Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Pop Art: Andre Norton/Ace Books Edition

Muir Book Wednesday: The Rock and Roll Film Encyclopedia (2007)

Well, I haven't done one of these shameless self-promotion posts in quite a while, so today I thought I might casually (*ahem*) draw your attention to another one of my written works. In particular, I'm highlighting 2007's Rock and Roll Film Encyclopedia (Applause Theatre and Cinema Books).

I loved writing this book because I wrote it in the spirit of the genre: no f-ing rules! Anyway, here's a sampling of the critical reception the book received on release back in 2007:

"This is one totally rockin’ A-to-Z reference book way too groovy to gather dust on a bookshelf."
—Neil Pond, American Profile.

"...a witty, riff-filled romp through rock-and-popular-music related films, people and genre conventions in post-1956 American and British cinema. The entire book is unabashedly (and quite refreshingly) subjective and unstructured, allowing the author to display his deep knowledge and affection for the subject." - Library Journal, May 15, 2007.

"The Rock & Roll Film Encyclopedia is a perfect book, jam-packed full of pictures, reviews and descriptions of every rock'n'roll film ever made, and is a guaranteed parent's Netflix queue filler for up to a year." -azTeenMagazine.

"..It covers a lot of ground, from ’56 to 2005, ranging from blockbusters such as Grease to documentaries like The Kids Are Alright, with biographies, interviews, notes on casts and crews and DVD availability. The author knows his stuff and isn’t afraid to express his opinions..." Alan Lewis, Record Collector, Issue # 340.

"Popular film critic Muir's latest volume is a comprehensive encyclopedia (231 entries) devoted to the pairing of rock music and film from 1956 to 2005...a good choice for popular film collections...Recommended." - Choice.

"All told, The Rock & Roll Film Encyclopedia is both a unique reference point for film and music aficionados offering some interesting takes on the genre, as well as a fun collection of trivia on some of the best and least well known films of the past 50 years." - Jason Neubauer, Playback:stl, June 24, 2007.

"...infinitely suitable thumb-through reference for teenagers, casual moviegoers, and regular film fans." - Sir Read-a-Lot, June 2007, issue 99.

"The list of rock'n'roll movies includes landmarks such as "A Hard Day's Night" and "Woodstock," as well as a shelf of Elvis Presley flicks too forgettable to mention (OK, just one: "Clambake"). John Kenneth Muir's The Rock & Roll Film Encyclopedia (358 pages, Applause, $19.95) seems to cover them all, along with a number of feature films in which the music simply sounds really good. While Muir clearly loves his subject, he's not blind to its excesses. Witness his refreshingly arch entry for "circular logic" -- "Wherein a rocker / musician attempts to say something meaningful and deep, but only succeeds in confusing the audience, and usually himself." - The Richmond-Times Dispatch.

"An excellent reference." - MBR Bookwatch

"Trust me, "The Rock & Roll Film Encyclopedia" is no ordinary compendium of cheesy movies with really loud soundtracks...More than 200 films are catalogued and there is a handy index in the back. Garage bands everywhere will want to get a copy of this encyclopedia, to stack right alongside the fake books, guitar chord charts and restaurants delivering take-out." - Chuck Graham, The Tucson Citizen, May 2007.

The book features entries on rock films of all varieties, from animated films (Yellow Submarine [1968]) to bio-pics (What's Love Got to Do With It [1993]), to documentaries (The Last Waltz [1978]) to the canon of "The King," Elvis Presley (Kid Galahad [1962], etc). I also look at fictional band movies (This is Spinal Tap [1984]) horror rock like Trick or Treat (1986) and movies with rock soundtracks (American Graffiti [1973]). I'm also happy that I was able to include entries on genre conventions and actors who made my personal rock movie hall of fame. The book also features new interviews with directors Allan Arkush (Rock and Roll High School), Martin Davidson (Eddie and the Cruisers), Albert Magnoli (Purple Rain) and more.

Here's a representative "genre conventions" entry from the book, an excerpt remembering the all-important rock movie cliche, "destruction of property:"

You can't really make a good rock movie unless your stars destroy personal property. It's a rule. And it clearly establishes the anti-authority credentials of the damager.

"In The Who: The Kids Are Alright, a montage is featured during which drummer Keith Moon ransacks a hotel room. The same film also reveals the band's propensity to smash guitars (and even totals up the cost to The Who for this destructive tic.)

In D.A. Pennebaker's Monterey Pop (1968), Peter Townshend is back to his guitar-destroying tricks but is one-upped by Jimi Hendrix who, following a performance of "Wild Thing," sprays fuel on his guitar and then sets it aflame.

In Walk The Line (2005), an angry Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) rips apart a bathroom, tugging a sink basin right out of the wall.

In Don't Look Back (1967), somebody who doesn't want to fess up (allegedly Joan Baez) is responsible for throwing a drinking glass out a window and angering Bob Dylan.

In both Pink Floyd: The Wall (1983) and The Doors (1991), rock stars (fictional character Pink and Jim Morrison, respectively) make wreckages of their hotel rooms, a seeming rite of passage for this demographic..."

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

For Each Man's Evils a Demon Exists: Jungian Archetypes and the Morality of Vengeance in Pumpkinhead (1988)

Bolted doors and windows barred,
Guard dogs prowling in the yard,
Won't protect you in your bed,
Nothing will, from Pumpkinhead.

- Pumpkinhead (a poem by Ed Justin)

A contemporary Grimm Fairy Tale, the 1988 film Pumpkinhead (directed by the late Stan Winston) is also something more than that general description implies. The film actually serves as an example of modern, cinematic folklore. In the Jungian sense of that term, it contends explicitly with the human unconscious and human archetypes.

is the story of kindly Ed Harley (Lance Henriksen), a man and father who sees his young son, Billy (Matthew Harley) recklessly killed by a group of irresponsible tourists: dirt bikers led by the brutish Joel (John Di Aquino).

After his boy's death, Harley visits an old witch, Haggis, seeking help. Alas, even this sorceress cannot raise the dead. Instead, the old crone suggests a wicked alternative: Ed can make his vengeance manifest in the form of an invincible demon called Pumpkinhead. Ed once saw that very monster in childhood, in 1957, and so he follows the witch's instructions for conjuring this monstrous Personification of Vengeance.

Before long, Pumpkinhead goes on a vicious murder spree -- a surrogate for Ed -- attacking Joel and all his friends and eventually murdering them in horrible, merciless ways. However, Ed soon begins to see the nature of the terror he has willfully unleashed on Earth, sharing Pumpkinhead's "sight" at critical moments. Ed then comes to the realization that he must pay the ultimate price to curtail the evil he has loosed on the world...

When discussing folklore, Swiss philosopher Carl Jung pinpointed specific universal character archetypes, many of which are given a new life in this Winston horror film. Henriksen's Ed Harley, the film's protagonist, is a manifestation of the Ego. He is a man of gentleness and reason, who has repressed his "emotional" past (the vision of Pumpkinhead) and now lives in relative seclusion with his son, far from the dangers of noisy city life. We have every reason to believe that Ed is a "good" salt-of-the-earth type character, at least until his quest for justice turns punitive; becoming a quest for vengeance.

Pumpkinhead himself is another Jungian archetype: "The Shadow." He is the opposite of the Ego (Ed) but with qualities nonetheless present in the Ego, only ones not identified or openly acknowledged. In other words, Pumpkinhead is representative of Ed's buried, undetected blood lust; his vengeance personified. These blood-thirsty, merciless qualities have always been present in Ed, we must believe, but without a catalyst (the death of his beloved boy), they would never have boiled to the surface and found expression. Ego and Shadow are connected in another way too: inside the very shape of Pumpkinhead. The beast soon begins to take on the facial features of the man who raised him, Ed. So part of Ed -- the ugly part -- is literally inside the demon. They Ego and the Shadow share "sight," they share a face, and they share a destiny: damnation.
Finally, we come to Billy, a blond-haired little boy. He represents an archetype that Jung believed was present in every one of us: The Child. The child symbolizes innocence, naivete, the future, tomorrow, even treasure. To Ed, Bill is indeed the greatest treasure in the material world; the innocent thing to be protected from an increasingly cruel, loud, and fast modern world. Billy is Ed's hope for a better future, and Pumpkinhead features many beautiful, sweet scenes (including one at a kitchen table...) that involve Ed and little Billy -- father and son -- living their life of togetherness and fellowship. Though Henriksen is often called upon to play sinister roles these days, it is his tender, fatherly side that resonates most powerfully with me, as both a viewer and a critic. It's a side you often see on display in two of best productions: Pumpkinhead and Millennium. And it's also a side that brings forward, with great power (and emotion...), the scope of Ed Harley's loss; the scope of his pain and suffering. With Billy gone, Ed has lost his hope for the future; his purpose for living. He has lost all his tomorrows. So when Ed seeks vengeance, the audience is definitely on his side. We know he's a good man; we understand what he's lost and we -- with him -- demand justice.

But folklore -- again in the Jungian definition of that word -- always serves a specific moral purpose. It excavates the unconscious, the very instincts and failings of mankind as a species. It intentionally deals in stereotypes and absolutes so as to make a cogent point ,and in Pumpkinhead that is indeed the case. Billy is not just sweet...he is angelic. And Pumpkinhead is not just Vengeance made manifest, but the epitome of Vengeance Made Manifest: an ugly, snarling, horrible, murderous, unstoppable, sacriligeous demon. Ed is not just tortured, but he is tortured in a Biblical sense, like Job himself. The point of Pumpkinhead, of course, is that "two wrongs don't make a right," and that vengeance is not justice. Vengeance is something else entirely: the unquenchable need to inflect some greater pain on a person who has wronged you. The Bible writes of "an eye for an eye" because violence tenfold against your enemy was too draconian, too horrible. That's Ed's sin in Pumpkinhead, seeking an out-of-proportion punishment for the crime. But our emotions are engaged, our imaginations stirred by the universal, almost stereotypical nature of the beautiful child, the bereaved Dad and the monster from Hell.

Like some of the best horror films ever made, Pumpkinhead remains determinedly anti-violence (and anti-vengeance) -- in much the same manner as Wes Craven's misunderstood Last House on the Left (1972) -- because it it points to a painful and often forgotten human verity: vengeance solves nothing. And the cost to the person pursuing vengeance is often, literally, his soul.

In Pumpkinhead, Ed is forced to reckon with the fact that he has called an unearthly presence to right an earthly wrong. His response to a tragedy was understandable, but ultimately out-of-proportion. The teens in the films are careless and rude, and they did kill Billy in that incident. But Joel -- who is reckless and negligent -- is actually guilty of simply being an arrogant, thoughtless asshole. He never set out with malice to hurt anyone. The wronged Ed, by contrast, does proceed with malice. He calls a demon that doesn't discriminate between victims, that doesn't weigh evidence, but merely judges ALL the involved teens as guilty, despite their varying levels of responsibility. Again, this is not justice, and Ed learns that the hard way.

In Pumpkinhead, the Ego unleashes the Shadow, a force of incredible evil, and in process poisons his own soul. I always wonder: what would Billy think of his father's conjuration of the beast? Isn't Ed's decision to revenge Billy's death, actually, the very thing that destroys Ed's goodness? That destroys the innocence inside him?

These are the questions that the original Pumpkinhead contemplates with great style and intelligence, and it is rewarding to view a horror film in the decade of Death Wish-sequels, Chuck Norris, Dirty Harry and Rambo that advocates a stance against vigilantes and eye-for-an-eye "justice." Pumpkinhead sees no benefit, no reward, no healing in blood lust. Even more commendably, the film offers a didactic lesson: Ed sought revenge but didn't how how messy and monstrous revenge could be until faced with it, through Pumpkinhead's inhuman, eyes. Again, this is a film that argues against violence, but in a society that still pursues "shock and awe," pre-emptive war and relies on "you're either with us or you're against us" platitudes, the message hasn't gotten much traction.

is a beautifully crafted horror film, one routinely aglow with a cold, blue-gray palette, and heavy on oppressive atmosphere and atmospherics (including fog and mist). The film seems to exist outside any specific modern decade, granting it a timeless, universal visual quality that matches the theme. And the pumpkin patch where Pumpkinhead is born is not soon forgotten: a Stygian landscape of though vengeance has made the earth itself lifeless and decrepit.

So many horror films trade in black-and-white homilies, but Pumpkinhead even opens the door to ambiguity, particularly in the depiction of the sorcerer witch, Haggis. Essentially a "neighborhood witch" that expresses the tensions between country-folk and city folk and between the natural and supernatural worlds, her role is never exactly clarified in the screenplay or by director Winston. Essentially, she sends Ed to Pumpkinhead, but is it because she divines his purpose (vengeance) and wishes to expedite that purpose? Or is it because she seeks to destroy Ed's soul? Is she just using necromancy and other tricks of her trade to facilitate a "customer's" order, or is she a more sinister agent who gets something personal from the corruption of the innocent?

By utilizing Jungian archetypes (the Ego, the Shadow, the Child), and by focusing intently on a shared trait of our contemporary culture (the desire for personal revenge after a crime), Pumpkinhead dramatizes a universal tale about the human condition. The film's characterizations are "well-developed for the genre," (The Houston Chronicle, October 14, 1988), and the film has "heart...and a touch of sweetness" (The Daily Morning News), but more than that, it serves as a statement against the times it was made. It sees revenge as a wrong doubled; not as a wrong corrected.

Pumpkinhead 2: Blood Wings (1994) drags the premise of Pumpkinhead down to cartoonish levels, maintaining the universality of the material but at the expense of the intellectual themes. Here, a deformed boy, Tommy, is actually the son of a demon and a witch, and is conjured as Pumpkinhead to murder the brutes who killed him years ago, in 1958. In this film, Pumpkinhead is actually diverted from his blood quest by reason; by a heart-felt speech from a sympathetic law man, Braddock (Andrew Robinson). Although this unexpected climax saves the innocent damsel in distress (Ami Dolenz), it betrays a core human truth: vengeance does not sleep with reason. On the contrary, they are strangers to one another. Vengeance is a desire of the angry heart; reason a construct of the rational mind. Once engaged, vengeance cannot so easily be disengaged. In other words, it's hard to believe that Vengeance Personified would be swayed from his bloody mission by a well-delivered plea. Indeed, if this were the case, Ed Harley -- our protagonist in the original film -- would not have had to lay down his life to stop Pumpkinhead. So in some way, this sequel -- for all the good intentions -- only serves to diminish and undercut the original film.

Shakespeare wrote that "The rarer action is /In virtue than in vengeance." (The Tempest, Act V: Scene I), a plea for people to forgive their enemies rather than punish them. It's human nature, perhaps to hate those who hurt us, but Pumpkinhead is a reminder that revenge actually solves nothing. In preferring this moral point with archetypal clarity, Pumpkinhead serves ably as modern American folklore, not to mention cautionary tale.

Monday, October 19, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Scarface (1983)

What does the American Dream mean to you, and how far would you go to pursue that dream? More to the point, when does someone else's relentless pursuit of the American Dream become a nightmare for the rest of us?

In other words, when does the personal journey from "rags to riches" become so consuming, so vital, so paramount that it actually destroys the social conrtact, threatens the larger sense of community, and leaves accepted morality shattered, in pieces on the ground?

And -- importantly -- have we reached that point in America yet? Or did we actually reach it decades ago, when Ronald Reagan assumed the Presidency and changed the way an entire nation conducts business? (By this, I mean de-fanging and eliminating business regulation, cutting taxes for the super rich, and reducing social services to a bare minimum).

These still-relevant questions beat restlessly inside the turbulent, angry heart of Brian De Palma's radical, firebrand gangster movie Scarface (1983), a film that today has become virtually synonymous with the excesses of the 1980s and, in particular, the beginning of the "greed is good" era in American culture. This De Palma film continues to be germane in 2009 because -- to a very large and therefor disturbing extent -- we still live in that culture. Only today the Boeskys and Milkens have morphed into Kenneth Lay, Bernard J. Ebbers, and Bernie Madoff.

In surface terms, Scarface is a remake of the beloved 1932 Howard Hawks film of the same name (though subtitled "The Shame of a Nation"). Yet De Palma and screenwriter Oliver Stone have not slavishly re-fashioned a classic film with their 1983 version of the material. Instead, they have created a fiery, subversive, original commentary on their times, the 1980s.

Although their title character is a gangster and drug dealer named Tony Montana (Al Pacino), De Palma and Stone take great pains to contextualize Montana as something else entirely: a modern, 1980s business man. Accordingly, Scarface is virtually brimming with pointed references to capitalism, communism, and the milieu of big business.

With capitalism-gone-wild as their deliberate subtext, De Palma and Stone reveal how excessive greed eventually separates the film's grasping protagonist from his friends, family, and from his culture, even. Tony Montana's excesses become so...excessive, in fact, that his gold-plate home decorations would likely cause even Tyco's Dennis Kozlowski to blush. The neon production design of the film is extraordinary and effective because it strengthens and supports the notion that Tony observes no limits. Not in his personal appetites, not in his material wants, and certainly not in his morality, though, in his defense, he does not allow an innocent child to die late in the film during a bombing mission. Perhaps because that child makes him think of the child he and Elvira have never been able to conceive.

But when one taboo is broken during the blazing rise to "success," the film seems to advise us, it's impossible to respect any significant boundary. Thus Tony exhibits and nurtures sexual longing for his own biological sister, Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), and covets her to the point of murder. Nope, the boundary of family is not sacrosanct to Montana.

Tony also kills his boss, Lopez (Robert Loggia), essentially, for possession of his boss's girlfriend, Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer). Montana eventually proves disloyal even to those who rose up with him to the top, like his doomed best friend Manny (Steven Bauer).

In the end, the film makes a literal comment about Tony's all-consuming selfishness and over-sized ego: Montana is shot and killed in his extravagant upstairs foyer because there is literally no one left to watch his back. His murderer -- a shadowy assassin in sun-glasses -- sneaks up behind him, unnoticed, undetected. The Mannys, the Elviras, the Ginas, the Angels, etc., are all long gone and can't warn him of the danger. Montana's desire to be the one on top has, in fact, left him dangerously vulnerable and alone.

De Palma's film, as critic Vincent Canby noted in The New York Times, "is a relentlessly bitter, satirical tale of greed, in which all supposedly decent emotions are sent up for the possible ways in which they can be perverted." Indeed, Tony's ego is the great destroyer here: ripping apart friendships; forever paranoid; always bullying and out sized. He thinks highly of himself and lowly of everybody else. All that matters is his self-glorification (and here, that glorification takes the form of material wealth).

"The Biggest Problem? What To Do With All The Fucking Cash"

is dominated by allusions and references to capitalism. First, Montana is introduced as a militant political refugee who fought against Castro in Cuba.

But in fact, he boasts no real political beliefs except he doesn't want "anyone" telling him "what to do," a quality of a communist state, he perceives. Tony even says he would "kill a communist for fun," when offered an "opportunity" to rise through the ranks while incarcerated in "Freedom town," a make-shift community for detainees from the Mariel Boat Lift in 1980. But again, Montana's views are convenient: he's against communism because it restricts his personal freedom to rise to the top. He wants to be rich, so it's a personal not ideological thing.

After leaving the camp, Montana takes a job as a dish-washer at a small food stand in Miami (underneath a sign for a fancy restaurant called Little Havana). From his perch at the kitchen sink, Tony watches gorgeous women and well-dressed men line up in expensive cars and attend a ritzy club. Right there and then, he settles on a life of crime. He wants the proverbial American Dream and he doesn't want to wait for it. He and Manny thus leave their "honest" but low-paying jobs to work for a cocaine dealer named Omar Suarez (F. Murray Abraham). In the world of drug dealing, says Omar's Boss, Frankie, the biggest problem is what to do with all the cash. And he's right. Once ensconced as a thug for Frank Lopez, Montana graduates to the glitzy world of 550 dollar suits ("so you can look real sharp") and 40,000 dollar Porsches. His appetites only grow and grow.

In particular, Montana has his eye on Elvira, Frankie's girlfriend (and a 24-hours-a-day coke whore...). But Tony knows he is not yet ready to claim his golden-haired trophy wife. "In this country, you gotta make the money first," he tells Manny. "Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the women." That's as terse and accurate a description, perhaps, of the the pathway to success in the contemporary U.S. as has yet been written.

At one point, Montana -- now a murderer for money and a purveyor of soul-stealing drugs -- makes a pilgrimage to the modest home of his honest, work-a-day mother. He brags to her "You son made it, Mama. He's a success." What's important to Tony is clear: his image: the car he drives, the suits he wears, the cash he can throw around (he gives Gina a thousand dollars...); even the fear he can engender in enemies and underlings. Tony knows he is a murderer, but lies to his mother and claims to be a political "organizer." Montana's mom sees through him quickly: "He's a bum. He was a bum then, and he's a bum now."

Also illuminating is the scene in which Tony and Elvira discuss what will be the terms of their marital union. It's a cold-hearted negotiation, not a romantic proposal. "You like children?" Tony asks. "As long as there's a nurse," she replies." It might as well be spelled out in contract boilerplate. There's no romance, no love, no joy in the courting: just an agreement for a mutually beneficial material partnership.

But Scarface finds its most critical voice of crony capitalism in the quick advancement by Tony to drug lord through --- essentially -- murderous attrition. Omar gets killed, and Tony moves up. Then Tony kills Frank, and he moves up again. All the while, Tony says things like "we gotta expand. The whole operation. Distribution." Or "Here's the Land of Opportunity." He's thus talking legitimate "business jargon" in an illegitimate, murderous business, but that's okay: America gives Tony its tacit permission to keep on climbing the business ladder. After killing Frank, Tony spies the Goodyear Blimp in the sky above. Emblazoned on the side, in huge letters is the legend "The World is Yours." This becomes Tony's mantra; his permission to take his personal quest for power and wealth far beyond "the limits" that most Americans observe. The slogan later appears in Tony's extravagant hall entrance, on a statue.

Amusingly, De Palma even stages a montage of Tony's monetary extravagance to the Paul Engemann-performed tune "Push it to the Limit." Again, that might as well be the mission statement of crony capitalism. Grab whatever you can get now, while the gettin's good. Or, as sung in the lyrics:
"Hit the wheel and double the stakes; throttle wide open like a bat out of hell and you crash the gates."

Interestingly, the police do almost nab Montana. Not on murder charges. Not on conspiracy to commit murder. And not on drug running. Nope, they nearly catch him on charges of tax evasion. What is it with some wealthy capitalists that they can't pay their fair share of taxes? It's laughable: the super rich complaining about paying taxes which benefit the community at large. Taxes pay for libraries, roads, social services, unemployment benefits, utilities, schools for children, firefighters and policemen...and for our standing army (support the troops, but not with your wallet!). Yet the super rich like Tony -- who may have acted unscrupulously (like Lay, Ebbers and the others) to get his money-- behave like they earned it merely by "hard work." That's one of the biggest unchallenged lies in the on-going argument for crony capitalism in this country. that rich got there honestly; and that the poor are somehow lazy or undeserving simply because they didn't "push it to the limit" the way execs at Enron did.

In an essay entitled "The American Dream in Film," author Ray Jones writes: "De Palma presents America as a corrupt and mercenary land in which opportunity is available to those who are prepared to go further for success. Go further in the sense that they, like Montana, are prepared to kill and literally dispose of the competition. De Palma was critical of America and presented the view that to be successful in a corrupt world, to fulfil their goals and manifest destiny, characters would have to become corrupt as well. This theme was presented to some extent in Hawks’ 1932 version of Scarface, which had the tagline “Shame of a Nation”. Yet, De Palma went further in his criticism and the tagline to the video of Scarface tellingly claims “He loved the American Dream with a vengeance.”

Don't Underestimate The Other Guy's Greed: Tony the Tiger

So what does "the limit" look like when you're in the drug-dealing/100-billion-dollar-a-year business? De Palma's Scarface shows us in gaudy, even lurid detal. In the neon and pastel pink Miami of the 1980s, it's a world of golden-plated bedrooms (with bubble baths built right into the floor), monogrammed leather chairs, wall-sized portraits of the happy Montanas...and piles and piles of snow white cocaine on demand.

Why, Tony has even captured a tiger and leashed it on his estate. The ultimate decadence. An animal leashed and trapped merely to prove a visual reminder of Tony's wealth and dominance. From exotic animals, it's just a small step to vodka- spewing ice sculptures and 6,000 dollar gold-and-burgundy floral-patterned shower curtains, no?

The tiger is an important symbol in Scarface. Historically, a tiger is s symbol of strength and power, inspiring respect and fear. That's what Tony is...a tiger. That's how he sees himself: Tony the Tiger. Unlike his pet, however, he is not caged or leashed by society's rules. He is the predator loosed in America, free to roam, to feed, to sate his material appetites. He doesn't believe he'll ever go down, but of course, he does. He makes enemies with people who are higher up the ladder than he is.

I don't know how well this comparison will hold up for you, but in the past I often found it illuminating. I sometimes term Scarface the Dawn of the Dead of gangster movies. By that I mean that both Dawn of the Dead and Scarface are epic master-works (clocking in at over two-hours, each), both are critical of the changes in the American pop culture -- towards overt, unbridled materialism in the late 1970s-early 1980s -- and both are extremely violent; though intelligently so. The violence in Scarface, like that featured in Dawn of the Dead, is brutal, gruesome, and hard-to-stomach in its first half, and then just rather numbing and de-sensitizing in the second half. In both films, the audience comes to view violence and death as part of the inevitable landscape of the characters, whether they are fighting zombies or drug dealers. Both are genre films that overturn genre conventions to make socially valuble points.

And there's one shot in Scarface, I believe, that best represents or symbolizes the film: a Colombian drug dealer opens a suitcase, and stashed inside are two bags of to a chain saw. Drugs and violence, side-by-side.

I think that perhaps the saddest thing about Scarface is that much of today's culture has taken on Tony Montana as some kind of hero or role model. Like the weirdos who get off on owning the shopping mall in Dawn of the Dead, these people seem to think that Tony's immoral quest for the American dream is something to be emulated and championed. They will tell you, in all sincerity, that it was the breaking of Tony's second rule ("don't get high on your own supply") that resulted in his downfall.

That's kind of ignoring the whole murdering-to-get-rich-quick thing, isn't it?

Watching Scarface, I can't help but wonder if maybe it's time we got a new American dream. How about this one: we all get ahead together and try to restore the shattered social contract. Or how about this post-Reagan/post-Bush thought, (as a person of some note said recently):

Grab a mop.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 93: Dracula: The Series (1990)

By the closing days of Reagan's 1980s the scariest monsters in American society were rampaging, unethical businessmen.

Remember Ivan Boesky, convicted of insider trading, who was fined 100 million dollars and eventually served a two year sentence at Lompoc? Boesky was the model for Oliver Stone's Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) in Wall Street (1987) and had allegedly said (in a speech): "I think greed can be healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself."

Then there was Michael Milken, indicted on a whopping ninety-eight counts of racketeering and fraud involving insider trading. The "Junk Bond" King eventually copped to six counts and paid 200 million in fines.

And then, of course, there was Alexander Lucard, Dracula himself, played by actor Geordie Johnson...

What? You don't remember that last guy?

In 1990, Dracula: The Series aired in syndication all around America (on 115 stations...) and featured, in campy, tongue-in-cheek style, a central vampire who was as much unethical corporate raider as literal blood sucker. In fact, the very idea of vampire was re-tooled for the series to incorporate all the latest business malfeasance from a time when laissez-faire, crony-capitalism had run amok.

In the Dracula: The Series press-kit, series executive producer David Patterson noted that the Boesky/Milken interpretation of Dracula was but a "logical extension of the vampire legend as if he were operating in our world today," and asked "what could be more relevant" than Gordon Gekko as an undead bloodsucker, seeking eternal life.

A really fun novel idea, or heresy to the legacy of literary Stoker? Or could it be both at the same time?

Dracula: The Series was filmed in Luxembourg, and aired for 21 half-hour episodes. The series involved two pre-teeny bopper American brothers (and teenagers...) abroad, Max (Jacob Tierney) and Christopher Townsend (Joe Roncelli), as they endured a strange adventure. They relocated to the home of their Uncle Gustav Van Helsing (Bernard Behrens) in Eastern Europe and learned that the old man was locked in a perpetual battle with playboy billionaire, industrialist, and vcreature of the night, Dracula/Lucard (Johnson). This latter-day Dracula had an appetite for cold hard cash as well as hemoglobin, and was obsessed with exercising to keep himself fit.

A very youthful Mia Kirshner played the object of the boy's affections -- and perpetual damsel-in-distress -- Sophie Metternich. The series was ultimately canceled before resolving a cliffhanger finale entitled "Klaus Encounters of the Interred Kind." That last episode saw Max and Chris on the verge of being sent home to Philadelphia, as well as the opening of a portal "outside of time and space" that could end the vampire curse once and for all. Gustav hoped to open the portal to rescue his vampire son, Klaus (Geraint Wyn-Davies, pre-Forever Knight)

Critics didn't care much for William Laurin and Glenn Davis's modern re-interpretation of the Stoker character, or a TV series which was described far and wide in the press materials as an "all-family action-adventure!." Epilog's William Anchors called the series "sort of the television equivalent of Plan 9 from Outer Space," (Epilog Journal #41, Page 31). Although People Magazine made note of the "frequently stylish" aspects of the series as well as the "good special effects," it didn't fail to comment on the repetitive nature of the series' stories, which saw the American boys breaking into Dracula's castle on a regular basis...and always managing to survive. It became so tiresome a convention on the show that Dracula once quipped "Does everyone have the key to this castle?"

Longtime horror fans also vehemently disliked this short-lived 1990 series (distributed in the U.S. by Blair Entertainment) for three reasons: first, the re-vamped nature of Dracula as a yuppie, tread-mill-using capitalist. Second, the tongue-in-cheek nature of the individual stories (which featured titles such as "My Dinner with Lucard" and "My Fair Vampire,") and third, the childish nature of the lead characters. Think back to how Adric, or Wesley Crusher were received in their various fandoms, and you can imagine how fans took to the pre-adolescent leads of this show. Also, hardcore Dracula fans were never going to approve of a version of the legend which featured Dracula's silly come-back to the question "are you Dracula?" His answer. "No...I'm Milli Vanilli." Still, the program has maintained a small but devoted fan base for almost twenty years, and the series is available in its entirety on DVD for about ten bucks.

When I wrote about Dracula: The Series in Terror Television back in the late-1990s, I noted that the series often resembled "The Hardy Boys on speed" and that description still seems apt. Watching this series today (and back in the 1990s), you had to understand that it was aimed primarily at kids, and then (mercifully...) judge it on that basis. I mean, the show was not (and is not) scary in the's campy, but the series still has its moments. For instance, "I Love Lucard" ends with a romantic airport scene right out of Casablanca, but then culminates with a moment that annihilates any romantic notions about Lucard. "What A Pleasant Surprise" pays homage to the silent horror films of the 1920s with a sense of respect, and a bottle-show, "Decline of the Romanian Vampire" featured an extended dialogue between Gustav Van Helsing and Dracula about the nature of good and evil.

I also rather appreciated the fact that Dracula: The Series cast the very young (children)... and the very old (senior citizens) as our heroes, acknowledging -- if subtextually -- that only the young and the very old are capable of really believing in things like ghosts and vampires; either because of naive innocence (or senile dementia!). In the world of Dracula, the kids are taken seriously...even though they are young and silly. In these moments, you realize it was truly Dracula's ambition to be a family show and not a spine-tingling chiller.

On the same theme, I think it's worth noting that the series casts those between the ages of 20 and 50 as the villains or as the enablers of villains...often as undead personifications of contemporary yuppie values. Gustav's son Klaus, the boys' mother Eileen, and Dracula himself represented the upwardly mobile, self-involved, greed-is-good Reagan generation, and they can only be combated here by the disenfranchised, out-of-power groups like kids and seniors.

Hokey as hell and woefully juvenile, Dracula: The Series was often quite stale, hackneyed, and unacceptably repetitive. A serious concern was that it managed to reduce the menace of the regal Count Dracula to that of something like a Scooby Doo villain,-of-the-week, one who would have always gotten away with his evil schemes if not for some meddling kids. Every week, the American boys bested Dracula and stayed alive...and that just became hard to take if you had any long-standing affection for the immortal Stoker character of literature and film. How could you reasonably suspend disbelief that Dracula had been immortal for a century and succeeded so wildly...until he met two American pre-teens? They weren't exactly worthy nemeses.

Yet, if you approach Dracula: The Series as a Saturday morning kid's show, it's inarguably head and shoulders above of such lame programs as The Monster Squad (1976), a truly insulting monster bash that has survived based on the glow of nostalgia rather than any inherent quality of its own. Dracula: The Series is not the beneficiary of such warm nostalgia, but itremains eminently suitable for your (young) children. For me, it's an intriguing, bizarre series and not much else: one conceived out of late 1980s adult context (the corporate raiders and yuppies of the time), but pitched right to children.

Dracula: The Series is also interesting in terms of genre history. It's one of those missing link series from approximately 1987- 1991 like Friday the 13th: The Series, She Wolf of London and Werewolf, when the horror genre was really standing up on its feet on TV and greatness was just around the corner in the form of Twin Peaks, The X-Files, Millennium, Buffy, and so forth.

Today, Dracula: the Series is kid's stuff, but as kid's stuff, it pre-dates such franchises as Goosebumps. And the 1990s era humor will at least keep Daddy and Mommy mildly interested. As dumb as it often is, Dracula: The Series still exhibits more wit than the mind-numbing CW series The Vampire Diaries.