Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Tao of Michael Myers? Or The Hidden "Shapes" of John Carpenter's Halloween (1978)

I have written about John Carpenter's Halloween (1978) on several occasions. In The Films of John Carpenter (2000); in Horror Films of the 1970s (2002) and here, on this blog, over the last four-and-a-half years.

And yet despite this fact, I am drawn to revisit the film again and again, across the years, to further detect new and intriguing aspects of the masterpiece. This is a fact which differentiates it from Rob Zombie's 2007 ill-advised remake, and some of the piss-poor, latter-day sequels.

So the question becomes: what is it, precisely, about John Carpenter's Halloween that stands up to --- and actually encourages -- continued, intense scrutiny?

And hell, it isn't just my scrutiny either, it's the scrutiny of other scholars, authors, bloggers, list-makers and admirers the globe around. Over thirty years after the film's release, Halloween's reputation only continues to grow.

But the answer to the question about the Tao of Halloween, The Tao of Michael Myers, is deceptively simple, and it very much concerns my favorite cinematic conceit: visual form echoing narrative content.

Specifically, as percipients of Halloween, we gaze intently at that blank, white, featureless mask of "The Shape," Michael Myers, and then immediately recognize, at least subconsciously, that we are missing some crucial aspect of understanding.

Michael's true motives -- just like his concealing, ivory face-mask -- are not entirely filled in; not fully circumscribed. His personality and purpose seems oddly incomplete, and thus the shadowy, featureless mask fully and trenchantly reflects our inability to conceptualize or understand the thing that he represents. From this lack of understanding grows the seeds of terror. Why does Michael kill? Is he the Boogeyman? What drives him? How does he survive point-blank bullet strikes? As in life, Halloween provides no easily digestible answer to myriad questions about mortality and murder, destiny, choice, and chance.

Yet Halloween does brilliantly provide the attentive viewers some intriguing clues about Michael Myers and the things he signifies. Some of these hints actually seem to conflict with one another; and some are just barely enunciated. But again, this very facet of ambiguity makes the film (and the iconic character himself) resonate more powerfully in our minds. In other words, Halloween lets our imagination fill in the narrative, explanatory gaps, and again, a sense of terror takes hold. We see reflected in that blank, chilling mask all the things we fear -- all the things we don't understand -- about our lives in this mortal coil.

Basically -- to boil it down -- I believe that Halloween provides us at least four important "leads" about Michael Myers true and highly unusual nature (and it is important to remember that all of these clues don't take into account the "Laurie is his sister"-revisionism of the sequels. and the remake). These clues are, in no specific order:

1. Michael Myers is a Physical Representation of Laurie's Id.

This is the Freudian-interpretation of John Carpenter's Halloween. As you may be aware, the Id is a component of Freud's so-called "psychic apparatus" or "structural model for the human psyche." Basically, the Id houses our unconscious, our basic drives, our instincts. It controls our desire for sex and our other appetites too. It is amoral, chaotic and egocentric.

Consider now the buttoned-down, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), both a good student and a responsible babysitter . She clearly symbolizes the rationalist Ego, the part of us that holds the reigns of control over our lives and seeks to "please" the Id in a socially and culturally acceptable fashion. The Ego represents common sense; even consciousness itself. This is the Freudian "borrowed face," the veneer of appropriateness we all put on over our Ids.

Accordingly, underneath the mask, Michael represents Laurie's Id, unfettered and on-the-loose, lashing out at those around her who more "honestly" contend with their drives and libidos (Annie and Linda) than do the Ego. Laurie even seems to "activate" Michael Myers, at least in a sense, by singing aloud a modern magical incantation (a ballad) on the day he stalks her. The lyrics to that ballad go: "I wish I had you all alone, just the two of us," and set up, rather nicely, the thrust of Michael's murderous mission on October 31st. He systematically kills all of Laurie's friends and acquaintances until it is, indeed, just the two of them. They have sex (or hope to have sex), and he destroys them because they express what Laurie cannot.

Now, of course, some readers may rightly remind me that Michael cannot possibly be a product of Laurie's Id, since Michael was alive and killing before she was even born (back in 1963). That's right...but.. do we know for certain that Laurie's mission of murder isn't the the very thing imprinted upon that mentally-deranged mind behind the blank-white mask?

Horror scholar and professor Vera Dika wrote that "Carpenter openly represents Michael as Laurie's "id." This reading is supported by the inclusion of footage from Forbidden Planet (1956)...The earlier film had portrayed a situation in which the unconscious desires, or the id, of the main character became manifest and threatened to destroy him and his world. Similarly, Laurie is almost destroyed by the strength of her repressed unconscious impulses. Her battle with Michael is a substitute for the sexual act." (Vera Dika, Games of Terror: Halloween, Friday the 13th and the Films of the Stalker Cycle. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990, page 51).

John Carpenter himself lends some credence to this Freudian interpretation of Halloween by noting that Laurie, "The one girl who is the most sexually uptight just keeps stabbing this guy with a long knife...Not because she's a virgin but because all that repressed sexual energy starts coming out. She uses all those phallic symbols on the guy...she doesn't have a boyfriend, and she finds someone -- him." (Danny Peary, Cult Movies. Delacorte Press, 1981, page 126).

This theory won't exactly find popularity with feminists or "Final Girl" proponents, since it positions Laurie as the repressed "creator" of the monster in Halloween, not a Girl-Powered heroine. Her suppressed sexual appetite and longing is the drive that brings Michael to life and even selects his victims. In this way, the noble Laurie somehow becomes responsible for Michael; or at the very least, connected to him in a very intimate, very personal way.

2. Michael Myers is Just a Developmentally Arrested Child Playing Halloween Tricks.

There's a such a thing as "psychological neoteny," the retention by adults of what are generally considered juvenile traits. In Halloween, Michael Myers seems "arrested" in an early point of childhood, acting out instances of so-called play but, because of his delayed maturity, failing to understand the true consequences of his actions.

A hallmark of childhood is the total and immersive interface with a world of make-believe play. In theory, make-believe play should teach a child to self-regulate and even learn self-discipline; a quality known as "executive function." But in Michael's specific case, nothing positive results from the fact that his mind is "frozen," essentially, in childhood. It's as though he's an overgrown kid, playing an elaborate trick-or-treat game without any acknowledgment of the harm that very game is causing to others outside himself.

It is impossible to deny the "game"-like aspects of Myers' behavior in the original Halloween. He sets a "stage" or "show "for Laurie in Lindsey's house a prank involving the corpses of her friends and a stolen grave marking/head-stone. Also, at least to some extent, it seems that Michael strongly identifies with young Tommy Doyle...since he follows the boy home from school too. Halloween II and later films seem to forget that Michael actually stalked two people on October 31st, 1978: Laurie and Tommy. I suggest that this is because Michael is essentially delayed at Tommy's age and somehow sees Doyle as a contemporary; or surrogate; someone his own age.

Michael evidences some interesting physical reactions after he kills the teenagers on Halloween night that also, if interpreted in a certain way, bolster this theory. He just stares and looks at them, tilting his head to one side. You must wonder if this is because the dead are -- counter to his expectations -- not getting up and continuing to play. Michael has killed them, but doesn't really understand the finality of death. He is thus quizzical and curious over the corpses, wondering why the teens don't want to play anymore. We can also judge that Michael is developmentally arrested at/or around 1963, the time when he committed his first murder (an action that no doubt also slowed down his formal education, another characteristic of many with delayed maturity.)

3. Michael Myers is the Physical Embodiment of Fate

Early in Halloween, there is a fascinating if brief scene set in a high school English class. Laurie is in attendance, listening only sporadically as an off-screen teacher drones on endlessly about the concept of fate in literature.

The unseen instructor then asks Laurie about her reading assignment, and Laurie answers by making a distinction between two authors, Samuels and Costaine. She notes that "Costaine wrote that fate was only somehow related to religion, where Samuels felt that fate was like a natural element; like Earth, Air, Fire and Water." The teacher further notes that Lauriie is correct, that Samuels definitely "personified" fate. "It [fate[ stands" where a "man passes away."

Who else stands where a man passes away? Michael, of course, a character who survives stabbings and shootings and keeps on coming like a freight train. He is Fate "Personified" (as Samuels dictated) and you can't kill something like Earth, Air, Fire or Water, can you?

This revelation of Michael as Agent of Fate opens up the whole "Boogeyman" Argument; that perhaps there is actually a fifth natural element, Earth, Air, Fire, Water...And Evil. And that Michael as a representative of this natural force is thus unstoppable; in kiddie slang, The Boogeyman.

The film's discussion of fate contextualizes Michael not as a supernatural avenger, but as a heightened, natural one. He is not magical, but rather a force as natural (and as essential?) as Air or Water. So there is an order to the universe, it's not just what we had in mind...

4. Michael Myers is an Indictment of Contemporary, Rational Society: The Undiagnosable Amok in The Scientific World

Finally, I believe Halloween suggests (or at least implies...) that Michael Myers represents some kind of modern-day "dragon" in a society that no longer recognizes dragons as real monsters.

As I wrote in The Films of John Carpenter, Halloween willfully "deconstructs" our technological, contemporary world so that (as viewers experiencing the film) we actually appear have more in common with ancient proto-humans huddling in caves than with our rational, 21st century brethren. In particularly, nothing in Halloween works the way it is supposed to work by our "rationalist," "daylight" brand of thinking.

To wit: Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) is a total and complete failure as a psychologist, unable not only to heal Michael Myers, but to understand what drives him. Loomis's role in Halloween is not that of a doctor, nor of a psychiatrist, but explicitly that of St. George: hunting down and slaying the dragon. But specifically, Michael Myers suffers from no diagnosable or treatable psychological disorder. He is "purely and simply Evil." If you look in the DSM-IV, you won't find "Evil" listed as a malady.

It is utterly unacceptable that rational, middle-class teenagers in Haddonfield should die at the knife of Michael Myers on the eve of the 21st century. That's just not supposed to happen in modern-day America. For one thing, there is the blanket of parental protection and love, which should shield children, right? Yet in Halloween, the parents (and most adults for that matter...) are mostly an afterthought. We see Laurie's father only briefly, never see the school teacher, and never get to meet the parents of Lynda, Annie, or even Tommy Doyle. Adults do not represent a positive, let alone helpful force in this horror vision.

Well, okay, if parents can't help save the children (representing our tomorrows...), then there's modern medicine and cutting-edge science, which should not only diagnose Michael, but keep him behind bars. Right? Not surprisingly, it fails too. The "system" fails, and Michael escapes.

All right, what about another imortant societal construct then: the law? Well, kindly Sheriff Brackett can't even protect his own daughter, let alone capture a mad-dog killer! Not a single cop on patrol even notices Michael's car parked on the street!

In other words, all of our carefully-constructed traditional bureaucracies and cherished codes of justice, belief and conduct ultimately offer Annie, Lynda and Bob zero protection. These kids are on their own. They are prey.

In fact, these teens have it much worse than our cave-men ancestors in pre-history. At least the cave-men knew to be afraid, knew to fear the forces in the dark that they could not comprehend. The characters in Halloween are thoroughly unprepared and unable to conceive of a reality that includes Michael Myers, and that's why they are such easy pickings. The movie thus indicts modern society rather fully: it is woefully unprepared to combat what may be a "natural force," Evil Itself.

J.P. Telotte wrote that "What Carpenter seems intent on demonstrating is how consistently our perceptions and our understandings of the world around us fall short...We are conditioned by our experience and culture to see dismiss from our image contents those visions for which we might not be able to account..."(American Horrors: Essays on the Modern American Horror Film: "Through a Pumpkin's Eye: The Reflexive Nature of Horror." University of Illinois Press, 1987, page 122).

Now, I am not suggesting that any one of these four interpretations is absolutely the "right one" to come to a perfect understanding of Carpenter's film, only that Halloween retains such power because the truth of Michael Myers seems to dwell in all these interpretations.

Ultimately, Halloween preserves the Shape's mystery and thus lets you decide about the important things like meaning. Many of the sequels and indeed the Rob Zombie 2007 remake fail so egregiously to live up to the original Carpenter film because they work diligently towards an opposite (and inferior) end; because they seek to diagram in details the answers about Michael for the audience's consumption and peace of mind. Yet peace of mind -- closure itself -- runs counter to what good horror ought to be, at least by my personal barometer. Who wants to leave a horror movie content that you understand everything you saw; that it all fits into a neat little box? As I've said before, I want my slumber troubled; I wantmy mind bothered by the things only the genre can show me and tell me. If I desire peace of mind or resolution from ambiguity, I'll watch network television.

As a direct result of all the well-meaning but psychologically facile explanations of the sequels and the remake, the magic of Michael Myers is somehow bled away. When we understand Michael is simply hunting his biological sister down, he becomes nothing but a garden variety wacko with a tough hide. When he is infused with supernatural powers and becomes a genetically-engineered Druid observing Samhain, he's just another easily explainable Devil, only one with an alternate religious belief system.

And finally, the magic of Michael Myers is totally squandered when we bear witness to the peculiarities of his abusive childhood; when we come to understand that he was raised in a violent, redneck household and is merely carrying on in the family tradition. Thus the later movies, and especially the re-imaginations nullify The Shape's Power; the Shape's Tao. They turn it to ashes.

When considering "The Shape," I submit that it is better to ponder and speculate about Evil's True Nature than to know it all. Oscar Wilde once wrote that the greatest mystery in life is actually "one's self," and Halloween remains such an indelible viewing experience because -- in addition to technical expertise and canny imagery -- it leaves more than abundant psychic space for our imaginations to ponder it.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Trick or Treat TV

As Halloween nears -- if you're anything like me -- you haul out your all-time favorite horror films on DVD, VHS or Blu-Ray and enjoy them all over again...for the umpteenth time. However, if you care to mix things up just a bit this year (and if you possess a vast video archive...) you may want to celebrate this All Hallow's Eve with the most memorable Halloween episodes of classic genre TV series instead.

Specifically, if you're looking for holiday-themed efforts from TV history, these are some of the notable titles to consider:

1.) "Halloween" from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997) In this second season episode of the beloved Joss Whedon vampire series, we learn that Halloween is the one night of the year in which Sunnydale's vampires stay in and watch television. Apparently they don't appreciate the crass consumerism of the Halloween holiday. But Buffy, Xander and Willow are vexed anyway when their Halloween costumes turn distressingly real (courtesy of an evil shop owner named Ethan...). Dressed as a soldier, Xander gains courage. Buffy -- as a 17th century damsel in distress -- loses hers. And Willow, garbed as a ghost, develops the powers (and physical limitations...) of an apparition.

If you want to make it a Buffy Halloween all-together, another Buffy the Vampire Slayer Halloween-themed entry is the sixth season's entry "All the Way," which involves Dawn dating a vampire on All Hallow's Eve.

2.) "The Curse of Frank Black" from Millennium (1997). This memorable episode of Chris Carter's cult classic provides a peek at what an average Halloween is like for everyone's favorite "dark" profiler, Frank Black (Lance Henriksen). The episode features a nod to both The Simpsons and Space: Above and Beyond (1995), but more meaningfully, it gazes at a specific Halloween from Frank's youth, and the way that it has continued to affect him throughout his life.

"The Curse of Frank Black" is part whimsy and part tragedy, and it goes a long way towards contextualizing the history (and unusual abilities and insights...) of Frank Black. "The Curse of Frank Black" occurs during a spell in which Frank is estranged from his wife and the Millennium Group, and banished from his paradise...his perfect yellow house. Frank visits that house in this episode, and -- among other things -- confronts some of the ghosts haunting him.

3.) "Freddy's Trick or Treats" from October 30, 1988 is an episode of the mostly-forgotten Freddy's Nightmares: A Nightmare on Elm Street the Series, the cheap jack syndicated anthology starring horror icon and Elm Street dream demon, Monsieur Krueger (Robert Englund). The series ran for forty-four episodes in the late 1980s and featured appearances by future stars such as Brad Pitt.

Here, Freddy Krueger terrorizes future Law & Order star Mariska Hargitay and her friends on a Springfield college campus. There are actually two stories featured here, but this Halloween entry wasn't exactly Freddy's finest hour...

4.) "Hellowe'en" from Friday the 13th: The Series aired on October 31, 1987. It was the fifth episode of the beloved syndicated series' first season, and the story involved a Halloween costume party held at the cursed antique store, Curious Goods. The party goes awry thanks to some unwanted guests, and soon the episode involves the dangerous conjuration of the series' recurring evil antagonist, Uncle Lewis Vendredi (R.G. Armstrong). Micki (Robey), Jack (Chris Wiggins) and Ryan (John D. Le May) have to save the (holi)day.

5.) "All Hallow's Eve" actually aired on the same Halloween as that memorable Friday the 13th episode, and it's a fun installment from Fox Network's Werewolf: The Series. The story involves series protagonist Eric Cord (John J. York) locking himself in a haunted house on Halloween, just as the irksome werewolf pentagram appears on his palm. Inside the house, he meets a strange, spooky denizen. Just think, we could be enjoying this episode on DVD right now if the series' DVD release hadn't been canceled just last month...

6.) "Halloween Candy" aired on October 31st, 1985, and was featured in the second season of the syndicated anthology from George Romero and Laurel, Entertainment called Tales from the Darkside (now available on DVD). Directed by the great Tom Savini, this creepy half-hour show involved a nasty old miser who stingily refuses to dole out candy on Halloween night. At least, that is, until a rea life goblin shows up on his doorstep for some authentic trick-or-treating...

And don't forget these Halloween-based episodes either, especially if you prefer romance and sci-fi to horror:

7.)"Masques" from CBS's cult series Beauty and the Beast aired on October 30, 1987 and while it isn't horror -based per se, it is set on Halloween and involves a monster of sorts. the regal-lion like Vincent. Here, Ron Perlman plays that Shakespeare quoting "Beast" and at a costume ball set on October 31st the lonesome Vincent is able -- for one night -- to mingle with the "normal" people of the Big Apple. The denizens of New York mistake his monstrous appearance for a (really scary...) costume and so the Beast's intense isolation is soothed. Linda Hamilton plays Vincent's love, Catherine.

8). "Catspaw" from Star Trek (1967) isn't exactly a horror show either, but in this story, the U.S.S. Enterprise encounters all kinds of Halloween "spooks" on an alien world, including a giant black cat, a sorcerer, and a malevolent witch. "Captain Kiiiiiiiiiiirk," the witch calls...

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

This House You Have To Watch Every Minute: The Seen and Unseen In The Haunting films (1963/1999)

When first we glimpse Hill House in Robert Wise's chilling The Haunting (1963), the imposing old structure is a featureless black obelisk: a jagged silhouette carved out from brooding night sky.

Secrets dwell inside Hill House -- in the dark; in the night -- and yet the director's selection of visualization (a shadowed, blackened house with no distinguishable architectural features) purposefully confounds our desire to peer inside this monument to the unknown; to learn about the "unquiet dead" who may walk the lonely, vast hallways of this spectral monolith.

Hill House is a place "born to be bad," according to the film's opening narration, but it is something more than that too: "an undiscovered country waiting to be explored." And The Undiscovered Country, as we remember from our Shakespeare, is Death Itself.

Robert Wise structures his horror film (based on the sterling novel by Shirley Jackson) as a probe into that ultimate unknown; but more than that too, as an ambiguous probe into that unknown. Never in the film, for instance, is the audience 100% certain that it has actually witnessed the supernatural and the ghostly. On the contrary, our senses are heightened and tweaked by disturbing noises, by the sinister-seeming twist of a doorknob, and more. Yet certainty still eludes us; just as certainty about the paranormal eludes people in real life.

You Should Be Receptive...and Innocent: Exploring The Self in The Haunting.

It is no mistake or coincidence that the four explorers countenancing the chaotic, uncertain terrain of Hill House are -- in the spirit of Hugh Crain's strange edifice itself -- a determinedly unconventional group. This is important structurally to the narrative. The sojourners reflect the sojourn.

Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson) gave up a "conventional" life and a proper upbringing (courtesy of his upper-crust English family) to prove the existence of the supernatural. This is his life's work, which makes him either commendably dedicated or utterly foolish. He says he wants his people "innocent and receptive" so that they will discover the secrets of Hill House. If someone is innocent and receptive, however, he or she is not looking for the angles that might be played; and every little noise becomes significant and meaningful. So Markway may (intentionally or unintentiaonally...) be encouraging hallucinations or delusions (though he says, explicitly, that this must not be the case if their research is considered to be legitimate).

Theodora (Claire Bloom) also fits the bill of "unconventional." She not only boasts extra-sensory perception, but is "out" as a lesbian. To some people in traditional society in the 1960s the latter quality would make her untrustworthy at best, abnormal at worst. And when strange handwriting appears on the wall of Hill House, Theodora is the first suspect. She's jealous of the attention Markway showers on Nell, and this spooky handwriting (which names Nell...) may be her petty revenge; her game playing. She has a cruel, jealous streak that could effect the exploration of Hill House.

Then there's Luke (Russ Tamblyn), a playboy and would-be millionaire who has a frat-boy sense of humor; but also a burgeoning curiosity and conscience. Is he just a money-grubber, a dabbler, or something more? What's his angle?

And finally, we arrive at the most unconventional of the explorers: Eleanor or Nell (Julie Harris), a spinster who had a poltergeist experience as a child but who, in essence, has never truly left the confines of her home. The sheltered, inexperienced woman has spent years caring for her invalid mother (now deceased...) and the chance to explore Hill House is most definitely an escape from the drudgery of her day-to-day existence. She is motivated to stay at Hill House; to "belong" to the group. We wonder: is Nell's subconscious somehow causing the noises that bedevil Hill House at night (as it caused the rock storm that fell upon her house in childhood?) Or is Nell hallucinating? Or, worst of all: is she so desperate for attention that she is "pretending" all the experiences with the supernatural. When Nell almost falls off a veranda at Hill House, who can adequately judge what caused her to grow dizzy? It is convenient that Markway, the object of her affection, would rush in to her to care for her...

These idiosyncratic individuals -- who don't conform to the boundaries of society-at-large and who don't entirely fit the bill of "normal" or "trustworthy" -- investigate the home of a 19th century robber baron of sorts, Hugh Crain. He too is a kindred spirit: an unconventional person and one who didn't believe in the rules of society. He built his oddball house to reflect those beliefs. For instance, all the doors in Hill House are hung that -- after a time -- they slam shut, apparently of their own volition. And all the angles inside the house are off-center a bit....just like the characters in the drama. The house --as Markway reminds us -- "does have its oddities." Just like every team member...

In such a strange environment -- with four such anarchistic individuals in close-quarters -- the probe into the unknown is tainted by the frailties of the individual personalities. We can't rule out that one or all of the explorers is perpetrating some kind of hoax; or simply that some one's imagination has gotten out of control. Consider the moment in which Nell becomes convinced that someone is holding her hand in the dark. She believes it to be Theodora, but when the lights come up, Theodora is across the room, in her own bed. Wise's camera never leaves Nell's face during the "event." It stays on Nell, in extreme close-up throughout the purported "visitation", and thus we are left to wonder if she is hallucinating, or really countenancing something supernatural. If something were holding and crushing her hand...why don't we ever see it?

Similarly, on the night of the loud noises at their door; Theodora and Nell never actually see anything abnormal. And importantly, Luke and Markway are elsewhere in the house at the time...they could easily be responsible for the noises. Similarly, anyone could have written Nell's name on the wall. When the film's biggest scare arrives -- Mrs. Markway's (Lois Maxwell) sudden appearance from the attic -- even it is not ghostly in nature. She became lost in the attic and tried to escape...stunning Nell.

And finally, Nell's death could be suicide brought on by the fact that the attention seeker was being ostracized from the group, and on and on...

My argument vis-a-vis the original The Haunting is this: I believe Hill House is haunted and that the explorers experience paranormal or supernatural events there. However, the film retains an authentic sense of terror because Wise walks the line of ambiguity brilliantly. Nothing supernatural is ever truly seen, and we become perched on the edge of our seats by the things we don't see; but which we believe to exist. I'm not making the argument that showing ghosts in horror movies is always less effective than hiding them, only noting that The Haunting still scares -- 45 years after it was made -- because it exhibits this spine-tingling sense of uncertainty and ambiguity. We don't know what is making the horrible noise outside the bedroom; we don't know if that is a human face in the sculpture on the wall, or merely a trick of the light. We can't be certain if the door is bending because of a supernatural force...or someone leaning on the other side of it. But taken all together, these events are chilling and add up to something meancing. More so, they are chilling because we never get satisfactory answers about them.

Wise's exquisite camerawork in The Haunting generates genuine terror, but notice that the camera truly grows perturbed only when the dramatis personae have also grown perturbed or hysterical. Theodora and Nell are worked up to raging terror by the time Wise deploys that prowling, angling camera which circumscribes the perimeter of the bedroom door. We interpret this odd, angled movement as the search by something inimical -- on the other side of the door -- seeking an entry point. But we see nothing; and the camera's twisted perspective could simply be the perspective of two very frightened women Similarly, Nell's fainting spell on the veranda coincides with the camera lunge from the high tower; again as though something invisible is approaching...or attacking. Yet the sudden, alarming camera movement could be interpreted as a reflection of Nell's sudden, dangerous vertigo. Especially if we are to believe she is suicidal (a belief which also plays into the climax and the staircase set piece).

And by the time we see a Hill House door swell and retract (as if breathing by itself...), every character -- especially Markway -- is desperate and fearful. These apparent manifestations of the supernatural could be the manifestations of the characters' out of control hysteria and fear.

One of The Haunting's central set-pieces involves Nell and Markway's ascent up a rickety, vast spiral staircase. The staircase is loose from the wall (again, not a danger that is supernatural in origin). But the quest to reach the top metaphorically reflects the team's overall quest. Markway and his people are climbing the tallest mountain and seeking answers on the summit. But even they cannot reach Heaven for answers about life beyond death. And again, notice that when Nell and Markway do finally achieve the top of the spiral staircase, Nell is frightened out of her mind not by a ghost...but by another desperate human, Markway's wife. In other words, Nell has reached the pinnacle of Hill House -- climbed as far as she can possibly climb -- and the terrors/answers she gets are still of the human, not supernatural variety.

The Haunting succeeds as a great horror movie because there exists enough ambiguity in the camera-work, the characters, and in the script to support multiple interpretations. Either the house is haunted, or Nell is a very disturbed individual responsible for the so-called haunting, or all the characters are just "innocent and receptive" to their admittedly creepy environment. These interpretations compete for primacy in The Haunting, and that competition results in an incredibly active viewing experience; a high-level of engagement with the material. And that engagement leads to unbearable suspense...

Just Because You Can Do A Thing: Remaking and Unmaking The Haunting (1999)

Ambiguity was not in fashion in 1999 when Jan De Bont re-made The Haunting. Therefore, what remained unseen but detected in Wise's classy original film became seen....and predictable. Not just seen actually, but dramatized in full-color, in ample lighting, utilizing the latest in state-of-the-art computer generated special effects. Because of this see-it-all approach, the remake leaves itself only one possible interpretation: Hill House is haunted by a malevolent spirit who can re-shape reality to his liking.

You can almost detect how the makers of The Haunting (1999) were onto the kernel of something clever in reconceiving the film. They seized on the good idea that Hill House was an outward manifestation or reflection of Hugh Crain's twisted psyche. But they went too far. The filmmakers thus transformed Hill House into a bloated monstrosity with oversized rooms that might resemble a human rib-cage, or a bizarre drawing by H.R. Giger more than a real house. Again, you can understand this approach at the same time that you realize it just doesn't work. Houses -- even haunted houses -- aren't hatched or born out of twisted psyches. They are built and constructed plank-by-plank and it is simply impossible to believe that the out-of-proportion, bizarre Hill House of The Haunting (1999) was ever built by 19th century hands, using 19th century techniques and plans. Because of the house's egregious (though inventive) design, the film sacrifices some vital piece of believability. A house with a Godzilla-sized fireplace? With a hall of mirrors? With a virtual river inside one hallway?

Bottom line: If we can't believe in the house as a real, tangible place from human history; we don't believe in the story being told there, and the movie automatically fails to suspend our disbelief.

Another bad move in The Haunting grants the Crain-spirit seemingly invincible powers over flesh and blood, stone and mortar. The house repetitively grows appendage-like vines out of the walls and entraps human characters in them on a regular basis. Stone gargoyles come to life and attack people in broad daylight. Curtains dance with ghostly apparitions whose shapes we can see, process, and comprehend. The digital special effects are repeated so often and in such ample light that the "horror" imagery becomes commonplace instead of frightening. A flying gargoyle and ambulatory statue are things you can run and hide from, things you can strike with your fist or with a weapon. Contrast that kind of nemesis with the amorphous, unseen thing perhaps prowling in Wise's original. How could you escape an angry spirit that seemed to exist by its own set of "laws?"

The Haunting remake eschews ambiguity in other ways. We also see and detect here the all-too-human motives of Hill House's ghost, Hugh Crain. He's apparently enslaving all the children he used to exploit in life (just like Kathie Lee Gifford...) and this version of Eleanor (Lily Taylor) -- a surprise(!) descendant of Crain's second wife -- must free the children from his hellish grip. All is made right when Nell and the children ascend to Heaven and Crain passes through the "door of judgment" to Hell itself.

Again, there's nothing like taking uncertainty entirely out of the equation. In the original Haunting it wasn't even plain whether one ghost or multiple ghosts (or no ghosts...) were at work. The new Haunting provides us an "earthly" agenda for a specific ghost (enslavement of the children), a proper fate (punishment for bad deeds) and a reward for the righteous victor in the fight against him. De Bont's The Haunting takes the shivery indeterminism of Wise's classic and shelves it in favor of mind-numbing, imagination-crushing certitude.

No expense was spared to remake The Haunting in 1999, but the spine-tingling ambiguity and uncertainty of Wise's original were abandoned in favor of an onslaught of digital effects. This is a case where seeing is not believing; and where certainty crushes the mind's capacity to imagine the unseen. That's why the original The Haunting still "walks alone" as a classic.

The remake, in every sense of the word, is un-"Wise."

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.

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