Friday, May 26, 2006

The Hammer Drops

O, to see with new eyes

Insomnia is the movie obsessive's oldest friend, worst enemy, asset and origin-story component. Middle-of-the-night film viewing never actually works as a lulling technique for me, but somewhere around 3 AM on Wednesday, staring at the wall and listening to my heart beating far to fast for rest, I thought: "Why don't I watch a Hammer horror movie?"

That, I am sorry to say, pretty much sums-up my relationship with Hammer Film Productions, Limited. With the rare exceptions of the oversexed The Vampire Lovers (1970), pitch perfect Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) and magisterial Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968), I confess to being a little bored with most Hammer pictures. "Bored" is lazy criticism, and what I mean is that I've never personally connected with the house style. I certainly understand where their admirers are coming from, agree that the cheapo-lavish production values create a beautiful shabby elegance, and I admire the strange dual-engines of graphic bosom-and-gore and innate European classiness. I love the stable of players, from the iconic giants (Peter Cushing, particularly, is my favorite screen Holmes, the only one who nails the detective's utterly alien intellect trapped inside the lovable, flawed shell of a human eccentric) to the pin-up girls to the impressive gallery of pug ugly character actors. I understand the import of Hammer's horror-flood coinciding with the Shock! TV package and I'm grateful for the studio's contributions to my nearest and dearest genre.

But somehow I've always been more excited to read books about these movies than actually revisit them, and I doubt I've seen more than a third of the important "one off" non-series films after their entry into the horror fray. There's just a personal disconnect, which doesn't stop the film critic or film geek in me from admiration, understanding or analysis. I'm reminded of being in audiences at silent comedy screenings; you can tell when audiences are laughing because they intellectually "know" this "was" funny. You can tell because when the timeless, eternally hilarious gag happens, then they laugh for real. The personal disconnect is between the Universal Golden Age and the sleazier, crazier European horror to come, both cycles are dreamier, stranger, scarier, and more packed with geniuses who requires no qualification or excuse to sell me on their charms. The vivid color horror of Hammer looks monochromatic compared to the mad hallucinations of the usual-suspect Italians, and the innovative explicitness just doesn't touch my heart like the elegiac Universal gems. Finally, sprawled on the couch at 3:30 AM, though I've known them for (!) decades, yeah, the House of Hammer finally opened up for me. I must have first seen The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) twenty years ago, but it took twenty years to find it personally affecting.

It was the all-time great entrance of Christopher Lee's creature that finally got my heart racing, and the first time a Hammer production actually frightened me. Frankenstein (Cushing) throws open the door to his lab, a weird barely human figure stands on unfamiliar limbs, too close to the door for comfort. Before we can focus on what feels amiss about the bandaged form, a herky-jerky dolly-in (the speed and shakiness are startling) brings us right up to its face, closer than expected, and not the least bit endearing. This monster isn't here for us to project our feelings of alienation, but a to reflect the alien world of death. Anyone expecting Karloff's puppy dog eyes is met with sickening opaque blue cataracts, and a mask of glacial, stupid violence. It's a wowee-powee moment in a film with a dozen of them, and I realize it's the subtler pleasures of Hammer that keep aficionados coming back, but I needed that wow.

Christopher Lee has always been a performer of iconic grandeur next to Cushing's dazzling nuance; it's the towering and divine next to the warm and humanistic; the difference between Beethoven and Mozart. I like to see the fingerprints all over a character. But Lee's all-movement performance in Curse is star-making for a reason, his joints seeming barley connected until the body is primed for doing violence. These are the kind of nuances I haven't appreciated over the broad strokes in a Lee performance.

The half-hearted liner notes for the DVD make some uninformed remarks about Jimmy Sangster's adaptation being closer to the Shelly novel than previous celebrated versions... don't buy it for a second. Here's a movie where the creature only escapes the castle grounds for a few hours, and seems to beg possible reading wherein Frankenstein has merely gone mad and is murdering housekeepers and peasants himself. The focus of Terence Fisher's film is different from Whales', but not particularly more faithful to Shelly. Here the center of horror is Frankenstein's fixation on his work, and therein was also the magic for yours truly. Curse is the story of a man too driven and too secretive, and ultimately destroyed by work ethic. Singular obsession with one's private passions may lead to great works, but as you hole up in the lab for weeks at a time... or try to maintain artistic careers, and a day job, to say nothing of multiple blogs... be it your great love or no, you necessarily start hacking away those parts of your life which are not The Work. The damage sustained to personal relationships (Frankenstein loses all friends, lovers and ultimately professional credibility) at the cost of blissful immersion in work is the true curse of Frankenstein. Connecting with Curse of Frankenstein in this way was probably not even possible for a child, maybe not for a younger man. I never knew it, but I was faulting the film for being too sophisticated, and addressing an aspect of life I hadn't encountered 20 years ago.

Monday, May 22, 2006

The Blowing of the Mind: THE LAWNMOWER MAN (1992)

Everything bad that's ever happened to you
is superseded by The Lawnmower Man

Dearest readers, 1992's The Lawnmower Man managed to freeze this blog dead in its tracks for 17 days. Probably more. Whenever the thought of having to discuss Lawnmower Man crossed my mind, all desire to write at all fled the scene. It was bound to happen to Kinetoscope at some point, this kind of panic-stricken cousin to writer's block. Because if you know me, I'm someone prone to excess, both foolish and otherwise, and I chart out tasks for myself sometimes merely to prove an ability to surmount them. And if you don't know me: I'm midway through a project of watching every film adaptation of Stephen King's work, in sequence of publication. With a dozen Creepshow 2's and Thinner's as roadblocks, it's a disheartening journey, especially for someone who began because of personal admiration of King's writing. The very project of writing an informal film journal several times a week has gotten a bit out of hand... looking back over the past few months, I see the writing getting more rigid and cold - more polished and formal, to be sure, but rather less incisive; the periods of silence are signaling dishonesty, perhaps. The point of examining the film adaptations of the Night Shift stories was supposed to be a quick and dirty story of the shameful inability of Hollywood or the indies to capture King's magical eye for character or what Michael Chabon called "his incomparable ability to find the epic in the ordinary." If it sounds like a task sour by design, I honestly thought the case-study might provide more bright spots. Some surprising small pleasures were unearthed (Graveyard Shift's goopy earnestness, Maximum Overdrive's eagerness to please), but the sins of Lawnmower Man nearly cancel them out.

One cannot let the Lawnmower Mans of the world get one down.

Early in this non-adaptation of King's short story, a priest played by Jeremy Slate, tells his borderline-retarded handyman, who is named Jobe (Jeff Fahey, looking and behaving as spiritual forerunner to Jeff Daniels in Dumb and Dumber) that "like your Biblical namesake you bring God's wrath upon yourself!" Unless all scholars have been badly misreading the book of Job throughout history, that's simply not what the story is about. But thus does Lawnmower Man set and explain its course: the movie will constantly reference allegorical models it utterly misunderstands, and becomes convoluted to the point where it is difficult to follow Lawnmower Man's actual meaning or guess at the intended metaphor.

Largely ripping-off Flowers for Algernon by way of Altered States, the entirely newly-invented Lawnmower Man unravels as if laboratory designed to irritate and stupefy an audience on every possible level. Chain-smoking Dr. Lawrence Angelo (Pierce Brosnan) blows his stack when his lab chimp goes amok in the night, steals a security guard's gun and starts shooting people under the influence of virtual reality testing and mind-expando-drugs. Would that Lawnmower Man descend into inspired Murders in the Virtual Rue Morgue insanity, perhaps it could win a schlock audience's heart. Instead it is drearily mired in cyber-nonsense cool that was outdated before the film opened. So when Dr. Angelo eagerly resumes research on his lovable Gumpian lawn-trimmer, Jobe Smith, it can be to no one's surprise that just like the monkey before him, he gets super-smart, then mean, then insane. There are brief detours for a Meatballs-flavored uncomfortable adult-preadolescent bonding subplot, and some virtuo-sex that will convince all humans to become card-carrying Luddites. It is mildly surprising when Jobe also gains Carrie White-esque telekinetic powers from prolonged exploration of virtual reality... but "virtual reality" in the world of The Lawnmower Man has little or nothing to do with real VR, either in application or literal meaning. It's difficult to grasp exactly what director Brett Leonard takes "virtual reality" to mean even in the context of this film, and the computer animation is so far sub-The Mind's Eye, that it holds no pleasures as "eye candy" either. ... Perhaps if it did, it wouldn't matter, as the live action photography is singularly ugly anyhow.

Eventually Dr. Angelo has to hunt down the monster he created, now smarter and more telekinetic than him. If he's to become a protagonist in the third act, it's a tough job, since he's an obsessed, short-tempered prick who tortures a mentally handicapped man for the first half of the movie. The film doesn't parallel the Biblical Job story, understand the real consequences of Flowers for Algernon, or make sense as a Frankenstein parable, though all are intended, invoked, and explored. The Lawnmower Man screws up Frankenstein's moral about science misused in specific, and God's domain breached in general - the movie portrays such a nonsensical science it's hard to tell what is being abused, and why fooling around with Virtual Reality is tampering in the creator's work is not clear to this writer. Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely, and I guess in The Lawnmower Man, the goal of elevating the basic intelligence of the innocent can destroy the world. The Algernon only applies in the most broad, dumb-tongued Microsoft Paint strokes; Jobe doesn't learn any hard, tragic lessons about the world because of his expanding intelligence: he simply goes insane like an unwitting Invisible Man, which means really no one learns anything.

Despite popular rumor that there is nothing left of King's source material (a delirious sick-joke quickie short story that begins in woozy suburban satire and ends in nauseous mythic horror), the image of a self-running lawnmower tearing through a living room is retained/swiped, albeit in grossly different context. Those wondering why, with all the botched trash made in the name of Stephen King, the writer would sue to have his name removed from this project need wonder no longer. It is easily the single worst film theoretically based on his work.

There's possibly nothing to enjoy but the brief appearance of Kinetoscope personal-fave character actor Troy Evans as a poor cop who investigates the lawnmower-massacre. Lawnmower Man pulls an Obi-Wan on the flatfoot, which is so effortless we may wonder why Jobe doesn't do the same mind-control act on Dr. Angelo.

Really though... don't wonder too hard.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Forged of Blood and Rats, Born in Mud and Bats: GRAVEYARD SHIFT (1990)

There is not a more lamented film based on the work of Stephen King than 1990's Graveyard Shift.

In some ways, maybe there is not a more focused, single-minded, and unapologetic King film, either. Graveyard Shift is a hard row to hoe, and anyone repelled by such a foul, foolish movie is forgiven. It can also be said that Graveyard Shift tries a lot of difficult tasks, and achieves most of them through sheer grit-teethed effort. Light up the flashlights, pull on the hip-waders. We're goin' in.

It's dirty, it's gross, it's slimy. All in a day's work.

In Graveyard Shift, Gates Falls, Maine's dilapidated but still-operating Bachman Textile Mill (tee hee!) has some trouble in its basement, which is overrun with disused machine parts, garbage, and rats. Hordes of rats. A sullen, college-educated drifter John Hall (David Andrews) blows into town, and takes nighttime work running an ominous cotton "picka" machine, under the watch of cruel factory foreman Warwick (Stephen Macht). As crazy Exterminator Tucker Cleveland (Brad Dourif, cranked well past 11, four tires blown, exposed wires dangling out) struggles to flush out the rats, workers begin disappearing in the dank basement.

That's pretty much it, and a rote stalk-and-eat plot, fun special effects creatures, and a bucket of grue at the climax is all it takes to satisfy the monster movie fan. For a film based on a short story first published in a 1970 issue of Cavalier men's magazine, maybe it should be a little sleazier than usual, too. Graveyard Shift has those tangible elements, but it's got something more. Graveyard Shift keeps pushing.

Everything about the film is overwrought, as if screenwriter John Esposito were operating under instruction from Tennessee Williams. There is the requisite "comic relief", but in low-budget horror history, perhaps no film has ever taken itself so very clenched-jaw seriously. The performances are uniformly intense, but the actors refuse to acknowledge the histrionics as ridiculous. Besides Dourif- having an utter blast, as he twitches and whispers through a sick-joke monologue about Viet Cong rat torture, or screaming in triumph as he floods thousands of rats into a polluted stream - there is precious little winking from this cast.

Macht is the standout, and his Warwick is a 6000-lb. heavy, an unnecessary devil-incarnate in a film which already has a giant mutant rat beast as a villain. His attempted Maine accent spans from the deep south to the European continent, but his deadly serious, puff-chested performance turns Graveyard Shift into an insane class struggle melodrama. The tyrannical foreman sends work crew after work crew to certain death, even after it's clear they are being eaten by a mammoth bat/rat hybrid. Warwick's motivation for this nihilistic way of running a factory is anybody's guess. In the film's economy of endless power struggles, it becomes about Warwick needing to control every aspect of his workers' lives, even their very mortality. Warwick talks to all personnel as if psychological gamesmanship were required for simple duty delegation. He is given a history of trading sexual favors for cushier working conditions, and when he repays his secretary (Ilona Margolis) by putting her on the crew list to clean out the scary sub-basement, she smashes his car up with an axe. In turn, he assaults her in front of a crowd of slack-jawed gawking townfolk. ...and in turn, John Hall comes to the damsel's rescue and beats up Warwick. This is how Graveyard Shift works: for every action, there is an even crazier overreaction.

We're privy to any unnecessary number of internal soap operas at Bachman Mills and in the greater Gates Falls area. Upon arriving in town, Hall is immediately beset by the hostility of the townies, who call him names and serve him a dead rat at the diner. In the loony character motivation-obsessed Graveyard Shift, this reads as the locals hicks' repressed self-loathing exploding because of the very presence of a "college boy." David Andrews performs Hall as an unknowable lone wolf, so tightly bound up that he doesn't even look like he's enjoying his smoke breaks, staring intensely at his cigarette and exhaling smoke in thin, hateful streams. He has made a hobby of pegging rats with Diet Pepsi cans and a homemade slingshot. Our hero's slingshot marksmanship is granted cosmic Signs-like significance in the finale, its import foreshadowed in mind-boggling slow motion close ups.

Hall is given a nominal love interest in fellow Bachman employee Ms. Jane Wisconsky (Kelly Wolf), who says she hails from Castle Rock (don't get excited: all lines to larger continuity stop here). Everyone in town seems to be at the mercy of the mill foreman, and their lives apparently would be ruined should they lose their shitty, dangerous jobs. They sweat and scream and fume at Warwick, and all the principles eventually end up not just in the basement, but its sub-basement. And the mysterious corpse-infested river under that. And a massive cathedral-sized bone-filled cavern under that. Graveyard Shift sees to it that everything is 10 times larger than it need be.

More melodrama per pound
than any other giant rat movie.

The unearned gravity given to every moment is silly, but it's fascinating and there's something else going on in Graveyard Shift. Director Ralph S. Singleton conjures an intensely physical world that captures some aspects of King's prose like no other film. This is one of the most convincingly grimy films I've ever seen. One can almost smell the wet fur as armies of rats are hosed down with scummy brown water. Infected-looking mud cakes every surface. The mill workers have to labor at night because of the summer heat, so characters are shiny with sweat before they start working, and coated with dirt, bloody with small injuries, and slimed by unidentified ceiling-drip by the time they finish. The monster rat coughs up rivers of opaque goop when it's in good health, and torrents of ooky crap in its death-throes. All human deaths are gruesome, painful-looking and a hair more graphic than one is expecting. One character's arm is shredded to the bone, and he just keeps screaming and waving it around. Another can't just be decapitated, but has his skull crushed into wet grave-mud by a coffin.

All of this is what's usually missing from King adaptations: either nobody can, or nobody dares try to bottle the vivid, earthy language of Stephen King. Graveyard Shift understands that King's stories are frequently writ-in-body-fluid, but misses all his other easy breezy charms. As an adaptation, Graveyard Shift takes few liberties with the plot, and on paper it sounds smart to beef out the slim 16-page short story with deeper explorations of the characters, but this mad parade was not the easy solution.

The song "Graveyard Shift" (one assumes) that plays under the credits must be heard to be disbelieved. A slow-b.p.m. dance beat grinds like the picker machine, as disembodied dialogue samples from the film are reassembled into illogical conversations. "When was the lahst time you wuh in a grayve-yahd?" asks Stephen Macht, as the drum machine thumps. Answer: I don't know, and I don't know that I want to go back, but Graveyard Shift achieves things no other Stephen King adaptation has even attempted. You may or may not find this admirable.

There are two kinds of people in this world. In Graveyard Shift, there's a scene in which a bunch of rats go surfing on a filthy board, while a Beach Boys song blares from a boom box. Now, everyone in the world is thinking about the money they spent to see this film. The first kind of person wants that money back. The second kind of person has just seen justification for the admission price. Answer for yourself: when was the last time you were in a graveyard?