A scene from MANHUNTER.

Retro Review: Manhunter

United States. Directed by Michael Mann, 1986. Starring William Petersen, Dennis Farina, Kim Griest, Tom Noonan, Brian Cox, Stephen Lang, Joan Allen. 121 minutes.

Thomas Harris’s 1981 novel Red Dragon, the book that introduced the world to Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter, has already been filmed twice. There’s no better time to revisit the first of those movies–especially since early signs indicate that the back half of Hannibal’s upcoming third season will adapt the novel in some way, shape or form.

You probably know what the story is about, but just in case: ex-FBI agent Will Graham has a rare ability. He can analyze murder scenes in such a way that allows him to understand a murderer’s psychology and actually put himself in the killer’s place. Some years ago, he nearly died during the capture of notorious murderer Hannibal Lecktor (as it’s spelled here). Now Graham’s former boss calls him out of retirement to assist in the investigation of “the Tooth Fairy,” a serial killer preying on families in the American southeast. But in order to succeed, he needs to face Lecktor, once a brilliant psychiatrist–and a man who’s never lost interest in the man who caught him.

At the time of Manhunter’s production, the film’s screenwriter and director, Michael Mann, also served as executive producer of Miami Vice. That explains the brightly-lit interiors, too-expensive suits and too-expensive cars, the synth score by composer Michael Rubini and Philadelphia new wave act the Reds, and William Petersen’s beard. To be sure, Mann prefers a darker, less obviously glamorous aesthetic here than he did at his day job, but the two projects seem, in a visual sense, like two sides of the same coin. Audiences more familiar with the darker color palettes of the Anthony Hopkins films and the Hannibal series may find Manhunter’s look jarring, or even a little dated. It certainly took me a while to get used to it.

That being said, the mid-’80s styling doesn’t detract from the overall effect the film delivers. Mann is as good with emotional effect as he is with his visuals, and several key scenes (including one particularly memorable sequence featuring “In-a-Gadda-da-Vida”) burst to overflowing with tension. Plot tends to take a back-seat, and while Mann preserves most of the important plot beats of the novel, at a couple of points the astute viewer will notice gaps in the story, things that the film seems to foreshadow that never happen. (A great example of this is an action Lecktor takes after his first meeting with Graham, which those familiar with the novel will recognize as setting up an encounter toward the end of the story…which never actually happens in the film.)

When it comes to the performances, it’s easy to make the mistake of putting too much emphasis on Brian Cox’s Lecktor. Considering the attention Hopkins brought to the character, that’s certainly understandable–and without Hopkins, Manhunter might never have been picked from obscurity–but both Cox and Mann know that this isn’t Lecktor’s story (indeed, his role in the film’s plot is actually cut down from the novel) and he shouldn’t attempt to steal it. Accordingly, Cox’s performance is less flamboyant and more subtle than his successor’s, but thankfully it has a similar effect.

The real protagonist of Manhunter is Will Graham and future CSI star William Petersen’s turn in the role is nothing short of electrifying and commanding. He’s more stable than his successors, and when he intimidates his attitude is more tough than scary–more like “I’m going to kick your ass” than “I’m going to slit your throat while you sleep.” This is a bit out of keeping with Harris’s conception of the character but Petersen makes it work in what struck me as a very ’80s way.

This is Petersen’s show but the rest of the cast, including Dennis Farina as Jack Crawford, Will’s former boss at the FBI, and Tom Noonan as the killer, is excellent. The only dud is Steven Bauer, horribly miscast as slimy tabloid reporter Freddy Lounds.

Manhunter stands up as a solid psychological crime-thriller even when it looks and sounds a bit too much of its time, which is often. And it certainly stands up well on its own, apart from the infamy its second-string villain would ultimately acquire.

MANHUNTER poster

A scene from POLTERGEIST.

Retro Review: Poltergeist

United States. Directed by Tobe Hooper, 1982. Starring Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Dominique Dunne, Oliver Robins, Heather O’Rourke, Zelda Rubenstein. 114 minutes.

Premise: “They’re here.” Steve and Diane Freelings are a couple who seem to have it all: affluence, a beautiful house in the suburbs, and three wonderful kids. But their perfect life turns upside-down as a strange series of incidents lead them to believe their house is haunted, and the stakes are raised when spiritual forces abduct their youngest daughter, Carol Anne.

Something I’ve mentioned several times in the past is that one of the formative pop-culture experiences of my childhood was watching Poltergeist with my parents when it was first released on VHS; I would have been 8 or 9 at the time. Except for the Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” no work of horror has affected me so profoundly, and revisiting it again after almost thirty years, I found it to retain a great deal of effectiveness.

I believe the key to the film’s longevity is its accessibility. Very few people actually grew up in places like Cuesta Verde or belonged to families as perfect as the Freelings, but the fictional environment never seems less than real. Through a combination of excellent writing, direction and acting, the film creates an idealized yet utterly credible depiction of early ’80s suburban life. We don’t see much of the family’s life away from each other–Steve interacts with his boss in a couple of scenes, and the dialog provides a few tantalizing details such as oldest daughter Dana’s sly remark about remembering the Holiday Inn–but we get enough details to fill in the blanks. I don’t feel the script is perfect–in particular, the final act goes a bit too over-the-top–but overall, it’s pretty strong.

The primary cast–Craig T. Nelson as Steve, JoBeth Williams as Diane, the late Dominique Dunne as Dana, Oliver Robins as son Robbie, and Heather O’Rourke as Carol Anne–have perfect chemistry with each other, bringing poignancy to scenes that, as written, run dangerously close to cornball. The supporting performances are also excellent, with Zelda Rubenstein putting in a legendary performance as Tangina Barrons, the eccentric medium. It’s a bit sad that her career took a sharp turn into self-parody almost immediately after Poltergeist’s release, as here she practically radiates authority, and commands every scene she’s in without straying too far into over-acting.

There’s been some debate over the years who was really in control of Poltergeist: Spielberg or director Tobe Hooper. The production features stylistic touches from both filmmakers (watch Poltergeist as part of a triple-feature with Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Funhouse and see what strikes you), but I ultimately have to give advantage to Hooper on this one for the gore effects (I’m still surprised the face-ripping scene didn’t garner the movie an “R”), some of the creepier compositions (such as the strobe lighting effect when Carol Anne watches static on the TV), and the handling of the actors. Compare O’Rourke’s performance to that of Drew Barrymore in E.T.–see what I mean? The effects have aged very well–only the “face-ripping” scene (I’d be interested to discover what favors Spielberg rendered to the MPAA in exchange for a PG rating) looks a bit dated by modern standards.

There’s a school of thought that states that aiming a horror movie for any rating lower than R isn’t worth doing. I’ve probably stated my disagreement with this philosophy in the past. Let’s be perfectly honest with ourselves: most of us are here because of things we were exposed to (or exposed ourselves to) before we became adolescents. There’s no better time than childhood for the rudimentary principles of horror to take root in the mind. While there are definitely horror concepts that shouldn’t be pitched as PG-13 (movies in the Alien series, for example), I’d argue that there’s a definite need for a particular strain of horror that’s aimed at kids, and Poltergeist proves that it can be done effectively, without pulling punches or watering things down.

Review originally written October 2011.

POLTERGEIST poster

A scene from TENEBRAE

Retro Review: Tenebrae

Italy. Directed by Dario Argento, 1982. Starring Anthony Franciosa, Daria Niccolodi, John Saxon. 100 minutes.

American novelist Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa), known for writing graphically violent crime thrillers, arrives in Rome to promote his latest book, Tenebrae. Within hours of his arrival, the police approach him: a young woman was found murdered in her home, her throat cut with a straight-razor, pages from a copy of Neal’s book stuffed in the corpse’s mouth. A message, apparently from the killer, finds its way to Neal shortly thereafter.

The killer strikes again, and again, communicating with Neal after each murder, and getting closer to him with each victim. Some connection between the writer and the murderer exists, and Neal needs to discover it in order to save his own life, and the lives of those around him.

That’s the basic premise of Dario Argento’s early-’80s giallo Tenebrae. The basic setup may seem a bit familiar, and no wonder: an apparent innocent wandering, seemly by chance, into a murder mystery–which he must unravel himself if he expects to save his own skin–is a fixture of the giallo formula. Argento used similar setups twice before, in his 1970 feature début The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and his 1975 masterwork Deep Red.

That may not exactly sound like a compliment, but formula can be a tricky thing. Yes, sometimes it’s a crutch for lazy and unimaginative storytelling or filmmaking, but other times it can serve as a fascinating framework for artistic expression. Blues music can be just as “formulaic” as a horror film, but you might be surprised at how much you can do with three simple guitar chords. The same goes for a leather-gloved hand holding a straight razor.

I’ve actually enjoyed Argento’s gialli more than his supernatural horror, primarily because my chief interests in narrative are plotting and storytelling. Plot is almost never the strongest point of any Argento film, but at least in his gialli his plots cohere a little bit better than in his supernatural work (admittedly, this seems to be deliberate).

While I don’t think Tenebrae‘s plot is as solidly constructed as those of Argento’s earlier thrillers, it’s hard not to be impressed by the cleverness of its construction. His favored tropes are present and correct (for example, a witness to a crime fails to comprehend what he experiences, and thus doesn’t realize he holds the key to the entire mystery), but he deploys them in unfamiliar ways to keep the audience guessing.

One of Argento’s strengths has been in the creation of cinematic environments. Tenebrae’s predecessors Deep RedSuspiria, and Inferno rely on bold, almost aggressive use of primary colors to make a room ooze with sinister menace, while exterior scenes set at night are shot and lit in such a way to make city centers seem like deserted wastelands. Tenebrae goes in a different direction: many scenes feature not just bright but harsh lighting, and sets are dressed in shades of white and gray. The effect is not unlike an optimistic, gleaming pre-Star Wars science fiction effort (those familiar with Doctor Who circa 1978 and 1979 may get my meaning).

Argento’s camera work remains as fluid and inventive as ever–the keystone of the production being a two-and-a-half-minute-long tracking shot that reportedly took three days to film. Even in his early work, Argento has never shied away from graphic depictions of violence and gore, but Tenebrae takes it one step further than his previous gialli did, particularly during the intense final sequences.

Acting and characterization are a bit stronger than they were in previous efforts, but like plot these never seemed to be particularly important to Argento. The four English-speaking actors–Franciosa, plus the legendary John Saxon as Peter Neal’s agent, Giuliano Gemma as a police detective, and John Steiner as a talk show host–are all excellent, with Saxon’s occasional comic-relief antics being a particular highlight.

The rest of the ensemble consists of Italian actors dubbed in post, and while the performances of the voice artists are a tad better than other foreign-produced ventures of this vintage, there’s still some negative impact. (The relationship between Neal and his P.A. Anne is supposed to be flirtatious to some degree, but whatever chemistry Franciosa might have with actress Daria Nicolodi is blunted by the dubbed voice.) I probably should be used to this sort of thing by now, but I can’t deny it hampered my enjoyment of the film. Your mileage may vary.

Goblin, the band who supplied the scores for Deep Red and Suspiria (and were brought to Dawn of the Dead via Argento’s involvement with it), had broken up by 1982, but three former members led by keyboardist Claudio Simonetti, supplied the score to Tenebrae. It’s a bit hit-or-miss: the title theme, with its disco drum machine and vocoded vocals, is a terrific piece of work but other cues seem like tired retreads of earlier work mildly updated for the early ’80s. Argento and Simonetti even recycle two comparatively pieces from the European cut of Dawn that never made it to the American version.

Overall, Tenebrae is an enjoyable psychological mystery-thriller, very effective although with a few flaws. It does try to break the mold somewhat but its essential Argento-ness shines through, for better and for worse.

Tenebrae poster

Retro Review: Ms. .45

United States. Directed by Abel Ferrara, 1981. Starring Zoë Tamerlis, Editta Sherman, Albert Sinkys. 80 minutes.

Director Meir Zarchi has two movies to his credit, but people only care about the first one. He released this film–a revenge thriller about a young woman who methodically murders the four men who raped her–in 1978, under the title Day of the Woman. Nobody much cared.

In 1981, its distributors released it under a new title: I Spit on Your Grave. This time people paid attention and the film generated no small amount of controversy. Zarchi is said to have claimed that he meant the film to serve as a statement of feminine empowerment. Others see it as a piece of exploitative garbage. The battle may no longer rage, not exactly, but it still has a polarizing effect on viewers, and horror fandom doesn’t seem to have come to a consensus as to whether it’s any good or not.

Ms. .45 was released in the same year that Day of the Woman became I Spit on Your Grave. I don’t know if Zarchi’s film influenced director Abel Ferrara and screenwriter Nicholas St. John. But on the surface, they might seem to be similar movies. As titles, Day of the Woman and Ms. .45 carry feminist connotations. And comparing Ms. .45’s poster to I Spit on Your Grave’s reveals a few similarities. Both attempt to transform something that isn’t sexy (violence against women) into something that is (by prominently trading on traditional pop-cultural symbols of female sexuality).

The point of me saying all this is that, judging from my personal experience, a lot of people who know about Ms. .45 but haven’t seen it seem to think it’s a typical rape-revenge exploitation cheapie. And it isn’t. It’s a lot more interesting than that.

Zoë Tamerlis (better known as Zoë Lund, but I always think of her by her maiden name) plays the titular character, a mute Manhattan Garment District seamstress named Thana (such a name should set off your mental Symbolism Detector), who is attacked and raped while walking home from work one afternoon. She collects her wits and continues to her apartment, only to find it in the process of being burglar–and then the burglar overpowers and violates her. This guy doesn’t get away with it, as Thana is eventually able to brain him with a heavy object and kill him.

Sources can’t agree on where things go from here. IMDB’s synopsis says Thana “goes insane” as a result of her attacks and “takes to the streets of New York after dark and randomly kills men with a .45 caliber gun.” Amazon claims she “ignites a one-woman homicidal rampage against New York City’s entire male population.” Wikipedia describes her as a “misandristic spree killer (not strictly a vigilante).” None of these are strictly true, although, to be fair, they’re not all that inaccurate by 1981’s standards.

What actually happens is this: Thana keeps the dead rapist’s gun, carries it with her, and accidentally shoots and kills a cat-caller who probably thinks he’s being a bit of a white knight. After that, she becomes a bit more pro-active, dressing more provocatively and luring potential rapists and misogynists into situations where she can kill them. Eventually, yes, she does snap entirely. But that’s the climax of the film; it’s not what the film is actually about.

I want to go back to the masher, though. I probably saw Ms. .45 for the first time in 1995, but maybe it was ’94 or ’96. That guy didn’t seem like much of a threat back then–I understood why Thana killed him, she was still very freaked out and I couldn’t blame her, but I saw him essentially as an innocent.

I didn’t see the character in quite the same way when I re-watched the movie last week (the first time I’d seen it in around twenty years). The discussions that opened up as a result of the Isla Vista killings back in late May of this year have made a lot of men more aware of the smaller, less obvious acts of misogyny women are subjected to every day. The cat-caller seems more sinister, less harmless, while it’s clear that Thana suffers from PTSD and hasn’t actually “gone insane.”

Was this deliberate on the parts of Ferrara, St. John and Tamerlis? I’ll probably never know for sure, but I’d like to think so. The conversation Thana has with her boss, where he comes right out and tells her she has to “work harder” to overcome her infirmity, definitely indicates that people were putting more thought into the themes of the film than they might be given credit for.

In terms of style, Ms. .45 is very unusual: it’s an exploitation movie that doesn’t feel particularly exploitative. The rape scenes are short, sharp and to the point, with almost no nudity, and despite all the gunfire, the film isn’t as bloody as many of its contemporaries. It’s more nuanced than the two films most cited as its spiritual godparents: Death Wish and Bo Arne Vibenius‘s rape-revenge/martial arts/hardcore pornography epic Thriller: A Cruel Picture. It’s an intense psychological thriller, and a suspenseful crime drama, and a black comedy (the latter particularly clear in the subplots involving Thana’s neighbor and annoying dog, and her attempts to dispose of her attacker’s remains).

Ferrara’s direction helps tie things together, and Ms. .45 is a vast improvement over his previous film, The Driller Killer. But the true unifying force is Tamerlis, a 19-year-old musician at the time of this, her first acting gig. She cuts a compelling figure throughout the film, easily coaxing the audience onto her side for her journey, and covering a wide range of emotion that many other comparable performers couldn’t even attempt to come close to. (You’re free to speculate about whether her lack of dialogue–she makes two sounds over the course of eighty minutes–makes her job easier or harder.) It’s not a performance you’ll readily forget. The word I’m looking for is iconic.

Ms. .45 isn’t perfect, of course–nothing of its kind ever truly is. But it’s deeper and more thoughtful than your average revenge, or rape-revenge thriller. Despite being firmly rooted in its time, it manages to be better and more relevant than it was when it was made–no cheap feat, that.

R.I.P. Zoë Tamerlis Lund 1962-1999

Ms. .45 poster

Craig Wasson stars in BODY DOUBLE.

Retro Review: Body Double

United States. Directed by Brian De Palma, 1984. Starring Craig Wasson, Gregg Henry, Melanie Griffith. 114 minutes.

Brian De Palma, the modern master of suspense, invites you to witness a seduction, a mystery, a murder,” read the copy on the Body Double posters. To film-goers in 1984, the implication couldn’t be any clearer. “Modern master of suspense” is the key phrase. There were many skilled suspense directors, but only one unqualified “master of suspense,” Alfred Hitchcock. I suspect that the copywriter who wrote those words wanted the public to make the connection between Body Double and Hitch.

Anyone who saw the film hoping to see a suspense thriller in Hitchcock’s tradition wouldn’t have been disappointed. Hitch’s influence on De Palma has always been obvious, but Body Double borders on pastiche. Jake Scully, the down-on-his-luck actor played by Craig Wasson, suffers from claustrophobia and indulges in voyeurism, recalling Jimmy Stewart’s characters in Vertigo and Rear Window. And it’s probably coincidence that female lead Melanie Griffith is the daughter of Hitchcock Blonde Tippi Hedren, but you never know.

Of course, De Palma is De Palma and he can’t help but employ subject matter a bit more sordid (comparatively speaking) than Hitchcock’s. Wasson’s quest to uncover the murderer of his erotic-dancing neighbor (Deborah Shelton…OR IS SHE???) leads him to audition for a porn film. (De Palma reportedly wanted Body Double to be the first mainstream Hollywood picture to feature unsimulated sex, which for some reason strikes me as an obvious desire for him to have.) Peeping isn’t the only deviant fetish Wasson indulges in; he also has a pair of Shelton’s undies in his pants pocket. And let’s not forget the film’s central murder, carried out (for some reason) with an industrial drill in a scene highly reminiscent of another Hitchock acolyte, Dario Argento. No wonder it’s Patrick Bateman’s favorite movie.

As a filmmaker De Palma tends to place style over substance, which sounds like a criticism, but isn’t in this case. His command over pacing and atmosphere ensure the audience is glued to the edge of its seat throughout. The reveal of the killer’s identity shouldn‘t work, because it’s obvious from the first moment he appears on-screen, but it does work. It’s the art of shocking the viewer with the things he or she already knows, and it’s central to making suspense work.

Similarly, De Palma knows the importance of composition and the film’s lurid visual aesthetic is a treat. Certain sequences are dated–particularly a scene between Wasson and Shelton that borders on the cornball. At another point, De Palma puts the plot on hold for four minutes to turn the film into a music video. The song is Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s venerable “Relax,” the perfect song for a movie about a guy who looks through a telescope and watches a woman masturbate. Just in case you didn’t get the point, HGTH singer Holly Johnson makes an uncredited appearance in what is probably the most perfect cameo of the entire 1980s, gliding around a porno set (for a film called Holly Does Hollywood, even!) like he owned the place. Hell, maybe he did.

Certainly it doesn’t hurt that the film’s script, outlandish though it may be, is solidly constructed and doesn’t have any holes you could drive a creepy panel van through. But that’s icing on the cake. Watch Body Double for the story, and you watch for the wrong reason.

The cast is solid although the dearth of major stars (Griffith doesn’t really count, as this was her first leading role, so the closest it gets to having a “big name” is Dennis Franz in a small but memorable role as a cranky film director) is notable considering it was made between Scarface and the Danny DeVito/Joe Piscopo vehicle Wise Guys. Wasson is an engaging protagonist, although his penchant for peeping might be even creepier today than it was in the mid-’80s. I’ve never been a huge fan of Griffith, who plays porn star Holly Body, and I think sometimes she reaches too hard for the southern California girl stereotype, but for the most part she does just fine. Shelton’s performance is okay, but there’s not a whole lot for her to do, and whoever it is that’s dubbing her voice sounds vaguely detached.

The best performance comes from character-actor Gregg Henry (always and forever Eddie Izzard’s boss on The Riches) as Sam, a fellow actor with an incredible crash pad with the most amazing view. His take on a popular thriller stereotype–the always-smiling, fun-loving, vaguely douchey buddy with a dark side you never suspected–is critical to the film’s success. In a way, it’s almost more important that Henry nails his character than Wasson, and he does–Sam is probably more memorable than either Scully or Holly.

Body Double is a curious beast, a bit of a throwback, the kind of movie they didn’t really make anymore, mainly because the person who made the best ones died. And yet, it’s firmly rooted in 1984 (may I remind you that Frankie Goes to Hollywood is in it?). It might look a bit cheesy to modern eyes, but if you’re willing to not only look past the ’80s veneer but revel in it, you’re in for a treat: one of the best suspense thrillers of its era.

Body Double poster

HEAVY METAL

Retro Review: Heavy Metal

Canada. Directed by Gerald Potteron, 1981. 90 minutes. 5/10

From the pages of Heavy Metal, the legendary comics magazine of adult fantasy and science fiction, come these tales of heroism, sensuality, violence and imagination.

An astronaut returns to his home with a gift, a green crystal sphere, for his young daughter. But he realizes, too late, that this is no mere bauble. It is the Loc-Nar, “the sum of all evils,” a powerful alien intelligence whose corrupting influence has been felt across worlds, times, and universes. It will destroy the astronaut’s daughter, it says, for she possesses a destiny of which she is yet unaware. But first, it will reveal itself, and the full extent of its powers, to her, in these tales of the death and destruction it has caused.

  • In New York, in the near future, a group of ruthless alien businessmen threaten a young woman in possession of the Loc-Nar, and a taxi driver gets more than he bargained for when he comes to her aid.
  • The Queen of Neverwhere uses it in human sacrifice rituals to commune with the great god Uhluhtc. An arrogant upstart seeks to steal it, to usurp the Queen’s power for himself. Between them stands a stranger: Den, a strapping warrior claiming to hail from a far-away land known as “Earth.”
  • A seemingly harmless bauble picked up by an apparently random passer-by, it nevertheless has the power to interfere with the fate of a roguish spaceship captain on trial for his life.
  • It appears on board a bomber plane during the darkest days of World War II, and teaches the hapless crew that some horrors are worse even than war.
  • A motley crew of aliens pick it–and a beautiful young stenographer–up when it causes an android masquerading as a government scientist to malfunction.
  • Finally, it takes a nomadic tribe under its evil influence, mutating them into warrior savages who make war against an ancient city. The city’s elders call upon the lone descendent of a noble warrior to protect them. But she arrives too late, and her quest becomes one of vengeance.

*   *   *

Most anthology films are mixed bags and the 1981 animated effort Heavy Metal is no exception. Pulpy, a bit sleazy and not particularly sophisticated, it wants to prove animation ain’t just kid’s stuff, but it doesn’t understand what “mature content” actually is. (It’s like the target audience isn’t adults but teenage boys.) It just throws a lot of gore and sex at the audience, and the end result is something like an animated exploitation flick.

It’s not a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination. A couple of the segments are quite good, and even the weaker ones aren’t unwatchably bad, especially if you can keep yourself from thinking too much. But taken as a whole, it’s more than a little less than the sum of its parts.

Reviews of the individual segments, using capsule-review ratings, follow.

A scene from HEAVY METAL

Soft Landing/Grimaldi

Heavy Metal kicks off with one Hell of a visual event: a Space Shuttle deploying a 1960 ‘Vette from its cargo bay, which then descends to the Earth’s surface. Then we get the whole thing with the astronaut and the little girl and the Loc-Nar.

This is the film starting as it means to go on, prepping the audience for most of the conceits that recur over the next hour and a half. The animation style is…well, there’s no way around it, pretty creaky by modern standards. If you’re familiar with Ralph Bakshi’s output of this vintage, the animation’s quality shouldn’t really surprise you. I really hope you like rotoscoping, though. On the other hand, if Don Bluth is the standard by which you judge all early-Eighties feature animation, Heavy Metal isn’t likely to impress you.

In terms of the art itself and the overall visual aesthetic, those who like genre mash-ups will find themselves drooling uncontrollably like dogs in Pavlov’s kitchen. “Soft Landing” juxtaposes the Space Shuttle (a very 1981 image) with a classic sports car, and “Grimaldi” twists it again by adding the obviously mystical Loc-Nar to the mix. Again, this is something that the film does throughout, so this is just setting the stage.

Other recurring elements that start here is the sight of a human being dissolving into goo (which declares the film’s commitment to graphic violence as well as being the signature effect of the first third or so of the film) and the use of contemporary rock (mostly hard rock and heavy metal) in the soundtrack, in the form of Jerry Riggs’s “Radar Rider.”

Harry Canyon

The first proper story is a bit of a weird one: initially continuing in the same science fiction-horror vein as “Grimaldi,” with a death scene set to Blue Öyster Cult’s “Veteran of the Psychic Wars,” the genre then shifts to near-future neo-noir, with the taxi-driving title character caught between a beautiful young woman and the alien “investors” who want to buy the Loc-Nar from her.

“Harry Canyon” should work a lot better than it does, considering its refreshingly sardonic tone and beautiful design (apparently influenced by the French comics genius Jean “Mœbius” Giraud), but it comes up short. The writers don’t put much effort into the characterization. For example, the femme fatale doesn’t seem to have a name other than “Girl,” which should give you a good idea of what the film’s sexual politics are like. The world-building is similarly lazy, despite a few nice touches such as the NYPD demanding cash up-front to investigate the attack on Girl.

But the big problem here is the animation. Too many poorly-rendered scenes like the one where Harry hands Girl a beer. Also, notice how the side vents on Girl’s dress seem to appear and disappear from scene to scene. I know enough not to expect Disney quality from Heavy Metal but this is something Bakshi might turn in if he just didn’t give a shit.

Den

About a month ago a friend of mine retweeted the following:

That’s not really true, of course: only two of the stories, “Harry Canyon” and “Den,” are like that. (The two appearing right next to each other in the running order doesn’t help matters, though.) But it is indicative of something I’ve always suspected: while “Taarna” is the segment of Heavy Metal people seem to remember most clearly, “Den” sums up what the hive-mind seems to think the entire experience of watching it is like: cheap T&A and gratuitous violence.

Based on material writer/artist Richard Corben started publishing during a fad in sword-and-sorcery comics (and comix) that lasted throughout the early to mid-’70s, “Den” is essentially Conan with the nudity Marvel Comics couldn’t depict in their comic books featuring Robert E. Howard’s legendary warrior-hero. Basically, it’s a juvenile power-fantasy. A nerdy eighteen-year-old virgin on Earth, Den becomes a muscular, charismatic badass in Neverwhere. Whereas Harry Canyon’s sexual prowess was incidental, Den’s is crucial: in one scene, he literally fucks–albeit temporarily–some sense into one of the villains. No wonder he doesn’t want to go back home.

As such, “Den” feels a bit quainter and cornier than the rest of Heavy Metal, because these days audiences expect more sophistication from fantasy. (Not that fantasy always delivers.) But as a product of the age of Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo, it’s exactly what the mass-mind thought fantasy was like in 1981. The writers undercut this somewhat by using the same sardonic sensibility that marked “Harry Canyon,” juxtaposing cornball lines such as “Your great strength has brought peace to my restless body” with the immortal “There was no way I was gonna walk around this place with my dork hangin’ out!”

The story benefits somewhat by refusing to play the material straight. But one piece of casting pushes it a bit too far. To give the film credit, contemporary audiences might not have immediately recognized up-and-coming comic actor John Candy as the voice of Den. Modern audiences don’t have that luxury, and while Candy’s performance isn’t bad (and he probably provided the producers with exactly what they asked for), it’s too distracting. I guess, considering the number of connections that exist between Heavy Metal and Stripes, we should just be thankful Bill Murray didn’t end up in the role.

A scene from HEAVY METAL

Captain Sternn

Next is a tale of Berni Wrightson’s Capt. Lincoln Sternn, standing trial for “twelve counts of murder in the first degree, fourteen counts of armed theft of Federation property, twenty-two counts of piracy in high space, eighteen counts of fraud, thirty-seven counts of rape, and one moving violation.” But he has an angle: he bribed the nebbishy Hanover Fiste to serve as character witness. Unfortunately, fate wrecks Capt. Sternn’s plans when Fiste pockets a small green marble he comes across in the corridor. Prompted by the Loc-Nar, Fiste Hulks out on the stand, accuses Sternn of “selling dope while disguised as a nun,” and proceeds to attack Sternn and the entire space station.

“Captain Sternn” is the more successful of Heavy Metal’s two attempts at outright comedy, and is easily my favorite segment of the bunch. The design matches Wrightson’s illustration style exactly and the script lifts almost all of its dialogue from the first Sternn story. The voice casting–SCTV vets Eugene Levy as Sternn and Joe Flaherty as his lawyer, along with SpongeBob’s Rodger (Squidward) Bumpass as Fiste, is dead-on.

The chase scene goes on a bit too long, and as a segment it doesn’t feel particularly substantial compared to some of the other stories (that’s why I don’t have much to say about it), but on the whole “Captain Sternn” is as good as Heavy Metal gets.

B-17

Based on an unpublished short story by Dan O’Bannon, “B-17” is Heavy Metal’s only excursion into pure horror and apparently the only segment that can’t be traced back to something that originally appeared in the magazine (the Loc-Nar comes from the Lovecrafian mythos Corben invented for the “Den” stories, while “Harry Canyon” and “Taarna” have their own influences).

It’s also another success. The grossest of the lot (not even the corpse-meltings are this disgusting), “B-17” owes an obvious debt to the horror titles of E.C. Comics, with its Loc-Nar-animated corpses attacking the flight crew of a wartime bomber plane. The art, coming in part from comics (creator of Ghost Rider) and animation (Wizards) vet Mike Ploog, is gorgeous and overall the segment is very effective.

If I have to pick a fault, though, it’s in the song used during the segment, “Heavy Metal” by Don Felder. Seriously, who commissions the ex-co-lead guitarist of the Eagles to write and perform a song called “Heavy Metal”? Come on.

So Beautiful and So Dangerous

There are times when Heavy Metal feels more like a product of the ’70s than the ’80s. Of course, most of the source material was actually published during the Me Decade, but that’s not the only reason. And no segment feels more like the ’70s than “So Beautiful and So Dangerous,” which takes the designs of Angus McKie and transplants them into a story which might as well be called Cheech and Chong in Space.

It’s an unfocused, meandering affair, which starts with aliens in a smiley-face spaceship abducting a scientist and a stenographer from a government meeting about Americans mutating into green beasts (I blame the Loc-Nar), and ends with the crew, stoned to the gills on “Plutonian Nyborg” (cocaine, essentially), trying to pilot into a space station hangar (“You know your perspective’s fucked, so you just let your hands work the controls as if you were straight”) while the stenographer discusses the prospect of marriage with the ship’s robot. “I’m just scared some day I’ll come home and find you screwing the toaster.” Legit concern.

John Candy (as the robot), Eugene Levy and the late Harold Ramis (as the crew) put in fine performances, and the art and design (with McKie consulting) are breathtaking, particularly the CG-rendered spaceship, the story is just…kinda pointless, really, never seeming to go anywhere or do or say anything, as if the screenwriters were high on Plutonian Nyborg themselves. (I’ve not read the source material, but I’ve heard it described as a more philosophical affair.)

The feeling I get is that the producers felt Heavy Metal needed three things to prove to the audience that it wasn’t a kiddie cartoon: violence, sex and drugs. Other segments cover the first two (actually, “Beautiful/Dangerous” spends plenty of time objectifying the nude female form as well), but the latter needed to be represented. And thus…this.

A scene from HEAVY METAL

Taarna

The cornerstone of Heavy Metal is its final segment, “Taarna.” Promotional work features the title character heavily (the most common poster art, later used on home video release covers, is Chris Achilleos’s rendition of her). Taking up the final third of the running time, it seemed to have received the most thought…and the most money. “Taarna” is the only segment that gets all the disparate elements–story, themes, character, aesthetic, and animation–right.

Cribbing heavily once again from Mœbius–this time the “Arzach” cycle–“Taarna” takes all the various elements explored in the preceding segments and blends them together to create something other than else. The result is a mystical Western with both science fiction and fantasy elements, like someone trying to describe El Topo without ever having actually seen it.

The key to the segment’s success is the title character. I’ve criticized the film’s depiction of women in earlier paragraphs, but honestly, Heavy Metal is really no more offensive than your average exploitation flick or teen sex comedy of this vintage. And Taarna certainly suffers from her fair share of objectification: she’s as top-heavy as any of the film’s other major female characters, her battle garb consists of a bikini with strapless top and thong bottom, and she spends two or three sequences completely nude.

But she also has a lot of implied depth and is fierce enough to stand toe-to-toe with any modern action heroine. She’s the film’s most fully realized woman, and considering she has absolutely no dialogue, that’s no mean feat.

Epilogue

Sadly, the film’s end, which ties “Taarna” together with the frame story, isn’t as strong as might be hoped. The connection between Grimaldi’s daughter and Taarna isn’t much of a surprise; admittedly, it’s probably not intended as one, but it’s still somewhat lame. And the links between the two segments are…maddening. Everything the film tells us indicates that “Taarna” takes place in the past, so how does Taarna’s defeat of the Loc-Nar affect the girl in the future? The assumption that the two segments take place simultaneously creates its own problems.

It doesn’t kill the whole film or the power of the “Taarna” segment, but it’s a disappointing way to resolve the strongest portion of the film.

Heavy Metal poster

A scene from NIGHTMARE CITY

Retro Review: Nightmare City

Italy. Directed by Umberto Lenzi, 1980. Starring Mel Ferrer, Hugo Stiglitz, Laura Trotter. 88 minutes. 3/10

Intrepid television-news reporter Dean Miller (Hugo Stiglitz) bides his time at an anonymous European airport, waiting for the impending arrival of an important nuclear scientist or something.

That’s when an unexpected military aircraft makes an emergency landing. Air traffic control is not able to make contact with the plane and the police assemble to investigate, as do Miller and his cameraman. A swarm of people–some of them appearing to have congealed beef gravy smeared on their faces–disembark from the plane, draw guns and knives and make short work of the police. (One of the killers is the scientist Miller was waiting for.) That being settled, they descend upon the city and wreak havoc.

Miller escapes with footage of the massacre, but when he attempts to broadcast it, the imperious General Murchison (Mel Ferrer) arrives and puts the kibosh on it, because blah blah blah military blah blah blah mass panic.

The plane came from some sort of top-secret nuclear facility; radiation mutated its passengers into murderous fiends. (It turns out the beef gravy is actually radiation burns.) They need to drink blood to survive, and the mutations have driven their cellular regeneration systems into overdrive. Only by destroying a certain part of the brain may one incapacitate them, as it disrupts the healing factor.

These blood-drinking, zomboid freaks target locations of strategic importance, including the television station where Miller works, the hospital where Miller’s wife Anna (Jill Trotter) assists with a crucial surgery, and the estate where Gen. Murchison’s daughter lives with her new husband. The ranks of the fiends swell as more planes filled with them arrive. Even worse, their affliction is apparently virulent.

While the military try to contain the chaos, Miller seeks to rescue his wife. Can they make it out of the country alive? Can Murchison devise a plan to defeat the freaks?

Or is all of humanity completely fucked?

In 1979, a little movie called Dawn of the Dead took the world by storm. It was especially notorious in western Europe, where it was known as Zombie (or variations thereof). European production companies specializing in cheap exploitation responded to its runaway success the only way they knew how: either by adding zombies to every film on their production slate, or commissioning a pile of rip-offs of Dawn. Some of these were good, most were bad, and Emmanuelle probably appeared in at least one of them.

Then there’s Incubo sulla città contaminata, variously known in the U.S. as either Nightmare City or City of the Walking Dead (not to be confused with City of the Living Dead, an alternate title for Fulci’s Gates of Hell), which is so very special that it merits specific attention.

According to IMDB, various corporate entities hired director Umberto Lenzi to make 65 films between 1958 and 1992, so it seems that someone thought he knew how to assemble a coherent motion picture. Unfortunately, the evidence of such a claim is very thin on the ground in Nightmare City.

The film includes two or three of the most hilarious continuity errors I’ve ever seen. And I’m not talking about run-of-the-mill things like “a scene is set at night, and the interiors reflect that, but the exteriors were shot at high god-damn noon,” although, yes, that is a thing that does happen. We’re talking higher orders of discontinuity here. Late in the film, a soldier shoots a zombie in the head, blowing it clean off her shoulders. In the very next shot, said head is attached to the body again. Cinema is magic! Consider, also, the case of an extra who dies at least twice, maybe three times, over the course of a scene.

Let’s not forget all those extras who fall victim to zombie attack by running towards clearly visible monsters instead of away from them. I don’t know who’s at fault here; could be Lenzi, could be the editor(s). But whoever paid them should ask for their money back.

And then there’s the sight of three or four zombies, leaning against a car and drinking bottles of Cherry Coke. I will never be able to make sense of that as long as I live. I’m hoping that when I die, someone in the afterlife will be able to explain it to me.

As for the script, you really can’t call it a story without using ironic air quotes. The degree of contrivance is astonishing: after the brouhaha at the airport, they somehow manage to strike three or four places in the entire city where important characters were congregating. Their prey-stalking technique is incomprehensible: one apparently breaks into a house, vandalizes the inhabitant’s artwork, and then lays low for at least twenty-four hours before striking again.

The script spends a good five minutes explaining why zombies can only be killed by destroying the brain, a question very few people require answered in order to enjoy a tale of flesh-eating ghouls, but doesn’t bother establishing how the mutation is transmitted from person to person. Indeed, I spent the most of the film thinking it wasn’t–until the very end, when the screenwriters evidently noticed they forgot to write a scene forcing a character to kill a zombified loved one and duly added it.

And the less said about the ending, the better.

In the writers’ defense, they gave their movie a social conscience. Actually, never mind–Claudio Fragasso also gave Hell of the Living Dead and Troll 2 a social conscience. So, hell with them, then. There’s no defense for this nonsense.

Are there any good points? Well, Silvio Cipriani’s score is top-notch, in aesthetic terms. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t often wildly inappropriate compared to what’s going on in the movie. Like any good European exploitation film, there’s plenty of gratuitous female nudity involving attractive actresses. And of course, me being me, I really appreciated the scene in which zombies attack the Solid Gold Dancers…but I’m not really prepared to discuss my fetish for women in workout or dance attire with anyone other than my therapist.

But, honestly, the only compelling reason to watch this film is to make fun of it. If you want to see a vintage Italian zombie movie that’s actually good, I recommend you look elsewhere.

Nightmare City poster

A scene from C.H.U.D.

Retro Review: C.H.U.D.

C.H.U.D.

United States. Directed by Douglas Cheek, 1984. Starring John Heard, Daniel Stern, Christopher Cheek. 96 minutes. 6/10

Trouble, oh, we got trouble, ‘neath the streets of New York City! With a capital “T,” that rhymes with “C,” and that stands for C.H.U.D.!

Cannibalistic humanoid underground dwellers–or C.H.U.D.s, for short–are kinda like the alligators which are said to live in the sewers of New York. Except they’re not reptiles, they’re homeless people. Or at least, they used to be. They’ve actually mutated into big, slimy, icky monsters with taloned hands and glowing eyes. But the bit about living in New York sewers is accurate, at least.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Lackey,” you ask me, as well you should, “how exactly did homeless people turn into these horrifically cheap-looking beasts?” Well, friend, I’m glad you asked me that. It turns out that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been storing vats of toxic waste in the sewers. (It turns out that C.H.U.D. also stands for “contamination hazard, urban disposal.”) When a homeless person comes into contact with the goo, he becomes a C.H.U.D. Since C.H.U.D.s can spread their affliction through biting, pretty soon you’ve got an army of uncontrollably violent Doctor Who monsters wreaking havoc beneath the city. Of course, they’re eventually going to want to come up for a bite.

Who will save us from the twin horrors of the C.H.U.D.s and a callous, ruthless federal bureaucracy? There’s freelance photographer George Cooper (played by John Heard), who is known and trusted by the local homeless population because he took some pictures of them for a magazine article. There’s gruff police Capt. Bosch (Christopher Curry), whose wife and dog were eaten by the C.H.U.D.s. And there’s “Reverend” A.J. Shepherd, who runs the dodgiest soup kitchen in New York. Along with George’s fashion-model girlfriend Lauren (Kim Greist), who doesn’t do much but looks great in her underwear, our intrepid gang of heroes will defeat the C.H.U.D.s and NRC Commissioner Wilson and save the day!

…yeah, right.

What I hope you’ve taken away from all this is that, yes, C.H.U.D. is stupid, and yes, C.H.U.D. is cheap, but it is also a whole lot of fun if you can turn off the part of your brain that notices logical flaws and plot holes. It is, in its own way, a successor to the low-budget monster movies of the ’50s and ’60s, the spiritual child of Roger Corman’s giant leeches.

And while we’re talking about those monsters…sure, they’re not particularly believable, but there’s something endearing about their design, and it’s clear the filmmakers put more money and thought into it than they did the screenplay. Luckily, you’ve got Heard, Stern and Curry rewriting most of their dialog on the fly and the resulting performances are actually rather naturalistic. Heard and Stern, at various points, seem like they’re trying to channel Michael Moriarty in Q.

Meanwhile, Douglas Cheek’s direction isn’t anything to write home about but he at least has the common decency to give you something interesting to look at every so often, such as the image of Greist apparently performing an abortion on a bathtub drain with a coat-hanger, or the sight of a gaggle of C.H.U.D.s apparently worshiping something that resembles a gigantic pile of melted jelly beans.

It’s pure schlock, to be sure, and sometimes you may find yourself paying too much attention to the plot and noticing, for example, that Lauren’s pregnancy doesn’t seem to have any effect on anything else that happens in the movie, or that Bosch could stop the whole clusterfuck just by arresting Wilson about halfway through the movie, or that the screenwriters seem to have forgotten to write an ending. If you find yourself doing that, just grab another beer and try to get back into the flow and you may find yourself moderately rewarded: C.H.U.D. may be many things, but it is rarely boring.

I also discussed C.H.U.D. with Jason Soto & Nolahn of Your Face! on episode 78 of their podcast, The Lair of the Unwanted.

C.H.U.D. poster