Archive for The Manitou

The Frankenheimer Monster

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 8, 2013 by dcairns

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Had heard great things about how bad John Frankenheimer’s PROPHECY was, but we still couldn’t believe our eyes. Actually, it’s a movie that gets magically worse as it goes on, starting kind of OK and actually starting to get interesting until the giant mutant grizzly bear wobbles onto the screen.

Like GODZILLA VERSUS THE SMOG MONSTER, this is a film with something to say about pollution. How it’s bad, and stuff. But the technical details are kind of plausible, and the human cost evoked with some conviction, until the giant mutant grizzly bear wobbles onto the screen.

Frankenheimer always delivers technical competence and guts at least — this movie compares favourably with his delirious, delightful, godawful ISLAND OF DR MOREAU, in that the technical competence and guts are stretched awful thin at times — you now have an unpleasant mental image of intestines being stretched to snapping point, I know, and I wouldn’t have handed that to you for anything in the world except that it’s kind of an appropriate image to carry in your mind when considering PROPHECY. Until the giant mutant grizzly bear wobbles onto the screen.

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Sadly, this isn’t the monster.

Makeup effects by the Burman brothers — Thomas and Ellis Jnr, who also worked on THE MANITOU, making them masters of late seventies Amerindian prosthetics movies (what, no NIGHTWING?). They have some good credits, and some really bad ones, though I’m disinclined to blame them for HOWARD THE DUCK — life is so much simpler if you just blame George Lucas for every awful thing involving George Lucas. I don’t want to blame them for PROPHECY either, and the script (by OMEN guy David Seltzer) is certainly guilty of multiple compound stupidities. Frankenheimer seems to be doing everything a profoundly drunk, talented man can do to disguise the bad moments and capitalise on the good ones, until the giant mutant grizzly bear wobbles onto the screen.

When it does, replacing the tentative feeling of “this movie might actually be OK” with one of “this movie just became awesomely terrible,” it’s tempting to wonder what could have been done to salvage the bad bear suit. Can a movie about a giant mutant grizzly bear get by without a convincing giant mutant grizzly bear? Well, of course it can — look at JAWS. Of course, the giant mutant grizzly bear in that movie was a shark, and it swam underwater, and you could keep it offscreen. When it did appear, it looked fake as hell, though, and yet the movie survived.

The problem with the bear suit is that it moves like Godzilla, ie like a man in a costume wobbling about. Slow-motion might have helped, and keeping the goofy thing in silhouette for maybe 95% of the action might have helped. POV shots might have helped. God knows, Frankenheimer doesn’t linger on the beastie, anymore than he lingers on the Goodyear blimp nosediving the football stadium in BLACK SUNDAY, but even allowing the fucker to take a single step exposes it outright as the laborious make-believe of a sweaty man in a hot costume. He might as well be dressed as Minnie Mouse.

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The best monster shot because it’s eerie, and the monster is too far away to make out.

And then the movie ends, and we’re waiting for some horrible pay-off to the fact that leading lady Talia Shire is pregnant, and she ate the fish from the polluted river, and the mutagens are raging within her. And instead, as she and her hubby are airlifted out, another giant mutant grizzly bear wobbles onto the screen.

My good friend screenwriter Colin McLaren refers to the “closeup of a bee” ending, that staple of 70s horror movies that says “the Whole Thing is going to Start All Over Again…” and reflects the fact that 70s filmmakers and their audiences expected to be unsettled, rather than reassured, by horror movie endings and movie endings in general. Of course it quickly became a cliché and wouldn’t unsettle anyone anymore by the time of PROPHECY. But while ending Q THE WINGED SERPENT with a shot of a giant egg may be knee-achingly predictable, ending a giant mutant grizzly bear with a close-up of ANOTHER giant mutant grizzly bear is just hysterically pathetic. And this one looks like a glove puppet. It’s not even uglier than the first one.

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I think my search to find the most stinking John Frankenheimer movie is over. Back to the good ones, if I can identify them.

Abby Normal (A Woman Under the Influence)

Posted in Comics, FILM, literature, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 23, 2012 by dcairns

ABBY should of course have been called THE BLAXORCIST, but the difference between this and William “King Dick” Marshall’s other horror franchise is that BLACULA derives from a 19th century novel, safely out of copyright (with only the cape borrowed from Bela Lugosi) whereas ABBY derives from a major Warners release. Warners sued and ABBY was taken out of cinemas — though DVDs now circulate, they’re derived from a badly “pinked” 16mm print — nobody knows where the original negative and release prints may be…

William Girdler, writer-director, also made the ridiculous but fun THE MANITOU, memorable for Tony Curtis’s voluminous man-boobs pressing through his see-through shirt. ABBY offers no comparably disturbing images, but does share the fascination with tribal religions. Blatty’s EXORCIST cheekily suggests that Mesopotamian deity Pazuzu is moonlighting as a biblical demon, implying that perhaps ALL the gods and prophets of mankind’s faiths are really just demons in a Catholic universe (Buddha’s not laughing with you, he’s laughing AT you), ABBY centres on Eshu, a god from the Yoruba religion who is allowed his own phenomenological reality. And although the mischievous (to put it mildly) Eshu is ultimately vanquished by a priest, he’s not exorcised by the Catholic ceremony designed for that purpose, but by methods appropriate to the Yoruba religion. So in that sense, ABBY is less conservative than the bigger film.

Girdler tends to exaggerate the effects of the Friedkin film, though, so he has more “subliminal” flashes of weird faces (Dick Smith make-up tests in the original film, exaggerated versions of Carol Speed’s make-up in this one), while paring away ambiguities — the “Why Iraq?” stuff in the first film is replaced by more or less clearly motivated Nigerian scenes in this one. He also makes his victim of possession an adult, which removes some problems (could you legally make Friedkin’s film today?) and creates others.

Subliminal image alert!

On the one hand, having a preacher’s wife possessed by a sex demon could open avenues for grotesque satire (Milo Manara’s porno comic Click! filmed by Jean-Louis Richard [who married Jeanne Moreau, who also married… William Friedkin] gestures vaguely in that direction, with its free hand), but the film is very respectful towards religion, so sex has to be viewed as a horror. Eruptions of untamed libido must be stopped. Admittedly, Speed’s aggressive lust when she’s under Eshu’s influence, she’s pretty unladylike. But the conservatism that’s so unexpectedly prominent in the supernatural blaxploitation genre comes to the fore here.

But so does something else. Friedkin’s cleverest move was perhaps his casting of Mercedes McCambridge as the Voice — years of cigarettes and whisky and being Mercedes McCambridge had given her a throaty, rasping, gargly sound with only a trace of the female. Girdler simply gets a man to do it, and so Abby becomes a hairy-browed sexual predator with a man’s voice. Why do all William Marshall movies end up in a homoerotic Hades of pushmepullyou conflicted response?

ABBY has very committed performances from its ensemble, though Juanita Moore (not only of IMITATION OF LIFE, but Marshall’s co-star in LYDIA BAILEY) doesn’t get enough to do. Her one big moment is an outraged frenzy that anybody should suggest that her vicious nymphomaniac daughter might benefit from the attentions of a psychiatrist. Apparently she’s “good” and “God-fearing” and so she couldn’t possibly be mentally ill. That’s a pretty interesting (ie wrongheaded and dangerous) line of thought, though the movie is perhaps using it simply to avoid a bunch of boring analyst scenes. Instead we get colossal steel slabs of Chrysler maneuvering around Louisville at night.

Marshall is somewhat constrained by playing a man of the cloth, but his wry humour does come out, especially during the climax when he taunts Eshu, using some of his old Blacula condescension — I wasn’t sure whether he’s saying the demon is NOT Eshu in order to annoy it, or because he’s genuinely figured that out. But apparently this is stuff that Marshall added to the script himself, and it’s the best writing in the movie.

The whole climax takes place, in a departure from the source material, in a ghastly orange nightclub, made even more oppressive by the pinkness of the print. This is what the seventies WAS, people. We had brown and orange and that was it. The rest of the spectrum was embargoed until Prince came along. This colourless, windowless, airless, low-ceilinged lounge space is unquestionably the most frightening element of ABBY, and it’s worth watching to get there. Interestingly, since THE HUNGER, vampires have been associated with nightclubs — usually crap movie ones that are years out of date. They’re never frightening, even though a night club is my real-life idea of Hell. But ABBY’s tangerine leisure spaceship is genuinely a horrible, horrible place, where you can feel your soles sticking to the carpet from all the spilled drinks. Don’t watch alone.