Category Archives: Friday Midnight

Specters of ’68: Spider Baby

imdb_virginia_knife_spider_babyI meant to get this out a month ago for Halloween, but here’s a (delayed) review of one of the great, deranged, unsung horror classics of 1968, and one which by virtue of totally refusing to put its finger on the pulse of that year, seems to encapsulate it all the more so. 

So many horror films from the late 1960s feel prepackaged to unpack the fluctuations and transformations of the era for us, as though hyper-conscious of and possibly imprisoned by their self-regarding ability to divulge the hidden truths of time’s passing for us. They read and tease out the machinations and contortions of the era with a self-conscious precision. Their symbolic maneuvers and eloquent gestures of barbed analysis are so clearly and elegantly primed to scrutinize and inspect, statically, what was in reality lurching around them in media res. Some of the hungriest films of the genre produced at that time, namely Night of the Living Dead, still quiver with unassuming dementedness, but many of the otherwise-sharp films from those years exert so much energy monumentalizing the time-period – arriving at the thesis that sums up the time period –  that they reject the lower registers of the time period’s insanity for clear-eyed, and thus, somewhat surface-bound, inspection. They order and explain away the tumultuousness so much so that they risk missing the period-specific chaos around them, and where that chaos might take them if they were to listen to it.

That’s certainly understandable.  Explanatory potency and acumen are essential features of the cinema, not to be neglected. But they don’t arrive at their conclusions without casualty, and Spider Baby is one of those casualties. Compared to, say, Rosemary’s Baby, released in the same year and a little too aware of the-already canonized importance of that year in some ways, Spider Baby feels positively anti-canonical, unadorned and unalloyed to any critical sensibility consciously informing the material. It’s not as precise as those other films, by virtue of that fact, and it so overtly dismisses the offer to comment on the era that it often seems to be doing absolutely nothing with the heritage that it’s been bequeathed with. It doesn’t feel as predetermined to mythologize any era of horror, in fact, almost as though it exists blissfully unaware of the passage of time around it. Instead, Spider Baby simply convulses, entombed in and liberated by its mania. The young directors of the New Hollywood were cineastes, as inclined to think cinema as to feel it; Spider Baby simply exudes it. It’s Old Horror passing before our eyes like a ghost rather than New Horror studiously dissecting the corpse. Continue reading

Midnight Screening: Black Dynamite

black-dynamite-featureI originally wanted to write this up in reference to the release of Craig Brewer’s My Name is Dolemite next week, without even realizing the highly appropriate irony that the last (only?) great Blaxploitation film was released almost one decade ago to the day.  

It’s extremely tempting to refer to Black Dynamite as the sharpest cinema-parody of the ‘00s, at least among those parodies that take a cinematic form, except for the curious and altogether unexpected fact that the best moments in the film only register as “parody” by circumstantial virtue of being contained in a film we’ve been told is a parody in the first place. Case in point: the film’s most famous scene, a free-associative riff-off that begins with M&Ms, sidesteps into Ancient Greek mythology and cosmology, and wanders into phallus-related hijinks, before solving the film’s McGuffin with what amounts to a supreme imaginative leap on the screenwriters’ part. But it’s hard to call this riddle scene a “parody” in any meaningful sense.

Earlier, there’s a more overt reference to the planets: a fairly amazing verbal pimp-off where the elaborate abstractions of pimp culture verbal cosmology suddenly mutate into a quite literal cosmology metaphor that lies well-beyond-reason, the head pimp explaining his plan in terms of the earth’s axis. That joke is “about” Blaxploitation cinema, or at least about the impenetrable ridiculousness of the depiction of pimps in Blaxploitation cinema. And it’s a pretty great joke too. But Black Dynamite discovering the villain’s plot via references to Ares and Athena, for no reason? Is that a satire of cinematic deus ex machinas? Of characters conveniently gifted with screenwriter’s verbosity? Cinema parody, I suppose we could say, if we’re being generous, but certainly not Blaxploitation parody in any meaningful sense. The minds of the filmmakers are clearly well beyond the pale of a mere genre parody. Continue reading

Midnight Screening: Rambo: First Blood Part II

mv5bzwfky2i1zdatnmzhns00njvllwjimgqtmgq1zmm0zda5odg5xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymtqxnzmzndi40._v1_Neoliberal American aimlessness is recoded as anticipatory national fantasy in Rambo: First Blood Part II, a film that both thoroughly disgraces the legacy of its progenitor and perversely fulfills the dormant desires which may have animated many viewers’ affection for the original character. That original film envisioned Stallone as a bruised dog. He was as inarticulate as any of his other characters, but his motor-mouthed struggles were construed less as a function of a screenplay disconnected from humanity (as in, say, Cobra) and more as a theme: the result of a nation and a man unable to vocalize their severe trauma and societal disaffection. The original First Blood, then, was a fairly doleful thriller about unmet expectations, a thoughtful meditation on American lapses that framed the US’ involvement in Vietnam as a national aporia that not only chewed out and spit up the soldiers but cast the whole nation adrift, leaving it to wander a moral wilderness.

Out of the many early ‘80s action films that dissected the corpse of the Vietnam war in one way or another, one would be hard-pressed to pick that Stallone vehicle as the likeliest candidate for a sequel of any caliber, let alone the sequels we received. There’s no obvious commercial reason why First Blood became the basis for its sequels, excepting perhaps Stallone’s success in another role in another franchise that had undertaken a similar rightward trajectory: the disaffected populist working-stiff boxer who had, with America’s rightward drift, metamorphed into America’s new Great White Hope capably defeating both black and Soviet enemies. Within the span of a few years, Stallone was no longer a cipher for a wayward everyman but an icon for American ego-boosting, the latent whiteness of his characters’ populism suddenly on full display as he became an American avenger. Continue reading

Summer of ’69 Midnight Screening: Horrors of Malformed Men

horrors-of-malformed-men-1108x0-c-defaultMany self-consciously “weird” motion pictures expend energy and time establishing a stable sense of cinematic self that they will only then destabilize later on, tweaking the style several notches south of sanity as the film progresses. Horrors of Malformed Men lathers the surrealistic absurdity on thick from the first shot. It introduces us immediately to a thoroughly dismembered reality, a cinematic hall of mirrors that finds us wandering into a B-movie and discovering a metaphor for Japan’s mid-century dreams of paternal control, familial destiny, and authoritarian anxiety, all (appropriately) malformed into a kaleidoscopic nightmare. The subject of the cinematic allegory? Deluded men working at any cost to recreate their lineage and preserve the fragile illusion of a linear, biologically-sanctioned family hierarchy.

In reality, though, Horrors of Malformed Men has already deceived me. “Discovering a metaphor,” I wrote, but Horrors of Malformed Men is too slippery to cleanly metaphorize, and too playfully deceitful to simply allegorize; either of those terms would enervate the film’s demented energy. The film works because it’s less an encapsulation of a theme than a poetic evocation of a mindscape. It also thoroughly dismisses the obvious compulsion to domesticate its difference by applying some trivializing “dream” narrative filter to everything; it certainly feels like a dream, but primarily and possibly only because it does not explain itself as one. It’s a crazed dispatch from a director that plays like a country experiencing the mid-century as a fugue state. The film discharges the psychic tremors of a ruptured nation that disorient the very formal fabric of the film. Continue reading

Midnight Screening: The Island of Dr. Moreau

qdteopephwwdoswctohtIn honor of the release of Colour out of Space, the new Richard Stanley-Nicolas Cage-HP Lovecraft film  (what a wonderfully demonic cinematic Cerberus that is!), I decided to look back at Stanley’s last film, a full 23 years ago. Let us hope that his new attempt at channeling the deranged spirit of century-old pulp literature and tearing open and excavating the most demented corners of the cinematic void don’t render him victim of that void, unable to find his way back, for nearly a quarter-century, like they did last time. 

A travesty of Welles as well as Coppola, The Island of Dr. Moreau is as sure an example as any of that old maxim that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce.  It’s also one of the most beguilingly meta-textual would-be blockbusters ever released, one whose off-screen production ended up not only mimicking its textual themes but folding in several layers of mediating texts and prior films just to stir together enough post-modern cinematic madness to satiate audiences. It feels less like a unique product than a ghoulish aftershock, a horrible, mangled echo, of its seventeen-years forebear, Apocalypse Now.

Now, normally, production turmoil can distract from an analysis of what actually makes it on screen as much as it can enhance that analysis. But The Island of Dr. Moreau is a special enigma, the dream of a cinematic wunderkind so feverishly and immediately collapsing on-screen that it begs comparison not only to its most obvious cinematic predecessor (Apocalypse Now) but to another cinematic directorial hanging by another Welles, one more deranged than HG: Orson Welles’ Magnificent Ambersons. (And not only because Marlon Brando is on hand for Moreau, reminding us that only one actor can go toe to toe with Orson Welles for sheer insular late-period delirium). Continue reading

Midnight Screenings: Crank and Crank: High Voltage

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I meant to write this about a month ago when Hobbs and Shaw was released, but I thought of that film as a good opportunity to reconnect with my once-favorite Jason Statham vehicles, and the ones most transparently aware that they are vehicles for a character called “Jason Statham”. 

Crank

The protagonist of Crank is a hitman, a killer for hire. In one thoroughly offhand moment, never referenced again, he admits this to his girlfriend, exposing his bullshit claim about being a video game programmer to her. This feels like a smiling admission of guilt on the filmmakers’ part, the film’s winking Rosetta Stone, or maybe its cheat-code: this really is a video game, and perhaps video games have some relationship with societal violence, or maybe blaming video games is merely a ruse, a distraction from the hard work of exposing real violence in society at the political level. Writer-director Neveldine and Taylor’s response, collectively, is a proud “we don’t care, we’re making our film anyway”.

I’ll be the first to say that I really don’t know what to make of that morally, except that the impishly amoral Crank is Neveldine and Taylor’s attempt to tease out the aesthetic essence of video game filmmaking much more eloquently than any formal video game adaptation ever has. When that aforementioned protagonist, Chev Chelios (Jason Statham), fails to fulfill one particular hit, he is immediately targeted for extermination, and the rest of the film is transparently a series of levels and trials haphazardly disconnected by narrative fragments that only register as real at the most abstract level.

In point of fact, Crank’s first subversion of the time-honored cinematic trope of the hitman being hunted for failing to kill a target is that Chev has already been killed before the film begins, poisoned and left for dead: Crank, in other words, has no business with formalities, no time to waste. When he is informed that he can delay the effects of the poison seeping into his heart by keeping his adrenaline up by any means necessary, he proceeds to try to hunt down the killers in the most direct manner possible, his life depending on it. It feels like a high-concept joke: a thoroughly immoral action film that is, in an entirely ironic way and without any emotion, all-“heart”, a mockery of the fact that we expect this film to make any excuses for itself, to have any character or soul. We aren’t interested in salvaging his soul, but in keeping what amounts to one of those video game heart icons from filling up with poison, symbolizing a player character’s demise. Continue reading

Midnight Screening: Enter the Dragon

enter-the-dragon-1973-movie-stillBruce Lee is rather unceremoniously written-off in Quentin Tarantino’s new film, which I finally saw and thought was otherwise terrific, but it seemed a little counter-argument was necessary for Midnight Screenings this week. 

The paramount reason to discuss Enter the Dragon is, of course, breakout star Bruce Lee, who tragically and unfathomably died before he could see the film’s release and its astonishing success in the American market. (A success marking it as a traveling partner of the Blaxploitation films, tearing up the screen for a couple years in the early ‘70s before white America, as it is wont to, lost interest in capitalizing on foregrounded black screen presence for quite a while). At least, that’s the usual thing people talk about when bringing up Enter the Dragon. And although I’m wont to squabble with given assumptions about a film’s value (such assumptions tend to favor screenwriting and acting rather than visual style), in this case, the film’s reputation proceeds it: Enter the Dragon heavily hangs on Lee, one of the great screen finds, and one of the most abnormally effective screen presences in film history.

Lee’s own animalistic charisma is a peculiar combination of natural intuitive screen presence and almost monomaniacally cultivated bodily control, a kind of personal authoritarianism mixed with a sense of fluidity that begs fairly metaphysical questions about what embodying a style actually means. Can one’s relationship to one’s body truly approach the kind of sovereign, total mastery Lee clearly aspires to? Or, conversely, does control of one’s place in the world require a sense of personal plasticity, not mastering the world by stopping its rhythms and melding them to your liking so much as sensing energies in the world and flowing with them, redirecting them to your purposes temporarily with the knowledge that you still don’t “control” them? (This perspective is validated by Lee’s famous comments about making one’s body like water, emphasizing the reactive rather than the active). Continue reading

Midnight Screening: Akira

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It’s been a while since I’ve done these Friday B and/or cult movie reviews, and I’ve decided to return with two dystopian films set in the year of our Lord 2019, offering visions of THE FUTURE that may or may not have come to pass. 

Akira, perhaps the first anime to really hit home stateside, was for a long time, and still may be, perhaps the paradigmatic “animation for adults” film in the US, a designation that reveals as much about the film’s failings as its obvious worth.  The film evokes the social anxieties of ‘50s American youth pictures as readily as Kurosawa, himself in the ‘50s, was mobilizing his awareness of American Westerns to theorize relationships between self and other, individual and community, and narrow and generous notions of family in Japanese culture. But although director and co-writer Katsuhiro Otomo and co-writer Izo Hashimoto (adapting from Otomo’s manga of the same name) have studied American genre pictures well, it can be seen as a kind of template for so many later American blockbuster failings, in particular its attempts to launder its sci-fi-inflected action with a phalanx of speciously expressed social and existential themes that vacuously and inevitably diffuse into the margins of the film en route to a hectic, hyperbolic action movie conclusion more invested in grandiosity and magnitude than theoretical acumen. Continue reading

Midnight Screening: Running Man

the-running-manIt’s been a while since I’ve done these Friday B and/or cult movie reviews, and I’ve decided to return with two dystopian films set in the year of our Lord 2019, offering visions of THE FUTURE that may or may not have come to pass. 

… And then there are those films which receive consummate passes in the mainstream simply because they’re “prescient,” a word that should, at this point, clearly join “honest” in the critics’ jailhouse. Running Man is one such film, far less provocative in its embodiment and critique of fascistic tendencies (and its ability to recognize the fascism latent in capitalism) than Paul Verhoeven’s fellow 1987 action-sci-fi classic Robocop, lacking Verhoeven’s almost psychotically perfect understanding of blockbuster mimicry (without ever tipping his hand), not to mention Verhoeven’s impish, gleeful bloodletting. Compared to Verhoeven’s film, The Running Man delights in showing us the cards early on: this is a broad, unashamed Hollywood action film, and a satire totally ashamed that we won’t realize what kind of social commentary it has on its mind. Continue reading

Midnight Screaming: Tobe Hooper: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2

tcm2One might think TCM2 is an obvious proposition: director Tobe Hooper attempting to escape the dark days of artistic poverty known as the ‘80s by returning to his most demonic days, forging a communion with the film devil and resurrecting the zombified corpse of his most famous film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But TCM2’s is no sycophant wearing its father’s clothes; more like a renegade fugitive dressing up like a horror film to throw the authorities off its trail. It is its predecessor’s polar opposite, as overt a case of a cinematic progeny rebelling against its parent with youthful indiscretion as the medium has ever birthed. Anticipating the devil-may-care comic mania of The Evil Dead 2 with as much brio but much less skill, Tobe Hooper’s sequel to his most famous film at least deserves points for attempting – rather openly – to misdiagnose its predecessors’ successes and run around in its own bizarre head-trip version of the original. An overt comedy, the film’s combustible zaniness is spirited even if it isn’t really inspired, and it sometimes feels like a colossally misjudged entity that is worth seeing only for the courage with which it misjudges itself. The quasi avant-garde set design and the ludicrous, anarchic disinterest in conventional mood skeletons mark Texas Chainsaw 2 as a fugitive inferno of sustained weirdness.

Which is not the same thing as a good film, simply a potent one. Ripe and sour in equal measure, TCM 2’s basic line of attack is to inflate the corpse of its predecessor with noxious laughing gas until it explodes, toppling to the ground in chaotic convulsions of violence and beguilingly standoffish comedy. At the least, it has an identity – as baroque and strangely misguided as it can be – that is not synonymous with the dredged-in slasher glut so thick on the ground in the ‘80s. Possibly aware that the genre was waning (it was already on the way out by 1986, when TCM 2 was released), it at least diffuses the general tepidness of the genre and indulges in the incredibly toxic potencies of producers Golan and Globus, the most notorious producers of the ‘80s, responsible for a proper murderer’s row of cinematic monstrosities. Faced with the choice of going bad or going middle-of-the-road, let no one say the film wasn’t courageous. Proceed at your own peril. Continue reading