Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Harryhausen Binge: The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974)

Released in 1974, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad is my Sinbad movie.  I saw it theatrically as a five-year old, and was absolutely mesmerized by the sword-fights, the Ray Harryhausen monster action (filmed in stop-motion called "Dynarama") and the fantasy setting, on the lost island of Lemuria.

Even though I  boast a strong childhood connection to this film, however, I still maintain that it is actually superior, quality-wise, to both its predecessor, 1958's 7th Voyage of Sinbad and its successor, 1977's Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger.  

This is so largely because the screenplay is far more consistent regarding its villain, Koura (Tom Baker) and his powers, and even is largely consistent in terms of the monsters Sinbad encounters: they are manifestations of the sorcerer's power, not just random beasts walking around.

In the film, Koura establishes that to "summon the demons of darkness there is a consumes part of me," and that line is a key to much of the film's action and narrative.  Koura seeks an ancient Lemurian amulet (shattered into three pieces) because by using his dark forces, he has aged himself...his life-force ebbs.  The tablet will lead him to a fountain of youth where he can rejuvenate himself.  

In terms of the monsters, save for a centaur and a griffin, Sinbad battles monsters that Koura puts up to block the sailor's path; to stop him from finding the fountain first.  These monsters include a tiny, flying harpie (shades of Jason of the Argonauts), a ship's mast/statue come to life, and a multi-armed statue of Kali.  The lengthy, incredibly-rendered sword-fight with Kali is the undisputed highlight of the film, a terrific set-piece that still captures the imagination. 

But the point is that Koura's magic is used to a specific end, and consistently so, throughout the film.  If you look back at Sakurah in 7th Voyage of Sinbad (played brilliantly by the great Torin Thatcher), he merely wanted a genie lamp and would stop at nothing to get it, and then happened to keep a dragon as a pet in his subterranean headquarters on the island of the Cyclops.

These ideas didn't stick together as well as those you find here, and we did not understand the nature of Sakurah's evil; his motivation for it.  His power also seemed to have no downside or cost.  Worse, Sinbad seemed to interact with Sakurah as if he trusted him for much of the film, when it it was obvious to everyone with eyes that he was evil...or at least scheming  There was some screenplay...muddle there.

In The Golden Voyage, Koura's quest is plain, and he even becomes a somewhat sympathetic character because we know and understand what he is after, and what is at stake for him if he fails.  He's a great villain, and Tom Baker is terrific in the role.  After watching Dr. Who for all these years, I had forgotten how masterfully he could turn his charismatic screen presence sinister.

Unlike its predecessor, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad also reveals some of the flavor of Sinbad's ancient world -- like the fact that he is a Muslim -- by allowing him to utter comments about and proverbs from Allah.  This may sound like a small or inconsequential thing, but 7th Voyage of Sinbad essentially made Sinbad an American cowboy in classical Baghdad, one heading-up what became a 1950s American nuclear family.  He had no colors, no shades, no sense of being from somewhere other than America.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad isn't about Islam in any meaningful way, but it acknowledges at least, the truth that Sinbad originates from a different cultural tradition than many of those in the audience.  Today, with all the rampant Islamophobia, I doubt even the harmless mentions of Allah and religion in Golden Voyage of Sinbad would be permitted in a mainstream film, which is a sad development.    The history of the world, and the history of mythology, shouldn't be a football for contemporary ideological differences...but they are.  Sinbad comes to us from a defined time, place and tradition in the world, and to ignore his place of origin is like ignoring the fact that Clark Kent was raised in Smallville, or that James Bond is English.

I also appreciate The Golden Voyage of Sinbad more than the other Sinbad films for two further, specific reasons.  First, it actually differentiates between the crew men on Sinbad's vessel, offering us some comic relief in the form of one man.   This is important. In the other two Sinbad films, the crew men have no personalities, no differentiation, and no memorable identities.

And secondly The Golden Voyage allows Sinbad -- this time John Phillip Law -- to be a little less wholesome and pure.  Here, he brings Caroline Munro's slave girl, Margiana, along to Lemuria, and it's not because she plays a good game of chess, if you know what I mean.  There's some (harmless) sexual innuendo, obviously, and as an adult, that's far more interesting to watch than the innocent, "pure" love of Sinbad and his betrothed (nowhere in sight here, by the way....) in 7th Voyage.   

What I'm getting at in this review, without offending anyone, I hope, is that The Golden Voyage of Sinbad -- perhaps owing to its post-James Bond milieu -- is a bit less simplistic in narrative, in style, and in detail than its esteemed and rightly-appreciated predecessor.   

The message here is that evil -- though powerful in allure -- carries a "weight" or "cost," and that's a terrific message to impart to children learning the differences between right and wrong.   The sub-plot involving a prince in a mask, Vizier (Douglas Wilmer), also conveys a nice little lesson.  Though ugly on the outside (because of burns inflicted by Koura), Vizier is beautiful on the inside...and that beauty eventually comes to the surface.  

And by the way, I noted with interest that the moment here wherein Vizier removes his golden mask and stuns the hostile natives of Lemuria was repeated hook, line and sinker in the Buck Rogers in the 25th Century episode "Journey to Oasis," with Mark Lenard.  

Good ideas in the genre never die...they just get recycled.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Harryhausen Binge: Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

Ray Harryhausen's Jason and the Argonauts (1963) looks more beautiful than ever on the high-definition Blu Ray format, and remains a high point in the artist's great career.

I wasn't yet born when Jason and the Argonauts was released theatrically, but it was a staple of my youth nonetheless. Whenever the film aired on national or local TV, I always tried to catch it (remember, this was the age before VHS, before Cable TV, even...).  It's nice to see that the fantasy has held up so well, even after nearly fifty years.  It's like revisiting an old friend and finding him still in fighting shape.

Watching Jason and the Argonauts again today, I liked it better than any of the Sinbad films, except for Golden Voyage (1974), which remains my favorite Harryhausen fantasy because it accounts for Sinbad's ethnicity and features a darker story about the "cost" of black magic.

Jason and the Argonauts is, perhaps, nearly as simplistic as 7th Voyage was in terms of characterization, but the film still holds together well.  This may be so because it has Greek mythology to fall back on as a rich resource for creature origins and compelling story points.

Jason was the Greek who, in Argonautica, embarked upon a dangerous quest for the Golden Fleece.  The men who accompanied him on the journey, including Hercules, Hylas and Orpheus, were called "The Argonauts."  On the journey, Jason fell for the high priestess, Medea, but their lives went rather badly down hill after he brought her you may recall.

In broad terms, the quest for the Golden Fleece forms the basis of the Harryhausen film, directed by Don Chaffey.  Here, Jason of Thessaly (Todd Armstrong) seeks the fleece to help "heal" his war-torn country and assume his rightful place on the throne.  To dp so, he must defeat the tyrannical usurper, Pelias (Douglas Wilmer).  With the help of Hera (Honor Blackman), Jason makes sail with a team of heroes for the end of the world, where the Fleece is reportedly housed (and protected by a multi-headed beast called the Hydra).

En route to the Golden Fleece, the Argo encounters a giant bronze statue, Talos.  A confrontation with the living statue costs Jason two of his most valuable crew members, Hylas and Hercules.  Later, Jason defends  the fallen King Phineas (Patrick Troughton) from vicious Harpies in direct defiance of Zeus's will and in exchange for exact details about the location of the Fleece.  The rescued Phineas reveals that the Golden Fleece resides in distant Colchis, and Jason sets sail.

After reaching Colchis, Jason falls in love with the gorgeous priestess Medea (Nancy Kovack).  She helps him steal the Golden Fleece and defeat the Hydra. 

But Colchis's king, Aeetes, is not ready to give up his treasure.  Using the Hydra's mystical teeth, he "grows" an army of sinister skeletons to confront and challenge Jason....

If you boast any familiarity with Greek myth, you'll notice some changes in the old lore here.  For one thing, Talos was encountered on the way home from Colchis in myth, not on the beginning stages of the voyage. 

For another thing, the film glosses over the inconvenient plot point that Hercules and Hylas were likely lovers.  In the film, Hercules goes off in search of Hylas, and never returns to the Argo, but the two men are just *ahem* devoted "friends."  And in myth, Hylas was not crushed to death by Talos either, but had an entirely different fate...which is why Hercules went in search of him in the first place.  Here, you wonder where Hercules could possibly go to search for Hylas since the island is so small, and since Hylas's corpse is stuck underneath the fallen Talos...

And, of course, this 1963 film ends incredibly abruptly after Jason and Medea return to the Argo.  Therefore, we don't get to see Jason reclaim the throne, or the bloody, murderous falling out between Jason and his new love.  As an adult, I would have loved to see some of those mythic elements incorporated.

Still, one can pretty easily detect that the significant changes made in Jason's story were an effort to keep the material appropriate for children.  Also, the encounters featured here make the most of Harryhausen's stop-motion capabilities.  The movie features a battle with Talos, a last-minute rescue from Poseidon, a struggle with flying harpies, and, of course, the famous skeleton sword fight.

I'm still in awe of that particular sword fight.  It is choreographed and executed with deftness and even brilliance.  The skeletons seem very much alive in terms of movement and demeanor, but the human actors really out-do themselves too in "selling" this particular special effects set-piece.  You can usually tell if an actor misses a mark, is looking in the wrong place, or is holding back with his sword thrusts and parries.  None of that occurs here.  The battle seems virtually flawless.  Perhaps not surprisingly, this battle is my son Joel's favorite Harryhausen set-piece, and probably mine too.  A real show-stopper.

I believe where Jason and the Argonauts probably gets the nod over The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is in its deliberate subtext about man and the Gods.  Here, we see a terrific depiction of Mount Olympus, one that looks a lot like Harryhausen's Clash of the Titans in 1981. 

But beyond that, the film gives us the unique example in 'blasphemer' Jason, a human who attempts to make his way without the interference of the Gods, and yet uses Hera's help some five times to achieve his victory. 

It's kind of hypocritical for Jason to lambast the Gods, and then accept their help, but still, an important idea is transmitted. Man must chart his own course in the world, without the luxury or curse of interfering Gods.

I feel that this is actually a message you can detect throughout all the Harryhausen fantasy films, and a prime reason they survive and are remembered with such fondness.  All of his fantasies, whether they involve Sinbad, Perseus or Jason, concern brave men fighting out-sized odds with resourcefulness, humility and decency.  The Harryhausen hero vanquishes monsters and magicians not for famor n glory, but because he must help others.  There's an optimistic undercurrent to these films; the idea that man is absolutely indomitable, even in the face of Harpies, Cyclops, the Minoton, living statues, dragons, and skeletons.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Harryhausen Binge: The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)

"When I started out, the amazing image on the screen was quite rare. Today, spectacular and amazing imagery is so profuse that it's commonplace. The astounding is no longer astounding, because you're inundated on television and on the movie screen with the most amazing visuals."

- Ray Harryhausen, in an interview at Bright Lights Film Journal with Damien Love, entitled "Monsters Inc." (2007)


For a certain generation of filmmaker and film-goer, special effects artist and art director Ray Harryhausen remains a seminal influence.  

Talents as diverse as Tim Burton,  Dennis Muren, Steven Spielberg, Phil Tippet, and Sam Raimi count the gentleman as such, and have honored Harryhausen's impressive career and talent in numerous cinematic tributes and homages across the years.  

What is Army of Darkness (1992), after all, but a twisted appreciation of Harryhausen-esque tropes and techniques?

Harryhausen himself has given the world such memorable fantasy films as Mysterious Island (1961) and Clash of the Titans (1981), but for many Generation X'ers, he is also very fondly remembered for his Sinbad franchise: a troika of adventure/fantasy films (spanning 1958 - 1977) that, in many significant ways, represented the best fantasy game in town for swashbuckling kids in an era pre-Star Wars (1977).   

Our topic here today is the first Sinbad movie, titled The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958).  Rated G and lasting a scant 88 minutes, this classic adventure film is a collaboration between Harryhausen, producer Charles Schneer and director Nathan Juran. Harryhausen's first color film, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was made on a then-healthy budget of two-million dollars.   Released by Columbia Pictures, the film grossed over six million dollars and was considered a huge hit...and one that led to many further Harryhausen fantasy films in the next decade or so.

Longtime readers of mythology will recognize the name "Sinbad" as having come from Middle Eastern sources.  A Persian, Sinbad the sailor was a mythical sea-goer who countenanced magical and monstrous adventures on the sea and on the land in and around Africa and South Asia.   He was known to have had seven famous trials, or voyages.  In Hollywood, Sinbad appeared in such films as Sinbad the Sailor (1947) starring Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., before becoming the iconic fantasy hero headlining Harryhausen's trilogy.

In The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Captain Sinbad (Kerwin Mathews) returns home from sea to marry lovely Princess Parisa (Kathryn Grant) and seal the peace between his nation and hers.  

Unfortunately, this love affair is disrupted by the diabolical presence of Sokurah the Magician (Torin Thatcher), who needs Sinbad to return him to the island where he was found, and where he lost a magical genie's lamp to a monstrous cyclops.

To assure Sinbad's loyalty, Sokurah uses a wicked spell to shrink Parisa down to the size of a doll, and then informs the sea captain that he can "cure" her, but only on the island of the Cyclops.  Sinbad has no choice but to comply with Sokurah's plan.  With the Princess and his crew in tow, he sets sail for the island of Colossa.  

There, Sinbad and his bride-to-be face challenges from the cyclops, Sakurah's fire-breathing dragon, a two-headed roc, and even an ambulatory skeleton.  To help win the day, Sinbad and Parisa must free the entrapped Genie, who appears to them as a young boy (Richard Eyer) longing to escape his imprisonment.

Short on dialogue and that romantic mushy "stuff" but long on thrilling battle sequences, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is a spectacle for the eyes, especially if one is an admirer of stop-motion animation, or "Dynamation" as it is termed here.  

In short order, the filmmakers trot out a variety of impressive mythical giant beasts, and the coordination between the live-action components and the film's animated components remains breathtaking.   I can't imagine the discipline and patience required to painstakingly match the two media, least of all to the accomplished degree on display here; one which affords breath, dimension, life and personality to the creatures, most notably the cyclops. 

Here is the up-and-downside of the Harryhausen special effects techniques as I consider them.

Pro: the monsters generally move more convincingly than with CGI, in part because they must obey real life gravity -- just as we must -- rather than some computerized approximation of gravity.  

On the negative side, in terms of color balance and integration in the action, CGI -- at least today's CGI -- may get the nod as superior.  In this film, for instance, it's always obvious that the monster and the humans who share the same shots exist in two separate dimensions, a back one and a front one.  This realization takes away from the overall impact of the effects. 

I fully realize that such a conclusion probably reads much like heresy to a whole generation of dedicated film goer, and I once read the memorable phrase (in regards to The Land That Time Forgot [1975] that Hell hath no fury "like a stop-motion animation fan scorned," but it's still likely the truth.  The special effects in this film are amazing and that's why they inspired a generation of fantasy filmmakers, but it's foolish and unnecessary to argue that they surpass something like Avatar, for instance.  

Like all films, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is a product of its time, and must be judged in the context of its time.  And in its time, it was simply the very best.  That fifty-four years later we have moved on from the stop-motion animation triumphs of Harryhausen in no way reflects negatively on what the film achieved, the impact it garnered, or the fervor it provoked.

What The 7th Voyage of Sinbad still possesses in abundance is...innocence.  This is a a good-humored family adventure in the best sense, immensely enjoyable and appropriate for both parent and child.  There's some fun swashbuckling adventure here, most notably in a climactic chasm swing that forecasts a trademark moment in Star Wars (1977).

There's also a subtle "family" message underneath all the action in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.  In particular, by film's end, Sinbad, Parisa and the child genie have joined forces to form an unconventional family unit.  They have pulled together, and will face the future together.

Watching the film as an adult, I especially enjoyed Torin Thatcher's performance as the evil sorcerer, and Bernard Herrmann's brilliant, pulse-pounding score, which in a very authentic sense also affords breath and life to Harryhausen's fantastic stop-motion creations.

As a kid, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was one of my all-time favorite fantasy films.  Watching it in again, I enjoyed it, but it certainly seems a bit simplistic in terms of storyline and presentation.  It is what it is: an entertaining screen adventure and spectacle from an age when such films weren't commonplace.  The high point of the movie likely remains the intense, splendidly-choreographed and executed battle between Sinbad and the skeleton warrior. But even that triumph was greatly expanded upon in Jason and the Argonauts.

My favorite Sinbad movie is The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974).  That film -- made during the "new freedom" of the 1970s -- is a little edgier, a little sexier, a little darker, and allows Sinbad to actually be a Muslim, rather than simply an American cowboy hero transposed to the Ancient Middle East, replete with nuclear family.  I first saw The Golden Voyage of Sinbad in theaters back in 1974 as a five year old, so I have an affinity for it as "my" Sinbad. The characters are a little better differentiated in Golden Voyage, and the quest (to assemble a golden tablet out of three segments) definitely captures the attention better than the elementary, nay rudimentary, plot of 7th Voyage.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Saturday Morning Flashback: Dr. Shrinker (1976): "Pardon Me, King Kong"

Sid and Marty Krofft brought Saturday morning television some of its most memorable and unique programming in the 1970's.  Land of the Lost clearly stands at the top of that heap, but there are many others worth recalling, from ElectraWoman and DynaGirl (1976) to The Lost Saucer (1975) to this series, Dr. Shrinker (1976).

Like ElectraWoman and Dynagirl, Dr. Shrinker aired as a segment of the omnibus The Krofft Supershow for one season, and had a strong science fiction underpinnings. 

In this case, the inspiration for the series seems to be the 1940 horror movie Dr. Cyclops.  There, Dr. Thorkel (Albert Dekker) lured three scientists to his jungle laboratory and miniaturized them. They then were endangered not just by the doctor, but the now colossal-seeming wild-life of the terrain.

Similarly, Dr. Shrinker tells the story of three young adults -- Brad (Ted Eccles), Gordy (Jeff Mackay) and B.J. (Susan Lawrence) -- who crash their plane on the island of a mad scientist, Dr. Shrinker (Jay Robinson) and his minion, Hugo (Billy Barty). He promptly miniaturizes them, and they escape from his laboratory, into the jungle biome.  There, they battle snakes, rats, and other wild-life.

Each week on the series, Shrinker and Hugo also concoct some plan to re-capture the “Shrinkies,” as they are known.  His shrink ray weapon often re-appears in the series too, and often breaks down too.  The Shrinkies hope to use it to be restored to normal.

In terms of visualization, Dr.Shrinker employs the same chroma-key techniques adopted by Land of the Lost. Actors are often matted onto backgrounds which pair them with colossal creatures, in this case the aforementioned wild-life.

Dr. Shrinker, uniquely, appears to have been ripped off to some degree for Hanna Barbera’s Mystery Island, which I reviewed here not long ago.

There, another plane crashes on a mysterious island, and three youngsters (two male; two female, and a brother/sister duo) are confronted by a mad scientist, in this case “Dr. Strange.”  In both series, the villains have minions, and in both cases, the game is always one of capture and escape. 

In the Dr. Shrinker episode “Pardon Me, King Kong,” Dr. Shrinker and Hugo call on Boris the Chimp to help them capture the Shrinkies. Like Kong, Boris takes a liking to a golden haired girl, B.J. and captures her.  Shrinker then holds her captive in a cage in his laboratory, using her as bait.

Sure enough, Brad and Gordy soon arrive at his home, and use a fishing hook and line to climb up a chair and reach her.  They too are captured, but manage to escape before the episode is done.

A few things to note: King Kong (1976), obviously, was a major pop culture event of 1976, and so Dr. Shrinker attempts to exploit that here, in some sense, putting a regular sized chimp up against miniaturized humans.  

Secondly, the “Shrinkies” are not yet very well-defined or developed, but B.J. comes off as down-right cruel in her scenes with Brad and especially to her brother, Gordy.  She is a mean and unpleasant character, which is surprising given that she is one of the series' heroes.  

Finally, the best scenes in this episode belong to Jay Robinson and Bill Barty, who chew the scenery together like nobody’s business.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Hitchcock Binge: The Birds (1963)

Dig long and dig deep into the annals of horror cinema history, and you will likely excavate a dozen or more titles traceable directly back to Alfred Hitchcock's seminal "revenge of nature" movie, The Birds (1963). John Carpenter's The Fog (1980), about a small town overcome by a creeping mist appropriates the Marin County location; the "local color" of a small town in jeopardy, and the final siege set-piece. Or take, for example, George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968), another siege picture with desperate heroes barricading themselves (with hammers and nails...) inside an isolated farmhouse while the menace grows outside -- a concept nearly identical to the last act of The Birds. On and on, you can tally your catalogue. Films from Frogs (1972) to Kingdom of the Spiders (1977) to Day of the Animals (1977) to Shyamalan’s The Happening (2008) derive much of their energy, drive and central scenarios from The Birds.

This is so because the film compellingly depicts a crisis (a war with homicidal birds) but finds no empirical solution for the mystery, instead focusing the viewer's search for "answers" as it were, on the vicissitudes of human nature and the human heart. Thus, the technically accomplished film, a horror thriller of the first order, is both enticingly and alarmingly ambiguous at the same time, with no scientific or rational explanation for the birds' attack on mankind in scenic Bodega Bay. The lack of a scientific or rational explanation lends the film a powerful -- and undeniably sexual -- subtext; and that's the element of the piece to focus on. The bird attacks, one can detect upon close viewing, occur because of turbulent human emotions. Yep, it's all about the birds and the bees.

But first some reminders about the storyline. The Birds opens on a seemingly normal day in the early 1960’s with Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) happening into a bird shop in scenic San Francisco. As she enters the shop, a flock of birds are seen in the distance amongst the skyscrapers: circling and cawing, but otherwise nonthreatening. This is a foreshadowing of what is to come; a "simmering" before the inevitable boiling.

Once Melanie is in the store, however, things do heat up (as we anticipate). Melanie attempts to pull a prank on a handsome man, Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) by pretending to be a bird shop employee. But Mitch -- who claims (critically) to be there to purchase two "love birds" -- is actually pulling a prank of his own, and soon gets the better of Melanie.

This game of cat and mouse spurs a veritable obsession in Melanie, and she soon tracks Mitch down to his home, sixty miles up the coast, in scenic Bodega Bay. a little hamlet described as a "a collection of shacks on a hillside." Her mission: to initiate a sexual relationship with Mitch, still more or less a stranger. Melanie does so under the guise of delivering him his love birds. Once in town, Melanie also meets the town's schoolteacher, Annie (Suzanne Pleshette), another woman who once shared an intimate relationship with the apparently promiscuous Mitch. There is a quick rivalry between Annie and Melanie, and some jealousy there too. Meanwhile, as Melanie grows closer to Mitch, she is looked upon with stern disapproval by Mitch's shrewish, controlling mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy). Lydia is a cold, emotionally closed off woman, still despondent over the death of her husband years earlier.

And while all these tumultuous personal relationships shift and grow, the inexplicable suddenly occurs: birds of all varieties (sparrows, crows, gulls, etc.) launch a coordinated attack on Bodega Bay, ambushing the local school (killing Annie), dive-bombing the local diner, and laying merciless siege to Mitch's family farm house (reachable primarily by motor boat and therefore somewhat isolated).

In The Birds, Alfred Hitchcock forges fascinating connections between the film's primary love relationship and these bird attacks. In fact, he seems to suggest that the relationship is indeed the very thing manifesting the homicidal rage among our fine feathered friends. Hitchcock's visual storytelling and connections suggest -- albeit in subtle terms -- that the Mitch/Melanie coupling, their perhaps "unnatural" or "inappropriate" relationship (at least in Lydia's eyes...) is the very factor that has caused the sudden and alarming up-ending of Mother Nature, and set off the murderous birds. I find this "stealth" explanation fascinating, because instead of locating an answer inside science (which would inevitably play like techno-babble), Hitchcock finds motivation in us; in the way we relate to another; in the things, even, we keep hidden and buried away from one another.

The film's first bird attack triggers this nearly subconscious connection in a most artful way. Early in the film, Melanie takes a skiff out to Mitch's isolated farmhouse. She parks the boat, sneaks into his home (through an unlocked door...), deposits the love birds and makes good her escape. Right under Mitch's nose: he's in the yard but doesn't see Melanie approaching. There is no music at all in this sequence (as there is no music, actually, in the film), but the suspense grows almost unbearable in the lingering silence as Hitchcock deploys quick cuts, and a series of point-of-view receding zooms to depict Melanie's hasty and illicit retreat from the private property. We then see Mitch discover the intrusion, grab a pair of binoculars, look through them and -- bam -- he sees her! She's been caught!

The two lovers are thus face-to-face (over some distance) for the first time with the revelation that something romantic (something sexual...) joins them. We're so obsessed with this flirtation, with this game of cat and mouse, that we are caught totally off guard when a (huge) gull swoops into the frame -- out of nowhere -- and literally takes a plug out of Melanie's scalp. The vicious and unexpected attack causes blood to run down her forehead, and Mitch tends to her wound, but the overall impression of this bird attack is that it serves as metaphor for being dumbstruck by love (or more accurately, desire). Lust bitch-slaps you when you least expect it.

Later that night, after Annie and Melanie have shared a long discussion about their mutual and sordid histories with Mitch, a bird attacks the boarding house's front door. The target again, not surprisingly, is Melanie. The next day, the birds attack once more: this time dive-bombing a group of children (including Veronica Cartwright, playing Mitch's sister Cathy). Importantly, the attack follows a very intense, very intimate conversation between Mitch and Melanie on the hillside beyond the party. Again, the timing is crucial, as if the birds are desperate -- insanely desperate -- to stop the relationship before it progresses any further.

Later, in Lydia's presence, the birds attack once more, flying into Mitch's living room through a chimney. And it is here that the full Oedipal nature of the film exposes itself most fully. Lydia is a possessive old woman, a "clinging, possessive mother" who disapproves of Melanie and her son's lascivious interest in her. For example, Lydia complains to Mitch how Melanie was featured in the gossip columns the previous year for jumping naked into a fountain in Rome. This brazenly sexual act doesn't seem to bother the stimulated Mitch, but it certainly bothers the fearful and closed-off Lydia, a widower who fears "abandonment." So, the question becomes: is Lydia subconsciously orchestrating the bird attacks on Melanie? The first bird attack (near the cottage) could have been a general warning of "stay away." The second attack (at Annie's house) was a strike against two of Mitch's women, and the attack in the living room may have been a result of Lydia's uncontrollable rage at seeing the two lovers circle each other with such blatant and brazen sexual intent.

A later attack also supports this thesis. Lydia is sick in bed mid-way through the film (after witnessing the aftermath of a bird attack on a neighbor), and she pointedly asks Melanie to go to Annie's school to check on her daughter. Not coincidentally, when Melanie gets there, the birds launch an attack on the school. Not before she arrives. Not after her arrival. While she is there. So, was this a trap for Melanie created by Lydia's "id?" And when Melanie managed to escape it, remember, it was Annie (the secondary threat for Mitch's affections), who got offed by the birds. If you'll forgive the expression, Lydia may have been killing two birds with one stone, by sending Melanie to the school, where Annie also happened to be.

As film aficionados, we recognize that Hitchcock has toiled in overt Oedipal themes before, notably with Norman Bates in Psycho (1960). In that film, a mother's love reached from beyond the grave, in a sense, to twist her adult son into a psychotic. In The Birds, Lydia's desperate desire not to be abandoned, not to see Mitch go off with another woman, somehow precipitates the bird attacks, and lashes out at those she perceives as threats or dangers to her own emotional safety. This idea tracks throughout the film, particularly in the climax.

The film's final act finds Mitch, Lydia, Cathy (the sister) and Melanie sequestered in the boarded-up farmhouse as the birds attack in waves. Melanie, hearing a noise, separates herself from the group, and goes into an upstairs bedroom. There, in a sequence that evokes the cutting-style of the notorious Janet Leigh shower scene in Psycho, the birds relentlessly -- endlessly -- peck at Melanie. Rending and tearing her flesh and clothes. Ripping her apart. Ultimately, she is saved in the nick of time, but is badly wounded and bloodied. This sequence, the film's piece-de-resistance in terms of shock editing, essentially eliminates Melanie as a threat to Lydia, does it not? She falls into catatonia and shock for the remainder of the film (right through the end credits) and is therefore no longer a danger to Lydia's supremacy as the woman in Mitch's life. This sexually carnivorous woman has been, essentially, de-clawed and de-fanged. Or more aptly, her wings have been clipped. 

The last shots of the film thus depict Lydia accepting and nurturing Melanie (in the car), as the group attempts to escape; caring for as she would for a helpless child. With Melanie's sexuality all-but eliminated, there is no reason Lydia cannot "love" Melanie as she would a child. In some senses, this is actually a win-win because the film has defined Melanie as a person who lacked the love of a mother (the motivation, we are led to believe, for her acts of reckless sexuality). Now Lydia can play that role with her. 

Another clue about the underlying (and human-spawned) motivation for the bird attacks comes in a throwaway line of dialogue. A character comments that in the night sky, the moon is full. In mythology, the moon is often linked with a person's emotional gestalt, and here's the kicker: to their unconscious emotions. More trenchantly, in mythology the moon is closely associated with the mother, with -- according to Wikipedia -- "maternal instincts or the urge to nurture, the home, and the past." Understanding this, one might detect the hidden importance Lydia plays in this Hitchcockian narrative. Her unconscious desire to protect Mitch from a sexually carnivorous woman, to live in the past (when she was protected by an alpha male, not unlike Mitch) is cloaked just beneath the surface in the film; and one might argue, the reason why the birds go nuts.

Late in the film, a hysterical woman in a diner looks at Melanie with utter hatred and notes that she is the cause of the unnatural bird behavior. "They said when you got here, the whole thing started," she accuses Melanie. Well, she's right. Melanie's presence is the reason for the attacks, but Melanie is not causing the attacks herself. Lydia has detected her as a threat and managed to rally the birds against her. What we have in The Birds is an example of an overbearing Mother Human subconsciously directing Mother Nature to do her bidding.

Of course, this is all just a theory that happens to track with a close reading of the film, but The Birds is so admirable for the very reason that it leaves itself open to interpretation. No answers are given. Nothing is spoon-fed (unlike the newscast ending of The Happening; or even the talky coda of Psycho, for that matter). The film is littered with clues about the birds and the reasons for their attack, but as an audience, we are asked to interpret; to speculate; to add our own intellect to that of a master filmmaker. There are many reasons why The Birds is a horror classic, from the beautiful choreography of the bird attacks (including one utterly amazing bird's eye view of Bodega Bay as a coordinated assault is launched from the sky) to the surprising wit of the screenplay. But as with all great horror cinema, the real (and lasting) value of this film rests in what it has to say about us; about humanity and human nature.

An old Asian proverb goes: "a bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song." The angry, maddening song of the feathered ones in The Birds is written by the insecure id of frightened Lydia; but perhaps more importantly, it is one composed beautifully and artistically by that horror maestro for the ages, Mr. Hitchcock.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Guest Post: Relic (2020)

The Australian Chiller Relic Introduces a Fresh Voice in Metaphorical Horror

By Jonas Schwartz

Dread permeates throughout director Natalie Erika James' debut feature Relic. Sound editing and camera techniques keep the audience disoriented, but what resonates is a universal human fear.

Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) return to Kay's mother's home in the woods when the elderly lady vanishes. Along with the police and locals, the two search the forest only for Edna (Robyn Nevin) to suddenly appear in her kitchen three days later.  Doctors find her in good physical health, except for a big black bruise on her chest that she has no memory of receiving. As Kay spends more time with her mother, she becomes brutally aware that dementia has set in and that Edna can no longer live alone. Sam is offended that her mother wants to put her grandmother in a nursing home. But something more demonic has settled in the house in the woods and as Edna's behavior becomes more erratic, both Kay and Sam fear that all three's sanity may be at serious risk. 

James' film keeps the audience off-balance throughout. The mis-en-scène includes fractured framing, where heads are partially or fully cut off from the camera. Everyday objects appear more frightening than they should, like a pink/red candle being shaved to trick the eye into thinking it is instead lacerated flesh. James pans the camera across images but fades in and out as if the camera eye has slowly blinked. These ruses bewilder the audience so that even when there's nothing scary happening, the spine tingles. The sound design of hissing, scurrying footsteps, and out-of-control household utilities adds to the ripe tension.

Many of the best horror films reflect universal fears: Carrie triggers a youth's panic of puberty; Rosemary's Baby taps into a woman's distress of pregnancy and the body forming inside; and according to Stephen King, The Amityville Horror elicits the anxiety of buying a home you can't afford. Relic will haunt anyone phobic about being abandoned when they're old and conversely anyone who worries about a loved one's slow decent into mortality. The script, by Jones and Christian White, also plays with the psychological terror that mind deterioration can be passed down genetically. 

The three main cast members are brilliant at internalizing their horror and each represents three generations of dealing with dying. Mortimer deals with the character's guilt for having been sparce in her mother's life and for now choosing for others to care for her mother now that the situation has become dire. Heathcote finds herself removed from the situation, hence blaming Mortimer's character for the tough decisions she must make. Nevin feeds into the fitful behavior and confusion one feels when losing their faculties. 

Definitely a slow burn even at 89 minutes, Relic is an experiment in visualizing a family 's acceptance (or not) of death. Every image reminds the audience that life is temporary, and everyone is deteriorating a bit each day. 

Jonas Schwartz is Vice President / Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle,  West Coast Critic for TheaterMania, Contributing Critic for Broadway World, and a Contributing Critic for ArtsInLA

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Hitchcock Binge: Psycho (1960)

Based on Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) remains a turning point in the horror cinema for a number of significant reasons, but first and foremost because it knowingly and brazenly flouts the decorum of its age.  

Psycho features not only nudity, extreme violence, and the early death of a beloved protagonist played by Janet Leigh, it also happens to feature, on-screen, views of…a toilet.  

Today, all that -- especially the bit about a toilet -- doesn’t seem like much to get worked up about. 

But when the film premiered, Psycho unsettled audiences because its explicit failure to conform to conventional, Hollywood standards meant that all bets were off, and that, likewise, audiences could see and experience anything.  

Accordingly, Psycho’s audiences felt endangered. The narrow parameters of Hollywood decorum and standards of acceptability had sheltered them in previous movie-going experiences, and by deliberately treading outside of those parameters, Psycho suddenly possessed the capacity to shock on a new, previously unplumbed level.

Every now and then on or some horror site, you’ll read a review by someone very young who goes back to watch Psycho and just doesn’t get why it is important, or so revered. This viewpoint arises because Psycho, like all films, must be considered and examined in its historical context.  And some folks forget that fact.

Before Psycho, no one had seen anything like it.  

Since, Psycho, filmmakers have been using the same playbook for over fifty years.  

Some films and filmmakers have surpassed it, too, to be certain (Tobe Hooper and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre [1974], Brian De Palma and Sisters [1973], perhaps), but in its day Psycho shattered formula and blazed a new path. 

Yet the mere fact that other filmmakers have so often imitated the film's approach to its material doesn’t take anything away from what Psycho accomplished in the first place.

What makes Psycho truly great, even today is the manner in which Hitchcock meaningfully connects the film’s form and content. The narrative is shocking and unconventional, the imagery is shocking and unconventional, and, in fact, Psycho’s very structure is unconventional too. 

Virtually every decision Hitchcock makes as a filmmaker here -- save for the very last one (to restore order) -- thus creates and nurtures anxiety in viewers.

With its blunt looks at an unmarried couple having a sexual liaison, a brutal murder, and even a flushing toilet, Hitchcock -- frame-by-frame, shot-by-shot -- makes audiences feel that they crossing threshold after threshold. 

As the taboos fall away, so does any sense of confidence or certainty about what the filmmaker may show us. Psycho continues to impress today because of Hitchcock's virtuoso technique, but also because it moves with a kind of diabolical, elegant purpose.

And that purpose is, simply, to shoot down your defenses one at a time and, in the final revelation of Mrs. Bates' secret, leave you breathless and shocked.

“We’re all in our private traps.”

In Psycho, beautiful Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) wants very much to marry her boyfriend, divorcee Sam Loomis (John Gavin), but monetary concerns keeps him from committing to her.  

One day, at work, Marion is tasked with taking $40,000 dollars to the bank, but in a moment of desperation, she decides to steal the cash and flee town.

Marion escapes from Phoenix, AZ and even switches cars to avoid detection, looking forward to surprising Sam in his home-town, Fairvale.  

After a long drive, however, Marion decides to call it a day. She spends the night at the Bates Motel, a small, out-of-the-way establishment that stands in the shadow of a giant, dilapidated Gothic mansion.  

The motel is run by young, lanky Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), a lonely man who apparently lives with his old, invalid mother.

When Marion shares a meal with Norman, she learns about his mother’s brutal treatment of him, and realizes how Norman has become trapped at the motel, and in an unhappy life. Marion vows not to trap herself, and decides to go home, return the stolen money, and face the consequences of her actions.

Resolved to set her life right, Marion decides to take a hot shower…

“This is the first place that looks like it’s trying to hide from the world.”

There’s a feeling, watching Psycho (1960), of viewing the world outside typical Hollywood parameters. 

Hitchcock fosters this feeling from the film’s earliest shots. After a pan across the city of Phoenix, and arriving, finally, at a cracked hotel window, Hitchcock’s camera sneaks in through that narrow portal, exploiting the opening to reveal two attractive – unmarried -- young people (Marion and Sam) after an afternoon of love-making.  

It’s as though, from the very start, Hitchcock not only pries open a literal window, but the metaphorical window of Hollywood standards and practices.

Hitchcock's other choices in vetting this adaption of Bloch’s novel are just as startling. First, he unsettles the audience by fracturing the role of the protagonist.The audience's focal point of identification in most Hollywood thrillers is one person: a man or woman who follows the predictable arc of increased learning and ascending knowledge as the three acts progress satisfyingly to a conclusion. 

The arc of "learning" on the part of the movie audience, presented through the experiences of the lead character, is usually a straight line traveling up and up, until, by the movie's denouement, the character and the viewer reach an apex, or zenith.  Apotheosis has occurred. Audiences have learned everything they need to know to understand the film's narrative, theme, and message.

But in Psycho, the protagonist role is unconventionally splintered into three or even four characters: Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), Arbogast (Martin Balsam), Lila Crane (Vera Miles) and Sam Loomis (John Gavin). 

Learning still occurs over the course of the film’s plot, and the audience still attains that final plateau of knowledge through a psychologist's detailed and clinical "explanation" of Norman Bates' psychosis.  

Yet importantly, the process of learning is fractured and jumbled by the three acts and the changing point of audience identification. Each protagonist dominates center stage, very roughly, in one particular act.  

Marion does so in the first. 

Arbogast assumes that role in the second. 

And finally Lila and Sam become the point of identification and the hub of learning in the final act. We especially fear for Lila and Sam’s safety because we have seen, in gory detail, what has become of Marion and Arbogast, our two earlier leads.

Since Psycho revolves around schizophrenia -- around a splintering of a single mind into more than one individual -- the film's very structure actually reflects this state of existence not only in its villain, Norman/Mother, but in the variety and differentiation of its protagonists.  

In some sense, it's as though Hitchock is trying to impress this schizophrenic state upon us, the audience. We are asked to meet, accept, follow, root and then grieve for one protagonist after the other.

In simple terms, then, Hitchcock punishes the audience -- and ruthlessly unsettles it -- for emotionally investing in the characters. 

First, Hitchcock makes the audience fall in love with adorable and sexy Marion Crane through her ongoing interior monologue during an extended road trip. This soliloquy of sorts regards the theft of 40,000 dollars, and what the acquisition of the money and the perpetrating of a crime could mean for her life personally, professionally, and legally. Marion berates herself and mocks herself in these passages, like we all do when we talk to ourselves.

The device of the interior monologue, in conjunction with the preponderance of gorgeous close-ups during these moments in the car, actually accentuates the feeling of connection to the character and her plight. 

And of course, that forging of a close emotional connection is intentional. Hitchcock wants audiences heavily invested in Marion's imagination, her potential, her crime; the very things that make her human and therefore sympathetic. In other words, the director sucks us in with a likable character and her crisis.

And then, Hitchcock rips Marion, the star of the movie, away from the audience in the notorious shower scene. 

We watch helplessly as all our expectations and hopes for Marion -- namely that she will return the money, seek a life with Sam, and escape her personal purgatory or trap -- run down the tub drain with her spilled blood.  

Suddenly, everything the audience has taken for granted as "important" in Psycho, including Marion's dilemma regarding stolen cash is now rendered, categorically, unimportant. 

The result? The audience is rudderless.  Vulnerable.  

The only thing left to cling to, again, is that stolen cash, and the hope that another human being, perhaps sweet, harmless Norman, will find it and use it to escape from his trap, from his Mother.

The movie goes on, and the audience still feels lost without Marion. Thus it soon seizes on laconic, world-weary Arbogast as the focal point of identification. 

Yeah, he's the guy who's going to get Norman's Mother and set things right, for the memory of Marion.  He's got the chops.  He's got the professional background.  No one's going to pull the wool over his eyes. 

And then Hitchcock violates traditional narrative structure and decorum again.  He pulls the exact same trick a second time.  

He kills Arbogast before our eyes in another visually dazzling murder scene, set this time upon a staircase. And for a second time, the audience loses the focal point of identification.

Finally, identification transfers to Sam and Lila, but by this point -- on a first viewing of Psycho, anyway -- the audience is surely thinking "fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me," and therefore reluctant to embrace this couple, not out of loyalty to the dead; but out of the fear that, for a third time, Evil will triumph.  

Is there another reason it is difficult to warm to Lila and Sam?  Absolutely

They begin to seriously question and threaten Norman Bates, but at this point in the proceedings, the audience is still invested in him and his escape from the motel, and from his twisted, overbearing Mom. Viewers don't want to see Norman railroaded for what they believe his mother did.  They think Sam and Lila are barking up the wrong tree.

The unconventional presentation of the protagonists and antagonists in Psycho is all part of Hitchcock's masterful manipulation, his gleeful manner of misdirecting attention and subverting expectations. Yet he doesn't merely subvert by way of conveying story points; he does it via the actual narrative structure; by exploding movie conventions. 

The "Janet Leigh" trick as I sometimes call it, isn't the only trail-blazing, convention-shattering aspect of Psycho.  It's harder to appreciate this second factor given the direction of our culture since Psycho, but Hitchcock further shatters Hollywood decorum by revealing to the audience shocking imagery it had not often, if ever, seen depicted before. Things like an afternoon, pre-marital assignation in a cheap hotel room between Sam and Marionor, simply, a toilet being flushed.

And then there’s the notorious shower scene.

Arriving in 1960, Psycho broke a critical rule/taboo in film history. It showed a vulnerable person virtually nude in the bathroom and then depicted that character brutally murdered in nothing less than a murderous frenzy.   

Many film critics and Hitchcock scholars have written expertly and at length about the staging and cutting of the Psycho shower scene, but the important thing to remember is how it plays

It is a visualization of frenzy, rage, and madness at close-up range. The helter-skelter pace of the shock editing and the very closeness -- intimacy? -- of many shots transmits the inescapable impression of a trapped animal being murdered in a blinding, fury-filled rage.  

Before Psycho, no one had ever seen anything like this. Violence, close-up, with adroit film technique embodying psychosis and powerful anger. And we weren't seeing a bad guy or some random character being killed.  Rather, a woman whom we had, as viewers, fallen in love with. To dispatch Marion when she is vulnerable, when she has so many reasons to live, and to do it in such indecorous, nay un-chivalrous, fashion, is...bracing to say the least.  It's a literal shock to the system.

The presentation of Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) represents another shattering of tradition too.  Hollywood often lives by the edict that what is beautiful must also be good. And young Anthony Perkins, like Janet Leigh, is certainly beautiful. He is innocent, boyish, graceful, handsome and charming.  Simultaneously, he is a brutal murderer when "possessed" by Mother Bates. The film asks us to countenance competing visions of Norman, that he can be both innocent and guilty; a good boy and a very naughty boy at the same time. 

In large part, Hitchcock was able to get away with this complexity involving the characters, and particularly with Norman, because of the burgeoning popularity of pop psychology in the American culture of the 1950s and 1960s. Horror films such as The Bad Seed (1956) began to ask very pointed questions about human "monsters," thereby exploring the eternal nature vs. nurture debate. To a very large extent, that's the terrain as well of Psycho.  Norman is a good boy, perhaps, by nature. But a very bad boy via nurture, by his mother's parenting. Nurture is stamped over nature, in his case, and the result is psychosis.

This focus on human psychology represents an important turning point in horror history: a period wherein supernatural and fantasy can be subtracted from the genre formula and the human being can take his -- rightful? – role as the pre-eminent "Monster" in the cinema, thus paving the way for a slew of slashers and serial killers. 

Indeed, this is the point in horror history where many "monster" horror movie fans cut bait: preferring their monsters as more fantastical creations like vampires, Gill Men, or the Mummy.

Here, in Psycho, Dracula’s castle still lurks large in the frame, in the form of the Gothic Bates House, but the monster lurking inside is purely of man’s nature, not of the supernatural

Despite its brilliance and trailblazing, Psycho end with nod to decorum and tradition. Hitchcock closes the film with a restoration of the sense of order. 

Norman is captured, processed, categorized, diagnosed and understood. A psychiatrist, played by Simon Oakland, explains everything. In this way, an audience might leave a showing of the film knowing that it need not be afraid in real life. The good guys still come out on top; the dangerous bad guy is punished, or at least apprehended. 

In the years following Psycho, directors like Tobe Hooper and Brian De Palma would go even further than Psycho to break established movie decorum. Hooper denied the audience (and Chainsaw's characters) the act of learning in toto; and in Sisters, De Palma did not bother to re-establish order, instead leaving the film's heroine a confused amnesiac.

But those bold, innovative steps in the genre could not have been broached had Hitchcock not re-written the rules of the game first, with Psycho.   

If you ask yourself why the 1998 remake of Psycho failed, the answer rests not just with re-casting.  It is not only because of color photography. It is not, even, because of Hitchcock's absence in the director's chair. These are all factors, of course. But that notable failure occurred because that remake failed to re-structure its narrative and format in a pioneering fashion; in a way that would have actually honored Hitchcock and the spirit of the original film. 

Thirty years after Hitchcock fooled everyone, nobody was going to be taken in by exactly the same bag of tricks  Chainsaw and Sisters are more valid remakes of Psycho, in the sense that they pursue the same aims, the shattering of standing conventions and decorum.

Despite over a half-century of imitators, Psycho is still a standard-bearer for the genre because of its historical context.  Also, on a recent re-watch, I felt too that the film had something very valuable to share with audiences about human nature. It’s sometime easy not to look at the film’s actual story, because Psycho’s form is so exemplary.

Yet pay close attention, and one starts to see how Psycho is the story of how the things we do to achieve happiness don’t actually bring us happiness. 

In Psycho, we see that people will steal, fuck, and commit murder in attempts to find happiness.  Instead, invariably, they find “traps” of their own making, not freedom, or satisfaction.  Marion created a shit-storm for herself by stealing forty-thousand dollars. But she did it because she wanted to be with Sam…and he needed money. 

And Norman is so desperate to feel happy again that he has resurrected his “mother” as a hectoring, violent shrew. He has re-imagined her as a jealous lunatic, and now once he has her back, he can’t get rid of her. She has taken over a part of his very mind.

Again, there seems to a corollary visual to go with this idea.  Marion finds a point of clarity on the road. She drives through the rain, through a storm, and comes out the other side. After the deluge, she should be cleansed, free. 

But the place she ends up is the Bates Motel: a location not where she will turn her life around, but die violently. The message seems to be that the plans we make are the very thing that lead us to destruction. 

Or, to put it in proverbial terms, Man proposes and God disposes.

Today, we all know the stylistic twists and turns that make Psycho such a classic horror film, but one need re-watch again it to remember clearly the feelings it engenders. We feel real loss when Marion is killed and Norman, despite his insanity, is a little boy lost who holds our sympathy. Their “private traps” are terrifying ones, but also ones that, surprisingly, still affect us on an emotional level fifty years later.

National Twilight Zone Day: "Come Wander with Me"

There are, perhaps, several episodes of Rod Serling's classic   The Twilight Zone  (1959-1964) more sharply-written, more morally-valuab...