Saturday, January 10, 2015

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Korg, 70,000 B.C.: "The Web"

In “The Web,” it is a “new day in Korg Valley.”  The family is back home at their old cave, and hunting is once again good.

While Mara (Naomi Pollack) and the children gather fruits and berries, however, a bear attacks Korg (Jim Malinda), Bok (Bill Ewing) and Tane (Christopher Man) in the cave. 

Worse, this bear is the one that originally lived in the cave, and feels territorial about it.

Trapped in the cave, Korg gets an idea from a spider he sees on a rock. He will build a web -- a net -- to trap the predator in their home.

“The Web” is not one of the better episodes of Korg, 70,000 BC.  It’s a little bit of a retread of “Trapped,” another episode in which family members are trapped for a long time inside their cave.

Secondly, no explanation is given for the family’s return from the beach to the cave after “The Moving Rock” and “The Beach People.”  Were they just on vacation?

Thirdly, it would take a long time to fashion a large net out of the skins and hides that Korg and the others have access to inside the cave.  And even after fashioning such a net, it would not look as neat and well-made as the net prop looks in the episode itself. Basically, Korg just presents a perfectly stitched, perfectly designed and sewn net with which to trap the bear.

Finally, the episode ends with Korg deciding it is best to let the bear keep the cave, since it was the bear’s cave originally.  His family took it from the bear.

That’s a pretty big decision, isn’t it?

First, it means the family will have nowhere to spend the night.  Secondly, it means that everything in the cave that Korg’s family didn’t carry out is now lost to it.  And thirdly, how will the poor bear get out of the net and survive, if the Korg family doesn’t help it?

A larger point to consider is that the very next episode, “The Picture Maker,” finds the Korg family back living in the same damn cave.  So what happened to the bear? What happened to Korg’s decision to give up the cave?

Yeah.  This episode has some problems. Talk about a tangled "web."

Next Week: “The Picture Maker.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: BraveStarr: "Jeremiah and the Prairie People"

In “Jeremiah and the Prairie People,” a prospector with a map of a legendary lost mine is pursued by bandits who desire it.

The band prepare a decoy so they can take the elfin prospector’s “map crystal,” but Jeremiah refuses to share any details with BraveStarr about the Kerium mine he hopes to find.

Soon, the Prairie People befriend Jeremiah, and he realizes that as owner of the mine, he will be a rich man.

However, Jeremiah would rather have companionship and family, and decides to share his new-found wealth with the kindly Prairie People to thank them for their generosity and friendship.

“Jeremiah and the Prairie People” concerns an alien who looks like an elf, lives a solitary life, and speaks with a British accent. This is Jeremiah, and in the course of the episode he befriends the Prairie People, especially a little blind tyke named -- I kid you not -- Munchie. He learns that “having friends is more important than being rich.”

That’s a message that certainly bears repeating in this day and age, but, as usual, I appreciate BraveStarr more for its unusual technology designs than its heavy-handed messages.  In this case, I especially like the portable hologram projector or “map crystal” that Jeremiah uses to find the lost mine.  It’s a good design, and looks plausible

Also dramatized with flair are the “sand crabs” which cause a lot of trouble for BraveStarr and his cohorts. There's even a fun Jaws (1975) shot here in which the crab comes up out of the sand behind the heroic and unsuspecting marshal.

I’ve blogged about twenty-six episodes of BraveStarr thus farand this seems like an appropriate time to take a break, as we’re moving into a new year.  

Although I found a lot to write about in early episodes of the Filmation series, many of the recent episodes have felt remarkably content-free. More and more, the Prairie People -- sorta lame sidekicks -- seem to be taking center stage.  So...moving on. All together, there are sixty-five episodes of BraveStarr, and one day, I hope to return to it feeling a little re-invigorated. (Maybe if I take the series in three chunks...).

Next week, I begin a retrospective of the first season of Secrets of Isis (1975 – 1976), a live-action Filmation superhero series starring Joanna Cameron. So stay tuned.

Friday, January 09, 2015

At Flashbak: Die Yuppie Scum! Five Horror Movies that Raged Against the Eighties

At Flashbak, I tally five horror films that raged against the Yuppie value system during the actual Yuppie Heyday of the 1980s and 1990s.

"The term “yuppie” came into fashion in America in the early 1980s to describe “young, upwardly mobile professionals.” 

But in less formal sounding terms, yuppies were soon widely characterized in the pop culture by a powerful love of two things: extreme wealth, and themselves. 

Newsweek Magazine proclaimed 1984 the “year” of the Yuppie, but that was probably the high point for the movement.  Ever since the 1990s, the term yuppie has widely been considered a term of derision, and an explicit reminder of the worst Gordon Gekko-like excesses of the Eighties.

Although modern horror films such as American Psycho (2000) also dissect the Age of the Yuppie in wicked terms, a number of horror films actually took on Yuppies much earlier than that.. 

Here are five horror films that observed the worst qualities of Yuppies and their world view and took them on…in their heyday."

Tribute: Rod Taylor (1930 - 2015)

The press is now reporting the passing of actor Rod Taylor, a familiar (and beloved) presence in the world of genre film and television.

Mr. Taylor may be known best for two prominent movie roles.  He starred in The Time Machine (1960), as H.G. Well's voyager through time, and as Mitch Brenner in Alfred Hitchcock's horror film, The Birds (1963).  He recently had a supporting role in Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds (2009).

Beyond those roles, Mr. Taylor was a fixture of genre television. He was a series in lead in both Masquerade (1983 - 1984), a short-lived espionage series about regular citizens recruited as spies in foreign lands, and Outlaws (1986 - 1987), a series about cowboys from the Old West transported to the present. In the latter program, Taylor was Sheriff Grail.

Outside the genre, Mr Taylor appeared in such films as Zabriskie Point (1970) and Jamaican Gold (1979), and contributed his voice to the popular Disney film 101 Dalmations (1961).  On TV, he had recurring and regular roles in such prominent productions as Walker, Texas Ranger (1996 - 2000), Murder She Wrote (1984 - 1996), and Falcon Crest (1988 - 1990).

An actor of steely-glare and tough demeanor, Rod Taylor also starred in an episode of Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone (1959- 1964), in the early installment "And the Sky Was Opened."  The episode concerned astronauts who had returned from a doomed space expedition only to find that they were being wiped from existence, one individual at a time.

With Taylor's memorable performances across the years still available widely for review and enjoyment, that is a fate the actor himself will never face.  

Today, I offer my deepest condolences to his family and friends for the loss of this talent, yet offer the reminder that film (and TV) are "time machines" that allow us to experience, again and again, the gift of Rod Taylor's talent.  He will be missed...and remembered.

The Films of 1985: Lifeforce

"Lifeforce may come to be considered a noteworthy science-fiction film precisely because it is so relentlessly unsentimental and edgy.  This film displays a sensibility so odd, so unfamiliar, that it may prove one of the most subtly original sf films of the 1980s...[T]he film has something to offend almost everyone but offers much for serious analysis."

- Brooks Landon, The New Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, 1988, page 276.

Tobe Hooper's Lifeforce (1985) is another one of those great horror films, like John Carpenter's The Thing (1982), that mainstream and genre critics seemed to venomously despise, and yet which I admire with something akin to enthusiastic passion. For me, Lifeforce remains one of the essential titles in modern horror cinema history.

The Cannon film -- based on a novel by Colin Wilson called Space Vampires -- was a gigantic box office failure upon release, and yet a generation of admirers quickly found it on home video...and the film became legendary in some circles. 

I admire Lifeforce so deeply and so thoroughly because I feel that, like Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1973), the film goes (far) out of its way to shock and transgress, leaving no taboo related to its subject matter -- sex -- untouched. 

Hooper is never one for Hollywood-styled movie decorum, and I've always found his subversive, bracing takes on horror tropes (vampires, ghosts, cannibals) authentically disturbing because of that very fact.  His movies, while speaking trenchantly in the language of film grammar, almost universally lack...tact.  You just don't know where this director is going to take you, or what he is going to show you.  As fellow horror maestro Wes Craven famously noted, a "filmmaker like Tobe Hooper can convince you you're really at risk in a theater." (Entertainment Weekly, October 23, 1992, page 41), and that is the essence of Hooper's ethos as far as I'm concerned.

I've written these words before, but a great horror film should: a.) deal cogently with some topic relevant to the culture of the movie's context and b.) deal with that subject matter in a fashion that genuinely troubles the psyche.   Lifeforce conforms to both points quite ably.

In short, Lifeforce is a big-budget, colossal-in-scope meditation on the consequences of sex in all sizes, shapes, forms, and perversions.  In part, the film is a straight-faced walking-tour of late 20th century sexual proclivities, from voyeurism to masochism, from homosexuality to fetishistic obsession.  Among other things, Lifeforce is about your deepest, most personal desires taking over, and that content is reflected in the film's dazzling, jaw-dropping form.

Even in the development of this core idea about sex, Hooper chooses incredibly unconventional pathways for his epic horror film.  In Lifeforce, the film's sexually-transmitted space vampire disease becomes a zombie epidemic that transforms London into something half-way between a George Romero Living Dead film and the weirdest orgy in cinematic history. 

Some reviewers viewed this ending as a mistake, an out-of-character u-turn for the film and a lapse in serious tone.  Yet if you're a longstanding Hooper aficionado you may realize that the strange climax of Lifeforce boasts clear antecedents in films such as Poltergeist as a kind of post-narrative, almost anti-narrative detour.  Remember, L.M. Kit Carson called Tobe Hooper the "no deal" kid, and that's the go-for-broke, breathless quality of Lifeforce that keeps me watching it more than a quarter century later.

Given the weird and controversial subject matter here and the blunt vetting of it by a confident, at-the-top-of-his-game Hooper, perhaps it is only natural that the film so divided critics.  Bruce Eder of Video Magazine called Lifeforce (possibly) "the last great science fiction film to come out of England," while film scholars Bill Warren and Bill Thomas (in American Film: "Great Balls of Fire, March 1986, page 70) felt the film got "the spectacle and weirdness right" but that the film lacked a "much-needed sense of humor." 

Others were less open to the Lifeforce experience.  Janet Maslin in The New York Times jokingly termed the film "sterile," while People Magazine's Ralph Novak found it "tiresome."  Cinefantastique even termed Lifeforce (in October 1985) "an object lesson in failure." Space Vampires author Wilson called Lifeforce "the worst movie ever made."

I can't know this for certain, but I suspect that a great many of these critics actually found the Hooper film offensive.  Visually and narratively offensive.  They were responding to the decorum-shattering images and plot-line. 

But of course, being offensive is kind of the point in the horror genre, isn't it?  Horror can show us things that mainstream movies can't, or won't.  A truly strong horror film will rock the audience back on its heels so it is unprepared for what comes next. And in that state, a talented director can mold audience expectations and emotions like putty. 

I would suggest that's exactly Hooper's accomplishment in Lifeforce. Here he corrals such controversial visual elements as rampant frontal nudity and extreme gore to craft the feeling of a world rapidly spiraling out of control, consumed by an unquenchable desire in our very blood. Replete with narrative blind alleys and daring, unconventional imagery, plus controversial subject matter, Lifeforce establishes again that Hooper is the genre's most underrated, underestimated genius, a legitimate provocateur extraordinaire.

"I'm fascinated by death itself. What happens as we die, when we die. What happens after we die..."

As the space shuttle Churchill -- a joint American/European space exploration venture -- nears Halley's Comet, something alien and colossal is detected inside.  It's a vessel 250 miles long and two miles high.

Mission commander, Colonel Carlsen (Steve Railsback), leads a small team on a mission inside the derelict.  There, he finds a crew of dead bat-creatures, and more mysteriously, three perfect and naked humanoids: two men and a gorgeous woman (Mathilda May).

Sometime later, on Earth, a European Space Agency discovers the Churchill limping home from its rendezvous with the comet, unresponsive to communication attempts.  A rescue team finds all crew aboard dead, save for the three nude aliens.  These creatures are promptly brought back to Earth for study, and the Space Girl soon awakes.  She drains the "lifeforce" from a guard, and then escapes from the facility.  

Soon, soul survivor Carlsen's escape pod makes a landing on Earth, and he teams with England's stoic Colonel Caine (Peter Firth) and Dr. Hans Fallada (Frank Finlay)  to locate the Space Girl before she can pass her vampiric disease on to more unsuspecting humans.

While Carlsen and Caine track the Space Girl to a home for the criminally-insane outside of London, Dr. Fallada determines that the Girl and her brethren from the stars may be the source of  Earth legends of vampires.   Meanwhile, the Space Girl has been leading Carlsen and Caine on a very lengthy goose chase as the vampire "infection" multiplies and sweeps London.

Now Carlsen must confront the "feminine in his mind," as the Space Girl begins to deliver disembodied human souls or life-force to her orbiting starship...

"In a sense we're all vampires. We drain energy from other life forms. The difference is one of degree."

The societal context bubbling beneath the surface of Lifeforce (1985)  is the rising of the "wasting disease" of the mid-1980s, soon-to-be identified as AIDS and recognized as an epidemic that impacts individuals of all sexual persuasions. 

A comparison to Carpenter's The Thing is illustrative here.  Both horror films of the 1980s involve a shape-shifting evil passed from person-to-person, very much like a sexually transmitted disease.

In the case of Lifeforce, the metaphor is more overt, since sexual hypnosis/coupling -- with an alien vampire -- is actually the primary mode of disease transmission.   Invisible to conventional medical and visual detection, the alien infection in both of these films subverts people, unbeknownst to their neighbors.  Affected individuals appear normal to all outward appearances, healthy even, but in fact they are carriers of a secret, dreadful death.  

In terms of context, "disease" was one of the biggest bugaboos of the 1980s horror cinema, featured in films like Prince of Darkness (1987) as well as The Thing. The point was, largely, that in the superficial world of Olivia Newton John's Physical, Jane Fonda's Aerobic Workout, or Jamie Lee Curtis's Perfect (1983), the worst thing that could happen to a person would be to discover that his or her beautiful, athletic lover was actually carrying a hidden disease, one that could sabotage the flesh, and also an individual's carefully cultivated physical beauty.

In particular, some film scholars have suggested that both The Thing and Lifeforce feature a substantial same-sex undercurrent. 

In The Thing, a deadly plague passes in the blood from person-to-person in an exclusively all-male setting: an Antarctic research outpost. 

In Lifeforce, the argument goes, there are also significant male-to-male couplings.  First, there is the jarring and impassioned kiss between Carlsen and Armstrong (Patrick Stewart), an embrace that is inarguably homosexual in form (even though May's Space Girl inhabits Armstrong's mind).

Secondly, a male victim of the Space Girl awakens on the operating table early in the film and mesmerizes a male pathologist. He quickly converts the poor physician into one of the disease's transmitters.  As Edward Guerrero described the scene in "AIDS as Monster in Science Fiction and Horror Cinema:"

"The film foregrounds homosexual transmission by focusing on the ravished bodies of male victims and by depicting in a key, horrific autopsy scene, an emaciated young male corpse who -- with outstretched arms -- hypnotically draws one of the male pathologists into a fatal energy draining, homoerotic embrace and kiss...the camera moves through...close-ups of the faces of the doctors trapped in the surgery as they register various reactions to the act and its gay proclamations, ranging from frozen panic and disavowal to an ambivalent fascination."

Guerrero also writes that Lifeforce's grisly corpses -- which receive considerable on-screen attention -- are depicted as young and starkly emaciated, resonant with the media's description in the 1980s of the "wasting" effects of the AIDs virus.

I agree with Guerrero's supposition that there is a homosexual component to be excavated in  Lifeforce, but I don't agree that it is foregrounded in the film proper. 

Rather, it's just one dish on the smorgasbord.

I submit that Lifeforce is actually a more general morality play and warning against succumbing to all manners of wanton sexual urges. Early in the film, Carlsen faces this weakness: "She killed all my friends and I still didn't want to leave. Leaving her was the hardest thing I ever did," he declares.  What he fears is being unable to control himself, unable to assert his rational mind over his body's sexual desires.

Taken in its entirety, the film plays no favorites, targets no one lifestyle, and homosexuality is merely one aspect of the universal human sexual equation. As I wrote above, the film is a tour through sexual proclivities of all types.

In charting this trajectory Lifeforce is actually as bold -- perhaps brazen -- about depicting sexual issues as The Texas Chainsaw Masssacre is about recording horrid, graphic violence.  Throughout the film, Hooper deploys one powerful symbol to represent "lust" in the human animal: the Space Girl. Hooper parades this character about naked throughout the film in an absolutely immodest sense. The film breaks ground and shatters decorum in this key approach. And the content, a so-called tour of human sexual issues, reflects the chosen form.  We are constantly reminded, in the nude persona of May, that Lifeforce concerns sex.

To wit: when Carlsen first boards the alien spaceship early in Lifeforce, he discovers that the interior chamber of the spaceship is something akin to a massive birth canal. The similarity is so telling, in fact, that Carlsen states unequivocally, "I feel like I've been here before."  The tiny astronauts probing deep into the long tunnel to the hidden chamber beyond  this organic-looking tube may as well be tiny sperm navigating a woman's uterus. 

When the astronauts reach the hidden chamber, they discover May's Space Girl there, and their instant lust "births" her in some sense  When she is returned to Earth, she returns, importantly, as a creature of lust herself; a child of the astronauts' overwhelming desire.  She is "the feminine" of Carlsen's mind and begins her exploration of human sexuality, according -- it seems at times -- to his subconscious desires.

Consider, for a moment, the specific events portrayed in the Space Girl's walkabout outside of London.

She encounters sex as casual infidelity (with a married man in a parked car). 

She experiences male-to-male contact in the body of Armstrong in his homosexual kiss with Carlsen.  If she is part of Carlsen's mind, she must believe that some part of him desires this "form" of sexual encounter.

For a time, the Space Girl's consciousness also enters the body of a nurse who is described in the dialogue as a "devoted masochist." This woman takes great joy in the fact that Carlsen must beat information out of her. She showcases no modesty about this desire, and again, Carlsen showcases no trepidation about engaging in sadistic behavior to get the information he needs, and also provide her pleasure.

Even the staid Colonel Caine acknowledges his own sexual side when he notes that he is a natural voyeur, and quite willing to watch Carlsen rough-up the masochist nurse.  

Finally, even sex as grounds for political scandal is briefly touched upon here when the film's prime minister spreads the sexual infection to his unsuspecting secretary.

Beyond this Alice in Wonderland tour of human sexuality, there is also all the fiery, heterosexual coupling between Railsback and May, a devastating relationship that ends, incidentally, in a climactic double penetration (by sexual organs and by a fatal stab in the "energy center" from a sword blade.)

Considering the wide breadth of indiscriminate, unloosed sexual behavior that Lifeforce visualizes, it is no surprise that the film relies upon the vampire as a villain.  Traditionally, vampires are alluring, magnetic and filled with strange, unsated appetites. They thrive on blood and can transmit their own illness to unaware victims.  Their kiss brings only death.  But the space vampires of the film steal souls, not merely blood, and that's an important distinction in Hooper's allegory about the perils of promiscuous, wanton desire let loose in the Age of AIDS. 

What is at stake when you let go so fully?  When you shed all control and give in to your most base desire?  Is your soul at stake?  Or just your life?

Given such questions, the film ends appropriately in a grand British cathedral, a sanctuary for the pious, one would assume.

There in the church, the infected bodies of the sexually depleted await their judgment...spent and sick.  Their souls are carried away on a ray of light which focuses itself on the altar: the very fulcrum of all sermons and messages about chastity and abstinence. 

Consider the symbolism. These souls have been dispatched to a nether realm, the alien spaceship, and it is surely an allegory for Hell.  In terms of visuals, this is a moral conclusion, a literalization of Christian puritanism.  Indulge in indiscriminate sex, and if it doesn't make you sick, it's still going to cost you your soul, and you'll dwell forevermore in Hell.

It's a harsh comment, perhaps, but given what some might view as the rise of casual sex in the culture (following the era of Looking for Mr. Goodbar [1977]) and the dawning of AIDS awareness and paranoia in the early 1980s -- which proved so strong it turned even James Bond into a one-woman-kind of guy -- it's an accurate reflection of what people seemed to fear at the time. Carlsen's triumph at the end of the film is that he controls his desire again, and kills the Space Girl.  His victory asserts that human kind is not out of control, in thrall to subconscious appetites and desires.

If Lifeforce is an examination and perhaps even condemnation of promiscuous, rampant sexuality, it is also a supreme, unsettling entertainment. It surprises constantly, and features a number of nice homages to classic horror cinema. I  mentioned George Romero's Dead cycle, but Lifeforce also harks back to an older, British tradition: the Quartermass and Nigel Kneale's legacy.  There, aliens from space were the source of our mythology.  They came to Earth and were reckoned with in terms of scientific and military solutions.  Lifeforce is very much the same huge heaping helpings of sex and visual effects.  I also happen to believe the film does possess a sense of humor, but that it makes those jokes straight faced, in a staccato rat-a-tat-tat of overlapping dialogue.

Lifeforce is about a "destroyer of worlds," but if you read the film closely, it suggests that our desires -- and our inability to resist them -- is the very thing that could destroy humanity.  It's a point that's easy to lose sight of when you're watching Mathilda May cavort about with no clothes on. 

But in terms of May, Hooper's directorial acumen, and the sexually-charged plot line, Lifeforce is absolutely impossible to resist.

Movie Trailer: Lifeforce (1985)


Thursday, January 08, 2015

Movie Trailer: Ant Man (2015)

My Interview (from 2005) with Link (1986) Director Richard Franklin

In 2005, while I was writing Horror Films of the 1980s for McFarland, I had the opportunity and honor to interview late director Richard Franklin (1948 – 2007) about the film I reviewed on the blog today, Link (1986).  

Mr. Franklin was very generous with his time, and this interview occurred on November 20, 2005.

Some -- though not all -- of this material, appeared in the published book, but I thought it would be nice, today, to share the back-and-forth as it appeared originally, only cleaned up for purposes of clarity

The topic moves from Link to horror movies of the eighties in general.

Muir: Describe the genesis of Link.

Richard Franklin: My landlord (DP Tom Ackerman) on a spec trip in 1979 showed me the story and I optioned it. It was to have been my next film after Road Games.

Muir: What was it about this material that stimulated you as a filmmaker?

Richard Franklin: The opening line in the synopsis: “Someone pulled the head off of Mrs. Murphy’s cat.” The idea that an animal could be acting like a man acting like an animal. An ironic spin on Michael Myers and the whole genre. Then learning from Jane Goodall that there was some truth to this [idea].

Muir: Phillip gives Jane a set of rules to obey. Was part of the fun of this film giving viewers these rules and then having characters break them?

Richard Franklin: Shades of Gremlins (1984)!

Muir: Was there a long period of rehearsal on this film to get the actors and crew familiar with working with apes?

Richard Franklin: No. We left the apes to Ray Berwick (who did The Birds [1963]).

Muir: How long was the shoot?

Richard Franklin: Quite long. Fifty-four days.

Muir: How did Link and the other apes take direction?

Richard Franklin: They could do short (15 – 20 second) behaviors. And didn’t argue. But [they] lost interest quickly.

Muir: Were there delays?

Richard Franklin: It was a grindingly difficult shoot. But not because of the apes. I found the English crew very slow and difficult.

Muir: How did Elisabeth Shue do with her ape co-stars?

Richard Franklin: I believe she loved them.

Muir: The final chase in the movie is electrifying. How long did it take to stage and execute?

Richard Franklin: You mean the siege in the house? Maybe a week. And thank you. No one’s ever said that before.

Muir: Had you storyboarded it all out?

Richard Franklin: Yes. Without that we’d have been lost.  Link has something like three times the number of shots of any of my other movies.

Muir: I notice there are many long shots there. Your fluid camera and choice of shots make it clear where everyone is in relationship to each other.

Richard Franklin. Absolutely! And thanks for noticing. Maybe I’m a neo-classicist.

Muir: What do you think the film ultimately says about man/ape relationships?

Richard Franklin: That we are alike – and different. That civilization (political correctness and the like) is a thin veneer. Yet that 1% genetic difference makes a HUGE difference.

Muir: What happened regarding the release of the film?

Richard Franklin: EMI went belly up. Cannon inherited the film and those guys were absolute bozos.

Muir: I didn’t find it until a home video release, and I suspect the film wasn’t released theatrically in the States.

Richard Franklin: It had a small theatrical airing.

Muir: What was the problem, if you recall? Why did this film get lost and is it still lost, in a sense?

Richard Franklin: Inept distribution. It happens a lot – particularly to me. Look at Visitors (2003).

Muir: What do you think a student of films should understand about your sensibilities as a filmmaker?

Richard Franklin: I’m a neo-classicist. [I] believe traditional mise-en-scene can’t be beaten. [I] hate “wobbly-cam” (aping home videos) as it draws attention to itself and gets in the way of emotion (cf John Ford’s idea of “invisible technique,” which you’ll see more of in my later work like Hotel Sorrento/Sorrento Beach [1995].)

Muir: Do you think young directors working today still understand film grammar and how to use it?

Richard Franklin: Somewhat.

Muir: Which of your films in the 1980s best express your viewpoint as a filmmaker?

Richard Franklin: Psycho II (1983) is the best anyway.

Muir: If you had to choose one to film to show a class, which one would it be?

Richard Franklin: I just showed the new [Psycho II] DVD to a class.

Muir: What do you think of the trend of slasher films in the 1980s? Was it good for horror, or do you think it was a blind alley?

Richard Franklin: Maybe good for horror, but not necessarily “the thriller.” This genre once included North by Northwest (1959), but psychological suspense like Gaslight (1944) or The Cat and the Canary (1939) has sort of disappeared in favour of grue.  To me, the best screen murder ever is Nancy’s in Lean’s Oliver Twist (1948), and the scariest scene ever is the Indian raid in The Searchers (1956).

Muir: Do you have any favorite horror films from the decade?

Richard Franklin: Any suggestions? I like Halloween (1978), but that was the seventies.

Muir: What are about Dressed to Kill (1980)?

Richard Franklin: Brian is drawn to different values in Hitchcock’s work from those that attract me.

Muir: The Shining (1980)?

Richard Franklin: Some fantastic moments, but a bit labored. Kubrick (late in his career) underestimated his audience.

Muir: The Fly? (1986)

Richard Franklin: Fun, in a light way.

(At this point, my questions were all answered.)

Muir: Thanks again for your time!”

Richard Franklin: Hope my ideas do not cause offence. By all means come back for more…”

Cult-Movie Review: Link (1986)

Although relegated to limited theatrical release and near obscurity afterwards, director Richard Franklin’s Link (1986) is an effectively made and ingenious horror film that deserves to be better-remembered and, indeed, championed. 

The film depicts a tense battle for superiority, pitting man (or woman…) against ape in a remote English estate.  A sort of simian version of Psycho (1960), Link ponders a very specific question:  Does possessing “civilization” make man inherently superior to apes?

Or, contrarily, is civilization a mere construct that can be picked up or put down as easily as one takes off a dinner jacket? 

Is civilization a strength, or a weakness?

Throughout the Franklin film, when the titular chimp (played by an orangutan…) prepares to commit murder, he removes his tasteful jacket, as though noting that, simply, civilization has its limitations, and therefore, at times, must be ignored.

Link the ape wears civilization as if is a suit, but does not internalize its value.

Cleverly, Link presents three important “rules” that -- according to Terence Stamp’s anthropologist, Dr. Phillips -- must dominate man’s interaction with chimpanzees.  But then the film diagrams, in harrowing detail, what problems those rules can cause for both man and beast. 

After all, rules or laws are part and parcel of “civilization.” And yet by the same token rules, to some degree, establish boundaries that demand testing. Link tests those boundaries in his human “friends” and masters, and possesses a tactical advantage in the sense that he can avoid civilization all together simply by taking off the aforementioned jacket.

Humans, it seems, have a much more difficult time shedding this construct.

Buttressed by a superb final act which features a climax (and chase) of virtually unbearable suspense, Link explores man’s perpetual fascination or obsession with simians, and at the same time notes that civilization is both man’s greatest handicap and greatest virtue.

“The little monster’s been getting out at night…”

A zoology student in London named Jane (Elisabeth Shue) petitions Professor Phillips (Stamp), a prominent anthropologist, to serve as his assistant. With a semester break coming up, Phillips agrees that Jane can work at his remote estate, on the sea, as his assistant. 

There -- over the objections of her boyfriend, David -- she will prepare his meals, clean the house, and help him look after his chimps, including old Voodoo, baby Imp, and the intelligent “domestic,” Link.

Upon her arrival at the house in the country, Jane is unprepared for Phillips’ hostility and cruelty towards the animals. He plans to euthanize both Voodoo and Link, and tells Jane the hard and fast rules for dealing with the apes. 

However, Link soon turns the tables on Professor Phillips.

While Jane attempts to understand, precisely, the simian politics of the house, Link goes on a killing spree, and lays siege to the house and its occupants.

“You just have to let them know that they are forgiven…”

Writer Everett De Roche, Richard Franklin’s frequent creative collaborator, sets down three rules for man/ape interaction in Link. 

These are:

1. Man is the dominant species, so he must never treat the apes as equals.

2. Man’s anger must never escalate. He must always forgive the apes, no matter what they do. The apes must know that they are forgiven.

And, finally…

3 Man must not get involved in inter-ape squabbles, instead letting them work matters out for themselves.

Notice that, in a curious way, all three rules establish the same thing: man is in charge, and ape is subservient, inferior.

Rule one establishes dominance, but so does rule two, in more nuanced terms, because it is man who has the capacity (and responsibility) to forgive, not the apes.

The third rule, meanwhile, establishes that ape matters are beneath the interest of man and therefore to be ignored. Their affairs are not man’s concern.

Phillip’s Laws as we might call them overrule the law of the jungle, and demand that man act, constantly, as a deliberate superior to his ape friends. 

Amazingly, clever Link develops a way around these rules. He kills Voodoo (settling a squabble his own way), and is constantly seen demanding forgiveness, no matter how radically he transgresses, or what crimes he commits. 

If humans must always forgive, then Link can always simply extend his hand in supplication, no matter his trespass. Link realizes he has an out for any act that could get him in trouble: Rule #2.  He doesn’t realize that Dr. Phillip can break his own rule by offering not forgiveness, but a final solution: murder of the transgressor.

Yet if Link sees a way around the rules, he is not exactly deceitful in nature. By contrast, Phillips’ stock and trade is cruelty, and he plans to kill Link essentially because the animal has grown too smart; too knowing.

At least Link has the decency to remove his jacket when he gets down to murder, an affectation that Phillips doesn’t observe. He never casts off the face of civilization, though his act (homicide) qualifies as barbaric.

But Link is a clever movie, in part, because it establishes a film-long conflict between man and ape on all fronts. One early scene sees Jane pitted against Imp in an IQ test, and she nearly loses. The message is that intelligence is not the sole purview of man.  Intelligence is not the thing that separates us, then, and Link’s dialogue informs us that some apes have IQs as high as 85.

Another scene suggests that man is separated from ape by his capacity to make war. The movie undercuts that notion as well, and tells a story of a chimp “war” in Tanzania in 1979.

In the finale, Jane realizes that the only way to defeat Link is to trick him, and she does so by exploiting his understanding of Phillip’s Laws…of civilization itself. Link knows that he will be forgiven for his trespasses, including smoking. 

So Jane starts to discipline him, pre-emptively, for smoking a cigar near a lit gas pilot light in the kitchen.  Knowing he won’t face permanent anger or discipline, Link lights up the cigar, demonstrating his belief in his own superiority. 

Instead, he blows up the house and loses the war.

Watching Link again for the first time since 2005, I was struck by how similar the film is, in a sense, to Hitchcock’s Psycho. 

The setting is an isolated house with a very similar interior on the first floor, and the murderous individual (in this case Link, not Norman Bates) has an established routine for disposing of visitors (dumping cars not in a swamp, but over a rocky cliff, Oceanside). 

Furthermore, the villain is psychotic, one might surmise, due to a betrayal from a parental figure. Norman poisoned and killed his own Mother when she turned her affection away from him.  Link kills his father when he recognizes Phillip’s betrayal.  There’s even a bathroom scene here, with Link peeping at Jane as she is about to take a bath.

Link is more straightforward a film than Psycho is, in many respects, but both films trade on the notion that not everything is what it seems on the surface.  Phillips boasts a darkness to him that seems to bring about Link’s violent fit, and so a key question remains: is Link acting out of self-defense, or out of blood-thirstiness when he commits murder?  Norman’s activities, likewise, come out of the need and desire to emotionally protect himself from his mother’s death.  His murders are a form of mental self-defense, you might say.

One innocent figure in Link is the baby chimp, Imp. He is carried about on Shue’s shoulders throughout the film.  She reads him bedtime stories, and he is treated, essentially, like a human baby.  

This innocent is unencumbered by rules or knowledge of them, and suggests a blunt course of action.  “Kill Link,” Imp types into a computer. 

Jane responds that murder is “is not the way civilized people behave,” but ultimately, Imp is right.  Imp suggests the same course of action as Dr. Phillips does, but Imp gains audience sympathy because of his innocence, and because of his nature as an animal…one who understands instinctively what Link is capable of. Link, who has figured out how to game the rules, must die, because he keeps crossing lines of decorum or civilized behavior (murder, primarily).

Link is a great horror film, dominated by a number of great, almost sub-textual touches.  Early on, the film Blonde Venus (1932) is seen on a television, and shows footage of humans dancing with a gorilla (or a person in a gorilla suit).  Underneath the suit, Marlene Dietrich is revealed at one point.  So Dietrich removes her “costume” as a beast to reveal her civilized, human self.  This act is the precise opposite of Link’s in the film. He takes off his human suit to reveal his murderous, uncivilized, animal side.

Similarly, the lead character here is named “Jane,” and we associate that name explicitly with Jane in the Tarzan stories, and Jane Goodall, a famous primatologist and anthropologist.  In all these cases, Jane is a figure who is something of a go-between, moving between the human world and the ape world.  That is, not coincidentally, the role that Shue’s Jane plays here.

Finally, I love that Jane reads Imp the story of The Three Little Pigs in the film, because the last act literalizes the story, with Link as the Big Bad Wolf outside, trying very hard to make his way inside the house. 

A formalist like Hitchcock, Franklin surpasses his earlier film work in Link by staging some remarkable and expressive shots during the movie’s final battle. After Jane picks up a shot-gun and shoots at Link, Franklin stages a gorgeous shot through the bullet hole in the kitchen door. 

Later, he stages an extreme high-angle shot from above the second floor balcony, and follows Link’s pursuit of Jane, Imp and David up the stairs, around the ledge, and into a locked room.  The effect is exhilarating, as the long-shot provides viewers the full terrain of the battle, and offers no fakery or trickery.  A sense of space and time -- and therefore danger -- is brilliantly preserved. While so many films sort of wind-down or creatively peter out in the third act (see: Explorers [1985]), Link delivers the thrills.

For some reason, audiences got a lot of “ape”-based horror movies in the late 1980s and early 1990s, including Link, Monkey Shines (1988), and Shakma (1990).  

I’m a big fan of Romero’s Monkey Shines, but even so Link remains, in my eyes, top banana.

(Note: I will post an old interview [from 2005] that I conducted with Richard Franklin about the film, later today, on the blog.)