Tuesday, October 31, 2017

A 1970's Halloween: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

The late great movie critic Pauline Kael once wrote that the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers was “the American movie of the year – a new classic…the best movie of its kind ever made.”

Even at this late date, I can find no reason to quibble with that assessment.

In particular, Invasion of the Body Snatchers craftily updates the 1950s context of the original Jack Finney novel, as well as the Don Siegel film adaptation.  It does so in order to deliberately comment on the contentious 1970s: the decade of “The Me Generation” and the Watergate conspiracy and cover-up. 

Accordingly, the film’s conclusion seems to be that human life in the decade of “self-realization” seems to hamper, not encourage, real connection between people, while an overt, even paranoid lack of trust in society’s institutions and hierarchies makes that disconnect exponentially worse. 

In the absence of real connection and real love, a seed grows, and terror blossoms.  

Invasion of the Body Snatchers thus concerns, as film scholar Michael Dempsey noted in Film Quarterly (February 1979, page 120), “the manifold pressures which life brings upon people to abandon that ambiguous blessing, humanity.”

In San Francisco, lab tech Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) grows increasingly convinced that her boyfriend Geoffrey (Art Hindle) is not himself.  When she brings her worries to her boss, Matthew Bennell (Sutherland), he recommends she see his friend, pop psychologist and relationship guru, Dr. David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy).  Kibner promptly reports that he has seen six similar cases in just one week, and suspects that the cause is the fast-moving 1970s life-style, in which people move in and out of relationships too fast, without really getting to know each other.

But as Matthew, Elizabeth, and their fiends Nancy (Veronica Cartwright) and Jack (Jeff Goldblum) soon discover, the problem in San Francisco is much graver than that.  Alien plants from a dying solar system have arrived on Earth and are rapidly producing emotionless doppelgangers of the human race.  They desire a world of peace, with no hate…but also no love. 

Matthew, Elizabeth, Nancy and Jack attempt to escape San Francisco, but the conspiracy has grown too big, and the human race stands on the brink…

The 1970s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers by director Philip Kaufman primarily concerns shape and form, and the myriad ways that human beings misperceive shape and form, and thus make unwarranted assumptions that fit pre-conceived notions about those qualities. The film itself depicts an invasion of alien “pod people” -- essentially sentient plants -- who secretly  replace human beings (while they sleep…) in a vast 1970s liberal metropolis, San Francisco. 

But unlike its 1950s predecessor, which was either an indictment of communism or an indictment of McCarthyism depending on your personal Rorschach, the remake plays meaningfully against the unmistakable backdrop of an increasing divorce rate in the United States and the ascent of the so-called “Me Generation.” 

Or, as the psychiatrist in the film, Kibner (Leonard Nimoy) trenchantly notes: “people are moving in and out of relationships too quickly,” and therefore never really getting to know people they presumably love. Accordingly, when individuals make discoveries about their intended loves ones that they don’t like, it is easier to disassociate from them, to blame the “other” for being “different” and then just move on.

But if you are so focused on self and can’t get to really know other people, how can you tell if they are even human at all?  They may look and act human -- their shape and form could be human -- but they could be…pods.

In terms of background context, the Me Generation famously consists of Baby Boomers (born 1946 – 1964, generally-speaking) who, because of rising disposable income in the 1970s and perhaps as a direct response to the ethos of the World War II generation, began to place a new importance on “the self” over the well-being, necessarily, of the community.

In fact, the 1970s was determinedly the decade of the “self,” a fact reflected in the hedonism of disco music, and the blazing ascent in popularity of the “self-help” book genre.  Popular buzz-words of the day included “self-realization” and “self-fulfillment,” yet as the movement of “self” grew, many people saw the new age as merely one of “self-involvement.  The consumption-oriented life-style of immediate gratification soon gave rise to President Carter’s notorious 1979 “Crisis of Confidence” speech, which warned against judging success on material wealth rather than intrinsic human qualities of character and morality.  Meanwhile, we kept building more shopping malls, and imagined worlds futuristic (Logan’s Run) and apocalyptic (Dawn of the Dead) set at them.

Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers plays meaningfully with the idea of form and shape in its visuals by depicting a world where “disconnected” people can’t distinguish between genuine humanity and invading, emotionless aliens.  This tension between form and reality occurs almost immediately in the film when a health inspector -- the film’s protagonist, Bennell (Sutherland) -- starts a fight in a restaurant kitchen, arguing over whether a small black object is actually a caper or a rat turd.  This debate is actually a metaphor for the entire film.

The only way to know for sure about the caper/rat turd is to eat it…and by then it’s too late, isn’t it?  By then, what you fear is actually inside you, doing you harm…

Forecasting its bleak, terrifying, and legitimately unforgettable finale, Kaufman’s camera proves deeply ambivalent even about Bennell -- the hero -- and his “true” human nature.   For example, when Bennell first appears in the film, he is seen through the restaurant’s door, through a peep-hole, and the audience gazes at him through the filter of what seems like a fish-eye.  Bennell appears distorted and strange, and not fully human. 

Later, at a book party for Dr. Kibner, we see a distorted visual representation of Bennell again.  As he talks on the telephone to the police, he stands before what seems to be a funhouse mirror, and it corrupts his features once more. 

And when Bennell goes to rescue Elizabeth from her boyfriend’s house, he is deliberately lit from below, a visual selection which casts shadows upon his features and makes him look diabolical or sinister.

All these visualizations of the good guy prove a point in Invasion of the Body Snatchers:  You can’t trust appearances.

That lesson is learned the hard way by Veronica Cartwright’s character, Nancy, in the film’s last moment.

To approach this facet of Invasion of the Body Snatchers another way, the aliens are creatures who do understand, mimic and manipulate form and shape to their advantage.  Late in the film, a pod merges the body of a dog with the head of a homeless man because the host’s genetic materials were damaged during the duplication process.  What emerges is nothing less than an abomination (and one my earliest movie-going experiences with a jump scare, at that).  But that’s okay to the aliens because they don’t possess emotions. They don’t know fear, disgust or horror.

The protagonists further misunderstand the pods because of their “familiar”-seeming forms.  First, the pods are accepted as harmless plants and brought into human homes, where they commence the invasion. Secondly, these plants are not considered a viable “host” for aliens, as Nancy observantly points out.   Why do we expect UFOS to be metal ships?

And thirdly, the heroes operate on incorrect assumptions about plants, and those assumptions prove deadly.  Even though Nancy notes that plants do respond to music, Bennell leaves Elizabeth for a time because he hears music playing nearby, on a boat.  The song he hears is “Amazing Grace,” one of the most moving compositions ever written, and he assumes it must be sign or symbol of emotional, feeling mankind. 

On the contrary, however, the tune emanates from a cargo ship transporting pods.  There is no hope here, no “grace” to speak of.  The pods, though emotionless, listen to music as well, though it is doubtful they would ever compose new music.

Again, we believe that music is unique to us, but this scene proves that it isn’t, and that mistake costs Bennell the love of his life.  He should know better. When he breaks into Geoffrey's house, the pod Geoffrey is also listening to music.

Over and over, Kaufman’s film attempts to trick us or mislead with its visuals, making the case that in this day and age, we can’t really know anyone else.  Sometimes, the director throws the audience a bone and offers up a visual composition that makes the point we need to learn, or provides an important clue, even before the dialogue tells us.  In one scene set at Matthew’s apartment, for instance, a tower bisects the frame vertically, separating Matthew and Kibner on opposite sides of rectangle, a visual representation of the fact that they aren’t working towards a common end.  We get verbal verification of that fact in the very next scene, but the visuals tell us first, and that’s a remarkable and deft achievement.

The 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers also plays deliberately with the lack of confidence Americans felt in their government following the Watergate Scandal.  President Nixon authorized criminal activities from the Oval Office and resigned from office in disgrace, and then his successor, President Ford immediately pardoned him.  Citizens, to a certain extent, were left out of the loop, and Nixon didn’t seem to pay much for betraying the public trust.  So there was a sense that government, and government bureaucracy was not working for the good of the people, but rather to corrupt ends.  Government (Ford) took care of its own (Nixon).  I don’t necessarily agree with that reading, and I believe Ford did what was necessary to begin the healing process in America.  But others felt differently, and throughout this movie, the paranoia of Watergate proves quite pronounced as shadowy figures rendezvous and talk in hushed tones about plots and strategies.  

At one point, the specter of Watergate is directly referenced, when Matthew realizes that he and all his friends are being watched, and their phones are being tapped.  A telephone operator calls him by name before he gives it. This is, perhaps, the most chilling moment in the movie.

To Philip Kaufman’s credit, he orchestrates the conspiracy in Invasion of the Body Snatchers right under our (unaware) noses, much as President Nixon managed to do for a time.  If Watergate had its “plumbers,” then Invasion has its “garbage men.”  Throughout the film, unobserved and unremarked upon, garbage trucks enter the frame and cart off this weird organic-looking soot or fluff. 

The conspiracy's garbage men are here.

Notice the dumpster behind Leonard Nimoy.

Could that body have disappeared into the garbage truck sitting outside the window?

We don’t learn until the end of the film that this grotesque material is all that remains of the human body after the duplication process.  But at four or five different junctures in the film -- starting in the first shots after the opening credits finish – anonymous-looking garbage trucks, garbage men and dumpsters are captured in the frame, along with this mystery substance.  Only in the film’s final moments does the full breadth of the conspiracy -- and its duration -- become plain.  Invasion of the Body Snatchers also makes literal that old proverb “you can’t fight City Hall.” Here Matthew realizes that the invaders (garbage men and aliens) “control the whole city,” just as we learned they ran the country in Watergate.

Between extreme paranoia about the motives of trusted officials, and the lack of connection between citizens in a permissive utopia of “self,” Invasion of the Body Snatchers fosters deep uneasiness about how easily our natures might be mimicked or mocked.  The final scene, which sees Bennell revealed as a “pod person,” is the ultimate exclamation point on that theme.  He does everything that he did before he was an alien, and so we hope, like Nancy, that he could be “hiding” around the other aliens.  But instead we’ve missed the truth again.  We have mistaken form for substance.  He’s been “born again” into an untroubled world that has no need of hate, and no need of love, either.

Tellingly, Invasion of the Body Snatchers proposes that the alien duplication occurs while the original human sleeps.  Sleep is a universal must and biological need among human beings, so the process is both inescapable and inevitable.  Furthermore, how often have we heard from friends and family that that they “just woke up one day” and felt different about someone important in their lives. This Invasion of the Body Snatchers lives in paranoid suspicion of such a revelation.

A 1970's Halloween: The Fury (1978)

In terms of the cinema, 1978 was The Year of the Conspiracy.” 

NASA faked a Mars landing in ITC’s paranoid Capricorn One, Genevieve Bujold discovered a major metropolitan hospital’s plot to harvest the organs of comatose patients in Michael Crichton’s unsettling Coma, and alien pods infiltrated every level of government and commerce in San Francisco in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Brian De Palma’s The Fury fits in perfectly with this “The Year of The Conspiracy” label because the film, based on a novel by John Farris, depicts a covert government agency’s kidnapping of an American citizen, the attempted murder of that citizen’s father, and the agency’s efforts to transform the captive into a psychic assassin. 

The Fury brilliantly captures the unsettled and angry mood of the country with its very title.  The American people were indeed “fury”-ious with leaders in Washington D.C. at the time because of the Watergate Scandal, the dismissive pardoning of Nixon, the illegal bombing campaigns in Cambodia, the Energy Crisis, stagflation, and other economic issues.  Trust in government stood at its lowest ebb in this era…at least until present times.

The Fury “transmits” this righteous anger in, literally, explosive terms. 

Specifically, De Palma’s film about youngsters who possess psychic abilities tells the story of a passive “receiver,” Gillian -- played by Amy Irving -- who is transformed finally, into a potent “sender” because of  her ever-growing anger at the government, represented by Cassavete’s villainous character, Childress. 

The film culminates with the completion of Gillian’s transformation, and the ensuing total physical destruction of Childress, witnessed in loving-but-bloody detail from more than half—a-dozen angles.

Like virtually all of Brian De Palma’s films, The Fury is devilishly playful, and in this case, buoyed considerably by the director’s masterful orchestration of three stunning set-pieces.  One is a slow-motion escape from repressive authority, another is an expression of fury meted at an amusement park, and the last –and best -- is the bloody denouement, the final dispatch of Childress.

The result of all these moments  is a tense and extremely gory film that captures perfectly the Zeitgeist of its age, and continues to impress today on the basis of its almost completely unexpected emotional impact. 

In short, The Fury evokes rage and upset in the viewer as again and again the good guys lose, and the bad guys win. At least, that is, until the unspooling of the film’s cathartic last sequence, which is as sharp and spiky an exclamation point as has ever been used to punctuate a genre film.

“…what a culture can’t assimilate, it destroys…”

A powerful young psychic, Robin Sandza (Stevens) is made to believe that his father, a government agent, Peter (Douglas) has been killed in a terrorist attack.  Now in the care of Peter’s ruthless partner, Childress (Cassavetes), Robin is trained to be a psychic assassin, his powers held in check by Dr. Susan Charles (Lewis), also his lover.
For eleven months, Peter searches for his son with the help of a nurse, Hester (Snodgress), who works at the Paragon Institute, a school for psychically-gifted students.  There, a new arrival, a troubled young woman named Gillian (Irving) grapples with her powers, and comes to realize that she is “receiving” messages from a “sender,” Robin.
Peter and Hester break Gillian out of Paragon -- which is secretly allied with Childress -- and after Hester is killed, go in search of Robin. 

The duo finally finds Robin at a secret, wooded estate, but he is now almost totally devoid of humanity.  His psychic powers have grown to such an extent that he has become inhuman, and a murderer…

After Peter and Robin are killed, Childress captures Gillian, but the agent finds that her psychic powers are also very well-developed.

They’re always watching…”

Created in the immediate aftermath of the Watergate Scandal and the resignation of President Nixon (which followed not long after the resignation of Vice-President Agnew…), The Fury evidences a serious distrust of the United States government. 

In fact, the film portrays Childress and his secretive agency as a malevolent shadow lurking, vulture-like over the American family, bent on separating family members, harassing citizens, and creating monsters for a secret agenda and other dark purposes.

The apparent protagonist of the film, Peter (Kirk Douglas) expresses fear and dislike of the government at several junctures in the film.  “They needed him,” he explains about Peter, “and they took him.  They just took him.” 

At another juncture, Peter notes that “They” (meaning Childress’s agents) “are always watching.”  What he expresses hear is a fear directly borne of Watergate: of government spying, and intrusion in the private lives of families. 

Peter also fears for his lover, Hester’s, because she “takes too much for granted.”  She trusts “too many people.”  In the mid-to-late 1970s, the government had lost the trust of many Americans, and that’s the idea being expressed in The Fury.  This was not a time for optimism or idealism.

Early in The Fury, Peter hides out in an apartment belonging to a blue-collar family.  He meets a character named “Mother Nuckalls,” and it turns out she wants to help him evade capture.  She tells him flat out that if he encounters “Feds,” Peter should “kill them.”   Again, the idea expressed is absolute contempt towards and hate for the government.

Today, the right wing tends be the most vehemently anti-government demographic, but in the 1970s that title went to the left side of the political spectrum, and indeed, the government agency depicted here is seen as a dangerous international aggressor, a son of Nixon.  Childress wants to possess Robin -- a psychic assassin – because, explicitly “the Chinese don’t have one,” and “The Soviets don’t have one” like him. 

In other words, Robin represents the latest achievement in Cold War one-upmanship.

In keeping with the idea of a malevolent but also bungling or incompetent government, De Palma stages his action scenes with a fine sense of the chaotic, or the random.  In the film’s most stirring action scene  -- Gillian’s escape from the Paragon Institute -- an innocent woman, Hester, is killed, when the government gives chase in a car, and Peter, also a government agent, remember, opens fire.  Caught between opposing (partisan?) enemies, Hester is violently and accidentally killed, in slow-motion no less, and the idea transmitted is one of events spiraling absolutely out-of-control.

This particular scene works so brilliantly because De Palma rivets our attention with the slow-motion photography, and also with the total lack of sound-effects we might expect, such as gunshots or screams. Instead, we simply get John Williams’ gorgeous, Hitchcock-ian score as the scene’s soundtrack, and the pulse absolutely quickens. 

Why approach the material this way?  On one hand, it’s an application of formalist film technique.  But on the other, if you’ve ever been in a car accident, you might remember how time seems to slow-down, and you are aware of every event, every instant, every reflex, ever move.  The escape scene here, rendered in compelling slow-motion photography, very adroitly recreates that feeling of a catastrophic event happening around you, and event after event overwhelming the senses.

Late in the film, Peter also fails to rescue Robin, and Robin -- again, the “transmitter” or “sender” -- dies, but not before passing on his finely-developed rage to Gillian, who has witnessed all the bungling, all the violence, and has had a stomach full of it.  In the film’s last scene, Gillian’s eyes go blue (like Robin’s), and she lets loose, overcoming her passivity as a receiver.  She blows Childress apart. 

Long story short: the only appropriate response to how things were going in America of the mid-1970s was…the fury.

Indeed, throughout the film, De Palma links psychic expression or outbursts directly to feelings of rage.  Another of The Fury’s great set-pieces occurs at an indoor amusement park.  Robin first feels jealousy regarding Susan Charles when he sees her with two other men. 

And then, he sees innocent Middle-Eastern men boarding a tilt-a-whirl.  But, Robin remembers their (stereotypically) Arab garb from the terrorist attack that he believes killed his father, and so he lets his rage -- his fury -- take over.   He causes the tilt-a-whirl roller-coaster car to break loose from its moorings, and sends the Arab passengers hurtling into another party of unsuspecting Middle-Easterners.  Again, the impetus for such an outburst is explicitly anger.

The idea that fury builds psychic power to a boiling point can be explored in relation to Carrie (1976), De Palma's previous film involving telekinesis.  There, the director utilized a split-screen image to suggest the cause-and-instantaneous-effect nature of Carrie's anger.  There was no built up...telekinesis was simultaneous.  In The Fury, by contrast, the psychic power builds and builds.  We see this explicitly during a scene in which Gillian uses the power of her mind to move a toy train faster and faster around a track.  Her abilities reach a fever pitch as the train spins around the track, and then we get a vision from the future.   In The Fury, it takes time for psychic powers to reach full capacity.  And range and anger augment those powers.

Although Kirk Douglas is the star of The Fury, in many ways, the film really dramatizes the story of Gillian, played by Irving.  She starts out as a virtual innocent.  She’s just a kid living her life without much thought for much beyond herself.  But very soon Gillian finds that her “gifts” are coveted by Childress and his murky agency, and that atrocities have been committed by the government against those just like her. 

At first, all Gillian can do is empathize with Robin,  witnessing the visions of his torture and subjugation.  But by film’s end, Gillian reverses her role and becomes an active player in her own destiny.  In brief then, the film depicts the process of how an activist is born, first by witnessing the pain of others, and then, finally, by taking a stand against corruption or malfeasance.

The last scene in The Fury, in which Gillian takes a personal stand,  is one for the ages.  Gillian summons all her “fury” and literally rips apart Childress with her psychic powers.  He explodes into several pieces, and we see his utter de-construction in view-after-view, in the most loving, exhaustive detail imaginable.  When severed Childress’s head – eyes still open -- hits the white carpet on the floor (and the viewer’s jaw simultaneously hits the ground in disbelief…), the movie merely goes to black without comment.

De Palma has built up to this amazing catharsis from the film’s first moments.  A family is separated, a beautiful nurse is killed, a father loses his son, and then commits suicide.  And through it all, the forces of Childress and a dark government win.  But finally, the tables are turned, and all the rage of the day is released in a magnificent explosion of blood and guts, a flower coaxed to bloom.

Some critics thought The Fury’s ending was over-the-top.  Others felt that it had been a long time coming…

A 1970's Halloween: Night of the Lepus (1972)

The horror cinema of the 1970s is filled with tales depicting Earth’s imminent destruction at the hands (or paws...) of…animals.   

But make no mistake: while Mother Nature may launch her animal armies against us, it is mankind himself that is to blame for her righteous vengeance  By polluting natural environments, by dumping toxic wastes, and by using pesticide, he has only brought upon his own destruction.

Message: it is not nice to fool with Mother Nature.

The Revenge of Nature Cycle may have started as the “when animals attack” genre, a movement exemplified by films such as Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), or Willard (1972).  

But by the mid-point of the decade, filmmakers were almost constantly coupling vicious animal behavior with man’s massive and on-going mistreatment of the environment.

Accordingly, polluting man battles amphibians in Frogs (1972).  

Pesticide-spraying man battles spiders in Kingdom of the Spiders (1977).  

Toxic-waste dumping man faces insect rebellion in Empire of the Ants (1977).  

Other films of the same ilk including The Bug (1975), Squirm (1976), Day of the Animals (1977), and perhaps the most infamous revenge of nature movie of all: Night of the Lepus.

In Night of the Lepus -- a film derived from the satirical novel, The Year of the Angry Rabbit (1964) by Russell Braddon -- the careless mistake of two scientists results in the spread of a dangerous hormone that can cause “genetic deformity.” It becomes unloosed on the out-of-control giant rabbit population of Arizona. 

Before long, the ranchers and law enforcement officials near Ajo are waging a war against giant carnivorous bunnies with teeth the size of “saber tooth tigers.”

The guiding principle behind the movie, and indeed, behind the Revenge of Nature cycle is sound, and not entirely new in the 1970s.  Just as the original Godzilla (1954) is about a monster that represents out-of-control atomic power -- the opening of Pandora's Box, so-to-speak, the bunnies represent out-of-control science and irresponsible man tampering in God's domain, in Night of the Lepus.  

The big problem with the film is that as avatars of fear, rabbits are rather un-intimidating creatures.  Even with red paint splattered on their whiskery mouths. 

Ants, spiders, worms, and even frogs seem more appropriately terrifying.  And Night of the Lepus does itself no favors by showing the “enlarged” rabbits on screen constantly with tiresomely repeat or stock footage. 

 In fact, these giant rabbits hop around -- or rather “stampede” -- across miniature sets in slow-motion, in full view of the camera for long, dull stretches of the running time, and the result is underwhelming to say the least.

“Mommy, what’s a control group?”

A newscaster on TV hosts a special report about the “imbalance in the animal world,” and a “plague of rabbits” infesting Australia.  He then describes how the same situation is bedeviling the residents of Arizona.

There, rancher Cole Hillman (Rory Calhoun) is seeing his land overrun by ever-multiplying rabbits.  One day, his favorite steed trips on a rabbit hole, breaks its leg, and must be put down, and that’s the last straw. Cole asks a friend, Elgin Clark (De Forest Kelley), to help him solve the crisis.

Elgin contacts two scientists who work with animals, Roy (Stuart Whitman) and Gerry Bennett (Janet Leigh).  With their daughter Amanda (Melanie Fullerton) alongside them, the scientists examine the problem and begin to experiment with hormones in an attempt to suppress the mating drive of the rabbits.  The experiment doesn't work, and the scientists mix up a new concoction with results they can't predict, as they readily admit.

Unfortunately, Amanda accidentally frees an affected rabbit, Romeo, from captivity, and the new hormone it carries causes a mutant strain of giant rabbit to rapidly develop.

The Bennetts, Elgin and Cole attempt to stop the onslaught of the rabbits, even blowing up a mine-shaft where they have made their home.  

But a herd of giant carnivorous rabbits escape from this trap, and make a run for Ajo, where they have the capacity to do major damage in terms of life and property value.

“There’s a herd of killer rabbit headed this way!”

You may not realize it, but if you have watched The Matrix (1999), you have seen, at least momentarily, imagery from Night of the Lepus.  

The movie plays on-screen during the scene in which Neo (Keanu Reeves) visits the Oracle, and sees children bending spoons.  The subtle suggestion is that a movie like Night of the Lepus -- about a “herd of killer rabbit” -- could only exist in a weird facsimile of reality.

That’s a good point, because Night of the Lepus is surely one of the most unintentionally hilarious horror movies of its day, particularly with Amanda, the Bennett’s little girl, asking exposition-heavy questions such as “Mommy, what’s a control group?” or speaking for the audience and noting “I like rabbits!"

Even the humorless narrator of the “Rabbit War” news report at the film’s beginning adds to the film's unintentional sense of humor by noting that these “cuddly pets” could become a terrible “menace.” 

As a general rule, it’s a good idea not to refer to your monster as “cuddly,” because an adjective like that undercuts the sense of horror. In a movie about slobbering, jumping, man-eating rabbits, the word cuddly should simply never be spoken at all.

Another moment of funny dialogue comes from Whitman who worries “Heaven help us if any of them [rabbits] get away before we know the effects of this serum.”

Guess what happens in the very next scene?

If you said that one of the affected rabbits gets loose, you are absolutely right. Amanda switches rabbits without her parents realizing it, and then the infected rabbit gets loose after Amanda keeps it as a pet for a time.  The Bennets are not merely lousy scientists, they are lousy parents too, for taking Amanda to work with them and not paying attention to her actions. It's clear they recognize what dangers could await if a rabbit escapes.

Even Janet Leigh, the great star of Psycho (1960) seems diminished by the film’s ridiculous dialogue. When she comforts Amanda after a lepus attack she soothes her.  It’s gone,” she assures her daughter.  “The rabbit is gone.”

Yes dear, the cuddly pet rabbit is gone now, and you have nothing to fear.  

Again, this is a fear that should not be named, specifically.  Even the very word, "rabbit," doesn't promote scares.

Let's be clear: Night of the Lepus features a monster that would be difficult to make scary under the absolute best of circumstances, but the movie doesn’t create or promote the best of circumstances. Director William Claxton allows for the rabbit scenes to linger on-creen -- in slow motion -- for long spells, and any illusion that they are giant, or dangerous, is lost because of their familiarity.  In fact, you get to the point where you start to recognize the rabbits.  There's the black one, the orange one, and so forth.  

And as the friendly-seeming rabbits hop across miniature sets it is painfully obvious that they are not gargantuan. The sound effects that accompany their runs  may “sound like a cattle stampede” to bystanders, but that too is kind of funny.

I should be clear, it’s not just that the shots linger beyond reason, in agonizing slow-motion, it’s that they repeat.  A scene with rabbits leaping a chasm is seen at least twice, and many scenes of the rabbits traversing a highway seem to repeat as well. Either that or are the roads are so similar as to be visually indistinguishable.

Director William Claxton -- a talent who directed several outstanding episodes of The Twilight Zone (1959 -1965) including the sensitive “I Sing the Body Electric” --  seems to approach this horror film as more of a Western, right down to Hill’s motivation for fighting the rabbits (the death of a horse), and some attractive, even picturesque landscape shots.  The rabbits are treated more as a stampede of out-of-control animals than as a threat resulting from science-run-amok, and nature’s reprisal.

Now, on one hand, treating the film’s threat as fairly realistic could be a good thing…if the monsters inspired fear. 

But on the other hand, Claxton goes way over-the-top in terms of fake-looking gore, a step which moves the film out of the zone of realism. The scene vacillates between deadly dull conversations and over-the-top moments of ridiculous violence, and the approach is not pleasing.

As one might expect from this approach, critics weren’t terribly impressed with the results of Claxton’s efforts.  

Roger Greenspun, writing in The New York Times, noted the “technical laziness,” “stupid story” and “dumb direction,” a kind of trifecta of utter terrible-ness. 

Alan Frank, in 1982, treated the film more gently, though drew the same conclusion, noting that the “enlarged rabbits” don’t “really carry a genuine monstrous charge.

Watching the film again for the first time since I wrote Horror Films of the 1970's I felt a little bad for the out-dated wonders of Night of the Lepus. The movie features a lot of likable performers in it -- it’s great to see De Forest Kelley again, for instance -- and it surely capitalizes on the eco-terror Zeitgeist of its moment.  

And yet beyond that, this is a horror film unable to enunciate even a single moment of authentic horror.

Almost funnier than the movie itself is the trailer, which discusses a “night of total terror” and a “devil creature.”  It asks “what happened the night science made its greatest mistake?”

Well, what happens when the horror film makes a great mistake?  

A 1970's Halloween: When a Stranger Calls (1979)

Fred Walton’s When a Stranger Calls (1979) remains one of the most effective and terrifying horror movies made during the disco decade.

This statement is accurate, I reckon, because I knew the film’s punch-line before I ever saw the movie.  

When I was ten years old, my beloved aunt Vivian would frequently regale me with horror movie stories at family gatherings. I just couldn’t get enough of these cinematic tales, which she recited in every fantastic and grotesque detail. Vivian told me, over the years, the stories of Halloween (1978), Alien (1979), The Fog (1980) and When a Stranger Calls.

So I actually knew that the film’s killer was calling “from inside the house” before I ever saw the movie’s first frame.

Yet when I finally saw When a Stranger Calls with my own eyes, my pre-knowledge of that crucial “twist” made no difference whatsoever. The movie scared the shit out of me.

Watching the film again for the first time since 1999 (when I wrote Horror Films of the 1970s), the opening scene still unsettled me, and left my wife feeling anxious and jittery as we turned off the lights and went to bed.

And yes, that’s absolutely the sweet spot for horror movies: the promise of a troubled night’s slumber as you turn out the lights and your head hits the pillow.

Based on an urban legend (the babysitter and the man upstairs…), When a Stranger Calls opens with a meticulous, self-contained set-piece of near perfect execution. A high-school age babysitter (Carol Kane) is inside a suburban house alone, and being tormented by an increasingly creepy telephone caller. The frequency of the calls escalate, and the police trace the call….

...And, well, you know doubt know the rest.

When a Stranger Calls undeniably falters some in its second act, even as it establishes the pitiable character of its boogeyman, Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley). The film also explores the seedy terrain of late-1970s city life, but the movie’s lead, Charles During (as Det. John Clifford) proves pretty unappealing.

Finally, When a Stranger Calls pulls itself back together with a rip-roaring finale -- and one of the creepiest jump scares of the decade -- making the audience forget how listless some scenes in the second act actually are

So When a Stranger Calls is not perfect, perhaps, in the sense that a film such as Halloween may be. But the film nonetheless opens and closes with some of the scariest imagery in the 1970s genre canon.

“Have you checked the children?”

High-schooler Jill (Kane) arrives at the house of Dr. Mandrakis (Carmen Argenziano) to babysit his two children, who are already in bed and asleep. The good doctor and his wife leave for dinner and a movie, reporting that they will not return until after midnight.

Jill settles in, and begins to study in the family living room. But before long, she begins to receive disturbing, threatening phone calls from a stranger. Jill contacts the police, and they endeavor to trace the call. 

Jill learns, to her horror that the caller is inside the house, using the upstairs phone line.

The police, including Det. Clifford (Durning) arrive and apprehend the killer, Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley), but not before he has murdered the children with his bare hands.

Seven years later, Duncan escapes from an asylum, and Clifford, now a P.I., resolves, with Dr. Mandrakis’s funding, to kill him.

Clifford follows Duncan’s trail to a city bar called Torchy’s, and to a barfly named Tracy (Colleen Dewhurst).  She has seen Duncan on more than one occasion, and allows Clifford to use her as bait to catch the killer.

Duncan escapes, however, and chooses different prey. 

Jill, the babysitter he once stalked (and nearly killed), is now a mother herself, with two young children…

“It’s probably some weirdo. The city is full of ‘em.”

In 2017, iPhones and cell phones have perhaps made the central scenario of When a Stranger Calls feel dated.

Now, it is easy to call anyone, from any location, including the next-room-over. But by the same token, that caller’s name is identified on a screen, so it’s tougher to prank call folks too.

But the standing assumption in 1979 was that telephone calls were coming from an exterior location, from outside the house. When a Stranger Calls thus plays wickedly with the status quo, and intriguingly, does so in the very year that AT&T’s advertising agency coined the memorable slogan “reach out and touch someone.”

Curt Duncan is someone who has taken that idea all-too literally. He uses the telephone to psychologically terrorize his prey, and he utilizes his surprising position -- inside the Mandrakis house -- to “touch” (or kill…) them.

The film’s opening scene is elegant, simple, and beautifully shot and edited. Walton doesn’t over-gird the sequence with too many elements or too many competing ideas. Instead, the inaugural set-piece boasts a purity of intent, and allows the audience to proceed from the assumption of a mystery phone caller outside the house, and then, with increasing tension, pulls the rug out from that particular assumption.  In other words, the movie tricks us.

I admire the way Walton sets the terrain for the battle too. We meet Jill and the Mandrakis parents, and then move into the living room, where the sitter does her school work. A series of long shots establish both Jill’s isolation and vulnerability, and then the shrill ringing of the telephone interrupts the solitude of the night.

Jill explores her terrain tentatively at first, a half-lit world of doors that are half-open, and freezer ice machines that make disturbing noises.  This scene is true to life in a very visceral, literal sense. How many times have you heard something you can’t readily explain, and explored your house in the dark, seeking the source? 

I have a couple of rowdy cats, so I feel like I go tracking down weird nocturnal noises in the dark at least two or three times a week.  I don’t expect or anticipate finding anything weird or disturbing or dangerous. 

But the thought that I could do so is always there in the back of my mind, lurking.

We then view Jill from outside the house, through the windows, and the visual impression is of a bird in a cage. 

Another impression created by this composition is that Jill is being watched or stalked from the outside of the house.  We thus mistake the perspective for a point-of-view subjective shot. Of course, this isn’t so.  We are observing that Jill is in danger, trapped inside.  There is no danger outside.

This is the film's "inversion" principle, which I love. When Jill locks herself in for safety's sake (on the instructions of the police), she is not saving herself, she is trapping herself.

As the scene progresses, and events reach a fever pitch, the phone seems to take on a larger stature within the frame. The device is seen -- looming ever-larger in the frame -- in insert shots and close-ups. The phone is the avenue by which Jill is terrorized, and so its importance seems to grow as the scene gears up.  In Poltergeist (1982), the TV is the portal through which terror enters the world of the normal or routine.  In When a Stranger Calls, it is the phone that introduces a sinister element to the real world.

After the killer’s down-right terrifying enunciation of a mission statement -- he wants Jill’s blood, all over him -- we then get the panicked police calling Jill and warning her to get out of the house…that the killer is inside the home with her. Jill runs for the door and the film cuts to the upstairs hallway, where light bleeds suddenly out of a bedroom, and a silhouette appears.

We see no killer, no weapon. There is no violence at all, actually, only a beam of light and that menacing shadow to suggest the presence of evil.

And the restraint works like absolute gangbusters. What we fear is not a particular person or even a particular pathology, but rather the Id-like specter that can, somehow, pierce the balloon of safety we have erected around our neighborhoods and our homes.

Uniquely, the second act veers in the opposite direction, making Duncan much more than a shadow or “Shape.”  We see him hitting on Tracy (Dewhurst) in Torchy’s and getting beaten up by another bar patron.  We see him living on the streets, in skid-row, trying desperately to connect to someone.  

The malevolent silhouette of the first act becomes a hauntingly human – and frail -- individual in the second act.

In a sense, this is the way of all fear. It starts out palpable and urgent when we don’t understand it. But when it becomes recognizable or quantifiable, the sense of terror lessens.

I must confess, I have mixed feelings about this development in the film. On one hand, familiarity diminishes the sense of horror, as I wrote in Horror Films of the 1970s. The more we see that Duncan is a slight-of-build, mentally-ill British man, the less fearsome he becomes.  Horror absolutely thrives on the things we don’t know and don’t understand, not the things we do know and do understand.

Oppositely, it is interesting and ambitious that When a Stranger Calls doesn’t hew to a two-dimensional approach to its boogeyman. Duncan is not Evil Incarnate, but a deeply sick man whom society has abandoned.  I suppose my real problem with the second act may be that Duncan seems no match -- physically or mentally -- for the portly, grave-faced veteran cop Clifford, a man who is willing to commit murder outside the confines of the law to bring his quarry to justice.

But even this somewhat deflated second act possesses moments of raw power, and more importantly, fear.

On two occasions, director Walton takes the audience on a night-time sojourn through the seedy city, from Torchy’s to Tracy’s apartment building.  The camera seems to move further and further away from her as she walks home by sickly-green city-light. As the camera retracts, and Tracy gets ever smaller in the frame, one can’t help but get the impression of a world in which the city has been ceded to criminals, or to the sick.  This isn’t a place of safety or security, and Walton’s expressive camera work expresses this notion well.

Again -- in the second act this time -- Duncan violates the safety or sanctity of the hearth, of the home. He hides in Tracy’s hall closet and leaps out at her when she least suspects danger. This scene is lensed almost entirely in close-up, which makes for a real and dramatic switch from the long, lonely, dark shots of the city streets. Walton’s visual approach and selection of shots seems to suggest that Duncan’s violation is highly intimate, even if his stalking grounds feel lonely, abandoned, and vast.

I suppose the real test of Beckley’s effectiveness in the role of Duncan is that the final act works effectively.  Curt goes after Jill again, in her suburban home this time, and hides in her bed -- in plain sight -- as her sleeping husband.  In extreme, warped close-up, Duncan looks sick and twisted, and attacks Jill, and the moment is utterly terrifying.  Even when he know the killer, then, his disruption of our expectations of safety has a mighty impact.

Gazing at Walton’s visual technique, one might be able to detect a subtle message or subtext here. Society (epitomized by the cold, clinical Dr. Monk) has given the cities to the crazies, to the violent, to the wackos.  And worse, those crazies aren’t satisfied with the territory that has been ceded to them.  They are encroaching ever deeper into the suburbs, appearing in places that should be safe: the bedrooms of our most cherished family members: our children or our spouses.

This leitmotif may make the film sound paranoid, but the horror genre is not, largely, about reason or logic, but rather about the fears that won’t go silent, even when we know they aren’t entirely rational.

When a Stranger Calls is really about the crazy “outside” making in-roads “inside,” not just in your family room or kitchen, but inside your head too, in your very imagination. 

The killer is inside the house already -- and has been for some time -- but you don’t know it yet.

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