More Than Meets The Mogwai

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Nothin' But the Dead and Dying Back in My Little Town: DEAD & BURIED (Gary Sherman, 1981)

Unsettling, effective, and ultimately one of the more fatalistic horror films of the early 1980s, Gary Sherman’s DEAD & BURIED has a neatly encapsulated premise: a small coastal town overrun by members of the unknowing undead, forced not to munch on the brains of the living, but to prey upon any trespassers, disfiguring and burning the victims beyond repair in order for the town’s mortician (Jack Albertson, in his last role) to artfully reconstruct them. The opening’s startling revelation alone – a nature photographer thanks his lucky stars when an attractive blonde (Lisa Blount) quite willingly poses nude for his camera, before the rest of her unruly mob tie him to a stump, place steel-mesh over his face, and immolate him – sets up the central quandary almost too well. What the hell are we dealing with here? Who are these psychopaths who reside in this comfy little town of Potters Bluff? And, why is the lady who lit the match almost joyously -- completing the ungodly deed -- so unemotional yet pleasant while serving coffee in a local diner in the very next scene?

Steely-eyed Sheriff Dan Gillis (James Farentino) investigates further after more dead bodies turn up -- on the case as our official “unraveler”. Suspecting and questioning his wife’s involvement after finding a Witchcraft book in their home, he trails her to her classroom, where he witnesses an animated lecture on the principles and practices of black magic. It seems no one in the town is completely sane, and with no allies, but some supernatural proof in the form of particles of living-undead flesh scraped off of his front grill after a hit-and-run and word that the scene-stealing Dobbs (Albertson) was booted from the last town he worked in, Gillis confronts the big-band loving artiste-cum-mortician, and gets an answer he’s probably not looking for.
Lisa Blount returns the gaze.

Screenwriter (well, really, script doctor in this case) Dan O’Bannon’s careful to elaborate on the featurette accompanying disc two of Blue Underground’s release of DEAD & BURIED that he was very conscientious to not step on George Romero’s toes in terms of handling the revivified corpses, insisting he would never partake in blatant thievery because of the artistic aims of Romero’s work (jocularly adding that he wouldn’t care if he was paid to rip off more unabashedly capitalistic fare, like a Chuck Norris film). His approach must have worked, because I never once thought of the pasty-blue zombie cretins of Romero’s then-recent DAWN OF THE DEAD, what with the painstakingly maintained bodies that Dobbs labours over (every two weeks, he says in the film, which leads one to play devil’s advocate for a hypothetical sequel: what would happen should the elderly Albertson pass away, leaving a seaside town full of cheerful, decomposing half-living “things”).

In the doc, O’Bannon professes a genuine love for thrilling suspense sequences that don’t involve gratuitous gore, and one needs only to think back to the deserted house permeating with shadows in DEAD & BURIED, or the careless hitchhiker who grabs a ride from a rowdy resident of Potters Bluff to bear out how truthful this is (the eye-stabbing actions of the nurse notwithstanding, probably left over from the original draft by Jeff Millar and Alex Stern). There’s also a curious pessimistic side to everything: the situation goes from bad to worse, as Gillis feels alienated from his townspeople before the final zinger reveals he may already be in line with them. It’s a tragic denouement, one which is relished over with maniacal delight by Albertson, truly his last hurrah as he was to pass away shortly after ADRing his lines.
Sherman’s direction is workmanlike, as it was possibly messed with by Avco-Embassy (he speaks of a few tracking shots vetoed and broken-up by the higher-ups on his audio commentary), and the comedy that was apparently so prevalent in the script has been stripped to all but a very few instances. (But all that remains makes a loopy kind of sense if one were to think back over the last ninety minutes: the townspeople appear to be dopey and lethargic as the undead would perhaps behave, due to being pawns with limited brainpower, proffering bone-headed answers and reactions to the simplest requests or exchanges.)

The finale is highlighted by several projection screens showing some crucial black-and-white footage that clears up everyone's relation to one another in Potters Bluff; the immediacy of this hand-held footage gives off only glances as Albertson’s at his altar, but its startlingly effectual, much like the rest of DEAD & BURIED: where the unexpected meets the expected, and the dead have no choice but to be playthings for a maniac, for everyone in the town must go through the same rituals, and for Farentino, the end has already been written.

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Thursday, October 23, 2008

HOUSE OF no FRANKENSTEIN (Erle C. Kenton, 1944)

In Universal’s 1944 all-star monster mash-up, Doctor Gustav Niemann (Boris Karloff) is one loony, escaped convict prone to colossal procrastination.

With hunchbacked accomplice in tow, played with abject desperation and reservation by J. Carrol Naish, Niemann promises both his unruly cohort and the thawed-out body of the Wolf Man (Lawrence Talbot in his human form, once again portrayed by Lon Chaney, Jr.) that he’ll be more than happy to operate and play God, switching out their brains and swapping bodies, curing the former of his hideousness and the latter with his small problem of turning into a bloodthirsty beast when the moon is full (the details of exactly how he plans on doing so are never actually dispersed). Niemann only asks that this gruesome twosome continue to do his bidding for him, escorting their (stolen) wagon that brazenly advertises the skeletal remains of Dracula (John Carradine) each evening, allowing Niemann to enact revenge on those that locked him away, while spending the rest of his time unlocking Dr. Frankenstein’s scientific key for providing life into the limp carcass of the Frankenstein monster (Glenn Strange).

One can only assume that Karloff’s calendar is close to, if not already, full -- as endless as his bag of excuses for both his hunchbacked co-escapee and his newfound lycanthropic pal.

While famous for the fact that no actual relatives of the Frankenstein clan turn up as characters (though Niemann’s positively obsessed by the family’s legendary exploits), the sheer volume of Universal Monsters on display is staggering, despite a cheat of an all-too-brief appearance by Dracula; quickly dispersed in favor of chugging along with its rollicking plot, the bloodsucker is given the short shrift in the way of an early demise, poked through the heart and left to desiccate after falling into a ravine before the half-hour mark.

What’s always struck me about HOUSE is its sensitive embodiment in its Igor characterization, here christened with the much more charitable name of Daniel. Much more than your standardized second-in-command goon, Naish is a wellspring of hurt and melancholia, specifically in his pining for Illonka (Elena Verdugo), the stray gypsy he saves from an abusive member of her former caravan. She accepts him for his physical shortcomings at first, but only until the more traditionally attractive (and recently defrosted) Larry Talbot joins their cause.

Karloff’s Karloff, professionally game and ominous with a fringe of shock-white hair fitting for his insane escapee; one can see him wince only briefly in his final bow-out, as he’s submerged in quicksand by the revived monster while torches carried by the ubiquitous mob burn brightly in the background, as they mill about the dilapidated remains of Casa de la Frankenstein.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008


Ushering in the ‘Suedehead’ subculture in the UK shortly after Mods became out-of-date in the early 1970s, Bronco Bullfrog is the consummate depiction of that lifestyle, in a curious case of art influencing life. With strong working-class accents and dalliances into lives of crime, Bronco’s young men and women are stiff, noble souls attempting to carve out their own niche against oppressive parents and authoritative forces. They’re modern-day western outlaws with a better sense of style and carefully maintained haircuts.

Del Quant (Del Walker) is a 17-years-old welder’s apprentice and small-time criminal disillusioned with the way his life’s turned out so far. Amongst his mates is legendary figure Bronco Bullfrog (Sam Shepherd), a fugitive that lends a hand to Del when his chips are down. When Del’s dad wins a competition that includes a bicycle, a channel of freedom is opened up. He soon meets likeminded soul Irene (Anne Gooding), and the two are soon inseparable, much to the chagrin of Irene’s parents, which includes a dad currently behind bars. The two rob a railway car (those traces of outlaws once again), and run away together, as parental forces attempt to locate them.

Although familiar with film from being an apprentice editor on pictures made by Stanley Kubrick and John Schlesinger, first time features director Barney Platts-Mills was undisciplined in the way of dealing with actors and constructing a screenplay. It’s a small victory, then, that Platts-Mills was able to distill such naturalistic performances from a cabal of amateur actors; the lives of these East London youths seem to be preserved for all time up on the screen, with lyrical scenes adding up to make a sometimes dispiriting, always stirring existence – just like real life.

Cinematheque programmer Kier-La Janisse selected the film for her Big Smash! Music Scene series, out of admiration for Platts-Mills (it’s also one of her favourite unsung gems), but also due to its odd choice in soundtrack composer: Brit Rock group Audience:
“Winnipeg’s one of the only places where Audience actually has an audience”, says Janisse. “You can actually buy the soundtrack now, but there wasn’t enough material to make a full album, so the rest are just tracks from Audience’s debut.”

The film equivalent to the all-or-nothing music of The Jam, it’s no surprise that their leader, Paul Weller, is a vocal admirer of Bullfrog. In fact, their “I Got By In Time” describes the mindset of these idealist ruffians better than anyone: “We Were Young, We Were Full of Ideals, We Were Gonna Pull This Whole World”.
A better code of honour for the Suedehead, or more apt one for the youths of Bronco Bullfrog, I know not.
An NTSC DVD, along with other merchandise including a reprint of the 1970 poster (as pictured above), can be ordered from the Official Website of BRONCO BULLFROG's director, Barney Platts-Mills.


Monday, October 20, 2008

Quote of the Day - John Milius on Screenwriting

"I consider it a degrading occupation, because everybody's writing a personal screenplay. It's, "Wow, my sister's writing a screenplay," or "Oh, so-and-so's writing a screenplay." Every actor is writing a screenplay. Everybody nowadays gets so much for them, you know, you hear about these bidding wars and stuff. It's out of control.

I was the hottest screenwriter in Hollywood when I was twenty-five years old. And I've been the hottest three or four times since. And every time in between there are always these years when "This guy is the hottest thing that's ever lived," and "He just sold a screenplay for five hundred thousand dollars," which is a pittance now. And of course the movie never gets made or it gets made into a piece of shit. The guy disappears into drug addiction. And every year there's one of these new wunderkinds. And I've watched so many of them come and go, but I"m still here.

I'm still at large. I'm still a dangerous man"

--as quoted in "Reel Conversations: Candid Interviews with Film's Foremost Directors and Critics" by George Hickenlooper (Citadel Press: 1991)


Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Hold the McChicken

The above 1972 McDonald's ad defies every kind of logic. I found it placed in the front cover of some forgettable general housekeeping magazine earlier this summer at a garage sale. I couldn't not buy it.
I bet whoever the Canadian artist was thought he was really putting one over.


Thursday, October 02, 2008

All Brave Blood Do Spill: Bob Dylan’s “Cross the Green Mountain”

It occurred to me today that Bob Dylan’s song for the 2003 sequel to GETTYSBURG, GODS AND GENERALS (Ronald F. Maxwell), may simultaneously be a rare glimpse and a natural transition of what his film scoring would have sounded like had he steadily kept up with it after his blissful recordings for Sam Peckinpah’s PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID way back in 1972.

After his Oscar-winning number for Curtis Hanson’s WONDER BOYS, Dylan obviously became a little soundtrack-happy, providing songs for the coal mining picture NORTH COUNTRY, DIVINE SECRETS OF THE YA-YA SISTERHOOD, and the aforementioned GODS AND GENERALS. While these first two feel like album rejects, cast aside to be used as ineffectual exclusive tracks for even more lackluster films, “’Cross the Green Mountain” feels a bit more organic, as if he’d had a chance to live with the film for some time, its Civil War heroics obviously awakening some deep emotions within. It’s as if the lyrics interact with the characters on Dylan’s poetic playing field, providing the perfect aural accompaniment (here, during the closing credits) in much the same manner as it did for PAT GARRETT. His stuff’s too good not to call attention to itself – that’s for sure - but the carefully constructed and ingrained qualities of the songs are so in tune with the project that it doesn’t really matter. It has since become, to me at least, one of his major accomplishments of this closing decade (one which would see Dylan still reaching new plateaus by reopening old wounds via “Love and Theft” and “Modern Times”, two albums I vastly prefer to the majority of his work in the 90s).

Curiously, it’s the only film of the above-mentioned (save for WONDER BOYS) that he bothered to do a music video for (and in it, tell me you don’t get the vibe that that’s Alias reborn?):

Although placed as the last song on the GODS AND GENERALS soundtrack in ’03, it has thankfully been reassessed and deemed worthy enough of merit for inclusion on “The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs”, released in stores this week, but currently streaming -- for free -- on NPR.

Here’s an MP3: