Archive for Shanks

See-Thru Hats

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 23, 2010 by dcairns

Where DID you get that perspex skull-cap?

PROJECT X is a 1968 William Castle sci-fi espionage flick which is, characteristically, extremely interesting and utterly bananas. I may have already spoken of my Big Theory about William Castle, but let me lead off with it again –

While known as a gimmick-meister, inventor of Emerg-O (plastic skeleton on rails flies over audience’s heads) and Percepto (electric joy buzzers beneath seats zap audience’s asses) etc, Castle might usefully be looked at as a pure eccentric, whose fondness for bizarre gimmicks extended into the plots of his movies as well as their promotion. This notion ties together many of the thrillers Castle made before discovering B-movie horror and selling himself as a cut-price Hitchcock — he had a love of weird plots which led him to adapt Cornell Woolrich (THE MARK OF THE WHISTLER) and to stuff HOLLYWOOD STORY with old-time silent stars playing themselves. This tendency flourishes in THE TINGLER, of course, but you can also see it in movies Castle worked on as producer — Orson Welles’ LADY FROM SHANGHAI, for instance, where the idea of a man hiring an assassin to pretend to kill him so he can escape the imminent atomic holocaust seems like pure Castle. Similarly, ROSEMARY’S BABY, with it’s upscale New York coven, and BUG, with its sentient fire-raising insects who can communicate with humans by spelling out words on a wall with their bodies, reflect a very individual sensibility. It’s fitting that Castle’s last film as director was SHANKS, a comedy about electro-galvinism starring Marcel Marceau. Some might argue that in fact, no, it’s NOT fitting, it’s INSANE. But it’s definitely more fitting for William Castle to go out that way than, say, David Lean.

So to PROJECT X, a twenty-second century spy thriller about a race to extract vital spy secrets from the mind of an agent in suspended animation and suffering from chemically-induced amnesia. Like the recent INCEPTION, the movie is wall-to-wall exposition, but unlike that big moneyspinner Castle can’t afford a slew of charismatic supporting characters to mouth his sci-fi pseudoscience. He has to settle for Harold Gould (dad from Rhoda) and Henry Jones. Jones, known to cinephiles as the snide coroner in VERTIGO, is Castle’s secret weapon, imbuing the most sinister experiments with a decaying glee. His morbid charm allows Castle to indulge his Charles Addams type gallows humour (the script is entirely void of comedy: Jones does it by twinkle alone).

The story, augmented with Star Trek sliding door sound effects and see-through hats, is both amazingly prescient and ham-fistedly goofy, which means the movie is always watchable. Since the hero’s mind has been wiped, Jones and his scientists plan to stimulate his subconscious by placing the guy in a fake 1960s setting (the character was a historian specializing in that period) with a fake personality/cover story, or “matrix”. Then they periodically blast his brain with holograms, which reconstruct what they know of his mission to what they quaintly call “Sino-Asia.” Apparently the Sino-Asians were planning to win World War III by mass-producing male children (I told you it was prescient!), but the hero found out something much more sinister

The holographic flashbacks are produced by Hanna & Barbera animation, weird superimpositions, and painted backdrops by comic book legend Alex Toth. All very stylish in their kitsch way. The real-world scenes suffer by comparison, being flatly shot in a fairly televisual manner by the reliably prosaic Castle, whose visual sense never could keep up with his crazy brain. He does manage a fair bit of camera movement, but his main technique is to hold a wide shot until the scene starts to crust over, and the light gets fossilized on its way to your eyes , then break it by moving an actor or the camera, just enough to maintain a baseline of viewer consciousness. But the nutty plot developments, which throw in telekinesis, germ warfare, brainwashing, virtual cigarettes, and a guest spot from Keye Luke, do keep us tingling with dazed anticipation. The leading lady, Greta Baldwin, is a Swedish dairy worker who stumbles into the story by accident and hangs around for purely decorative reasons, but her bizarre acting style is so winning that she actually compensates for the lack of conventional production values. The awkward way she walks, and her huge hands, and her bizarro line readings, are worth any number of exploding starships.

Meanwhile, the film’s vision of a Cold War still going strong after 150 years (but no mention of the Russians), even after crime has been (s0mehow) abolished, is a weird and quasi-fascist one. The Americans apparently dictate how many children their women can have, and indulge in mass sterilisation to keep numbers down (as we learn in a brief aside), so there doesn’t seem much to choose between the two sides. Oh, and the Americans all seem to be white, the only other colours of face appearing archive footage of 60s rioting… At least Trek hypothesized an uneasy detente between Earth and a vaguely oriental, vaguely slavic alien race, blatantly transposing ’60s concerns to its sci-fi universe, without actually accepting Mutually Assured Destruction as an eternal constant in human affairs.

Still, such gloomy thoughts seem inappropriate to such a cheerfully wacked-out fantasy as this. Nice to see a sci-fi movie that’s ludicrous while still getting things right — the future Americans regard Freudian psychology as old wives’ tales, although the movie does feature a Monster from the Id (my second this week, after SCOTT PILGRIM!) which strikes down an enemy agent in a hilariously, disturbingly protracted bout of synth-jazz, loud male screaming, fish-eye lens freak-out and solarized colours.

Whistling in the Dark

Posted in FILM, literature, Radio with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 16, 2010 by dcairns

I’d never seen THE WHISTLER nor any of its sequels, so I didn’t know what to expect from MARK OF THE WHISTLER, based on the radio show and also on a Woolrich novelette called Dormant Account.

Elucidating the tricky nature of the film series may take more time than summarizing the movie’s screwy premise. The Whistler himself is a sinister narrator, a bit like The Shadow, only he whistles. The Shadow never whistles: completely different character. The Whistler is morally respectable but does everything he can to appear deeply frightening and mysterious: he appears only in shadow or silhouette (trench coat and fedora), and speaks in a voice a bit like Orson Welles’s wheedling Shadow, with a dash of Vincent Price in Heavy Irony mode. And he has nothing to do with the stories he tells.

So, the radio series was an anthology of different crime-based stories, strung together by a narrator who is quite removed from the stories he tells. In the film series, mostly helmed by sensationalist wizard William Castle, things are a touch more complicated, since the Whistler actually casts his shadow into the scenes he’s talking about, a sort of non-diegetic half-presence in the story.

Complicating things further, the bulk of the Whistlers are tied together by a common leading man, Richard Dix (best known to me as the amiable psychopath in charge of Lewton’s THE GHOST SHIP). Since this is an anthology series, Dix plays a different character in every film, sometimes good, sometimes evil. Odd, no?

Bits of my copy of MARK OF THE WHISTLER were so grainy and dark, Fiona said they looked like they’d been animated with sand. And in one scene the actor fades from view altogether, resulting in an effect perhaps more atmospheric than the original intent.

William Castle, with his love for cheapjack entertainment and head-spinning plot turns, is a natural adaptor for Woolrich. It would be useful to set aside Castle’s later penchant for publicity gimmicks like Emergo (plastic skeleton on a string slides over heads of audience) and Percepto (electric joy buzzers volting audience’s asses) and focus on his love of bizarre story angles. After all, the years of gimmickry make up only a small portion of Castle’s career, which took in westerns, low-rent epics, and plenty of noirs. What serves better to bind it all together into the work of a distinctive crap artist is the love of weird, semi-nonsensical storylines predicated upon absurdities, veering into insanity, trailing off into delirium. HOMICIDAL goes one better than PSYCHO, planting its transvestite character right in plain view (and using every cheat from body doubles to revoicing to sell the deception); THE TINGLER deals with a parasite fed by fear, leaching nervous tension from the base of the spinal cord, and neutralized by screaming; SHANKS is a semi-silent comedy about electro-galvanism starring Marcel Marceau. And this realization also drags in films produced by Castle but not personally directed by him: not just fluff like BUG, in which the fire-raising insect army have a group intelligence that enables them to spell out messages on the wall with their bodies, but more respected films like LADY FROM SHANGHAI (whose “I want you to kill me!” plot is pure Castle schlock) and ROSEMARY’S BABY (spinning on an “is it real?” conundrum like a Philip K Dick sci-fi yarn).

In MARK OF THE WHISTLER, Richard Dix is a good-natured bum who discovers a bank advertising for somebody to claim the contents of an abandoned bank account. Since by chance he shares the name of the missing party to whom the money belongs, Dix decides to impersonate the fellow. Making a deal with disgruntled haberdasher Porter Hall (a delightful curmudgeon from the Preston Sturges stock company, anatomically incomplete without a jutting cigar), he bones up on the missing person and successfully trousers the sum being held, a considerable sum by 1944 standards. The build-up to the imposture is fascinatingly slow, methodical and tense, with the always quiet and understated Dix a rather hypnotic presence.

Now comes the plot twist — the missing man is missing with good reason, since there’s a bad guy out to kill him. Dix has so successfully assumed the wanted party’s identity that he can’t shake it off when he needs to. Further twists, which rather stretch plausibility to the point of snapping-and-pinging, are on their way.

This was all enjoyable enough, so I was happy to try RETURN OF THE WHISTLER, which proved to be the last in the series. Richard Dix having drunk himself to death, and William Castle being busy making other, perhaps even cheaper pictures, this movie stars Michael Duane and proceeds under the helm of D Ross Lederman (should a B-movie maestro really use “DRoss” as a name?) — it’s unexceptional but quite watchable, and uses a favourite Woolrich device…

Duane is trying to marry his French fiancée, but can’t find a justice of the peace, so they’re forced to spend the night apart in a strange town. Checking his spouse-to-be into a hotel with a surly night clerk, in the a.m. he’s alarmed to find her vanished, or do I mean he’s alarmed to NOT find her, vanished? And the clerk denies she was ever there. This one adapts Woolrich’s All At Once, No Alice, with echoes of Phantom Lady and of course THE LADY VANISHES, but plays like a lesser version of You’ll Never See Me Again, one of the author’s most horrific, agonizingly tense, and twistedly autobiographical stories.

In YNSMA, the hero’s wife walks out on him after an argument early in their marriage, returning to her parents, whom he’s never met (Woolrich plots often depend on such unlikely and contrived circumstances. Never mind.) This of course uncomfortably echoes Woolrich’s own short marriage. In the story, the hero goes after his wife but finds she never arrived at her destination, triggering a weird and disorientating investigation that tests Roman Polanski’s very Woolrichian observation that “anxiety has no upper limit.” The climactic revelation punishes the wife even more horribly than the story has already tortured the husband: her mother murdered, she’s been entombed alive by the killer. The rescue does not make for a wholeheartedly happy ending.

RETURN OF THE WHISTLER is altogether lighter, but our leading lady has been unjustly committed as insane by grasping relations, so the dark side is certainly there. The Whistler himself is on hand to poke fun at the struggling hero from time to time ~

It lacks Dix’s ineffable embers of charisma, and Castle’s occasionally imaginative direction, but it’s a decent time-waster with authentic Woolrich elements, even if it shortchanges us on the angst and paranoia.

The Barbara Stanwyck of aphids

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 4, 2008 by dcairns

“In my blood.”

Yes, BUG. Rather impressive. You have to see it just for the concept of “the Barbara Stanwyck of aphids.” Can you really live with your lack of knowledge of what that expression signifies?

Let’s be clear, this is the William Friedkin BUG, not the Jeannot Szwarc BUG, which was a rather enjoyable William Castle production about fire-raising insects with a group mind. Castle should be celebrated not only for his gimmicks (Emerg-O, Percepto) but for the weird ideas permeating his mainly macabre oeuvre(I spelled it right!) PROJECT X features cloning and virtual reality in a goddamn SIXTIES film, while THE TINGLER famously posits a parasite that lives on our spines, feeds on fear, and is deactivated by screaming. In this light, Castle productions like ROSEMARY’S BABY (a Manhattan coven breeds the antichrist in the Dakota Building) and even LADY FROM SHANGHAI (a rich weirdo hires someone to kill him) can be slotted neatly into Castle’s world. And don’t even get me started on SHANKS. An electro-galvanist love story silent film with Marcel Marceau and an undead motorcycle gang? RESPECT!

Smoke alarms: more radioactive than plutonium, apparently.

HOWEVER, Friedkin’s BUG is a different beast (though Friedkin more schlockmeister than Castle), a genuinely paranoid drama that, like THE EXORCIST, has already claimed a life (according to last month’s Fortean Times, which I don’t have handy, somebody who saw the film cut somebody else open, in order to “get the bugs out”). I would advise, if you think you may be a paranoid schizophrenic (and one of the symptoms is a lack of insight, so if you think you aren’t, that might mean you ARE) you probably should stay away from this film.

But if not, how can you resist the Stanwyck aphid? And here’s another one: Harry Connick’s sausage truck. You won’t see the truck in the film (Harry’s sausage-hauling days are of yesteryear), but you will hear about it, and you can readily picture Harry rumbling up the nocturnal highways, munching a Yorkie Bar and delivering meaty goodness to sundry destinations.

You’re really best seeing this knowing as little as possible, because it has a fascinatingly unpredictable journey. I won’t say “narrative arc” because it’s more like a twisted zigzag with bits missing.

Ashley Judd is excellent, Connick Jnr. is amazingly hateful (“Will somebody please fuck Harry Connick up?” I demanded after half an hour, and you know what a peaceable fellow I am) and Michael Shannon is the man of the match. A sort of unspoiled Ray Liotta. Very very interesting guy. The interviews on the DVD make him seem uncomfortably like his character, too, which makes me think maybe we need a raving lunatic like Friedkin to hire someone as… disconcerting as this.

When he tells Judd his father was a preacher, she asks what church, and he says no church. “Where did he… meet his people?” she asks. “Well… he didn’t really have any,” shrugs Shannon. A likeable guy!

Believe me, asides from the lovely odd concepts flung up by Tracy Letts’ unique script (from his play), I could stick in some dazzling and bewildering screen grabs here, but I really don’t want to spoil this one for you. Whether you like it or not in the end, you’ll get more out of it by going in virginal.

My only worry about the piece is an uncertainty as to whether it actually has any purpose beyond the usual Friedkin shock tactics (which are very effective here). It’s a study of paranoia, sure, and a love story about lonely, damaged people (and its outsider sympathy feels genuine), but as some helpless and angry-sounding punter on the IMDb Message Boards puts it, “What do you Honestly think this MOVIE IS ABOUT???”

If it’s Friedkin’s best work in years (decades?) it may be because this is all he can manage now — an eye-grabbing, disorienting little chamber piece with no particular point to make, just a strong handle on its own passion. Friedkin himself, I’m told, regards the inane JADE as one of his best works, which suggests a man who values a certain surface gloss over everything else, but his peculiar, sadistic talents have always been better served by works that can embrace confusion of purpose, extreme sensation, and some kind of heightened but recognisable reality. The best results are always morally questionable (I think Friedkin may actually be something of a psychopath), sleazy, and hysterically intense. The quality of thinking is never as high as the adrenalin level, but some kind of interesting ideas will at least be thrown up. BUG manages all this, plus some convincing, screwed-up humanity, which is a relief after CRUISING, TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. and THE GUARDIAN.

A stray point: BUG features, by way of opening out the play, a sympathetically-presented lesbian honky tonk bar, which could be read as atonement for the shrill homophobic terror marketed by CRUISING. If so, it’s WAY too little too late, but at least it’s something.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 359 other followers