Monday, April 30, 2007

God Save the Village Green

(Hot Fuzz spoilers ahoy)

About a year ago, National Review writer John J. Miller sent a peice called "Rockin' the Right: The 50 greatest conservative rock songs" spiraling into the blogosphere. There are plenty of legitimate choices (Sammy Hagar, Charlie Daniels... I don't know who thinks these guys are "great," but they certainly are conservative), yet, most of the list (and Miller's follow-up list) is inane: The Who? Black Sabbath? The Sex Pistols? Dead Kennedys? (Are you fucking kidding me?). I have no interest in playing these right-wing/left-wing games, yet there was one recurring group that interested me. The Kinks show up more than any other band on Miller's lists, and this selection is what interested me most.

Miller describes the songs on his lists as needing to meet this requirement: “The lyrics must convey a conservative idea or sentiment, such as skepticism of government or support for traditional values.” Speaking of "traditional values" as a quantifiable set is troublesome, but I'll leave that alone for now. While Miller hops all over their discography, he suprisingly doesn't mention The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society. A great album by any means, I've often wondered about the philosophical leanings of TKATVGPS. Here, The Kinks clearly look back at an idealized past, and seem to yearn for the "traditional values" of Old England (whether or not this idealized past actually existed is another matter). The nostalgia of the record points to radio serials, tea and biscuits, lazy weekends and simple pleasures like cats and taking pictures of your friends. I'm not sure if this is actually a conservative idyll as much as a uniquely English nostalgic holiday. An equal argument could be made from the left: The Kinks here lament industrialization and the the 40-hour week, as well as the potential confines of the traditional family unit. Note this lyric: "We are the skyscraper condemnation affiliates." The Human League's "Empire State Human" is, by contrast, much more conservative in the relevant sense ("High-rise living's not so bad!")

I thought about this tension the other night when I went to see Edgar Wright's Hot Fuzz, which uses the opening cut from TKATVGPS, "We are the Village Green Preservation Society" early in the film, in a remarkable, thematic way (I bet you were wondering what the payoff to all this was). Not to give too much away, the villainous force in the film is a kind of literal Village Green Preservation Society. The film imagines a kind of Village Green Secret Society, in fact, an enterprise to keep the imagined traditional English values alive, no matter the cost (no matter the "externalities" to use the language of economics).

Complete with Hammer robes, clandestine rituals and secret catacombs, the town elders in Hot Fuzz dedicate themselves to what Miller thinks The Kinks are getting at in Village Green, and more than a conservative/liberal contrast, this is a philosophical position, ultimately. The elders here represent a kind of Kantian absolutist morality, one in which the Good isnt good because its good, its good because it is "the Good." The externalities of upholding the Good (the murders staged as accidents) are irrelevant to the Good. Hot Fuzz provides a counter-point in cop Nick Angel (Simon Pegg), who speaks of "the greater good" in a different way. Angel here represents the Utilitarian ethic: greatest good for the society, not the greatest Good for the sake of an abstract, ideal good. J.S. Mill found Kant's categorical imperative a thorny ethic, and sought to draft a more pragmatic form in the notion of utility. Mill's moral theory is just as problematic, but the two work as interesting counterpoints, as do Pegg and The Village Green Secret Society in Hot Fuzz.

This may be all a fancy way of saying that I think Hot Fuzz is a really smart flick.

Blood Sisters (1987)

(Preface: for some reason I cannot find the exact VHS cover image online. There is a similar image on some editions of the DVD, but this is still not the version I refer to here. A black & white representation is found in Samurai Dreams)

While some of my fellow reviewers at Samurai Dreams explicitly prefer the VHS format to DVD, I do not. I have a great fondness for tapes, but the plain fact is that I’d prefer to watch films in their original format (This of course, has nothing to do with my enduring love of tapes; yet it may be necessary to clear any confusion). There is one thing, however, about VHS tapes that is undeniably better than DVDs (at least thus-far): the cover art. Often in DVD design art, the film logo dominates half the case, with a Photoshop-altered still from the film taking up the rest, usually a picture of the lead. A good example is the DVD cover for A History of Violence, a film which even featured an excellent 1-sheet during its theatrical release. There are certainly exceptions, such as the packaging of Criterion Collection discs, or the designs from the folks at NoShame, but on the whole DVD package-design is an afterthought. VHS tapes, on the other hand, often feature fantastic original paintings. I have bought cheap VHS tapes solely for the cover art. While Octaman is goofy fun, I bought it with the intention of displaying the oversized painted cover as an Objet d’Art. When trolling video-store blow-outs and flea markets, at times the only thing I can base a purchase on is eye-catching package design. Often this is a poor strategy, as a VHS tape itself can be more artistic and interesting than the film contained. It works both ways,certainly; some terrible cover designs have marred interesting films.

Not quite at either extreme, Blood Sisters is a very average 80’s slasher. Fans of the genre will enjoy it; the average viewer will probably get through the film without the aid of the fast-forward button. One thing about Blood Sisters which is exceptional, however, is the awesome, mind-blowing painted VHS cover. In the basement of Astro Video, during one of my many recent visits, Blood Sisters leapt of the shelf. As I was on a tight budget, I even ended up putting a film I had already grabbed back, so I could purchase this film. Featured prominently on the VHS case is an evocative young woman, gazing maniacally skyward, as her wild orange hair morphs into fire engulfing a Victorian mansion. A dark skyline frames her, and a wooden floorboard pattern emerges at the bottom, as a demonically possessed rocking horse rears to life. A grinning skull shoots beams of light out of its eye sockets in the center of the image, and the title, "Blood Sisters," sits in raised lettering in a streak of red paint.
The film itself is a trim haunted-house slasher at eighty-five minutes, full of the anticipated gore and nudity. The plot is rote: occultist sorority sisters camp out in a haunted bordello and get murdered. Simple. There are actually some creative and well-composed shots in the film, and the opening kill is a fully realized sequence, mostly shot in POV, Halloween-style. And despite Blood Sisters’ adherence to sexist genre conventions, is not particularly mean-spirited or nasty. Watch it with friends, especially if they can’t get enough of Prom Night knock-offs.
(I'll be looking for a cover image in the coming days and weeks)

Saturday, April 28, 2007

End Credits

Just got word today that Astro Video is officially closing its doors May 15. Prices on VHS and DVD couldn't be lower, so I'll definately try to make a few more trips before the Warehouse becomes an eBay dealer exclusively.

Astro Video has been going out of business for almost a year now, so I wasn't suprised when my buddy told me over the phone today. But what did suprise me was the other bit of news he had: Video To Go in Greenfield is also closing down. I called up today and learned that VTG has stopped renting, but will keep the place open for a few more weeks to sell off some stock. The prices are pretty high, but Video To Go is full of treasures.

Good and bad news for a tape fiend like myself, of course.

The mom n' pop video store is really on its death bed, if places as well stocked as Astro and VTG can't even stay open (in an area dense with college students, remember). Shame what's left is the uniformality of the chain and the anonymity of Netflix and torrent sites. I remember hearing a while back that Astro was waiting for one of the big rental players to buy the upstairs space to close, so perhaps soon we'll see that retro-future Astro Video + Video Warehouse sign (with its endearingly ridiculous boast "The world's largest selection") replaced with a Hollywood or Blockbuster logo. While I haven't gotten the chance to actually go into Video To Go (driven by it a few times), I've heard my friends rave about its wide selection of foreign and independent films often. Too bad that the first time I'll step inside of it will probably also be the last.

Well, on the bright side, these kind of sales are always a good way to add to my collection. I can't really afford to blow much cash on tapes and DVDs, but I think I can justify it in this instance, as this might be my last chance to walk down rows and rows of vintage videos at Astro, overwhelmed by the evocative painted covers of obscure horror, post-apocalypse, science fiction and spy films.

Expect a proper eulogy in the next Samurai Dreams

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Kiss (1988)

Film directors with workmanlike sensibilities will often try out a few genres before they find the one that makes bank. I can only assume this was Pen Densham's strategy, when he sandwiched a low-key horror entry titled The Kiss between Moll Flanders and something called The Zoo Gang (IMDb plot summary: “Homeless kids need a place to stay, so they rent the club ‘The Zoo’ out, from Old Leather Face."). Also, the guy wrote A Gnome Named Gnorm, a film which I routinely see going for less than a dollar at library book/vhs sales. If I had known his resume, I would have had low expectations for The Kiss from the first frame (I suppose if I had known The Kiss was co-written by Ken Russell collaborator Stephen Volk I might have at least given it a shot); however, in these lean days my apartment-mates and I go without the internet, so I entered The Kiss blind.

This little horror film is very easy to watch. This is not necessarily a compliment. However, when you watch as many "B" pictures as I do you come to accept diminishing returns, so when something is at least entertaining--if not interesting--it can be a welcome break. No mistake, The Kiss may be predictable and unambitious, warranting its obscurity, yet--it ain't half bad either.

A short prologue set in "Belgian Congo, 1963" establishes two of the main characters, Hilary and Felice Dunbar, and also the generic curse, and a generic cursed totem. Flash forward to the late 1980s, Albany, New York, where Hilary (Talya Rubin) lives with her husband Jack Halloran (Nicholas Kilbertus) and teenage daughter Amy (child star Meredith Salenger). Their suburban stability is shattered however when Hilary receives an unexpected phone call from her estranged sister Felice (Joanna Pacula), now a globe-travelling model. The two arrange to meet, yet Hilary dies in a gruesome car accident soon after inviting Felice to visit her family in Albany. Well, Felice shows up anyway, "five months later" and swiftly seduces Jack, kills a few interlopers, and makes quick enemies with her neice Amy, the film's protagonist.

The plot is rote; I'll not waste too many words in this regard. The film which is probably playing out in your mind is accurate: Felice appears amiable yet mysterious at first, but eventually reveals her true intentions. In fact, Felice turns out to be an undead occultnik femme fatale who must pass on the generic curse (via "the kiss") to a young relative (Amy) before she withers away. Amy wins of course, yet the ending is somewhat ambiguous. Of course, these building blocks say little about this type of genre film: an entry like The Kiss can sail or fail by virtue of its style. Problem is, The Kiss is so damn average. I liked the occaisional 80s slang and fashion, the well-done gore FX by some guys who worked on The Fly and Scanners, and I was especially hyped up by the gonzo black magick rituals Felice performs throughout The Kiss, even if the strikingly handsome Joanna Pacula's performance remains one-note "mysterious." In these scenes Felice writhes nude with body paint, candles, bones, and a mangy stray-cat puppet, which somehow causes people to die in horrible accidents elsewhere. If the film maintained the style of these montages throughout, it would play like a higher-budget Necropolis.

The characters here exist merely as archetypes: dopey husband with a vague office job; highly sexualized yet innocent daughter; valley girl best friend; nosy yet well-meaning neighbor; heroic boyfriend, ad naseum. This is fine. Yet a few wild cards could have elevated the film (come on, yr telling me no magician-tracker from "Belgian Congo, 1963" is following Felice around the globe?). The Kiss is full of missed opportunities.

I can't recommend The Kiss. I also can't say I regret watching it, or that I'd never pop it in the VCR again. Use your discretion.

Note: Has everybody noticed how weird the user-submitted plot tags have gotten on IMDb? Here's what you'll find for The Kiss: Occult, Severed leg, Curse, Model, Murder, Person on fire, Female nudity, Menstruation. Fellow fetishists look out for each other, I suppose.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Blood Link (1983)

Blood Link begins in the midst of a surreal and fantastic waltz. Members of a high-society social club are seen stiffly dancing in an ornate ballroom. The camera, frozen in place amidst a crystal and gold chandelier during the title sequence, comes unlocked and begins to zoom into the floor. The dancers' movements appear regimented and passionless. This disorienting opening is glued together by Ennio Morricone’s fantastic theme: a somewhat traditional waltz made ominous by occasional, dark, ethereal passages. The camera eventually zooms in to focus on one particular couple—an unnamed woman and man. The music ends, and the dancers clear the floor save for this mysterious couple. One club member exclaims to another “They don’t even seem to notice the music has stopped.” The woman, considerably older than the man, in a close shot, says, with awkward reservation “Do you… know how happy you make me?” The music resumes—this time a more traditional waltz with more frequent and more sinister sour passages. The man sashays the woman into a dark corner of the room, and—with a wide smile—produces a blade and stabs the woman in the back. He calmly and slowly eases the body against the floor, and exits the frame. A ringing phone interrupts the pace and style of the scene, and the man from the previous scene rolls over in bed and answers the phone.

The film’s opening is seemingly a nightmare, and the dreamer appears to be Physician Dr. Craig Manning (played by the inimitable Michael Moriarty). While initially the connection between these two scenes in unclear, we conclude that the opening is a dream only after the mundane rhythms of Mannings’ life are established. Manning chats on the phone with his sweet, average-looking girlfriend Dr. Julie Warren (Penelope Milford), makes small talk with his elderly neighbors, and sits through tedious meetings with his physician colleagues. These few scenes are carefully crafted to establish the dual reality of Mannings’ experience: his personal life and his fantasy life of disturbing dreams and visions. In one Argentoesque sequence, Manning follows a nude woman up into a bell tower and murders her, only to snap to, alone in the tower. However, this second fantasy is achieved through more traditionally “B” movie devices—particularly, Vaseline smeared on the lens. This criticism aside, the dynamic of the film is swiftly and adeptly established within the first act of the film, allowing the final two thirds of the film to unravel in interesting ways.

The potential cause of Mannings dreams and waking visions is his self-testing of his own radical new psychological treatment, which involves acupuncture and electric shocks. Its not clear what exactly this cure will achieve nor for whom it is intended—yet it makes for an interesting device, much the way pseudo-science and pseudo-psychology play a role in many horror and science fiction films, particularly Brainstorm, Altered States, Prince of Darkness and the mid-period films of David Cronenberg. While this would make for a sufficient thriller alone, the curveball of the film comes at the start of the film’s second act, when Craig Manning learns of his long-lost Siamese-twin brother, Keith, whom he only vaguely could recall until now (I hope it is not a sick joke that his brother has relocated to Cleveland). Craig learns of Keith when he visits an aging foster parent, who calls him Keith, and seems to warn of impending danger. This all comes as a surprise, and the introduction of this element could have been handled more carefully, as its bizarre randomness betrays the mundane tone established by the "real life" scenes of the film. However, as we learn that Craig’s visions may not be his fantasies at all, one could rationalize that Craig represents the mundane aspects of life, while Keith represents the mysterious and forbidden. The two begin to bleed together once Craig realizes that the ballroom he dreamt is a real place, “The Crystal Ballroom”, as he stands in the center of the dance floor, all glamour stripped from the location, as a janitor sweeps up in the background. Craig discovers soon after that the two women he’s seen murdered, were, in fact, killed exactly as he dreamt it. We soon learn that Keith is able to “see” through Craig’s eyes as well, and that Keith knows Craig is close.

Moriarty is often credited as a reliable character actor, but rarely is he acknowledge as being a talented actor, generally. Moriarty, although always recognizable, is able to adapt to the particular tone of whatever film he’s cast in. His performance here is entirely different than the fairly uniform performances in Larry Cohen’s films for which Moriarty is best known. Moriarty’s evolution as an actor only points to his progressive talent and adaptability. For instance, in the first season of Showtime’s Masters of Horror series, his terrifying portrayal of a murdering trucker remains the highlight of not only the episode in question (also directed by Cohen), but of the entire—albeit, rather lackluster—series. His performance in this Masters of Horror episode is as different from his role here in Blood Link as this film is from Q: The Winged Serpent or The Stuff.

The crystals spied in the opening shot, paid close attention to, come to represent the fractured twin psyches of Craig and Keith, bound together and reflexive. In one contemplative scene, Craig stares at himself in the mirror, imagining Keith, and trying to reconcile the murderer envisioned in his mind with the image before him. Were he to look into a large multi-faceted crystal, he would see a more appropriately disjointed picture of his psychotic brother. Keith’s character, thinly characterized, only makes sense as contrasted with his brother. Unfortunately, his sociopathy remains largely unexplained and unexplored. Advantageous then, that Moriarty is able to fill out the angles of Keith, even if the script is not. There is never a moment where Moriarty is onscreen that we are unsure of which brother we are looking at.

Blood Link looks fantastic: sumptuous during Craig’s visions, raw and washed-out elsewhere. Two experience of each twin is unique—filmicly—in several ways. While Craig lies nude and comfortable with Julie, her exposed breasts seem neither titillating nor particularly erotic, merely naturalistic. Keith’s intimate moments, however, are wholly different. Keith leans in over a nude prostitute, in one scene, dominant and aggressive. The scene feels incredibly elicit and pornographic, as the woman begins to undue Keith’s belt and exposes his pubic hair. As the film progresses and Keith and Craig close in on each other, the two motifs blend together, such as a night-time scene in a shopping center, all bright, high-contrast colors and shadows. The lighting and d├ęcor augment each brother so much that even scenes where the two are present seem carefully constructed to suit each half of the “link.”

Blood Link’s major misstep is its conclusion. Craig’s character is imprisoned for one of Keith’s murders, and Julie’s character is called to carry the remainder of the film. This is problematic, as her role in the film at times appears merely functionary. For instance, she does not mind when Craig sleeps with another woman, seemingly only because this would create an obstacle for the story’s progression. Julie’s character is also degraded for reasons unknown, as she is constantly disrobing (or having her clothes ripped off), and uses her body to get close to Keith at the film’s climax. No apparent point about the characters or the external psycho-sexual relationships between men and women appears to be made here. The weakness of Julie’s character is compounded by the amateurish acting of Milford, whose degradation is almost palpable, beyond that of her character. Also, here we see yet another film suffer from a pointlessly ambiguous ending. It is a shame that Blood Link loses steam in the final reel, as it is, in many ways, an interesting film, especially in the technical sense.

This international picture (an American/Italian production, filmed in Germany and Canada), benefits hugely from the studied restraint of cinematographer Romano Albani (who has worked with Argento), and from Morricone, who demonstrates similar restraint, working primarily with several simple themes. Morricone’s touch is so slight that the final half of the film is nearly devoid of soundtrack. These elements, coupled with an interesting (yet still somewhat flawed in execution, and certainly not particularly original) set of themes, and Moriarty’s fine performance, elevate Blood Link, despite a few stumbles, above other “B” psycho-thrillers and Argento knock-offs.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Incredible Ride (1994)

My mother is a dental hygienist, and when I was a kid, every now and then she would bring home weird cartoons about good dental health from the office where she worked. These tapes were mini-movies, where some kid usually learns about why he should brush his teeth three times a day, while gross toothpaste monsters with red sunglasses jam on tooth-brush guitars and fly around. I specifically remember four of these tapes, but alas, only this one survives.

The Incredible Ride begins with a live action segment filmed at a carnival. Various rides-in-motion are cut intro shots of our kids: Dana (Black), Steve (Asian), Tony (Latino) David (WASP) and our clumsy narrator, Sylvia, a nerdy girl with huge glasses. Each kid finds a way to awkwardly smile wide enough so that we can notice their perfect teeth (this is the part where the Dentist pauses the tape and tells the kid, “This is what healthy teeth look like.”). As soon as our characters are established, the story kicks in, as Sylvia notices a giant animated rabbit dentist (“Dr. Rabbit”) sneaking around. The kids aren’t a bit surprised, and run after the rabbit into a weird circus tent. As they enter, each kid turns into a cartoon character, and falls into some weird alternate dental universe, where Dr. Rabbit hangs out. The kids ride for a few seconds on a weird trolley (the “incredible” ride?) The Doc immediately sings a song about himself, and lets the kids chime in when they feel like it. David—in a ridiculous falsetto—contributes this: “I brush once a weeeeeek, is that okaaaaaaay?” About four seconds later, David gets kidnapped by plaque monsters, who appear out of the very fabric of space to nab him behind Dr. Rabbit’s back. No one seems to mind too much, however, and Doc Rabbit breaks out into a wonderful song called “Brush, Brush, Brush” (the chorus is “brush, brush, brush”). They then sing the song a second time.

At this point the tape malfunctioned, and my VCR nearly ate it. So there’s a part about floss and “acid monsters” I missed. When I got the tape working again, Dr. Rabbit had left the kids to their own devices, presumably to check up on some other interesting things, Gandalf-style. Suddenly the kids fall out of cartoon reality and back into the carnival, as an echo-drenched voice-from-nowhere calls out: “Visit a dentist… every yeeeeeeeear!” And David is back, I guess. A teacher shows up, who apparently didn’t worry too much when half her class disappeared for who-knows-how-long. Cue shots of teeth (including the mugs of some kids we haven’t seen before). Sylvia: “And that’s what happened the day we went to the amusement park. Was it real or a dream? Who knows? All I know is that David’s smile has never been so beautiful [ooooh!]. In fact, we all smile a lot more, because our teeth are clean and healthy! Oh, and whatever happened to Dr. Rabbit? We never saw him again [cut to a shot of Doc Rabbit waving goodbye from the weird circus tent], but his words are still very much in our heads [apparently not in their hearts however].” Closing The Incredible Ride is the moving ballad, “Protect Your Teeth.” The chorus: “Protect your teeth, because it’s true.” What? Best line: a kid flatly emoting “Make sure your toothpaste has flouriiiiiiiide.”

Well, I guess this flick was financed by Colgate, but isn’t as much of a commercial as the other tapes I remember, which specifically emphasize the superior quality of Crest’s products and attempt to create brand loyalty with their rockin’ and rollin’ toothpaste mascots. The weirdest tape I remember is about a Giraffe, and features hilariously bad animation, especially when characters have to run or jump. I also remember disgusting shots of hippos with gingivitis. I think the doctor in that one is an Alligator, who might try to eat some of the characters as he educates them about good dental practice. Both this movie and the Crest tapes are relatively long too, running about one half hour, usually with supplemental material (“for parents”). The Incredible Ride clocks in at a trim fifteen minutes, perfect for a waiting room viewing.

It may be unfair to judge the artistic merits of a tape made specifically to encourage kids to brush their teeth, but I’ll try anyway. The animation is actually pretty consistent and interesting, certainly compared to the other tapes I’ve mentioned. The voice-over is terrible, but I guess getting real kids to voice cartoons is always preferable to the kind of overly-emotive voice-acting you hear on Cartoon Network all the time. The songs are pretty lame and inconsequential, but they never last for more than 30 seconds, so they’re pretty painless. Honestly, I have no idea how to rate this. But I’m in a good mood and watching The Incredible Ride made me feel nostalgic. Also, I’m having fun writing this review. Three alternate reality stars.

Visiting Hours (1981)

Visiting Hours opens with simple titles on a neutral blue background, while a piano theme runs on the soundtrack. The melody is simple, but the weight and repetition of the notes recall the sound of an EKG monitor: the neatness of the visuals and the quality of the score appropriately suggest the clinical horror of Visiting Hours, a film which, like Cronenberg or Coma, is concerned with the alienating and intimidating nature of the hospital and of health-care. In fact, the perception of an anti-somatic, body-fearing quality in industrial medicine and treatment (a micro for Capitalism’s macro perhaps) is emphasized repeatedly throughout the film, so often as to risk becoming a theme which feels clumsy and overstated.

Yet Visiting Hours, a horror film first and foremost, does not let the hospital alone be the predator, and that’s where Michael Ironside comes in. Ironside, as I’m sure Samurai Dreams readers know, is a fantastic character actor and a formidable presence in films such as Scanners, Total Recall and The Machinist. Ironside is a gift to this film, exuding heavy menace in every scene. Ironside’s prominence seems to offset the film, for better or worse; the supposed protagonist of the film, TV host Deborah Ballin (Lee Grant), competes with Ironside for dominance throughout.

Ironside is here a loner who decides to murder Ballin, after her commentary affects the outcome of a high-profile murder case in which a woman has killed her abusive husband in self defense. Initially, the audience is provided no details about Ironside’s character, or his motives. Ironside emerges into the film both figuratively and literally from parts unknown, attacking Ballin from behind her shower curtain with a knife, nude and wearing her jewelry. This nightmare image establishes Ironside’s thus-far-unnamed character as an almost supernatural presence, completely relentless and single-minded. Ironside’s assailant is able to critically wound Ballin, but she survives the attack. The remainder of the film concerns his attempts to silence Ballin for good, as he stalks her in her hospital bed.

Yet, an interesting thing happens (and this is why I maintain Ironside competes with Grant for the film’s focus): the film begins to follow Ironside’s character from the hospital back to his apartment; he is allowed to exist outside of the hospital, outside the context of typical slasher anonymity. As the audience follows Ironside’s character’s life “outside,” more is revealed about his life (including, eventually, his name: Colt Hawker), and an interesting dichotomy develops: the anti-somatism Ballin observes in the hospital (macro), and the anti-somatism of the character of Colt (micro). The complexity of Colt’s psyche is slowly revealed, subtly: Ironside understands the importance here of understatement.

Among Colt’s hobbies: writing angry white-supremacist editorials, visiting his ill father in a rest home, and picking up underage girls at greasy spoons to bring back to his apartment. Colt doesn’t rape his victims—he batters and photographs them. Colt’s anti-somatism is so great that his attraction to female flesh must be mediated; he even wears his camera on a belt at crotch level. Colt’s ownership of and mastery over women is achieved not through sex, but through violence and its preservation via his camera. In Colt we find a man of intense hatred, hatred for both himself and others (on this point the feeling of the filmmakers are made explicit: when a young woman Colt has battered asks a nurse if she works at the Free Clinic to “see how the other half lives,” the nurse responds: “There is no Other half.”). Colt’s reasons for hating Ballin are essentially ideological; his obsession with Ballin comes from emotions which run much deeper. Colt’s anti-somatism is so intense as to ensure he values death over life. While this assumption is usually explicit in the mind of most film killers, not often is the assumption given any thematic weight. The micro of Colt, one person struggling to live up to gender stereotypes within a sexist culture, and the macro of a hospital’s beauracratic, mechanized anti-somatism, merge in the film’s final reel, as Colt, wearing scrubs and a lab coat, wields a jack-knife like a syringe over Ballin’s helpless drugged body in her hospital bed.

Despite what Visiting Hours does right, the film is in many ways flawed. Specifically, the film suffers from uneven pacing and underdeveloped supporting characters, including Ballin’s nurse Sheila Munroe (Linda Purl), whom Colt is also obsessed with, and William Shatner (in an atypical even-handed performance) as Ballin’s boss Baylor. Yet while the structure of the film suffers in some ways from the demands of the complex relationship developed between Colt and Ballin, this central element is substance enough to warrant a raw, intelligent, interesting and overlooked film.

While often films of the “body-horror” genre reach the same conclusion about the nature of western cultural assumptions, rarely does the body-horror film provide a counterpoint. In Visiting Hours, the counterpoint is clear: Colt’s ideology of misogyny, hatred and death (engendered, the audience comes to learn, by his own idealized vision of his abusive father)—as apposed to Ballin’s progressive, holistic ideology—is poison. While Visiting Hours is imperfect, its message of acceptance of the flesh triumphing over the fear of the flesh—the dichotomy embodied by Ballin and Colt—is loud and clear.

The Final Terror (1984)

The drive-in horror film usually comes in one of four variants: bizarre experimentations in vague government buildings; ghosts, demons or a slasher in a haunted house or cabin in the woods; a slasher on a college campus; a slasher in the woods. The Final Terror is a woodland slasher, one with a premise so simple and so commonplace that exposition is barely required. Our gang may be campers, or they may be camp counselors killing time before the kids arrive; this is unclear, and this is unimportant. The ripped-off music cues from Friday the 13th should be enough to let any genre fan know exactly what they’re getting into here.

Rachel Ward and Daryl Hannah get their names on the marquee, but there aren’t any main protagonists to speak of here, only about ten underdeveloped campers in their early 20’s, all equally worthy of stepping into a trip-wire rigged to slice necks with a string of tin-can lids. The point is not to know these characters (or even their names), because certain signifiers alert one instantly to whatever one-dimensional stereotype each actor has been instructed by director Andrew Davis to embody (Black, British, yokel, hippie-chick). The only character with a back-story is Eggar (played by a scrawny Joe Pantoliano), our high-strung hillbilly tour guide, who doesn’t tolerate it when the male campers stay up too late reading Playboy and Conan comics, and warns our gang not to go into the “bad” part of the woods (which of course only makes them venture further). Eggar’s been in a psychiatric hospital; and he likes to wear women’s clothing. This appears to be all the evidence the campers, and the audience, need to rightfully identify Eggar as suspect number one once the killing starts.

No doubt due to a limited effects budget, almost nothing happens in the first forty minutes of The Final Terror. That’s a long time to spend watching badly-lit stereotypes smoke weed and tell ghost stories. This is the interesting thing about most drive-in flicks: they aren’t exciting. But, I suppose the culture of the drive-in requires a certain disposability; if the movies were too good, how could audiences slug brews and make fun of the dialogue? How could couples find time to fool around without long boring stretches? It’s almost more rewarding to find yourself disoriented at the drive-in, staring at a mason jar with a severed hand floating in blood, with no frame of reference. The story and characters in drive-in movies are entirely rote; it’s the strange and grisly images genre fans dig.

Yet, when a horror film is nearly two-thirds over and the audience still hasn’t seen the killer, or any interesting kills, even the most ardent genre fans are likely to become impatient. Luckily, at about the one hour mark, things get interesting. Fleeing blindly, the campers push an old raft down the river, about half of them in the raft, and half in the water. The natural lighting in The Final Terror is often frustrating; here it’s perfect. In a film with a tight schedule, you need to save each day’s “golden hour” for exactly the right moments; while this film is plain-lazy in many respects, Davis at least understands this. The desperation of the actors may in fact be real: the water must have been cold, and the ancient raft must have been cumbersome to maneuver. The tension is perfect by the time the unseen slasher hoists a dead body off a cliff and into the boat. After the body is thrown, the audience knows conclusively that Eggar is, in fact, either the “Final Terror” or the man responsible for inspiring it. This scene serves as a reminder that even sleaze can be art (one is reminded of the strange beauty found in the forest-chase scene from I Spit on Your Grave, or the burial in the final scene of Thriller: A Cruel Picture).

Unfortunately, after this strong sequence, the sun goes down, and much of the rest of the film takes place in impenetrable darkness; no atmosphere is created, you just can’t see anything. And I’m pretty sure that it isn’t just the deteriorated print transfer on my VHS (or wear on the tape itself); somebody made an executive decision that lighting simply wasn’t important. Now, the shots described earlier—and one incredibly beautiful washed-out scene later in the film—benefit from this naturalistic approach, this works for The Hills Have Eyes, certainly, but if you want to rip-off Friday the 13th, a more formalistic method is recommended.

The other scene in which natural light benefits The Final Terror (the washed-out scene I mentioned earlier) is the final scene, which was most likely a definite crowd-pleaser for the drive-in audience. Before the final showdown between the remaining campers and Eggar, the hillbilly tracker character “Zorch” climbs up away from the group and starts babbling about the beauty of the forest, and the horrors of Vietnam, in the same breath. When the campers ask what’s up, Zorch’s pal Hines says: “We found some magic mushrooms in the shack… he’s stoned out of his mind.” No doubt some of the kids in darkened drive-in lots across the Midwest could relate.