Sunday, June 27, 2010

It's Alive

Mr. and Mrs. Frank Davis, after experimenting with fertility drugs, find themselves expecting a second child. What they do NOT expect is said child (with a birthweight of a robust 12 pounds) emerging from the womb and killing everyone in maternity. The mutant child carves a bloody swath across L.A., and soon various law enforcement and corporate interests enter the ring to contain, study and/or destroy the wayward child. And the Davises are torn apart as Frank obsesses over being the one to kill his child.

Your proprietor loves himself some Larry Cohen, so when the call* went out to watch and review this film I jumped on it. I think I'd only ever seen it on cable at a young age (not to worry - despite being banned in several countries it was released here with a PG rating), but have quite a few friends who remain scarred by it. Having happily digested some of Cohen's later films, I was pleased to find that it balanced solid genre thrills with the loose, seemingly improvised and decidedly offbeat character moments that pepper his other films. And though the film is clearly a product of the 70s (from its costuming to its excavation of then-contemporary issues of abortion and environmental mutation), it's unfortunately very much of the present. As various characters sounded off on the damage we do to the environment, and thus to ourselves, I kept flashing to the oil disaster that continues to darken the Gulf Coast, and wondering what manner of offspring it might sire.

One of Cohen's unsung strengths is his selection of collaborators, and the leeway he gives them. Several people from the locations where the movie was shot were pressed into service as bit players (the Scots nurse who escorts Davis toward the delivery room is particularly fine), but Cohen's bigger name players do fine work as well. The young FX artist Rick Baker crafts a memorable (if little-seen) monster that helps strike a primal chord. Veteran film composer Bernard Herrmann had already begun a 1970s second wind with de Palma's Sisters, but his work on this film (resplendent with his usual low-end woodwinds and his recently discovered bass guitar and Moog synth), overblown though it sometimes is, helped re-establish his name amongst the young generation of filmmakers.

But my favorite surprise of the film was the lead performance by John Ryan. I recognized him as one of several go-to actors regularly pressed into service as paramilitary assholes on M*A*S*H. He brings a similar intensity to Frank Davis. And Cohen just lets the camera run on him when Davis, confronting his child in a dark corridor, feels his murderous impulses give way to fatherhood. It's a great piece of understated acting, and when Davis starts crying he's not alone.

* = This review is part of the Final Girl Film Club, hosted as always by the gorgeous and glorious Stacie Ponder. Take a look at her SPACE GIRLS series.

Monday, June 14, 2010

GIRLS ON FILM (long uncensored version + short censored version)

The band made two versions of this video: one (for the 12" dance remix) "tastefully smutty" to cause a stir and get noticed in nightclubs, the other (for the 7" version) sensuous but relatively tame for safer venues (MTV hadn't launched when the video was made). We teenagers weaned on MTV saw the latter version, but though we were too young for the clubs, we were well aware of the former. Though Duran Duran came up through the late 70s postpunk scene in the UK, their first three albums and the attendant videos all seemed to hit the States at about the same time, and though the "tastefully smutty" GIRLS ON FILM clip was intended for adults-only venues, the sheer ubiquity of early Duran product being foisted on US fans meant that it was easy to find. I suspect most of my teenaged peers either borrowed an older sibling's copy or rented it from an unwary clerk at a video rental shop (which is how I eventually caught up with it). Everyone who grew up on Duran Duran knows both versions, which leads me to believe that there were other pre-teen or teen fans for whom seeing the video was something of a rite of passage. It was intended for nightclubs and pay TV networks like the nascent Playboy Channel, but since the band were for "young people with lots of energy" (per Simon LeBon's words), did they really expect we wouldn't seek it out?

Fig. 1 - "tastefully smutty"

After recently re-watching both versions of the video, I was struck less by the vintage erotica (lovingly itemized here) as by the intersecting levels of fantasy and reality. The long version of the clip begins with a minute of behind the scenes footage (with stagehands building the set, artists making up the band) mixed with footage of the band performing. We're taken back and forth between the preparation, the "performance", and the various erotic scenarios that unfold in front of the band. Flashbulbs pop off from cameras wielded both by photographers and actors playing photographers. The video often serves as a document of the making of itself, and the artful and efficient dismantling of the line between the levels of fantasy and reality suggest that directors Godley and Creme have perhaps absorbed some Jacques Rivette as well as Tinto Brass.

Fig. 2 - is the POV here real or fake?

To your proprietor's considerable surprise, this aspect of the video is even more sharply prevalent in the "safe", short version, which ends with a small debutante party unfolding in the ring before the band. As a masked gentleman stands unnervingly still, two glitzily dressed couples take the stage, dance to the final verse, then retire to the offstage area for cocktails, where one of the women forcefully kisses a t-shirt-and-jeans clad stagehand who's seen throughout both versions. A quick shot of the band breaks up the progression, but it's not enough to indicate a passage from video-time to real-time, and the effect is a startling crossover of onstage desire to the backstage realm. Though the artsmut of both versions is what they're remembered for, it's this surprisingly sophisticated ballet of lust and fantasy that gives the video its real oomph, and keeps the clip feeling fresh even thirty years after its making.

Coda - GIRLS ON FILM is neither the band's best video nor their sexiest, but it was the first video with which they reached out to catch the music video wave that they would ride to world wide fame. This early body of work played before my eyes at a time when I was just understanding what film could do, and just as Duran Duran's music suggested the weirder places that music could go, these videos (particularly the clips by Russell Mulcahy) helped form my understanding of how films were made. All told for now.

Thursday, June 3, 2010


The man's name seems to be in the title for this, and why not? As director of the films that defined the modern zombie as a shambling, flesh-eating reflection of our ongoing societal anxieties, he's certainly earned the right to have his work trademarked to differentiate it from his legions of followers and imitators. Indeed, since his more recent work in the zombie subgenre is quite minor in comparison to his first two masterworks, perhaps such branding will help set his current, lo-fi and low-budget fare apart from the similarly low-budget zombie films that litter the modern horror landscape.

There's no question that SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD lacks the scope and impact of NIGHT or DAWN, but your proprietor is hard pressed to see why that matters much. If SURVIVAL has the impact of a sketch in comparison to the wider canvases of the earlier films, there's enough variation on the formula (and some intriguing callbacks to previous work) to make it engaging. A small contingent of rogue military, led by the gore weary Sarge Crockett (Alan van Sprang, reprising a short role from Romero's previous), find themselves caught up in a feud between two Irish American clans on an island off the coast of Delaware. Romero offers an intriguing (if diffuse) parable for the mindless violence we perpetuate, and deploys the undead in more subtle ways to put his points across. The zombies occasionally even seem beside the point, until a lovely final image (a nice visual rhyme to the bald zombie that served as DAWN's main icon) ties it all together. A fairly large cast of unknowns do justice to the weird little human moments that Romero's peppered his script with. And of course there's a solid helping of good ol' zombie gore.

Some guys reach retirement age and turn to painting. Romero sticks to zombie films, crafting modest little works that still reveal a working and engaged aesthetic. I'll see the next one, too.