Archive for The Watermelon Man

A Gentleman Off-Colour

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 25, 2012 by dcairns

“A monster he could not control / Had taken over his very soul!”

DR BLACK, MR HYDE, was actually shot as THE WATTS MONSTER, it seems, but after the success of the same director’s BLACULA, it became inevitable that the title would be a blaxploitation spin on a horror classic. And why not? The plot is. But one does wish they could have gotten it right. DR BLACK AND MR WHITE would have been recognizable enough, wouldn’t it? The fact that the eventual title lacks even an ampersand suggests they were just floundering.

But that would cue us for a sort of Jekyll-Hyde version of THE WATERMELON MAN, which this isn’t, quite. Dr Pryde, (Bernie Casey) who divides his time, rather like Fredric March in the Mamoulian JEKYLL, between lab experiments and charity work at a free clinic in Watts, self-tests a new formula to treat liver damage and mutates into a super-strong albino in a freaky Stan Winston makeup (actor and artist also worked together on the TV movie Gargoyles). Note the bulging brow, for some reason a genre staple: BLACKENSTEIN and ABBY sport the same look. But while some of the pimps and thugs Pryde encounters in this new form refer to him as “a white guy”, he doesn’t look white. He’s grey, with grey hair and a bulging brow and white irises. The Hyde figure has next to no dialogue, though Casey invests him with an impressive animalistic strut and some Frankensteinian gestures.

So the movie doesn’t do anything much with the race idea, after all. The white Hyde doesn’t represent whitey in any political way (white is just a colour in this film — which is TRUE…) Instead, he unleashes some of Pryde’s childhood traumas, manifesting in a hatred of prostitutes. He drives around by night in a silver Rolls (just like Hess Green’s car in GANJA & HESS), killing more like a beast of prey than a serial killer.  A cop explicitly compares the resulting murder spree to the work of Jack the Ripper, a real-life killer whose career has several times been folded into the JEKYLL story (ie DR JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE). The actor Richard Mansfield stopped performing his theatrical adaptation of Stevenson’s story at the height of the Ripper scare, stating “There are horrors enough outside.”

The name “Pryde” seems like a cue for an examination of the idea of black pride, but street girl Marie O’Henry criticises the protagonist for aspiring to whiteness. I think the name is supposed to imply scientific hubris, since Pryde not only tries his wonder-drug himself, he first tests it on a terminal patient, with unfortunate results –

The Rose Hobart good girl character here is smokey-voiced Rosalind Cash (who turned white herself in THE OMEGA MAN), a fellow medico this time rather than a mere fiancee/appendage, while the Miriam Hopkins whore is played by Marie O’Henry. Both are excellent, though the roles are a touch thankless. O’Henry is required to throw logic to the winds several times, just so Casey can stay at large long enough for a climax at Watts Towers, which throws KING KONG into the mix (further evidence that the filmmakers are not wholly on top of the whole racial sensitivity thing).

I was excited to see Watts Towers (a staggering piece of outsider art) used in a movie though, especially as I’d included a similar scene in a screenplay I co-wrote a while ago. DEAD EYE was about a private eye (and skilled marksman) who is killed but is given 48 hours to solve his own murder before his zombie body falls apart. And yes, I have seen DEAD HEAT. But my zombie detective movie would have been at least 4% better than that one.

At once point, a black detective, up until now characterised by his extensive vocabulary (while his white partner just says “fuck” a lot), declares that the hulking Casey monster must be a “haint.” There aren’t many films about haints, or other bits of American folklore. In particular, it’s regrettable that the blaxploitation craze never threw up a movie about the “Night Doctors” — that could have been really interesting.

***

Meanwhile, Limerwrecks finishes its accompanying series of supernatural blaxploitation odes here.

Hard Prawn

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 12, 2009 by dcairns

district9

Most of what you’ve heard about DISTRICT 9 is true. If you haven’t heard much, you perhaps shouldn’t read further because there’s no way to avoid a certain number of spoilers here, and I enjoyed the film knowing practically nothing about its story. You might want to do the same.

Saw the movie with Fiona and regular Shadowplayer “m” (Mary), whose South African origins proved invaluable in decoding the film’s imagery and plot. The movie is produced by Peter Jackson (with FX by WETA, his digital effects house) and directed by Neill Blomkamp, from a screenplay by Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell, and shot in Blomkamp’s native South Africa.

The plot’s premise, which is all I knew going in, is that 20 years before the story starts, a huge alien mothership descends to Johannesburg and… just hovers there. The malnourished aliens found therein are housed in a refugee camp which quickly becomes a slum, and by the time of the story have become a fully-fledged underclass and a political football.

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Enter Wikus Van Der Merwe, a bureaucrat assigned the job of obtaining signatures from the alien population authorizing their transportation into what is basically a concentration camp. Followed, initially, by documentary cameras, he enters District 9, and a world of pain.

Mary pointed out three major ways in which the film is indebted to its country of origin (I like the idea of other countries producing US-style blockbusters, as long as they don’t lose their local identities).

(1) Any time South Africans tell a story about a stupid white Afrikaaner, he’s always called Van Der Merwe. “So, Mr Van Der Merwe walks into the pub…”

(2) Obviously the idea of an alien underclass is a partial allegory on the whole history of Apartheid, and obviously its one fraught with difficulties. Mary pointed out that the forced mass relocation which this film centres on was a very South African phenomenon in the bad old days.

(3) The aliens are derisively known as “prawns.” (“You can’t say they don’t look like prawns,” says one interviewee, defensively.) This is a reference to the Parktown Prawn, an insect pest that began infesting Jo’burg in the ’60s. Mary thought they were possibly an Antipodean import, but this appears not to be the case. Still, it’s appropriate to a New Zealand-South African coproduction.

The movie is a lot of fun, and quite emotional at times. This must be what they mean by “character arc”: Wikus starts off as a comedy asshole, like David Brent in The Office (n analogy strengthened by the film’s mockumentary style) , then gradually becomes a hateful asshole as we see him strutting his stuff in the ghetto, a government hatchet man who’s really in the pocket of big business (the use of private sector mercenaries is a nod to the present situ in Iraq), then becomes a pitiful victim as things turn against him, and finally, at the very end, he’s a kind of hero worthy of our respect. That kind of movement is rare in a commercial movie, even though all the execs read their Robert McKee and are devoted to the idea of character change.

The first half of the movie is ideas-driven and political, the second is basically a video game. But a really good one. It’s the first movie I’ve seen to feature a gravity gun — a kind of cannon that lets you pick up heavy objects telekinetically and then fire them like rockets: Wikus creams one soldier with a pig carcass.

Of course, the allegorical approach to race via sci-fi is tendentious. Even as a kid I felt uncomfortable with CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES presenting itself as a satiric slant on black power. Blomkamp gets himself into some very deep water by presenting the aliens as drones in an insect race, their leaders somehow M.I.A. When a clever “prawn” with the slave name of Christopher Johnson turns up, it’s not clear if the aliens are smarter than previously assumed, or if he’s part of the missing leader class. The idea of an insect social structure is fair game for sci-fi, but perhaps unwise if you’re intending any kind of comment on human society. Also, considering the film’s aspirations to “say something” about race, its treatment of Nigerians could do with being a bit more nuanced.

Where the movie gets interesting is when Wikus is “infected” by an alien device which causes him to start mutating into a prawn himself. While the outward manifestations — loss of teeth and fingernails — are a direct nod to Cronenberg’s THE FLY, and his pursuit by the authorities as he tries to conceal his heavily malformed arm harks back to THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT (AKA THE CRAWLING TERROR), the plot idea has shades of THE WATERMELON MAN — and FREAKS. The idea of taking a bigot and turning him into the very thing he sees himself as superior to, and then subjecting him to the attendant persecutions, is also explored, in cruder terms, in John Landis’ ill-fated episode of the TWILIGHT ZONE movie.

Some of this is surprisingly moving. As his DNA crosses the human-alien “colour bar,” the authorities seek to “harvest” his organs to help unlock the secrets of alien technology, which so far has failed to function in human hands. Sharlto Copley’s performance, broadly comic at first, becomes chillingly desperate, and there’s also a heart-breaking performance from a CGI alien he’s forced to kill in a weapons test.

Of course Wikus escapes, now able to use alien weaponry, and becomes a one-prawn killing machine, suited up in an ALIENS-style exoskeleton, with self-targeting death rays (Blomkamp rather overuses the “blood-spatter on camera lens” effect) and grav gun. Joining forces with Christopher Johnson, he’s mutating not just into an alien but also into an outsider hero.

district9_02

Like I say, enjoyable, emotionally engaging, flawed, interesting. Blomkamp has some of the bad-taste gonzo gusto of early Peter Jackson, without the more crass elements (I recall with a shudder the AIDS jokes in MEET THE FEEBLES), and the epic ham-pomp of late Peter Jackson, without the hideous bloat of LORD OF THE KONG. Lots of giant plot questions unanswered, but they’re so foregrounded I have to welcome this invitation to enjoy a bit of “negative capability.” And there’s always the sequel to sort things out.

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