Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Best Books I Read in 2014? Here Are They!

This year, as I do every year, I read some books. I also kept a list of what those books were called so that, as January 1 drew near, I could, as I am now doing even as I write this, compile into list form those books I thought were really just A-1 tops in my opinion. Most such lists tend to focus on the best books that actually came out in 2014, but as always I generally don't read enough new books in a given year to do that, so my lists is made up of the best books I read, whatever their year of publication. However, this time my list includes two novels from 2014. Unprecedented!

Another thing is that this year's list is pretty long. I never limit myself to ten choices, but I generally top out at about fifteen or so. For whatever reason, maybe because I read more books this year than I normally do, I had a hard time paring it down. I decided to just go with it. That being said, I did leave out one or two books that I liked about as well as one or two I did include, partly to keep things manageable, and partly because while I genuinely enjoyed the hell out of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, for example, I think you all have probably already heard about that one by now.

One more thing before we begin...well, two more things. The first thing is that this year, two non-fiction titles made my list, which I don't believe has happened before. Make of that what you will. The other thing is that, as always most of this list isn't really ranked until you get to the top two or three, at which point you might notice that my very favorite books of the year all share a specific theme, or subject. Of that you are also invited to make what you will.

And so!

Seven Footprints to Satan by A. Merritt - Probably best known for Creep, Shadow!, his final novel from 1934, this novel, Merritt's fourth from 1927, is remembered more for the 1929 film adaptation directed by Benjamin Christensen, who also made Haxan ("best known" and "remembered" being relative terms here, unfortunately). Anyway, the novel is, as they say, a hoot: a towering, ominous, hedonistic figure claiming to be Satan forces the men and women he kidnaps to play a game of chance that will win them immortality and endless pleasure, or doom them to death and/or horrific torture. One man and one woman decide to fight back. Seven Footprints to Satan is absurd in exactly the right way, which is to say that it's absurd but I found it impossible to laugh at it. I was too gripped by suspense, and by the wish that all classic pulp fiction was this propulsive. And it earns bonus points, of a sort, by being only occasionally racist...

Harriet Said... by Beryl Bainbridge - When I do these lists, I like to find especially good or interesting or strange cover images for the books in question, and I would mark the above pictured cover for Beryl Bainbridge's first (or is it third? This is a somewhat confusing question) novel as "strange." Also "misleading," implying as it does that this novel has sleazily hitched itself to a sleazy misunderstanding of Nabokov's Lolita. Harriet Said... is not that, however. It's based on the same true crime story that inspired Peter Jackson's film Heavenly Creatures, though Bainbridge's inspiration was of a much more general sort. In her novel, two adolescent girls on vacation attract a fair amount of male attention, and they find themselves drawn to one particular man. Their intentions towards this man are appalling, but what Bainbridge, who tells the story from the point of view of the girls, never states but which we understand anyway, is that the man's intentions towards the girls aren't any better. The fact that everyone's intentions are thwarted for something even worse is to be expected, and Bainbridge lays the path towards that end with events that are deceptively matter-of-fact and written with a casual precision that lends to the story the air of the everyday that must always precede such terrible crimes in real life.

North American Lake Monsters by Nathan Ballingrud - I first heard about Ballingrud when I came across his short story "The Monsters of Heaven" in editor Ellen Datlow's horror anthology Inferno. I read that story, and loved it (and wrote about it here), but I didn't get around to reading Ballingrud's story collection that contains it until, oh, about a week ago. Over about the past year or so, I've gathered that North American Lake Monsters is something of a favorite among serious contemporary genre writers -- I keep seeing it praised by the respectable likes of Jeff VanDermeer and Laird Barron and so forth -- and it's not hard to see why. If I had to compare what Ballingrud is doing here to anything, I'd have to say his fiction is akin to to work of Larry Brown or Daniel Woodrell, but with monsters. See "The Monsters of Heaven," for instance, or more directly the title story, or best of all his werewolf tale "Wild Acre," which uses genuine werewolf horror as the backbone for a story about a man on the cusp of economic ruin, and does all this while still treating the werewolf element seriously. I admit that I don't love every story here -- I didn't love the non-genre "S.S." or "The Way Station," his curious take on the ghost story -- but pretty much everything else is a success, including "Sunbleached," a pretty terrific, even somewhat traditional, vampire story, and "The Good Husband," the last story, and the one that arguably packs the collection's strongest emotional kick in the teeth.

Joe by Larry Brown - Speaking of Larry Brown, the release of David Gordon Green's film version of Brown's 1991 novel Joe spurred me to finally pick that book up, as preparation, I told myself, for Green's movie, admiring that filmmaker as I do. Well, Green's adaptation suffered for my decision, as hoping for anybody's film to match up to Brown's extraordinary novel is hoping for too much.  The story, about a violent, drunken, but fundamentally decent man named Joe taking into his protection a teenage boy whose poverty-stricken family is headed by a patriarch of endless vileness, is the kind of thing that people sometimes call mythic, which I think in this context means that it is, in the hands of a writer as stunningly gifted as Larry Brown, deeply satisfying. Brown's prose is gorgeous in the way that makes me demand to know how language so apparently simple can be put together so that what is being depicted and thereby communicated reaches down to your bones. What I'm trying to tell you is that this a good book and you should read it.

The Land Breakers by John Ehle - Reviewed here.

King of the Hill by A. E. Hotchner - I talk a little bit about Hotchner and his memoir of his childhood spent with a younger brother, loving mother, and shady, infuriating father during the Great Depression in this post, which is mostly about Steven Soderbergh and his film adaptation. You can get the gist from that, but to repeat one point I make there, what makes Hotchner's King of the Hill so terrific is that it's not written as though by a grown man looking back, but rather as a young boy living it as it happens. It's very difficult when putting these lists together to go back and find suitable passages from these books, some of which I read almost a year ago, to quote, but here's one I easily found from King of the Hill; easily, because it's one of my favorites:

...[N]ine times out of ten [my mother] asked me if I had to put that dirty thing on my head. That dirty thing happened to be the best old Feltie in the neighborhood. My father called it a skullcap. I found this really great fedora in the trash can in the park, and cut out the crown and cut designs in it, and I had some really nifty buttons stuck all over it, especially this one of Mr. Herbert Hoover smiling, which, believe me, was some rare button.

People Live Still in Cashtown Corners by Tony Burgess - Canadian author Tony Burgess is kind of a horror writer, though he might not be considered one because he's pretty clearly not beholden to the restrictions of formula that too many writers, and readers, consider the genre's defining characteristics. His best-known book would have to be 1998's Pontypool Changes Everything, his insane, undefinable sort-of-episodic novel about a sort-of zombie virus that spreads through language. That book (which made my 2009 list) was successfully turned into a film, if you can imagine such a thing, called simply Pontypool, by Burgess and director Bruce McDonald -- they succeeded, I believe, by being extremely free with the adaptation. Supposedly the two are re-teaming to adapt People Live Still in Cashtown Cornershis 2010 novel about a mass murderer named Bob Clark, who kills as a means of understanding. To try and summarize the book's perverse psychology would be too difficult, but perhaps this passage, following the first murder, will give you some sense of it:

We enter into battles without understanding the terms of our survival and when we do survive, when we do what is necessary, when we pull up strong, then all the rest, this cost, this remainder of my life, is only lessened because we did so much more than all the others. We stood while God hammered the sky and we never stopped walking while chainsaws milked our legs and we did something very wrong and awful, but at least it cleared the air. It lifts those that come after. It was us we offered up and no one will ever know this but us.

Or perhaps this:

My mind isn't snapped or anything. I'm not particularly afraid of what I've done even though I do know that now, whatever happens, at some point down the road I'm going to have to listen to someone tell me what I've done.

And if you think Burgess is (figuratively) sacrificing innocent lives so that he can more easily sympathize with their killer, you're mistaken.

Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone by Stefan Kiesbye - This slim volume of linked short stories is Kiesbye's second book, after his novella Next Door Lived a Girl, which I haven't read but which I'm damn well going to now. Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone is set in Germany, at a time that is mostly undefined, though by the end the reader has an idea. The characters are all children, and almost every story ends with, or at some point involves, something appalling being done by one or more of them. Is it all just slaughter, the senseless cruelty of children? In a way, which sort of explains what's happening. I've seen many descriptions of this book that compare it to various other things, with varying degrees of accuracy and absurdity, but the comparison I've seen that gives the best idea of what you'll be dealing with if you pick up Kiesbye's eerie novel is the one that calls it a cross between the Brothers Grimm and Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon. As a metaphor for what I'll bet you've guessed it's a metaphor for, Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone is fascinating.

The Year of the Angry Rabbit by Russell Braddon - In 1972, Janet Leigh, Rory Calhoun, DeForest Kelley and others appeared in a film called Night of the Lepus which, as I remember it, is about giant mutant rabbits who kill people. THE END. That film was based on a 1964 novel by an Australian writer named Russell Braddon, who by that time had made a name for himself by writing a memoir about his four years as a POW in Singapore during World War II, two other books of non-fiction chronicling the heroism of British spy Nancy Wake, and a few other novels. Nowadays, The Year of the Angry Rabbit is his most famous work of fiction, and it's struggling to be remembered as a thing separate from the ridiculous movie, which took the killer rabbit idea and that's all. Braddon's novel skates by what is inherently laughable about the idea by, in fact, being a satire in the mold of, and I'm not kidding, Dr. Strangelove. I'm not going to claim The Year of the Angry Rabbit is as great as Kubrick's film, but it's a fascinatingly strange story about the power to dominate all other nations suddenly falling into the lap of Australia's Prime Minister, who seeks world peace via threats of total destruction. It's a singular, and singularly weird book that is now hard to find, and it deserves a better legacy than Night of the Lepus.

There is a Happy Land by Keith Waterhouse - Waterhouse is one of those writers who will always be defined by one book. In this case, that book is Billy Liar, which -- and don't think I haven't noticed that this is sort of a theme in this post -- became a famous film in 1963, directed by John Schlesinger. But Waterhouse wrote a bunch of novels, and this one, his first, is well worth tracking down (as it's been reprinted by Valancourt Books, that should be easy enough to do). There is a Happy Land is one of those realist one-thing-after-another novels about childhood that British writers of a certain era wrote with such apparent ease and skill. About a young boy who lives in a public housing estate, and the end of his closest friendship, as well as what's going on with the strange, obviously crazy -- obvious to the adult reader anyway -- bike-riding adult who seems most comfortable around children, There is a Happy Land is both funny in its close observations of childhood, and the odd logic of children's minds, and eventually tragic and sad for those very same reasons. It's really wonderful, and it's one of those books that comes together to the fullness of its power in its final pages.

Angels by Denis Johnson - I read, I think, seven novels by Denis Johnson this year. I loved most of them, and choosing one among the best of those -- Train Dreams, Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, Nobody Move, Angels -- was a difficult prospect that I chose to simplify by choosing the one I read most recently. This is nevertheless not an arbitrary choice. Angels was published in 1983 and is Johnson's first novel. It is infuriating that a first novel can be this good. It's a novel that I shouldn't summarize, beyond saying that it's about a woman named Jamie who takes her two young daughters and leaves her husband, and who, on the bus to Hershey, PA meets an ex-sailor and current drunk and petty criminal named Bill Houston who Jamie is lost enough to find romantic. You know this won't turn out great, but where it goes is impossible, I think, to guess. In fact, it does recall certain films, though if I named them I might as well tell you how it ends. But while that journey is partly what reading this novel is all about, there's obviously much more to it. The thing about Angels is that late in the novel, Johnson describes something that he could not have possibly experienced, and that I could not have possibly experienced, but which Johnson's prose illuminates and imagines in a way that is gorgeously terrifying, and feels impossibly, exactly right. It's the kind of writing that humbles you.

Consumed by David Cronenberg - Reviewed here, though I'd like to add that my sense is that not enough people are reading this, and of those who are reading it, not enough are liking it. This is a terrific book. Being a fan of Cronenberg's films may be a necessary first step, but with that accomplished the rest should be clear sailing. Get on this one, you pricks!

The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm - My appreciation for Janet Malcolm's extremely controversial examination of journalism and what she believes is inherently unethical about it, has little to do with the potential guilt or innocence of Jeffrey MacDonald, the doctor and Green Beret convicted of murdering his wife and children in 1979. I don't know if he did it or not, and solving that mystery (if that's even what it is) isn't what interests Malcolm either. She examines journalistic ethics through the lens of Fatal Vision, writer Joe McGinniss's true crime bestseller about the case published in 1983. In The Journalist and the Murderer, McGinniss comes off as hideously mercenary in how he dealt with his subjects, but if Malcolm were only interested in writing a hit piece I doubt it would be on this list (although who am I kidding, it might be anyway). Malcolm isn't even interested in taking down journalism. What interested her, and for her troubles she became something of a pariah among her colleagues, was questioning not just the occupation itself, but the received wisdom that a journalist is virtuous by dint of being a journalist. And Malcolm, a journalist, doesn't spare herself. She is ruthless in a way that few people are willing to be about who they are and what they do.

Red Shift by Alan Garner - A science fiction novel unlike any other I've ever read, Alan Garner's 1973 masterpiece tells three stories from three different centuries: one about deserters from an ancient Roman army; one about a man desperately trying to defend his village and those he loves during the English Civil War; and another, set in 1973, about a teenage couple in love, and how the boy is potentially going to fall apart when the girl leaves for London. Geographically, the stories take place on top of each other, and so, in a way, in Garner's way, are happening simultaneously. This reminds me of many things, including the ancient Roman source of Arthur Machen's nevertheless very British horror story "The White People."  Red Shift isn't horror, but it is brutal -- the violence of centuries past is depicted by Garner is something that was as natural as one animal killing another for food -- and though a science fiction tone is achieved through a kind of psychological time travel, it's the spirits of the dead that live on in the rocks and soil that form the guts of this highly unusual novel.

In Hazard by Richard Hughes - Hughes wrote one of my all-time favorite novels, A High Wind in Jamaica from 1929. I read that book several years ago, and it took me quite a while to read anything else by Hughes, and I'm not really sure why. But now that I have I can say that In Hazard, Hughes's second novel, from 1938, utterly failed to disappoint. The novel, about a cargo steamer caught in an ungodly hurricane, is written with the same sardonic eye for human frailty, heroism, cowardice, and tragedy that you'd expect from him. In this brief novel, Hughes sketches a large handful of characters with a deftness you simply don't see now, and tosses them into a seemingly unwinnable situation. Then he stands back like God and watches to see how they make out. That in doing so Hughes somehow finds room  -- this book is only about 120 pages long -- to appear to be racist before revealing itself to be exactly not that, while also telling the story of the making of a Chinese Communist, while also...well, that's enough out of me. Hughes wrote very few books, he was notoriously slow, but the two I've read so far are unlike anything else I can think of.

Nosferatu by Jim Shepard - Reviewed (eventually) here.

Loving by Henry Green - This novel from 1945 is set on a country estate in Ireland during World War II.  When the elderly head butler dies, a servant named Raunce, who seemingly looks out primarily for himself, is promoted. Over the course of Henry Green's masterpiece, an item will be stolen, the servants will be left alone on the estate for a time, two of them will fall in love. Meals will be prepared and served, drinks will be drunk. Servants will leave. People will speculate about what this war will mean for Ireland. What a lifetime of reading fiction has conditioned you to expect from such a novel will not be fulfilled. Loving is a gentle novel while being anything but soft -- it's about as clear-eyed about life as it's lived, at least by these people in this house, as any writer has managed before or since. In his interview with The Paris Review, Henry Green famously described the conception of Loving this way: 

I got the idea of Loving from a manservant in the Fire Service during the war. He was serving with me in the ranks, and he told me he had once asked the elderly butler who was over him what the old boy most liked in the world. The reply was: "Lying in bed on a summer morning, with the window open, listening to the church bells, eating buttered toast with cunty fingers." I saw the book in a flash.

So there you go.

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns - A novel about a plague of violent madness long before writers thought they were being original by spinning off that concept from the zombie subgenre (oh how weary I become), Barbara Comyns' bizarre, funny, and unnerving 1955 novel about how one family fails (I'm simplifying) to bravely face the devastation of their village is about as damning a look at humanity in crisis as I've ever read. Not that it's ostentatiously "about" that -- let's just say that Comyns, who, what with this and The Vet's Daughter, which I read a couple of years ago, I'm beginning to think was a genius, is dubious about a few things. Can you imagine such a novel being written now in which the primary parental figure within the story's central family is not only not heroic, but a heroic character isn't introduced to take their place? In addition to that, if you want to pin down Who Was Changed and Who was Deadit's a novel about death in which daily death is sort of gotten used to:

During the afternoon Ives went to Grandmother Willoweed, who was sunning herself in a basket chair on the top path.

"Baker's dead, ma'm," he shouted down her trumpet, "and Mrs. Fig's got the madness or else it's the D.T.'s, and the little old peacock's dead too; we haven't got one now. But my ducks is alright," and he turned away towards the river to make sure this was still so.

The Lost Weekend by Charles Jackson - Jackson will be remembered only for this novel. Even those who seek to not let us forget that this was a novel, and not just an Oscar-winning film from Billy Wilder, seem content to let this and a handful of short stories stand for Jackson's life and career, and let the other novels and stories disappear. My plan is to read all of Jackson's fiction -- there's not a ton of it, just two story collections and four novels -- and in addition to The Lost Weekend I've also read his second novel, The Fall of Valor, which I liked. But fair's fair: it's not The Lost Weekend, which is simply the greatest novel about alcoholism I've ever read. It's not just that -- I feel like it's the best novel about alcoholism that it's possible to write.  As Don Birman promises sobriety to himself and others time and again, only to collapse into a river of booze each time, it's possible for the reader to find himself alternately hoping that Birman either be refused that next drink, or to be offered all the booze he desires. No writer has ever made the horror experienced by a drunk both when he gets his drink and the horror experienced when he can't as palpable, immediate, and terrifying as Jackson does. It's a merciless and deeply frightening novel.

The Tunnel by William H. Gass - Well, what can anyone say about this? Though Gass has written significant books following its publication in 1995, The Tunnel is genuinely, literally, the life's work of one man. Several decades in the writing, The Tunnel is possibly the most difficult novel I've ever read, and for a while it felt like reading it was going to be my own life's work. The idea behind this novel is that it is, all 600-some pages of it, ostensibly the introduction to the narrator's massive scholarly work Guilt and Innocence in Hitler's Germany. That narrator, the author, is William Frederick Kohler, and in trying to introduce this major book, he ends up telling, in a manner of speaking, his life story, a story that includes his decision to dig a tunnel in the basement of his home, a project he has taken up at the same time as the writing of this "introduction." Which is a mad, sometimes gorgeous, sometimes utterly opaque, swirl of Midwest childhood lived in the early part of the 20th century with a mean father and a drunk, depressed mother, who dies from a hemorrhage in her throat, her blood draining back into her body "like a sink." Strange sexual encounters mix with Kohler's insistence (though he's not proud of it) that he took part in Kristallnacht...but would he have been old enough? And these then mix with an examination of the other professors in the history department where Kohler is tenured, his hatred of them, his envy of them, mixed again with memories of eating ice cream and car accidents he witnessed as a child, mixed again with a consideration of the assassination in 1938 of Nazi Ernst vom Rath by Polish refugee and Jew Herschel Grynszpan, leading finally to a final fifty pages that are among the saddest and most beautiful I have ever read. In its own way, The Tunnel contains the whole of the 20th Century.

The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski - I realize that there is some controversy surrounding Kosinski and The Painted Bird, having to do with accusations of plagiarism. At one time I knew a bit more about the specifics, but I've forgotten all of it now. The controversy is not something I now dismiss, if the accusations are fair, but I'll re-investigate all that at another time. For now, I can only consider the novel, published in 1965, about a young boy, possibly Jewish, possibly a Gypsy, sent away by his parents because they believed he would have a better chance of surviving the holocaust sweeping over the country on his own than with them. And so off he goes, suffering or witnessing one atrocity after another, as the novel becomes a living, breathing, walking, seeing Hieronymus Bosch painting, even though it remains words on a page. It's literary minimalism put to the use of the grotesque and horrible, which is never-ending, or seems as if it will be. But this novel is about a real horror that we know did end, and even here, even in this most terrible novel, there is before the horror, just a little, and there is the horror, and there is after the horror. Just a little, but it's there, on the other side.

The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis - While thinking about these last three novels in this best-of list, of which Gass's The Tunnel was the first and now The Zone of Interest, Martin Amis's 2014 declaration that the literary world dismisses him at their own peril, is the last, I do have to ask myself which of them I truly think is the "best." Such a stupid question is answered reasonably with "It doesn't matter." If The Tunnel is the most unapproachably (in a sense) impressive, and The Painted Bird is the most awe-inspiringly painful, Amis's novel is the most entertaining while being simultaneously the one novel I read this year that most regularly took my breath away: I've heard The Zone of Interest described as "an office comedy about Auschwitz." Which it sort of is, I guess, at least for a while. The novel tells the story of life in Auschwitz from the point of view of a, let's say, skeptical Nazi named Golo Thomsen (he's Bormann's nephew!); a true believer Nazi commandant named Paul Doll, who is married to Hannah Doll, who hates her husband and whom Thomsen loves; and Szmul, the Jewish Sonderkommando, who worked with the Nazis in the camps and as a result enjoyed certain benefits; those Jews who occupied Primo Levi's "grey zone." But oh no, a love triangle? Is Amis trivializing the Holocaust? No, because the idea behind The Zone of Interest is to show what such things looked like against this backdrop. It's similar to Cabaret in this sense. And yes, it's funny, though over the years Martin Amis's idea of a comic novel differs from pretty much everyone else's: he's funny because he can't not be, because humor is his mode, his style. And it's not a matter of "laughing so that you don't scream" -- it's not that simple. You laugh while you scream. But it's also not that simple. Here's how Amis writes now -- here's what's funny to him now...or here's what's "funny" to him now -- this, from Szmul, reflecting on the life of the Sonderkommando:

It would infinitesimally console me, I think, if I could persuade myself that there is companionship -- that there is human communion, or at least respectful fellow-feeling, in the bunkroom above the disused crematory.

A very great many words are spoken, certainly, and our exchanges are always earnest, articulate, and moral.

'Either you go mad in the first ten minutes,' it is often said, 'or you get used to it.' You could argue that those who get used to it do in fact go mad. And there is another possible outcome: you don't go mad and you don't get used to it.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Secret History of Movies #7 (Christmas Edition)

(James Edmond in Black Christmas, 1974, d. Bob Clark)
(Peter Billingsley in A Christmas Story, 1983, d. Bob Clark)

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

It's Dangerous to Taunt Death

Barbara Steele, one of the premiere horror actresses of the latter half of the 20th Century, never really did a nude scene. I point this out only because when you consider what the genre started to become in the 1960s, especially in Europe where Steele made most of her films, that's part of the job description not a lot of her contemporaries were able to avoid. This isn't a judgment going in either direction, but you'd think that if you were an attractive woman who made more than one Italian horror film in the 60s or 70s, at some point you were going to be shown sleeping nude above the covers. But not Barbara Steele, and in fact how often was she positioned strictly as a sex symbol, or even partly as one? She made a lot of movies and I haven't seen as many as I should have, but I think not too often. Maybe I'm alone here, but this strikes me as a unique state of affairs.

It's on my mind at all because just recently I watched Steele in 1964's The Long Hair of Death, directed by Antonio Margheriti and co-written by Margheriti, Ernesto Gastaldi, and Tonino Valerii, each of them taking on Anglicanized pseudonyms, such a Margheriti's "Anthony Dawson." Most of Margheriti's career was conducted under the name, sometimes with the middle initial M. stuck in there -- he was also behind Yor, the Hunter from the Future, Horror Castle with Christopher Lee and, with Sergio Corbucci, co-directed Castle of Blood which also featured Steele. This film, The Long Hair of Death, which is now out on Blu-ray courtesy of Raro Video, is, as far as I can remember, the first of his films I've seen, and I have to tell you, Yor, the Hunter from the Future has become a more attractive prospect than it previously had been.

So back to Steele. She plays two roles here, although...well, never mind, but anyway in the beginning she plays Helen Karnstein, the eldest daughter of Grumalda (Laura Nucci) who, as the film opens, is about to be burned at the stake by order of Count Humboldt (Guiliano Raffaelli) because, supposedly, she used her witchery to murder Humboldt's brother. So claims Humboldt's son Kurt (George Ardisson) anyway, but Helen knows it's not true and fruitlessly pleads with Count Humboldt to reconsider. He doesn't, Grumalda is burned alive shortly after placing a curse on Humboldt's family, and Humboldt murders Helen, leaving her younger sister Lisabeth alone to be cared for by the Humboldts. Lisabeth grows up to be played by Halina Zalewska, and is married off to Kurt, the true killer of his father, Count Humboldt's brother, and a man set to eventually inherit the entire family fortune. Then one night, Mary shows up (Barbara Steele again).

There's a lot to like about The Long Hair of Death. Ardisson is properly awful as the villain -- in this film he's like a sinister Troy Donahue, which is exactly what the character calls for. The whole thing is not unlike a Tales from the Crypt story, with its final karmic blow, but it's also not unlike what Edgar Allan Poe's script for The Sting might have looked like. The main plot involves Kurt having an affair with Mary and the two of them planning the murder of Lisabeth, but given who plays Mary there can be very little doubt about where this is all heading. I would not call the result predictable because that implies a mistake was made somewhere. Instead, like in The Sting, we know what the intended end result is and we're waiting to see how they get there. The Long Hair of Death orchestrates nothing quite so elaborate as David S. Ward and George Roy Hill did, but that's fine, and not needed or even wanted here. But it's kind of fascinating to realize you're watching the Gothic horror version of a long con.

And Steele is terrific (though dubbed), and you can see pretty clearly why she was and remains so popular. When she appears in this film, or Bava's Black Sunday, she's able to become part of the visual design simply by showing up. "Ethereal" is the wrong word because her presence is too solid. Her beauty was Gothic -- she looks like old castles and the white-skinned ghosts that slide through them and the black trees outside. She looks like the genre itself.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Don't Say That You Love Me

This post contains massive spoilers for both The Babadook and Tusk
You have been warned with red letters

Though the buzz and chatter that brings to public attention various films, genre and otherwise, throughout a given year attached itself to any number of horror movies in 2014, including Oculus (I liked it a great deal!) and The Purge: Anarchy (it's a sack of garbage!), ever since sometime around, oh, I don't even know when, the two I was most excited and/or curious to check out -- and here we'll agree to exclude Under the Skin due to its being a whole other thing entirely -- were Jennifer Kent's The Babadook and Kevin Smith's Tusk. I use the past tense for reasons that should be obvious, and it would be nice to now be able to pit the two against each other. The profile of each has been pretty high in the latter months of the year, though while The Babadook's continues to rise, Tusk, after a relatively triumphant -- given Smith's recent track record and abrasive relationship with critics, no love having been lost between either party -- premiere at TIFF, has seen its fortunes slip to a pretty lowly state following a release strategy that strikes me as deeply puzzling (to the extent that I know about such things) and certainly unprofitable, but which, inevitably, has allowed more people to see the film, and thereby more opinions of it to be heard. If there was ever a film that was destined to be loved by all, Tusk most assuredly is not it.

At a glance, the two films have little in common apart from the tenuous connection of their shared genre, but I feel like each represents something about modern horror cinema; they point at, or towards, or maybe away from, something. What that is precisely might be difficult to get at, but what's clear in the case of Kent's The Babadook is that if the film has an impact beyond its enormous success among critics and genre fans, things could possibly be looking up for this eternally degraded genre. Because eventually, the monopoly of influence that has been enjoyed by old grindhouse films and '80s slasher movies has to wear off, right? One might bemoan the notion that naked influence has become horror cinema's lifeblood, but with the understanding that we can't conquer the whole world right out of the gate, wouldn't there be some optimism to be found in the possibility that this influence won't creep along in a predictably chronological fashion so that eventually we're watching movies that proudly bear the stamp of Thir13een Ghosts, but instead spreads back further and wider? It's this spread that The Babadook shows off, from the title on down.

The Babadook stars Essie Davis as Amelia, a woman we first meet being driven to the hospital because she is about to deliver their first child. But there is an accident, and her husband is killed. When we pick up with Amelia many years later, her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) is about to turn seven. She has remained single since her husband's death and currently works as an orderly at elder care facility. And she has spent the last several years coming apart. Not only is she a single mother, but her son is also deeply troubled -- he's manic, hyper, anxious. He believes in monsters and constructs weapons, like crossbows, which though crude actually work, a fact that has gotten him into trouble at school time and again. He sleeps in the same bed as Amelia, clings to her like a drowning man to a sinking ship, and he grinds his teeth at night. The absence of his father, or perhaps the effects of some physical trauma caused by the accident, seems to have driven him mad. Anyway, this is how it often seems to Amelia, who finds her life to be increasingly made up of different pockets of isolation and stress. Along with her work, which can't possibly be relaxing, and her home life with a mad but loving son, there's Amelia's sister Claire (Hayley McElhinney) who, every time Amelia sees her, appears to be subtly, but clearly, trying to distance herself and her daughter from Amelia and Samuel. And so the isolation expands. Soon she will be alone forever with the son she loves, whose own fear and anxiety manifest in behavior that is like nails in her skull. Essie Davis is at times astounding in the way her frantic exhaustion seems capable of driving the viewer to a nervous breakdown, out of sheer sympathetic terror.

The Babadook is frightening enough when it's just this stuff, and taken as a whole the film, which is Australian, might be described as "kitchen sink horror," a variation on the English kitchen sink dramas in which the antagonist was the day-to-day struggle to not be overwhelmed by life. One of the reasons the film has resonated so strongly is because the horror is rooted in life as many live it, not in other movies that many have seen. And when the actual supernatural elements are introduced, they are so old-fashioned as to seem almost new. Every night, Amelia reads Samuel a bedtime story. Usually she picks, but one night she gives him free rein and he comes to bed holding a large red book she doesn't recognize called Mister Babadook. The book presents strange gray drawings of a top-hatted creature called "the Babadook" demanding entrance to a young boy's house, and rhymes like "A rumbling sound then 3 sharp knocks: ba-BA-ba DOOK! DOOK! DOOK!That's when you'll know that he's around. You'll see him if you look." It seems like a typical, slightly spooky children's pop-up book, until it becomes more threatening, and soon Samuel is screaming. Subsequent attempts by Amelia to hide and even destroy the book prove fruitless, and soon she's receiving phone calls from a voice like a creaking door which only says "Baba...dook...Dook...DOOOK!" The question becomes, who is in more danger, Amelia or Samuel? And in danger of what, exactly?

The creature, the Babadook itself, is clothed in black, with a cape and top hat, possibly gloves, but if so covering long pointed fingers, and a chalk-white face that houses an enormous, razor-toothed mouth. This we catch only in glimpses, but those glimpses are clear enough. The imagery is strikingly eerie, but also classical -- the look and the name itself, "the Babadook," combine to create a completely new boogeyman that is at the same time as old as ghost stories. "The Babadook" is a masterpiece of neologism, worthy of enshrinement for later use, to terrify children generations from now who've never even heard of the film (judging by a headline I stumbled across the other day, apparently writer-director Jennifer Kent has given an interview in which she talks about the name, but I'd rather not know anything about it). More terrifying still is its context within this specific film. To answer an earlier question that may have seemed rhetorical, Amelia and Samuel are in equal danger -- Amelia is in danger of being possessed by the Babadook ("Let me in!"), and Samuel of being murdered by his mother. About two-thirds of the way into the film, Amelia is shown blankly watching TV. The Babadook has her now, she's stopped going to work, Samuel isn't going to school, and Samuel's mad conviction that the Babadook is real has become sanity, while Amelia's reasonable denial has transformed into a psychosis that is bordering on homicidal. It's a border the audience may be convinced she's about to spill across. On the TV is a news report about a mother who has killed her child. Instantly, what the viewer is reminded of is probably not the film's plot up to this point, but instead real stories of infanticide: the mother who drove her children into a lake. The mother who drowned one child after another until there weren't any more. The mother who smothered her child in its crib. Kent doesn't require you to make a leap here, as in this scene Amelia sees herself, smiling, in the window of the house of the murders in the news report. It's a horror idea -- a ghost story idea, really, evoking as it does famous photographs that purport to have captured real ghosts on film, each picture bringing with it its own contextualizing ghost story -- that is both classically effective and in relation to this movie genuinely unsettling in a way that reverberates outside of it.

I've heard The Babadook interpreted as ambiguous in its approach to the supernatural: is the Babadook real, or is it all in Amelia's mind? The film invites this, so much of it coming from or filtering through Amelia. Furthermore, I'm well aware that this is now the interpretation of choice among viewers who can find any way to apply it to any movie that has a patch on which it can be applied (and also films that don't), but to begin with, if we want deal with on-screen evidence, I'm forced to ask, if this is all in Amelia's head, where did the book come from? Samuel found it, not her. And if you want to brush that away, why do Amelia and Samuel have an equal and independent awareness of the Babadook? Either way, I think the mistake that too many people now make with the horror genre -- and I'm thinking here of both the audience and in some cases the artists, though not, in my view, in the case of Jennifer Kent and The Babadook -- is that when faced with a supernatural element sitting side-by-side with a real-world atrocity, only one can be considered worthwhile, or "real." It's beyond me why someone watching a horror film would require that within the film itself, the subtext must defeat the supernatural element -- perhaps people are becoming distrustful of metaphor. At any rate, "Stop doing that" is my advice, not least because it reduces the power of films like The Babadook. Kent has created a folkloric monster to represent the choking or drowning or stabbing of children by their parents (specifically mothers, it should be noted, and this I think is intentional on Kent's part; stories about fathers killing their children often take on a different texture, not least because the fathers often kill their entire families, including spouses and sometimes, if they're nearby, parents). Kent's influence is myth, and if her film lasts beyond the current excited reaction to it, it could become part of that myth. Or rather, again, folklore, the kitchen sink mythology.

However, then the film comes to its end. With all of the above in mind, it should logically follow that The Babadook will end in one of two ways: either Amelia will murder Samuel, or Samuel will defeat the Babadook, with or without Amelia's help, thereby saving Amelia (or not). Instead, Kent found a third ending, one I'm still kicking around. It's not "happy," of that I'm pretty sure. The Babadook is defeated in that neither Amelia nor Samuel are dead, but as the book Mister Babadook prophesied, "You Can't Get Rid of the Babadook!" and indeed, the creature resides, in the end, in their basement. They know it's there, and Amelia feeds it worms. In the garden, black roses grown, indicating that the Babadook has poisoned the soil. It's hard not to believe that this is evidence of Kent having pulled shyly away from her theme of filicide, and it's harder still to not feel it as the ending unspools. But what's going on, really? I'm reminded in a way of The Ring (or Ringu, whichever you saw first), at the end of which the mother becomes a willing, if begrudging, link in the chain of urban legend and death. The ending of The Babadook can be read similarly, with Amelia becoming the willing keeper of the Babadook as a means of protecting herself and her son. Unlike in The Ring, however, Amelia and Samuel seem happy, even eager, with the arrangement, not merely resigned to it as a trade for their perhaps temporary safety, as you might expect. But maybe Samuel is simply happy that his mother is alive, the one thing he's always claimed to want. As for Amelia, the relief she must feel at the end has to be enormous, because she has regained control, of her son and her life. It's unspoken in the film, but can she not bully her son with threats? Why should a thing like the Babadook exist if not so parents can say to their children "Stop that, or the Babadook will get you!" And by "the Babadook," I of course mean me.

So what does any of this have to do with Kevin Smith's Tusk? Apart from the fact that I watched The Babadook and Tusk on consecutive nights, I'm becoming unsure how to answer that question. I've long regarded Smith with, at the very least, skepticism, and this is back in the beginning: I remember being a young man who liked Clerks while secretly not liking it that much, and it's been pretty much all downhill from there. I became tired of being forced by his films to ask not just how many cum jokes can one film have, but how many cum jokes must any one life endure? And as I got older and began to understand more about filmmaking and its possibilities and potential, the aggressiveness of his visual indifference began to feel like a sour insult. None of this would have mattered as much if he hadn't been so heralded in the beginning, from roughly Clerks through Dogma, with his second feature, Mallrats, being thought of as the one allowable hiccup. Then, as Smith became more and more of an outspoken public figure, his insistence on saying things like "Me and a bunch of cats are going to the theater to peep some flicks" (I'm paraphrasing) combined with things like his bullshit takedown of Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia, a film of extraordinary ambition and risk coming just two years before Smith himself released the execrable Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, a film that is the visual equivalent of having two potheads scream jokes about hey, how do Wookies jerk off??? Maybe Yoda helps or maybe Boba Fet helps or maybe Salacious Crumb helps!!! More like Salacious Cum!!! into your ears; these things combined, as I say, to make Smith a figure to be ignored. I did like Jersey Girl. I'm not kidding, that's the one I liked.

Well, more recently Smith has been drifting away from his brand of sentimental sex comedies and towards horror, a genre his films and public statements had never indicated he'd had any kind of preoccupation with, at least not that I'd ever noticed. Instead of being dubious, I became curious. Within reason, but still curious. And in truth, the first film to grow out of this, Red State isn't really a horror film, and I believe it's regarded as one only because that's what people called it. There's no reason to go over that film here -- suffice it to say I thought it was dogshit, it's certainly no Jersey Girl, etc. But then Smith announced a second horror film, and here's where the first problem with Tusk pops up. Smith seems to believe that how he got the idea for the film is the most interesting thing in the world, and that's why for the last year and a half I can't seem to escape the bit of film history that is the episode of Smith's podcast on which he and long-time producer Scott Mosier hatched the plot, based on what they then believed was a real personal ad looking for someone to dress up as a walrus for the presumably sexual gratification of the ad-placer. This ad turned out to be a hoax, or a joke anyway, but Smith had publicly had an idea for his movie, and he was going through with it. I'm willing to regard this as all well and good, but it's beyond my understanding why this is so interesting. Sometimes people have ideas while sitting in chairs. A lot of people have ideas based on something strange they read in the newspapers. I'd say each is about as common as the other, and as common as lots of other idea-gathering methods, and all are equally as interesting, which is to say: not very. Speaking of the chair thing, that's how David Lynch says he gets his ideas: by sitting in a chair and thinking. I actually do find that interesting -- the act of having a story idea as a kind of job -- but not so interesting that I hope Lynch talks about it in every interview he ever gives. And beside it, reading a newspaper doesn't match up.

But none of this deadened my curiosity. Because yes, I was curious, honestly curious -- I wasn't optimistic, but my interest didn't come from a desire to ironically trash a new catastrophe. The basic concept of a walrus costume-based horror film can't help but make me screw up my mouth and make "Hm" noises, and the fact that this was Smith only heightened everything, but again, not due to some insatiable need for irony. This was a filmmaker with whom I was familiar, familiar enough to disdain -- hence curiosity rather than excitement -- and here he was trying something that was, for him, brand new, or sounded like it would be. But would it be? One thing about Red State is that Smith ostensibly stepped up his game visually, moving the camera and so on, but any visual style that film had was borrowed from whatever was trendy at the time, and since the violence in that film is all of the gunfight variety, what was borrowed was a kind of action movie graininess. The point being, it wasn't his, and I knew where he'd found it. But from where would he borrow the style for his walrus movie?

And now the movie has been made and released, and here we are, and I think I've cleared my throat quite enough. Instead of working directly from the personal ad angle, Smith's idea was both more elaborate and just as basic. An extraordinarily successful podcaster ("Last year I made $100,000 on ad revenues alone!") named Wallace Bryton (Justin Long) takes a trip to Winnipeg to meet a kid who accidentally cut off his own leg with a samurai sword, the whole thing caught on a video that went viral. Wallace wants to interview the kid and report back to his co-host Teddy Craft (Haley Joel Osment), who refuses to travel. This quirk of Teddy's personality led to the conception and title of the podcast, which is called "The Not-See Party." Because look, he won't travel, so Wallace has to go out and find these odd characters and places and then...and then tell Teddy. About them. Because Teddy, with his unwillingness to travel and everything, didn't go, so he didn't seem them. He did NOT SEE them. It's a fun, and more importantly organic, play on words that leads to lots of not only confusion, but hijinks as well. So Wallace goes to Winnipeg, only to discover that the kid killed himself. Now what? He doesn't want the trip to be a waste but isn't sure what to do about it, until in the men's room of a bar he finds on a bulletin board a hand-written ad, or request, or invitation by a man named Howard Howe (Michael Parks), which says, in brief, that he's had a long life filled with adventures, is now confined to a wheelchair, and he believes it would be mutually beneficial for the reader of the ad to visit and have dinner and listen to his stories. It all sounds strange enough to entice Wallace, who goes to Howe's mansion out in the middle of nowhere to interview him. He finds the old man fascinating (he met Hemingway in Normandy just before D-Day!) and charming, and he's happy to listen to the man talk and talk. But the tea Wallace was served was drugged and soon he's passed out. When he wakes up, he's in a wheelchair and one of his legs has been amputated.

Now. So. Here it is. The gist of what Howe tells Wallace is that, in his adventurous youth, Howe believes he was saved from certain death at sea following a shipwreck by a walrus, but in order to survive long enough to be rescued and returned to civilization he had to kill and eat that same walrus, this after not only being saved by the animal but also developing with it what Howe believes was the most meaningful friendship of his life (we get a fair amount of Howe's background, the most credible part of which also happened to Batman). Howe wants to restore that meaning to his life by surgically transforming Wallace into a walrus (or Wall-rus I guess, because the names reflect each other, you see). He has a walrus suit -- made of skin and fat and the like -- that he can stitch Wallace into. So Howe cuts off Wallace's other leg and we're more or less off to the races. However, before Wallace was completely incapacitated he was able to briefly get his hands on his cell phone and he left terrified and terrifying messages for both his girlfriend Ally (Genesis Rodriguez) and Teddy (Ally and Teddy are having an affair), so the two of them, Ally and Teddy, hit the road for Manitoba, where Howe's house can be found.

What you can see with Tusk, or what I saw in Tusk and damn it I'm not afraid to say it, is Kevin Smith trying to grow as a filmmaker. Given his history, it's difficult to express this in a way that doesn't sound, or isn't outright, condescending, but for example at one point there's an overhead shot and I thought "Whoa, buckle up fellahs." And if I may shift from condescending to patronizing, it's possible to sometimes be touched by the effort because it's inept. When Bryton is in the bar where he eventually finds Howe's ad, he's on the phone with Teddy and he mentions that the bar is called simply "H." While he's saying this, Smith cuts to a shot of a wall in the bar filled with Canadiana -- hockey sticks, fishing gear, etc. -- and the camera pans very slowly along it until it stops on a large neon "H." This might have been justified if the bar held any special significance down the line, but it doesn't; it turns up once more but in a sort of montage while Teddy and Ally look for Wallace. That pan is there just because Smith hadn't done that before and he wanted to flex a muscle. It's ridiculous, but is it worse than planting his camera in front of two guys talking about sticking their dicks in the same burrito? I submit that it is not.

In Tusk, Smith also tries messing around with structure. The film is built around flashbacks of Wallace with Teddy and Ally that serve to reveal that Wallace is kind of a dick -- Ally strongly objects to the exploitative nature of the podcast -- who cheats on his girlfriend and who went from being a kind-hearted stand-up comic who constantly bombed to a nationally famous podcaster who built his success on the backs of a parade of outcasts and oddballs. So Tusk is about how absolute power corrupts absolutely, is basically what's going on. Anyway, this structure is meant to flesh out Wallace as something more than just a victim -- it's that character development that they got now -- but on a practical level (and whether or not Smith planned this I couldn't say, but I suspect he did) it also serves to bulk out the running time to feature length. Because Wallace is a walrus by about minute 45, and that's with the flashbacks. Smith achieves the same effect with his dialogue, which even he has long considered his main talent. For what it's worth I'd say that's fair enough, although his taste for "literary" monologues has become an almost terrifying crutch; his talents do not tend in that direction. Tusk is peppered with literary references that I suspect Smith knew nothing about until the day of shooting -- when Howe quotes "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," Wallace immediately says "'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner!'" It's not enough to know it; it's also necessary that you know he knows it. But what does he know? When Howe describes the walrus who saved him as being "as tall as Scylla and Charybdis," does Smith realize that in the case of the Charybdis comparison that's not unlike saying of someone "He was as tall as a whirlpool"? And what Michael Parks, who is very good here and who was far and away the highlight of Red State (digression: I once bemoaned on Social Media that Parks is too good an actor to be in Kevin Smith films, and I was rebuked by someone who pointed out that Smith is the only filmmaker who's actually giving Parks good roles, to which I could only respond "Touché") is given to say has all the surface qualities of being linguistically ostentatious, by which I mean his sentences contain several words each, there's no real style to any of it -- it's all just an act of prolongation. If Howe wants to compliment Wallace for catching a reference, he'll say "Well remembered." That's about as far as any of this goes.

But I repeat, Parks is good here. So is Justin Long, and here's where things get tricky. A few years back, Sam Raimi made a horror film called Drag Me to Hell. It's a movie I don't love, but the ending is very strong, and one element of the ending that was very unexpected, especially coming as it did after what is essentially meant to be a funny horror goof-off kind of thing, was the emotional weight that was suddenly lent to it by Justin Long's performance. His job in the scene is to react to something that is both insane and impossible but also would be, for his character, deeply painful. Raimi doesn't focus on Long because it's not really his scene, but he has the harder job of the two major actors involved and with one expression Raimi's film suddenly gets this jolt of humanity that not only shouldn't work but maybe shouldn't even be there, but somehow Long makes it work, and the film would be much poorer without it. The man may not have a spotless filmography, but there's something about him in these kinds of films, and he brings it to Tusk, and Smith knows how to use it. Long plays the terror, the excruciating bewilderment, the physical agony, and finally the hopelessness of a broken mind that a premise like this needs if it's ever going to get off the ground. Am I overstating this? Probably -- this isn't Brando in On the Waterfront or anything close to it. But I think it's far too easy to take a performance like Long's for granted and to say afterwards "Oh he was fine, it wasn't his fault." The job he was given to do here is absurd, but he does it. He also spends more of the movie than you might think as the walrus creature, and all he has to work with there are his eyes and his scream. He spends a lot of the film screaming.

And, okay, look. If you want to define it in these terms, then broadly speaking Tusk is a failure, it's a bad movie, large chunks of it are clumsy and stupid. But I don't happen to think it's unreasonable to have felt an emotional tug that one not only doesn't often feel from horror films but which one is almost never asked to feel by horror films, when I see Long's character change from a cocky asshole who is, weirdly, nevertheless obviously good-natured to someone who is unable to process the terror of an unbelievable situation and fate. I admit it, I thought of real victims of actual serial killers (which is what Howe is eventually designated) who, on the day of their deaths, probably were enjoying a typical moment of every-day life before suddenly existing in a brief, if they were lucky, agony of an unimaginable nightmare. You can tell me to fuck off, this is a stupid Kevin Smith movie, but that's what Long was asked to play, and that's what he plays.

So how am I supposed to regard that in juxtaposition to Johnny Depp, who turns up about an hour in as Guy Lapointe, a Quebecois ex-cop contacted by Ally and Teddy who has been hunting Howe for years. Smith's writing for Lapointe is basically intended to be the funny good-guy equivalent of Howe's monologues, and his dialogue is about as memorable, but that's not even the worst of it. I suppose the idea was to write a bumbling but ingenious detective character, maybe like Columbo, who can say, but, for one thing, the most ingenious thing Lapointe does is to rub a pencil over a blank pad of paper to pick up the indentations of what had been written on the since-removed sheet above it (does Smith really believe that trick is only as old as The Big Lebowski?), but the character and Depp's performance are bone-stupid. Depp, I imagine, had a lot of say in what Lapointe would finally be, but I don't think Smith had any unspoken objections to having his ostensibly serious horror film (I've heard Tusk described as an unambiguous horror comedy with the emphasis on "comedy"; it's not) completely taken over by a character and performance that recalls nothing so much as Eugene Levy at his most untethered. And even if Depp's Lapointe was as funny as that sounds, it would still have been a colossally terrible idea, and he's nowhere near as funny as that sounds.

And yet, and yet. Another thing I've heard about Tusk is that it's proof that Kevin Smith doesn't care, a criticism I find bizarre. Whatever you think of it, Tusk seems like evidence that Smith is maybe just beginning to care, or maybe care again. You can actually see him trying, and as big a mess as this ridiculous film is, I don't believe you can end up with Tusk by being lazy. You can end up with Tusk by not really knowing what you're doing, but not by being indifferent. But why should you listen to me? The last scene, which is almost amazing in part for its lack of context and the absence of any logic, but also for its emotional overreach, that scene worked for me! It's stupid and inept, but the emotion worked, to some degree because Wallace was doomed before the film was even half over. We could see that, and that's part of how Smith plays with structure as well. There's also a song used in the closing credits called "O Waly! Waly!" which is a traditional folk song, performed in this case by Gerard Way. And it's a very pretty song that made me think "Poor Wallace Bryton." Yeah well, fuck you too. Maybe it's a matter of me "falling for it." But if I fell for it, then I fell for it, and so the effect was the effect. And I'll tell you what, as indefensible as much of Tusk is, I would rather watch a film like this that badly sought for a way to make itself work than the gritless "grit" of Jim Mickle or the sleepy beige pandering of Adam Wingard. If The Babadook proves that talented filmmakers are working within the genre, Tusk makes me optimistic that the disingenuous film school shits who are currently holding it hostage aren't the only other alternative. The options aren't merely one The Babadook and then several dozen You're Next clones (or the films it's already a clone of). There's also the occasional Tusk, which is nothing like either of them.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Killing Me is One Thing

I've recently had cause to think about Klaus Kinski. Not necessarily something you want as the Christmas Season kicks into gear, but I'm at least partly at fault in that I recently obligated myself to watch and write about (as you see) Slaughter Hotel, director Fernando di Leo's 1971 giallo in which Kinski appears. I compounded this by also watching -- rewatching, in fact, a thing I find strange to admit -- an American horror film from 1986 that Kinski starred in called Crawlspace, written and directed by David Schmoeller. This would turn out to be one of Kinski's last films, a relative statement given that the actor was so prolific that you can say that with the understanding that after Crawlspace he still had five to go before he died in 1991. In 1999, Schmoeller would make a short documentary about the making of that movie called Please Kill Mr. Kinski, a title that apparently reflected the general sentiment about the man during filming. It was not the first and probably wasn't the last time that request was made in Kinski's lifetime.

I don't know if at any point during the filming of Slaughter Hotel Fernando di Leo was asked by a crew member if he would be so kind as to murder Klaus Kinski, but I bet there are some stories from that set. In the entire combined thirty-two minutes that comprise the two short featurettes available on the new Blu-ray of Slaughter Hotel that will be released by Raro Video on Tuesday, Kinski is mentioned only once, when actress Rosalba Neri calls him "unpredictable and weird." Note that she doesn't say "He was unpredictable and weird and so I wanted him dead." Perhaps her description, which in the annals of Klaus Kinski lore is comparitavely pretty straightforward, indicates that he was on his best behavior on this set and if so that may be because Slaughter Hotel is not strictly speaking a "Klaus Kinski film" in the way that Crawlspace is. What Slaughter Hotel is, is "shabby," a judgment I borrow from the film's director, Fernando di Leo, who in one of those aforementioned Blu-ray extras, a fifteen-minute clutch of talking heads called "Asylum of Fear," is very casually, and I must say delightfully, free of any bullshit regarding this film. In addition to calling it shabby and, later, "not a good film," he admits to stealing the basic plot from Agatha Christie and to doubting that anyone who saw Slaughter Hotel fell for a bit of misdirection he threw in regarding the killer's identity. He says that the job was to make a Dario Argento film "without his talent."

Which, hey, what is this film anyway? Well, the first scene is the cleverest one, and when di Leo talks about being shabby in a subtle way, by which he means, I think, that he knows how shabby he's being, what he means is best represented here. It's late at night in a large secluded mansion. A figure dressed all in black is stalking through the empty hallways. On the walls are ancient weapons -- swords, axes, morningstars. The figure takes one of these and finds the bedroom he or she is looking for. Sleeping in the bed is, naturally, a beautiful nude woman. A murder is about to take place, of course, but suddenly we hear movement and a light in the hallway flicks on. The figure is startled and hurries away. Just as he or she is safely out of sight, around the corner and into the hallway come two nurses wheeling a cart. So we're in a hospital? Cut to credits.
Not bad! But a hospital with weapons on the wall? That's what di Leo called "shabby," though he claims, and I don't doubt him, to have been fully aware of the extent of his film's shabbiness (he also wrote the script). Worse (or better, depending on your temperament) is this is a mental hospital, so a bunch of mentally ill patients are wondering around a place where swords and axes are readily available. On an ancillary note, it should be mentioned, or might go without saying, that all of the patients are beautiful young women, some of whom like to be nude a lot, primarily a nymphomaniac named Anne (Neri), who in her own way provides a stronger engine for the film than the perfunctory mystery plot could ever begin to manage. Same goes for the nurses. That's both neither here nor there, in that it's irrelevant to the plot, and also the entire movie, because there's very little plot to speak of. Someone begins killing people -- patients and staff -- in the hospital. The head doctor is played by Kinski, and his name is Dr. Francis Clay, because sure whatever. Kinski being Kinski, feelings of suspicion within the audience fall immediately upon him, but beyond filling that role, Kinski doesn't have much to do here. Another patient, a wealthy young woman named Cheryl Hume (Margaret Lee), seems to be developing feelings for Dr. Clay (because sure whatever), but he doesn't react to this development with much passion one way or the other.

Slaughter Hotel exists to show off a lot of skin and to, eventually and occasionally, be rather violent. It is a fairly lousy movie in a lot of ways (and speaking of shabbiness, I feel compelled to tell you that the Raro disc is sometimes alarmingly shabby, specifically during two sequences when the sound drops out altogether, for not insignificant periods of time; if you get the disc, even though the film is dubbed I would recommend turning on the subtitles), but as sometimes happens with this sort of thing, some bits of interest can be found in the ways in which it is not exactly like you'd expect it to be. For one thing, who exactly is the protagonist of this thing winds up being less certain than you might have thought. I guess I won't spoil it, although who would watch this film to watch the story unfold, but films like Slaughter Hotel are able to upend these sorts of expectations by virtue of not giving a shit about the form of the thing. Or, it's not that di Leo's not giving a shit about the form -- it's more that it doesn't concern him. Either way, that's one surprise you can look forward to, at least. Another one is where the violence eventually goes. There are a lot of films that are a lot more violent than Slaughter Hotel, but because for much of the running time the violence is pretty much just violent enough to fulfill what di Leo and company consider to be certain genre expectations, when, in its last minutes, Slaughter Hotel becomes slightly and randomly berserk, there's a certain power to it. Unintentional power, I would say, but there's something about the frenzy that closes out the film that makes me wish it was part of a better movie. Whose idea was it to put that in this? Di Leo's, obviously, but why? I'm in danger of selling this too hard, probably, but I do think it's pretty undeniably unusual, certainly for what is essentially a murder mystery, even an Italian one from the 1970s.

Again, though, for a dose of Klaus Kinski, if that's what you're after, you'd be advised to look elsewhere. Where you might look is Crawlspace, which is a better film with a strong Kinski performance. It's nothing like a great movie, or even one you need to go out of your way to see, but this is a slasher film in which the killer, Kinski, is essentially playing a landlord/Nazi doctor. And of course I say it's a slasher film even though it doesn't progress the way we're conditioned to think slasher films progress, but then very few of them do, do they? So it's not without its attractions, but I bring it up primarily because of Kinski and his career. Though Kinski is best known as Werner Herzog's muse in a series of that venerable director's best films, and even though he also acted for David Lean, Sergio Leone, Sergio Corbucci, and other major figures of international cinema, Kinski lived and worked for most of his 130+ screen credits in trash. One could argue it's where he wanted to be, and one could argue even more strongly it's where he belonged. Not because he was untalented -- David Schmoeller says, for all the torture Kinski put him through on the set of Crawlspace, that he was "great to watch," and he was. In My Best Fiend, his documentary about his relationship with Kinski, Werner Herzog talks about seeing him in the film Das Geheimnis der Chinesischen Nelke, and shows a clip of Kinski's character waking up. The way Kinski woke up, Herzog says, mesmerized him, and set him on a path that would lead him to an extremely fruitful yet almost terrifying relationship with the actor. Herzog also says that the moment where Kinski awakes no longer impresses him as it once did, but seeing it you can understand what he was seeing on the screen in 1964. Yet Kinski made mostly trash. Sometimes good trash -- I want to use shorthand here, you understand, so allow me to unfairly generalize -- but Kinski, who wanted to bully directors, maybe couldn't bully Lean, or Leone, or Corbucci. And maybe those filmmakers didn't have a natural gift for harnessing him, like Herzog did. So Kinski could later claim he made the films he did because he just wanted the money, and maybe that's true, but I do wonder. Certain aspects of Kinski's life have slowly been revealed over the years, until recently they became hard to ignore or deny, and what they finally show is a man who was awful far beyond the realm of being professionally aggravating. As a film fan, I've often wished, as I'm sure many like me have done, that Kinski could have ignored the easy money in favor of taking chances with potentially better films. But you get to a point where you change your mind. Maybe he knew what the deal was. Maybe he alone understood that he'd found his level.