Whenever we lose another celebrity the Interwebs assemble into two primary factions. 1. Those that mourn. 2. Those that begrudge the need to mourn. The latter faction shames the former for feeling sorrow in the wake of the celebrity death. “Celebrity” assumes that we had no real life connections to the deceased — that they were merely a face on the screen or a voice on the radio, merely a fictional personality.
I never knew Carrie Fisher. I never spoke to her at a press junket or a fan convention. Zero direct or indirect contact. But as long as there’s been a “me,” there’s been Princess Leia. Let’s start at the beginning. I was born in 1978, the year after the release of Star Wars. I saw the film at such an age that I do not recall any moment in my life that predates knowledge of the film.
I lay no special claim to the following statements, and I know for a fact that I am not alone.
Carrie Fisher was my first crush. Of course, I crushed on Princess Leia and the hair buns and the “into the garbage shoot, flyboy” confidence, the girl that led a rebellion and, lets be honest, the girl that wore the gold bikini. I was of a certain impressionable age. There was just no getting around it. I was and remain only human. Like many others, Leia was my earliest exposure to cinematic badass femininity.
Of course, as I grew older I distanced the Princess Leia character from the actress Carrie Fisher.
Princess Leia belonged to that unassailable, ideal part of my childhood. The part that worshipped all things Star Wars, watched the original trilogy movies on a loop, went as an Ewok one Halloween, made my mom design different Star Wars-themed birthday cakes each year, paused my VHS tape and counted the number of stormtroopers present when Darth Vader arrives on the Death Star and requested that many stormtrooper action figures for Christmas. I had Star Wars bed sheets and posters of all three movies over my bed. I received phone calls on my Darth Vader telephone. These memories cannot be taken from me. They remain pure, perfect nostalgia.
I came to see Carrie Fisher meanwhile as a beautiful, damaged, three-dimensional human. As I struggled with feelings of depression during my early 30’s, I looked to her — someone who’d lived with mental illness — as a figure of hope. Someone who knew what bottom felt like and spoke openly about her experiences, using her celebrity to bring awareness to an issue that remained, apparently, off-limits for dinner conversation. And she did so with wit and wisdom and brazen self-awareness. She’d experienced darkness and as a sort of self-satirist could make light of her troubles without undermining the struggles of anyone else. The world seemed healthier, more honest and more colorful with Carrie Fisher dishing stories about her addictions and the absurdities of her life in Hollywood as Carrie Fisher, Princess Leia and daughter of Hollywood royalty, Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher.
This week we all had to say goodbye to that voice, that wit, that beacon of hope. I have mourned her passing on social media and in the privacy of my home. For the first time in all of our years together, my wife suggested we watch Star Wars to celebrate Carrie, but I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t ready to admit that she was really gone. Instead I cleaned the house and blared John Coltrane on vinyl. I wasn’t ready to recognize that the 19-year-old woman who’d catalyzed these films that I’d loved throughout my entire lifetime with the line “Help me, Obi-wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope,” was really gone.
No, I never met Carrie Fisher, but I have shed a few tears over her passing. I will mourn her as an actress. I will mourn her as a voice of reason amidst the madness of our self-obsessed modern culture. And I will mourn the passing of part of my ideal, unassailable youth — my now somewhat imperfect nostalgia. It sounds selfish — but that is our frame of reference for “Celebrity” — the ways in which they’ve touched our lives through their art. I will mourn because I feel sadness, and that’s the first step toward being better, no matter the scope or scale of that loss.
And now having just finished the first draft of this bl-g post, I’ve learned that Debbie Reynolds has also passed. And just like that– another radiant beacon of positivity has been extinguished. As fans of cinema we loved them both like family. I cannot imagine the feeling of loss within their real family.
Nature of Ghost and Mr. Chicken Shame: Unseen Comedy Classic
Hoop-tober Challenge Checklist: Decade: 1960’s Before 1970’s
#31. The Ghost and Mr. Chicken
The Horrific days of October have bled into the Thanksgiving holiday. I’m pecking away at this post while my daughters watch the rather dismal Hotel Transylvania 2, a rather potent distraction from composing competent thoughts let alone complete sentences regarding a movie I watched nearly a month ago. I lament the trend to compose bl-g-length posts rather than three or so sentences; I hope I remember this 11 months from now when I again embark on 31 Days of Horror.
The Ghost and Mr. Chicken appeared on the 31 Days of Horror schedule as part of the wife-friendly horror marathon, and though the film lacks certain frightful elements… or really any at all… Don Knotts has brought to light an intrinsic link between horror and comedy. Many of our most classic horror films trade in absurdity, yet transcend that absurdity through horrific imagery. How distant is, say, John Carpenter’s Halloween from a parody of John Carpenter’s Halloween? Change to score from haunting synth to a Mickey Moused screwball riff. Swap out scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis for weak-kneed Don Knotts. What do you have? The Ghost and Mr. Chicken.
Comedy and horror make excellent bedfellows. How potent is a quick laugh in the face of quaking terror? What makes Evil Dead 2 such a successful film? The preposterous coupling of laughter and the innate terror of demons from another dimension coming to get you through the floor. Laughter breaks the tension, allows the viewer to more fully embrace the emotional strain of pure terror. Unrelenting horror often falls short of classic status. The broader audience cannot embrace something as dour and hopeless as Dead and Buried, just to name one recent example from my own 31 Days of Horror experience. And even though that film had a few laughs, it fell short of accomodating a lesser constitution.
The mirror image of Evil Dead 2 looks something like The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. Horror elements swapped for screwball. The comedic excesses swapped for creepy old mansions and inexplicable goings on. There’s really not much difference between the personalities of Bruce Campbell and Don Knotts anyway.
(This prattle makes perfect sense as I’m typing away, but I’m sure I’m shortchanging a dozen necessary components of this argument — the pint of 750ml Ommegang Three Philosophers I just downed likely has something to do with it. What can I say? It’s the holidays.)
Don Knotts plays Luther Beggs, a typesetter at the local paper with aspirations to be a fully-accredited news reporter. He believes to have seen a murder outside a local “haunted” mansion, but while he details the incident to his boss, the “victim” walks into the room. Luther’s a local joke, a man-child prone to histrionics. So when the opportunity presents itself, Luther volunteers to sleep one night in the haunted mansion. He’ll write about it and sell many papers with his tales of terror.
During his night in the house, Luther encounters secret staircases, creepy passages, self-playing organs and many things that go bump in the night. After writing about them all, Luther becomes a local hero, championed by all. (Apparently Kansas is short of heroes.) That is, until he’s accused of libel by the owner of the mansion and discredited by his old schoolteacher who claimed Luther was always “keyed up” as a boy.
Since this is a feel-good 1960’s comedy the outcome of The Ghost and Mr. Chicken is never really in doubt. Romanticizing small town America, the championing of the average Joe, punishment of greed. Comfort food for the 1960’s loving soul. The difference between The Ghost and Mr. Chicken and a true horror movie feels like a canyon — and yet, how far does it actually stray from a haunted house film of the same generation? Compare The Ghost and Mr. Chicken with The Haunting (1963) or The Legend of Hell House (1973), two films that bookend Mr. Chicken by a few years on each side.
Better lighting in the haunted mansion. A slight shift in focus from the source of the spooks to the libel suit and the eventual Scooby Doo unmasking. Dial back the Don Knotts, of course. Consider the ways that The Ghost and Mr. Chicken builds and relieves tension through a Don Knotts pratfall. The real difference is just the repeated efforts to relieve the tension before it festers into something greater.
The Ghost and Mr. Chicken remains a frivolous lark of comedy/horror film. Easygoing and legitimately funny (if you care for Don Knotts’ schtick — which I do), despite the soulcrushing weight of civic-sanctioned bullying. It’s a film that at once celebrates the oddball yet fails to condemn small-town America’s gossipmongering. Yet we forgive and enjoy, because 1960’s.
Nature of Dead & Buried Shame: Unseen (and two-years borrowed) Blu-ray
Hoop-tober Challenge Checklist: Decade: 1980’s Because Cinemonster told me to
#30. Dead and Buried (1981)
Original Cinema Quad Poster – Movie Film Posters
I didn’t know anything about Dead and Buried when I borrowed it from a buddy of mine two years ago. He just told me I should watch it. Then when Cinemonster added it to the Bonus Requirements for Hooptober 2016, I expressed a measure of enthusiasm because I still had Dead and Buried up on the shelf. Dusty, maybe, but there. And I still didn’t know anything about it.
I still had no desire to pop it in for a watch.
As the CinemaShame/Hooptober 31 Days of Horror Challenge 2016 wound down, I had two movies left on the schedule — Dead and Buried and This Old Dark House. The first because I just didn’t watch it. The second because This Old Dark House remained the only film on my list I didn’t own or didn’t otherwise have in my possession. FINE! I’LL WATCH THE MOVIE. Dead and Buried had almost reached Titanic levels of stubborn refusal. (To be fair, NOTHING will ever reach Titanic levels of stubborn refusal. I still haven’t seen Titanic and I’m quite convinced I’m the last person on earth. Solidarity?)
Thankfully, Dead and Buried didn’t Trojan horse me Titanic; it was actually striking example of atmospheric horror with a side of stomach-churning gore. That syringe in the eyeball, though! At times Gary Sherman’s film recalled The Fog — lots of haze and small town xenophobia and paranoia. The horrors of Dead and Buried take on a far less supernatural form, at least at the outset. As the film progresses, the horrors of Potter’s Bluff remain grounded in the corporeal — humans doing despicable things — despite the threat originating from humans of an undead variety. It’s no small feat maintaining this grounded slice of terror. I attribute the film’s success directly to its pacing and atmosphere.
As grisly murders slowly encircle our small town sheriff, Dan (the Sheriff) learns that the murdered subjects eventually return to Potter’s Bluff as walking, talking, “living” townspeople. The whole town’s caught a case of the dead-ish — including Dan’s wife and now he’s got to find out what to do about it. It’s a tricky thing, convincing the remaining “living” members of a town that the walking dead are systematically eliminating them — especially when it’s the mortician behind it all. Who suspects the mortician? He’s already a creepy dude. And what a spectacularly creepy dude he is — played by the great Jack Albertson (Grandpa Joe in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory).
The languid (though uneven) pacing coddles the terror, slowly building until you find yourself on the edge of your couch with a steadily growing sense of unease that becomes full-on paranoia. The unease broken only by cringeworthy fits when the undead brutally attack with boulders and sex tapes and eye-piercing syringes and gasoline and matches. They’ve got a healthy bag of tricks, all of which leave you squirmy.
But still… there’s that “but.” Dead and Buried sells such a perversely unrepetant tale that it’s hard to love it. Admire? Absolutely. Love? I’m not jumping at the bit to toss this one in again. I would like to revisit, if only to consider whether a second watch dulls the feelings of bridge-jumping hopelessness. Also, this merely reaffirms my notion that small town America will crush your soul and suck out your eyeballs.
Nature of Bird with the Crystal Plumage Shame: Unseen (and two-years borrowed) Blu-ray
Hoop-tober Challenge Checklist: Decade: 1970’s Master Classers – Argento
#29. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)
Guess what? YUP. This is still going on. My steadfast pursuit of an end goal that nobody even cares about impresses you, doesn’t it? No? Screw off, man. I’m working for the common good. Here I am, mid-late November still plugging words into bl-g posts about horror movies. Once the election happened, this all slipped into the background when I fell into a 24/7 news cycle of disbelief, conspiracy theories and #facepalm. Movies remain a sanctuary. Things make sense again. I didn’t get my bachelor’s degree in film theory for n0thing. NO COMMENTS FROM YOU, READER. Reader, dear reader. I’m sorry. Continue reading, maybe?
I believe in the powers of proximate viewing, especially when it comes to viewing multiple entries from the same director. Having viewed Deep Red (for the first time!) and Tenebrae (for the first time in ages!), my reading of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage shifted drastically. Elements from Bird reappear in both Deep Red and Tenebrae. And I’m not just talking about the giallo genre tropes either. Let’s focus on one element from each and contemplate how Argento evolves from Bird to the latter film in his filmography.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Deep Red & Perception
Bird opens with a man (Tony Musante) witnessing the murder of a woman inside a glass-walled art gallery. Right from the get, Argento foregrounds one of his favorite broad themes — perception vs. reality. But not only that. As we’ve seen in Deep Red, Argento also loves to explore art and interpretation. Art is at once a basic reality and the myth that you, the viewer, interpret based on your individual frame of reference. By setting the catalytic murder sequence within a modern art gallery, Argento is again directing your interpretation from the outset of the film.
Deep Red devoted lengthy bits of dialogue to the nature of perception vs. reality. There is not one reality; but rather millions of realities based on individual perception. What is real? Argento turns Deep Red into a meditation on art. He evokes Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks with a nifty bit of set design and lingers on classical architecture and sculpture. Impressionist paintings play a major role in the narrative.
In his earlier film, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Argento cares less about “Art” as a recurring motif and more about interpretation. Like Deep Red, his protagonist in Bird makes assumptions that direct his investigation of the witnessed murder. What has he seen? What does it mean? But Musante’s Sam doesn’t meditate on this interpretation; instead, Argento uses Sam’s perspective (and consequently our perspective) as a red herring. We, like Sam, witness the murder while trapped between two panes of glass at the art gallery. Face value vs. reality. Art vs. interpretation.
It’s not until Sam recognizes that he’s misled himself through his own assumptions that we, too, understand that our reading of the film has been improperly directed by cinematic tropes and expectations. Argento’s dastardly twist relies on the fact that we, the audience, understand the predictable language of the horror film. That we will also fall back on easy expectation and interpretation.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Tenebrae & the ‘Misogyny’ Argument
I regret that I’m reducing term papers into paragraphs, but thinking’s good for you and maybe if I don’t pummel you with thousands of words, you’ll revisit these films and form your own deep thoughts.
I glossed over some stuff at the tail end of the prior paragraph because spoiler reasons. The part I yada yada‘d concerns how we see horror films and specifically the giallo genre. Black gloved murderer kills beautiful young women. We try to figure how which woman-hating male has perpetrated the crimes.
Tenebrae acts as Argento’s response to the argument that giallo films hate women. He opens the discussion with a writer being interviewed by a particularly aggressive female journalist. She questions author Peter Neal about how his novels hate women since they’re regular victims, prey, chattel. Neal responds with an incredulous laugh. “You know me,” he says, suggesting of course that it’s absurd to consider him a misogynist. The reporter responds, more aggressively this time. But your books are — explain yourself.
Films in the giallo genre succeed when they undermine viewer expectation. What separates giallo from your average slasher is that the giallo is equally concerned with discovering the identity of the murderer as the murders themselves. The giallo is part procedural investigation and part slasher. Argento’s finest gialli follow the boilerplate but innovate and usurp expectations. One of his favorite ways to undermine expectations is to invert the sex of the murderer. In Tenebrae, Argento not only inverts the sex of the murderer, but he also examines misogyny from multiple angles.
Again I’ll stop short of fully explaining Tenebrae‘s ending, but the multiple twists force the audience to similarly examine these questions of misogyny from multiple angles. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (and to a lesser extend Deep Red) use our expectations as misdirection. Tenebrae, of course, also cares about misdirection, but the questions left when the credits roll intentionally inspire further reflection rather than gee whiz admiration for a keen narrative twist.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a terrific example of an early giallo that shaped the giallo genre. Like Bava with Bay of Blood, Argento’s first film has confidently elevated the form with a stylish and clever slice of intelligent exploitation. As a direct precursor to both Deep Red and Tenebrae, Argento provides much fodder for analysis and direct comparison. Together the three films provide a generous give and take of interpretation and narrative understanding. View them in close proximity and in order of release and prepare to have your giallo-loving mind expanded.
I felt wholly confident that I’d seen House of Wax. This is, until I watched House of Wax. Parts seemed quite familiar. But then again… maybe just because I’d seen the original Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) more recently. But Vincent Price knocking off those that had done him wrong in a creepy mask! Or was that just misappropriated images from The Abominable Dr. Phibes. It wasn’t until I saw one certain face that I knew with 100% certainty that I’d seen House of Wax (1953) long, long ago. As a wee lad, no more than 10 or so, the paddleball fellow left an indelible impression:
I didn’t know at the time, however, that I was missing the 3D effect. He was just a guy slapping his paddle ball at me for some reason. Non-sequitur much? The movie takes a detour to watch this guy. How bizarre! How absurd! I was minding my own business watching a Vincent Price horror movie and BLAM! suddenly this guy appears. I remembered nothing about House of Wax… except for the film’s intermission… but I knew I really enjoyed it. The movie, not necessarily the intermission.
That’s as bizarre as saying Ben-Hur‘s great! But I only remember the fanfare. (It is a lovely fanfare.)
Today I’d like to flip this conversation. House of Wax is a fine film. Now, let’s talk about the guy in the intermission and how or why this scene doesn’t feel like other cloying scenes of 3D-sploitation. The most basic motive remains exploiting the 3D technology. A paddle ball springing into the audience. It does so without furthering the narrative, but the scene boasts more complexity than mere visual showmanship or gimmickry.
As the entertainer wanders and torments/titillates with his miraculous rubber paddle ball, the gathered crowd of course oohs and awwws about this skill, but also about the mysterious wax museum. Time has passed in the film since we cut to the intermission. The crowd and the entertainer serves up a bundle of backgrounded exposition, catching us up with the publicly-known details about the emergence and prowess of this wax museum.
I’m pretty sure that scenes devoted to conversational exposition were outlawed by the Geneva Convention… but they never said we couldn’t have a paddle ball sideshow.
One final point about the brilliant eccentricity of this particular scene. House of Wax doesn’t merely present this as a brief gag, a one-off dalliance. Instead, serving as an ersatz intermission, the showman proceeds for nearly two minutes, slapping his paddle balls at onlookers (and the viewing audience, of course) and catching us all up on the events we missed when House of Wax cut to black and went yadda yadda yadda.
For those curious about the inclusion of an intermission in a film that clocks in at just under 90 minutes, the projectionist had to change both reels at the same time due to the nature of the projected 3D image. Each projector was dedicated to one of the stereoscopic images — whereas a normal 2D film would just jump from one projector to the other during a reel change with no gap between reels.
House of Wax (1953) entertained just as I remembered. Vincent Price presents a vengeful maniac that acts as a precursor to his more flambuoyant and showstopping villain in The Abominable Dr. Phibes. Creepy and atmospheric with a touch of devilish black humor.
Hoop-tober Challenge Checklist: Decade – 1980’s Country of origin – India
I can barely put thoughts down about horror movies at this point. The anxiety I’m feeling about the realtime horrors of electing He-Who-Shalt-Not-Be-Named has crippled my ability to function as even a remedial bl-gger. I hoped getting back up on the 31 Days of Horror horse (6 more to go!) would place some psychological distance between me and this horrific political cycle. Yet here I am… and a sexytime Bollywood vampire movie can’t even get me in the mood.
And if a Bollywood vampire/musical/sex kitten/mystical warlock movie can’t get you in the mood, what will? WHAT WILL?? Full blown, 31 Days of Horror impotence.
Still, let’s give it a shot.
Okay… so a witch cult hangs out in the forest worshipping some horned deity thing. There’s also a lusty man-sucking vampire temptress. And then a local mayor sends an agent of change to take care of said man-sucking vampire temptress. Well, when that works, the witch cult leader gets bent out of shape and vows revenge. Which seems pretty okay until some dude drives the mayor’s daughter right through the same woods where the witch cult hangs out. Surprise! The witch cult guy snags the daughter and transfers the soul of the old man-sucking vampire temptress into the daughter’s body because he’s clearly seen The Exorcist. And that’s roughly the first 30 minutes of a 150-minute movie.
Your ability to comprehend Veerana relies on your familiarity with Bollywood movies overall. I could tell you that Veerana is a movie about a sex-kitten vampire with intermittent musical numbers, but would you fully understand the consequences?
It is true, of course, that Indian movies have had far more people chasing each other around the trees than kissing, and that is primarily because of the dictates of the dreaded censor board, the cheerless cinematic embodiment of the Nehruvian ideal of big government intruding into every aspect of national life, which made directors move the camera away at strategic moments to two flowers touching each other.
The Times ran this article in 2013. Veerana opened in 1988. Keep this in mind when merging the above information with the narrative synopsis for Veerana on IMDB: “A beautiful young girl, unfortunately possessed from her childhood by a vengeful spirit, wanders around lonely places to seduce and kill people and thus, gradually becoming lost into a dark world of revenge and lust.”
Yet, all that said, Veerana is all about sex. Coy flirting; questionable notions of male machismo; fawning, fainting females; and the far more overt vampirism (which is itself an inherently sexualized activity). Censorship in 1988 manifests in juvenile courting sequences with choreographed song and dance featuring (the abovementioned “strategic” camera movement) before contact… and meticulously placed sideboob and come-hither eyes.
Jarring cuts, off-screen sexual contact and teenage handholding populate Veerana, but the film’s horror never really feels suppressed. Jasmine, the predatory vampire, preys on the weaknesses of horny men. No punches pulled. Actions are clear, kills are unquestionable.
The witchcraft and black magic elements lifted from Indian mythology offer plenty of opportunity for horrific latex masks and practical effects. Looming idols and ghastly temples. The low-budget nature of the film adds rather than detracts from our enjoyment. The remedial camerawork offers plenty of opportunity for a giggle. Within the opening minutes you’ll note awkward tracking shots and inept framing. If you can abide the ways inept filmmaking creeps into Veerana, you’ll likely take immense pleasure in this oddity — an oddity at least to our Western concepts of horror cinema.
Most jarring is the waffling between sunshiney happy time Bollywood song and dance and the more horrific elements. Two films have been mashed together to satisfy our need for all varieties of entertainment. Veerana is an automat filled with simple cinematic pleasures. Slapstick. Foppery. Sexy times. Minimally gory bits. Incompetent storytelling. Writhing, barely-clad sex-kitten vampirism. Meta-movie within a movie commentary.
Surprings amounts of skin and overt innuendo populate Veerana despite the obvious censor demands. Though, in my Bollywood experience, innuendo has never been a problem. Playful physical contact, however, becomes more problematic when your movie requires vampirism. Have a strong cocktail and enjoy this ridiculous vaudevillian trip to the sub-continent.
I will save this picture on the off chance that one day I can build my DREAM house and find this architect and this decorator and tell them to make me a dining room like this. I think it's one of the first formal dining rooms I've ever really liked.