Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Fiend Without A Face

"The Thought-Monster" [1930]
Written by Amelia Reynonlds Long

Fiend Without A Face [1958]
Written by Herbert J. Leder
Directed by Arthur Crabtree

When legitimate critics deign to examine the gutter genre of science-fiction, they are often interested with the examined text's political undertones. How would Robert Heinlein vote based on Starship Troopers? What does Star Trek's multiculti Federation say about 1960s liberal social optimism? Battlefield Earth---what the fuck? The journey of Fiend Without a Face from page to screen serves as an interesting footnote to such investigations.

Long's short story, originally published in Weird Tales---the greatest of the sci-fi pulps, has do with mysterious deaths in a small town. Thanks to the title, we know that they are being caused by a (get ready for it) THOUGHT MONSTER! The titular beast is an invisible being who is scaring people to death. A psychic investigator comes to town to investigate. He starts getting close, so the scientist who unwittingly unleashed the creature decides to sacrifice himself in destroying it. Trapped in a room with violet lights, the thought monster is destroyed, but not before robbing the poor scientist of his sanity.

So far, nothing special. The story reads like second-rate Lovecraft. By the time a film was made, atomic energy was all the rage. Radiation was waking up dinosaurs (The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, Godzilla), enlarging invertebrates (Them!, Tarantula), and luring spacemen to our planet (The Day the Earth Stood Still, Plan Nine From Outer Space). Oddly enough, there's an odd sort of ambivalence that runs through many of these pictures. When blame is placed, it's usually on the scientist...and most of the time it was an accident. The problem isn't atomic power, we just need to be more careful with how we use it next time. Coming towards the end of the 50s radioactive monsters cycle, Fiend Without a Face reads almost as an apologia for nuclear power.

We again have the scientist and his attempts to make thoughts flesh. He begins siphoning energy from the local radar station (built in Canada to spy on the Russkies). The atomic kick proves enough to solidify his thoughts, but they become "evil" (his stated scientific opinion) and start murdering townsfolk (by sucking out their brains and spinal cord through two holes in the back of the head...neat!). The "superstitious" (the film's description of them) locals think that fallout or something to do with radiation is causing the rash of mysterious deaths. And maybe it's also affecting the cows and their milk production. No, no, the US Army assures the local Canuck bumpkins, it's nothing atomic, you uneducated fools. You would have to be superstitious to think anything bad could come from the atom! (Well, the atom in freedom-loving American hands, at any rate. Not to sure about those atheist Commies though....)

This drags on for about fifty or so minutes. There's a love interest and a great sucking noise whenever one of the invisible monsters is about to attack. Finally, the fiends take over the power station and overload the system, making them visible. And they're BRAINS! Brains that creep along using their spinal cords as tails. The hero Army Joe has the brilliant plan to BLOW UP the reactor as a means of stopping the monsters. (Apparently blowing up a nuclear power plant wouldn't cause some sort of nuclear disaster...whew...someone tell Homeland Security not to worry about that one.) The plant is blown and the monsters melt into goop and the Army Joe gets to kiss the girl while everyone looks at him and knows he's totally gunna get some hot Canadian poon. The End.

You really need to see Fiend Without a Face. The final attack of the stop-motion brains is jaw-dropping. Our heroes shoot them, causing them to rupture and gurgle out something the consistency of Smuckers jam. And there's an absolutely revolting noise that accompanies said gurgling that is too wonderful for words. And this is all part of The Criterion Collection, the people who restore and present definitive editions of Kurosawa, Bergman, and other respectable directors! It's Psychotronic Heaven---rent this now!

Saturday, April 14, 2007

They Live

"Eight O'Clock In The Morning" [1963]
Written by Ray Faraday Nelson

They Live [1988]
Written and Directed by John Carpenter

The modern (North) American horror film, whose origins lie within the socio-political upheaval of the 1960s, has frequently been used as a venue for debating social concerns. George Romero's Dead quartet is the most obvious in its critique of American society (consider the mall zombies of Dawn of the Dead). David Cronenberg's early work is a pulsating examination of the breakdown of the family unit, particularly in 1979's The Brood. Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre may be seen as a Swiftian take on the generation gap: the younger generation is literally being eaten by its forebearers. Although no less politically inclined than his peers, John Carpenter would take longer to make a cinematic statement. The result was 1988's They Live and it was worth the wait.

The premise of both Nelson's original short story and the film is that aliens (called the Fascinators in the story, unnamed in the film) have taken over the world by lulling humanity to sleep. They use subliminal orders in the mass media to keep us numb while they harvest us like cattle. Nelson's story is a masterwork of economy. The edition I read was only five pages long, but had enough ideas and interest for a much larger work. A man named Nada is accidentally "awakened" by a hypnotist and sees the invaders for who they really are. He is given the order to die (on the titular eight o'clock in the morning) and must do anything he can to awake the rest of humanity before he is either captured or dies at eight.

Carpenter removes the death at eight and makes the aliens visible though sunglasses. He compares the alien's plans to a twisted version of big 80s capitalism: the aliens are merely exploiting the savages of their local third world. The galaxy is, after, all just an infinite free market. For a fun poke in the eye, one of the first things Nada sees is an alien on TV (possibly the President of the United States) quoting Regan's "morning in America" maxim. Carpenter also adds a significant group of human collaborators to the mix. Not every evil yuppie is a Fascinator; some are just assholes who've decided to sell out their own species for a life of privilege.

Nada is not alone in Carpenter's film. There is already a resistance movement by the time Nada is awakened (they created the sunglasses). The shootouts between the resistance and the Fascinator-led police provide the requisite 80s action sequences. Of course, this is a satire, and as such even action is up for parody. The fact that Nada is played by professional wrestler "Rowdy" Roddy Piper (giving a fun and believable performance) constantly reminds us of the artifice of the whole construction. (Yes, that's right, I just said that the star of Wrestlemania III contributes to an overall Verfremdungseffekt in a late-80s sci-fi movie. Deal with it.) The film contains a jaw-dropping fight between and Nada and Frank (Keith David---earlier of Carpenter's The Thing) that drags on for a comedic five plus minutes.

While They Live was a seminal 80s release for those growing up at the time (such as your humble blogger here), the film has lapsed into a state of semi-obscurity. No longer do we hear cineastes quote Piper's immortal line: "I have come here to kick ass and chew bubble gum. And I'm all out of bubble gum." In fact, for those who don't remember the 80s, the film is best known because the Nada and Frank fight was restaged line for line and shot for shot by Timmy and Jimmy in the "Cripple Fight" episode of South Park.

If you haven't seen They Live, you should. It's fun, funny, and no less dead on almost a decade later. In fact, the idea that the Fascinators are disrupting the environment (a throwaway line in the film) cuts deeper now than at the time of the film's initial release. Ultimately, you get a liberal message movie hidden beneath the facade of a macho 80s action pic. How can you go wrong? I mean, if you haven't watched a professional wrestler take on the defleshed zomboid aliens responsible for global warming, don't you think now's a good time? If not for yourself, for future generations....

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Bird With The Crystal Plumage

The Screaming Mimi [1949]
Written by Fredric Brown

The Bird With The Crystal Plumage [1970]
Written and Directed by Dario Argento

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is an excellent example of a film adaptation that strays from its source text, but does so to the point of becoming its own autonomous work of art. The film stands so well on its own that many have completely disregarded the book. In all of the work on Argento that I've read, there is little to no comparison of novel and film---usually just an aside noting that Bernardo Bertolucci gave Argento a copy of the book and that Dario wrote his script shortly after finishing it. Such oversight is unfortunate, because, as loose an adaptation as the film is, elements of the books pop up in the film in interesting ways.

The plots of both works center on a man who witnesses an attempted murder. In Mimi, alcoholic newspaperman Sweeney only catches the aftermath: a bloodied (and quickly denuded) exotic dancer being guarded by her faithful dog Devil. In Bird, writer Sam is caught in the glass doors of an art gallery and witness a woman being attacked by a black trench coat-wearing assailant (the standard villain of the giallo). In both cases, the protagonist is unable to lend any kind of support to the victim.

The men's motives for investigating the attacks differ. Sweeney wants to catch the Chicago ripper so he can get closer to (read: bed) dancer Yolanda Lang. Sam is initially considered a suspect by the Italian police, but is soon removed from suspicion. Something about the attack lingers in his mind, demanding he solve the crime before returning to America.

Both works revolve around an esoteric clue referenced in the title. In his investigation, Sweeney comes across a terrifying statue of a screaming nude woman which is dubbed Screaming Mimi. He believes that it served as the trigger for the ripper on at least one occasion. Argento keeps the "activation through art" motif (so much so, in fact, that aesthetics and bloodshed have become completely entangled throughout his oeuvre), this time in the form of a rather macabre landscape painting. In both book and film, the hero journeys to meet the artist, who turns out to be somewhat crazy himself (but not ripper material). The bird of Crystal Plumage, despite its mineral name, is an actual animal who's location serves as the final clue to the killer's lair (sort of).

Sweeny is a significantly less put-together character than Sam. Our newspaperman is just coming off of a two-week drunk when he gets a flash of bloody Yolanda. He drinks throughout the story just to stave off the shakes. Sam, on the other hand, is getting ready to leave Italy with his Italian girlfriend. He does a great job in his sleuthing, especially considering he's an amateur and that at one point he's almost decapitated.

Both works even share the same twist ending. The motives are slightly different, Argento's not surprisingly being the more nonsensical of the two, but arrive at the same conclusion.

Checking out The Screaming Mimi provides a new frame of reference for analyzing The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. I think this angle has been ignored in Argento scholarship (upon writing that, I could hear a thousand critics snort with disdain at the phrase) mostly due to the relative obscurity of the novel. Thankfully, the book is in print again and readily available for order. The committed Argentophile will want to check it out to see what originally got Dario's fevered directorial imagination going. Fans of the pulp detective novel should get a kick out of the book's strange characters and punchy, often self-referential, prose. Mimi is by no means a classic, but it's a really fun read. Residents of Chicago will dig the literally street-by-street descriptions of their city pre-1950.

Newcomers to Dario Argento, or the giallo genre in general, will find as easy a point as any in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. As his career progresses, Argento becomes less and less interested in the basic structure of narrative, which tends to confuse and sometimes irritate the novice. While Bird's not bad, my favorites by the maestro are Suspiria (his acknowledged masterpiece) and Opera. Watch either one and see just how absolutely beautiful the splatter film can be.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Die Hard

Nothing Lasts Forever [1979]
Written by Roderick Thorp

Die Hard [1988]
Written by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza
Directed by John McTiernan

Reading Roderick Thorp's Nothing Lasts Forever really demonstrates how likable the characters in Die Hard are. First, you have Bruce Willis as John McClane. He can be a smartass, but he really cares for his wife and kids. That outer shell of sarcasm (and later blood and soot) cover a surprisingly loving guy. Bonny Bedelia's Holly McClane is equally tough as nails and equally vulnerable. Even the villains are charismatic. On paper, Alan Rickman's Hans Gruber is one of the coldest, most calculating baddies of 80s action cinema. He is calmly orchestrating the murder of a good score of people so that he can pull off the heist of the century. But he's so damn suave. And he's not prone to any sort of delusions; he may play the freedom fighter for the cameras, but he really couldn't give a toss about the Asian Dawn Movement. He wants his detonators so he can get the six million dollars worth of verabonds in the vault.

Nobody in Thorp's novel is so involving. The protagonist is Joseph Leland, perhaps the crankiest ex-cop in history. Imagine Andy Rooney at his least pleasant, then toss in a healthy dash of intergenerational friction and you'd be getting closer. Season with a good dose of hypocritical self-pity and a dash of self-piety and you've got our "hero." Ol' Leland is part of the Greatest Generation, and damn it if these young kids with their computers and their drugs and their mass media haven't begun to destroy society. Things just aren't like they were! Sure, he was an alcoholic, but his daughter Stephanie (and by extension everyone under forty) keeps fucking things up so much they make him look like a saint.

And let's not get started with these terrorists. They're all one-dimensional caricatures of Eurotrash scum, middle class kids who want to play liberator to mask they're innate bloodlust. Though they play at extreme leftist politics (a galling game at that!), they don't really have a cause. They're just bored and European...and thus decide to kill capitalist industrialists. Of course those guys are jerks, too. Instead of the Nakatomi Corporation we have the Klaxxon Oil Company, which has just brokered a deal with the oppressive government of Chile. So when Gruber whacks Rivers (the Takagi surrogate), you really can't feel all that bad. It's like if someone killed the head of Haliburton. No love lost.

Much of this reactionary claptrap could be ignored if the story had any sort of momentum. One of the reasons that the film still holds up is because it's exciting. The novel's narrative is extremely patchy. Each action sequence is followed by Leland's self-serving ramblings about his broken marriages and what a fuck-up Stephanie is and how he was an alcoholic and blah, blah, blah. For someone fighting for his life, Leland devotes a lot of time and energy to extraneous bitching, none of which makes getting through this short book any more enjoyable.

Thorp has no problem with throwing people he doesn't like to the lions. Both Stephanie (the Holly McClane character) and Deputy Police Chief Dwayne Robinson are given fairly ignominious deaths. But that's OK, 'cause neither character was as wonderful a person as Leleand. I mean, sure, he was an alcoholic and he has a terrible marriage track record and he didn't really do a great job of raising his daughter, etc. (We were reminded of all these facts about fifty times throughout the narrative at seemingly regular intervals.) But everyone else is part of these newfangled times and thus are essentially interchangeably corrupt and expendable. But thinking that other people are expendable is part of this crazy modern philosophy that's turning the world into a giant Los Angeles (the horror!).

There's a major difference between a flawed protagonist and an asshole. John McClane is the former, Joe Leland is the latter. I simply can't recommend Nothing Lasts Forever. If I weren't reading it for this blog, I would have chucked the poorly written little time-waster after about the first fifty pages (and that's being generous). Stick with the movie. Whenever I see Bruce Willis in schlock like Breakfast of Champions (the worst film ever made) or Grindhouse (a blasphemy unto the hallowed name of trash cinema), I like to re-watch Die Hard and remind myself that he can be a good actor if given a decent part.

However, I gotta admit that my colon clenches at the thought of this summer's Live Free or Die Hard. So much for nothing lasting forever, eh?

Friday, April 6, 2007

The Thing

"Who Goes There?" [1938]
Written by John W. Campbell, Jr.

The Thing [1982]
Written by Bill Lancaster
Directed by John Carpenter

If I've learned anything from The Thing, it's that being a scientist totally kicks ass! You get to hang out in the Antarctic with dogs and helicopters. You get a private arsenal of guns and flamethrowers. You get a pinball machine and computer chess. You get lots of booze and some weed. And you get to rock out to old-school Stevie Wonder ("Superstitious" to be exact). The only problem is that you could become infected by a malevolent amorphous extraterrestrial. And then Kurt Russell would have to set you on fire. (Which, as deaths go, would still be one of the top 10 most awesome ways to check out.)

Upon its initial release, The Thing met with considerable critical derision and audience disgust. Bob Bottin's literally eye-popping SFX work was just too much for early 80s audiences to digest (pun intended). Many critics grumbled that Carpenter had merely remade a classic, 1951's The Thing From Another World, and diluted it with gore and slime. Eventually, The Thing would find a second life on home video; it is now recognized as a modern classic of science fiction/horror and a benchmark in the history of special effects. However, it is still not uncommon to see the film referred to simply as a remake, a notion which will serve as the focus of this post.

Both The Thing From Another World and The Thing are based on John W. Campbell, Jr.'s short story "Who Goes There?". The first film is derived from the first half of the story, the latter from the second half. The notion that the Antarctic scientists discover the Thing's ship and bring the alien into their camp is used in the 1951 adaptation; in Carpenter's Thing the xenomorph uses the body of a husky to infiltrate the camp. But the 1951 monster is no shape-shifter. It's actually an intelligent space vegetable which vaguely resembles Karloff's Frankenstein's monster (and is played by a pre-Gunsmoke James Arness). Campbell's constantly mutating alien is reintroduced in the '82 Thing, and along with it comes a wave of paranoia unthinkable when trying to fry a killer space carrot.

Anyone could be the Thing. It could be Kurt Russell. It could be the black guy who does the voice-over work for US Navy commercials. It could be the farmer from Babe, the guy who married the mom in Six Feet Under. It could be Wilford Brimley. (Yes, the Quaker Oats guy.) And there's no way to know who's a monster until they explode into a slimy, writhing mass of tentacles and teeth. Campbell's Thing-infected scientists transform, but the author never dwells over their metamorphoses. Carpenter on the other hand gives us every gory detail.

The major discrepancy between short story and movie is the ending. Campbell finishes his tale with an improbably happy finale. He sets up the possibility for some ambiguity (and thus some lasting dramatic tension), and then off-handedly dismisses it with a sentence. Don't worry, all that messy "Thing" nonsense has been completely tidied up. Oh, and we might have just discovered the secret to unlimited energy and anti-gravity. Carpenter's ending is much darker. I won't spoil it here; just don't expect a tidy, rosy conclusion (not that you would based on the preceding hour and a half).

If you've got the stomach for it, you really need to see The Thing. It's a masterpiece, a rare film which deftly balances extreme gore with genuine creeping terror. For a fun follow-up, check out the song "The Thing" by the group Engorged (www.myspace.com/engorged) on their seminal Where Monsters Dwell album. It's a five minute deaththrash summary of the plot complete with samples from both Thing films.

And remember....KEEP WATCHING THE SKIES!!!