Thursday, October 30, 2014

SHIVERS (David Cronenberg, 1975, Canada)

A nasty parasite infects the residents of an upscale apartment complex and spreads its carnal disease by physical contact. David Cronenberg’s first feature film is a modernist rendering of Pasolini’s SALO as human beings are defiled and degraded, reduced to nothing less than insect-like impulses.
The plot concerns Dr. Emil Hobbes (that’s Devil in Old English) who is experimenting with parasites to replace diseased organs in transplant patients. He soon discovers an unusual side effect in that the patient develops an insatiable sexual craving that dominates their every physical action. Soon the entire population of an upscale apartment complex is infected and the resident doctor and his nurse must fight for their own survival.
SHIVERS is definitely rough around the edges in form and function though it begins to reveal Cronenberg’s early fascination with body-horror in both its physical and philosophical implications. The film begins as a slide show to prospective renters of an upscale condominium block that has its own on-call Doctor, convenience store, and 9-hole golf course. We’re then presented with a young couple who is supposed to meet with Dr. Hobbes before signing the rental agreement. It’s obvious that Cronenberg had trouble with the first act of the story and strengthened this weak narrative pace with cross-cutting during the editing process. As the couple sits down to talk with the manager we are shown a Doctor (presumably Hobbes) struggling with a teenage girl (presumably in an apartment somewhere upstairs). The couple’s vapid dialogue and standard questions are cut between Dr. Hobbes strangling the girl and cutting open her abdomen before he pours acid into her body. He then slits his own throat. The couple’s meeting is never resolved as Cronenberg then edits rather clumsily to a police investigation of the murdered girl: a detective is interviewing Dr. St. Luc (a cohort and the resident Doctor) in the room as both bodies are being removed. The narrative’s perspective now belongs to Dr. St. Luc and his nurse Ms. Forsythe and their discoveries and reactions in this violent microcosm.
Cronenberg is strongly influenced by SALO and even depicts two girls tethered to dog leashes, an iconic image from Pasolini’s classic film. In SALO, the victims are held against their will and degraded and tortured into submission for the thrill of powerful men. It makes a volatile political statement against Italy’s Fascist history and the rape of its citizens by men who held absolute power. But Cronenberg shifts the blame squarely upon Dr. Hobbes and his corrupt medical ethics as his experiment results in a social disease spread by bodily contact. Many people are infected against their will and become slave to the intent of the parasitic host. The idea is very interesting but Cronenberg loses focus on the narrative details to depict some gruesome special effects. It soon becomes maddening that the there is no cohesiveness or consistency attributed to the parasites or their effects. Some infected victims “turn” immediately and others take hours for the parasite to control. Other times the creature burns the skin of the victim and other times it just slithers into an available orifice without affect. This inconsistency seems to be under the Director’s control as he just decides what looks grossest for that particular shot. Cronenberg fails to investigate the morality that he originally presents via exposition in an earlier dialogue and submits to the “gross-out”.
Other problems plague the film which can be attributed to a Director who is learning his craft. The acting of the two leads is rather bland and undefined. Paul Hampton portrays Dr. St. Luc and he is anything but convincing as a Doctor of Medicine. He doesn’t speak or act like a Doctor especially when he must treat an injured victim. Hampton is too withdrawn and almost invisible in his performance and should at least use a few medical terms to show that he is indeed competent. Lynn Lowry as Nurse Forsythe is much worse as she even looks disgusted when faced with a serious burn injury and begins to wrap the wound clumsily. Cronenberg should have had the actors do some research into trauma response before principle photography began so this fault is shared with the Director. The gruesome special effects may be low budget but get high grades for the creepiness and gross-out realism! The problem in SHIVERS is that Cronenberg sacrifices story continuity for the shocking effect. What’s frustrating is that with better writing he could have had the best of both worlds.
SHIVERS ends with the good Dr. being chased down and drowned in an orgy of copulation. It’s an eerie image of groping and frenzied people of all ages engaging in bi-sexuality to satiate their sexual appetites, stalking their prey like wild animals. The final scene of the infected driving away from the underground garage and into the Montreal night is chilling as this deadly venereal disease in unleashed upon an unsuspecting world. Sex does indeed become violence.
Final Grade: (C)

Sunday, October 26, 2014


Four men seek Justice outside the Rule of Law but soon learn they must pay restitution with their own flesh, blood and bone. Director Frank De Filetta proposes a simple tale of lex talionis but imbues this made-for-TV with a vicious energy and subtext while framing compositions as if this was meant for the big screen.
The plot concerns Bubba a mentally handicapped man who has befriended Marylee, a bright and intelligent little girl. When she is attacked and mauled by a dog, four men jump to the conclusion that Bubba has molested her and hunt him down. Bubba tries to escape but is found dressed as a scarecrow hiding in plain sight. The four men murder him as he hangs upon the “cross” in the rags with a sack over his head. When the men are cleared of charges, they meet their demise one by one. But who is behind this retributive Justice? Is it Bubba’s elderly mother? The county DA who believes in their guilt even though he can’t prove it? Is it the little girl?
Though the film wears its heart on its sleeve, so to speak, there is a nasty undercurrent for those who listen carefully and look for metaphor: some things just cannot be said on network TV! The first scene shows Bubba and Marylee sitting in a field playing a game. Bubba crushes a flower by mistake and almost cries. He carefully finds another and presents it to her. This act will bookend the film and is touching and endearing, holding some scintilla of beauty in a dirty desperate world of adults. Marylee has made a Hawaiian necklace of flowers, or Lei as she rightly calls it. She puts it over Bubba’s head and wants to kiss him on the cheek. He’s shy but finally allows her, and she gives him an innocent peck on the cheek which is all very childish and friendly.
Cut to: the Postman, who vehemently complains that Bubba has been seen with a child again, and exclaims “what are we gonna do about it”. This sets the story up nicely since TV narratives must be told in fifteen minute increments. But we’re already feeling the anxiety of the townsfolk. The little girl and Bubba playing with a “Lei” can be read phonetically: lay, as in sexual intercourse. The kiss on the cheek denotes a sexual attraction. Why is the Postman so angry? Has Bubba ever harmed another child? As the story unfolds and it is discovered that Bubba was benign, we begin to wonder about this Postman and his accusations. Bubba’s mother even mentions as much in a heated argument with the Postman. Even his scene with Marylee in the school corridor with her dressed up as an adult with lipstick and makeup sexualizes her and ends in her being chased by him. The specter of Pedophilia haunts this story as much as the ghostly scarecrow. How’s that for early 80’s Prime Time entertainment!
Director Frank De Filetta films in a decidedly cinematic style with crane shots, slow zooms and tracking shots without relying too much upon close-ups and quick editing. Since the story must break every 15 minutes or so for commercials, De Filetta paces the story with extraordinary patience by building suspense and leaving a cliffhanger which often remains unresolved after the intermission. His sense of humor is blackly beautiful as he utilizes one of the greatest match-cuts in TV history: after one of the victims is ground-up in a wood chipper he cuts from the spinning blades to a dollop of cherry jam on a breakfast platter. It’s laugh-out-loud wonderful and makes one a bit queasy at the same time!
I cannot praise the acting enough as it fits the narrative perfectly and balances the suspense and empathetic link towards the violent resolution. Though the characters are not delineated with backstories, each must be quickly understood within the paradigm of the story. This often leads to leaden caricature or campy and cartoonish overacting. Not so in this film. The acting is top notch from the humble mentally challenged victim to the virulent antagonist in the local Post Master. Charles Durning steals the film as the bigoted Otis Hazelrigg and tears through his scenes with fury and professional competence. He is despicable but fully human as Durning never allows his character to fall into debased stereotype. The other actors in the conspiracy are also strong and believable which makes their murder even worse: these are real people who have made a fatal decision and must live with it. Only they need not worry too much as they won’t live long!
DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW keeps one guessing even as each conspirator is murdered in a grisly fashion. Well, grisly enough for TV as little blood is actually shown. Surprisingly, when Bubba is shot we do get a look in medium shot at the leaking bullet holes torn through his costume. A mundane or Earth-bound explanation could explain each and every killing up until the very end. Even as Hazelrigg looks into the black shadowy recesses of his killer’s mask he cannot believe in the supernatural. It’s when the little girl is offered a pretty flower, this time not accidently smooshed that the final answer is delivered with a new promise: she’ll teach her friend a new trick called “the hiding game”. And that’s the most chilling treat of all!
Final Grade: (A)       

Monday, October 6, 2014

Q (Larry Cohen, 1982, USA)

Jimmy Quinn, a small time crook discovers that in order to make easy money one must break a few eggs. Larry Cohen’s giant monster movie places an Aztec god in the center of New York City and structures the story as a police procedural. It’s an interesting concept as Detective Shepard (David Carradine) develops a duel investigation because he links a serial killer who commits ritual sacrifices to the winged serpent who is devouring innocent victims. Of course, Shepard falls victim to politics as the mayor is only concerned with finding the monster and killing it and fails to consider the ritual motive.
Director Larry Cohen is used to working with small budgets and here it is effectively on display. He often shoots from the monster’s POV so he doesn’t have to reveal the creature. Cohen also allows only a quick glimpse into its open mouth or its shadow upon a skyscraper. After one attack which we barely glimpse, he shows pedestrians walking below being showered with blood from the corpse as it is carried away. These effects are rather affective but when the payoff comes it is rather disappointing as it looks like a poorly sculpted foam & rubber figure: believe me, this is not Ray Harryhausen! He films on location throughout the city and this gives the story a certain gravitas. It certainly was the right decision because the faux-reality of studio filming would have made this film unwatchable. Cohen is able to generate some suspense and a few jump-scares but suspends it all after revealing the monster’s location. It then focuses upon Jimmy Quinn and his get-rich-quick scheme and the story becomes shrill and overbearing.
Michael Moriarity really steals the film out from under the latex creation and is the star of the film. As Jimmy Quinn, he twists and turns with nervous energy and grins like a shark. The problem with his performance is that he becomes annoying and unlikable. While anti-heroes can be the focal point of a story they must adhere to one rule only: they must be interesting. Quinn starts out as interesting but falls into stereotype. Meanwhile David Carradine sleepwalks through the movie and is not only uninteresting but even more sinful: boring. Aside from Moriarity, the entire cast phoned in their performances!
Cohen tries to jump-start the final act with a machine-gun battle from the top of the Chrysler building (alluding to the grand finale of KING KONG) but the SPFX aren’t up to the task. The final shot of an undiscovered nest with egg in another part of town is the final payoff and as it cracks open the camera zooms into its inky blackness. 
Q is good for a few scares and laughs but is not one of Cohen’s more imaginative endeavors...but it does have its charm.
Final Grade: (C)