too closely, but when Dylan Thomas is involved, I think a little more care would be welcome.

I am indebted to Shadowplay informant Danny Carr for reminding me that S.O.D. (“an Apple Production”) existed, thus prompting me to obtain a copy. Remind me to stab him in the forehead next time I see him.

Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Pain

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 24, 2012 by dcairns

Man oh man! — or pig oh pig! — there’s plenty to enjoy in Disney’s THREE LITTLE PIGS.

What I Knew Going In:

Well, I’d seen the film two or three times, probably on Wonderful World of Disney TV specials as a kid. Then I’d seen, more recently, Tex Avery’s savage take-down, BLITZ WOLF, a WWII propaganda short made a decade later, which arguably does more violence to Disney than it does to Hitler. Being the product of more sophisticated animation (techniques really had advanced, in part thanks to Disney himself), and being the product of a more sophisticated sensibility, it made the earlier film look crude and childish, and it mercilessly ripped the piss out of Disney’s fairytale world-view.

I’d also heard Chuck Jones speak about the history of animation, and he credited this particular cartoon with a far-reaching innovation. Being a relatively early sound cartoon, he reckoned it was the first to truly exploit the possibilities of speech, characterizing the pigs, who all look alike, by their voices. In fact, their contrasting preferences in construction material are their main traits, and this is conveyed visually, but they also talk about it.

The pigs are all differently uniformed, with the two foolish pigs dressed somewhat like schoolkids. They also have a fife and a fiddle and high, feminine voices, whereas Practical Pig pounds a piano and has a rasping, hectoring adult voice provided by Pinto Colvig, the voice of Goofy. So much for characterization.

But beyond this crude stereotyping, Jones claimed the film pointed towards a new possibility — if voices could reinforce behavioral differences, then it was no longer necessary to use character design so crudely. “Previously, bad characters were ugly and good characters were cute,” he observed. Well, this still holds true in 3LP —

The wolf is grotesque, black, slavering and, most strikingly, attired as a hobo. This seems like Disney’s familiar social conservatism in full swing. I guess I see the logic: the wolf is an itinerant, rapacious character (whereas the pigs are domestic, middle-class homeowners) and so in anthropomorphizing him one looks for a human equivalent. For Tex Avery, it had to be Hitler, the brutal invader, for Disney it was the peripatetic outsider.

But I guess I take the point — once the idea of characterization by voice took hold, possibilities opened up. Chuck Jones’s villains tend to look somewhat grotesque and ragged (Yosemite Sam, the coyote) but so do his heroes (Bugs, the roadrunner). Cuteness and lovability were modulated into more abrasive virtues like pluck and defiance. And Disney’s SNOW WHITE could have a heroine and a villainess who were competitors in beauty (even though it’s pretty clear which one’s evil, even without speech… even without movement).

But moving beyond Jones’ analysis… THREE LITTLE PIGS offers still more interest…

Extremely twisted humour. Note the family portrait on the wall. Unexpected! As is the brick piano, which must surely have a magnificent timbre.

A few shots which go beyond the flat, theatrical staging, where characters break out of traveling a straight line from screen left to screen right… and…

Racial stereotyping! In order to pad the story out, uncredited writer Boris V. Morkovin and director Burt Gillett have the Big Bad Wolf disguise himself, first as a little lamb, then as “the fuller brush man,” a blatant Jewish caricature. What this is about, I’m not sure. Since the lamb is an innocent disguise, we can’t be sure Disney is equating Jews with wolfishness. Or saying anything bad about traveling salesmen. Probably the connection is simply “People who come to the door.” And possibly somebody was amused by the idea of the wolf assuming semitic guise to pursue his secret goal of eating pork. But it’s certainly a highly questionable image, much more shocking if not actually worse, to my way of thinking, than the African-American crows in DUMBO. (The crows tease Dumbo, but they’re actually quite appealing characters, and they unintentionally inspire him with self-belief and set him on the road to victory. The first “magic negroes”?)

Anyhow, the Jewolf took me completely by surprise — I’m sure some commentators must have spoken of it, but I’d obviously missed the debate. And again, as a kid, it would’ve meant nothing to me, as I never read Die Sturmer as a lad.

And then there’s the song, “Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” which has its own discrete hold on the culture. Again, the author is uncredited, but the IMDb tells us that Frank Churchill scored the film and Carl Stalling, later of Loony Toon fame, arranged the music. Or did the song already exist as part of the story?

Finally, the story allows Disney to explore a favourite theme — arse abuse. From the spanking automaton in Gepetto’s workshop, to the many gags about injury to the buttocks in his films, it’s an unending and obsessional motif. One wonders about Disney’s own upbringing. Here, the BBW (Big Bad Wolf) is dropped into boiling turpentine (I don’t have a clear idea of what that would DO, apart from the obvious scalding, but I’m sure it’s unpleasant). This leads to this image —

Behaviour we have seen in dogs, and which would convulse little kids with laughter if they were familiar with how a hound rids itself of a particularly tenacious poop. This kind of vulgarity isn’t commonly thought of as a Disney quality. But then, this is pre-code Disney.

Another fine messiah

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 23, 2012 by dcairns

GOD TOLD ME TO — a great title, and a film that actually stands behind that title! Which I hadn’t expected, to be honest, since it’s a Larry Cohen picture, and experience has taught me that Cohen’s films generally fall down on craft, even as they struggle to put over interesting story ideas. THE STUFF is such a nice high-concept, political sci-fi horror movie in principle, that it’s a shock to see how badly made it is. THE PRIVATE FILES OF J. EDGAR HOOVER is so ahead of its time in the way it portrays its subject, you can almost overlook the fact that they’ve got sixty-six-year-old Broderick Crawford playing Hoover in his twenties. But still, I don’t suppose he’s any less convincing than Leonardo DiCaprio playing Hoover in his sixties.

Cohen works cheap, and shoots on location without permits — this kind of guerrilla film-making has aesthetic consequences, which is fine. A certain necessary roughness in some way suits Cohen’s authorial personality. But he’s never worked out a way to create a consistent feel out of the practical constraints he operates under. So he shoots with a tripod when he can, then goes handheld when circumstances dictate it, resulting in a patchy look, where a wholly vérité style might have worked.

BUT — Cohen has great taste in subjects (who else would plant a Mexican winged serpent god in Manhattan, swooping down to decapitate window cleaners?) and in actors — here he scoops Sylvia Sidney, waiting in a nursing home from whence she would eventually defeat the invading Martians in MARS ATTACKS! His leading man, Tony LoBianco (from THE HONEYMOON KILLERS) makes a convincing cop, which I guess is why he plays one so often, he also gets one of the most chilling final looks I’ve ever seen.

And this is a very scary room.

Cohen still has his camera placement set on random, so visually things are a bit frustrating at times, but the few effects shots are satisfactory, the location shooting (with accompanying sound problems) does add grit, and the searing orange glow in certain key scenes anticipates CLOSE ENCOUNTERS. Gaspar Noe wants to remake this… I sort of doubt he could improve it.

So, people are going on killing sprees, announcing “God told me to,” with their dying breaths. Andy Kaufman plays a cop at the St Patrick Day’s Parade who starts plugging bystanders with his revolver. This is not only startling to see, it also seems like the kind of thing Andy might do, if pressed. He could always claim afterwards he was extending the bounds of comedy.

Just like in JAWS, the hero tries to stop the disaster, but is told he can’t interfere with the celebrations: “The Irish have been looking forward to this all year!” Because that’s all they have to do, seemingly.

This intriguing set-up is exactly the kind of ball I’d expect Cohen to drop, but instead he passes it — the killers are connected to some hippy messiah kid, who may have been a virgin birth, may have been born intersex, and may be the child of an alien abductee — Cohen gets into the kind of alien abduction scenario, complete with tractor beams, lost time, and intrusive medical procedures, that have been widely reported but hadn’t made it into movies yet (did the movie cause a spike in UFO reports?). And it keeps getting weirder — there are enough crazy plot twists for three conventional films. And it doesn’t wrap up into a neat little bundle, it sprawls out, spreading tendrils all over the place. Don’t get any on you!

Richard Lynch plays the space messiah. “I know who that is!” said Fiona. “It’s that guy! He’s in lots of stuff!” Don’t you just hate that? But then she was able to be more specific: “He’s that guy with the I’ve-been-in-a-fire face.”

He is!

The other strange thing about this film (well, one of them) is the space Jesus’s vagina. We first see this, in big latex close-up, during Sylvia Sidney’s alien encounter flashback (a younger actress plays the naked twenty-something Sylvia, which seems inconsistent with the sensibility that gave us Broderick Crawford as a boy detective, but let’s not carp). He just cuts to it. It’s impossible to tell where it is or why Cohen is showing it to us at this point. It’s a bit like the closeups of Marilyn Chambers’ armpit penis in RABID (which this predates) — no context, just an ECU of a rubbery thing quietly doing stuff.

“It’s a c- It’s a FANNY!” declared Fiona, strangely impressed.

In another scene, space Jesus lifts his robe and shows off the mangina, so we know it’s his. But we don’t know where it is. I thought maybe it was on his side, like Christ’s spear-wound. “That makes sense,” said Fiona, tolerantly. But maybe I was just resisting the idea that it was exactly what it appeared to be. How did Cohen get this image into a commercial release? By arguing that, since it’s an alien genital, it can’t be obscene? It’s like Rin Tin Tin’s penis. And nobody would dream of censoring that. On the other hand, nobody would ever think of shooting a giant ECU of it, either.

No one but Larry Cohen.