Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Cronenberg Series Part 18: All the Flesh That Says Yes

About a quarter of the way into Maps to the Stars, the new film directed by David Cronenberg and written by Bruce Wagner, a callow young Hollywood type (Jonathan Watton) and friend, of a sort, to washed-up actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) wonders aloud to Havana regarding the young woman with whom they will soon be enjoying (well two of them will; that the third enjoys it is debatable) a threesome, "I wonder if Blake Shelton peed in that butt." Upon hearing this crass joke, employing as it does the name of a real life celebrity being talked about by movie people in a film (I'm talking about Maps to the Stars here) set in Hollywood the plot of which, or a portion of the plot of which, revolves around, or rather in the vicinity of, the making of another film, one which is the remake of another film thereby providing a link to Old Hollywood, something which is always an important part of these things -- upon hearing this crass joke, as I say, the viewer of Maps to the Stars might reasonably conclude that what they are currently watching is a Hollywood Satire, one of the dark ones like The Player, something about how unforgiving the movie business is, how corrupting it is to the soul, and how twisted are the lives of those who exist within it. Well, to begin with, as far as the film being twisted goes, you have no idea. To the question of whether or not Maps to the Stars is the satire that so many critics have decided it must be, I would say that this is the case only if your definition of satire is "something which makes jokes about another thing." I think that is most people's definition of satire, although in the case of this film you'd actually have to alter the definition again, adding "but not many jokes, and then the jokes stop."

In addition to Julianne Moore's pathetic, amoral actress, Maps to the Stars boasts a freak show of characters, such as Benie Weiss (Evan Bird), at thirteen a recovering drug addict and the star of the Bad Babysitter film series, his parents Christina (Olivia Williams) and Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), the latter an author, therapist, and self-help guru who has among his clients Havana Segrand. She is seeking treatment from Weiss to deal with psychological problems she still wrestles with due to having been sexually abused by her mother, the actress Clarice Taggart (Sarah Gadon, who has appeared in each of Cronenberg's last three films), who died years ago in a fire, and who appears now to Havana as either a literal or figurative ghost, not sure, could be either one (given the facts of her life and death, I couldn't help but see Clarice as some unholy union of Linda Darnell and Anne Sexton, by which I mean to imply nothing about and give no offense to Linda Darnell). One of Clarice Taggart's movies, Stolen Waters, is being remade with a post-modern twist, and Havana wants desperately -- unhealthily, one could argue -- to play the role of her mother. While frantically pursuing this goal, she hires, on the recommendation of Carrie Fisher (herself), a new personal assistant, or "chore whore," named Agatha (Mia Wasikowska). Fisher got to know Agatha online, and, long story short, Agatha is now fresh off the bus, though doing pretty well under the circumstances, landing this pretty big job pretty quickly, and even striking up a romance with struggling actor/limo driver Jerome Fontana (Robert Pattinson, moving from the back seat of the limo he occupied in Cronenberg's Cosmopolis to the front, a little detail that I'm sure has been lost on absolutely no one). Agatha seems to be a winningly quirky young woman, remaining sunny even though her face was badly scarred in a fire, her body, she tells Jerome, more badly scarred still. But winning as she may be, that Cronenberg and his team have designed her look to resemble that of Holly Hunter's character in his adaptation of J.G. Ballard's Crash can't help but raise certain alarms in the heads of Cronenberg fans. In any case, Agatha's arrival in Los Angeles is noticed by Christina and Stafford Weiss, and remarked upon by them with dismay.

I hesitate, briefly, to reveal the source of their uneasiness because among the entertainments that Maps to the Stars offers is a completely mad story whose madness is skilfully parceled out. However, I'd judge it to be maybe just inside the outer limits of acceptable spoilers to say that Agatha's last name is Weiss, she's Stafford and Christina's daughter, and they're uneasy because the last time they saw Agatha she'd just tried to kill her brother Benjie, out of a disturbing, marital kind of love, and set the family home on fire. There is also another reason for their uneasiness, but anyway.

If I'm hesitant to deal with Agatha it's because she's the film's mystery, she's the stranger in black (check out those gloves) who shows up in town and turns everything on its head. This is an archetype found in the Western -- the West being where one can find Los Angeles -- but of course this tradition also exists in horror. Richard Matheson's classic short story "The Distributor" leaps to mind, as does The Intruder, the similarly themed non-horror novel by Matheson's friend Charles Beaumont, which is more instructive in this case in that that book has the premise of a social satire, but is not a satire. That's about as far as I can take this comparison in any event because Agatha, though potentially dangerous, is not menacing. It's not her intention to bring harm, whether she finds herself bringing it or not. So what is her intention?

An answer of sorts, or a clue anyway, could be lying in plain sight. Throughout the film, Agatha performs little rituals -- involving taking her pills, for instance, or, in one instance, kneeling worshipfully over Clarice Taggart's Hollywood Walk of Fame star -- the actions of which she accompanies with a recital of Paul Éluard's poem "Liberté". This happens over and over again, and in the film, this poem, which is twenty-one stanzas, is usually represented by the same few lines (for those as curious and ignorant as me, you'll have to do some digging to find an English translation online close to the one used in Maps to the Stars but this one does the trick pretty well), which are:

On my school notebooks
On my desk and the trees
On the sand on the snow
I write your name


On all flesh that says yes
On the forehead of my friends
On each hand that is held out
I write your name

Regarding the background of this poem, the reader and viewer might want to know two things. One is that the poet, Paul Éluard, is one of the fathers of surrealism, and the other is that the poem was dropped from RAF planes over France to serve as a source of inspiration during the Nazi occupation. Knowing that, you can sure see it, can't you, even in these relatively few lines? What's interesting though is that first bit -- which is the poem's first stanza -- "On my school notebooks/On my desk and the trees/On the sand on the snow/I write your name." In addition to being a poem about freedom, "Liberté" is also a poem about devotion, and without any work at all (it's perhaps the way of things that it now takes more work to find the intended meaning) those lines can be made to evoke the love a teenage girl -- let's say, for the sake of argument -- has for a teenage boy. Or a movie star. Or someone who is both.

Things can mean many different things, of course, even clichés. Maps to the Stars, which perhaps not at its heart, because at heart it's sad, but in its bones, and all surrounding tissue, it is an evil movie, so when one character says of a child that he is "a little miracle," it's one of the film's most hair-raising moments. Similarly, that phrase of easy hope, "everything happens for a reason," is turned by Cronenberg and Wagner into an assurance that someone is good and fucked. In this way, a poem meant to inspire those crushed under a bootheel transforms into a chant of sincere love and almost mystical doom. Agatha's burned face stumbles into the City of Angels with a bag full of pills reciting a poem about freedom and we're not supposed to run screaming?  I mean, that the poem is called "Liberté" certainly isn't insignificant -- in the context of Maps to the Stars, the questions are free from what (I have some ideas) and free how? Ah. Yes. Well.

I don't think any of this would displease a surrealist like Paul Éluard, who was, by the way, an ideological mess, which is even better, or rather "better." Surrealism is meant to be disqueting -- that seems to me to be the first step, and sometimes the last step -- as well as grotesque on some level. Something that is grotesque can be awful from the skin on down, or the entire source of its alarm may be simply that physically it skews badly from the norm. Hence pity (asked for and unasked for) and sadness. Hence Agatha. Anyway, these concepts of surrealism and the grotesque challenge reality with the unreal, and Maps to the Stars would like to get in on that. Clocks should drip from trees and freedom shouldn't mean that.

And yes, Maps to the Stars is funny, too, but then Cronenberg usually is to some degree, and plus these days the worst thing you can say about an artist is that they're humorless, which I don't believe is the same thing as saying "Why isn't everything a satire?" The grotesque and the surreal can pull from the audience any number of reactions, from laughter to revulsion to abject horror. Those who don't think Maps to the Stars is a satire have taken to describing it as a horror film, and that's something I can get behind, because it is. And you don't have to stretch the definition the way some people do so they can say things like "In many ways Gravity is a horror film." No -- Maps to the Stars has ghosts in it. Add to this the fact that many horror directors and horror writers (Ramsey Campbell is especially keen to point this out) talk about the close relationship between comedy and horror, having to do, I believe, with the explosive involuntary emotional reaction that both forms can bring from their audience, the loss of control they can force on others, and you start to think that this whole "satire" categorization is a bit of a dodge.

Sure, yes, it takes place in Hollywood, and it does sometimes feel like ninety-nine out of every hundred films set in Hollywood is a satire, but Bruce Wagner, the writer of the film, has made Hollywood his subject or his environment for pretty much his whole career (people who know Wagner's work better than I do have told me that Maps to the Stars is every bit a Wagnerian piece of writing), and so that the characters exist in or around the movie business seems to me to be incidental. You write what you know, so they say. What I'm getting at is, Blake Shelton probably didn't pee in that butt, though even if he did it wouldn't matter.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Capsule Reviews For You and For Me

I watched some movies recently and I haven't posted anything in a while. So here we are.

Annabelle (d. John R. Leonetti) - The reaction to this spin-off prequel (I guess) to 2013's massively successful haunted house/possession film The Conjuring was, well I'll just say it, kind of negative. My reaction to The Conjuring was kind of negative, so I feel like everyone else is getting on this elevator on the fifth floor at minimum, but the truth is that while I did not exactly like Annabelle, I don't feel as compelled to hiss and spit at it as many have been. The reason for this is probably simply that Annabelle, while being worse than The Conjuring, isn't that much worse, and actually has one or two effective sequences. Which is nice.

The titular evil doll, which is ostensibly "based" on a "real" "doll", had a cameo in The Conjuring, in a ghost story prologue to the ghost story, in much the same way James Bond movies have a prologue action scene, and Annabelle tells the story of how that doll became so very wicked. Mia and John, a married couple played by Annabelle Wallis and Ward Horton is expecting their first child, and Mia is given the doll by John, and then, long story short, a Satanist bleeds on it. But the sequence that leads to that bleeding ain't bad, as far as suspense and such things go. Eventually Annabelle becomes another skim milk pseudo-exorcism movie, one which drags Alfre Woodard into the tedium, and frankly, though I watched the film yesterday, details are draining from my mind even as I write this. So I suppose my point is, The Conjuring had some nice moments too, and I can't really see the difference.

Robinson Crusoe (d. Luis Bunuel) - The last time I watched a Bunuel film that was (mostly) free of his brand of surrealism (and listen, this is a capsule review, I'm not going to try and describe Bunuel beyond that) it was Death in the Garden, his excellent 1956 adventure about the motley survivors of a plane crash in the South American jungle. Now I've finally caught up to his 1954 adaptation of Daniel Defoe's 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe, and I'll be darned if the two films aren't somewhat similar! Defoe's story, of course, is about the title character's life alone as the survivor of a shipwreck on an anonymous, secluded island. In Bunuel's film, Crusoe is played by Dan O'Herlihy, previously of Orson Welles's Macbeth and later of Robocop, and unlike contemporary films about lone men struggling to survive, like Castaway and All is Lost, O'Herlihy talks a lot -- to animals, himself, mirages, and in narration as a man who is telling his story from some time in the future. The problem with that being that O'Herlihy is not, to my mind, very good here. He seems to be one of those actors who was most at home existing in his own time -- his version of an 18th century sailor is all ramrod posture, booming voice, and big-eyed mugging when taken by surprise.

However, and you'd think this would be impossible for any film version of Robinson Crusoe to manage, the rest of Bunuel's movie somehow overcomes this. It's the second half when it all really comes alive, sometime around a turning point involving Crusoe's animal companions. This is beautifully sad, and begins a kind of understandable breakdown, the cinematic effectiveness of which must be credited more to Bunuel than O'Herlihy. Bunuel pulls back when O'Herlihy's instinct, I suspect, would have been to go huge. Soon, there are cannibals, Jaime Fernandez arrives as Friday, and the drama and adventure crank way up. It's good stuff.

Genocide (d. Kazui Nihonmatsu) - The Japanese film studio Shochiku boasted a who's who of major filmmakers back in its heyday -- Ozu, Mizoguhi, Kinoshita, etc. -- and, for a brief period in the 1960s they also produced horror films. Only four, as it happened, but they're a goony bunch of movies worth just about anyone's time. That doesn't mean I have to necessarily like all of them, though, 1968's Genocide -- whose director Nihonmatsu would only make one other film, The X from Outer Space, also for Shochiku -- is a deeply frustrating piece of work because by all reason I should love it. A swarm of super bees takes down an American bomber. The three crewmen bail out, and the H-bomb they were carrying goes missing. The action from there takes place on a small island in Japan, in a little seaside town.

So what's up with those bees? everyone asks. Their stings are deadly and hallucinogenic. And what's up with the American woman the married resident bug expert is having an affair with? Plus the American military, what a bunch of jerks, right? Those first two are good questions, but that last one causes some problems. Of all the Japanese films that have been made that deal in some way with World War II but which possibly don't acknowledge the extent of the war atrocities for which that country was responsible, Genocide (and what a title, under these circumstances) has to be the most galling. The Japanese heroes all wonder why anyone should ever wish to wage war, especially these American madmen who've lost their precious atomic bomb. Don't they remember that last war? This "Who, us?" attitude goes so far in its obliviousness that the Holocaust becomes a major plot point, as well as a symbol, yet it's never once mentioned that the Holocaust was perpetrated by Japan's main ally during the war. Nihonmatsu seemed to believe viewers would just accept the notion that Imperial Japan in the 30s and 40s stood by incredulously wondering what the world was coming to. Which is ridiculous, and I won't do it.

Five Came Back (d. John Farrow) - So you I do a horror movie, then I do a movie about survival, then another horror movie, and now look at this, another one about survival! In this one, a small commercial airliner, carrying a small load of about ten passengers and a few crewmen, crashes in the Amazon rain forest on the way to Panama City. One thing and another throws the rescue party off the scent and if the survivors -- including the lovely young Lucille Ball as a woman kind of fed up with everything, Joseph Calleia as a murderer being transported for execution and John Carradine as the man doing the transporting, plus others -- are going to get out alive, they're going to have to do it themselves.

Five Came Back is classic Golden Age filmmaking, and it's also one of the more picked-clean-by-buzzards films you'll see. I don't know how many films before it toyed with the idea of a small group of characters in crisis banding together to form modern society in microcosm, one which brings out the best and worst in people, but this came out in 1939 so there couldn't have been that many, and I doubt there were any better -- there certainly haven't been many better since, although the premise has been put to work dozens of times in subsequent years. Farrow, whose best known film is probably the cock-eyed noir His Kind of Woman with Robert Mitchum, is very elegant in his staging of violence, when it occurs, and he also does a terrific job of making the survivors eventual encampment look both habitable, and like something most of us would want to get away from. On that note, the screenwriters, which include Dalton Trumbo and Nathanael West, pile on the hardships and infuriating (if you have to deal with them, I mean) moral quandaries that eventually separate the good from the bad. In its simple way, Five Came Back is brutally powerful, and finally moving. It packs most things you might want out of a film in 75 minutes. Terrific.

Digging Up the Marrow (d. Adam Green) - And now another horror film! So why am I still watching Adam Green movies? He made his name with Hatchet, one of those intensely violent and horribly knowing, as if this is somehow a plus, slasher comedies from the mid 2000s. Rather than sinking his dreams early, as you might hope would happen, Green now had a career. Four years after Hatchet he made Frozen, no not that one, about three friends stranded on a ski lift. And that one I thought was pretty good. If I watched it today, who knows, but at the time I appreciated that Green winked far less, that he was able to sustain that premise to feature length, and that one character's death, partly due to the performance, actually had an impact. All of this I thought added up to a good sign. But then Green made Hatchet II, which is appallingly shitty beyond all reason. The way my mind works, even though I've ignored Green's cable TV show Holliston and the anthology film Chillerama to which he contributed and which sounds utterly unbearable to me, I'm at the stage with Green where as a discouraged horror fan I think "Let's see what else this prick makes."

Which is called Digging Up the Marrow, and which is Green's first found footage horror film, so that makes you want to poke out your own eyes right there, and which, for a while, seems like a commercial for and misguided celebration of Green's work up to this point. For you see Green plays himself in the film, and he's making a documentary. By way of an introduction we're filled in on Green's credits and his relationship with his fans -- eventually, Digging Up the Marrow, which is partly comedy, will take on that air of self-deprecation the secret goal of which is to puff up its target. So that's obnoxious, but the subject of the "documentary" is William Dekker (Ray Wise), an ex-cop who believes that monsters are real and that he's found where they live. Is he a crackpot? There's a payoff to Green and crew's bumbling investigations, and they take the form of creature designs inspired by the work of artist Alex Pardee.  This, and Ray Wise, make the film worth seeing. Or in the interest of covering my ass, at least make me not regret seeing it. Pardee's work is solidly unusual and his creations generate actual unease. Wise, meanwhile, is wonderful, as he always is, because it doesn't matter what job Ray Wise takes, he's going to make damn sure he shows up for work. So he's a joy to watch. But the found footage could have life in it, I suppose, if the people who worked within it were willing to take on not just the form's benefits but its limitations, as well. In Digging Up the Marrow it's established that Green has one cameraman, but he edits the film as though he has as many as he needed, because in reality he did. In addition to being lazy and unimaginative, it's frankly insulting.

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Devils Are Free on Earth

Paddy Chayefsky claimed that it was a only a cynicism about the then-current state of American television news that led him to write Network, and a bitterness stemming from his many years' experience as a TV writer had nothing to do with it. Maybe so, though I've always had my doubts. Then again, what the heck do I know about it? Rather than waste time wondering if Chayefsky was telling the truth or not, I could more efficiently address the situation of Arch Oboler, who, having made his bones as a radio writer, had every reason to dread, even hate, the cultural dominance of television; if he did little that was direct with these emotions other than accurately predict the future -- he once wrote that TV would do for radio what talkies did for silent films -- and despite the fact that he did do a tour writing for television, the frustration he must have felt over the constant march of technology was everywhere in his work.

Oboler is probably best known as the man behind Lights Out, the wonderful old horror anthology that aired originally on NBC radio but eventually on a variety of networks from 1934 to 1947. It was a job Oboler inherited from Wyllis Cooper, the show's creator, but many of the most famous stories were written by Oboler, such as "Chicken Heart," a quite odd piece of work when you stop and think about it, but one whose influence on the horror and science fiction genres is nearly incalculable. Consider that this radio play, which lasts about eight minutes, was first broadcast in 1937, and then consider that without this story about a chicken heart turned gigantic and deadly by science run amok, would there be a Them! or The Giant Claw or Tarantula or and etc.? (Godzilla? I don't want to overreach here, but "Chicken Heart" predates World War II and would turn up as the subject of a very famous comedy routine on a stand-up album by never mind who almost thirty years later. "Chicken Heart" has legs, is all I'm trying to get at.) (On that note, when everybody was making fun of Stephen King for supposedly swiping the premise of his novel Under the Dome from The Simpsons Movie, what those people didn't know to do was point out that The Simpsons Movie had already lifted it from Oboler's 1966 film The Bubble.)

Like Rod Serling, the American cultural figure he most resembles, Oboler was a writer whose creative instincts were mostly political in nature, and like Serling he merged those instincts with genres like horror and science fiction -- not always seamlessly, as I'll demonstrate later, but anyway that's also something he shared with Serling. One way in which he differed from Serling was his surprising ruthlessness. Lord knows Serling could go dark with his stories, or at least not stifle the darkness of Richard Matheson or George Clayton Johnson or Charles Beaumont, but did he ever go as far as Oboler did with his Lights Out radio play "Burial Services," which climaxes with a young paralyzed girl being buried alive? I've only read about "Burial Services," but Oboler carried this bleakness with him when he transitioned into writing and directing films, and I've seen it on display in his movies Five and Bwana Devil. Bwana Devil, from 1952, was a pioneering work of early 3D filmmaking, but that aside it's also an early cinematic depiction of the story of the Tsavo lions, which killed several workers during the building by a British company of a railroad line in Africa, a little piece of history that briefly became an en vogue kind of thing to know about back in 1996, when The Ghost and the Darkness, the Stephen Hopkins/William Goldman film on the subject, came out. Anyway, in the film, in Bwana Devil, an adorable young boy (Miles Clark) wanders happily away of the safety of the camp, and with minutes left in the film his body -- partially eaten, on assumes -- is found by a horrified Barbara Britton. In Five, possibly Oboler's best work since he left radio behind, or since radio was taken from him, that hope has been engendered in the hearts of the small handful of survivors of a nuclear apocalypse by the baby being carried in the womb of Susan Douglas Rubes is no guarantee that their hope hasn't been misplaced. Let's put it like that.

Before checking the facts, my gut feeling was that Five was made after Bwana Devil because as effective as the latter film can sometimes be, and as strong as the final couple of jolts are, it is nevertheless a film that throughout feels like one hampered by compromise and a meager budget, and perhaps a paucity of visual imagination on Oboler's part -- faking a lion attack in the 1950s couldn't have been easy, but he too often relies on close-up reaction shots of witnesses, and even victims, who are often seen making "Ow!" faces as a lion rips them apart. I assumed, therefore, that the more assured and more plainly independent Five came after Oboler got fed up with the money men. Free of needing to tell a story that should naturally cost more money than is at hand, Five has the cheap black and white sharpness and immediacy that would later characterize classics like Night Tide, Carnival of Souls, and Night of the Living Dead. This doesn't mean that Oboler had those kind of chops, but watching it, it feels like the weight of Bwana Devil has been lifted from his shoulders. Except that Bwana Devil was 1951 and Five was 1952, and maybe having the weight of Bwana Devil lifted from his shoulders is what led to The Twonky in 1953. Based on a story by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore, The Twonky is ostensibly a science fiction satire of TV and its effects on society, you know, shit like that, but as a comedy the movie flails around so desperately that even at just about seventy minutes the manic pace has somehow transformed into cold syrup. On top of that is the explanation behind the powers of the sentient and extraordinarily powerful TV set, or "twonky," which is that it's not a TV set but rather an alien thing that randomly took the form of a common Earth object. Clearly, television has yet to recover. Ruthless, The Twonky is not, though you can't say that Hans Conreid, who plays the harassed owner of the TV (except as a college professor he never wanted one anyway), doesn't give it his all.

As a creative option, film pretty much died for Oboler after that. He wouldn't make another feature until One Plus One in 1961, and he wouldn't make another feature that anyone remembers until The Bubble in '66. It was between this and Domo Arigato, his last film from 1972, that Oboler would produce one of the strangest works of his career, this time a novel, his only one, 1969's House on Fire

House on Fire, which was recently reprinted by Valancourt Books, may or may not bring the spotlight back around to Oboler, but to what end I couldn't say. It's such a deeply strange book. The germ of the story appears to have been in his head for more than a decade prior to publishing House of Fire, because the basic premise is the same as that of a short TV film he wrote in 1958 called Hi, Grandma! Basically, in House on Fire, a young boy named Mark Elias is discovered to be a genius, and by inventing invention, he wins a full college scholarship, to whatever college he chooses. As you'd expect with a boy genius, Mark is solitary and deeply focused on his inventions; he's aided, and adored, in this by his younger sister, Shirley, and the two of them spend a lot of time in Mark's room behind closed doors. As the novel opens, Sam and Mary, Mark's parents, are planning a family celebration in honor of Mark's achievement. Present will be Mark's brothers Dave and Nat, and his sister Harriet. There will also be two reporters, one a radio veteran named Tony Dumont, and a shy, virginal cub reporter for a small newspaper named Robin Shepherd. Both are covering Mark's story ostensibly from an uplifting human interest angle, but when Robin and Tony meet each other in the apartment building elevator, Tony strikes her as self-centered and bloviating, and she doesn't entirely trust him.

There's something quite mysterious about Mark and Shirley, though, Mark in particular. It seems to have something to do with their grandmother, Sam's mother, who we're told has recently died. Sam and his siblings don't appear overly torn up by this, however, and Sam's wife Mary is somewhat dismayed by this, though neither her husband nor her in-laws are much interested in holding back their opinions about the dead old woman. She was, evidently, a horrorshow -- it's said she purposely drove her own husband, Sam's father, to suicide -- and if Sam and his increasingly unstable sister and brothers have one great concern regarding Mark and Shirley, it's that the time they spent with their grandmother, which was not insignificant, has warped them. When Mark unveils his new invention, after Tony and Robin have left the party, it turns out to be, he says, a machine that can communicate with the dead. The gist of all this is that soon after his demonstration, which produces only a high-pitch whine and the sound of a screeching cat, Nat collapses and dies.

And so on. One interesting thing about House on Fire is that it was published after Levin's Rosemary's Baby and before Blatty's The Exorcist, Tryon's The Other, and King's Carrie, the other other novels that joined together to produce the boom in the genre that fueled it for the next two decades or so. Which proves only that as always, Oboler had a knack for being on or near the ground floor or major genre developments without ever being recognized for it. Of course, House on Fire isn't as good as those other books. One thing that may have held it back, though this is something that I myself don't hold against it, is the sense that this is a novel that is badly out of step. By which I mean, House of Fire couldn't have felt current in 1969, even with its references to Vietnam and what Amy Landecker as Mrs. Samsky in A Serious Man calls "the new freedoms."  But House of Fire is written like a novel by an ex-radio writer who understands that form's approach to style, structure, and atmosphere. This could be seen as a plus, and in fact that's kind of how I see it: the novel is 175 pages long. Nat collapses and dies on page 65. This is the first truly concrete piece of evidence the reader has that something is seriously wrong in the Elias home. Before that what you get is a lot of conversation, most of it occurring within the apartment of Sam and Mary Elias, among them alone, or eventually among them and Sam's siblings, and once with another tenant, a woman who brings a cake for Mark -- all of this being preparatory to Mark's big party -- a woman, I'm just now realizing, never again appears in the novel, though her sudden presence would seem to indicate a significance that she doesn't actually possess.  It's strange.

Also strange, or not, depending on how you feel about it, is the fact that very little of any of the conversation between any of the characters is "important," that is, very little of it relates to the plot. Mary telling Sam to not eat any cake before the party. What college Mark should choose. Harriet's concerns that her virginity will be a barrier in her relationship with a man she met (virginity is kind of a thing in this book). All of this dialogue, and the tone of it, especially when many characters are in a room talking, recreates the atmosphere not of reality but of old radio shows, where sound is everything. To create a mood and make a scene believable, those radio shows had to pour on the noise, so that everyone talking fast, one after another, with plates and forks pinging together, surrounds the listener. That's more or less what Oboler is doing in the first third of House on Fire, and even in 1969 it was a throwback, but it's a throwback to something I like. Better, it's not a self-conscious throwback -- it's simply how Oboler thought, and worked.

Then someone, usually Mary, will say something that will remind everybody else of the deceased grandmother, and things begin to spiral. After Nat dies, of course, the plot takes off, as does a subplot about Robin falling for the photographer who was assigned to accompany her to the Elias's apartment. And this is where House on Fire almost completely goes off the rails. I'll spoil it, because I have to talk about it: the young man, Bob Farrell, is a wonderful fellow. He's so wonderful, in fact, that it's hard to not imagine that something is wrong with him, or at least that he's doomed. When Robin goes back to his place after dinner and it turns out he owns a very early kind of microwave, this interest in new technology pegs him, in Oboler's world, as someone very suspicious indeed. And it turns out he's a pornographer who drugs women and photographs them nude. Tony Dumont, whose relationship with Robin up to this point has been adversarial even though the reader knows them to be on roughly the same team, learns this and swoops in just in time to save her. Well, the photos are taken, but Tony gets those, and when Robin comes to he tells her what's what. She's having an understandably hard time with this, so Tony decides he'd best leave her alone. However, before leaving:

Tony Dumont said, "I forgot to tell you one thing. You don't have to worry about having been raped. Mr. Farrell is quite incapable. He cannot be aroused by anything but boys." Then, almost as an afterthought, he added, "I didn't either. That's not to say I wasn't tempted." He went, closing the door behind him.

Now. Okay. Look. The Bob Farrell episode has little to do with the rest of the book, other than to demonstrate the vileness of which men are capable. And typically I don't object to the inclusion of characters or incidents which have little bearing on the main plot. I don't need to have things joined up for me. But when our male hero tries to sweet-talk our female hero by saying he was tempted to rape her, some sort of explanation might be nice. This being quite apart from the fact that this whole section of the book is completely absurd, far more absurd than the supernatural elements, despite the fact that what Farrell is up to has been done time and again, and no one has yet invented a machine to communicate with their dead, demonic grandmothers. What Dumont says is, of course, appalling, and when I read it, and subsequent passages dealing with Robin's sexuality, I began to think that House on Fire was becoming unsalvagaeble. There's other stuff involving Mark and Shirley which, while never graphic, nevertheless made me wonder just how skeevy this thing was going to get. In its implications, at least, it turns out the answer is pretty dang skeevy.

However, while none of what I've just described is in any way good, the novel does become strange, and complicated (in a way that, admittedly, is hardly addressed), enough that I feel like it would be too easy to assume that Oboler thought Tony's way with women, for example, was just swell (the Mark and Shirley stuff I don't know about, but I'm inclined to think that it was either Oboler's attempt to boost the evil in a way William Peter Blatty would later do much more successfully in The Exorcist, or that Oboler was pressed into it by the publisher -- either way, it's a bad idea that adds nothing, and Oboler should have given it a wide berth). Late in the novel, the character has a crazy monologue that reveals things about him which makes it easy, if you're feeling generous, to at the very least imagine Oboler connected in his own mind to the earlier comments about rape. As well, the character Oboler seems to most identify with, a blind artist friend of Tony's, even makes an accusation related to Tony's intentions towards Robin that he, Tony, doesn't like at all. Admittedly, it's possible I'm looking for excuses here, when my usual inclination is to wince about these things but not otherwise feel too tense about something a man who died over twenty years ago wrote over forty years ago. It's just that House on Fire is such a wild, galumphing thing that it's hard to not try and find some central joist that will keep it from toppling.

The evils of technology might provide it. Apart from Bob Farrell's microwave, there is the question of whether Tony will abandon the magic of radio for the spoon-feeding of TV, and of course there's the central idea of a new invention that threatens to take down a whole family. In one of the several conflicted theological discussions in the book (another thing that links House on Fire with Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist), Dave Elias talks about God having "his eyes burned out by the fires in the concentration camps, by the hell over Hiroshima." In that same argument, Tony -- an atheist who butts heads quite condescendingly with Robin, a believer who is portrayed, intentionally or not, as someone who possesses a faith that is entirely unexamined -- blames everything vile in the world not on God or demons, but on man who has done these things "all through history," a phrase which both expresses an unwavering belief about man's nature and could be read as a code for what Oboler regards as the worst kind of progress: the kind of progress that allows men to kill each other on a grander scale.

That may be trite, and I suppose it is either way, but it would be more so if in Five Oboler hadn't been one of the first artists to really deal with the subject. And he kept trying to deal with it, even when it sits somewhat uneasily within what, if you strip it down, is a rather straightforward horror premise -- a premise, by the end, that you realize was hardly dealt with. That doesn't mean the ending of House on Fire isn't strong, because I think it is, or that the novel as a whole isn't worth your time, because something this bizarre always is. It reads like a book written by a man who had too much in his head and was having a hard time holding focus. It was also written by a man who was fed up with technology and was ditching it all in favor of a pen and paper. Maybe he saw it as his last chance.