Monday, August 26, 2013

Monday, August 19, 2013

Possessed By the Demon of Torture and Death

When Spanish horror director Jess Franco died this past April at the age of 83, I have to confess that I was a bit surprised by the emotional outpouring that greeted this news. Traveling in the circles I do, the goodwill directed Franco's way was generated by his films, and for many years, fueled by very little actual experience of his work, it had been my impression that Franco was essentially a sleaze merchant. So I thought "Well now, come on." I knew the extent of my own ignorance quite well, yet for a brief period I was intent on clinging to my early impressions. That faded pretty quickly, though, and soon I acknowledged that some kind of study of Franco's massive filmography was in order. Over the past weekend, I took my first steps in this direction.

Whether you care to know or not, I'm going to tell you anyway (tell you again, in some cases) that European horror of a certain vintage is a field I regard with some ambivalence. It's not necessary to go through the rolodex of filmmakers and films I'm thinking about, but, suffice it, maybe, to say that I can't help but look at the Dario Argento with something of a doubtful eye (I really like Suspiria, though, you guys). Most days, I'd rather not look at Lucio Fulci at all. Plus directors from countries other than Italy, and so forth. And it never seemed to me that Franco was the guy to turn me around on this, although it's turned out in the past year I didn't need Franco for any such thing as Jean Rollin had already accomplished it, or had already begun the process. I've written quite a bit about Rollin in that time, covering the highs (Fascination) and lows (Schoolgirl Hitchhikers) of my experiences with his work, the upshot of it all being that Rollin made the kind of horror film I always thought I'd be getting from, say, Mario Bava, a filmmaker I admire but who nevertheless has yet to knock me cold the way Rollin at his best has done. In the course of all this, I realized that I've created a roadblock for myself. Rollin makes the films I've been chasing after, and so my brain tells me that, as I finally turn toward Franco, maybe Franco will be like Rollin, only Spanish. This isn't fair to Franco, or any other filmmaker from this very general swath I might apply it to, not least because Franco was not Rollin, and so therefore wouldn't have made Jean Rollin films. This is the kind of thing I see critics do a whole bunch, and I hate it, so it's not something I want to do myself. Even if Rollin is my standard, that standard must be thrown out when I'm watching a film by Jess Franco. The standard for a Jess Franco film must be the best that Franco was capable of.

So. And by the way, from none of this should you infer that my goal is to force myself to like the films of Jess Franco. Indeed, if that's the idea, I still, even after this weekend, have my work cut out for me. The goal is just to look at him squarely. Anyway, as I was saying, the catalyst for all this was the announcement by Kino Lorber that they would be releasing on Blu-ray three Franco films -- Nightmares Come at Night, A Virgin Among the Living Dead (or more specifically, Christina, Princess of Eroticism, about all of which more in a minute), and The Awful Dr. Orlof -- on August 20. That's tomorrow, just so's you know. And so I figured here's my chance, and I have the films here, and so off we go.
Nightmares Come at Night - This 1970 film stars Diana Lorys as Anna, a stripper whose life just at the moment is inexorably bound up in the lives of two other people: Cynthia (Colette Giacobine), a shapely blonde woman who Anna met at her club, after Cynthia gave her a pretty serious once over; Anna now lives, and has sex, with Cynthia; and Paul Lucas (Paul Muller), a psychiatrist apparently hired to help Anna get past a series of violent dreams she's been having, in which she murders a man over and over, and which have rather nastily bled over into her real life. Maybe. There's also missing jewels, and jewel thieves.

Nightmares Come at Night did not strike me as particularly successful, and in fact came close to doubling down on the kind of things that drive me up the wall about so many of these films. At one point, Anna is telling Lucas about the day she met Cynthia. She's narrating a flashback, basically, and she talks about seeing Cynthia in the strip club while she, Anna, was performing, and her act was designed to be very, very slow, so as to ramp up the seduction, and her striptease is, in fact, very, very slow, and we see just about every second of it. It very quickly becomes both boring and absurd, and never achieves the hypnotic effect that cinematic slowness sometimes can. Diana Lorys is gorgeous and everything, but by this point in the film this has been well established. The whole film plays like this, even when pacing isn't the specific thing being toyed with. It's not the worst I've seen from Franco (if there's worse than what little I've seen of Snakewoman, I don't think I want to know about it), but the dreaminess being aimed for translates into a kind of monotonous hum.
The Awful Dr. Orlof - Probably the most purely enjoyable of these three film is this one, from 1962. Because this is also the most straightforward of this group, it's probably worth mentioning that The Awful Dr. Orlof reveals a certain significant weakness, at least at this time and as it pertains to this kind of film, in Franco the writer. For example, there's a scene shortly after the villainous Dr. Orlof (Howard Vernon) has been introduced, where he and Arle (Perla Cristal) basically run through their history together and with Orlof's deformed, mute henchman Morpho (Ricardo Vale), not for their own benefit, obviously, but for ours. It's exposition as comedy sketch, almost, if only that had been its purpose. But Franco's interests lay elsewhere, evidently, and while that may be cold comfort to the viewer at that particular moment, films by people like Franco or Bava (also not a man possessed of the keenest ear for human speech) are often a curious jumble of what they were good at and what they were bad at, often in equal measure. Watching these films, I've found, is a constant process of wading through it all. As a for instance, there's a shot from inside a carriage, which is rattling along the street at night, in the rain, of the stormswept carriage driver -- it's both striking an almost complete throwaway. It almost feels like a waste, but why should that be? It fits the film, it looks great, and however insignificant it may be, it therefore cannot be insignificant. That's about as clear as I can make it.

And then of course, interestingly, the story of The Awful Dr. Orlof, while not being strikingly original, necessarily, is still engaging in its perverse Gothic twistedness. The gist is, Orlof has been kidnapping beautiful young women and killing them in his lab, with the hope of mining them for skin grafts to repair his horribly scarred daughter Melissa (Diana Lorys, who plays a dual role her, though "Melissa" doesn't require much effort, and having Lorys play her comes close to being a plot requirement). There's a policeman (Conrado San Martin) on his trail, and actually the procedural element, which is not without its pleasures, often dominates. This fed into what interested me most about the whole thing, which is the vague nods toward Jack the Ripper lore. The action takes place in 1912, rather than 1888, and Orlof's motivations are quite different from what we can assume drove Jack the Ripper, but the historical era, despite any upheavals and such that had taken place in that twenty-four-year gap, is visually not hugely different, and Orlof dresses in the classically mythical way of the Ripper. He's a doctor, which fits that same myth, has an assistant, whisks his victims away via carriage, and so forth. It's an engaging setting and approach, compelling almost by definition, but only until you see some version of it that doesn't work. Nothing in storytelling is fool-proof, and Franco was no fool.
Christina, Princess of Eroticism - The Kino disc for this 1973 film comes titled as A Virgin Among the Living Dead, this being the title it's better known by, but as Franco expert Tim Lucas says in his commentary, the cut of the film that carries that title is not exactly the film Franco set out to make. Much closer to this pure state is Christina, Princess of Eroticism, another cut, shorter by ten minutes, also included on the Kino disc. And first thing's first, Lucas points out, much to my relief, that purer cut or no, Franco hated that title, as well he should, since it's both terrible and inaccurate. In truth, A Virgin Among the Living Dead is somewhat closer to the truth of the film, so perhaps some adjustments could have been made in that regard, but anyway, here we are. The film stars Christina von Blanc as Christina, a young woman who travels to her family's remote and forboding castle. Her father has recently committed suicide, and his will is going to be read. At the castle, we meet several strange people, many of them family, some not, but all sinister. Ultimately, the film is oblique, cryptic, and surreal in the way that much of Rollin's work is, not to drag him into this again, though it can seem merely incoherent if you're not engaged as you should be. It's good to have Lucas around, at least it was good for me, because in his commentary he assures first time viewers that the film doesn't really take on a life of its own until you've seen it a second time. This might sound like he's making excuses, but having seen the film, I could see what he was talking about. Certain key moments in a film like this, something that is not only as fleeting but as portentous as Christina's attitude towards a woman seated at a desk as she, Christina, passes through a room, could be forgotten, or just missed, as Franco piles on the strangeness and, of course, the almost endless nudity (no point in being coy, I guess, although this alone isn't enough to make Christina the Princess of Eroticism).

Even for a first-timer, though, there's strangeness enough to latch on to, such as the quite disturbing scene involving the two nude women and a pair of scissors (what's most disturbing about this scene, to me anyway, is maybe not what you think), or, more interestingly, the eventual appearance of Christina's father. The man is dead, there is no question of that, but when he appears, still hanging from the noose by which he strung himself up, he's neither a ghost nor a zombie. He's dead, and he speaks. There's no attempt by Franco, because he's not interested in doing so, to slot the horror of Christina, Princess of Eroticism (such an awful title...) into an ancient tradition, or a subgenre. In fact, it's my understanding that A Virgin Among the Living Dead is padded out with zombie scenes filmed by Rollin (so I guess I can drag him into this, which is a relief), which, it seems to me, achieves the exact opposite effect that Franco was, consciously or unconsciously, going for. Since I've broken that seal, I'll note that this is not at all unlike Rollin's best films, many of which, while filled ostensibly with vampires, have very little to do with vampires, if you get me. Watch Two Orphan Vampires and tell me that's a vampire movie. Well I'm interested in that sort of thing, anyway. What I'm getting at is that while there's a certain clumsiness here, or maybe "inelegance" is a better word, always assuming there's a difference, there's also an approach to horror that is both thoughtful and skewed. This leaves me optimistic.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Cronenberg Series Part 8: The Flesh Makes Them Crazy

During a second experiment yesterday a fly which I did not see must have got into the disintegrator.  My only hope is to find that fly and go through again with it.  Please search for it carefully since, if it is not found, I shall have to find a way of putting an end to all this.

- from "The Fly" by George Langelaan

"...Guess I shook you up a little bit, didn't I?  They handed you all that crap about love and rebirth, and now you find out it's just a butcher shop, like everything else, so you don't want to hear about it..."

- from Seconds by David Ely

In 1957, George Langelaan, a British writer born in France wrote a short story called "The Fly," about a French scientist named Andre Delambre who had invented a teleportation machine (called a "disintegrator" in the story).  The story is structured as a mystery, as early on Andre is found dead, his head and arm crushed under a steam press, with his wife Helene apparently his murderer.  However, Andre's brother and a police detective must know why this happened, and information from Helene and Andre's son about a strange white-headed fly eventually lead to the truth:  when transporting himself one night, to test his invention's ability teleport humans, a fly got into the machine, with the result that Andre and the fly somehow fused together, while also splitting.  A fly with the head and arm of Andre accounts for the strange fly, and Andre with the head and leg of the fly accounts for his method of murder, or suicide.  The year after its publication, this story was adapted into a film by screenwriter James Clavell and director Kurt Neumann.  The action of that film is moved to Quebec for some reason, but otherwise it's a pretty faithful interpretation.  In 1986, on the other hand, David Cronenberg (with co-screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue, whose script he rewrote) remade the film, or once again adapted the story, though this amounts to the same thing, and so therefore to an equal degree Cronenberg adapted neither.

Six years after Langelaan's story appeared in Playboy, writer David Ely published his second novel, called Seconds.  It's the story of a man we initially know as Wilson, though it's clear this isn't his real name, and eventually as Antiochus Wilson, also clearly not his real name ("But it's a preposterous name," he says).  He's a successful middle-aged banker who, when we meet him, is following a set of cryptic directions to an office which contains a business that promises something along the lines of a new life.  What this will entail is, taking the macro view, not at all unlike entering the Witness Protection Program.  He will be given a new name and a new job, and all ties with his previous life will be thoroughly severed.  There's more, though -- his new life will also be funded by the company, his appearance will be drastically altered by plastic surgery, and the ties with his old life will be cut by producing a corpse which will be made to physically match Wilson.  Wilson is told that there are many types of death packages to choose from, but Wilson being well off he chooses -- or really, is almost made to choose -- the most expensive option, and so in a New York hotel room, a man dies of cerebral hemorrhage, and Antiochus Wilson is off to California.  This story fascinated director John Frankenheimer, who was coming off a hot streak of films, two of the most recent being The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May.  When Frankenheimer, working from a script by Lewis John Carlino, turned Seconds into a film in 1966, these three films would later be said to comprise the director's "paranoia trilogy."

Even though there are key similarities between George Langelaan's original story and David Cronenberg's adaptation, Cronenberg does something that Langelaan did not, and that Neumann did not.  It's the same thing that pretty much every screen adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has done to that story, which, like Langelaan's story, is structured as a mystery, with the truth about Mr. Hyde's identity only being revealed at the end.  What I'm getting at is, Cronenberg removes the mystery element, and forces his scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) to live with his horror.  Dr. Jekyll on-screen is almost always seen taking that first catastrophic dose, so the mystery is only for the characters around him, but not for the audience, and certainly -- and this goes without saying but is nevertheless key -- for him.  In his depiction of the tragedy of Seth Brundle, Cronenberg also removes the mystery, so that the audience knows what's up every step of the way, and his small cast of characters, of which there are really only three, the other two being science journalist and Brundle's lover Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis) and her editor and ex-boyfriend, the unforgettably named Stathis Borans (John Getz), all catch up with us at about the same time.  So that what we're left with is Seth Brundle's old life ending and his new life of insectile disintegration beginning, and ending.

Frankenheimer and Carlino's version of Seconds in plot terms is not remarkably different from David Ely's novel.  The most important aspect of Seconds as a film is Frankenheimer's ability to translate to screen what so many people ignorantly regard as one of the "unadaptable" elements of prose fiction, which is to say, the state of mind of the characters.  Therefore, when Ely's prose is quite straightforward, Wilson is constantly doubtful, nervous, uneasy.  With the unnamed company whose services he kind of sings on for, Wilson is dealing with a building filled with apparently normal people doing something extraordinary, and extraordinarily bizarre, with always -- always -- the hint of something sinister.  So in Seconds, everyday rooms are shot to look enormous, wider and taller than they are, sometimes cavernous -- Wilson is surrounded by emptiness, but an emptiness that is nevertheless walled in.  They're emptiness, captured.  Similarly, Jerry Goldsmith's magnificent score is both eerie and, eventually, mournful, sometimes both of these at once, as the truth, or the lie, of what Arthur Hamilton, the name, for practical reasons, given to the pre-Wilson protagonist (played before the company's services by John Randolph, and after the necessary plastic surgery, and now called Wilson, by Rock Hudson) has purchased isn't revealed to him, exactly, but rather dawns on him.

Seth Brundle begins his new life by experiencing, and enjoying, an enormous increase in physical strength and agility.  Added to this is a powerful boost to his sex drive and general energy, to the point that Veronica can't keep up with him -- he's become superhuman.  When she can't, he becomes angry, both in her weakness and her unwillingness to begin her life anew with him by going through the teleporter.  He's convinced that his new power is a result simply of his body being reduced to molecules, scattered, and rejoined fifteen feet away.  We know differently, but in any case, he's reborn, and life as he knew it, as it's experienced by others, is boring, slow -- it's shit.  His temper is short, and his disdain for ordinary life makes it easy to betray Veronica and take up a very driven and purposeful form of hedonism.  This angers Veronica less than it frightens her.  She knows something is wrong and she soon knows what it is.  Brundle doesn't care, because his life is better now.

In David Ely's novel, Wilson sort of just drifts into his new life as a successful California painter (new paintings are supplied to him by the company), never comfortable with any of it, except when he's had a couple of drinks and starts to enjoy his big house and his potential freedom.  But that freedom is always only a potential thing, and he never truly lives it up.  Many chances to have sex with young women are poorly acted upon, or not acted upon, because Wilson is still the man he was.  Unhappily married, but married, and never a guy to chase a skirt.  The "new freedoms," as A Serious Man's Mrs. Samsky would call them, of the 1960s, even the early stages of that decade, are a new thing, and they're off-putting, nerve-wracking, and alien.  No matter what he's been told, Wilson is not a new man.  Frankenheimer's version is somewhat different here, as his Wilson, as played by Hudson, is initially hesitant around this apparently free-wheeling beach community he finds himself living in, but the guidance of an ocean-loving woman named Nora (Salome Jens) allows him to almost literally fall into what is essentially a non-Roman Roman orgy, complete with stomped grapes and wine.  It's an old custom made new again, but, like Wilson, it's old.  It's not new.  Nothing that already exists or has existed can now be called new.  Rock Hudson as Wilson can whoop it up all he wants, but he's still Arthur Hamilton.  This is something he will come to understand. 

Brundle's life is not better for very long.  His body twists and cracks and his flesh softens and his fingernails fall away and his teeth drop out and he can no longer eat solid food.  He must vomit on his meals to liquify them.  His rebirth is speeding him along to his death.  Even after the arrogance he drew from his new power oozes out of him like pus, Brundle's shattered mind can't grasp that what is so awful about his new life is the fact that he is still Seth Brundle.  None of this would be nearly so sad if he wasn't still Seth Brundle, but he only occasionally comprehends that.  At one point he says to Veronica "I'm an insect who dreamed he was a man and loved it.  But now the dream is over...and the insect is awake."

Antiochus Wilson always knows where he came from and who he was, and that's the lie.  John Frankenheimer was drawn to Ely's novel because he knew that the popular 1960s philosophy that a person could cast off that which made them unhappy and begin life all over was bullshit.  Who you are at a given moment is a culmination of who you were and what you experienced and who you knew over every second of your life up to that point*.  If you believe otherwise, you are acting.  Wilson, when he rolls around in a barrel of grapes with dozens of naked people, he's performing.  He doesn't know that, but pretty soon, at another party he gets drunk and he starts spilling details of his old life.  According to the company, This Is Not Done.  But it's who he is.  It can't stay inside.  What he's meant to be and do is unnatural, and would be unnatural for anybody.  Both Ely's novel and Frankenheimer's film eventually become, or have always been but the exclamation point is eventually added, a science fiction/horror film.  In the novel and the film, Wilson makes doomed attempts to reclaim his past with a new name and face, but while Ely's approach is sad to the point of being depressing, Frankenheimer's, interestingly, is sad to the point of being angry.  In the novel, Wilson is a man at sea in the modern world -- elevators still kind of fascinate him.  Once reborn, his Wilson can never anchor himself, and he's pulled back to a life in which he found no happiness but which at least was his.  Frankenheimer is pissed off, however, not with any perceived increase in individual freedom or liberty or the shedding of certain inhibitions -- he's pissed off at the notion that in embracing these you can or should or are even able to obliterate that which could stall that embrace, and he's pissed off at those who promise rebirth free of any umbilical cord.  In his Seconds, stupid people are being preyed on, and he's pissed off at the stupid people and he's pissed off at the predators.  Wilson was never Wilson.  He was always Arthur Hamilton, introducing himself as Antiochus Wilson.

Cronenberg isn't angry.  His film is also, and always was, a science fiction/horror film, but it's one where the only person who dies is also the villain, and also the greatest victim (though Stathis Borans could make a pretty good case for himself if he felt like it).  Seth Brundle's tragedy begins with a freak accident, and is exacerbated, so that The Fly finally becomes Cronenberg's most emotionally wrenching film to date, by a return of his self-awareness.  Cronenberg's flair for insanely and complexly grotesque endings is in full force here -- Brundle, by the end, is more monstrous, more inhumanly twisted, than he ever was, and now, finally, he knows it, fully.  He always knew it, but he could deny it.  He could believe his new life as a fly was just beginning.  He might have learned to mourn what he was losing, but it isn't until his final seconds that he realizes it was never a new life to begin with.  It was always his death.  There was nothing next.  What he was going through wasn't the birth of Brundlefly, as he insists, because there is no Brundlefly.  All he was experiencing was the death of Seth Brundle.

John Frankenheimer's filmmaking career was a long one.  He died in 2002, with dozens of films behind him, the last of which was an HBO film that aired the same year he died.  He's primarily remembered for his first ten or so films, but he always did great work, and there's a handful in there that are genuine American masterpieces.  The Fly turned out to be, and may still be, David Cronenberg's biggest commercial success.  This is curious considering that it's still very much a David Cronenberg film, but that core idea is pretty irresistible.  The Fly is also one of his very best movies.  After this, he would enter a new phase.  In the subsequent 27 years, there would still be a scattering of films like eXistenZ that hearken back to his wild, twisted, viscera-splattered early days, but if before he made science fiction horror, he would soon begin making what might be called horror dramas.  And then he would change again, but we'll get to that.  David Ely is still alive.  He doesn't seem to write or publish anymore, and there's not much information about him out there, at least that I can find, other than that between 1963 and 1992, he published seven novels and two collections of short stories.

George Langelaan died in 1972.  He wrote several short stories, a handful of novels, and a couple of memoirs.  During World War II, he was a spy for the Allies.  In his memoir The Masks of War, he describes needing to alter certain physical features so that he might more easily drop undercover.  He achieved this through plastic surgery.
*The Criterion Collection is releasing Seconds on DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, August 13th.  John Frankenheimer's motives for adapting Ely's novel are described by his widow, Evans Frankenheimer, in a special feature on that disc called "A Second Look."  I have paraphrased her words for this post.