Monday, February 29, 2016

The Kind of Face You Shoot: The Murdering Fool

I'm not sure when or from what source I first heard about Derek Raymond, but I'm positive that the reason I became aware of him at all is I Was Dora Suarez. It's possible that the connection being made in whatever it was I was reading, was between I Was Dora Suarez and horror fiction, this being interesting because Raymond's novel is a work of crime fiction, not horror. For some reason, linking those two genres together is something that's only done sporadically, most often when there's a blatant crossover, as in, say, Red Dragon or The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris, which weld the crime procedural with almost Gothic villainy (the argument could be made, and made easily, that Harris's follow-up, Hannibal, pretty much leaves crime behind altogether, and is a full-on horror novel; that it's garbage is immaterial). Otherwise, unless a horror writer is intentionally bringing noir tropes into his or her horror story, the fact that both genres traditionally traffic in violent death and dark psychologies and evil intentions doesn't seem to most people to be particularly worth noting. Hence why what I learned about I Was Dora Suarez, and it's very particular reputation, made such an impact on me that day, whenever it was, because the novel is considered one of the most violently transgressive, shocking, and horrific crime novels ever written. It's a novel that was thought to be so vile (in its content, not its morality, though there must be some folks who consider it morally repugnant, too) by Raymond's publishers at the time that they refused to take it, and he had to shop it elsewhere. The oft-quoted passage from Marilyn Stasio's review of it in The New York Times Book Review, when the novel was originally published in 1990, goes like this:

If you think of the act of writing as a game of chicken between the author and his talent, then Derek Raymond is one author who achieves his ecstasy by sailing off cliffs. Everything about I Was Dora Suarez shrieks of the joy and pain of going too far.

I Was Dora Suarez is an Infamous Cult Novel, and who doesn't want to read those?

What I eventually learned was that I Was Dora Suarez is the fourth in a Raymond's series of novels --  referred to alternately as "The Factory Novels" and "The Black Novels," in the first case because the building that houses the police division Unexplained Deaths (or A14) is known as The Factory, and in the latter case because in mood, tone, and content, the novels are very black indeed -- about an unnamed London police detective, our narrator, with an appalling tragedy in his past and an overwhelmingly intense empathy for murder victims that only just exceeds his loathing for anybody who isn't exactly like him (more about that in a little bit). And even though I wanted to read I Was Dora Suarez more than just about anything, I decided to -- and please try not to admire me too much for this -- read the three preceding Factory novels first. So over the years I plowed through He Died With His Eyes Open (filmed twice by the French, and once considered for a third Gallic adaptation by Claude Chabrol), The Devil's Home on Leave, and How the Dead Live (there's a fifth, which I haven't read, called Dead Man Upright, published in 1993, not long before Raymond's death in 1994). Perhaps you'll notice a theme among those titles, as "black" was the theme of Cornell Woolrich's own, original series of "black" novels (The Bride Wore Black, Black Alibi, The Black Angel, etc.) which he, Woolrich, never broke from, yet here we have I Was Dora Suarez, an outlier. Anyhow, what I learned from those books was that Raymond (whose real name was Robin Cook) was an evidently very sincere writer with a very despairing imagination, and a weird devotion to certain detective fiction tropes which he'd have been better off tossing aside since, for one thing, just because everyone claims genre fiction is formulaic doesn't make it so, and also, he wasn't very good at writing them. Which is perhaps more to the point. I'm not talking about the crime investigation structure of the detective story, and I'll grant you that part of the formula is pretty much unavoidable when writing about a criminal investigation. No, I'm talking about things like hardboiled dialogue, for which, right from the start, it's clear to me Raymond had no gift. Enough years have passed since I read those first three novels that it would be very difficult for me to go into particulars, but I remember that Our Narrator clashes over and over again with Bowman, an inspector on the police force he despises, that, essentially run like this:

"You're just a fool, Bowman. Someone should help you find your brain."

"You can't talk to me like that!" Bowman screamed.

Paraphrased, etc. In addition, the stories Raymond concocted, while manufactured to fit his handful of themes, were wild enough to strain credulity, which is not unusual in crime fiction by any means, but this sort of plotting requires a deft touch if the philosophical thrust -- and if there's one thing Raymond is after, it's to turn the crime novel into philosophy -- of the novel is something like "This is the modern psychological landscape."

I didn't think any of these novels weas terrible, though, and in fact I thought each one was at least a slight improvement on the one before: Raymond's emotional commitment strengthened as his writing became less erratic. I remember thinking that How the Dead Live as a whole represented the most obvious jump in quality on several grounds, not least the surer hand exhibited in handling another wild plot, and making it work more directly towards the goal he'd always been aiming for. This gave me reason to be optimistic, since my disappointment in his writing never altered my plan to get around to I Was Dora Suarez "one of these days." Its infamy simply cast too immense a shadow over the last twenty years of crime fiction.

When Melville House reprinted the first four books in the Factory series, Joyce Carol Oates (Oh God, not her again! I'm afraid so) reviewed He Died With His Eyes Open and I Was Dora Suarez for The New York Review of Books. Finding herself quite enamored, she wrote:

Few detectives go so far as Raymond's Detective Sergeant, who falls in love with murder victims because they have been wrongfully killed, and there is no one but the Detective Sergeant to avenge them. Edmund Wilson could not have dismissed Derek Raymond's Factory novels as below the radar of serious literary consideration, and Auden would surely have been impressed with their stark originality, though Raymond's vision is wholly secular and fatalist and there is little sense of redemption in these blood-drenched pages...

Which is certainly in line with just about every opinion of Raymond and this series I've ever come across. Though regarded from a distance this must seem like a strange hope, nevertheless what Oates claims these books are, and what she claims they succeed in accomplishing, is what I still hoped I Was Dora Suarez would deliver. When all is said and done, though, dragging Wilson and Auden into the fray seems defensive at best. In any case, I've now read I Was Dora Suarez, and the first thirty pages or so did two things for me: it convinced me that the novel's reputation for being shocking was reasonably well-earned, and made me wonder if perhaps this novel really was a masterpiece.

Those pages describe a pair of murders (well, three, but let's stick with the main two for now), of an old woman named Betty Carstairs, hurled head-first through her own grandfather clock, about whom Raymond writes:

...Betty Carstairs was eighty-six, and that was how she died that night. She had never truly asked herself if the long and arduous history of her life had been worthwhile, or whether indeed it had had any meaning at all; but she had at least supposed that she owned some right to her own body, to give or withhold it while it was still worth looking at, and to continue to live on in it even after it was not. She had endured two wars, accepting in both the losses of people close to her that wars entail; she had been less afraid of the bombing than of considering why it was that so many of those who made up her personal world should perish in an apparently random way, and why it was that she should have expected patience from herself and found it, each time her husband, long dead now, had invaded her physically -- for she was Scottish, and had never been an awakened person: all she had ever really enjoyed doing was walking. And then, lately, when she had fallen seriously ill with her heart and knew that she was spent, she marvelled and wondered, when she was not in pain, why she need feel so afraid and alone.

Well, now she had been killed in her own clock, so that was that, and that was the squalid and miserable end of Betty Carstairs.

Note that Betty was the second victim that night. The first had been a pretty young woman, Betty's lodger and friend, Dora Suarez, daughter of a Spanish father and Jewish mother. About her death, Raymond writes:

Silly little bat, she kept trying to get away from him long after there was nowhere for her to go, telling him over and over that she had made her peace with the world, which infuriated him in a delicious way -- and yet all he achieved by the panic he had caused in her was make her trip over one of the trailing sheets between the two beds, which created a prize cock-up, becuse all she did then was fall with a thud on the floor and a bit later, even when she did finally manage to get up again, she had by then got her stupid little head in totally the wrong position for him, so that instead of his being able to take her head clean off, bag up and leave, he somehow got in a fluster. And now look at the fucking place, a shambles, shit order! It wasn't a question of the blood everywhere or the smell of her entrails in the frozen room that upset him so much as the mess he had made of her. She was sad to look down at, like a fuck that hadn't come off; the assorted bits of her lying all over the toffee shop left him with an emptiness, they left him wanting to take the whole scene back and play it again.

He'd be punishing himself for this, of course -- still, in the meantime, whew!

He got jerked off over her all right in the end, though, just the same, even though he nearly bit his bottom lip off doing it.

Notice that here, unlike in the passage about Betty Carstairs, the information is more about the killer than it is Dora Suarez. There's a reason for that, or many, one of which being that I Was Dora Suarez is a first-person novel, told from the point of view of Raymond's nameless detective. Which means he's telling us all these seemingly third person things (though there's a telling use of "we" in this section that clues the reader into the fact that something's up) and it's hard not to wonder how he knows, for example, that Betty Carstairs only enjoyed walking, and nothing else in life. Then again, and this is an odd choice on Raymond's part, we eventually learn, through Dora Suarez's diary which the detective finds in her room, that Betty Carstairs wasn't as miserable in her marriage as that "invaded her physically" bit would suggest.

The power of this, especially if you've read enough fiction about serial killers, is that Raymond seems to be describing, to the degree that it is within any sane person's ability to do so, actual serial murder. The killer (and he will be named eventually in the course of the novel) does not choose his victims based on some contrived nonsense equation ("His dad's car was a Ford so he murders only people named Ford") but instead he's driven, apparently, by genuine violent, psychopathic desires. And what he does to Suarez -- I quoted some of it, but by no means all -- exactly corresponds to the kind of horrific, sewer-like defiling of their victims engaged in by real serial killers. In other words, this isn't a "thriller." In these pages, Raymond is returning murder to its rightful realm of terror, disgust, torture, and madness, without trying to place it within some kind of structure.

When the killer leaves that crime scene, he drives to the house of a man named Roatta, a corrupt fellow we learn next to nothing about, other than that there is some criminal/professional situation at play here. All that matters is that the killer kills him. He shoots him in the head:

The upper part of Roatta's head entirely disappeared; it vanished in a red screen of exploding blood and bone, and when that cleared away, there was nothing left of his head at all except his lower jaw, from which a sly tongue with things running off it dropped...

Etc. There's no need to keep typing. We're clearly now in the land of Cartoon Violence. This is jarring, coming so soon after the naturalistic repugnance of the Carstairs/Suarez murders. Worse yet, though it might not seem to be a problem at first, is the implication that the Roatta murder is not a serial killing, but rather a professional, hired murder. So that this serial killer is also a hitman, which means, for the reader of crime fiction, or for anybody, I should think, a host of things, such as: this is not a serial killer as they exist in the real world, regardless of what those powerful first 25 pages might have indicated. Which means, further, that the dreaded shadow of "plot" has now been cast over I Was Dora Suarez. Plot, by the way, is fine. Even great, if you're good at it. But when you can't, or don't care to, work the mechanics of plot in your favor, so that in your novel, as here, the plot is nothing more that a series of exposed gears creaking with rust, the sincerity of the writer's philosophy begins to pale next to the disingenuousness of the storyteller.

There's no need to focus on that bit especially, though, because everything I've just quoted and talked about can be found in I Was Dora Suarez's first chapter. In chapter two, the thing drops off the fucking cliff. I do believe that I've already strongly implied that this all goes tits up after a while, and the fact that it starts out so much better than the previous Factory novels somehow does not improve the overall experience. And my bewilderment in the face of I Was Dora Suarez has somewhat less to do with the novel itself than it does with the critical refusal to acknowledge the unignorable garbage that makes up the vast majority of pages 25 through 190 (give or take) of this 202-page novel. All of which sounds harsh, but please know, my reasons are sound.

The problem with writing about where I Was Dora Suarez goes wrong is that none of the problems -- and they're all, save those of plot and so forth, of pretty much the same type -- aren't all that interesting. What's uncomfortably fascinating is how long they last. After that first chapter, the story progresses along roughly these lines: because the three murders described in the opening chapter occurred so close together, both geographically and temporally, the Detective Sergeant (for the sake of simplicity I'll go with Oates on this one) believes they're connected (a bit of a leap when you consider that Suarez was killed with an axe, Carstairs with brute force, and Roatta with a handgun). The inspector assigned to the Roatta murder, a man named Stevenson, agrees, so the two of them team up. A diary that Suarez kept (and in which she strongly implies that she was suffering from a terminal illness, and, furthermore, had intended to commit suicide on the very night she was murdered) leads them to a mob-run club where Suarez, who was a prostitute, sometimes met clients. There's also a photograph of Suarez singing at a mobster's birthday party, and in the background of that picture is the blurry form of a man heading for the exit. The Detective Sergeant almost immediately decides that guy's the killer, which turns out to be correct, as it happens.

Admirers of the Factory series like to talk about "the shadow of Thatcher" and things such as this when discussing the novels. There's no question in my mind that Raymond wrote these books with that sort of sociopolitical agenda in the back of his mind, but it's beyond me, personal politics aside, why that should factor into a consideration of their quality. Political affiliation paired with the very act of writing genre fiction seems to make folks swoon, but neither thing excuses you from being bad, and much of I Was Dora Suarez is quite bad.

The problem begins with the Detective Sergeant, who is an asshole -- this would be fine if I didn't get the sense that Raymond believes him to be an honorable and admirable man in every respect. He's admirable because he is working and struggling and suffering on the behalf of murder victims, which is fair enough, but he absolutely stomps all over everybody who isn't exactly like him. Or maybe they are, but he doesn't even give them a chance to show what they think. In this passage, the Detective Sergeant (who's been brought back to the force specifically to work the Dora Suarez case, after a suspension stemming from events described in How the Dead Live) is trying to settle -- bitterly, it must be said -- into his office, while feeling like the resented outsider. Raymond writes:

The top left-hand drawer of my desk had been turned into a kind of death row by seven of last year's flies; but except for them that piece of furniture was empty, so I decided to prove to everyone in the place, including myself, that I existed by picking up the phone. The phone sounded dead for quite a while, but after I had dialled zero nine and rapped its grey plastic head very hard on the woodwork several times I finally got a WPC with a bright little voice which said: 'Who is this, please?'

'I'll come down and introduce myself if you don't look out,' I said.

'Line 205 is not in use,' she said.

'Well that must explain why we're both a couple of cunts talking down it then, mustn't it?' I said. 'Now pull your finger out with a loud pop, missis, get it functioning like five minutes ago was a hundred years too late and then I will give you permission to go even further and go totally and utterly mad by stopping all incoming calls while I read up on two murders, which, though you mightn't believe it, is the bizarre, rather sordid kind of work that goes on in this part of the building.' I added: 'And try not to wast my time, because with the current crime rate we never have any.'

'I was just doing my job.'

'I know,' I said, 'and that's what I'm complaining about.'

I think we can all agree that the proper response from the woman unfortunate enough to be in the position to answer that phone, after all that from the Detective Sergeant, would be "What the fuck??" And his tirade, which is based on nothing, actually goes on from there. The only thing I can figure is that Raymond loathed bureaucracy (but don't we all?) and took it as a given that by showing that in order to get your phone set up, or to talk to a person about something important, that falling into a hopeless bureaucratic labyrinth was now your fate unless you, like the Detective Sergeant, were willing to chew his way through to the center like acid. But in order to get that across, mustn't you first describe the bureaucracy? Instead of that, Raymond has his hero piss in the face of a woman who just answered the damn phone, and we're meant to react with a somber fist-pump: it's hopeless, but at least one man is trying.

It's when the Detective Sergeant and Stevenson get to the mob-run club, which is called the Parallel Club, that I Was Dora Suarez really begins to collapse. The Sergeant and Stevenson interrogate a variety of people associated with the club. The Sergeant and Stevenson both have the same approach to their questions (or "questions") and both men sound exactly alike -- the men being questioned all sound exactly like each other, so I guess that's fair enough. But anyway, this is the key, and bear with me, please. On pages 101 to 102 of my Melville International Crime edition:

Another well-stuff fun seeker who looked as if he were quick on his feet if he had to be came over to us and said: 'Who was it you said you were again?'

'Correct the tone, son,' said Stevenson. 'You can see we're police officers, so fuck off and wheel some brains on or I'll have your on a one-way single.' A passing punter who looked as if he had caught socialism in the bar and then brought it up in the scented jacks wavered past us on his way over to an Indian girl naked except for gold slippers and a fur coat, who obviously, from her choked expression, looked as if she felt she could have scored higher. The punter, who was young, with a very high-fairy-tale bald head, said to Stevenson: 'Manners!'

Stevenson said: 'I'm on my manor, it's called the Factory. Are you on yours?'

'My father owns half this street!'

'Don't bet on it,' Stevenson said.

On page 108:

Stevenson showed Robacci the picture and said: 'OK, now. Now we're here in the Parallel with this photo, aren't we? What night was that, then?

'No need to stammer over it, Robacci,' I said.  'We're in the middle of Roatta's last birthday party here, aren't we?'

He had to say yes.

'The girl singing,' I said. 'The dark girl with the mike there.'

'Don't know here.'

I said: 'Repeat that, but take all your time, because your answer could effect your long-term future.'

'I might have seen her.'

'Don't tell me people sinc in your club in front of your customers without your knowing who the fucking hell they are,' I said.

'They came and went,' Robacci said, 'you know. Felix looked after that end.'

'This is the face of one that went,' I said, 'and the payment for that is going to be weighty.' I said: 'So wring your brains out and put a name to her before you lose your own -- because I'll bury you in the British prison system till the end of time if you don't; the Factory always finds a way.'

Page 113:

'Stevenson said: 'What goes on upstairs here?'

'Upstairs?' said the doorman? 'What upstairs?'

'Your realise we've got a W to take these whole premises apart,' said Stevenson. 'Now, the bother you're already in, you perjure yourself in front of two police officers and you'd best make your will, I'm telling you flat, Johnny.'

'Now let's play it again,' I said. 'The upstairs.'

Page 124:

Stevenson said to Scalo: 'It's your unlucky night.'

Scalo said: 'I don't know what you expect to find here.'

Stevenson said: 'Not you, anyway.' He went over to the phone and dialled up the Factory. He said: 'Bring up a car, yes, it's to the Parallel again, regular minicab service, isn't it? You've one with a wind down for St Stephen's, the other wherever you've a spare cell in the building. Its name's Scalo. Ice it, we've a search on, then we'll be over with a few questions -- yes, straightaway, nice one, bye.'

Scalo said: 'You're never going to nick me.'

Stevenson said: 'What do you mean? That was it, they're on their way, hot-throb.'


And so on. There's one big revelation in this stretch, one which amps up while at the same time undercutting the "shocking" element of the book, because it's so absurd -- it has to do with what at first are called gerbils, until Raymond seems to have forgotten that and starts calling them rats, and a certain depraved use of such animals you've probably heard of. I'm not going to get into it. But otherwise, over the course of at least forty pages straight (which is not to say forty pages only) what you're reading is what I've just quoted extensively above. And I could have kept going. And going and going and going, but you'd have stopped reading and reported my blog. The other thing you should keep in mind is that this is forty pages out of the novel's full two hundred. That's one-fifth of I Was Dora Suarez given over to the Detective Sergeant or Stevenson saying to somebody "Listen sweetheart we will throw you into a prison jail" and the guy saying "Wait you can't do that" and then they say "Oh don't think that twice, glory-bird" or whatever. It's endless, and thunderously dull.

And none of this even reveals anything that leads them to the killer. They find the guy because the Detective Sergeant is convinced that this blurry faceless figure in the photograph must be the guy, and then he goes to a high-level mob guy with whom he's conveniently formed a bond somewhere along the way, and asks the mob boss "Do you know any serial killers? Tell me straight, sunny man," and the guy does know a serial killer and guess what, it's the same serial killer we've been looking for this whole time.

All the while, we're meant to just bask, or wallow, in the existential, this-modern-world terror that the Detective Sergeant (and Raymond) seems to believe it's heroic to suffer through. The Detective Sergeant is basically Jesus: he suffers for us. Although unlike Jesus, he hates us all. Well, not all of us. Once or twice in I Was Dora Suarez we run across a character who meets with the Detective Sergeant's approval. There are at least two at the morgue, where he learns the extent of Dora Suarez's tragedy (her terminal illness was AIDS, and she had very little time left). After going over the terribleness of her murder and her illness, one of the good men wheels the body away:

Wiecienski said: 'I'll take care of her,' and he drew the towel over her.

Time put a dead little question into a silence that fell as he did so, marred only by the squeak of the rubber wheels; and then the full horror of Suarez's death must have struck all of us in that high room smoking with ice simultaneously, because we all turned and looked at each other, speechless, and Wiecienski looked back at us over his shoulder once with red eyes as he took her back.

Why does Wiecienski look back? "Look at me guys, I'm crying!" My guess is Raymond wanted us to know that the character started to break down once the professional interaction was over, but the only way he could find to tell the reader, in a first-person narrative, was to have him behave in a completely unnatural way.

But frankly, Raymond seemed to have a tough time keeping things straight -- either that, or he didn't care. Whatever tedious, thudding blurt of sentimental despair pops into his head will end up on the page. On page 164, at the very end of chapter eight, the Detective Sergeant says:

Do you know I cry in my sleep? Do you think a man can't cry in his sleep?

Then on page 202, the very last line of the novel:

I had tears in my eyes for the first time since I had broken my arm at sixteen playing football, but my tears were not for me -- they were for the rightful fury of the people.

Motherfucker, you just said...

Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Ubiquitous Mr. Bean

Earlier this week, Arrow Video released volume one of their new American Horror Project. This set of three films is meant to bring largely forgotten horror films back into the home video mix. I watched all three of these movies, you guys. Check it out, bros.

The Premonition (d. Robert Allen Schnitzer) - In his introduction to this 1976 film, one of only three that Schnitzer has directed, the curator of this set, Stephen Thrower (he does one for each movie) points out that it wasn't until sometime in the 1980s that the focus in horror on young people -- you know, teenagers and whatnot -- as the lead characters really became a nearly unavoidable tradition. As evidence that things used to be different, Thrower points to The Premonition, the plot of which revolves around two couples: Miles and Sheri Bennett, played by Edward Bell and Sharon Farrell, who have a young adopted daughter, and Jude and Andrea, played by Richard Lynch and Ellen Barber, who are the biological parents. Lynch and Barber now want the child back, and they are both apparently psychotic.

The Premonition does have a supernatural element, and it's of the sort hinted at in the title. Sheri is some kind of psychic, and her visions tell her that her adopted daughter is in terrible danger. Her husband Miles also happens to be a science professor at a nearby college, who has recently been working with a psychic researcher named Dr. Jeena Kingsly (Chitra Neogy). Anyway, as a result of this particular plot, The Premonition plays for the most part like one of those "supernatural thrillers" they make sometimes -- not quite horror, in other words, though at this particular moment in time I'm not interested in having that argument (though the film's climax does quite intentionally recall Hitchcock's 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, which I believe says something about Schnitzer's overall genre intentions). Where The Premonition tips into horror is in its depictions of Jude and Andrea, and of the performances given by Lynch and Barber. Both of them are outstanding and terribly nerve-wracking, and Schnitzer shoots them in a way that maximizes their eeriness. There's a scene where Sheri walks into her daughter's bedroom to find Andrea sitting in a chair, in the dark, holding the child. There's no music sting, and Barber's face is so peacefully terrifying, and Farrell's reaction so visceral, that it looked and felt just like I imagine such an even would play out in real life.

While the ending means to evoke Hitchcock, it does so in a sort of limping, anticlimactic way, and so in some respects The Premonition doesn't quite get where it's going. But that mostly doesn't matter. The best and most surprising aspect of the film is the way it catches real moments of human behavior, and throws away details that a more predictable film would turn into the whole shootin' match. In one scene, after work Miles and Dr. Kingsly go to a nearby carnival to hang out and talk about their project. On the Ferris Wheel, we see Dr. Kingsly look down and notice, for the first time, that Miles is wearing a wedding ring. Her face registers disappointment, and that's it. That's the end of that. It doesn't change how she acts, she doesn't try to steal him, he doesn't suddenly fall for her, and none of it ever comes up again. It's a misunderstanding. How often does any movie include something like that?

The Witch Who Came from the Sea (d. Matt Cimber) - If The Premonition intends its climax to resemble The Man Who Knew Too Much, this film, also from 1976, maybe just happens to resemble George Romero's Season of the Witch (aka Jack's Wife) and Meir Zarchi's original I Spit On Your Grave. But actually, The Witch Who Came from the Sea chronologically falls between those two, the Romero preceding it by three years, the Zarchi succeeding it by two. Even so, those're the two that leapt to mind as I watched this strange story about a wounded woman turned psychotic killer.

It stars Millie Perkins, best known for starring in George Stevens's The Diary of Anne Frank and appearing alongside Elvis Presley in Wild in the Country (she's also in one of my favorite films, Monte Hellman's The Shooting). That connection to Old Hollywood alone puts me in mind of Camille Keaton in I Spit On Your Grave, but as you discover that her character Mollie suffered some terrible trauma at the hands of a man, and that her continued seduction of a variety of men (famous men, which is a curious (but not exactly significant, I don't think, in terms of theme) part of the film's atmosphere) is just a means of making them helpless enough to murder them, and what the most brutal of those murders involves...well, it's not hard to think maybe Zarchi saw this before he made his infamous film.

As for that Romero film, that connection comes not just from the feminist angle The Witch Who Came from the Sea shares with it, but also because the kind of casual, rambling, grainy, everyday quality that made pre-Creepshow Romero so distinctive. Matt Cimber aspires to that, anyway, and sometimes gets there, but The Witch Who Came from the Sea can't find the verisimilitude that Romero could. Instead, it tries to blend that idea with a surrealness that it just can't pull off. This is highlighted by an ending that is meant to be shocking yet believable, but fails to be either because there's absolutely no way what happens would ever be allowed to happen by the characters in the scene who could prevent it. Vague, I know. But the ending is a mess. Throughout the film, however, Millie Perkins is kind of great.

Malatesta's Carnival of Blood (d. Christopher Speeth) - And what to say about this one? If each of these capsule reviews seems to revolve around me connecting the films under discussion with a variety of other horror films, well, feelings is feelings, and in this case, a 1973 film whose title invites the reaction "Mala-whos's carnival of blood??" almost immediately made me think of Herk Harvey's classic Carnival of Souls (for perhaps obvious reasons, but also because Jerome Dempsey as "Blood" in this film resembles Herk Harvey as "The Man" in the earlier film) and the less well-known, but ingenious, Messiah of Evil, from 1973, directed by William Huyck and Gloria Katz. Of the three, Carnival of Souls is the most plot-heavy, and if the only one of the three you've seen is Carnival of Souls, I'm sure you can imagine what that means for the other three.

These are all part of the genre you might call "mood horror," or something like that. Early on, Malatesta's Carnival of Blood appears to take some swipes at telling a story, but it's very clear that Speeth, who has yet to direct another film, could, when it comes to plot or any kind of straight narrative, kinda sorta not give a fuck. For the brief period of time during which he acts as though he does, Malatesta's Carnival of Blood is at its worst. The "plot" is, there's this weird carnival, and the season is starting, and these people show up to work as carnies, and among them is a family -- a mom, dad, and adult (or teenage) daughter) -- who know that this is an evil carnival run by evil people, and one of their own has been consumed by it. Cut from that to utter mayhem for 60 minutes.

By "mayhem" I mean utter strangeness, which is at times clumsy, but only because of budget. When Speeth is able to free himself from the confines of plot, which he does as soon as he can, Malatesta's Carnival of Blood transcends its budget of No Dollars and indulges in pure imaginative horror. "To the extent that it can afford to do so," one might say, and sure, that's true. But part of what's effective about this film is that all the zombie-shambling, Medieval hymn-singing, public carnival atmosphere of it all takes place on sets that look like the actual behind-the-scenes grounds of a real carnival. It is a real carnival, but back there is a nightmare of blood that doesn't make any sense. This film is so bizarre. And it's the best of the three.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Wouldst Thou Like to See the World?

[There are heavy spoilers for The Witch throughout this review]

Early in The Witch, the new horror film that is the feature debut of writer/director Robert Eggers, a baby disappears. By this I don't mean the infant boy's crib is discovered empty one morning -- I mean that while his teenage sister Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is playing peek-a-boo with him out in the yard that stretches from their family's secluded farm in Colonial-era New England to the vast woods beyond, between closing her eyes and opening them, the baby, named Samuel, who had been on the ground, on a blanket, on his back, looking up at her, vanishes. Bewildered, Thomasin tells her parents William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickie), and they attempt a search (and it's only the family who is able to search; there is no one else in this part of the country near enough to ask for help), but it comes to nothing. The assumption is that a wolf has taken Samuel, but the viewer of The Witch knows different. Shortly after the disappearance, Eggers cuts from the farm location to somewhere else, somewhere perhaps in those woods. We see Samuel, with a knife being brought slowly down over him. Soon after that, we see the figure who'd wielded the knife, an old woman, a witch (Bathsheba Garnett), chunks of bloody flesh in a pile near her, grinding these chunks, and presumably other matter, with a mortar and pestle.

If, after that, you're given to assume that just about anything goes in The Witch, you wouldn't be far wrong. Eggers's film is the most relentlessly, even cruelly unsettling horror film I've seen since Lars von Trier's Antichrist came out in 2009. It's absolutely mesmerizing in its horror, Satanic in its imagery; it shows an understanding of the genre's potential that pretty much no other current horror filmmaker appreciates, in almost every frame. I liked it. I thought it was good.

The Witch has been much talked about, and was released wide, riding a wave of hype that many people were bound to think was undeserved, such is the nature of hype, but that sort of disappointment rarely has much to do with the film one is being disappointed in (such is the nature of disappointment). Still, some kind of backlash, whether stemming from honest objections to the film itself, as some of the criticism doubtless has, or from...something else, was inevitable. Currently, the big complaint people are having with The Witch is that it "isn't scary." Many of these people, from what I've seen, also consider the film "boring" and "so bad." I have no plans to address those criticisms here, because, in the parlance of our times, "I can't even," which in this case is short for "I can't even fucking live in this world anymore if this is the kind of conversation that's going to dominate, please God, ease my pain, I'm sorry for swearing."

So that shit can fuck off. It's boring and so bad, etc. What interests me more is trying to describe my own reading of the film, which, while I know is at least on some level shared by others, is nevertheless not the "interpretation" (and those quotation marks are more precisely used here than is the norm) that most people who've seen The Witch seem to favor. And please understand, by pointing that out, I'm not trying to toot my own horn -- I'm still arguing with myself about this movie. Plus, when I brought this whole thing up on Social Media the other day, I used a rather more absolutist tone than I should have. It is foolish to claim, or to imply, as I did, that what I don't see in The Witch isn't there at all. In fact, it would not shock me in the least to discover that among the people who disagree with my take on the film is Robert Eggers himself. I haven't bothered to find that out one way or another, because, and I mean this with all due respect, and I think he would understand, on a fundamental level I just don't care. The Witch carries for me a very specific power, and like anyone who finds a piece of art that matters to them, and whose love for it comes from somewhere not shared by everyone, I'm not interested in being told I'm "wrong" by the artist.

But anyway. I'm starting to sound defensive. The first thing to do is make clearer what The Witch is, as a story. The family in the film, in addition to the aforementioned parents William and Katherine, Thomasin, and poor Samuel, also includes Thomasin's younger brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), who's about eleven or twelve, and their younger twin brother and sister, named Jonas (Lucas Dawson) and Mercy (Ellie Grainger). Having been cast out from an established New England colony for reasons that aren't quite clear, but which seem to have something to do with objections William has to the colony's religious practices, William is forced to set his family up on a secluded patch of farmland outside of recognized society. I think it's possibly a leap to assume that what William demands is that the colony be more strict in this regard, but he is a devout man, and he wants to raise an equally devout family. He is not a cruel person, though. No one in his family is, but Katherine is sad because she misses England, where they're from, and since leaving the colony their lives have become immeasurably harder. Food is scarce, and there's no money. William is frustrated, ashamed, and demanding, but loving. Caleb and Thomasin seem to be the happiest, but their ages put them at just about the beginning and just about the end of puberty, so there's that to deal with, in the 17th Century, in a Puritan family. A state of affairs that Eggers depicts without judgment, by the way -- shockingly, he allows for the possibility that such people might, hundreds of years ago, simply be counted as regular people. Anyhow, perhaps because of their shared adolescent feelings, with no outlet for them at all, Caleb and Thomasin are very close, and protective of each other.

The problem is Jonas and Mercy, though that they are a problem, and not merely a typical younger-sibling nuisance to Thomasin, is not recognized until late in the film, and even then the focus never goes to them. Which is interesting. Before getting to that, though, I should say that the problem is that they seem devoted to -- in a way that at first seems teasing but by the end of The Witch could perhaps best be described as joyous -- to a goat that belongs to the family, a large black and brown goat named Black Phillip. Two things we don't know about Black Phillip is how long the family has owned him and who named him, and I think it means something that we don't know these things. In any case, thoughts and accusations and indications of witchcraft, and of the presence of an evil witch in the woods that abut the family farm, begin to overwhelm the family, and at the center, eventually, is Black Phillip.

The core characters in The Witch are, arguably, Caleb, Thomasin, and William, their father. By the end of the film, it's not so arguable that Thomasin is the lead, but for a good portion of the movie the perspective shifts between those three. At one point, I was certain that Caleb was the protagonist, but no. That the protagonist ends up being Thomasin is significant for all sorts of reasons, but the main one is that by choosing her, Eggers has created a film that almost begs to be read one of two ways: as feminist, or as misogynist. I think the misogynist reading is barely worth mentioning, though I can understand where it comes from. Before proceeding, I should say that this sort of reading of The Witch -- and I don't necessarily mean the feminist, misogynist, or religious hysteria (more on that one in a bit) readings, but the general approach to accepting a political or social subtext as a given -- is what I object to. But back to the point: though I reject the feminist reading (or rather, I should say I don't find it interesting, about which, again, more later) it is precisely that reading that renders the belief that that the film is anti-feminist nonsensical. Because there are two obvious approaches to the feminist interpretation, and to describe them will mean telling you how the film ends. So I'm spoiling the whole thing right here: we know there is a witch, and it destroys the family. It brings fear and distrust and paranoia into the family, and brings black magic and death to them through Black Phillip. One by one, the family members die, or are killed, until only Thomasin, who has borne the brunt of her family's accusations of witchcraft, remains. She goes to Black Phillip and demands counsel, at which point Black Phillip, who it must be assumed is literally the Devil, asks her "Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?" She has nothing left, and she says yes. At the end of the film, naked and covered in blood, she ascends into the night sky in the company of other witches, in a furious Black Sabbath nightmare.

The feminist reading of this can go either way. Earlier in the film, as the family's hardships increase we learn that the parents are considering hiring Thomasin -- giving her away, essentially -- to another family, to work as a servant, as a result of which Thomasin's family will be given some amount of money. This was a common practice hundreds of years ago, which doesn't change the fact that being a young woman of no means, or even who is simply not rich (and even if she was...) in the 17th or 18th or 19th or etc. century was an effectively impossible and hopeless situation. You were permitted to decide nothing. So, in The Witch, you can take the fact that Thomasin ends up as she does as a metaphor for the idea that young women in a Puritan society were, one way or another, doomed. Or, given the quite frankly horrifying look of ecstasy that sweeps across Thomasin's face before Eggers cuts to black, you can decide that this is what it took (not literally of course) for a young woman in a Puritan society to gain her freedom (this has certainly been the Satanist reading of the film, which is something you can look up, but that press release was as predictable as the Satanists probably believed it was going to blow all our minds). It's a genuinely repellent take on The Witch if you happen to celebrate that ending, not least because in order to get the ball rolling so that it stops with Thomasin in the throes of Satanic freedom, you have to first kill a baby and grind its body into paste. I don't imagine that taking the "you can't make an omelette" approach to social concerns this far is something we're really prepared for, even within the boundaries of fiction.

The other one, about Puritan societies dooming women, is more supportable (by the way, I should say here, if there's another way to approach a feminist reading of The Witch, please let me know), but it's complicated by the details of the film itself. How would this family have fared had they been able to stay in the colony, which is very clearly also Puritan in nature? How, more specifically, would Thomasin have fared? Maybe not well, but surely not this badly. This family is placed in a very specific situation, one that, if not unheard of (and obviously it wasn't), was still not the norm -- in the bulk of the film, they are living a life that was quite literally outside of regular colonial society. So the broader critique that hundreds of years ago Puritans should've been different doesn't even really apply. Furthermore, the men in the film are not bad people. Caleb is, quite frankly, a wonderful little boy who is very confused and as in danger of being harmed by Puritanism as Thomasin (however, instead of being damaged by Puritanism, he's killed by Satanism). And William, the father, is a weak but caring man. You could argue, and you should because it's a good point, that if Robert Eggers wanted to use the horror genre to construct a metaphor about patriarchal tyranny in Colonial America, but wanted to remain a good artist while doing so, he would create a father character who was not some cartoonishly abusive brute, but would instead show that even a caring man in that environment would have been insidiously, and unavoidably corrupted. However, when the charges of witchcraft begin falling on Thomasin, the one person in the family who refuses to believe she's guilty without strong evidence (outside of Caleb, who by then has been incapacitated) is William. This is perhaps taking it beyond subtlety and into the realm of, to paraphrase Jake LaMotta (I see the irony of that one, by the way), defeating its own purpose. If such was Eggers's purpose, which I clearly don't think it was.

But what about religious hysteria? And what the hell is my reading of The Witch anyway?? Well thank Christ, because those two things dovetail pretty neatly. To begin with, it's important to know that as the end credits of the film begin, there's a card that informs the audience that all the specifics of The Witch -- all the horror of it, is the implication -- is taken directly from actual New England folktales (and a lot of the dialogue, which is wonderfully rich and archaic, is taken from those same folktales, as well as journals from the era). I'll admit that I'm forced to take Eggers's word for this, but either way what becomes, to me, fascinating about this movie upon reading that is the idea that, as far as I know, for the first time in the history of the American horror film, a film was adapted from the very basic roots of fiction, before there even was a horror genre. The body of the horror genre is supported by two spines: superstition, and the fear of death. A certain sophistication, on which we continuously pride ourselves, has transformed the superstition part from a system of belief (and here I don't mean religious faith, but rather a belief in malevolent supernatural creatures such as, to pick a random example, witches) into what a lot of people writing about genre would call "formula." Or tropes. In horror, what Puritans, and others around the world from a variety of societies, once literally believed has now become a series of plot engines (as a lifelong fan of horror, I should probably add "when used poorly," but in order to explain why The Witch is unique, let's just generalize, since that is, of course, easier). Whereas our fear of death is as literal and present and hatefully consistent as its ever been. As I think I've indicated, many people approach horror as a sort of cloche beneath which they will find Metaphors About Our Nation Today and Social Commentary Of A General Sort, but while God knows there's loads of that stuff to be found throughout the genre's extremely long history, the constant, I mean, the absolute constant, metaphor within the genre, to the degree that it's not so much a metaphor as it is a synonym, is the fear of death. You can boil away everything else, but that one's not going anywhere. Unless you're one of those people who claims to not fear death, in which case: teach me. I want to learn.

Of course, in horror you can't just pass away in your sleep. You have to be killed by something or someone, which implies evil, malevolence, which, in turn, at least in this context, implies superstition. Superstition created the folktales on which The Witch is based. Superstition, in most cases, also suggests that some form of hysteria is behind it, and with this film, you have a very specifically archaic Christian worldview to draw from (and really, I can't think of anything that could be labeled by anyone as superstitious that doesn't have as its core some sort of spiritual component). But how can the film be about Christian religious hysteria, or any kind of religious hysteria, when in the world of the film those beliefs that we might deem hysterical are shown to be literally true? Not only that, but the audience knows them to be true before the victims in the film even suspect them to be present in their lives at all? They're not being hysterical: they've actually figured out the truth.

Very often, I've found that people don't like taking the horror parts of a horror film at face value. They like to say everything weird took place only in a given character's head, or in any case we shouldn't take it -- the vampire, the ghost, the demon -- seriously as a thing itself because it doesn't exist in our world and therefore can only gain meaning if were able to find things beneath it. They call this "subtext," and it is The Ultimate Good when it comes to genre fiction -- it's the excuse for genre fiction. That's if you think genre fiction needs to be excused, and possibly because good genre fiction is often so appealing on a visceral level, excuses must be made. I do sort of think that the nadir (or apex, depending on the exact way you're interested in this sort of thing) of this is in the theories that swirl around Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. And I'm not talking just about Rodney Ascher's documentary Room 237, although God knows that did a pretty good job of distilling it all. I'm talking about the kind of thing I read all the time about that movie, that the ghosts in it aren't real, they're only in the mind of Jack Torrance because he's insane, and, er, later, they're also in the head of Wendy Torrance because she's so scared? But that kid really is psychic because that shit can't be explained away. So people pick and choose what's metaphorical and discard what they can't fit in. Meanwhile, the most interesting theory about what The Shining means is the one about the alcoholic writer and the haunted hotel that possesses him. The film is about the doom of Jack Torrance. I believe this take on the film might be regarded as shallow, but to me it is not only deep; it's what (more-or-less) traditional narrative art is. The question, to me, isn't "What more do you need," but rather "What else matters?"

Look also at Bill Paxton and Brent Hanley's Frailty from 2001, which leads the audience to believe that Paxton's character is murdering innocent people, and teaching his young sons to do the same, because he's suffering from a fanatical religious delusion that these people are in fact malicious demons, only, in the end, to reveal that those people were, in fact, malicious demons. This bothered many viewers because it implied a justification for murder, I guess, but given the tradition of the genre you might as well judge Abraham Van Helsing as equally immoral. The point is, for many, all of this has to mean something else. Frailty has to be about the wrongness of religion, not about demons on Earth, otherwise what are we even doing this for? There is no meaning within the specifics of the story itself. See also Antichrist, which I mentioned I think about a week ago, a film that, like The Witch, was also reduced to being a collection of social issues that Von Trier had the wrong opinions about, but which was rarely, from what I could tell, approached as a horror film, even though that's what it was, and it was the exact particulars of that horror story that explained what that film really was (see here for more on that one). What's important isn't what we decide that Antichrist is about -- what's important is what Antichrist is actually telling us it's about.

And so, The Witch. And so, Thomasin, and her fate. Except, hers isn't the only fate we witness. We see what happens to her father, William, and her mother, Katherine. We see what happens to Caleb (and what a striking piece of metaphysical terror that is). Thomasin's fate, and life, can be connected to all of these. You can bind them, in a lot of ways, or anyway a few ways, to whatever interpretation you'd like. However, we don't know, finally, where Black Phillip came from. We don't know who named him. And we don't know what happened to Jonas or Mercy. All along we've been given reason to suspect that they are the key. These two little five or six or seven-year-olds. But they were the Devil's way into this family. Them, and the baby. The youngest and most innocent, yet also the least convinced or interested or able to understand religion or its possible excesses, or their Puritanical lives. They are children with no experience with which to form a subtext, and that's why all of this happens.

Strip away the rest. The Witch is horror in its purest form.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Capsule Reviews: Again, for the First Time

Let me cut to the chase: today, three films were released as Blu-ray-style DVDs and I have watched all three. Below are my thoughts and thinkings about each.

Pressure Point (d. Hubert Cornfield) - There's a scene in Tim Robbins's 1995 film Dead Man Walking which rather neatly exposes the cowardice at its heart. Matthew Poncelet, the Death Row inmate played by Sean Penn is being questioned about his racist beliefs by Sister Helen Prejean, the nun whose job it is to help Poncelet reach a kind of grace, and to ask forgiveness for the murder he committed, before being put to death by the state, something Poncelet, Prejean, and the film oppose. So Poncelet says he doesn't like black people because they're lazy. Prejean says "Martin Luther King wasn't lazy" and Poncelet says no, he likes Martin Luther King because he actually did stuff. Prejean zings him by saying "It sounds like what you really don't like isn't black people, but lazy people." Poncelet's reaction is to be quietly flummoxed, the implication being that he thinks she might be on to something here. This exposes the film's cowardice because to begin with, I daresay that not a single racist white person has ever said "Funnily enough, I do like Martin Luther King, though." Second, Robbins shows that he believes an audience is more willing to forgive a man for killing someone for no good reason than they are a man who hates someone for no good reason. In fairness to Robbins, he's not wrong in this belief. What's cowardly about it, not to mention weird, is that in order to make his argument against the death penalty, he strips away anything objectionable about Poncelet (save for the murder itself, but even that he mitigates as much as he reasonably can) so that he doesn't really need to marshal very much in the way of a moral argument.

Though the American Nazi played by Bobby Darin in 1962's Pressure Point (just out from Olive Films), produced by issue-filmmaker Stanley Kramer, isn't in prison for murder (he is in prison, though), for a while there, as I watched it the other day, it seemed to me that Kramer, director Cornfield, and writers Cornfield and S. Lee Pogostin, were constructing a similar escape hatch. Darin's convict has been assigned to the care of a prison psychiatrist played by Sidney Poitier. Darin objects to this because Poitier is black, and Poitier doesn't much care for Darin, but he's there to do a job, and anyway as the film progresses, and we learn about the Nazi's difficult childhood, and the nightmares that still haunt him, you start to think, well, hey...this guy's a racist piece of shit but maybe he can be talked out of being that way.  What a tale of redemption that would be.

Interestingly enough, the film, and I don't want to spoil it, but the film pulls back from that eventually. And even though Kramer's iron fist of compassion can still be felt banging down from time to time, Pressure Point nevertheless is interested in sending a more complicated message then the one it seems to be composing. The last scene between Poitier and Darin (Poitier is unsurprisingly good; Darin is surprisingly good) shows Poitier's doctor absolutely furious at Darin's prisoner. He does not forgive him for his behavior, his crimes, his attitudes, beliefs, or manipulations. The important thing is that we know the doctor considers this case, in hindsight, to have been one of his failures. But he's going to keep doing his job, or trying to. Maybe next time he'll get a sweetheart like Matthew Poncelet, which would be a total walk in the park in comparison.

Death by Hanging (d. Nagisa Oshima) - I mentioned before that even regarding the murder that we know Matthew Poncelet (yes I know, but I'm trying to establish a "theme") committed, in Dead Man Walking director/screenwriter Tim Robbins does whatever he thinks he can get away with to soften that blow for the audience by showing that, for example, Poncelet never wanted to kill either the man or woman he and his friend ended up murdering that night in the woods, but, while Poncelet did indeed pull the trigger on one of them, he was scared and bullied into it by his partner, a much nastier and more sadistic fellow. Not that this excuses, Poncelet, of course, but doesn't it almost?? The unavoidable question in my mind, however, is if you really mean what you're saying, then make an anti-death penalty film about the sadistic friend who wanted to commit those murders. Grow some balls.

An anti-death penalty film that does kinda sorta address this is Nagisa Oshima's Death by Hanging from 1968, which was released today by Criterion. Oshima, best known for Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, which featured a very interesting performance from David Bowie, and the scandalous In the Realm of the Senses, which featured, well, you know, was always a confrontationally political filmmaker, and he begins Death by Hanging aggressively challenging anyone in the audience who might support the death penalty by asking, via a narrator, "Have you ever been in a death chamber?" We're then walked through the process of preparing someone for execution, and then through the execution itself, though in this case, the convict, a Korean immigrant living in Japan and known only as "R" (Do-yun Yu) doesn't die when he's hanged. He's unconscious, but the doctor present notes that physically there's no difference between his health pre- and post-hanging. This leads the various government and law enforcement officials to blunder through a series of desperate, absurdist theological, moral, legal, and existential debates, which only intensify when R regains consciousness but who is an emotional blank who, it is argued by the Catholic priest (Toshiro Oshido) who was there to administer Last Rites, lost his soul during the hanging and so is, therefore, no longer the man who committed the rape and murder he was convicted of, and so therefore executing him again, which is sort of what most of those present are hoping to be able to do, since that would simplify their dilemma a lot, would be immoral. You wouldn't be executing the murderer.

All of which is really just the beginning of Death by Hanging, an enormously strange and complex film which is described as a satire, and it is that, but plays out more like a piece of absurdist theater. Which in a way is the problem. Even though R is guilty of just about the most appalling crime imaginable, the rape of the girl he murdered is almost laughed about as the government officials go about trying to reenact R's crimes so that he might remember them and become himself again. There's also some blathering about "desire," which seems, er, beside the point. Furthermore, the moral equivalency that Robbins fails to shock anybody by wallowing in in Dead Man Walking is also indulged in by Oshima. But even allowing that execution of a person by the state is often a moral quagmire at best, I refuse to accept that the killing of a man because he raped and murdered a woman is the same thing as a man raping and murdering a woman because he felt like doing it. Worse still, and this is where the absurd nature of Death by Hanging becomes a problem, R eventually understands the terribleness of what he did, but he only got there because of the metaphysically botched execution. Like Robbins, Oshima finds a way to strip away the worst of R and thereby render him palatable, but unlike Robbins he does so by introducing fabulism into the scam. This comes perilously close to making the case that execution is the best thing for people like R, and I somehow doubt is what Oshima had in mind.

Hitch Hike (d. Pasquale Festa Campanile) - Now, if you want to see about a film that at least seems honest about terrible people who do terrible things, you might consider checking out this mean little bit of Italian exploitation from 1977, now out from Raro Video. Walter (Franco Nero) and Eve (Corinne Clery) are arguing (and in Walter's case, drinking) their way through a road trip when they pick up a hitchhiker named Adam (David Hess). Adam turns out to be a violent criminal on the run, and soon Walter and Eve are his hostages. The murders of two policemen, a series of confrontations with Adam's former criminal colleagues, and Adam's repeated sexual aggression against Eve, form a good chunk of the film's plot.

For quite a while, I thought that, whatever sleazy entertainment Hitch Hike might provide, it was never going to actually be interesting. It seemed to be the kind of film I could try to write before I watched it, and end up with something reasonably close the actual shooting script. And for a while I'd have been correct, but eventually things start to zig rather than zag. For one thing, the fact that there's a character named Adam and a character named Eve but this winds up actually not having any significance whatsoever (apart from Adam remarking on it, but only to the extent of saying, basically "Hey how about that") came as a surprise to me. It's certainly possible that to Campanile's eyes, it meant a lot and it just doesn't play the way he intended, but whatever, the effect is the effect. Second, Eve and Walter are presented as a hopeless couple, and it's all Walter's fault -- he's a drunk, and an asshole, and apparently a rapist himself -- he certainly forces himself on his wife often enough (creepily, though not surprisingly, the film does make Eve someone who eventually gives in and enjoys it when this happens, although there's a side of this film that makes me wonder how to read that; I could just be making excuses, though, or hoping someone will make them for me). Anyway, with this kind of set up, you might reasonably expect, however the film turns out as far as who survives and who doesn't, that Walter will be working towards some kind of redemption, doomed or otherwise. And while he does work to extricate his wife and himself from this terrible situation, he's always kind of a dick. Hitch Hike isn't a redemption story. It's the story of an asshole in trouble.

Nowhere is this made more clear than in the film's ending. Another thing you'd expect while watching Hitch Hike is that once a certain thing happens, the film will be over. But while that thing does happen, you realize there's still a half hour to go. What's left? I'll tell you what's left: the kind of moral horror that would have made Jim Thompson proud. I was so impressed with where the film finally went, however clumsy, and even ridiculous it sometimes is, that I'm tempted to think of it as a kind of minor crime classic. It's a hard movie.

Sunday, February 14, 2016