Archive for Karen Black

Men from Mars are from Mars

Posted in FILM, literature, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 13, 2016 by dcairns

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Tobe Hooper’s INVADERS FROM MARS — part of a set of actually quite interesting semi-bad movies he made for bigtime schlockmeisters Cannon (I would never have believe the daywould come when I might feel nostalgic for Cannon, but here we are). LIFEFORCE is a sort of laughable Quatermass-for-and-by-teenage-boys (the monster is the scariest thing ever, a naked girl) and TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE II is genuinely fucked-up and harrowing, if somewhat incoherent. See it — you’ll be punch-drunk afterwards.

In the 50s, designer-director William Cameron Menzies (name-checked in the high school in the 80s version) made an uncategorizable B-movie sub-classic, which tried its damnest to use a juvenile it-was-all-a-dream structure in an interesting way. I never felt it quite worked but always felt it was interesting, and Menzies’ expressionist child’s-eye sets are terrific.

One surprise with Tobe’s remake is how it doubles down on precisely the elements of the original that seemed dangerously hokey thirty years earlier and were least likely to find favour, one would have thought, with an 80s audience. Though there had been a spate of fantasy films with kid protagonists, IFM was never going to be another ET, was it?

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The central conceit is that of the genuine psychological condition Capgras Syndrome, in which one imagines intimates have been replaced with impostors. Or, in this case, taken over with NECK IMPLANTS. Neck implants appeared in Menzies film before they became part of the mythos of true life alien encounters, which maybe tells you something about true life alien encounters — but maybe only some of them? The cast essay a wide range of approaches to alien possession: Louise Fletcher does her patented ice bitch act, but more manic, but the best players at this are mom Laraine Newman and especially dad Timothy Bottoms, who is helped by Dan O’Bannon & Don Jakoby’s script, which gives him lots of quirky schtick like gulping scalding coffee supersaturated with undissolved sugar. But his stilted line readings and spooky demeanour are a constant joy. When he unexpectedly appears from behind a bush with a man from the telephone company (everyone hates the telephone company) the scenario seems redolent of cottaging, and Bottoms does great work with his explanation: “He’s from the switching department,” delivered as if this goofy remote-control meatpuppet WANTS the ordinary humans to pick up some Hidden Meaning.

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The other best bit of business for the mandroids is when Fletcher, for no discernible reason, starts reciting “A-E-I-O-U” repeatedly and then launches into a bit of Magwitch’s dialogue from Great Expectations (“get me a file and some wittles”). Interestingly, this is the bit right before Magwitch describes his friend who can crawl through tight spaces and eat your liver — a character who became serial killer Eugene Tooms in The X-Files. Magwitch never mentions that his friends sleeps in a newspaper nest like a hamster, but we can still agree that Great Expectations has had more influence on science-fiction than any other Dickens novel. Apart from Rod Serling’s Carol for Another Christmas, and at least until someone makes a post-apocalyptic version of Little Dorrit. Fletcher’s incongruous recital is wonderful precisely because nothing whatsoever can account for it — she’s a science teacher, not an English teacher, and anyway, WTF?

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Great-beyond-great Stan Winston aliens — he obviously got the same note about this being a pastiche that Bottoms got.

Hooper seems to be riding the Louma crane for the whole flick, serving up sinewy, twisting moves that may not add tension but certainly impart elegance.

I recently interviewed the film’s production designer, Les Dilley, but failed to ask him about this one. Tough brief — the film doesn’t replicate Menzies’ distorted perspectives designed to make the child hero extra-diminutive and overwhelmed, but it still embraces a form of theatrical stylisation unfashionable at the time (same year as BLUE VELVET, though, interestingly). And then there’s a Geiger-ish sensibility to the aliens’ underground lair. The difficulty is, the first INVADERS was replicating the non-cinematic media influences a child of the era would have, from pulp magazines to comic books, bubble-gum cards, radio shows and maybe TV. In all of which, space and space invaders were a definite thing, with set generic qualities (Menzies dutifully includes Bug Eyed Monsters and a Little Green Man). That world of influences has irreversibly split in a thousand directions by the 80s, so the film struggles to create a unified sensibility that feels like it could be a small boy’s dream, though there are some nice details like a NASA security device that beeps like a digital alarm clock. This is all happening in a suburban bedroom…

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And then there’s Bud Cort, who is just insanely wonderful for about five minutes before he gets disintegrated. Most untimely disintegration in sci-fi history, unless you count the guy in ANGRY RED PLANET who waits until the third act before getting dissolved, when he should have taken a Captain Oates long walk as soon as possible and spared us our misery.

There’s a thing: in ANGRY RED P, the Martians warn us to get off their dusty red lawn, but in INVADERS FROM MARS they’ve come here uninvited and dug ruddy great holes. It’s a bit rich, that.

Oh, Karen Black. Nurse. I hope I get sick.

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Sudden Unexpected Baby Syndrome

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 12, 2014 by dcairns

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…or S.U.B.S. for short. Fiona coined this phrase to describe the way the killer babies kept popping up in Larry Cohen’s IT’S ALIVE II: IT LIVES AGAIN and ISLAND OF THE ALIVE. We had rented the first film in the series on VHS from the late lamented Alphabet Video in Bruntsfield, years and years ago, and been impressed by (1) leading man John P. Ryan, who brings far more commitment and credibility than the monster baby movie would seem to deserve, and (2) Bernard Herrmann’s score, which seems to come from a different, better era/film.

Cohen has a tendency to cast well and then not give his actors time to get it right, but at least he does pick out good people. Ryan returns in the second film, where Frederic Forrest and Kathleen Lloyd take over the leading parts — talented actors, as you’d know if you saw them elsewhere, but struggling with the material and tending to over-hype the emotions — too many scenes feel like promising rehearsals.

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Une Etrange Aventure de…

We also get, improbably, Eddie Constantine as a porridge-faced obstetrician, Cohen fave James Dixon, the only actor in all three films, as a cop with Donald Trump hair, and veteran John Marley, who is completely authoritative and nails every moment he’s given — thereby making everything else seem even more unbelievable.

The mutant rugrat is no better in film two than it was in film one — Rick Baker famously complained that Cohen sprang the project on him with no prep time, promised to not show the creature (an immobile sculpture) except for “flashes,” and then kept inventing new shots to showcase it. He also apparently suggested making a baby costume for his cat, which Baker balked at, so Cohen suggested using a chicken. “But chickens have two legs. Babies crawl on all fours.” “OK, two chickens! And maybe they’d fight!” (This story may have grown in the telling.)

***

Sidenote — on CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, they apparently experimented with putting an orangutan on rollerskates to simulate an alien visitor. It didn’t come off. Undeterred, George Lucas attempted to cast a monkey as Yoda, but couldn’t quite get the effect he wanted and settled for a shit muppet. Only the makers of the original Battlestar Galactica seem to have gone all the way and put a chimp in a weird Honey Monster/bondage costume to impersonate some cyborg space pet.

At this stage, I would be unsurprised to learn that E.T. was planned as a marmot on stilts, or that Orangey the cat from BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’s was set to be the original Chewbacca. But I have no definite information as to these theories which I have just made up.

Star Wars Yoda monkey

***

In the end, there’s the sculpture, plus a mask and glove for closeups, and the keeping-the-monster-unseen strategy, stretched as far as it can go, comes off as cheap rather than Lewtonesque.

The second film attempts to “surpass” the first by throwing in a couple more killer sprogs, but the original is still dead so the title should really be SOME MORE ITS ARE ALIVE or IT DIES AGAIN or something. Cohen’s other saving grace is his politics, which sadly don’t get that much of an airing here. The third film goes a little further but flounders in a welter of bad effects work and bad story ideas ~

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The casting coups this time are Karen Black (not in it that much) and Michael Moriarty, who seems curiously miscast in the role of an actor. As a no-hope lounge singer in Q – THE WINGED SERPENT, I thought he was great value. I reminded Fiona that his piano-bar noodlings formed a major part of the soundtrack of that flying lizard police procedural, and she was startled at the memory. It was such a bold choice. “I wonder if he’ll sing this time?” And moments later, aboard a yacht bound for the ISLAND OF THE ALIVE, he launches into a rousing rendition of The Skye Boat Song, in Scots brogue, no less, which goes on for an uncomfortably long time and is very, very funny.

Elsewhere, things are dreadful: a bunch of the babies grow into adult-sized monsters within five years, but still have giant baby heads because I guess a redesign was going to be too expensive. Karen Black narrowly escapes gang rape by punk rockers (a very real social problem in Florida in 1987, I’m sure). Moriarty has a run in with the Cuban secret service. A bizarre post-nuclear family happy ending is contrived that makes no sense — we are supposed to feel hopeful as our heroes, who are international celebrities, flee the authorities with a mutant baby in a hot car.

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The biggest problem, for me, is that Cohen is really terrible at filming stuff — his coverage is erratic and often actually incomplete, missing shots he can’t do without to achieve coherent continuity. At other times he uses more shots than he needs, and they’re almost never the RIGHT shots. Even the few stop motion shots in the third film are oddly selected, very brief and usually showing the baby from behind, so we can admire its muscular latex buttocks but get little sense of threat, unless we’re meant to be scared it’ll do a toxic poo. Which is something a serious mutant baby movie would have to tackle, come to think of it.

The Pattern is Complete

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 30, 2009 by dcairns

Here it is — the end of Hitchcock Year, as far as the films go. What an odyssey it has been. From THE PLEASURE GARDEN (1925) to FAMILY PLOT (1976) — exactly fifty-two films in fifty-two years, watched and reviewed by me in fifty-two weeks. And yet I can’t think that Mr Hitchcock’s achievement in making the films is a bit more substantial than my achievement of watching them. And the numbers stack up so nicely one might almost have think he’d planned it.

A lot of facts conspired to make FAMILY PLOT an unlikely film to actually happen. Hitch was unwell. He had arthritis in his knees, which made walking agony, and he was treating the pain with vodka, among other things. His weight, more or less stable since LIFEBOAT (the wonders of Reduce-O!) was ballooning again. He was fitted with a pacemaker, which he delighted in showing to all and sundry (well, the scar and the bulge where it was embedded). I also recall Karen Black saying he showed her that he didn’t have a belly button. Or did I dream this? If true, it suggests that either Hitch was a clone, not of woman born (perhaps in some way explaining his dislike of eggs?) or that he’d had part of his gut taken away. At the time, I assumed this was some kind of primitive tummy-tuck op, but no — it seems more likely that his navel hernia, corrected by surgery around the time of VERTIGO, might have resulted in his buttonless condition. I remember an Oliver Reed interview in which the legendary wild man talked about his belly button turned inside out one day when he was lifting something or someone he shouldn’t have lifted. It hung down his front, a long flesh-tube, and he just left it there. For years. The only inconvenience he said was he couldn’t wear tight tops. But eventually he had it taken away because he was worried it was upstaging his penis.

Yeeuuuuch!

Meanwhile (if we’ve all recovered), Alma’s condition was still more depleted. A stroke around the time of FRENZY had temporarily disabled her. She seems to have had good days and bad days. Hitch had to start cooking for her. He seems to have delayed the end of filming of FRENZY, taking his time over the trailer (the night shots of which show him clearly flagging), perhaps afraid to return home. Although she recovered well enough to join Hitch on location, bringing the dog, a further stroke after FAMILY PLOT was in the can disabled her permanently and affected her mind.

Vincent Canning’s The Rainbird Pattern attracted Hitchcock with its symmetry, the flow of the fake medium and her boyfriend searching for the long-lost nephew, while the nephew is engaged in a kidnapping spree with his girlfriend. Canning’s dark tone and downbeat ending was jettisoned, while Hitch aimed for “a Noel Coward flavour,” aided by screenwriter Ernest Lehman, who had scripted NORTH BY NORTHWEST. Hitch found Lehman’s demands for plot logic and character beats rather a trial, and shut him out of the production once filming began — but then he returned to him to collaborate on THE SHORT NIGHT, his final, never-filmed, project.

FAMILY PLOT is as light and charming as FRENZY is dark and distasteful. If it lacks the tense moments that make FRENZY ultimately worthwhile, it adds sweetness and charm, making it a far nicer note for Hitch to end on than the sick psycho-thriller. There are two actual loving couples here, a reverse of the universal castration/homicide on display in FRENZY. True, Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern bicker about food and sex and seances, and William Devane pushes Karen Black towards murder, but they are nevertheless good teams, happy together. And death is almost pushed offscreen altogether in this film, unusually for any thriller.

After the pleasingly old-fashioned titles, which could have come from a 1940s movie, and which are blessed with lovely SNOW WHITE witch colour schemes, the opening scene is Hitch’s miniature version of JM Barrie’s MARY ROSE, his pet unmade project. Cathleen Nesbitt, the actress playing the old Mrs Rainbird, had appeared in THE PASSING OF THE THIRD FLOOR BACK, co-written by Alma, back in the 30s, and Hitchcock likely saw her on stage in London in another Barrie play.

Shimmering within their green matte-lines (against his better judgement, Hitch had been talked out of using rear projection), Bruce Dern and Barbara Harris bicker lovably. Everybody warned Hitch that Harris was method and difficult and he wouldn’t like her. He didn’t — he loved her. She found his direction “Brechtian,” which was fine with him, as long as she followed it.  Dern, of course, played a small but key role in MARNIE, and though he didn’t get very close to the Master on that occasion, he’d played several roles in Hitch’s TV show. “I never know what you’re going to do next,” said Hitch, admiringly — as long as Dern stayed within Hitch’s predesigned frame, that was fine.

A word about pre-planning. Bill Krohn tells us that, just this once, after a few days following the storyboards, Hitch threw them aside and improvised his direction. Authorized biographer John Russell Taylor, who was present on location for some of the filming, reports a very orderly shoot with Hitch following his plans as usual. But he does report a couple of additional shots being taken, such as a very effective angle of Harris’s legs dancing in panic as she’s attacked in the garage near the film’s climax. So perhaps the truth is that Hitch followed his plan like a map, making little side-trips as inspirations truck? At any rate, it would be interesting to learn more, perhaps via a direct script/storyboard-to-screen comparison.

In Ken Mogg’s The Alfred Hitchcock Story, he writes, “Frenzy had a central character for whom love had gone absent; and in the subjective nature of Hitchcock’s films, the whole of London was shown as blighted. The central couple of Family Plot do love each other, and, despite obstacles, they muddle through.”

Furthermore, kidnappers William Devane and Karen Black have a rather successful relationship too, although he’s led her into a life of crime and will eventually persuade her to attempted murder. Black angled for the Barbara Harris part, but was put in her place by Hitch “You are going to be bad in this film,” and she becomes the movie’s one real iconic image in her sunglasses, hat and blond wig, an eye-less, bra-less criminal android. (Truffaut, rather comically, said that Kim Novak’s bra-free look in VERTIGO gave her “an animal quality” — I guess the same could be said for Black, whose tight white sweater is only revealed after she’s stripped off her kidnapper’s drag.

Devane was apparently Hitchcock’s first choice, but Roy Thinnes was cast due to his unavailability. Then, Devane became available and either Thinnes had displeased Hitch or he simply chose to reshoot a few days with his preferred choice. I’m reminded of Bunuel kicking Maria Schneider off THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE, and Kurosawa firing his original leading man from RAN (or was it KAGEMUSHA?) — these septuagenarian filmmakers have limited stores of patience.

Devane proves himself a master of what Hitch called “negative acting,” where an expression slowly drains from an actor’s face. Check his grin in this shot:

Hitch’s cinematographer, Leonard South, had been Robert Burks’ operator, so he was around not for his style and talent, but for his competence and the fact that he made Hitchcock feel comfortable. FAMILY PLOT contains virtually no beautiful images, either because Hitchcock winged it or because he’d lost interest in that, or because South wasn’t capable of it. So the movie gets by on sweetness and a little intrigue.

John Williams contributes a nice score, occasionally perhaps too big for the film, but then the film does occasionally need lifting — it too often looks like a piece of Universal TV fodder. Unlike so many Hitchcock thrillers of the past, FAMILY PLOT does not seek to interweave music into its narrative, so that Williams was assigned the job after the film was already shot.

Henry Bumstead, a long-term collaborator, did the production design: a spiral staircase made in plaster added to the cathedral seems like a nod to the fictitious church tower in VERTIGO, and the outside of Devane’s house, reconstructed entirely on the soundstage so Hitch wouldn’t have to brave the cold, is impossible to distinguish from reality.

After the cisterns and toilet paper and full-frontal toilets of NUMBER 17, SECRET AGENT and PSYCHO, it’s nice to see Hitchcock getting up to date with a chemical toilet. Did Lehman add all the toilet banter between Devane and Black to please the smutty-minded Master, or did Hitch simply get fascinated by the practicalities of long-term kidnapping and insist on its inclusion?

(Pause to reflect on Hitchcock’s unmade “documentary” about food, beginning with the livestock and produce entering the city by train, ending with the excreta of the populace departing by sewer…)

Hats off to Katherine Helmond and to Ed Lauter, a most useful bad guy actor, audibly a New Yorker even though the film is set in and around San Francisco. Hitch tried to rob the film of obvious geographic signifiers, for some reason, although those Frisco hills are rather unmistakable. We do know that Hitch had tired of seeing car chases going up and down those hills, in the wake of BULLITT I guess. I wonder if Hitch was responsible for the street sign reading “Bates Ave,” or if he’d have preferred to avoid the reference?

FAMILY PLOT’s plot isn’t actually especially complex, with two procedural yarns — a kidnapping and a missing person search — interwoven loosely so they collide at the end. Character detail along the way is at least as important as narrative: my favourite moment was added by Devane, when he picks a piece of lint off a detective’s jacket, none-too-subtly asserting his mastery of the situation. Dern improvised a couple of lines, notably during the runaway car scene — after they whizz through a pack of Hell’s Angels, he gulps, “I gotta get off this road!” which cracked Hitch up.

While Hitch filmed Dern and Harris’s reaction shots in the studio, all forward-looking POV stuff was shot on location by the second unit. But this sequence was thoroughly planned by Hitch, who knew it needed basically two angles: Dern and Harris, shrieking in terror, and the road, zooming past them. The POV excluded all details of dashboard and windscreen to give an unimpeded view of the rushing road. It’s a classic example of Hitch’s use of the Kuleshov effect: high-speed version.

The car scene in some ways is old-fashioned or tame, compared to the colossal motorway mayhem being dished out elsewhere in the 70s, and the “sexy” banter between the two couples is likewise rather mild, though explicit for a Hitchcock film. But at least it’s in no way embarrassing, unlike the vulgarities of Billy Wilder’s unfortunate BUDDY, BUDDY. By contrast with that regrettable late work, FAMILY PLOT showcases a group of actors who are very comfortable with their roles, their colleagues and their story.

Of all the pleasing things in the film, I think the closing wink is my favourite — what a great way to go out! Of course, it was thought about long and hard. Lehman objected to the idea of Harris having real psychic powers (although the script establishes that she thinks she does, ergo she’s not a real con artist), so an overdubbed line allows her to just possibly overhear Devane telling Black where the diamonds are hidden. The overdub is a dicey moment, especially as he’s seemed reluctant to tell Black his hiding place earlier. But it passes OK. So now the wink seems to mean “I’ve convinced Bruce Dern that I have psychic powers, but me and my chums the audience know it’s all nonsense.” As Ken Mogg suggests, the film’s trailer (and poster) imply a sort of kinship between Harris and Hitch, so it’s really him winking at us.

Sitting halfway down the stairs, Harris resembles a cute little kid, and this return to childhood thing is important to Hitch, who in some ways remained childlike throughout his life. A slave to his appetites and anxieties, demanding to be in control, and playing with Welles’s “biggest toy train set,” he made of his life, as best he could, an extended playtime.

If the Devane overdub wasn’t in place, the meaning of the wink would be altered, but only slightly. Since Harris has apparently always believed in her powers, the ability to locate the diamond shouldn’t be a surprise to her, so she’s really stepping out of character to tell us not to take any of this too seriously. In a single movement of a single eyelid, she’s saying —

“It’s only a movie.”