Fade to Black (1980) D. Vernon Zimmerman

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In October of 1980, my family travelled from Oklahoma City to Houston to visit my aunt and uncle who had recently moved there from Southern California. As I was six, I only vaguely remember this trip. However, I do remember that on Friday the 14th, my dad took me to the first showing of Fade to Black. While this may seem strange to most, my parents gave me an extremely wide latitude when it came to what I was allowed to see at a tender age. I was already both a film buff and a horror fan. Plus, both my dad and I were bored and I think it may have been the only thing opening that weekend that looked remotely interesting.

To say that Fade to Black changed my life would be something of an understatement. It opened a door for me that really lit the fire for my interest for older Hollywood films and, in the film’s protagonist, I found a palpable movie character whose interest in movies mirrored mine. However, given the film’s shortcomings, it’s a strange title to freely admit was such a life-changer. Some people fall in love with the movies after seeing Casablanca; I fell in love with them after this one.

The film’s protagonist is Eric Binford, a socially-awkward and painfully shy outcast whose entire life revolves around the movies. He lives with his wheelchair-bound and intensely demanding Aunt Stella and works for a film distribution company where he is mercilessly ridiculed by his co-workers and seems to be on his last legs with his boss. After he is pushed to the edge, Binford begins donning the costumes of famous Hollywood characters and killing his tormentors.

From a practical view, Fade to Black has myriad issues. It’s riddled with plot holes, packed with thinly-drawn secondary characters, contains bizarre and convenient coincidences, and presents a story that simply just isn’t very buyable. The dry, secondary storyline which requires Tim Thomerson’s coke-headed, liberal psychologist and Gwynne Gilford’s snappy beat cop to first screw and then solve the case feels like a bridge too far by every conceivable metric. Much of the time, writer/director Vernon Zimmerman (a craftsman most famous for Unholy Rollers, a Claudia Jennings-fronted roller derby picture) allows everyone to overplay their hands to the point where it’s obvious to everyone that Eric Binford is the “celluloid killer.” Well, everyone except the people who are charged with solving the case.

There is a much better film trying to get out of Fade to Black. Hidden beneath the film’s insistence to try and be a slightly more serious slasher movie is an interesting and tragic story of a sick kid, the product of an almost-Hollywood scandal, irreparably stuck in the long-gone glamor of Hollywood that he finds in the glossies he buys in memorabilia shops, the movies he constantly watches, and in the fading Hollywood landmarks he visits around town. In Eric Binford’s world, it’s not enough that he scores a date with a Marilyn Monroe-lookalike (Linda Kerridge), he readily and confidentially insists that she IS Marilyn Monroe.

Giving a performance that is the definition of “sympathetic,” Dennis Christopher’s tortured and bullied Eric Binford is nonetheless tough to watch. There are times where we can feel his character get smaller as he gets beaten down by everyone around him; his terse verbal retorts pitifully ineffective and without any authority. His taunting at the hands of a co-worker (the excellent Mickey Rourke) is believably sad and his failed connection with Kerridge is a heart-sinker. Added to this is a very slight hint of sexual abuse which could have been developed a bit further to help convincingly fuel Binford’s eventual spiral into madness. But Christopher’s saucer-eyed charm and wide grin builds real emotional capital early on that is needed as his character slowly deteriorates. And working for him rather than against him are his less-than-perfect approximations of his cinematic counterparts which add to the pathetic sadness of the character. His ersatz James Cagney and Laurence Olivier have the same depressing qualities found in the office goon who is certain his Austin Powers and Borat impersonations are still clever and relevant.

The movie itself does actually have some moments of true greatness. Christopher’s sequences that are played in Dracula garb have a true creepiness to them, despite the film’s nonsensical nod to Hitchcock’s Psycho. Likewise, his appearances as the Mummy and Hopalong Cassidy are unnerving. Eve Brent Ashe absolutely chews up all the scenery in a performance that could be accurately described as Shelley Winters crossed with a pool of battery acid. Also great are the late Morgan Paull as a plausibly slimy movie producer who keeps the top seven buttons of his shirt undone and wears a completely ostentatious and utterly amazing Greek medallion, and Norman Burton as Binford’s exasperated asshole of a boss.

But what really works is that the film captures a very specific Hollywood while simultaneously mourning a Hollywood that is no longer. Eric Binford pines for the glamorous Hollywood of old but is stuck living among the crumbling Hollywood of the late seventies, which kind-of-sort-of looked like a sun-kissed Times Square of the same era. The old memorabilia shops, the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and the shaggy, unkempt decadence of Ted Mann’s Chinese Theater are all on full display; it’s a place crawling with hookers, aspiring stars, and weirdos that all stand to remind people of the dank and depressing underbelly of the Dream Factory. And it is because of this coupled with the performances that the film transcends routine slasher territory. But due to its deficits, it’s a little less than the movie it could have been.

Nostalgia being what it is, I’ll never not love Fade to Black nor will I ever see it as anything but a watershed title in my film education, for better or for worse.

 
Fade to Black original trailer

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Dark Star (1974) – D. John Carpenter

It’s curious how little Dark Star is discussed in the canon of John Carpenter. It’s also puzzling given its rather large contribution to the sci-fi boom of the late 70’s that resulted in Star Wars (1977) and Alien (1979). Both franchises continue to dominate the market almost 40 years later. And Carpenter has never been hotter. He’s successfully parlayed his iconic status into successful second careers in music and comic books.

In recalling the time between the heady and serious 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and the more fantastical and forgiving world of Star Wars, it’s hard to think of any other title that perfectly bridged the two. Even in 1970, George Lucas would sear the sci-fi genre by releasing a dark, grim vision of the future with THX 1138, cementing his preferred sensibilities in the more sobering and academic and less in the pulpy adventures of Buck Rogers, something he admiringly mocks in the opening moments of the film. As the promise of the 60’s deteriorated and a public wanting more escapist fare, Lucas regressively stumbled backwards, awash in the nostalgia bug he picked up when escaping the realities of 1973 with American Graffiti. What he landed in, though, was Star Wars, a far sunnier vision of sci-fi that was bronzed with the American Western and Japanese Samurai films that informed Lucas’s creative mind.

So 1977 got space via the grand adventure films of Akira Kurosawa and 1974 got, according to Carpenter, “Waiting For Godot in Space.” Not only is that an apt description of the movie, it also is a dead-on example for the type of mindset that the defeatist and exhausted American movie-going public was in in 1974.

At the time of Dark Star’s creation and eventual theatrical release, Stanley Kubrick was still at the top of his game. Though his most recent film, 1971’s A Clockwork Orange (yet another sterile, grim look at the future), had been met with an alarming amount of controversy and wasn’t exactly embraced by all of the critics (Roger Ebert wasn’t all that hot on it), Kubrick’s reputation was still riding high from 2001: A Space Odyssey, a game changing mind-blower that still rendered him exciting and mysterious. And even though the worst of the Cold War’s nuclear fears were behind them, America still held Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove in high regard but, only 10 years old, more as a slightly older, yet still contemporary film.

Co-written by Carpenter and fellow UCLA alum Dan O’Bannon, Dark Star utilized the vision and satirical sensibilities of Kubrick’s freshest and exciting works as the foundation for a yarn about the crushing boredom and claustrophobia that is shared among the crew of a star cruiser, charged with destroying unstable planets.

Honestly, it’s totally fair to treat Dark Star as a collaboration between Carpenter and O’Bannon as O’Bannon’s contributions turn Carpenter’s budgetary shortcuts into imaginative miracles. Co-writer O’Bannon, later co-writer of the screenplay for Alien and computer animator for Star Wars, leads a crew including Bill Taylor (The Thing, Blade Runner), Jim Danforth (Twilight Zone: The Movie), Bill Cobb (Star Wars, Alien), Gregory Jein (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek: The Motion Picture), and John Walsh (Star Wars, Blade Runner, 2010). Perhaps only 1970’s Equinox, another backyard project that was stewarded to a theatrical release by Jack Harris, would prove to be as potent a mix for future sci-fi professionals, matching Danforth and future Star Wars alum, Dennis Muren.

And like Equinox before it and the surprisingly enduring Flesh Gordon, released the same year as Dark Star, the low-budget effects are more than worth the price of admission. Though it lacks the absolutely amazing stop-motion animation of those two films, Dark Star mixes models and animation with ingeniously crafted production design; muffin tins, beach balls, 8-track tapes, ice cube trays, styrofoam packing are all utilized to surprisingly brilliant effect.

But while the innards are dressed by O’Bannon’s gadgets and his clever gags, the visual flow and sound design are all Carpenter’s which makes his presence as equally towering as that of O’Bannon’s. The classical visual compositions and the gently fluid camera crawls all recall certain specific moments that would appear later in Halloween (1978) and the Thing (1982). And Carpenter’s electronic score is, if not one of his best, one of his more underrated; a menacing, droning wave of bad, electronic vibes that seems to elevate the film when its on the soundtrack.

Dark Star is also an excuse for Carpenter to indulge his inner Howard Hawks for the first time as he serves up a story that, however comic, is populated by Men in Extreme Situations. The interaction between the characters is interestingly humorous in the same fashion that the blunt dullness found in the uncomfortable silences of Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise (1984) is what makes that whole endeavor so hilarious.

As a story, there’s not too much to Dark Star. It’s a barely cohesive string of set pieces that build the framework of something that looks like a movie. And like both Equinox and Flesh Gordon, there’s not too much in the filler that sticks these moments together. But Dark Star is like raw, uncut magic. From Carpenter’s direction to the impressive number of special effect pros that sprang from it, Dark Star is like watching a visual resume. Funny, liberating, and fueled on sheer energetic talent, little wonder that the galaxy far, far away that was created from Dark Star’s potent elements was such a phenomenon in 1977.

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“Plenty of Time to Feel the Pain”: Last House on the Left (1972)

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by Patrick Crain

Sometime after moving into my grandparents’ house in 1986, I felt a great silence about me. I was no longer a little kid with parents doting on me or Saturday morning cartoons screaming at me. My parents were mostly busy dealing with the aftermath of my grandmother’s death, setting up a new house, and both working highly stressful jobs. I was mostly alone which, really, couldn’t have come at a better time. In the new house, I was between two great video stores; TV World and Appliance to the north and the mighty, regularly-frequented Bob’s Video to the south. Between the two of them, I could get about 90% of what I wanted to see and would also stumble upon a whole new batch of films that were ripe for discovery.

One of my earliest discoveries was Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left. I knew who Wes Craven was as his previous year’s Nightmare on Elm Street was about the hottest, most-discussed horror film since Friday the 13th. After hearing about Nightmare on Elm Street from the neighbor kids who dared see it in the theater (and called it the most frightening thing they’d ever seen), I couldn’t wait for it to come out on video. My reaction to it was positive but probably a little more subdued than my friends’ reactions, the reasonings and details of which are better left for another entry.

Suffice to say, Nightmare on Elm Street was my entry into the filmography of Wes Craven. So when I stumbled onto the Vestron Video box of Last House on the Left which had a quote from Roger Ebert’s three-and-a-half star review emblazoned across the top of the back cover, I was more than intrigued. I liked Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street and I loved Roger Ebert so this one was going to be a cinch. How had I not known about this film?

I watched with my jaw on the floor. What I saw numbed me. I remember wandering around the quiet house, still full of my grandparents’ furniture and bric-a-brac, in an unholy funk that I couldn’t process. A book I had owned since a little kid, a primer on the Universal Monsters that had images in it which frightened me, now seemed absolutely silly. What I saw in Last House on the Left was demoralizing and depressing and I hated it. I felt gross and violated. Where, in horror movies before, the antagonist was a monster or unstoppable killer, Last House on the Left made me feel like I had simply been kidnapped by really bad people. This was a new kind of horror.

Yet, still, I was still intrigued. Soon after seeing it, Roger Ebert’s second Home Video Companion was released which contained reviews for older films and I got my chance to see the full review. There was talk of Vietnam and its effect on America and there was much written about its plot; two girls who are kidnapped are taken into the woods where they are raped and killed after which they take refuge in one of the victim’s house wherein her parents exact revenge. This, I was told, the plot to Ingmar Bergman’s 1960 film The Virgin Spring. Even with this pedigree, it still felt cheap and I didn’t understand this kind of violence.

The Psychotronic Video Guide spoke about the film’s famous ad campaign (with its instructions for a squeamish you to keep telling yourself that it was only a movie, only a movie, only a movie…). I soon learned about the film’s release and, due to the result of differing regional moral thresholds and distributors who couldn’t find an appropriate name to get asses in the seats or cars in the drive-in, respectively, how a movie with the name Sex Crime Of the Century could open one place with a 90 minute running time and end up in another place as Last House on the Left with a 87 minute running time.

I thought about the movie a lot and was drawn back to it. I remember that when I would walk to Bob’s Video, I would pass a very 1960‘s style house with dark windows that sat on a corner that always seemed to be shabby and unkempt and I imagined that killers like the ones in Last House on the Left lived there. I once found $25 in various bills in the front yard and immediately thought it was due to someone they kidnapped dropping their cash in the struggle on the way from the car to the front door.

I rented it about three more times and likewise depressed myself about three more times before Bob’s stocked a whole other version of it. The same Vestron box art (though with an orange spine and slightly different text) but with MORE FOOTAGE, it promised. This blew my mind. I checked the back of the box and made a comparison on the running time with the original. One minute. That was enough. I rented this version and depressed myself all over again, only, this time, with the help of one more minute’s worth of footage (which, if memory served, was the insertion of more frames during Phyllis’s death scene and the infamous moment when Krug carves his name on Mari’s neck).

I would visit this film over and over and it became an obsession. Who were these actors? I recognized Martin Kove from the Karate Kid but what about the rest of these people? A classmate told me that if I liked Last House on the Left, I should also check out House on the Edge of the Park which also starred, in his words, “David Hessen.” I did so and that traumatic experience is most definitely for another entry (or, at the very least, should be articulated in a therapy session). I remember, at age eighteen, almost losing my mind when seeing a picture of Jeramie Rain with then-husband Richard Dreyfuss in the weekly Parade magazine. “THIS is THAT girl?!?!?” Fred Lincoln’s name popped up on the marquee in a picture of 42nd Street in a college textbook. Dick Towers (credited in Last House as Gaylord St. James, a name I’d use like a motherfucker) popped up unexpectedly credited as Greg Reynolds in a highly illicit viewing of Doris Wishman’s anti-masterpiece/Chesty Morgan vehicle Deadly Weapons. Pre-internet pieces of information would come my way and I’d eat it all up.

I also branched out and covered Wes Craven’s career to the best of my ability and was mostly underwhelmed at every turn. After having a decently successful run in the 70’s and early 80’s, Craven bottomed out after Nightmare on Elm Street and began to churn out films that ranged from unremarkable (Serpent and the Rainbow, Deadly Friend) to unwatchable (Hills Have Eyes Part 2). He then trafficked in the worst type of intellectual dishonesty in 1996 with Scream where, for a whole generation of horror fans, he carelessly presented John Carpenter’s Halloween as a cliche-riddled, hector-worthy slasher film it most certainly is not.

In most ways, Last House on the Left is Craven’s best effort because it feels as formless as John Waters’s early work. His utter lack of formal cinematic education, either academic or self-taught, gives it the raw edge it needs to get under your skin. Half the time, it sounds and feels like a porn film with its reverb-heavy, cavernous interior sound, blown lines, inappropriate jump cuts, bad foley, gate hair, and grainy, natural-light night photography. And, in fact, it was envisioned as a hardcore feature with honest-to-god pornographic elements to be mixed in with the violence; the ultimate roughie.

And like most porn directors of that time, Craven doesn’t know what he’s doing. Technically inept, the film also contains a number plot holes and problems. The Collinwood phone moves from being out of order to working seemingly at will, the film has remarkable tonal issues, and it runs out of gas once the killers get out of the woods.

A rape-and-revenge film is only as good as its two halves. The reason the somewhat similar I Spit on Your Grave holds up better is that the shocking violence in the front is matched in the back. If this isn’t equitable, there is a problem and, in Last House on the Left, the parents don’t much hold up their end of the bargain in the second half of the film. Not only do they lack a white-hot grief that would be burning their universe, they make stupid, impractical choices (why drag the corpse of their daughter onto the couch?, why choose oral-castration over a sharp kitchen knife?).

If Wes Craven was trying to tread through the territory cleared by Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, which was released the year before, he failed to capture Dustin Hoffman’s gradual transformation of man to beast, lifted to violent highs by forces both internal and external. Here, the parents seem to lurch from one emotion to the next, finally settling on the emulation of lurid pulp novel anti-heroes with more built-in ingenuity than they really would have (a trope Craven would use again in the final reel of Nightmare on Elm Street). The killers, too, don’t seem to have much of a plan that we can discern once they get in the house other than to allow the story to have its giant turnabout. The idea that they think they’ll be able to go to a garage and get their car fixed with an all-points bulletin out on them seems idiotic. That they just don’t tie up the parents right away, Manson-style, makes little sense. That they don’t do anything after they realize that these are the parents of Mari is even more baffling.

Much has been made of the inappropriate David Hess score but I’ve always kind of liked it. With its nonsense lyrics about wine, cherries, castles, and roads to nowhere, it is actually a great snapshot of the last remnants of hippie folk; the kind of ground John Sebastian basically owned for as long as he pleased. The rocked out, kazoo-laden traveling music is also a point of contention as its bouncy tone really undercuts the basic horror of these people with whom we’re asked to identify also have a couple of teenage girls in their trunk. I get that. I also get that the scenes with the buffoonish cops, hoofing it back to the Collinwood house after hearing the APB but running out of gas halfway there, kill the flow of the film and really don’t much add up to anything. But, to a 12 year old, those two elements saved the film from being relentlessly depressing and unapproachable (like House on the Edge of the Park was).

Rising above the film’s issues are the performances which completely sell it when it needs sold. The sequence in the woods still stands as the most incredibly horrifying piece of transgressive cinema I’ve ever seen. Completely stark in its realism, when Sandra Peabody’s Mari Collingwood says “I don’t want to do this” while being stripped naked and demeaned, the audience can tell that she means it. Likewise, when Lucy Grantham’s Phyllis Stone is asked to piss herself, she does so. And when Fred Lincoln’s child-molesting, rapist Weasel Padowski tells them both “You’ll have plenty of time to feel the pain,” we want to vomit. While the unknown things in the dark are terrifying, they’re trumped by the immediacy shown here; trapped like a rat in broad daylight and (admittedly conveniently and implausibly) mere yards from your front door. Where most horror films would later call on the heroine to take elaborate steps to come to a successful resolution and defeat the monster, Last House on the Left showed how, in reality, most people can’t even clear the most basic hurdle of getting free and running across the street.

The other performances are top-notch, too. David Hess, who, by all accounts was a very nice guy, gives one of horror’s greatest performances as the sociopathic Krug Stillo. One of the greatest heavies in all of the movies, Krug Stillo is a disgusting, amoral prick. Quite his opposite is Marc Sheffler as his son, Junior Stillo. A sympathetic and pitiful junkie whose introduction to heroin was courtesy of his father, Junior is one of the most complex of the bunch. Tortured by his implicitness of the crime but unable to break free of his addiction, his agonizing end is more heart-wrenching than the movie deserves. The same could be said for the moment after Mari’s rape when the killers realize they’ve gone too far and silently look at each other with total disgust; a powerful moment in a movie that only partly earns it.

Both Sandra Peabody (here credited as Sandra Cassel) and Lucy Grantham deserve much praise for being put through the ringer and being heartbreakingly real. While it’s damn near impossible to not feel for Peabody who was truly frightened throughout most of the filming, Grantham’s rough-edged, hood girl is no less sympathetic as we watch her wily and combative character meets a slow, torturous fate.

The film also scores points for its gross, realistic mise-en-scene. That dirty lake, the heavy wood-paneled interiors, the squat bathroom in the baddies’ apartment hideout, and the contemporary design of the Collinwood house are all wonderful touches that give the film its gritty texture and documentary-style feel. Like most low-budget horror films, it manages to get the exact era’s style absolutely correct due to the fact that these type films were shot in locations with minimal dressing and more “as-is.”

I‘ve oscillated over the years as to whether or not Last House on the Left was a good movie or not. There is an equal amount of repulsion and fascination in me that has caused me to go back and revisit it more times than I’d like to admit. I’ve looked forward to and purchased each release on whatever happens to be the latest format and have been justly rewarded with even more recovered scenes, commentaries, and documentaries about the film’s production. Each time I’m spending the weekend at his house in Dallas, I thumb through my friend Bradley’s copy of the David Szulkin book that chronicles every nanosecond of the film’s production and release. I probably know more about its history than any other movie. And, to be fair, it’s a powerful experience that still manages to get to me.

On the other hand, it’s something of a shame that Last House on the Left has to be included in the pantheon of pioneering horror films like Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Because, no matter what, Last House on the Left is a pretty shoddy film by a mediocre filmmaker. And while one could say that same thing about Tobe Hooper, it’s inarguable that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a beautifully made, full-on masterpiece that’s so good, it alone gets Tobe Hooper into Director Heaven regardless of the myriad disappointments that would litter his career.

Wes Craven never earned that kind of capital up front with anyone.

The Godfather Part III: 25 Years Later

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By Patrick Crain

Not too long ago, Michael Feldman’s weekly NPR radio program “What Do You Know” came to Oklahoma City and did their broadcast from Oklahoma City Community College (or, as we call it here, O-Triple C). One of the guests was Gray Fredrickson, erstwhile film producer and OCCC’s artist-in-residence. Oddly, Feldman began his interview by taking a tired crack at the Frederickson-produced Godfather Part III to which Fredrickson replied that, in 1990, it was a box office hit and was nominated for several Oscars, including Best Picture, and that he wasn’t too ashamed of it.

Good for him.

Today, Godfather III is the butt of some joke, remembered as a misfire, and seen as an inconvenient addition to the Godfather legacy. Some movies that are critically panned grow in stature over time. Godfather Part III seems to have suffered an reverse fate. Upon its release, it had its detractors but it garnered mostly very good reviews, Rolling Stone being particularly kind to it as was Roger Ebert. It grossed nearly $137 million (quite something in 1990) and was nominated for seven Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director making it the only three-part franchise in film history which has matched its Best Picture nominations with Best Director nominations. One of its more under-remarked milestones is that it garnered a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Andy Garcia which gives the franchise a mind-boggling seven nominations for Best Supporting Actor. So it’s not quite like Godfather III was equitable to, say, Going Ape with Tony Danza which is what its sullied, contemporary reputation might suggest.

I guess it’s important to say that I don’t find Godfather III a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination nor would I even suggest it’s even close to the level of the first two films. Riding hard against it are a number of issues. First and foremost, it’s a horrible period piece; set in 1979, Godfather III doesn’t look a day younger than 1990. There seems to be the most limited of care given to the just-barely dressed New York scenes evident mostly via a haircut here or a big, blocky 1970’s sedan there. In the face of the meticulously designed period detail in Goodfellas (also released that year), Godfather III couldn’t help but look a little embarrassing in its negligence.

Another flaw of Godfather III is the sense of disconnection. In one of the shrewder moves between Godfather I & II, Coppola refused to succumb to the outrageous demands of Richard Castellano, who played Clemenza. Coppola simply killed his character off and rewrote his story with a whole new character, Frankie Pantangeli (Michael V. Gazzo). We buy this because not only is Gazzo so good in the role but the plotting of his appearance seems reasonable. However, in Godfather III, Eli Wallach’s Don Altobello just never connects with us on a level of friend or foe. He oils the mob portion of the plot but he never quite hits the poetic sadness of Gazzo or, on the other side of the loyalty line, the serpentine coolness of Lee Strassberg’s Hyman Roth (another character who feels just as familiar in II as if he were a character in the original). Don Altobello simply feels disconnected from the other two movies, only tied up by loose lines of expository dialogue.

A raging issue with the film is in its casting, but I’m not fully in the anti-Sofia Coppola camp. When the film was released, she was raked over the coals many times over, almost to the point of cruelty. Even now, people lazily shrug the entire movie off while delivering an ad-hoc attack on her performance. All of this is incredibly unfair as its hardly Sofia Coppola’s fault that she had to step in when Wynona Ryder had to drop out at the very last minute. And, in any event, her character is supposed to be a naïve, clueless rich girl who is mercifully kept in the dark about most everything bad that’s ever happened in her family. And while a few of her lines fall flat and she sometimes seems a bit out of her depth, Sofia Coppola does about as fine a job as Wynona Rider probably would have at that point in her career (or maybe you think Wynona Ryder’s performance in Francis Coppola’s follow up, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, is good). I find that Sophia has a real chemistry with Andy Garcia which is pretty crucial to the role. When he turns on her in the finale, it’s very apparent that she feels it deeply. She looks every bit like the crushed schoolgirl that she’s supposed to.

For my money, the biggest miscast of the film is Bridget Fonda. Even though she’s not in it much, her Grace Hamilton feels like her character from Singles plus five years into a newspaper job. Her tone, her timbre, and her asides are all wrong for the film and she ruins every second she’s on the screen (which, really, aren’t many seconds). Also, for the record, I kinda dig (and completely buy) George Hamilton as the ultra-chic corporate lawyer. And while I miss Robert Duvall, the notion of Tom Hagen having probably worked himself into an early grave is completely plausible (“that’s where sticking with Michael gets you,” is the implication).

And, true, Godfather III was a rushed production and it totally shows. It’s rife with tell-tale post-production tricks and editing tomfoolery. Running the gamut from copious amounts of ADR to wonky editing, this was a production somewhat on the fly which did result in many shortcuts. But, to be fair to Coppola, had the studio been a little more reasonable and not pushed the Christmas deadline on him, I’m certain that different choices would have been made.

So those are my biggest issues with the film. And even if giving Coppola a pass on the production pressures and the nepotism result in a soft sell, Godfather III has many more things going for it than against it. The story is compelling and works very well while adhering to the first two films’ soft tissue connection to real events. It’s also nice to see Al Pacino and Diane Keaton get to revisit their characters and their scenes have a quality to them and a plausible arc (though, Pacino seems a little more animated than Michael Corleone ever should be but, hey, he’s a guy with a new lease on life IN THE OLD COUNTRY!). And Gordon Willis’s cinematography (for which he was nominated for an Oscar) is like a big, warm blanket with the deep browns and the autumnal colors in the early scenes which open up to the long, golden hues of Sicily.

Andy Garcia is absolutely terrific as he brilliantly channels James Caan’s Sonny. Ditto Joe Mantegna’s John Gotti-esque mob boss who is in far too little of the movie. For me, Michael Corleone getting dragged into a blood war with someone like Mantegna is an appealing premise and it would have been interesting for Coppola to have Michael turn the family over to Vincent in New York and return to Sicily to work the political side of the plot, recalling the parallel narratives of Godfather II. Mixing everything up for the sake of having a big operatic showdown in Sicily makes a certain kind of narrative sense, but the film misses out on a great opportunity to explore a grittier mob atmosphere in New York that really could have cooked and been counterbalanced with the more mannered yet equally cutthroat world of Sicily.

But, as it stands, the political intrigue that exists between Michael and the Vatican is decent, if not immediately threatening, and the rustic blood feud that finds its climax in Sicily does feel at home alongside the Sicily sequences in the first two films. And all of these things result in some very striking moments that are worthy the franchise’s name (the archbishop’s body free-fall, the crooked accountant hanging from the bridge, Michael’s acknowledgment of his role in the murder of his brother, and the informal relinquishment of power from Michael to Vincent among them). The opera scene is decently clever and well-staged (though the inclusion of some horribly anachronistic-looking twin assassins is ridiculous) and the ending is bombastically great. And I think there’s a case to be made for the film through its ending. After all, there’s something very compelling in a final act of a three-act structure which would find a character like Michael who, despite his best intentions, is in an even colder, lonelier spot that he was at the end of Part II. It’s as tragic but it’s also necessary. Francis Coppola was right when he said that he didn’t feel that the audience got to see Michael suffer for what he did. And in Godfather III, boy does he ever suffer. But we’re also never asked to forget what he did so our closure with him is sad but somewhat satisfying as far as the traditional cycles of Greek tragedy are concerned.

But what finally strikes me about Godfather III, and what really fuels my love for it, is what it represents; the final shuttering of both Old Hollywood and the New Hollywood movement. It’s been said that Robert Evans was so perfect for his role at Paramount Pictures in the late sixties due to his age; he was old enough to have been part of the old-school Hollywood but young enough to seem like a teenager to the other studio bosses and executives that were his peers. In him, there was a perfect bridge between the old and the new. That blend is palpable in the movies he either produced (Chinatown) or stewarded as an executive (the Godfather) in the sixties and seventies.

1968-1980 were incredibly important years in Hollywood and they were filled to the brim with creative people who didn’t have equitable mid and late-career fortunes. Francis Coppola, one of the most successful of the New Hollywood movement, famously flamed out with One From the Heart in 1982 and was forced to take director-for-hire gigs for a 10 year term to pay off his debts (Godfather III being one such assignment though, admittedly closer to his heart than, say, Peggy Sue Got Married).

So it’s telling that Godfather III found itself being released a scant two months after the Robert Evans-produced, Robert Towne-penned, Jack Nicholson-directed Chinatown sequel, The Two Jakes. As a result of Paramount being highly nostalgic, both the Two Jakes and Godfather III managed the extraordinary by giving the fans nice visits to monumental cinematic landmarks while simultaneously creating compelling narratives all on their own. While the Two Jakes is really terrific, Godfather III is probably the more successful of the two as it truly puts the period on the cinematic story of the Corleones which also feels like the end of something larger (and, for the record, I’d be the first to see Gittes Vs. Gittes, the written-but-not-produced third film in the Chinatown franchise, if Jack Nicholson would see it for the great final role and salute to Hollywood as I’m sure it is).

Sure, Godfather III has its flaws and the poetic flow of the first two films feels copied and formulaic this time around. But what it needs to get right, it gets very right and in the face of the trashy sequel books that have been published recently coupled with the close-but-no-cigar GTA-clone video games the franchise has spawned, it’s easy to see that, at the very least, Godfather III is reverent to its vaunted pedigree and the era that gave birth to it. To me, this reverence can be found during the closing credits when the familiar strains of the Godfather theme melt into Harry Connick, Jr’s swooning ballad “Promise Me You’ll Remember” which audibly recalls Johnny Fontaine in his heyday. You can almost see him singing to Connie and the girls around her about to pass out. When the song ends and the credits roll to a close, you can almost hear the iron gates on the old Paramount Pictures lock shut.

Mark to Mis-Market #1: Blue Collar (1978) D. Paul Schrader

By Patrick Crain

It’s not certain what Universal Pictures had in mind when it came time to do the print and advertisement for Blue Collar, a property that, by any formula, should have been huge. It was the directorial debut of Paul Schrader who, up to that moment in time, was one of Hollywood’s most bankable and interesting screenwriters and was JUST coming off of Taxi Driver.

More importantly, Blue Collar featured Richard Pryor, at the apex of his late seventies success and in his first dramatic lead. But one look at the original one-sheet at you’d think you were going to see something in the vein of the previous year’s Which Way Is Up?, the one-sheet of which featured differing faces of Pryor. Of course, the big difference is that, in Which Way is Up?, Pryor plays three different roles, and all of them are for laughs. In Blue Collar, he only plays one role. And it’s not funny. At all.

Marketed as a comedy, Blue Collar is a unique blend of gritty drama and low-stakes crime thriller which ends up becoming a hard hitting, pissed off, and white-hot rallying cry/middle finger to The Man. If folks in 1978 had blindly put this movie in the middle of a dinner/movie/dancing Friday night out-on-the-town, they certainly skipped the dancing and went home straight after the incendiary final moments. For one doesn’t much feel like partying after watching Blue Collar.

The trailer gives too much away of Blue Collar yet still keeps the film’s anger well-hidden. In it, the film looks to be about three auto workers (Pryor, Harvey Keitel, and Yaphet Kotto) who get fed up wit their jobs and their union and rob the union office. In a way, the movie kind of makes it look like a precursor to the following year’s Going in Style, another film in which three guys comedically pull a stick-up which then raises larger social questions (entitlement programs, ageism, and mortality).

But where the trailer for Going in Style telegraphed warmth that was retained when audiences watched the movie, Blue Collar doesn’t quite contain the same tone as the trailer. In the trailer, some scenes with Richard Pryor are cut short to preserve their punchy gags but, in the context of the scene within the film itself, those scenes uncomfortably roll on longer to reveal themselves as much more painful and angry than the trailer suggests.

For example, in a masterful scene, Richard Pryor’s Zeke gets a late-night visit from the tax man who comes to garner birth certificates for the phony children Zeke claims but does not have. The scene balances comedy and dramatic tension brilliantly until it devolves into a heated conclusion that’s as angry as it is tersely emotional. In the trailer, the moment is captured only in the comedic terms of the IRS man showing up at the door (“We don’t want none.”) and then questioning the kids’ phony names (“Who’s Stevie Wonder?”). In the film, the scene rolls on to its sad conclusion; Zeke can’t pull of the ruse and will face a hefty, unaffordable tax penalty. This sets him off on a tirade that is pitched somewhere between a cry for help and a self-destructive list of grievances. In the trailer, the tax man is a square and a goon. In the film, he’s just doing his job and is just as frustrated and harried as Zeke.

But things that begin broadly comic only to become sad and hopeless is a motif that will permeate the entire movie. The Saturday night party scene begins with humorous setups wherein Zeke and Harvey Keitel’s Jerry have to lie their ways out of their homes to their disbelieving wives. However, it sours as they party it up with Smokey James (Kotto) and some prostitutes. After staying up all night on cheap cocaine, we’re treated to a static shot of our trio on a couch, sun coming up behind them, and all the money it took months to save for this one night has been snorted away. As the realization of their plight slowly stirs their addled minds, the sense of frustrated despair becomes very palpable.

What the trailer also can’t convey is the gritty world in which this movie takes place. Industrial Detroit dwarfs the dive bars and the hangouts. A layer of yellow, ugly mass hangs high atop 2nd unit master shots of pluming stacks and dreary cityscapes. The image seems to be crowded with a mix of automobile iconography and the identifiable American brand logos (Jerry’s Big Mac t-shirt is a great blast from the past).

It’s a world where people regularly work two jobs, may have one day off a week, and split a box of Hamburger Helper four ways, taking “serving sizes” to a sad, literal level only poverty can. It is a world of pawn shops, street hustlers, run down storefronts, crumbling buildings, and a world where the nicest office is rife with wood panelling. Slinking through all of this is Ry Cooder’s sustained, greasy, slide guitar lines, bookended by Captain Beefheart’s acidic vocals in the opening and closing credits.

But what this world really is is one where everyone is hustling each other; Smokey not only preaches the mantra of looking out for yourself, he practices it by spending $10 on hot watches for the robbery only to turn around and mark them up astronomically to Jerry and Zeke. And where Zeke would love to be principled, he is too smart to understand his plight and can do nothing but try and protect himself. And, in the end, we understand Jerry’s motivations, too. And  these issues are tied up in much bigger issues such as race and class. So it is a film, obviously, with no easy answers which could account for the decision to just lay everything out in the trailer, send mixed signals with the one-sheet, and hope things worked out for the best.

Though the film is filled with people who do not-so-honorable things, the film takes the time to humanize the characters and make them three-dimensional. In a bowling scene, plot-propelling dialogue could have been truncated in a simple setup but, here, is spread over an entire frame of bowling interrupted by both Zeke and Jerry’s turns at the line which lets the characters relax and be real characters. We sit on Zeke’s couch and watch him disdainfully snipe at George Jefferson on the television he’s so proud to own, he’ll even watch TV shows like “The Jeffersons” that feed his anger (shades of Travis Bickle here). We sit in at real kitchen tables and we watch them as they look over what appears to be real bills. Every bottle of beer they drink looks budgeted and the struggle of the working poor becomes very clear.

Blue Collar had a famously troubled production which almost caused this to be Paul Schrader’s first and last film. On-set tensions were high as none of the principals got along and things were ground to a halt on more than one occasion. I can only guess that it’s a blessing in disguise as the film oozes a simmering hate that can only service the material for the better. And, on the surface, none of this is readily apparent. Harvey Keitel is excellent as the flawed family man who works two jobs and has to worry about his daughter’s braces. Richard Pryor is even better and gives his greatest performance as a similarly flawed husband/father whose sense of duty to his family outweighs all of his actions both good and bad.

But as good as either of them are, this is Yaphet Kotto’s movie. As the heart of the trio, Kotto’s Smokey is mostly framed apart from the other two, coming into the scene to offer advice or to steer them in the best direction. Without a family to play against, Smokey is given a detached coolness and a wisdom that deepens his character. In an early scene, Schrader takes an opportunity to flesh out Smokey (via a tale about how Smokey landed in prison) and turns it into a lesson about white privilege while simultaneously giving him an ambiguous history that will serve his character well. Later, when calmly rescuing Jerry’s family from danger, he shows a warm, playful side of his character only to reveal himself at his most brutal in the following scene.

The VHS release of Blue Collar replicated the one-sheet’s design and, at TV World and Appliance, the video store that employed me, it sat in the front of the video store, exposed to the giant, shadeless front window, where the sun blanched the red cover into something of a whitish yellow. It later showed up on DVD by way of Anchor Bay, who held license to some “hidden gem” Universal titles for a spell. The quality on the DVD wasn’t great but the haziness in that transfer (which was done in the nascency of widescreen televisions) helps the movie’s tone stay uncomfortable and gritty. That copy has fallen out of print and the movie has, sadly, become one of the ever-increasing list of Archive Titles that you can order it from Amazon or Universal directly and it will be pressed onto a DVD-R. This is something of a mixed blessing as it is a business model that allows forgotten movies like this to be seen but the transfers are less sharp than they would be for a true release. However, it’s well better than nothing.

Each year, I wait for a boutique label to announce that they’re going to do a proper transfer of Blue Collar and give it the release it deserves. These days, when I Google it to see if there’s any news about it, I have to modify my search so I don’t come up with a million hits for the Blue Collar Comedy Tour. So a forgotten movie about a ton of important things that didn’t have much of a chance upon its initial release now suffers something of an indignity by being on the bottom of the digital dog pile, buried and forgotten further.

Sadly, it’s one of a thousand.

1986: TV Cuts #1 – The Middle Room Blues – Taxi Driver (1976) D. Martin Scorsese

By Patrick Crain

For reasons I can’t seem to recall, Taxi Driver went unseen by me for a very long time. I can’t really remember why I think this is or is not strange. My mind is something of a fog as to why I came upon it the way I did but I do remember one of my favorite movie books from the old house on 45th Street (the one that actually got LEFT in the garage when we moved and was never seen again) did contain a very shocking still from the movie (Travis standing over the convenience store robber after having shot him) that made it look very gritty and very terrifying. Upon conferring with either of my parents about the movie, I recall them both somewhat recoiling and my dad saying “Nope. Too depressing.”

My mother seemed more vitriolic in her condemnation of it; even more so than her empty threats against my seeing The Deer Hunter (1978) which she regarded as one of the most shatteringly depressing movies she’d ever seen (her words in 1981; don’t hold her to it now).

So Taxi Driver was filed away by me as a dark, forbidden film that probably had something sexual going on and if I wanted to see it, I apparently was going to have to put in the work for it.

But as we had been settled into the Del Porte house for a year, I found that my trips to Bob’s Video were less frequent and therefore more focused in what I wanted to rent. My odds of the cool guy who let me rent R rated movies working the day I could find the time to make the now-lengthy walk turned out to be shockingly elusive. And with limited arm space to haul those stupid, bulky VHS tapes back to my house, I had to always strategize my rentals.

The conflation of these two elements caused Taxi Driver to go unrented and therefore unseen. Until…

The advent of the home video boom was really nice and it certainly supplanted network TV and cable as your go-to source for discovery of movies. But network television DID still serve a certain purpose and UHF channels continued to routinely program movies into their late-night slots. In Oklahoma City, one of the three UHF channels was Channel 34 and it was on such a late night slot, Taxi Driver was scheduled to play. I set my VCR to record the movie and watched it the next day.

While we still have network cuts of movies and we revel in kitschy, low-hanging fruit details like the awful things done to the language in movies like Scarface, Goodfellas, and Casino, the “Network Cuts” of older movies from a certain age are a different animal altogether. And Taxi Driver’s Network Cut is a rare bird as it’s exceedingly difficult to come across unless you randomly know someone who still has it socked away on a VHS tape in the back of a closet somewhere. And it’s totally the version I familiarized myself with the first ten or so times I watched it.

Now, to be certain, there’s not much structurally different about the television cut (until the end). It seems odd to say but the gist of the story was there despite the fact that there were radical cuts where whole scenes were excised including, of all things, the “You Talkin’ To Me” scene. So, of course, imagine my confusion when this was the most mentioned scene in all of my movie books.

There were other cuts. The first porno theater scene was there, the second one, directly before he plays with his guns and builds the wrist contraption, was not. I can’t quite remember how they got around the date with Betsy but I seem to remember them keeping the shots of the porno film that employs biological slides and whacking out the rest and then doing a quit cut of her moving out of the row and leaving the theater. The American Bandstand scene was gone. We got to see Travis shoot the robber but we did not get to see the shopkeeper beat his corpse with the shutter rod. The final shootout, already saturated by Scorsese to receive an X rating, was a blurry whir of cuts, excising most all of the slow motion Roger Ebert expounded on in his review which, of course, caused further confusion for me. At the conclusion, the cops come in and point their guns at Travis and the “gun to the head” pantomime is gone in favor of a transition to the overhead shot that, again, excises the close-ups of Sport’s body, most of the blood on the walls, and a great deal of the doom march that is Bernard Hermann’s score. It basically goes from the room to the hallway and then cuts to the exterior crane shot.

Other bits were missing. Some of Travis’s voice-over narration was gone so I was especially shocked to eventually hear the line “Sometimes when I bring the cab back I have to clean the cum off the back seat” as, in the television cut, none of that was there but, inexplicably, “sometimes I clean off the blood” was left in as a dangling rejoinder to nothing.

So, apparently, I was going to be in for a shock when I finally got around to seeing the theatrical cut of Taxi Driver as all of the moments that were back in the movie made for a different, and more disturbing, experience. But also shocking were the moments that were GONE. Because, to pad out the running time after cutting so much, the television cut had been augmented with scenes that were cut out of the theatrical release (a common practice, by the way). And, obviously, I had become accustomed to those scenes. So the scene with Easy Andy, the gun salesman, which had gone on a bit longer and transitioned Travis from wearing his jacket to not as he takes it off to see how putting the gun in the back of his belt will feel to which Andy says “Isn’t it a little honey?” It had been shortened in the theatrical cut, opting for an elliptical jump in time where Travis has his jacket on in one shot and off in the next.

More stuck in my mind, though, was the scene when Travis first visits Iris. In the theatrical version, the old man who runs the building asks for the room money and indicates that he’s watching the time. But look in his hand in that shot. He’s holding a gun. Specifically, he’s holding Travis’s gun. For in the television cut, the scene runs a bit longer and the old man first guesses that Travis is packing heat and requests that he gives up his piece and then tells him that he’s watching the time. And, again, in the scene following the conversation with Iris in the hotel room, the old man approaches Travis with the gun in his hand (though, shot long, it’s indiscernible). In the theatrical cut, Travis gives him the $20 back and tells him “This is yours.” In the television cut, the old man first gives Travis back his gun and says “This is yours.” which then promps Travis to give him the money and reply in kind.

Equally strong a memory is the television cut’s differences in the Secret Service scene. In the theatrical cut, Travis awkwardly strikes up a conversation with the secret service agent, says that he thinks he saw some suspicious looking folks in another spot, and then the film employs another elliptical jump where Travis and the agent are in another place and Travis bemoans the fact that the folks have gone. In the television cut, this transition is smoother as Travis leads the agent to the other location. And, again, the television cut is the way this movie imprinted itself in my head.

Oh, and to literally top it all off, there was this disclaimer at the end which, of course, is a ton of fun now since you just don’t see this done anymore.

And I must note that I have no idea where the actual, studio-approved television cut of the film began and where further time-constraint cuts by interns at local UHF stations ended. But, if I were forced to find a positive way to spin seeing the television cut first, I would say that there was something very drive-in-ish about discovering it this way. As it was with many exploitation films, the movie you saw depended on how long it took for that film to finally get there. What could start as Krug and Company on one side of the country in 1972 would eventually become Last House on the Left on another but with certain scenes removed by skittish projectionists.

So I suppose it goes without saying that, like my first few somewhat unsatisfying go-arounds with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), my introduction to Taxi Driver was not at all ideal. Because there did finally come a day when my curiosity as to what I was missing finally got the better of me. It was about seven months into my familiarity with the film that, in a great stroke of luck, I had accidentally retained the deposit money on a tuxedo I was renting for the eighth grade dance at Kerr Jr. High School (which seems ludicrous as I type it) due to an oversight on the part of the tuxedo place. I took this opportunity not to make things right with the tuxedo place but to take that money up to Heritage Park Mall which had a Musicland that most certainly had a VHS copy of Taxi Driver to sell (housed in the original RCA/Columbia packaging where, in a ridiculous packaging decision, you had to extract the tape from the right side of the box via an easily damaged cardboard door). And I would be a buyer of that clunky artifact at $25 (which seems ludicrous as I type it).

After watching the theatrical cut for the first time, I remember being completely baffled. This is most certainly the movie I had read about but where were those additional transitions? I must have purchased an edited version. Where could I reconcile this? The internet was eons away, the Del City Library wasn’t wont to have this information anywhere, and I just had to deal with it with absolutely no way of satisfying my curiosity. Unlike now where you could find a second cut of a movie, watch it, and immediately be able to discern between the two, it was at least another couple of years before I could reverse-engineer Taxi Driver in my mind as the movie I now owned and not the movie I initially saw due to the accessibility factor. You kids have it easy.

But, even uncut, VHS was not a friend to Taxi Driver. The movie is too dark for VHS to handle. And the climactic shootout in the brothel looked only marginally better on VHS. Compositions were lost due to reformatting, sound was compressed, and it might be one of the better examples as to why VHS was such a stupid and terrible format, the misguided nostalgia for which boggles the mind.

Of course, I saw it at too early an age and there is a danger to that. It wasn’t necessarily dangerous in that I was a kid of 13 watching such a movie and exposing myself to a whole porno floor of nastiness. Actually, the danger was that I was unable to process what made Travis so alarmingly dangerous and not even picking up how dangerous he SEEMS throughout the entire movie. During his first meeting with Betsy, his vacant monologues about connection and his misplaced anger at her office mate, Tom, were lost on me as was the choice Scorsese makes to park his camera on Travis’s face as he gives these speeches, only cutting back to Betsy when she’s prompted or she’s reacting to the entire scope of a spiel. At 13, the second date with Betsy seemed like a natural progression but, as an adult, you hear it materialize from his point of view and you realize that she’s uncomfortably bullied into it. Later, when cabbie Charlie T is trying to sell him a piece of Errol Flynn’s bathtub, Travis’s eyes and his intense gaze on Charlie is unsettling.

Travis’s latent racism, evident in his disdainful, piercing stare at the pimp in the Belmore Cafeteria continues once Charlie T leaves and the scene runs out to the cut. Scorsese could have cut it when Charlie T leaves but he brings us back to the master and allows De Niro to focus his eyes back in the direction of the pimp. Later, he will gaze similarly at the black gang members outside the same establishment and, in both examples, it is handled with very slow dolly shots that feel like a languid dose of pure, narcotic rage being injected into his body which will be ultimately regurgitated in the grocery store in the second half of the film.

Also over my head and lost in bad transfers was Travis’s terminal loneliness. It was hard to tell from the various formats that, when Travis is trying to tell Wizard what’s on his mind, his eyes are welling with tears. He holds back and makes a cry for help awkward and unsatisfying because there’s no way Wizard can know exactly how deep Travis’s pain goes; ditto the viewer because, without that detail, Travis just looks frustrated and angry, not sad and lonely. The loss of the Bandstand scene is crucial as his television is Travis’s last windows into “life” as he ideals it from whatever bit of pop culture he can grab and amalgamate into his life. After a transitional link in the form of a very sad, almost farewell letter written to his parents which will cover their anniversary (“To A Couple of Sports” the card reads) Father’s Day (close enough) and one of their birthdays, the film moves to the Soap Opera scene in which Travis destroys his television set and is lost forever in himself. This progression is lost in the television cut.

 

Taxi Driver is a very internal film. Much has been made about how much you don’t really know about Travis Bickle and it’s very much a truism. There are some critics and scholars who will question the reality of much of what Travis says due to his contradictory nature and I suppose it’s up to the viewer to interpret him in whatever manner works for them. For me, I don’t believe that his service in Vietnam nor his letter to his parents are phony. I believe that he sends the flowers to Betsy and that they are returned and not that he just buys them and never sends them. I also believe the ending, interpreted sometimes as a fantasy, actually occurs as we see it. From what we’ve seen before, Betsy would be impressed enough by what the papers said to be enamored with Travis and Travis, at a brief moment back center, could react with a certain kind of forced indifference and aloofness. The sound sting at the very end, indicating the small tear in Travis’s psyche that will grow and fester and will likely lead to carnage again, couldn’t have the literal interpretation if, in fact, everything before was a fantasy.

Taxi Driver still looks like something out of hell. It’s such an unusual movie on so many levels that it’s amazing that it was ever made and even more amazing that it was a hit. That the country was in such despair that various moods and forces could conjure up such a thing is really astonishing. And it’s got all of the hallmarks of what gave America the fits up to that moment: Vietnam, assassination, troublesome racial issues, and equally troublesome gender and sexual politics. Say what you want about the troubles we have today, things aren’t bad enough to where one of the major studios in Hollywood is making a movie as awash in sickness and despair as Taxi Driver.

But with a big hit came the inevitable sale to network television for whatever station was featuring it for their Friday/Saturday Night at the Movies and then, to an unassuming generation of kids who wanted to see these movies their parents talked about, it became the most accessible version until the invention of the VCR and home video boom occurred. To me, having that cut seep into my noggin to become as familiar as it did was probably more damaging than anything else I can remember in my childhood.

Full Disclosure: I had it pretty easy.

 

A Flimsy Foundation: Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Blood Trilogy (Blood Feast, Two Thousand Maniacs!, and Color Me Blood Red)

By Patrick Crain

For a filmmaker whose work barely showed up in my life, Herschell Gordon Lewis’s influence and the memory of his films loom extremely large. I can’t be for certain what I actually saw back in the nascent days of mom and pop video stores nor can I be sure what was even available to me. I know that Two Thousand Maniacs! was readily available because I rented it and watched it many times over. I specifically rented the Comet Video release which came in the bulky, oversized box, the cover of which was emblazoned with the “2000 Maniacs” title and the inflammatory ” far more entertaining than anything John Carpenter or John Landis has directed” quote from somebody who was paid to be incorrect by Heavy Metal Magazine in 1984. I also know that Blood Feast and Color Me Blood Red were available as was The Wizard of Gore. Around the same time, I also remember renting Wizard of Gore and Color Me Blood Red but don’t remember much about seeing them other than I remember them being gory. I also remember them being awful.

And I was right. They were awful. They all were. Even the good ones. Just terrible from top to bottom. Nothing much worth recommending to someone coming in cold. But that said, I will never be able to hate the films of Herschell Gordon Lewis. Like the independents that would come after him (George A. Romero, Charles B. Pierce), Lewis thankfully captured a great deal of local color without permits or releases. Insignificant details such a familiar signs on the windows of five and dimes or retro logos that have been long since reshaped become wonderful pieces of memory grout when they innocuously pop up in the background or on the margins of the frame. However, Lewis doesn’t capture product as much as he captures an entire atmosphere specific to a particular time and place in America.

By the time he made Blood Feast in 1963, Lewis had already made a number of exploitation movies but had wanted to get into the horror game. Nothing more or less than a huckster who got into the moving pictures business to make a dollar and a cent off of the rubes and pieces of American driftwood he could hustle, Lewis embodied the type of guy you see in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994); a tent show sleaze ball who would make the poster and book the film before the cameras even rolled. Blood Feast was a natural step for him and producer-partner Dave Friedman (who would not only produce the three films in Lewis’s Blood Trilogy but would also go on to produce the Naziploitation classic, Ilsa, She Wolf of the S.S. in 1974).

Blood Feast occupies a very interesting place in American horror in that it almost accidentally captures idyllic America mere months before the Kennedy assassination. Sure, the film is bloody and horrific, but there’s something very light about everything. Despite the mayhem, we can’t help but be drawn to the interior of the homes; powder blue tile and the end-run of mid-century décor which can be found alongside small transistor radios and Philco television sets. Outside, the homes sit on curbless streets and all the pools have screened-in, anti-gator canopies. These little touches, along with the gore, make Blood Feast worth watching on an un-ironic level. Otherwise, the movie is barely better than any one of Ed Wood’s worst efforts.

Blood Feast is the story of Fuad Ramses (Mal Arnold), a local caterer who also worships the Egyptian goddess Isis. He prepares a blood feast to Isis by butchering local women and putting using their entrails and severed extremities as ingredients. When Ramses is asked to cater Suzette Fremont’s (Connie Mason) party which will make the blood feast complete, threads begin to come together in the head of Pete Thornton (William Kerwin), Suzette’s boyfriend (ish) and ace cop!

From the sheer phoniness of Arnold’s grey hair and eyebrows to the horrible day-for-night, the production is as low-rent as it could possibly be. Amid this, Lewis lazily cobbles together awkwardly performed scenes of dialogue which vaguely propel the plot from one showy gore scene to the next. Actors read lines off of their hands and off of scripts that are plainly visible within the frame. Poor Connie Mason can’t keep her eyes off the idiot board to get her cues. And with all the technical crudeness of a stag film, Blood Feast wallows in its amateurishness; harshly and indifferently lit, shadows bounce every which way and the foreheads of the actors sparkle in what must be a searing heat.

But, regardless of all of that, it still goes for the gusto; it scarcely cares about its lack of skill and plunges ahead to rip a woman’s tongue out of her face which, while ridiculous and hardly convincing, remains an impressively audacious (and effectively wet) effect half a century later. The isolated, nighttime beach scene feels decidedly pre-Manaic (1980) and there is something to be said for the notion of feeding a bunch of uptight suburbanites the dismembered body parts of their neighbors. It’s also helped by a 67 minute running time (which is not as breezy as it sounds).

Blood Feast is the movie that put Herschell Gordon Lewis on the map but I don’t think I saw it until it could no longer be much of anything but a bad historical footnote that, nonetheless, still retained a charming sense of place and time that connected well with what I DID remember about Two Thousand Maniacs!.

Growing up in Oklahoma, I was bound to have family that lived beyond the city limits and in one or more of the tiny towns that dot the landscape. I felt lucky that my Aunt Eva and Uncle Earl lived in Prague, a small town an hour to the east of the metro that is home to a heavy Czech foundation. Each Kentucky Derby weekend, Prague hosts their Kolache Festival which, at least at one time, was replete with a main street parade, a rickety carnival, and a joyous feeling of an entire community coming together for one large event in the main square. There was something refreshingly retro about the entire event; perhaps it was Prague itself which, in the 70’s and 80’s, languidly began a slow slide into the sad inevitable demise that would creep across the landscape and put the lights out in many Oklahoma burgs that looked just like it. I know that when I watch reruns of the Andy Griffith Show, Mayberry has an unironic, sweet familiarity that completely reminds me of Prague which makes me glad that Prague was a part of my life. And it is also Prague that helps me nostalgia-ize Two Thousand Maniacs!

Pleasant Valley (more accurately, shooting-location St.Cloud, Florida) in Two Thousand Maniacs! resembles Prague. It’s a town with a grand Main Street that houses the broad enterprises of small town economies such as the barber shop, the general store, and the hotel all of which contain a sad, worn, and fantastically anachronistic look. On the street, young kids roam around in buzz cuts and white t-shirts, their last all-American look before rock music, free love, and pot caused the lion’s share of them to look for pastures greener than St. Cloud and Prague, Oklahoma. The young adults, too old for the counterculture that was on its way, shuffle about in checkered pants, drink pull-tab beers, and begin to allow their bodies to prematurely soften into a bitter middle-age. The older folks look completely discombobulated, waving the Confederate flag and singing “The South Will Rise Again” without the slightest hint of shame as some of these people likely lost a grandfather or a great-uncle in the Civil War.

In the businesses, the walls are adorned by prints of oil rendered pastoral settings and the cheap calendars the local bank or insurance companies give out for opening an account. On the streets, wooden frame houses are tucked into overgrown foliage. Long, slender black cars snake through the gravel roads to the fishing tank while others push past the outskirts of the small town city limits to a neighboring town, eventually creating a slow-moving, reverberating echo where slivers of cosmopolitan and uptown living begin to fester back into the town.

The sad history of these towns was that the city lights didn’t impress the older folks who continued to operate in the only way they knew how but it created enough of a talent drain that towns like Prague and St. Cloud became husks of their former selves; the remnants of a million small towns across America that eventually all resemble Anarene, Texas at the end of the Last Picture Show (1971).

And it was in a town with that broken history that Lewis set Two Thousand Maniacs! which was envisioned as a cockeyed rehash of Brigadoon, set it in a mythical, cornpone utopia that was wiped out by terrible Yankees 100 years prior in the “War Between The States.” And now, 100 years later, the ghosts of the defeated town materialize to exact bloody revenge on the unsuspecting travelers that are lured there.

Viewed at age 13, the film was a riot. It was stupid, easy to get through, and was shockingly gory (my favorite moment then and now was the dismemberment scene which still looks almost upsettingly real). I could take it to friends’ houses and show it off and yuck it up with them as the film seemed to be one big guffaw. Watched now, it’s definitely a mixed bag. Possibly Lewis’s finest film, that accolade doesn’t add up to much when you realize that the lion’s share of the movie is absolutely worthless. Two Thousand Maniacs! suffers from a painfully long set-up and opening that seems to go on forever, quite possibly due to the Pleasant Valley Boys’s wholly shrill title song. It then settles into an extremely slow-moving series of sequences that, like Blood Feast before it, only exist to get the train to the next gory set-piece. The performances are slightly better than they are in Blood Feast with Kerwin and Mason returning and putting a bit more effort into it. But it’s Jeffery Allen who really makes the movie work. As Mayor Buckman, Allen’s performance is like the unholy union of Huey Long and Foghorn Leghorn. A man whose voice oscillates between bellowing and yelling, Allen’s wide smile, full cheeks, and portly frame give him some authenticity which rubs off on some of those cast as Pleasant Valley townsfolk.

And it is here that, gore moments aside, the movie works the best for there is a true uncomfortableness at play. First and foremost, the sheer amount of Confederate flags in the film is staggering. Not only do I think this may contain the most Confederate flags of any movie ever made but it may contain more Confederate flags than have been put in all of the movies throughout the entire history of motion pictures altogether. And the constant waving and jamming up the frame with them becomes comically nauseating because, again, these weren’t extras from central casting. These are folks to whom that flag meant something very real and very troubling. When the people of Pleasant Valley all stop to sing “Dixie” in the middle of a pasture after they’ve used four horses to gruesomely tear apart a Yankee traveller, it gives the viewer a bit of pause and the movie, in retrospect, becomes something of a hybrid of A Birth of a Nation and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

So the movie skates by on a specific nostalgia, overt gore, unsettling regional politics, and its ability to come off more like a loud, cartoonish, semi-version of Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls (1962) than the static Blood Feast. But it’s impossible to call it good due to the absolute technical ineptitude and sluggish pacing (it should be noted that Lewis has a horrible time landing this movie and that the wordy, action-free ending stretches over a ten minute canvas that could have easily been cut in half).

For his final splatter film (for a while, at least), Lewis directed Color Me Blood Red (1965), a movie that also marked the end of the Lewis and Friedman productions. This one was blessed with another porn-size Caballero-esque box from Comet and the box art was adorned with some extremely graphic stills from the film. To this day, I’m shocked that it was allowed onto the shelves of TV World and Appliance or Bob’s Video, the two mom and pop stores that served my hometown of Del City, Oklahoma.

Watching it today, it can be seen as something as a precursor to Abel Ferrera’s The Driller Killer (1979) in that it deals, rather terribly, with the artistic failure of its protagonist, painter Adam Sorg (the intense Gordon Oas-Heim). Unable to impress the local critics or sell his work, Sorg accidentally finds that human blood makes for an amazing burst of color on the canvas when his girlfriend/assistant Gigi (Elyn Warner) pricks her finger on a damaged frame. When Sorg realizes he can’t paint an entire portrait with just his blood and the little bit she’s spilled, he lashes out at Gigi, killing her and giving him a virtual bucket from which to dip his brush. The painting is a hit. Rinse, wash, repeat.

While the regional atmosphere that was apparent in the previous films is still here (especially in those ridiculous paddle bikes and that groovy-looking ranch-style seaside pad Sorg lives in), Color Me Blood Red seems to have a heavier ambition. Aside from some criminally unfunny hep cat kids who, unfortunately, are not murder victims and whose collective stabs at humor reveal just how clueless Lewis was when it came to writing, directing, capturing, or even really understanding comedy, there’s not much here that’s very light. Even with all the terrible goings on in Two Thousand Maniacs!, there was so much hootin’ and hollerin’ that everyone SEEMED to be having a good time.

Color Me Blood Red is a dull, drab, and boring movie with a few excellent gore moments (quite especially the blood being squeezed from the bowels which is wonderfully nauseating). It’s got a lumpy, sluggish pace and mostly unexciting set-pieces (most everything worth seeing happens within the gross living room of Sorg’s house). The cinematography is sometimes blurry, the framing is frequently puzzling, and the movie is inappropriately scored throughout.

I’m sure that there are some who feel that they almost have to begrudgingly give Herschell Gordon Lewis his due. He’s such a terrible filmmaker yet his influence on the horror genre is as far and wide as John Cassavetes’s influence on independent cinema. Maybe people hate him because, due to his complete ineptness, he revealed the basic, Barnum-like pitch for the horror film. Give them something to see and they’ll pay money to do so. Don’t worry about the rest. I can understand the anger at this cynicism.

I also see his point of view, though. After all, is this not show business? And, if not for him, it’s hard to tell just how long it would have taken for that level of gore to appear on the scene. It took a specific time and a specific place and a person like Herschell Gordon Lewis, a sub par nobody who just wanted to make a buck, to blindly push the envelope. And while his legacy is secure (if flimsily so) as the “Godfather of Gore,” I’ll always see him as an accidental documentarian; a man who ended up capturing an America in transition and the remnants of which were still alive and well in my younger days.