Archive for Lifeforce

Rush Job

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 26, 2017 by dcairns

Filmed mainly around California’s famous Hotel del Coronado, its plot involves a fugitive protagonist in disguise hiding in plain sight with a showbiz job, but it’s not SOME LIKE IT HOT, it’s THE STUNT MAN, which I finally saw after having it at the back of my mind ever since seeing Peter O’Toole promoting it on a talk show in 1981. I distinctly recall the clip where Steve Railsback’s character (doubled, one presumes, by a real stuntman) crashes through a skylight and plummets towards a bed, from which a copulating couple separate and roll off instants before his impact. I can still hear O’Toole’s amused voice intoning, “actually the woman was a man, and her bosom was rubber.” My fourteen-year-old self had perked up at the fleeting glimpse of nudity afforded by the clip, and was now disappointed and a touch confused that the stimulating frames had actually depicted a bloke with prostheses.

Without being aware of the fact, my teenage self had also seen another film by the same director, Richard Rush, the notorious FREEBIE AND THE BEAN. When you’re a kid, provided you’re fairly unenlightened, that’s a great movie. Car crashes, violence, antisocial behaviour… When you’re an adult, it SHOULD be profoundly problematic: sexist, racist and toxically, deeply and violently homophobic.

This all came back to me only while watching Rush’s own making-of documentary — during THE STUNT MAN I had fondly imagined it to be the deranged product of a cultish one-hit wonder. And then I remembered THE COLOR OF NIGHT and the tacky video effects of the doc started to make sense — what we have here is a macho yet somewhat self-questioning, brazenly vulgar sensibility which uses style as a decorative element rather than a constructive one. I’m not sure such a sensibility could ever make a perfect film, but maybe it could manage a really good one. I’m still not sure if THE STUNT MAN is this film (FREEBIE and COLOR sure ain’t). But it’s interesting.

Steve LIFEFORCE Railsback, troubled Vietnam vet, is on the run from the law when he blunders onto the location of director Peter O’Toole’s WWI epic, accidentally killing a stuntman. O’Toole covers up the fatality by getting Railsback to replace the slain man, which apparently his cast and crew are all happy to go along with. Over the course of the next two hours, Railsback falls for movie star Barbara Hershey, takes part in a series of insanely elaborate stunt sequences, and comes to suspect that the Mephistophelean O’Toole is plotting to murder him and get his death on film.

We were watching this because Richard Lester had mentioned to me that Lawrence B. Marcus, who wrote the final draft of PETULIA had written it, and it was odd that it didn’t lead to more and bigger things. I looked up Marcus and was surprised to learn he’d been writing movies since 1950’s DARK CITY. His IMDb bio is fascinating — there’s a Lester story I didn’t know. I suggested that THE STUNT MAN may not have boosted Marcus’s career as much as you’d think, despite his Oscar nom, because it was such a troubled production. “But interesting!” said Lester, enthusiastically.

O’Toole is excellent — his post-CALIGULA career was kind of ice-cold at this time, but he followed this up with MY FAVORITE YEAR — both films somehow suit his premature elder statesman quality — he seemed like some kind of survivor of a bygone age when I saw him on TV as a teen. (He was just a little older than I am now, but had, you know, done a lot of living, something I’ve done my best to avoid.) His and Richard Harris’ interviewers always seemed amazed he was alive, though it would have been even more startling, surely, had they been dead and still appearing on Parkinson. Barbara Hershey is also very good, though Rush apparently likes big and loud and frenzied performances. Hershey’s ability to look unbelievably gorgeous while twisting her face up in the throes of whatever passion is required by the action at hand seems like a special effect in itself.

Allen Garfield is not quite as glamorous as all that. I hope I can say that without causing offense. But he’s really good as the film’s writer, and it’s nice to see him not playing a sleaze, unbeatable though he is at that.

Leading man Railsback is, arguably, more problematic. Though much better than he was in LIFEFORCE, for sure — I think he’s hampered by the lunacy of every line and situation in that film. But the facial muscles that stood him in such good stead to play Charles Manson in Helter Skelter on TV do make him seem a little edgy, even for this movie. It’s fine that we think his character may have a serious criminal past (quite believable whenever he smiles), and may have combat shock and be delusional (believable during all the other facial expressions, and there are many), but perhaps a problem for the film that one is fighting a recurring impulse to lash out in self-defense with the nearest blunt instrument (in my case our Tonkinese cat, Momo). In a sense, despite the crime and insanity, his character is supposed to be a sort of innocent, out of his depth amid the madness of a film shoot.

But that doesn’t stop the film being interesting, it just makes it work differently. Perhaps less well. But it’s still an intriguing show. The movie O’Toole’s character is making looks dreadful, which is often a problem in behind-the-scenes dramas — the film being made never seems to hang together. But if you had a fully functional movie idea, why wouldn’t you be making that, instead of making THE STUNTMAN?

As befits the title, the stunt sequences are spectacular, even if the realistic acrobatics, pyrotechnics and daredevilry are somewhat undercut by the preposterous duration of the sequences being staged — I always assumed they’d break these things down into simpler, less risky and more controllable segments, although I’ve seen some bits of behind-the-scenes stuff from John Woo shoots which were eye-opening.

Rush’s appearance in his own documentary seems to explain his films nicely. Big hair, porn star mustache, deep, deep tan, muscles, corny sense of humour, adam’s-apple the size of a Fabergé egg — he seems Hemingwayesque, in a seventies kind of way. The rambunctiousness, the vulgarity, the thrust towards deep and meaningful statements, the energy (cranes, helicopters, steadicams whenever possible), the gaudiness (starburst filter! animated blast of light to take us into the next scene!) all makes sense when you see him. And for all the negative qualities associated with macho intellection and showy zooms and rack-focuses, he and his film are oddly likeable.

Also the score, by Dominic Frontiere, which contributes to the off-balance tone by adopting a circus attitude, pushing a light-heartedness that the movie only occasionally reaches for otherwise. Rush says it took them ten years to get the script made because the tone was so intentionally erratic, the subject unfamiliar (HOOPER and other stunt pics got made first, which actually helped them look like a bankable proposition), and studios couldn’t think how to sell it.

O’Toole loved his crane, apparently.

“I don’t think this music is right for this film,” protested Fiona.

“Well, it’s not obviously right… it’s interesting.”

 

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A DD-Notice Situation

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 16, 2017 by dcairns

We watched LIFEFORCE recently, to get me in the mood for my trip to London. With Fiona protesting that she’d rather watch THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE or any of the, you know, GOOD Tobe Hooper films. Because the man had just died, and was this really the way he’d want to be remembered? But then, I bet he’d want to be remembered as more than JUST the director of TTCM.

I also read some good defences of the (arguably indefensible) film and that, coupled with the fact that, you know, the man had just died, made me sort of afraid to write about it, because I couldn’t really bring myself to say that the film is “good” — but at the same time, we had a hell of a good time watching it, so there’s that.

How do we parse this distinction between “good” and “a good time”? Are movies like women in ‘forties films? At any rate, much of what is hilarious and delightful in LIFEFORCE *could* be deliberate, which should lift the movie clean out of the “so bad it’s good” category. What makes my head go all Linda Blair is a feeling that even IF the ridiculous choices ARE purely intentional, they still seem crazy and impossible to defend on any normal grounds.What do I mean? Well, the story, adapted from Colin Wilson’s novel The Space Vampires by Dan O’Bannon and Don Jakoby (INVADERS FROM MARS) deals with a naked space lady (Mathilda May) sucking the energy out of London’s masculine population. I think the idea of a monster movie where the monster is a naked girlie is kind of hilarious — as if they asked the question, What are teenage boys REALLY scared of? I think they could even have gotten away with the nude, but not a really busty nude. The film looks glorious — Alan Hume’s lovely lurid colours in anamorphic widescreen — but the shot of the menacing shadow of tits on the wall should arguably have been vetoed. Except no, because it’s perfectly in tune with the film’s demented tone. Hell, it exemplifies it.

(Colin Wilson was England’s top existentialist angry young man for a fortnight in the fifties — I don’t know what led him to write a Quatermass knock-off. I first encountered him during research for a Jack the Ripper project — he was a prominent ripperologist — but, as I discovered in my reading — he really didn’t know very much about the case, and much of what he claimed to know was wrong.)

Hard to explain the odd effect of the dialogue: apart from Steve Railsback, it’s a lovely cast of Brits, speaking in a pastiche of Britishness that seems at least ten years out of date. V FOR VENDETTA has a similarly timewarped quality, highly gigglesome. I don’t imagine it sounds so comical to Americans, because it’s not THAT off. It’s a good pastiche of Hammer horror dialogue, or maybe a tough crime drama with Stanley Baker.That cast — Frank Finlay is playing it quiet, well aware how close to looking ridiculous he is. He only loses it when he has to shout over a radio link, and his Shakespearean enunciation makes the whole thing rather Toast of London. Peter Firth is superb — full-on restrained camp. That thing when restraint becomes in itself a form of ham. And then there’s good old Michael Gothard, yielding sweatily to the temptations of the flesh just as he did in THE FOUR MUSKETEERS and THE DEVILS and…And Patrick Stewart! As if the second question they asked was What else will freak out teenage boys? and their answer was Homosexual Panic. Possessed by the naked space babe, Patrick turns on his sexual magnetism, and Railsback just can’t resist leaning in for a kiss. Hilarious to watch Firth and Aubrey “PR Deltoid” Morris dashing in to manfully prevent this same-sex violation of the norm, and then the room going poltergeistically haywire as the thwarted sex drive runs amok. (“CAN YOU IMAGINE how much fun Patrick Stewart would be having with a scene like that?” asked my host in London when I described it.)There’s more, so much more. The film is much less interested in its male vampires, but one of them does get to say to Firth, “It’ll be much less terrifying if you just come to me.” Whoops and cheers.

There’s lots of impressive animatronic zombie-work, all cut SLIGHTLY too loose, spoiling the illusion, and lots of fun QUATERMASS AND THE PIT panic on the streets, and as I say, the film looks great. In fact, my host in London was taught at the NFTS by Alan Hume. “He called everyone darling, regardless of sex.” He was clearly the man for LIFEFORCE.And Frank Finlay’s finale is terrific — the film’s one genuinely great scene for which you don’t have to make apologies or suspend disbelief or try to wedge yourself into a previously unimagined tone encompassing camp and B-movie thickear, the knowing and the unknowing. A scene that would hold its own in a real Nigel Kneale script. And FFinlay, having held back so long, makes a perfectly judged decision to have fun with it, as he expires in a welter of bladder effects. Stirring stuff.

(This is arguably as inappropriate an homage to the late Mr. Finlay as it is to Hooper, but I watched him in Dennis Potter’s Casanova too so I’m covered on that score.)

So why can’t I give the film total respect? It does seem to know what it’s doing. I feel like a humourless critic at a Ken Russell film, recognising that he’s displaying a comedic attitude but unable to grant him permission because the precise timbre of his wit seems unacceptable. I love Ken Russell, I *can* accept his bizarre tonal combinations and jokes that seem designed not to get laughs but just to buffet the sensibilities. Maybe LIFEFORCE isn’t serious enough to get away with it? Maybe I should just bloody well RELAX? “It’ll be much less terrifying if you just come to me.”

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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