Friday, February 29, 2008

The Man Who Fell To Earth

The Man Who Fell To Earth [1963]
Written by Walter Tevis

The Man Who Fell To Earth [1976]
Written by Paul Mayersberg
Directed by Nicolas Roeg

Here's a typical conversational exchange when two David Bowie fans meet:

Fan 1: "Have you seen The Man Who Fell To Earth?"
Fan 2: "Of course." or, alternately, "Yeah, a while ago."
Fan 1: "Did you 'get' it?"
Fan 2: "No, not really. But I got to see where the covers to Station To Station and Low came from. And I got to see Bowie's penis."
Fan 1: "Pretty much."

Every Bowie-phile worth his or her salt has to slog through The Man Who Fell To Earth. It's a rite of passage; it proves your love for the man and his art (and, yes, you consider what the man does to be art) is deeper than just shouting out "Wham, bam, thank ya ma'am!" when you hear "Suffragette City" on the radio. Oh, no. You're in this for the long haul. Your Bowie albums are the OOP Rykodisc remasters with the bonus tracks. Your favorite songs are deep cuts from the Berlin period trilogy. You roll your eyes when someone mentions "Modern Love." You are, let's face it, a total Bowie nerd.

Of course, the only reason that I know all this nonsense is because it describes me personally and many people with whom I am a friend or acquaintance. Long ago I rented The Man Who Fell To Earth and suffered through it. I was totally put off and decided to write the whole thing off as a case of self-indulgent 70s movie making best appreciated by film students who could wank off to all the "avant" auteur flourishes gumming up the narrative works. Then I found out it was based on a book. And then it became a part of the Criterion Collection. I'm not necessarily beholden to Criterion's definition of the canon (remember, these guys released a special edition of Armageddon), but when a movie gets a CC spine number, I generally try to give it the benefit of the doubt. And, besides, I was just a high school junior when I first saw the movie. Maybe my more experienced and refined cinematic palette (which has since grown to acquire a taste for several self-indulgent 70s auteurs) would be more amenable to the film. And I wanted to see David Bowie's penis. But before I could dig the Thin White Duke's walking stick, I had to read the book that first introduced Thomas Jerome Newton, the extraterrestrial Icarus.

Walter Tevis's The Man Who Fell To Earth is a novel about sadness. Newton has traveled to Earth as part of a last-ditch effort to save the surviving members of his race. He will patent his native Anthean technology in order to build a business empire, which will, in turn, finance a mini-space program designed to transport his people from their dying planet. Newton is Anthea's last hope, a burden of which he is acutely aware. He is stranded on a beautiful but strange planet amongst creatures who constantly straddle the line between civilization and barbarism. If he is exposed, he will likely be killed, at the very least prohibited from completing his mission. Things are a bit bleak.

It gives nothing away to say that things don't get better. As Newton's plan progresses, he becomes more and more disillusioned. By the time he is found out, Newton is so mired in doubt that capture almost serves to put him at ease.

Throughout the narrative, Tevis soft-pedals the science-fiction elements. Much like Heinlein in Stranger in a Strange Land or Dick in The Divine Invasion, Tevis uses the extreme metaphors afforded in sci-fi to get at a very real and human condition. Newton himself makes the point to Dr. Nathan Bryce, a research scientist and the closest thing the alien has to a friend, that it's not necessary to be a spaceman to be alone.

In contrast, Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell To Earth is a film about corruption. Newton is an intergalactic innocent, perverted by Earth's savage ways. This second sort of "fall" (that is, one from grace) is visually evidenced by three repeated symbols: TV, alcohol, and sex. As Newton becomes more acclimated to Earth, and more successful, he watches more and more television. He also starts to hit the bottle, seduced into doing so by the sensuous (and frequently naked) harpy Mary-Lou. It's a standard Kulturkritik, and it might even have been a trifle effective were it not for the shrill tone with which it is broadcast.

How over-the-top is The Man Who Fell To Earth? It has a dramatic, slow-motion scene where David Bowie knocks a tray of cookies out of Mary-Lou's hand. Not enough for ya? How about a scene where Mary-Lou pisses herself when she finds out Newton's true identity? (Sidenote: Has dramatic urination ever been used well in a feature film? Every instance I've seen has been unintentionally comical at best.) Or how about how the character of Bryce has been changed into a total poonhound with a bad habit of banging his students? What about the ludicrous death of Newton's lawyer and his lover through defenestration? (Maybe it was supposed to be part of a "falling" thematic. Whatever it is, it doesn't work.) And let's not start on the Anthean love scenes; apparently physical intimacy on Anthea occurs by jumping up in the air and having marshmallow jizim sprayed all over you---like a Cirque de Soleil version of the final cumshot in Behind the Green Door. Behind this ridiculousness pounds an overbearing soundtrack which alternates from twangy country music to Holst's Mars - Bringer of War to harp music to what have you.

On the positive side of things, David Bowie was born to play the title role in this film. Rock star actors get a lot flack, think Sting in Dune, but Bowie is the exception that proves the rule. Plus, you get to see his penis.

As I explained above, if you're a Bowie fan, you're inevitably going to watch this movie. If you don't know Ziggy Stardust from the Thin White Duke, and if you only know the Criterion Collection from your Beastie Boys' DVD set, you can save yourself 2.5 hours and skip it. But if you have the chance to pick up the book, please do so. Don't let the pretentious film version or the science-fiction trappings scare you off. Alienation is universal, and Tevis's novel is a simple and beautiful evocation of this sad reality.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Island Of Lost Souls

The Island of Dr. Moreau [1896]
Written by H. G. Wells

Island of Lost Souls [1932]
Written by Philip Wylie and Waldemar Young
Directed by Erle C. Kenton

"The Island of Dr. Moreau is an exercise in youthful blasphemy. Now and then, though I rarely admit it, the universe projects itself towards me in a hideous grimace. It grimaced that time, and I did my best to express my vision of the aimless torture in creation." - H. G. Wells

The setup for The Island of Dr. Moreau has become a part of our cultural currency: a mad doctor performs horrific experiments on animals in order to reshape them as humans. The tale has grown in status in the age of genetic modification. In fact, in light of recent advances in technology, some of Moreau's early experiments don't seem too far beyond the pale. What is lost in the shuffle though is how exactly Moreau performs his work---he is a vivisectionist. Dr. Moreau combines creatures the old-fashioned way: he cuts them open (alive and without anesthesia) and excises the bad tissue and sutures in the new tissue (species match be damned). Wells never wallows in gore, but, like a Hitchcock murder, the reader gets enough information to, pardon the pun, put the pieces together. Moreau's assistant, Montgomery, tells the narrator, Prendick, how Moreau's work in London was exposed after a flayed dog escaped the doctor's laboratory and tore skinless through the city. That image alone disgusts me more than the ample flying viscera in the countless splatterpunk books I've read.

The above quote from Wells comes from his introduction to a collection of his early science-fiction novels (The Time Machine, Moreau, The War of the Worlds, The First Men in the Moon, The Food of the Gods). Within the same essay, Wells acknowledges the influence of Jonathan Swift on his work. Upon closer inspection, once you've made it past the rank smells of animal-men and spilt blood, The Island of Dr. Moreau is revealed as a Swiftian satire along the lines of "A Modest Proposal." Wells was an atheist; Moreau is a nasty display on the use of religion as societal control. In the novel, Moreau and Montgomery keep order amongst the beast people with The Law. The Law governs the conduct of the beast people in all facets of their lives. The Law prohibits the eating of certain foods (flesh and fish). The Law requires absolute monogamy. The Law prohibits killing. And those who break The Law will be punished! Sound familiar? Like it maybe came for the Torah, Bible, or Koran perhaps? Even better, when Moreau dies, Prendick and Montgomery tell the beast people that he (Moreau) left his earthly body behind and had gone into the sky to watch over the beast people eternally. Subtle, I know....

The first film adaptation of Moreau, Island of Lost Souls, shies away from the religious satire (though Moreau opines at one point that he now knows how a God feels), but replaces it with more outright kinkiness. In the novel, Moreau had created creatures both man and woman; in the film, he has only recently created the irresistible Panther Woman...and he needs a hot young stud to take his handiwork out for a test drive. The Prendick analogue, here called Edward Parker, seems like a perfect male specimen for the interspecies hijinks, but he's engaged and won't cheat on his sweetheart with some hot feline jungle bimbo. (This is quickly becoming a Joe Bob Briggs-styled review: "We've got beast man-fu, whip-fu, and even some hot feline jungle bimbo-fu." ) Of course, Parker's girl ends up on the island just in time for the whole place to go apeshit, literally. The animal men revolt and drag the evil ole' Moreau into the surgical theater, aptly known as the House of Pain, for some poetic justice. The engaged couple and Montgomery flee as the island burns.

Although not that faithful an adaptation, Island of Lost Souls holds up today as an above-average pre-Code Hollywood horror flick. The makeup is good for the time; worthy of particular praise is the work done to create the beast man M'ling. The glimpses we get of Moreau's demise are chilling without being over the top grotesque. And Bela Lugosi is priceless in full furface getup as the Sayer of the Law. You might not recognize his face, but that cat's accent jumps right out with every line he gets (and, considering his character, he gets some great lines).

Definitely read the book; check out the movie if you can find it (it's not on DVD just yet, but the VHS seems to be readily available). Both movie and book seem to be key influences on two American New Wave bands. Devo took the repeated chant "Are we not men?" from the Sayer of the Law's liturgy. Oingo Boingo wrote an entire song about the novel: "No Spill Blood" on the album Good For Your Soul. Got that, ya Hot Topic shoppin' little babybats? Danny Elfman thinks it's cool. So put down your Johnen Vasquez comics and read a muthafuckin' book!

Monday, January 7, 2008


Slugs [1982]
Written by Shaun Hutson

Slugs [1988]
Written by Ron Gantman
Directed by Juan Piquer Simón

Well, I'm back, and I'm ringing in the new year with Slugs. Yup, Slugs, "a novel of mind-shattering horror" (at least according to the paperback cover). Apparently, through the magically abhorrent wonder of evolution (alternately, through the sadistic machinations of delayed intelligent design), some of the black slugs of Merton, England have grown to eight inch lengths...and they're hungry for flesh! Using the town's sewers as a spawning ground, the slugs begin making raids on the human population. Town Health Inspector Mike Brady is the lucky schmuck who pieces the whole nightmare together and who must somehow combat the slithering menace before either the black beasties eat everyone or their mucoid secretions saturate the town's water supply, poisoning everyone. Luckily, he is aided by Merton's young museum curator (and Iron Maiden fan) John Foley, who comes up with an "it's so crazy it just might work" plan just as things look to be at their worst. I won't ruin it, but suffice it is to say that said plan involves a highly explosive chemical compound and a descent into the slugs' lair.

I wouldn't go so far as to call any of it mind shattering, but Slugs is actually a pretty good little chiller. The descriptions of death by slug ingestion are plentiful and convincingly gruesome. You would be surprised how easy it is for hundreds of eight-inch black slugs to sneak up and surround a person. The final slug hunt through the sewers is a tense bit of writing. In this naturally slimy environment, the slugs are able to amass enough speed to actually chase our heroes! The image of thousands of slugs hurtling through the shit-smeared pipes like a massive, throbbing carnivorous embolus is bloody fantastic.

The same cannot be said for the film version, which is something of a disappointment for two major reasons. First, the film was directed by Juan Piquer Simón, who is also responsible for the splatterific slasher Pieces (watch for a special edition DVD from Grindhouse sometime in the next decade...hopefully). The man knows gore and has no qualms about applying it nice and thick. Sadly, Slugs (subtitled "The Movie" during the opening credits, which makes me think of Spaceballs) isn't nearly gross enough. Sure, you get a couple of decent slug attacks, particularly the scene at the dinner table, but not enough to push us into Street Trash/Re-Animator/Bad Taste territory. Oh, and I can tell the difference between a living carpet of flesh-eating black slugs and a garbage bag. I mean, I love watching naked women scream and writhe in fake blood (don't get me wrong here), but, dude, seriously, you're not fooling anyone---that's a garbage bag she's screaming and writhing on. I mean, on which she is screaming and writhing.

Also of note is the score. Some of it sounded like the music from Airplane. Nothing kills the intensity of a thrilling moment like thoughts of the oeuvre of Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker.

The second disappointment comes from the sheer badness of the script. For reasons beyond my comprehension, scriptwriter Gantman decided to make every character both stupid and a jerk. In the original novel, Mike Brady was a pretty likable guy. Even at his most stressed out and pissed off, he kept his cool (very British of him I guess, stiff upper lip and all that rot). In the movie, which takes place in the US and A, Brady's kind of a dick. After awhile, I started rooting for the garbage, I mean the slugs. Anthropophagus as they may be, at least they weren't rude....

All told, I might have given the film a pass had I not read the book. It's not terrible; it just suffers from severe wasted potential. If you get the chance to read the book or see the movie (or do both), I would recommend it, previous caveats notwithstanding. Iron Maiden fans in particular will get a kick out of the novel. Author Shaun Hutson obviously loves the band; according to his website, he's been onstage with them thirteen times. In Slugs, an old woman lives on 22 Acacia Avenue (alas, she's not Charlotte the Harlot). Later, a doomed couple listens to The Number of the Beast album (yes, they listen to the LP) before being devoured by the killer garbage bag.

Actually, if you haven't listened to Maiden's Number of the Beast, you need to do that now. Set down whatever you're doing and fucking listen to that album. It's one of the greatest records ever. EVER! Listen now and let him who hath understanding reckon the number of the beast, for it is a human's number is six hundred and sixty-six....

The Number of the Beast!
The one for you and me!