Dead Mann Running
I was all set to see something called KAFKA’S THE BURROW, but first I saw BRAND NEW-U, a new science fiction arthouse thriller thing, which rather exhausted my will to live — not bad, exactly, but devoid of tension, which made it tiring. I wasn’t sure I could face Kafka after that, so I did a ticket swap and opted for THE JERICHO MILE, an early Michael Mann TV movie released in UK cinemas in 1979 and screened at Edinburgh as part of the retrospective of vintage TV movies. I figured that even though I usually don’t like Michael Mann, this would at least by basically engaging.
(My Michael Mann history: walked out of THIEF at school film society, aged 17 — been meaning to give it another try. I think THE KEEP tricked me into staying for the whole thing but then I felt cheated. Like quite a bit of MANHUNTER but it goes utterly wrong in the last third. THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS screws up its story and makes the wrong call on every single photographic decision. HEAT is extremely silly, the more so for being so serious. THE INSIDER has an appalling soundtrack assembled apparently at random. ALI is quite watchable but doesn’t quite add up. Skipped a couple, and then PUBLIC ENEMIES is a snooze.)
Answering his critics.
But THE JERICHO MILE is now my favourite Michael Mann film. I could be all backhanded about it and argue that the stylistic constraints of the television format kept Mann from making erratic stylistic choices of the kind he loves, but actually by filming in Folsom with real inmates as supporting cast, he’s pushing the boat out about as far as any network would allow. His big stylistic idea this time is to interweave documentary footage into the melodrama, and it works like a charm. The movie looks and feels like a proper product of 70s New Hollywood, except the inmates don’t swear. And this doesn’t seem to matter — although the proceedings do get corny in places, quite a few places in fact, the story is compelling and the performances are mostly very fine — we get Brian Dennehy and Geoffrey Lewis and Ed Lauter and in the lead, Peter Strauss is excellent.
Strauss plays a man doing life for shooting his father (multiple times — but with extreme provocation). It turns out he can run a four-minute mile, and the prison authorities bend over backwards to get him to the Olympics. I hate films about sporting activity. Sporting activity is the worst kind of activity there is. But like all good sport films, this isn’t really about sport. The possibility of an inmate succeeding in something energizes and ultimately unites the prison populace, and then the straight world steps in to shut this down. The movie can’t allow itself to be quite as depressing as that sounds, but it still makes its point. And I like films with grim messages that don’t actually depress.
Geoffrey Lewis turned up again after I’d seen part of MAGGIE (Arnold Schwartzenegger has a zombie daughter) — the 11pm film was SALEM’S LOT, in the chopped-down theatrical release version, which doesn’t entirely make sense but goes like a train. Lewis is magnificently creepy, as is everyone who gets vampirized. Found myself intrigued by David Soul’s acting — very much School of Shatner, which is both good and bad, I dug how SCARED Soul looks at the climax. Reggie Nalder, of course, is a brilliant living special effect, wearing more makeup than he actually needed. James Mason is delightful, especially sharing a scene with Kenneth McMillan. When Humbert met Harkonnen.
This must be the gayest Stephen King adaptation ever. Most movies exist in order to partner up the hero and heroine — this one disposes of the heroine (a lovely, if bony, Bonnie Bedelia) offscreen (in this cut) so David Soul can drive off with a teenage boy. A teenage boy escapologst who keeps urging his dad to tie him up. And the whole plot is kickstarted by the arrival in a small town of two antiques dealers, Mason and his “partner” Nalder, who cause a plague of unusualness to strike down the citizenry. Mason flaunting his Very Queer Gentleman status in front of a baffled McMillan is a treat. There are no Chris Lee type scenes of vampiric male-female seduction, but lots of man-on-man and boy-on-boy action.
There was plenty of evidence that straight-up traditional vampires in a modern setting can’t be made to work — David Soul making a crucifix out of tongue depressors streteches the concept as far as it can safely go. But there was also surprising evidence that vampires are hardier creatures than you might think, despite their vulnerability to light, running water, wood, cruciform structures, garlic and rational analysis — a set of allergies that ought to land them all in oxygen tents.
Every scare came with its own bad laugh, but Tobe Hooper clearly knew how to SOME stuff really well, so that there were more alarming moments and stylish scenes that were ever the case in other US shows. A man jumping out to surprise David Soul in his bedroom made Fiona squeak in terror. She reports that when this screened in the UK in 1980, kids at her school were so freaked they took to wearing crosses round their necks.
Now we have to watch the full-length version to find out what the hell happened to Bonnie Bedelia.
I’m pretty sure whatever it was, wasn’t good.