Tuesday, October 28, 2008
There was next to nothing that could get me out of the house the night of the MAD MEN finale. Well, that’s not exactly true. I’m only human. There are some things that could. I can think of the names of a few women who could have gotten me to go somewhere with them. But if we’re talking about films, it would have to be something that almost never gets screened anywhere, a film that I’ve waited untold years to see a print of. And that’s what was showing at the New Beverly on Sunday night. That’s right, it was Steven Spielberg’s 1941, written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, which I’ve long been a member of the small but rabid fanbase who, while possibly slight mad, is totally convinced that the movie is an unsung triumph. It was screening on a double bill with I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND, Zemeckis’s 1978 directorial debut. I’m not the only one who looks at these two films, along with Zemeckis’s 1980 USED CARS as a genuinely biting satirical trilogy of American hysteria, with a tone, approach and array of recurring actors that can be seen on a par with the best of Sturges. BACK TO THE FUTURE, the smash hit Zemeckis and Gale would make in 1985, contains a few of these elements as well but, for both better and worse, it feels like its creators are already moving onto something else.
I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND, which screened first, tells the madcap story of a bunch of Jersey kids who head over to Manhattan the day the Beatles are set to appear on Ed Sullivan intent on somehow getting a look at the group. Even on a low budget that restricts much of it to backlots and downtown L.A. it still captures a flavor of the insanity that you can easily believe was going on outside the Plaza Hotel and over at the Ed Sullivan studios—actually, it occurred to me that not only had I skipped out on viewing MAD MEN as it aired, I was also somehow jumping forward in time on the show, possibly to the third season. The script for HAND, of course by Zemeckis and Gale, allows everything to come together almost perfectly starting from sending the characters apart on their own plotlines all the way to how they come together in the end. It’s also easy to spot recurring themes in Zemeckis’s films making their first appearance from lightnight bolts to being present for important historical events right down to a nerdy guy who bursts in somewhere to save his crush and proclaims a version of, “Get your damn hands off her,” before punching somebody out. Being a first film, it’s not perfect, mostly in a few patches where things could be tightened up to pick up the pace which is already pretty fast (it’s 104 minutes—getting it down under 100 would be ideal). But it doesn’t really matter that much considering what a good spirit it has and how many genuine laughs occur throughout. It’s not just a good script but a terrific cast as well that includes Nancy Allen, Bobby Di Cicco, Susan Kendall Newman and Marc McClure. I particularly like Theresa Saldana as the one determined to get photos of the Beatles that she can sell to Life Magazine, but best of all is the ultra-hyper nerd team of Wendie Jo Sperber and Eddie Deezen as Beatles fanatic Ringo Klaus. When the two of them are onscreen, nothing else matters and this oddball couple becomes, for me, I’m totally serious, one of the great screen couples of all time. Will Jordan is Ed Sullivan and Dick Miller (who got one of the biggest rounds of applause from the New Beverly audience when he first appeared onscreen) is a cop guarding the Beatles’ hotel room. Both of them have to deal with Deezen at various points and those scenes are truly essential.
But it was Wendie Jo Sperber who was the focus Sunday night at the New Beverly, since it was not just an occasion to show these films but to pay tribute to the late, truly great comic actress who sadly died of breast cancer in 2005. The night, which also served as a benefit for WeSpark, the cancer support center that Sperber founded, featured a Q&A between the films with Bob Gale, Nancy Allen, Sperber’s stunt double Nancy Hoffman and Perry Lang, one of the co-stars of 1941. The group told stories about the making of both films, some of which has been covered on the DVD audio commentary for the film, but their talk had a particular emphasis on Sperber who they all clearly had great affection for—Allen, who expressed great love of I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND and its making, also is Programming Director for WeSpark. As it turns out Sperber actually lied about her age, saying she was eighteen, to get the part in HAND but they didn’t want to not have her in the film. Gale also revealed that the names of the four leads girls—Pam, Janis, Grace and Rosie—were so named so their first initials would match up with those of The Beatles. Of course, they also discussed 1941, which co-writer Gale referred to as a “glorious mess”. Nancy Allen says she wished that Robert Zemeckis had directed it, adding that the first script of it she read was “as tight as I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND” (for those who would want to know, Nancy Allen still looks pretty great). This was presumably before Spielberg kept coming up with more scenes, more characters, more stuff overall, until it became one of the most hugely overstuffed films ever made.
1941, set over the course of twenty-four frantic hours in L.A. soon after Pearl Harbor, has far too many subplots here for me to get into and was seen at its time as a wildly overbudget, self-indulgent, unfunny waste. That reputations continues to this day, maintained by people who I assume have the word Scrooge in their name and have never bothered to actually sit down and watch the thing. Forget how much I enjoy it. Forget how much of it is, to me, hysterically funny. So much of 1941 is so genuinely well-done that I wonder why people out there are so grouchy about it. I can understand criticism that it’s overstuffed. I can understand not thinking all the comedy works like it should, that it’s too loud, that some of it is in questionable taste. But if you can’t get any pleasure out of many of the actors here, out of the jaw-dropping model work, the John Williams music, the fact that this is the one film in existence that has Slim Pickens, Toshiro Mifune and Christopher Lee acting with each other, I don’t know what to tell you. I’ve waited for years for the chance to just see the amazing Jitterbug dance contest in a theater and it was worth it. This has to be one of the best sequences in Spielberg’s career and when it was over I wanted to stand up and cheer.
There are issues, yes. William Fraker’s photography is beautiful, yes, something that was more evident than it ever was in any video version I’ve ever seen (both prints were in good shape, though the sound on HAND seemed flat. 1941 looked and sounded tremendous, maybe because the print never gets screened). But that look by Fraker is so good that it almost tampers with the comedy, an issue that also occurred to me when I saw TROPIC THUNDER. One shot involving a sight gag in the USO section seems to contain so much diffusion that it actually hurts the joke. But Spielberg, for all everyone saying that he couldn’t direct comedy, seems constantly intent of filling the frame from one side to the other with various bits of action, mostly from the actors, like something out of MAD magazine. This was more evident viewing it this way than I’d ever realized and it was fun to see what was going on with certain people when they had nothing to do in a scene otherwise. Patti Lupone’s entire performance seems to exist on those sides of the frame. I could go down a list of all the amazing talent in front of the camera but it would wind up highlighting how overstuffed the movie is and it makes me argue with myself over what takes away from the film being a coherent narrative against sections that seem to exist because Spielberg & Co. were having too much fun to not include them. The Pickens-Mifune-Lee section, which Gale says got added when Spielberg cast Pickens in a small role and simply wanted to give him more to do, is a good example of this. The entire Pomona section, with the great Warren Oates as Col. Madman Maddox, feels like this film’s version of finding Col. Kurtz upriver. It makes me wonder if John Milius, who has co-story credit and Executive Produced, was responsible for this section. It’s a digression, but so many things in the film are a digression (John Belushi’s split-second cameo as a second character is one, but there are many of them), and I wouldn’t want to see a version without it.
Within all this madness of nearly everyone who has a line being a familiar face, Robert Stack as Gen. Stillwell sticks out as the one bit of sanity but the actor has perfect timing in every line he speaks (“This isn’t the state of California, it’s a state of insanity.”). Eddie Deezen of course gets laughs trapped up in the ferris wheel with Murray Hamilton (what’s more annoying than being stuck with Eddie Deezen? Being trapped with Eddie Deezen and a dummy that looks like Eddie Deezen) and so do Lionel Stander (“Close, Ward, close.”) and Joe Flaherty (what is that mouse doing on his shoulder, anyway?). So much of the rest of the film is taken by John Belushi, Dan Ackroyd, Ned Beatty, Tim Matheson, Nancy Allen, Treat Williams and others, that it’s easy to forget that romantic couple Bobby Di Cicco and Dianne Kay are more or less presumably supposed to be the leads, but it can’t be said that it’s their fault. I freely admit that the cast recap at the very end with the various actors screaming into the camera is one of the best such recaps except maybe for MASH but there are even more names to find further down in the crawl or, in some cases, not at all. This includes Michael McKean and David Lander, Penny Marshall, John Landis, Sam Fuller, even Mickey friggin’ Rourke. James Caan can be spotted in a sailor outfit at the beginning of the USO fight. All of Dick Miller’s dialogue was cut from the theatrical version but he’s still in there if you know where to look for him.
But to come back around to the reason for the night, as far as I’ve always been concerned the film is flat-out stolen by Wendie Jo Sperber as Maxine, best friend to the lead, who falls instantly for bad guy Treat Willams and will stop at nothing in her pursuit of him. Displaying total assurance in using her physicality for comedy she takes what could have been a tasteless ‘ugly friend’ stereotype out of a cartoon by making it charming and, yeah, kinda sexy.
The 1941 that was screened the other night, the one originally released in theaters in 1979, is not really the best-known version of it anymore. The DVD contains a version nearly a full half-hour longer which was first seen in slightly different form when it played on ABC back in the eighties and then was fully put together in that form for its laserdisc release (using Bob Gale’s Betamax recording of the ABC airing as a guide since he was the only person who had a copy!), before coming out in that form on DVD which is how it exists now. That longer version was a bit of a holy grail for me for a long time, since even as a kid it was pretty evident that there was a lot missing from the film and there are a number of valuable scenes that got put back in. But the scale and noise of the film ultimately becomes so exhausting that the shorter theatrical cut is, in some ways, easier to take. There are a number of gaps that occur because of this—like how Perry Lang’s character turns up at the USO in uniform, for one thing—but most of the best stuff is in the shorter version. As much as I like most of this movie, this is probably the version that’s easiest to take in one sitting.
Finally getting to see it in a theater proved to me how entertaining it is, at least for me and the other people who were there. I didn’t get much sleep that night—I did, after all, have to see MAD MEN as soon as I got home, but it was worth it. I won’t make a proclamation such as saying that 1941 is Steven Spielberg’s most underrated film or even claim that it’s my favorite. But I may as well go ahead and state that in spite of its flaws and yes, I’m aware that it has them, I flat out love it. And I’ll gladly take it over a number of other Spielberg films that are generally considered to be “better”. It may take a while to convince others of this, but I’m used to these things taking time. As General Stillwell himself muses as he walks off at the end, “It’s gonna be a long war.”
Monday, October 27, 2008
It was a pretty sizable crowd at Skylight Books in Los Feliz on Saturday night for the reading of the excellent collection “The Book of Lists Horror” hosted by my good friend Scott Bradley, the person also responsible for the book. There was definitely an impressive assortment of contributors but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that the single biggest thrill of the night was getting to meet Ann Magnuson, there to read her own list of “Twenty-Two Sexiest Movie Monsters (Human and Otherwise)” and exactly as cool as you'd hope she'd be. I have no great point to make here beyond saying how fantastic it was to meet Ann Magnuson but it was a very enjoyable evening all around.
The reading of these lists and everything they signify came during an appropriate weekend for me, not just because Halloween is approaching but because the night before I had seen LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, a vampire movie from Sweden which for me was one of the most potent, affecting films of this genre—hell, of any genre--that I’ve seen in quite a long time. Twelve year old Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) is a lonely and troubled boy, regularly tortured by bullies at school. One night while outside his apartment building, as he tries to imagine himself actually confronting these bullies, he meets a girl by the name of Eli (Lina Leandersson) who immediately tells him that she can’t be his friend. But they gradually do become friends and though she looks to be the same age, originally telling him that she is “twelve, more or less”, by the time she has amended that to admitting that she’s been “twelve for a very long time,” he begins to realize what in fact she really is. “Will you be my girlfriend?” he asks her. Will she? Can she?
Chilly but emotional, restrained yet still extremely bloody and brutal at times, it’s almost too obvious to say that LET THE RIGHT ONE IN would never be made in the Hollywood system because of all sorts of tonal issues, both sexual and violent, but it doesn’t really matter anyway since it was made somewhere. It does what few vampire movies are able to do, which is bring a fresh take and point of view on this sort of material as well as the nature of the character of Eli. It’s a difficult movie to talk about because it really does deserve to be experienced knowing as little as possible and there’s a lot I’ve avoided talking about. I don’t even want to allude to certain things that occur in the film. I’ll simply say that it just might be that rare movie that comes along which tries to elevate this genre beyond what you expect, turning it into something completely new. I don’t even want to talk about it. I want to keep it to myself for now, while I still can. It’s so good that it made me not want to see any other movies for a few days, for fear of killing that buzz it gave me. If it’s not my favorite film of the year, it’s awfully close.
This isn’t a review, but just a thought from the weekend, where I attended a gathering of people who love this genre, who want to sometimes approach it with the seriousness it deserves. And it feels like the film was made for them, as well as anyone who could possibly understand some of the emotions it presents. Maybe some of them have been twelve for a long time as well. Maybe I have and that’s why it felt like it was made for me. It wasn’t, of course, but maybe whatever I responded to will be appreciated by someone else out there. See it now, before the American remake happens and the buzz really does get killed. This film deserves better than to be treated that way.
In closing, did I mention that I got to meet Ann Magnuson?
Saturday, October 25, 2008
SCREAM OF FEAR feels like it belongs somewhat apart from similar Hammer thrillers made during the post-PSYCHO/DIABOLIQUE period. Screenwriter Jimmy Sangster wrote a few of those other thrillers as well, like Freddie Francis’s NIGHTMARE and while this script may be in the upper tier of some of his efforts, a great deal of the credit should go to director Seth Holt (helmer of the Bette Davis vehicle THE NANNY), cinematographer Douglas Slocombe (who never shot another movie for Hammer and is best remembered now for the first three Indiana Jones films) and most especially lead Susan Strasberg whose presence and inherent vulnerability elevate the film, released in 1961, above what it was probably intended to be. It was just released on DVD as part of a Hammer Films Icons of Horror set from Columbia and is definitely recommended.
After an unexplained prologue that shows a body being fished out of a lake, we pick up on wheelchair-bound Penny Appleby (Strasberg) returning to live with her father after ten years away in Italy with her now-deceased mother. After being met at the airport by chauffer Robert (Ronald Lewis, also in William Castle’s MR. SARDONICUS) Penny arrives at the house greeted by her stepmother Jane (Ann Todd) who informs her that her father had to leave suddenly for business and should return in a few days. Penny’s already fragile state is compounded that night when she discovers the disturbing sight of her father’s corpse in an unused part of the house. Naturally, no one believes her. It doesn’t take long before Penny becomes suspicious of everyone around her. Can she trust that her stepmother is telling her the truth? Is she going insane? Where is her father, anyway? And what about family friend Doctor Gerrard (Christopher Lee with a French accent) who seems to be taking a little too much interest in Penny’s physical and mental state?
I certainly won’t get into spoilers, but it doesn’t take much to figure out that a few twists are going to occur in SCREAM OF FEAR (also known as TASTE OF FEAR) and given that most of the running time is set in one location with only four main characters it’s possible for just about anybody to determine some permutation of the plot revelations. Some may still come as a surprise, or at least they were for me. With a running time of only 81 minutes it knows how to play all its cards correctly and get out of Dodge before we get a chance to think about things too much—sure, afterwards it’s easy to wonder about how much of the suspense generated turns out to be a red herring, but so what? Holt gets some good tension out of the actors when necessary and the black & white visuals by Slocombe give it some nice additional punch—it’s easy to think of other such thrillers from this time frame that wouldn’t have bothered with such beats as the wheels of Penny’s wheelchair coming perilously close to the edge of the pool or the moodiness of the shadows as Penny finds herself alone in the house at night. There’s some very good underwater photography late in the film as well.
As for the lead actress, I remember being amazed by what Susan Strasberg did in PICNIC when I saw it a long time ago and looking over her filmography, dominated by countless TV guest shots, it’s surprising to see that she never quite reached the heights that some may have expected of her early on (but she did a ROCKFORD FILES? I’ll have to look for that one). I don’t know the state of her career at the time of SCREAM OF FEAR or if this was considered a step down but it’s hard to ignore that the intensity of her talent makes the film more than it may have been otherwise. The fragility of her persona seems totally believable…Though a supporting part billed below the title, Christopher Lee has one of his better roles of the period, given the chance in his relatively small amount of scenes to be more interesting than he was allowed to be in other Hammer films around this time (helps that he is allowed to play an actual character and given dialogue, for starters).
It’s a fairly creepy film ideal for viewing during the autumn months and its brief running time may make it just the thing to watch late at night, where I can imagine at one point in time it probably played on the late show somewhere, back when such a thing still existed. It’s not the most representative of Hammer from this period but it probably is one of the better ones and, even though the “We earnestly urge you to see this motion picture from the start!” seems to shamelessly pilfer from the PSYCHO campaign, the film itself holds up well in comparison, considering we’re talking about PSYCHO after all. I liked SCREAM OF FEAR when I saw it over a decade ago and I still do. I can’t say that this has been my response to every Hammer film that I’ve returned to, so this counts as a pleasant surprise.
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
Exploring the different worlds of the Giallo can feel like swimming through unchartered waters sometimes. A few months ago I saw THE FORBIDDEN PHOTOS OF A LADY ABOVE SUSPICION which I kind of loved, so I was naturally eager to check out the dual DVD release of a few other movies by Luciano Ercoli, the same director. I had a slightly chilly response to DEATH WALKS ON HIGH HEELS, the first of the two I watched, which may have had to do with my own expectations and how they were thwarted. DEATH WALKS AT MIDNIGHT, on the other hand, was a little more along the lines of what I was looking for. It’s not as tightly plotted as it should be and isn’t quite as good as a few of its best moments but it’s a nicely enjoyable example of the form, as ridiculous as it ultimately is.
Gorgeous fashion model Valentina (Susan Scott aka Nieves Navarro) agrees to take an experimental hallucinogenic drug named HDS for a fashion shoot being covered by reporter Gio Baldi (Simon Andreu) to record her response. The session takes a surprising turn when in the middle of her reverie she suddenly has extremely disturbing visions of a woman being killed by a man with large sunglasses using a spiked glove which he drives into her face. Nobody, including boyfriend Stefano (Peter Martell) thinks anything of it but when an appointment for a shoot turns out to be fake, she thinks she gets a look at that killer in the flesh. Realizing that she may have once actually witnessed such a murder she begins to believe that the killer is really out to get her. The problem is compounded when the murdered woman’s sister Verushka (Claudie Lange) searches out Valentina and it soon becomes clear that there be more than one woman to worry about.
It’s of course an absurd plot but the various elements manage to click together nicely, with the usual wild twists, red herrings, disbelieving cops and disappearing corpses (“I saw her right there, stabbed to death with a knife in her breast!” “Evidently she got tired of waiting, threw out the knife and left.”), not to mention that I’m not even sure that everything makes sense in the end, even if we do get a ridiculously overcomplicated expalnation. It’s probably not important to try to figure it out anyway. Much like in the other Ercoli films the two male leads have a strong resemblance to each other and once again both female leads have long red hair (she’s not the only actor who recurs). What the reason for this could be I don’t know, but even though the plots of the three are not similar the tone remains consistent that watching the three together could very well give the feel of a very long film where some of the same personalities drift in and out under different guises. The director and star were married (still are, as far as I can tell) so the question is were these films just a thinly veiled examination of the nature of this couple’s marriage? How much J&B did these people really drink in real life anyway?
More than anything, what matters in DEATH WALKS AT MIDNIGHT even more than the previous two by Ercoli is how it works as a complete showcase for Susan Scott by the director, who also happened to be her husband. As serious as some of it is, there’s a definite comic tone to much of the film and with an actress like Scott in the lead it comes off as a sort of Giallo version of FOUL PLAY, moreso than it would with certain other actresses playing the part. On the essential Arbogast on Film blog a few months back the good detective wrote a wonderful appreciation of Scott with a certain focus on the awkwardness of her physicality at times, particularly when she runs. And he’s right—there really is something goofily endearing about it. Scott certainly is beautiful like Giallo heroines of the Edwige Fenech variety but the pluck and humor she brings to the role through her personality makes her more relatable and makes the film more likable as a result (the nature of her role being minimized in DEATH WALKS ON HIGHT HEELS was for me a problem there). Even her wide-eyes reactions of terror, almost like she’s a character in a silent movie, seem somehow charming here. If there’s a serious problem with the film it’s that too much of the mid-section wanders, complete with a section where the leads take time to babysit for a few kids and it has nothing to do with anything. Maybe the director was trying to give as many different things for his wife to do as possible—She’s funny! She’s sexy! She’s frightened! She’s a mother figure! She sneaks around like she’s Nancy Drew! Hey, if I were married to Susan Scott I’d want to show her off too, but it just leaves too much slack in the story.
Much of the additional enjoyment comes from the score by Gianni Ferrio, some of which I know I’ve already heard on a few compilation CDs. A lot of it seems to consist of versions of the same two themes over and over again and while there may be a little bit of repetition the music is so damn catchy I don’t really care. Just as in FORBIDDEN PHOTOS where things seemed to pause as we followed the lead walking from one place to the other as the Morricone music played, in a few places this movie seems content to just let the luxury of the music play out whether it’s pausing for a moment during a car ride to or the bonkers intensity it gives off in the scene where Scott runs through the street away from a recently discovered body.
There’s a surprising lack of sleaze in the film, but there is a visit to an insane asylum, a cop who meets the heroine for a meeting in a nightclub, a bit of J&B drinking and a genuinely harrowing climax which in a small way cleverly mirrors a comical scene (containing a pratfall) at the beginning, a nice bit of screenplay structure. That ending sequence culminates in a brutal, exciting rooftop fight (those sound effects definitely help) which keeps the suspense going right up until the end. It’s not a major title in the history of the genre, but during those points where we can sit back, let the music and atmosphere kick in as Susan Scott does just about anything onscreen, DEATH WALKS AT MIDNIGHT definitely gets the job done.
Monday, October 20, 2008
For a long time I’ve put off a second viewing of DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS, simply because I was worried that it wouldn’t live up to what I thought about it that first time. Every once in a while you stumble across a film that feels like there’s something unexplainable in its essence that is exactly what you’re looking for when you’re watching these obscure titles and you can’t quite be sure if it really was that good or if you just wanted it to be. After seeing it again, I’m relieved that DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS lived up to my memory and maybe even surpassed it. It’s a vampire movie but to call it ‘just’ a vampire movie is doing it a huge disservice. It has a mood, a feel, a commitment to itself that is unlike the past ten movies that you just saw and it’s not easily forgotten. To me, in some ways, DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS is extraordinary. Say that as two words—extra ordinary. That’s the best way I can think to describe it.
A honeymooning couple (John Karlen and Daniele Ouimet) have just arrived at an enormous hotel on the Belgian shore. As it is the off-season, they have the place all to themselves. Until, that is, the arrival of one Countess Elizabeth Bathory (Delphine Seyrig), traveling with her secretary Ilona (Andrea Rau), who isn’t quite the person they would expect to encounter. After one look at the couple, the Countess muses, “Look how perfect they are,” and quickly begins to place herself and Ilona in their lives. After getting a glimpse of the corpse of a beautiful woman while sight-seeing in nearby Bruges, the young couple begin to feel the influence of the Countess genuinely affecting them.
Several sources I’ve read seem to place DAUGHTERS in the category of the lesbian vampire movie but the character of Countess Elizabeth Bathory as presented here has always felt more Omnisexual to me than anything else, taking whatever pleasure she desires from anyone she chooses. The unusual feel the movie provides is more than just dreamlike—it’s truly hypnotic in its own way that mesmerizes as you fall into its spell and makes most other vampire films feel like child’s play in comparison. In other hands the nudity and sex scenes in the scenario would make it little more than soft-core, something that a few of the lesbian vampire entries from Hammer around this time may qualify as. But DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS, as directed by Harry Kumel, feels like the perfect fusion of the European art film of that era with the horror genre and seems to pick up on the nature of the vampire in a way that other such films don’t. It has the pure feel and logic of a dream and is the rare film that succeeds in being genuinely sexy. Having Delphine Seyrig and Andrea Rau on hand certainly doesn’t hurt and certain things like playing one of the major love scenes (as well as a few others) almost entirely without music, just silence, somehow makes it more alluring and more dangerous than it would have been otherwise. Maybe it’s not a horror film that would be called traditionally ‘scary’ but that seems beside the point.
Even its plot ambiguities aren’t quite what we would expect them to be—the issue of whether they are really vampires seems definitively answered. And yet the way it does this almost seems as daring as not revealing the answer, maybe because the way the information is doled out is so fleeting that they could easily be missed. The film continually surprises through its running time in terms of where it’s going tonally. Even the two honeymooners are more complicated than we may have first thought and certainly not as innocent, making open to debate just who the true protagonist of the story is. From what I can tell response to the film through the years has been divided, with The New York Times, in a brief rave when it was first released, praising it as “fascinating” and “exquisitely directed,” while the Maltin book calls it “Elegant, but pretentious and slow,” adding that it is “Highly regarded by many”. I have no idea who those people are, but I guess I’m one of them.
The film is perfectly cast. Maybe it would be nothing without Delphine Seyrig whose presence and beauty here makes her seem as if she really does exist on another plane, apart from mere mortals. The hotel setting makes this an interesting, if very odd, companion piece to LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD and makes me wonder how a double bill of the two would play. Supporting her as Ilona is Andrea Rau, quite ravishing in her own right and a particular zoom into her very, very red lips at a key moment is just about the most purely sensual moment in a film that I’ve ever seen. John Karlen is probably best known today for playing Tyne Daly’s husband on CAGNEY & LACEY but you’d never know from watching this film that he’s a Brooklyn native—he really does seem like a person from somewhere in Europe. As his wife, Canadian actress Danielle Ouimet is alluring in her own right as the most grounded and, as it turns out, most unpredictable of this film’s odd group of characters.
It’s the sort of film that lends itself to being analyzed yet at the same time maybe it would work best if just accepted, like we accept the illogical in our own dreams. It’s not a vampire movie about fangs and shocks—although there is blood—but about the vampiric nature of how such a creature can truly possess someone’s soul. Not everyone will respond to it but I’d like to think that, like me, some will look at DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS as the sort of film they’ve been looking for. The mixture of elements alone may not make it unique, but the success of how they’re put together make it something that, for me, is spellbinding.
Thursday, October 16, 2008
The main title theme from THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA by John Cacavas is kind of cool in a seventies-wacka chicka sort of way but if you really start to listen to it by a certain point the piece just feels like it’s noodling around, waiting for the moments where the music might actually have a little kick to it. That kind of sums up the movie, the eighth in the Hammer Dracula cycle as well as the seventh and final time Christopher Lee would play the role. It’s a direct sequel to DRACULA A.D. 1972, the film which brought Hammer’s version of Dracula into the then-present day and even if I shouldn’t enjoy that one like I do, I’ll sit down and watch the whole thing at the drop of a hat. SATANIC RITES feels a little like more of a sludge without much energy and while there’s an O.K. idea in there it never feels like it does much with it. So why have I seen it multiple times by now? Beats me. Maybe I’m trying to will it to be better.
When Scotland Yard is called in to investigate mysterious cult activities, Inspector Murray (Michael Coles, returning from A.D. 1972) brings in Professor Lorrimer Van Helsing (Peter Cushing again) as a consultant. As Murray and Van Helsing’s granddaughter Jessica (Joanna Lumley, taking over for Stephanie Beacham) investigate the country house where they think events have been occuring, Van Helsing visits the home of fellow scientist Dr. Keeley (Freddie Jones of FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED and THE ELEPHANT MAN) who is suspected of being involved. The crazed Keeley tells Van Helsing that he has been enlisted to create a new type of plague and the investigation soon takes him to the mysterious headquarters of powerful recluse D.D. Denham in a building built on top of the abandoned church where much of the previous film took place. Once inside, Van Helsing is allowed to meet with Denham, when he discovers…well, it shouldn’t be given away but since you’ve probably noticed the title of the film, I think you can figure it out.
One thing that should be noted is how SATANIC RITES feels considerably different from other Hammer films, even the ones made around this period as the company was coming to its end. A.D. 1972, as spectacularly goofy as it is, at least feels like a Hammer film (no real point in comparing this to one of the entries from the classic era of the studio) but this one seems like a different animal. Not just in structure and plot but even the way shots are framed and lit. Even the general feel of the pacing isn’t what would be expected, especially as it cuts back to the same satanic ritual over the first twenty minutes, maybe to make it seem like something is happening. At least it knows to bring Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing descendant into the story sooner than was the case in the previous film. Unlike the previous film where being set in the seventies was the whole point, the impression SATANIC RITES gives is that it wants to make that setting as matter-of-fact as possible. There’s not much of a feel of an outside world away from the plot and even when we’re out on the street it seems sparsely populated, giving it the feel of a very odd episode of THE AVENGERS, something the country house much of it is set in adds to that feel, but since director Alan Gibson directed episodes of that show that probably shouldn’t come as a surprise. But part of the problem is considering it’s a film that contains world-threatening viruses, mysterious business consortiums as well as vampires, it winds up sounding more interesting than it is. Even a few of the somewhat sleazier aspects feel somewhat un-Hammer—over the past few years some of their titles like THE VAMPIRE LOVERS had featured nudity but the use of the scrawny, unclothed blonde sacrificed in that early sequence just feels kind of skeevy.
Joanna Lumley also seems different from the usual Hammer girl, even down to the conservative way she’s dressed, and this would provide an added point of interest if there were anything done with the character. In the previous film her character, played by Beacham, was running with a bad crowd that got mixed up with Dracula and she had to learn just how valuable her grandfather was. In this film Lumley, with bright red hair that seems to be screaming for this film to be processed in old school technicolor, doesn’t do much more than assist her grandfather in the office and get captured so she can be rescued again.
The plot is structured as if to keep it a mystery that Dracula is behind everything but since we know what the film is called it’s not much of a mystery. The film tries to backtrack on this point by giving us an appearance by Lee when he places the bite on a captured government secretary played by Valerie Van Ost even before his presence is explained but they probably didn’t care that it would be giving the game away so the secretary character just seems inserted to allow for this. Dracula being the figure behind D.D. Denham with a world destruction plan makes him out to be more of a Bond villain-type than he ever was before and the identity secret actually resembles Blofeld being in place of Willard Whyte in DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER. That film had the same problem this one has—we don’t really believe that Blofeld is dead for the first hour any more than we would expect anybody but Dracula to be revealed. When it happens, it’s in a fairly clever scene as Dracula is hidden in darkness, speaking in a Bela Lugosi accent. It’s a cute idea, not the sort of humor usually found in Hammer and gives Christopher Lee more dialogue to do something with than he normally gets the chance with in these films. Even allowing for Van Helsing not questioning why there’s a bright light shining it his face, it still feels like the staging causes it to not make sense on about five different levels and there’s no reason to believe it would fool Van Helsing for an instant (“You ARE Dracula!”). But I’ll give the film the benefit of the doubt that the DVD transfer makes Christopher Lee’s face here a little too visible. Lee isn’t given either the most or least amount of screen time of his films in the series but it’s still easy to wish that the studio took advantage of him a little more. Did they give him so little to do in these films because he was unhappy about making them or was he unhappy about making them because he had so little to do?
At the very least there’s Peter Cushing who remains as committed to the role of Van Helsing, whichever incarnation of the character he’s playing, as ever. He has a few interesting dialogue scenes to play, particularly one where he tries to get information out of his scientist friend played by Freddie Jones, a Renfield type presumably driven mad as he realizes what he’s done. The dynamic between the two actors should be fascinating and Jones is very good here but the scene seems to drag on longer than necessary, diluting some of its impact. As it is, Cushing’s best moments in the film are his quiet gestures, as he smokes, as he melts a cross down into a silver bullet and of course his final piece of business just before the credits roll. Joanna Lumley gets one of the most effective scenes of the film where she is attacked by a number of female vampires rising from their coffins in a basement. It’s another one of those scenes that don’t feel much like Hammer for a number of reasons, but it’s still very nicely done.
Lee, as usual, doesn’t get to do much although he does scream out, “My revenge has spread over centuries and has just begun!” which is sort of lifted from Stoker and it’s a good line but the fact that he declares it ten minutes before the end of the sixth and final time he would play the character makes it seem a little ironic. And there’s little point in getting into the climax which, as everyone seems to agree, is the absolute weakest of the entire series though I still kind of like that final moment with Cushing. Though A.D. 1972 got a full release from Warner Bros. in the States it took THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA five years until it came out here in a version I’ve never seen that was fifteen minutes shorter and given the nonsensical title COUNT DRACULA AND HIS VAMPIRE BRIDE. I’m not saying that the film deserves grand reappraisal but the weirdness that sets it apart from the series makes me want to see it again every once in a while and at the very least it’s a film with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing as Dracula and Van Helsing. There can never be enough movies where that is the case and, unfortunately, there never will be.
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
I was there at the New Beverly on Friday night for the continuation of the festival hosted by Patton Oswalt, but surprisingly Patton Oswalt was not. As a substitute, Edgar Wright had been enlisted. Why couldn’t Patton be there? Who knows. Does it matter? Not very much. Patton had programmed a Stallone-Schwarzenegger double bill, which he had dubbed "Titans Forever". I was really there to see NIGHTHAWKS, the Stallone half of the night which, for reasons I cannot explain, I had never seen. I was excited enough about it that whoever made the introductions wasn’t much of an issue.
The plot is fairly simple: Two New York undercover police detectives (Sylvester Stallone and Billy Dee Williams) are assigned to an anti-terrorism task force just as notorious terrorist Wulfgar (Rutger Hauer), who has just blown up a London department store, is making preparations to cross the pond to New York. Basically it’s a cross between a knockoff of THE FRENCH CONNECTION, with its two scrappy lead characters willing to work the worst parts of the city, and a knockoff of BLACK SUNDAY with the tracking of a terrorist as he plots out his activities (the Europe-to-Manhattan angle feels a little like MARATHON MAN as well). Looking at NIGHTHAWKS at this point in time its most interesting aspect, even more than the terrorists-in-Manhattan storyline, is how it’s a Sylvester Stallone film before he really burst out into the superstardom he would achieve within a few years. Released the year before the one-two punch of ROCKY III and FIRST BLOOD really sent his career in a different direction, this film has him playing more of a character, complete with a beard and glasses, than he would within a few years when every part he played would just be a different aspect of the Stallone persona. His banter with Billy Dee Williams (playing a character named Matthew Fox!) isn’t exactly what we got with Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider but they work pretty well together.
The film moves along at an exciting clip, making excellent use of its New York locations. Following the two lead cops on their undercover work early on makes it look like the production sought out the most dangerous parts of the city at that point and the film, shot in the dead of winter, has a cold and grimey feel to it overall. There’s a terrific chase through the subway and, what most people probably remember about the film, a long, very well-done hostage sequence filmed on the Roosevelt Island Tram, a location also used in SPIDER-MAN but since this is all actually filmed there (no blue screen work) it plays extremely perilous and suspenseful. The final sequence was ruined for me years ago in the compilation film TERROR IN THE AISLES but in context it plays pretty great. I still can’t fathom what scenes from this were doing in that movie anyway.
The script (Story by David Shaber and Paul Sylbert, Screenplay by Shaber) feels a little thin, as if it’s taking it’s inspiration from films that were established as novels but never is able to make it’s storytelling as rich and complex as they were. I also got the vague feeling throughout that the film would work even better if it had a stronger directorial hand—it was helmed by Bruce Malmuth who didn’t do much else outside of the Seagal vehicle HARD TO KILL—but to give the final product credit enough of the movie works that maybe it’s quibbling to make that point. Maybe it’s just a case of it being just good enough that I wish it were even better. NIGHTHAWKS does seem slightly unique in how it feels like it tonally falls between the grittier 70s and the glossier 80s that hadn’t quite taken hold but it feels strange why it isn’t better known. It seems like the sort of thing that TBS should have been playing hundreds of times through the years.
Rutger Hauer is excellent as the villain, doing more with it than what may be on the page. Lindsay Wagner plays Stallone’s ex-wife in what is pretty much a nothing role. STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE’s Persis Khambatta, with a full head of hair, plays Hauer’s terorist cohort in what, keeping BLACK SUNDAY and MARATHON MAN in mind, is pretty much the Marthe Keller role (there’s a phrase I don’t use very much). The great Joe Spinell, also in ROCKY, plays Stallone’s Lieutenant in what is probably the only time I’ve ever seen him without a mustache.
Edgar Wright had disappeared when it was time to see the second film of the night, the 1985 Schwarzenegger extravaganza COMMANDO. But we got a pleasant surprise when it turned out that the film’s screenwriter Steven E. de Souza, writer of some of the best action movies of that era, had turned up with his family, just to see the film. He gladly went up front and regaled us with the origins of the film, which came from Twentieth Century Fox wanting to put together a Schwawzenegger vehicle quickly as a writers strike loomed. The writer basically told the story to the star in his office one day and he became very excited about the project, saying, “I don’t have to play a robot from the future or a caveman from the past!” The film was given the green light almost immediately, with pre production beginning as the script was being written in order to beat the strike deadline, which he just barely did. It’s amazing to think that I saw COMMANDO when it first came out and was able to sit through more than a few seconds at a time with a straight face. It seems pretty absurd now and the climax is ridiculously, if enjoyably, violent. But, with those legendary de Souza one-liners, it’s still fun and a tight ninety minutes. You know the drill—“That’s why I’m going to kill you last.” “Don’t disturb my friend, he’s dead tired.” “I let him go.” “Let’s party.” “Let off some steam, Bennett.” That’s COMMANDO, much more of a goof than the first film of the night but it still helped make for an enjoyable evening. It was particularly good to finally see NIGHTHAWKS, a film which seems to have fallen through the cracks of the action genre and definitely deserves more of a reputation.
Sunday, October 12, 2008
MESSIAH OF EVIL has to be one of the best-kept secrets of early 70s horror, a film which probably has a small cult around it like those secrets usually do, but it still deserves to be better known. The Silent Movie Theatre showed it the other night, one of the many horror films they’re showing all through the month of October. The place was surprisingly crowded. Were they curious to see an early work from the team of Willard Hyuck & Gloria Katz, screenwriters on AMERICAN GRAFFITTI and INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (plus uncredited work on STAR WARS)? Had they, as I had, been told about it by friends of theirs? Had some of them seen it before and were bringing others? Is the Silent Movie just doing really good business lately? Some of MESSIAH OF EVIL is clumsy, as you’d expect from a first-time director making a low budget genre picture in the early 70s. The pacing is sometimes off, the acting is inconsistent, the story feels incomplete particularly in the ending and some of it is pretty goofy—yes, there was laughter at certain points. But the entire film maintains a genuine feel of a waking nightmare throughout, something that the beat up nature of the 35mm Scope print (titled DEAD PEOPLE) we viewed actually added to. It also contains a few sequences so effective that the film becomes impossible to ever dismiss. Not in a ‘they actually pulled this off for the money they spent’ way, but in a genuinely cinematic way that made me sit there thinking, “This is amazing…THIS IS AMAZING.”
Searching for her father, Arletty (Marianne Hill, Deanna Dunn in THE GODFATHER PART II) travels to his home in Point Dume, where she finds a strangely empty house. Asking around town does little good, but it does lead her to the odd trio of Thom (Michael Greer), Laura (Anitra Ford) and Toni (Joy Bang), a presumed threesome who soon let themselves into the house to stay with Arletty but none of them have any idea what is really going on within the town.
It’s an interesting film to view just a few days after watching LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH, another story that features a woman entering a strange town, strange behavior by the locals, narration which always seems elusive, visitors of a mysterious nature—even the recurring sound of blowing wind to add atmosphere when there’s not much there onscreen. JESSICA might be more polished but that doesn’t discount what Hyuck & Katz achieved here. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is no doubt a key influence (CARNIVAL OF SOULS probably is to) but some of the imagery actually anticipates certain zombie films that had yet to be made—but can this be considered a zombie film? Shot composition throughout makes imaginative use of the Scope frame, lending a true sense of style to the micro-budget production—how the guy who made this also directed BEST DEFENSE (not to mention HOWARD THE DUCK) will probably always remain a mystery. Even the father’s house, which has unusual three-dimensional works of art throughout, has a creepy feel to it as soon as we enter. There’s a strange vibe all through MESSIAH that is difficult to put into words and very little is ever explained. What is really going on in this town? What do the flashbacks really explain? Who are these three people Arletty hooks up with? In most other films, the three would be responsible for whatever happens to the lead (maybe it’s the counterculture nature of Hyuck & Katz that makes the dropouts the normal ones and the small town citizens the ones we really need to fear) but this film surprisingly never goes that route. At least, I think it doesn’t. Certain things are still left ambiguous when the credits roll, a true willingness to stick to nightmare logic which is admirable.
But that’s nothing compared to the most vivid passages—one, which follows Anitra Ford from a creepy truck ride with a creepy albino into a Ralph’s supermarket which isn’t as deserted as it first appears, is very good. Another, as Joy Bang (also seen around this time in PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM and CISCO PIKE) goes to the movies in a huge, nearly deserted theater (playing a nonexistent film called KISS TOMORROW GOODBYE—Rated GP) is even better. The sequence does a masterful job of cutting as the theater goes from nearly empty and gradually fills up, all behind the girl, with her not noticing until too late. Yes, there was occasional laughter from the audience at the Silent Movie at points during the film, but not here. It is so successful at building the tension to such a pitch and then paying it off that when it was over I felt so astonished by what I had just seen that I had to applaud the film for it. Others joined in as well. I almost felt like I could have left at that point since I didn’t expect that true feeling of a living nightmare to be topped. It wasn’t, but the movie does keep up its tone of dread fairly well, particularly when things begin to go to hell in the town. The ending feels incomplete, like all the footage was never shot, but even that adds to that unreal feel which continues until the very end.
Willard Hyuck and Gloria Katz appeared after the movie for a Q&A to try to shed some light on things. Hyuck made it a point to mention that this was one of the strangest days of his life since in the morning a crew had come to his house to interview him for the upcoming HOWARD THE DUCK DVD and only hours later he was at the Silent Movie to talk about MESSIAH OF EVIL. The husband and wife team told about how the story was influenced by Lovecraft. The film was financed by “Rich kids in Texas” and the money pretty much went away with just a few days of shooting left. The finished film was recut without their involvement and though they didn’t get into too many specifics about what was changed, that’s when the awful main title song (seriously, it’s really bad) was tacked on. Interestingly, the film shown onscreen during the movie theater sequence, a Sammy Davis Jr. western called GONE WITH THE WEST, was put in there by the producers, replacing an old print of THE BAND WAGON that Hyuck & Katz had made use (how would they ever have gotten permission?). I’ve never heard of GONE WITH THE WEST, but the use of it actually works great here, being loud, obnoxious and seemingly never-ending. It genuinely comes off as a trailer from hell, to use the name of that website. Also discussed were the striking two-and-three dimensional paintings used throughout the house and how they essentially stole that concept for a scene in TEMPLE OF DOOM (Hyuck at one point went off on a tangent about STAR WARS, indicating that they had more to do with that script than I was previously aware of). Katz also added that the Walter Hill and Bill Norton listed in the credits are indeed director Hill and CISCO PIKE helmer B.W.L. Norton. Hill is featured in the pre-credit sequence and Norton turns up in a key flashback late in the film. She also lamented how the film, shot in Techniscope, was processed at Technicolor and that we weren’t able to see it looking at its best—but truthfully, for me, it was better than not seeing it at all.
It’s entirely possible that the flaws in MESSIAH OF EVIL will come to the forefront if I ever see it again. Maybe its best moments make me forget that the complete film might not be totally successful—certainly not like how LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH is. But right now those moments are what I’ve been remembering. Some of these scenes can be found on Youtube and they probably do work pretty well isolated, but when viewed in context they became valuable pieces of a film that, to me, deserves any attention it gets. You may not ever get a chance to see a 35mm print of MESSIAH OF EVIL. But if that opportunity ever arises, make sure to cancel all other plans and do it.
Friday, October 10, 2008
I don’t know if anyone else looks at it that way, but I’ve always thought that the weekend of October 13-15 1995 was a pretty crucial weekend in the development of Hollywood in subsequent years. That weekend saw the release of three films: William Friedkin’s JADE, Roland Joffe’s THE SCARLET LETTER and Kathryn Bigelow’s STRANGE DAYS. Three films that were R-rated, aimed at adults, very expensive and each one was essentially a box-office disaster. It also didn’t help that at least two out of those three were pretty terrible (I feel like I need to see STRANGE DAYS again) and that was a period where the only films that really were hits were SEVEN and GET SHORTY but it still seems like it was a small step towards movies like that never getting made anymore.
That doesn’t mean I have a good answer why I once purchased a VHS tape of JADE, but that did help me laugh maybe louder than anybody when Seth Rogen referred to the movie in dialogue in THE 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN (“Be David Caruso in JADE”). That tape I bought was the unrated director’s version, expanded by 12 minutes, something which never got released on DVD, and I think the movie seemed to leave enough unanswered questions that I wanted to see if the longer version dealt with that. The answer: not really. Actually, enough time has gone by that I’m not even sure of all the differences, outside of longer sex scenes and an alteration to the ending which, instead of clarifying, adds an extra element which just seems to bring up a few more queries as to what will happen once the credits roll. And not necessarily in a good way. How much screenwriter Joe Eszterhas should be blamed is unclear since in his autobiography “Hollywood Animal” the scribe attacks Friedkin essentially for mutilating his script. What Friedkin did to it and how much better or worse the script really was remains a mystery and all I can really judge is what is in the actual film.
An erotic mystery very much in the vein of BASIC INSTINCT, also written by Eszterhas, JADE stars then-rising star David Caruso as San Francisco ADA David Corelli, investigating the brutal murder of a prominent millionaire. His investigation leads him to a sex-and-drug ring that involves the Governor (Richard Crenna) but, on a more personal level, leads him to old flame Trina Gavin (Linda Fiorentino) a successful psychologist married to his best friend, high-powered attorney Matt (Chazz Palminteri, in that period when he was appearing in about half the movies released) and the identity of the mysterious prostitute known only as Jade.
JADE is a mess and, like other Friedkin films good and bad, there’s an elusive feel to the whole thing of being a movie which refuses to clarify exactly what’s going on. This works fine in certain films where there’s a genuine weight to what’s happening but JADE never feels like it warrants this treatment. The story just feels too slim, too much like other erotic thrillers and Friedkin’s refusal to make it more like one of them, while understandable on a certain level, doesn’t mean he’s made it more interesting. The meat of the story (at least, what I think it’s supposed to be) doesn’t even seem to kick in until pretty close to the 90-minute mark, just in time for the climax. I think the film is supposed to be about the tragedy of friendship and how romantic entanglements can cause that but way too much time is spent focusing on police investigations, sleaze, collections of pubic hair, cut break lines, red herrings, lesbian subplots that involve Angie Everhart, David Caruso getting mad at people (or, I suppose, just being David Caruso in JADE) when the more interesting triangle of Caruso, Fiorentino and Palminteri never seems to get enough screen time for it to make any sense.
It’s one of those weird cases where while watching it again I found myself sitting there and actually enjoying the film anyway. Maybe I just liked seeing a sleazy mystery set in San Francisco and making good use of the locale with adults and chases and twists, almost populated by people who seem oblivious to the fact that this doesn’t work. Since it’s a Friedkin film, of course there’s a car chase, much of it spent on an odd detour through a parade in San Francisco’s Chinatown, which I assume is another example of Friedkin tampering with expectations. Considerably better is a foot chase with informant Angie Everhart being pursued by Caruso—she offers no evidence here that she could ever act but it is impressive to watch her run. Some of the films best moments are bits that feel like Friedkin is choosing to linger on something for no particular reason, such as when Ken King (a real-life police inspector, giving one of the film’s best performances in his only screen appearance) pauses to dryly read the instructions on a Harmony Pillow. As Caruso looks over the beach house of the murdered man he looks at the contents inside a mini fridge, saying, “Cristal, Baluga, Wolfgang Puck…It’s a fuckhouse,” but sadly the movie doesn’t cut to “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. At another point he examines the mutilated body at the crime scene and determines, “This is rage.” Gee, I could’ve told you that. If more people knew this movie somebody could put together a fun montage of him saying various lines from this movie followed by a shot of the Miami skyline. He isn’t quite doing what he does every week on CSI: MIAMI, but he’s definitely on the way.
The three leads were poised to break out at the time of JADE, but it never really happened (Caruso, at least, became a big star for other reasons). Maybe the film was part of the reason why. Linda Fiorentino, who unfortunately hasn’t made a film in years, was always an interesting actress but considering this was supposed to be her big role after the critical success of THE LAST SEDUCTION it’s seems odd that the movie doesn’t do more with her. Her character goes out of town on business for much of the first half, almost as if she has to finish shooting on another movie before fully taking part and it’s a problem since she is after all supposed to be one of the leads. Without that focus, it’s not fully clear what the movie’s supposed to be about, unless it’s just a dive into sleaze. Fiorentino looks great and one of the few emotionally valid moments comes from holding on her face during a passionless fuck with husband Palminteri. The actress does the best she can with the problematic role, written with enough issues that other actresses may have had trouble as well. She’s also not a screamer, something that becomes evident in the climax—Fiorentino doesn’t seem like the type and she doesn’t have the pipes for it. Either way, the expected sexual fireworks never really happen and the sex scenes we do get, even in this unrated version, don’t feel like they pay off—maybe because they’re with an unnamed extra instead of Caruso or someone else we might care about. The dissatisfaction JADE provides, even on its own level of badness, makes it sort of the film version of ANNIE HALL’s “Terrible, and such small portions.” At least BASIC INSTINCT, whatever you think of it, feels like it delivers on what it promises.
Friedkin pulls out the old subliminal tricks that he famously used in some earlier films as well but the most effective of these moments is a quick, not-subliminal shot of one of the Jade sex tapes before we cut to a close-up of Caruso, just to give us an idea of what’s in his head. The actual subliminal shots look to be things like random flashes of light, fertility masks that may or may not have thematic relevance, but nothing to rank with Captain Howdy in THE EXORCIST. A few days before the film’s release there was an article in the Los Angeles Times speculating on how potentially dangerous this could be for viewers. Clearly, somebody was hoodwinking somebody. There’s a shot near the very end (I think it was in the theatrical cut too, but I could be wrong) giving us a view of a character unlike what we were privy to before and this one glimpse is a tantalizing taste of the secrets the character in question has kept, what this person never allowed to be fully revealed. The idea of secrets that people keep from us should be what the film is about are but the effect it has is to make us wish we could see the movie behind that secret instead. Whether it’s the script Eszterhas had written, I cannot say. William Friedkin has directed films which at times have made him seem more than a little batshit, but even he needs to find an outlet to correctly display that mindset. Maybe with JADE he was just looking in the wrong place.