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Friday, 13 May 2016

A Dead Calling (2006)

Director: Michael Feifer
Writer: Michael Feifer
Stars: Alexandra Holden, Sid Haig, Bill Moseley and Leslie Easterbrook
I'm asking major filmmakers to pick two movies from their careers for me to review here at Apocalypse Later. Here's an index to the titles they chose.
With Little Big Top in Sid Haig’s mind as a rare chance for him to play a lead role that had nothing to do with wackiness or thuggery, it’s hardly surprising that A Dead Calling followed soon afterwards. It was also made in 2006 and he got to avoid stereotyping once again, albeit in a supporting role in a horror movie. The casting choice was presumably due to Michael Feifer, a prolific producer who was starting to get into the writing and directing business at the time; this was his first feature as a writer and his third as a director. He went on to carve out a couple of niches for himself, odd ones when you put them next to each other: straight to video dramatisations of real serial killers with awkward titles, such as Ed Gein: The Butcher of Plainfield, Bundy: An American Icon and Chicago Massacre: Richard Speck, and made for TV Christmas films starring dogs, like The Dog Who Saved Christmas, My Dog’s Christmas Miracle or A Christmas Wedding Tail. This is fortunately neither, which makes it a little more interesting, but it’s still notably flawed.

Our lead is Rachel Beckwith, a television journalist in New York City who reports with flair. ‘They want drama,’ she tells her guy in the news van. ‘They want a good story.’ Unfortunately she promptly becomes one of those good stories: later that night, a strange man breaks into her house and murders her fiancé, Brian. Why this happens, we’re never told, but it clearly isn’t burglary because he knows her and has followed her on television. This mysterious subplot is promptly forgotten, though we can join some dots and eventually figure out who the intruder was. What’s important for now is that she takes time off to go back to the sleepy small town of Fillmore to stay with mum and dad and recharge her batteries. Here’s where horror fans start paying attention because mum is Leslie Easterbrook and dad is Sid Haig. Only a year earlier, they had been a couple in The Devil’s Rejects, serial killer parents of Sheri Moon’s psychotic murderess, but here they’re just Marge and George, loving parents of a victim. Talk about anti-stereotyping!
Oddly, Alexandra Holden does much better with the material she’s given than either Easterbrook or Haig, though that’s probably mostly because she’s given better material. She’s the one character with real substance here and we puzzle through the first half of the movie as to whether her visions are real, making this a ghost story, or just the product of post-traumatic stress, making it a drama. Of course, the film itself is a horror movie because what she sees is another murder, this time a deliberate and bloody one, but for most of the running time, she’s the only character who’s really in a horror movie. Haig and Easterbrook are in a drama, as they’re insulated from the visions until the end and they’re only in the film to provide loving support as Rachel goes back to work for the local TV station. Both get good scenes but both still struggle because they’re not just playing roles, they’re playing parents who are playing roles, stuck in a tough situation that they’re unprepared for. They walk on eggshells for most of the film.

Stephen Javitz, her new boss, is in a drama too, because he’s caring support as well, albeit with a mildly creepy vibe because he has followed her career since she’s left town. He’s prematurely grey and comes off rather like a low budget Richard Gere playing a low budget Anderson Cooper. Actor John Burke is a regular cast member for Michael Feifer, and he’s as typecast as Sid Haig used to be, just in different jobs. Of his twenty films, at least eight have him playing newscasters, reporters or anchormen. Add in the law, at the police station or in the courtroom, and we’re already over half, before we even try to translate the remaining names into their occupations. He’s fine enough in this role, but I wonder why he plays it like he does. He seems to be aiming for too good to be true, as if he wants us to suspect that he’s more than he says he is. Perhaps the goal was to keep us guessing until the reveals begin, but I was never really sold on his performance because he seemed more interested in being a red herring than a character.
Javitz wants Rachel to start out small, with a series on local architecture, so she checks out the Sullivan House. She’s hardly on her game here because she doesn’t even turn over the clipping she found in the station’s morgue to catch the warning in the headline: the house was abandoned because Dr Frank Sullivan massacred his family there a quarter of a century earlier. She sees the murder happen, but she’s the only one there at the time and she only half believes herself. When she goes back, she chats with a journalist from the Fillmore Union-Tribune who’s investigating Sullivan, but after the doctor snaps his neck and throws him into the basement, she calls the cops to find that the Union-Tribune hasn’t existed for years and Arnie Howard is just another ghost. Fans watching for Haig and Easterbrook will also note here that Chief Murken, a refreshingly capable, decent and unstereotypical small town cop, is played by Bill Moseley, another member of The Devil’s Rejects family playing against type, almost unrecognisably in this instance.

With Haig, Moseley and Easterbrook on board, we ought to have some seriously good acting at least but it doesn’t feel that strong. Moseley is as good as ever, as a cop so on the ball that he almost becomes invisible. Haig doesn’t find his footing for a while, maybe struggling with the concept of smiling on film: he grins more in his first scene here than he does in the entirety of Little Big Top, in which he rarely left the screen. He gets a great scene late on, when George decides to get ready for action, but it takes him a while to get there. Easterbrook takes a while to find her stride too, her best moment coming late in the film with a monologue delivered to her screen daughter at a particularly crucial time. To be fair, both suffer from consistently awkward dialogue, but they’re also professionals who give it the old college try. Fortunately, Holden is decent as Rachel because the further down the cast list we go, the less able the actors become. There’s some embarrassing acting late in the picture when it’s most offputting.
I was with the story for half the film. The setup in New York is good and the follow up in Fillmore isn’t bad, even if it’s a little over-convenient; did the Sullivan House have to be the very first place she goes on day one in her new job? I liked Javitz’s potential, the angles used to shoot the creepy old building (which I’d love to own) and the way the cops were portrayed unstereotypically; Chief Murken sends Rachel straight home after the Arnie Howard incident and has his son, Deputy Dave, follow to ensure she gets there. I liked the ghost story that builds and the possibility that it could be explained psychologically too. Even when the script starts to derail into horror movie cliché, there are still some neatly freaky scenes like Arnie’s death and Sullivan’s hidden dissecting room. At this point, Feifer is still paying attention enough to explain why Chief Murken shows up at the Sullivan House without warning, so there’s effort here. It’s really a starting out film, to set up Feifer’s career as a filmmaker, rather than a later accomplished one.

And that means that there’s a lot of bad here too, especially as we explore the second half. All that neat ambiguity is thrown out of the window when the potential of the supernatural and psychological fades into the banal. The first of a couple of twists is about as unsurprising as it comes and it’s addressed clumsily to boot; the second is weak enough and arrives late enough for us to not really care. By this point, characters are either dead or unsympathetic. The best performances during the highly clichéd last act are from children playing ghosts and, while I salute them for their effort, it only highlights how weak the major actors had become (or how weak the dialogue and plot progression given to them had become; it would be difficult indeed to do some of this material justice). There are even odd bleeps littered around the soundtrack at this point that feel like interference on the sound equipment that the crew didn’t catch at the time; I paused my DVD a couple of times to see if it was outside but no, it was in the movie.
So, I get why Sid Haig picked this. From his perspective, it’s a companion piece to Little Big Top, because it’s the beginning of a new era. You could roughly break his career down into the early years in exploitation, the stereotype years playing heavies, the years away when he trained as a hypnotherapist, the triumphant return years when Tarantino and Zombie reestablished his film career and the current years that see him well regarded as a talented character actor. 2006 was the point in between those last two eras, as he was finally able to play parts that were unusual for him: an alcoholic clown and a doting father, the former a substantial lead role to boot. To the rest of us, it’s clear that Little Big Top is by far the superior of the two films. This one is half of a good movie but half of a bad one too, so it’s far less essential, its biggest claim to fame the fact that Michael Feifer, for some reason, chose to cast a trio of actors from The Devil’s Rejects firmly against type. In the long term, that’s the biggest reason to watch this.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Little Big Top (2006)

Director: Ward Roberts
Writer: Ward Roberts
Star: Sid Haig
I'm asking major filmmakers to pick two movies from their careers for me to review here at Apocalypse Later. Here's an index to the titles they chose.
Opening at Hallowe’en with Sid Haig in facepaint again, folks must have known precisely what to expect from Little Big Top in 2006 and they’d all have been completely wrong. He’d played Captain Spaulding for Rob Zombie twice, firstly in House of 1000 Corpses and then in The Devil’s Rejects, but the third time to the well was a brief animated segment in The Haunted World of El Superbeasto not this feature. And, well, that’s kind of the point. When I asked Sid to pick two films from his career for me to review at Apocalypse Later, he picked two from 2006 and it’s not too difficult to see why. My kids know him from his modern day grindhouse flicks for Quentin Tarantino and Rob Zombie and others, while I know him from older Roger Corman pictures, many under the direction of Jack Hill, shot in the Philippines and/or with Pam Grier. In between, he’d retired, fed up of being typecast as the random heavies we’ve seen him play in no end of TV shows, nine in Mission: Impossible alone, different parts for different episodes but otherwise the same.

He came back because Tarantino wrote a good part for him in Jackie Brown and he’d regretted turning down the Marcellus Wallace role in Pulp Fiction. However, he was picky and for eight years only played parts for Tarantino and Zombie. Two more horror flicks later and then this, the only time I’ve seen him play the lead in 25 features and the only straight drama of the bunch. No wonder it came quickly to his mind! He’s not only the lead, he’s the emphatic lead, nobody else with their name before the title card and few with roles that warrant even a co-starring credit. Richard Riehle, otherwise the most obvious actor in the film, underplays his role notably, as if not to steal a single moment from Haig. I’m very happy to see all of this, especially because it’s also the debut feature for Ward Roberts, a young filmmaker who I know from more recent, even more ambitious, movies for Drexel Box Productions: Lo (as an actor) and Dust Up (as writer/director). Travis Betz, who plays a clown here, did the same jobs the other way round.
So I was all over this as soon as Haig, playing an aging third generation clown called Seymour Smiles, counts his aches after leaping off a freight train in his home town of Peru, Indiana, regarded as the ‘Circus Capital of the World’. It really is, by the way. It used to be the winter headquarters for circuses like Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. It still hosts the International Circus Hall of Fame, as well as the only manufacturer of steam-powered calliopes worldwide. The Peru Amateur Circus still takes over the town for the third week of July, just as it does in this picture, and almost everyone we see is a Peru local. That means that the circus performers are real, the folk manning the circus offices are real and the lady at Broadway Liquors is no doubt real too. Roberts was even born in Peru, suggesting that his story may have grown from personal experience. I wonder if he has a circus background himself. It wouldn’t surprise me to find that he’d performed for the Peru Amateur Circus as a child.

Of course, circuses are all about making people happy (unless you’re one of the growing number of coulrophobics who freak out if they even catch sight of a clown) but that’s not what we see here. Seymour Smiles appears to be poorly named, because his face is sorely in need of a smile and it looks like it hasn’t seen one in many a year. His first stop, as he walks through Peru to his family’s boarded-up house, is for beer, cigarettes and beef jerky and it’s only the latter that gets dropped off his shopping list when money starts to run out. There’s no electricity or running water at home and he makes no attempt to get either switched on; he pees on a bush in the front yard and cooks bacon in a large fireplace. He falls asleep with lit cigarettes in his mouth and his shoes in the fire, so it’s almost surprising that he makes it through the film alive. Given that he appears to be drinking himself into oblivion, we can safely assume that he doesn’t want to make it. Why, we have no idea, but we’ve all heard the old Pagliacci joke.
If Bob hadn’t shown up, in the form of Richard Riehle, perhaps this old clown would have fallen asleep on the porch one night and never woken up. Bob wants to hire him though. He’s a legend, you see. He’s also the son of another legend, Sonny Smiles, and the grandson of a third, Miles O Smiles. Of course, you have big shoes to fill when your ancestors are clowns. Bob is the director of the Peru Amateur Circus and the sextet of clowns he has aren’t up to snuff. Seymour gets a grand out of him and complete autonomy, though it doesn’t work out quite how Bob might have expected. He hasn’t seen what we’ve seen, the slowly decaying grump shot often at a distance to emphasise how far he’s gone from what he used to be. The lively circus music that the soundtrack gifts to us is almost cruel and taunting because Seymour completely doesn’t want to know. There are only rare moments, like when he first walks into the circus arena to see a bunch of kids on the trapeze, when his face lights up and he briefly comes back to life.

If any of those Hallowe’en audiences were expecting another Captain Spaulding, they would have been sorely disappointed, but it would be easy to misinterpret the film far beyond that. For a film that features a clown teaching other clowns to be funny, there’s a shortage of laughs here. It’s no comedy, that’s for sure, but there are few light-hearted moments to be found, especially during the first half of the film. We might read it as a feelgood movie, which it sort of is, but it takes a long while to start feeling good and it gets distracted from that frequently. What it really aims to be is a character study, not only of a clown who’s forgotten why he’s a clown but of his home town too, the ‘Circus Capital of the World’, and perhaps even the industry that it recognises. Circuses used to be much bigger deals, back before pop culture made us believe that clowns are scary, so Peru may be feeling the pinch just as Seymour is. It’s no stretch to see him as representing the art of the circus needing to find itself again to be able to move forward.
Haig is everything here, not only because he gives such a deep performance but because the film seems determined to underline him at the expense of pretty much everything and everyone else. Richard Riehle and Hollis Resnik flit in and out of the story with their own dramas unseen unless they involve Seymour. Even when they do get screen time, it’s to either firm him up or pull him down; he’s always the point of their scenes rather than them. When he starts to work with Bob’s clowns, he forbids them to speak so they can’t introduce themselves; it’s his show and they’re merely minor players in it. Only later do they get opportunities, but even then they’re as much for Seymour as they are for themselves. Of the entire cast, it’s only Mel England who manages to make it out of the background because, even though he’s helping Seymour too, he really doesn’t care about circuses or clowns, just the ability to slack off work because now Seymour’s doing it. He works best as a contrast when Seymour starts to get sober.

What we get out of this picture is very much going to depend about how much we care. Our protagonist, who is rarely off screen, is an antisocial alcoholic, hardly the most enticing character. We’re given little background to help us understand why he is how he is. We just watch him refusing to do anything about it and projecting his troubles onto others around him. While Haig does a fine job of showing inner torment, that’s not enough to automatically generate sympathy. We’re more likely to support someone who wants to change than someone who’s apparently content to pickle himself from the inside out. There’s one scene where I’m not convinced he doesn’t botch a suicide attempt, by lying down on the wrong train tracks. Highly paid Hollywood scriptwriters would give Seymour hope early on, but I like the approach Roberts took of making that wait. He may lose some viewers partway through but those who stay will appreciate the depth of despair more acutely. There’s a lot of fall here without much rise.
Roberts does use some cinematic tricks to keep us engaged, such as including many shots of characters talking to the camera. They aren’t breaking the fourth wall, but they’re including us in whatever they’re doing or saying to make sure we’re aren’t going to go anywhere. While Haig gets a lot more opportunity to act than he does to talk, there’s some great dialogue here. The last third of the story carries a lot of interest generated from an apparently throwaway comment; one clown, knowing that facepaint design is traditionally inherited, suggests to Seymour that, ‘It’s kind of a bummer not being able to decide your own face.’ My favourite line comes after a staff member tells him that he’s a professional, tellingly because he had taken a long while to show it, and he replies, ‘No, ma’am. I used to be but I think I’m finally an amateur.’ It’s an important line in a number of ways, highlighting how much he’s changed because of the people around him and, as hard as it is for him to admit it, because he does care; he’d merely forgotten.

Little Big Top certainly has its flaws and some of its successes could be seen as flaws by less dedicated audiences. It takes a while to get moving and longer to get anywhere we recognise. It refuses to let us into Seymour’s background, just his present, and we get even less for anyone else, even when we think we might. Seymour watches a young lady called Jenna, who’s trying to master the backward somersault on the trapeze, often enough that we expect there to be meaning in it but there isn’t beyond him wanting someone to succeed hard enough that he eventually sets himself on the path to do it too. Seymour is also notably unlikeable for a large proportion of the film. It’s no spoiler to suggest that he does get past that but it takes him a long time to do it, maybe longer than less-indie minded audiences will want to wait. But those of us who do will appreciate Haig as a lead actor, playing someone who isn’t wild and wacky and isn’t another of those heavies that he retired to avoid. Clearly he appreciated the opportunity too.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Humboldt County (2008)

Directors: Darren Grodsky and Danny Jacobs
Writers: Darren Grodsky and Danny Jacobs
Stars: Fairuza Balk, Peter Bogdanovich, Frances Conroy, Madison Davenport, Brad Dourif, Chris Messina and Jeremy Strong
I'm asking major filmmakers to pick two movies from their careers for me to review here at Apocalypse Later. Here's an index to the titles they chose.
I’ve found it fascinating to discover what actors and filmmakers choose when I ask them to pick two films from their career for me to review at Apocalypse Later. Of all the people I’ve asked so far, though, Brad Dourif is the one whose choices I was most eager to hear. I’ve been a fan of his for years, so long that I can’t remember where I saw him first. It may have been Dune, Blue Velvet or The Exorcist III, but I know that I quickly racked up personal favourites like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Wise Blood and Sonny Boy. His career has been long and varied, including wild obscurities, Hollywood blockbusters and everything in between. Not all of these films are good ones but they’re usually interesting at the very least and his performances are things to anticipate. There are so many movies in his career worthy of being chosen for this project (and Tiffany Shepis already chose one) that I was eager to see which he’d select. This was his first pick, though I hadn’t even heard of it. He thought long and hard before choosing one of my favourites as his second.

Humboldt County is an indie drama from Embark Productions that was picked up for theatrical distribution by Magnolia in 2008, after a resonant set of screenings at SXSW, and, while it has met a variety of responses, it found a passionate core audience, making it an underground cult hit. Dourif is far from the film’s only recognisable face, with Peter Bogdanovich, Fairuza Balk and Frances Conroy all prominent in an ensemble cast. The lead, however, was brand new. He’s Jeremy Strong, no household name but an actor who has done very well for himself since his screen debut here. You’re likely to recognise his face because his nineteen films thus far include four which have been nominated for an Oscar: Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, Selma and his most recent, The Big Short. He’s perfectly cast as a clueless young man, Peter Hadley, who hasn’t seen much of life as he’s been living his father’s dreams rather than his own. We first meet him as he takes his medical school final, only to find that Prof Hadley fails him. That’s dad, who’s ‘unbelievably disappointed’.
Peter seems already lost, even before he fails his exam. Sure, partly it’s because he’s been up for three days but most of it is because he has no idea who he really is. His dominant father has kept him on a dedicated path all his life and he’s done pretty well with it up until now but he’s finally hit a dead end and he has no idea what to do. So he goes to a club to see the young lady who moonlighted as his final exam patient, a part time jazz singer called Miss Bogart Truman who lives on the road. ‘Just little gigs as I come through LA,’ she explains as she strips him naked in her hotel room. He’s clueless enough to ask if she takes cheques. She laughs and does him anyway, but then drives ‘home’ and takes him with her, asleep in the front seat. He wakes up in an empty car to find her out looking at the stacks in a well shot oceanscape. ‘Is this Malibu?’ he asks. It’s the Lost Coast, she says. Welcome to the Humboldt County of the title, which is real. It’s in California, so far north that it’s almost Oregon, and it’s full of coastline, mountains and forests. And weed.

And this is how Darren Grodsky and Danny Jacobs, who wrote and directed the film, found an audience. The odd thing is that this is far from the usual druggie movie. It’s unashamedly pro-marijuana, but it’s no propaganda film. I’m not sure if weed is the MacGuffin of the piece or just a convenient local symbol for the freedom that the characters really crave. Perhaps it’s both. Certainly, everyone in the film seems to care about it, whether they’re the hippie types with a few plants to earn from, those trying to get rich with a big crop or the DEA who are content to burn the fields when they find them rather than seek out and arrest their owners, but it’s never the focus of the story, merely a common thread for the people in it. It seems just as important to read it as a symbol though, a badge that those who choose to opt out of conventional society adopt because it’s illegal but commonplace. This isn’t about pro-pot people vs anti-pot people, it’s about what freedom really means and who gets to define it and that runs a lot deeper than smoking weed.
I’m sure that’s one reason why Dourif chose this film. He plays Jack, the patriarch of an extended family out here in the woods who’s a sort of adoptive father to Bogart. Family here isn’t restricted to blood lines and marriages in, it’s a community spirit and those who share that spirit tend to get absorbed into the family. A bigger reason is that, to quote Danny Jacobs, ‘for the first time in a long time, he was playing a role that had a lot of him in it.’ That was important as the film needed ‘someone who could be believable as a former physics professor and a mountain man, and those are two opposite qualities that are difficult to find in people.’ Jack lives off the grid where he philosophises, plays piano and sells pot; Dourif’s career exists because he’s so good at empathising with the outsider and he even took his false teeth out to play this part. But Jack also used to teach at UCLA, leaving it ‘to get away from some stuff’; Dourif is a huge astronomy buff who brought a $40,000 telescope with him that needed its own hotel room. He anchors the film well.

The set up of the story is, of course, to throw Peter into Jack’s world and keep him from leaving until he’s learned something about living his own life rather than his father’s. With Bogart gone as quickly as she arrived, Peter has no ride out of there and so he finds himself paired off with Max, who will drive him to the bus stop after they check on irrigation, which naturally takes so long that the buses have stopped running when they’re done; he feels rather awkward alongside a man with whom he has no common ground but a shared lover. It’s Jack who starts to open his eyes, beginning when he tags along to take Charity to school and discovers that Jack and other locals financed and built the Pencil Patch because the nearest school is fifty miles away. Peter is alternately intrigued and bemused by conversations that he initially overhears but gradually becomes part of: Rosie, Jack’s partner, wants to colonise Mars, for instance, and she and others rant about personal bugbears out of the blue. Sudden outbreaks of honesty aren’t what Peter is used to.
If he isn’t used to people like Jack and Rosie, he’s really not used to people like Charity, who’s Max’s daughter. Melissa Davenport was only eleven when Humboldt County was released but she shines as a very adult and very free young lady. When we meet her, she’s out in the woods pretending to be a cat, like an eleven year old girl might, but she schools Peter quickly on more adult topics. Marijuana? ‘It’s just a plant,’ says the little girl. ‘I think it’s nicer than beer.’ Bogart? ‘My daddy and her have sex.’ Oh, and she isn’t named for the actor, she’s named for the habit of holding rather than passing to which he unwittingly gave his name. Her favourite book is The Closing of the American Mind. ‘You shouldn’t know about all this stuff,’ Peter tells her, but she just replies, ‘You’re funny.’ Davenport is clearly another burgeoning talent, having led her first film at eight. She’d already provided voices to characters in Over the Hedge and Horton Hears a Who! but she’s gone on to The Possession, A Light Beneath Their Feet and, currently, From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series.

In her way, Charity is as important a character to this film as Jack, because together they ably highlight how this isn’t just a fleeting thing. They’re two generations apart but they share the epitome of freedom, living off the grid and enjoying the life they have. Max, in between them, is the one who isn’t happy; he’s farming a huge crop in the hope that he can get rich and get out of there. It’s easy to read into him as having fallen for the sort of mainstream cultural expectations that the rest of his family have happily opted out of. It’s insightful to look at how each of the characters ends the movie, not only Peter, who gets a fantastic open-ended final scene, also notable for how much he isn’t in it. If that sounds cryptic, then watch the movie and you’ll understand. It wouldn’t surprise me to see it in a decade or two highlighted in the future equivalent of YouTube collages of great movie endings. In its way, it’s as iconic and as representative of its time as the more famous endings of Citizen Kane, Some Like It Hot or Planet of the Apes.
It’s also underpinned wonderfully by one of the best performances I’ve seen from Peter Bogdanovich as an actor, neatly subdued but perfect for the part. He doesn’t get a lot of screen time, though it’s probably more than Fairuza Balk, but what he does get resonates throughout the film as, for so long, Peter is clearly channelling his father. We see enough of Prof Hadley at the beginning to see how he would act in the situations that Peter finds himself in and, when he returns to the screen, we see we were right. He’s part of a real ensemble here, each of whom benefit from solid writing from the directors, who write for their actors as much as for their story. Balk is as resonant as Bogdanovich, with just as skimpy a role. Frances Conroy gets one magnificent monologue that’s a horrible, spiritual, wonderful ride. Brad Dourif has a powerful monologue too and many other lines and scenes to build him throughout. Davenport acts far beyond her years as Charity, the one character I’d like to have had a better ending, and Messina does well as Max too.

It’s unfair for this to be remembered as a drug film, because it’s a superb drama, not so much for its plot as for its depth of character. Gordsky and Jacobs cast well and wrote well for those actors, who together build a strong picture of Humboldt County that, after 97 minutes, feels like we’ve lived there for years. It’s enticing but also dangerous and none of the characters could honestly claim their quest for freedom as pain free. There’s a lot of elation here but there’s also a lot of heartbreak and the suggestion isn’t that one must lead to the other. I don’t think the directors really wanted to do anything more than to paint this place onto the screen in as clear a way as they could and they achieved that. We appreciate that life in Humboldt County isn’t as blissful or as horrifying as the polarised views of most would suggest. It’s neither and both and that’s what makes it so enticing. We can call out Strong, Dourif or Davenport, with justification, but really the best performance here came from Gordsky and Jacobs as scriptwriters.
But a drug film it became, because that’s the primary audience that it found. Of course, in this environment, Peter cannot ignore the marijuana that seems to be everywhere around him. Of course, his reaction to the fact that Jack and Rosie sell pot out of their house is one sourced directly from his father. Of course, that opinion changes, as he spends more time with these folk and ventures into the life. ‘Am I high?’ he asks when he samples his first joint. ‘I don’t feel high.’ This happens in front of a nice shot of the sun lighting him up from behind; it’s literally an illuminating moment. But this is about freedom not about drugs. Drugs, in different forms, cause a lot of pain here, just as they cause a lot of pleasure, and labelling this as a drug film misses that. The DEA aren’t the bad guys here; that’s reserved for the conventional lifestyle and the expectations it has. This film doesn’t tell us to get high, it tells us to be ourselves. In the end, that’s what Peter learns and that’s why the ending to the film is so beautifully ambiguous.

Important Sources:
Collin Armstrong: SXSW 2008 - interview with HUMBOLDT COUNTY writers/directors Danny Jacobs & Darren Grodsky

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Babies for Sale (1940)

Director: Charles Barton
Writer: Robert D Andrews, from a story by Robert Chapin and Joseph Carole
Stars: Rochelle Hudson, Glenn Ford and Miles Mander
It’s a hundred years since the birth of Glenn Ford and he left behind a whole string of worthy pictures to review. He won awards for Don’t Go Near the Water and Pocketful of Miracles, but most will remember him from The Big Heat, Blackboard Jungle or the original 3:10 to Yuma. He concentrated on westerns in his heyday but also found time to play Clark Kent’s father in the 1978 version of Superman and followed that up with what may be the strangest film of his career, the all-star Italian horror/sci-fi hodgepodge originally known as Stridulum but re-titled The Visitor for the American market. I picked out Babies for Sale because I’m trying to avoid the obvious and it looked particularly fascinating. It remained fascinating after I watched it too, because it seems out of place. In particular, it clearly wants to be a precode, one of those astonishingly free movies released after the advent of sound in the late twenties but before the imposition of the Production Code in 1934, but it can’t be because this was 1940 and the code was very much enforced.

And, as we can’t fail to notice as it begins, it’s a message movie with a message so overt that we’re surprised that it’s a studio picture rather than a cautionary film financed by a church group with good intentions but produced by exploitation filmmakers who skirted the censorship of the time by phrasing it as an educational piece. But no, it was made by Columbia, who made their position crystal clear in the opening text. 95% of charitable organisations dealing with adopted children are ‘honest and worthy of all support’, they explain, before adding that, ‘This picture is presented as a warning to all parents, and to all who plan to adopt children, that some unsupervised private institutions do exist where babies are sold for cash, where helpless mothers are victimized, and where foster parents may find lifelong tragedy instead of happiness.’ And yes, ‘this is the story of one such institution – and its victims.’ Fans of cautionary films everywhere know what’s coming next and, sure enough, here it is: ‘What happens in this story could happen to you.’
The film proper begins in the same vein, with Steve Burton, crusading newspaper reporter, visiting Dr John Gaines, a physician and surgeon who’s so upstanding that he doesn’t even charge some of his clients because he knows they can’t afford his services. Maybe that’s why his office is upstairs from Joe Tonelli’s grocery store, but it’s also why Burton comes to see him because he’s heard a lot of good things about the man. And, now that he’s writing a series of exposes for his paper, he wants to know about the ‘babies for sale’ that the good doctor has given speeches about. Burton is Glenn Ford, of course, who comes over as a capable newspaperman, a great deal slower and more cautious than the mile-a-minute reporters played in the thirties by Lee Tracy, Pat O’Brien or even Clark Gable, but no less sharp for that. It just means that instead of bedazzling Dr Gaines with questions, he just leans gently forward to light the man’s pipe and suggest, ‘Care to tell me about it?’

And he does, in a long spiel that feels intensely scripted but delivered by Joe de Stefani with appropriate passion anyway. Of course, it’s the message of the movie, thrown out there at the very beginning to be further underlined by the action which will unfold for a few characters. There were two million babies born in the United States the previous year. Many were put up for adoption but many thousands were sold over the counter for cash. ‘Who sold them?’ interjects Burton. ‘A few unscrupulous men and women who pose as public benefactors, operating just inside the law, making capital of the great reputation honestly earned by hundreds of men and women who really are doing something worthwhile.’ Does that sound preachy to you? Oh yeah, it sounds preachy because it is. This is a thinly disguised crusade by Dr Gaines, complete with effective soundbites (‘Human tragedy is their bread and butter’, ‘They take their profit on human heartbreak’), which promptly becomes a thinly disguised crusade by Burton on the Star Dispatch’s front page.
We aren’t even five minutes in but we’ve already been bludgeoned over the bonce by Gaines’s ‘heartbreak merchants’ and now it’s time for them to bludgeon back. An ‘unofficial committee’ of folk from leagues, homes and associations harangue Burton’s editor to publish a retraction, but when he agrees, Burton promptly quits and goes searching for the real facts behind the story. Enter one of the proud, ashamed women that Gaines told him about, walking out of the darkness into the light of the Mercy Shelter with a baby bump to see Dr Wallace Rankin, who had been one member of that ‘unofficial committee’. We know that this is a bad idea, because Rankin is played by Miles Mander, who is well known today for playing slimy villains with crisp British accents. He was a versatile actor just as able to play upstanding characters, but he was so dashed good at being a cad that we tend to automatically assume he will be one in everything. Here, he plays the epitome of that, a despicable creature masquerading in the clothes of respectability.

The young lady is Ruth Williams, played by a capable Rochelle Hudson, a major name in the thirties whose career was tailing off at this point. After no less than 85 pictures during the thirties, she made ten more by 1942 but then only four more during the rest of the forties. She was the lead here, credited above Ford, with whom she’d made two prior movies at Columbia in 1940: the similarly crusading Convicted Woman and Men without Souls. At least she had things to do while her screen career declined. In 1941, she took holidays in Mexico with her husband, Harold Thompson, the head of Disney’s storyline department, that were actually fronts for their espionage work seeking out German activity. She returned to the screen only once in the fifties, but at least that was for a title as prominent as Rebel without a Cause, where she played Natalie Wood’s mother. She wrapped up her career with three horror films in the sixties: Strait-Jacket and The Night Walker for William Castle and an anthology called Gallery of Horror.
She’s good here too, though she’s quickly outshone by an acerbic Isabel Jewell in the sort of role that Una Merkel tended to play in the thirties. They’re in similar circumstances, Edith merely a little further along the road than Ruth, their pregnancies conveniently acceptable: Ruth’s husband died in a car accident and Edith’s left her. Because this isn’t a precode, none of the many single mothers to be would dream of something as socially unacceptable as sex outside of marriage, but they all end up in the same situation. Some, like Ruth, want to keep their babies but can’t afford the process. Others, like Edith, want the babies gone quickly because they know they can’t bring them up and they don’t want to bond first. Dr Rankin can meet all needs, or so he says. What he really does is make money. The girls pay him to handle the medical side of things and they staff the Mercy Shelter too. Then they have to pay again to keep their children. But don’t pay quickly enough and they’ll be sold on to adopting couples.

If that wasn’t enough, and we see Gerda Honaker’s anguish at losing her baby to adoption, even though she’s been paying her $5 a week and working twelve hour days for months at Mercy, we’re given the Andersons to stir up our outrage. This scene plays oddly today, as it has to do with their adoption from Dr Rankin of what they assumed was a ‘perfectly healthy baby’ eight months earlier for $1,000. ‘And now it’s like that,’ says Howard Anderson, because we can’t talk in 1940 about whatever the baby has. As he doesn’t cry or talk, he could be a deaf mute or it could be something on the autistic spectrum. They want a refund, but Rankin tells them to get lost and Mrs Anderson promptly leaps in front of a train with the baby in her arms. This is a particularly brutal underline to the wickedness of Dr Rankin, but it serves well to put Burton on his trail and he shows up under the assumed name of Oscar Hanson so he can get a tour from the matron, Iris Talbot, who’s clearly in on everything that Rankin does.
There’s a lot in here for a B movie that runs a mere 65 minutes. It might seem that I’ve just outlined all that, but the quintessentially shaky voice of John Qualen as Mr Anderson leaves the film after only fifteen minutes and Burton’s tour of Mercy Shelter follows on immediately. This film begins with its definition as a crusade by Gaines and Burton, then introduces us to Ruth and her fellow ladies in trouble to demonstrate why we should care but it has more places to go yet before our heroes can orchestrate the inevitable fall from grace of the oily Dr Rankin. Even with Glenn Ford showing potential early in his career, this works best as a tragic drama. Ford was only on his sixth film, his fifth to reach the screen in only eight months after his debut in 1937, under his real name of Gwyllyn Ford, as the MC of a musical short, Night in Manhattan. Given that, he does especially well, but he has to fight for prominence with a professional cad like Miles Mander to face off against and a powerful Isabel Jewell to steal scenes left, right and centre.

In fact, the cast here is very capable for a B movie and it gets better in later scenes with Selmer Jackson and Mary Currier as a well-to-do couple, the Kingsleys, who adopt a baby from Mercy, only to get caught up in a much bigger story. They’re hardly prominent actors, when cast alongside Hudson, Ford and Mander, but they’re both solid, better vocally than physically but still able to hold their own in this company and even dominate towards the end. Jackson was a character actor who racked up almost four hundred films as a variety of authority figures. Currier had a much shorter career, lasting only a decade and a half before she retired from the screen, but she crammed 88 films into that time. I’ve seen both of them many times before without them registering, but they really did that here. To be fair, they had opportunity, this being an ensemble piece. Edith gets as much time as Ruth, who’s the lead, Talbot as much as Rankin and the Kingsleys are prominent at the end. Ford is absent for whole swathes of the film as Hudson’s co-star.
The consistent quality of the production is notable. This is clearly an overblown and somewhat inevitable B movie written at speed. It stars a mix of actors on the way in and on the way out, backed up by a host of character actors who are mostly forgotten today. It was released seven or eight years after its time, because it would have fit so much better as a precode, able to illustrate rather than merely hint at. It’s no great film and would have been seen as run of the mill at the time, except perhaps for Mrs Anderson’s suicide and baby murder, which is startling whatever the year, but it’s consistently decent because the studios knew what they were doing. This was 1940, right after Hollywood’s golden year of 1939, and they could seemingly do no wrong. It’s interesting to travel back to the golden age because it’s hard to find truly bad movies. They do exist (hello Life Returns), but they’re thin on the ground and even bad films are often watchable and enjoyable today. OK movies like this one are also usually interesting for who and what and why.

I knew little about the industry of adoption in the 1930s but perhaps assumed that society had moved on from the baby farms of the Victorian era. However, a little googling made me aware of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society and Georgia Tann, the head of its Memphis branch. For decades, this was a well respected society which received community support, but in 1941, a year after Babies for Sale highlighted dubious adoptions to filmgoers, it fell under official scrutiny. Concern built throughout the decade until a 1950 state investigation revealed the sort of shenanigans that Dr Rankin got up to here. The Society was a respectable front for a babies for sale racket. Like Rankin, Tann sold off babies that were born to single mothers, who were told that their children had died, and she also sold off children placed into her care and babies sourced from state mental hospitals Her victims included Gene Tapia and Ric Flair, while Joan Crawford, Dick Powell and June Allyson adopted through her. Thank you, Babies for Sale, for making me aware.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Behold a Pale Horse (1964)

Director: Fred Zinnemann
Writer: J P Miller, from the novel, Killing a Mouse on Sunday, by Emeric Pressburger
Stars: Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn and Omar Sharif
This review is late for a number of reasons, which ably highlight how important it is to always get ahead of your deadlines, even when they’re self-imposed. I should have posted it sometime during Tuesday, 5th April, to commemorate what would have been the 100th birthday of Gregory Peck. However, that turned out to be the day before I flew home from the UK after a couple of weeks travelling around Scotland. I’d tried to take care in advance of both films due to post during my trip, but I only managed to watch Terror in a Texas Town. I did review that film on time, staying up late after an all-day wedding, only partly drunk, and posted it in the wee hours. This, however, I didn’t have a chance to watch until the night I needed to post and that proved difficult. My sister’s TV doesn’t have a USB jack, so I borrowed my nephew’s but his wouldn’t pick up the audio. So I watched on his TV but listened on my laptop as I took notes. Security ate our four hour layover in New York and then my laptop died, losing all my notes. So, hello 18 days late.

I picked Behold a Pale Horse because it’s the sort of film I have trouble believing exists and I have no idea why anyone thought it would be a good idea to make. My review of Terror in a Texas Town talked about an era of American cinematic history that was dominated by Communist witch-hunts, the Hollywood Ten and how tough it was for blacklisted artists to find work. So, only six years later, it feels completely surreal to watch Peck, a huge Hollywood star riding high after On the Beach, The Guns of Navarone and Cape Fear, How the West Was Won, To Kill a Mockingbird and Captain Newman, MD, to mention just the previous six movies he’d made over the previous five years, playing a hero who happened to also be a Communist, a terrorist and a vehement anti-Catholic. Could there possibly be a more unlikely role for a Hollywood star in 1964, especially the year after his Oscar win for playing the iconic American hero, Atticus Finch? I’m a blank and I wonder if it’s why this marks the line between what I know Peck from and what I don’t.
Today, almost everything about the film sets off a red flag (no pun intended) that could have stopped the production in its tracks. It’s based on a novel by Emeric Pressburger, a Hungarian-born British filmmaker known for the quintessentially British films that he made with Michael Powell, such as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Matter of Life and Death and The Red Shoes. These are great classics, but they’re not commercial Hollywood in the slightest. That novel, Killing a Mouse on Sunday, was loosely based on the life of Francisco Sabaté Llopart, or El Quico, a Catalan anarchist who lived outside the law from the age of seventeen, fighting a guerrilla war against the Second Spanish Republic, the Vichy government and the fascist regime of General Franco, none of which Americans knew or cared much about. They would surely care more that he was an anarchist, a murderer, a deserter, an assassin, a bank robber, a political exile and a public enemy number one. Compared to El Quico, Clyde Barrow looks like an amateur boy scout.

Even if somehow director Fred Zinnemann could manage to tap into an early vein of counterculture anti-hero worship, he had to get the film made first and, utterly unsurprisingly, Franco refused permission for Columbia Pictures to shoot in Spain. In fact, his government blocked distribution of all Columbia’s output in Spain and forced them to sell their Spanish distribution arm. M J Frankovich, a Columbia vice president, estimated months prior to this film’s release that it had cost them millions of dollars in lost revenue even discounting its production cost. They were unable even to screen the film on American television, after a request from the Spanish government. But they continued on with production, shooting exteriors across the border from France, and filming ran a month over schedule. Yet, when they previewed the film to US audiences, they found that nobody knew what it was about, so they had to add an introduction, cut from To Die in Madrid, a documentary on the Spanish Civil War, with overlaid narration in English.
‘These were the men who lost,’ that narration explains of those lined up at the French border, stripped of their weapons and sent into exile. Manuel Artiguez gets to that line, only to turn round and try to walk his way back in to Spain. ‘The war’s over,’ say his compatriots. ‘Why don’t you give up?’ Sure enough, off he goes into France whether he likes it or not. Even in this unspeaking scene, it’s odd to see Peck in this role, not only for the reasons already mentioned but also because his co-star is Anthony Quinn, who could play Artiguez in his sleep. In fact, he’d asked to play the guerrilla, but Zinnemann wanted to avoid typecasting him and so cast him instead as Viñolas, the corrupt but capable captain in the Civil Guard who’s the other player in this game of cat and mouse. And cat and mouse this promptly becomes, as Artiguez is set up to be the Jerry to the captain’s Tom. ‘Everyone who loves Spain and freedom should know who that is,’ little Paco is told, who sees him as a folk hero. ‘Manuel will always come back when he’s needed.’

This is Paco Dages, a young orphan who travels over the border to Pau to track down ‘the great leader of the guerrillas’, so he can ask him to kill Viñolas. After all, the captain beat his father, José Dages, to death in an attempt to drum Artiguez’s location out of him. Paco doesn’t find the hero he expects, even asking him, ‘Are you his father?’ The supposed ‘great leader’ is a slouchy and grouchy man rotting in his garret with a smoker’s cough; he’s quick to anger and he promptly throws the kid out. By comparison, Captain Viñolas is bursting with life. We meet him on horseback warming up a bull for a matador, then he goes to romp away the day with his mistress. Quinn wasn’t the star that Peck was, though he already had a pair of Oscars under his belt, but he was still well established over a decade since Viva Zapata! He plays the captain with ease, but for a plastic tricornio that looks like the headgear of an alien race in a cheap sci-fi movie, while Peck consciously tries not to play Artiguez like his co-star would have done.
So, as we’re introduced to Pilar Artiguez, the catalyst of the story, we find ourselves oddly sympathetic to Viñolas but indifferent to Artiguez. The captain enjoys who he is, even if he takes bribes and cheats on his invalid wife and can’t see the irony in taking his mistress on a pilgrimage to Lourdes. His exiled opponent, however, is a frustrated and angry man who’s relinquished his fight as twenty years have taken his heart out of it. Discovering that Pilar, Manuel’s mother, is seriously ill and not expected to live long, Viñolas has her put in the San Martin hospital and locks it down. He smuggles word to Artiguez that she’s there, as he will surely try to come and see her, thus giving him the opportunity he needs to set up a sting to take him down. The guerrilla has two things going for him. One is that Paco knows the hospital well, as he snuck in to see his father before he died. The other ties to the third star of the film, a very young Omar Sharif as a Catholic priest named Father Francisco. Without his usual moustache, he reminds of Tony Curtis.

While Peck and Quinn are both given opportunity to build depth into their characters, Sharif is gifted with a peach of a part that’s full of complexity and, once he’s introduced, over forty minutes in, it’s hard to see anyone else as the lead. Pilar Artiguez, played with surprising passion by Mildred Dunnock, given that she is bedridden and immobile for the entirety of her small part, has no love for the clergy. She tells a priest who attends her, ‘Go bless the rifles of the firing squad, Father.’ But, hearing that he’s substituting for Fr Francisco, who’s about to leave for Lourdes, and knowing that the other will have to go through Pau, she requests his presence and, right before she dies, asks him to fulfil her last wish. She knows that Viñolas has set a trap for her son and that he’ll walk into it, so Fr Francisco should take the news of her death to him and thus save his life. The priest thus finds himself in the horns of a dilemma, torn between duty to his God, to his country, to the law and to the last wish of a dying woman.
And it only gets more complex from there because the script refuses to take all the easy ways forward. It could have been a predictable ninety minute film, but J P Miller, who adapted Pressburger’s novel for the screen, knew what had to be predictable and what didn’t and so his script takes a winding route to get to it’s relatively predictable ending, a winding route that constricts like a snake on characters like Paco and Fr Francisco. While the story pits Artiguez against Viñolas in a battle to the death that’s twenty years due, neither is remotely as interesting as either the priest or the child. Both of them have competing loyalties to confuse them and complicate their actions. Both of them struggle to do what they believe is right and what they go through in this picture challenges their beliefs. Marietto Angeletti, appearing in his last role at the ripe old age of fourteen, does well as Paco but Omar Sharif’s believably tortured performance as Fr Francisco dominates the film, especially when we leave San Martin and Capt Viñolas behind.

The loss of screen time hampers Quinn as much as his tricornio because, as capable as he is as Viñolas, we find that we don’t miss him when the story takes us to Pau and Lourdes. Peck, on the other hand, has more resonance when he’s offscreen than when he’s on it, because he’s clearly miscast as Artiguez and he struggles to sell the role to us. As an actor of serious talent, he gives it his best shot, but he’s just too morally upright to carry a role that has him kidnap a priest and slap him across the face. We don’t buy it, even as we utterly buy Omar Sharif’s lack of similarly violent response. Peck is at his best when Artiguez begins to think, because there’s admirable subtlety in his body language, but the louder he gets the less credible he becomes. I presume Peck took the role as a challenge and an opportunity to diversify parts, but it didn’t work. Fortunately for him, few people saw the film in 1964 and he stayed as popular as ever. Quinn, of course, walked easily between heroic and villainous roles and this didn’t hurt him at all.
To my mind, Omar Sharif steals the show and it makes me realise that I’ve seen a lot fewer of his movies than I have Peck’s or Quinn’s. Even those I have seen, like Juggernaut, Top Secret! or Oh Heavenly Dog, I doubt he’d see as his most memorable roles; I was knee high to a grasshopper when I last saw Lawrence of Arabia or Doctor Zhivago and they were too long and too artistic for my tastes at the time. Outside the cast, it’s Jean Badal and Maurice Jarre that I’d commend over more obvious names like Fred Zinnemann’s as director. The former was responsible for the stark black and white camerawork, the latter for his score which relies on unusual instruments for a thriller. Zinnemann, an important and versatile director with a pair of Oscars already to his name, recovered surprisingly well from this misfire because his next picture landed him two more. That was A Man for All Seasons and it was as clearly appropriate a title to shoot in 1966 as this wasn’t in 1964. So this remains an oddity, out of time and place even before it was made.

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Zombie Killers: Elephant's Graveyard (2014)

Director: B Harrison Smith
Writers: B Harrison Smith and David Agnew Penn
Stars: Billy Zane, Dee Wallace, Mischa Barton, Felissa Rose and Gabrielle Stone
I'm asking major filmmakers to pick two movies from their careers for me to review here at Apocalypse Later. Here's an index to the titles they chose.
Dee Wallace’s first pick for my Make It a Double project, Love's Deadly Triangle: The Texas Cadet Murder, surely came to mind because, even though she only had a supporting role, she was able to really get her teeth into it and demonstrate her acting chops. She clearly remembered her performance with a sense of pride. I can see why she found it tough to pick a second one, though. After an early career that included a pair of major horror films, The Hills Have Eyes and The Howling, she found herself remorselessly typecast in variations of the role she played in ET: The Extra-Terrestrial. She’d become America’s favourite mother and she was stuck there, even in genre films like Cujo or Critters. While there are exceptions, such as The Frighteners, it’s a difficult task to find a movie in which she was given free rein to demonstrate how good an actor she actually is. In the end, she chose a horror film that she’d only just completed, which she co-produced and in which she played a different role. Acting alongside her daughter was clearly a bonus.

I couldn’t watch it for a while because it hadn’t been released yet, but it did look like an interesting pick, as it was directed and co-written by Harrison Smith, who started out writing interesting indie movies that I’d previously reviewed here at Apocalypse Later: The Fields, starring the intriguing combination of Cloris Leachman and Tara Reid, and 6 Degrees of Hell, in which Corey Feldman attempts to convince us he’s a tough guy, even with an emo fringe and an electronic cigarette. He started to direct his own scripts with Camp Dread, placing Eric Roberts, Danielle Harris and the slasher genre into a reality show format. None of these films were what they could have been, but the two I’ve seen showed promise and imagination. I found that this one fits alongside those well, not because it’s similar in content or style but because it’s another interesting film that wants to be a great one, if only it can figure out how. Sadly it can’t, but it’s a step closer than those earlier pictures and there’s great possibility in Smith’s future.
It’s hindered somewhat by its awkward title and odd IMDb synopsis. This isn’t a sequel, yet another entry in the nonexistent Zombie Killers series that’s got so long that it’s ditched the numbers. It’s a standalone movie in which zombies aren’t important. They’re the MacGuffin of this film, the only thing everyone we meet cares about but something we don’t see until after the ten minute mark and don’t see often as the picture runs on. This is less about fighting zombies and more about the internal dynamics of the town of Elwood and how they change in the face of this threat. There is meaning to the other half of the title, but it’s likely to confuse anyone who isn’t aware what it refers to; there are neither elephants nor graveyards here. The synopsis says, ‘A young militia is all that stands between a coming dead horde and their rural town decimated by the fracking industry.’ This suggests some sort of social comment on the latter, but it refuses to go there beyond mild speculation that a local operation had contaminated the water.

What we have is Elwood and its people and that young militia is only one component part of it. We leave town only once, otherwise only venturing out a little on occasion beyond the tall fence the townsfolk have constructed to keep the zombies out. Inside we’re given the impression of many people, though we really only see three factions. One are the Zombie Killers of the title, a ragtag band of ‘orphans and misfits’ who have been drafted and taught by Seiler, a military sergeant played by Billy Zane. They are the ones who venture outside of town to track down supplies, for which everyone else puts in orders, from chapstick to ammunition. Another is the ‘cult compound’ of Lia, a psycho nutjob religious chick in the capable form of Felissa Rose. Even in a closed off rural town, she still goes door to door trying to convert those she thinks are in need of the Lord. The third is led by Doc, played by Brian Anthony Wilson, whose narration begins the film. He’s the nominal leader of town, apparently a good man merely in charge of sadistic thugs.
Each of these actors does a great job. While some of the cast are clearly green and have less substantial moments, these three are excellent. Zane, everyone’s favourite wild and wacky villain, plays against type here as Seiler. He’s calm, he’s collected and he cares about his people and his town. He comes across like a younger Stacy Keach and he gets an emphatic final scene. Rose, who retired from film after Sleepaway Camp to go back to school, thankfully returned after eight years as a character actress who elevates bad movies with her presence. She sells Lia absolutely, especially in a couple of bitter scenes opposite Brian Gallagher, who plays Rory, one of the townsfolk. Wilson is a rumbling powerhouse as Doc, a philosophical man who sees the town as a patient, a viewpoint that shapes his actions in many ways. We’re constantly kept guessing as to what he’s really up to, especially with regards to the baby that Rory’s young wife Toni is carrying, but also to Team Dynasty, his group of sadistic and potentially psychopathic enforcers.

By comparison, Dee Wallace gets a very odd role. She’s Sharon, the mother of one of Sgt Seiler’s Zombie Killers, Ian Sommers, but she’s bedridden for the entire movie as a character dying of cancer. Beyond Ian, her screen son, she only gets to interact with one other character, Nikki Slater, Ian’s screen girlfriend and her real life daughter, Gabrielle Stone. Nikki is Doc’s nurse, so we wonder if we’re going to see crossovers between these factions but that doesn’t ever evolve. Sharon is there to tie Ian to Elwood and to gift Dee Wallace with an opportunity to really act with her daughter. The two have shared credits before, in three features, Fuzz Track City, Beyond and The Jazz Funeral, plus a few shorts, but I wonder if any of them had opportunities like this one. Sharon, who knows that she’s dying and that cancer may take her before the zombies take the town, talks to Nikki as the girl her son loves, the young lady she remembers in herself and the personification to her of the town she lives in. It’s a very touching and meaningful scene.
It’s also one that’s underlined by the obvious connection between mother and daughter, something that doesn’t extend to any of the other scenes that stand out. Smith wrote the script with David Agnew Penn and the two of them conjured up something notably different not just from other zombie movies but from other movies, period. One features Ashley Sumner, a hot blonde chick not playing a hot blonde chick, just another of Seiler’s Zombie Killers who takes his lesson to grip the fear seriously. She ventures outside the fence, where she sprays a mixture of perfume and blood, part deer and part her own, fires a single shot and waits for the zombies to come and face her. She’s acutely put out when they show up, only to move away, apparently called by something. Another has Rory, protected by Seiler and a couple of his men, go to the nearby fracking site to investigate. They’re utterly alone but wary and conjure up a mass of movie quotes to not use if that changes. In the end, Zane gets a real peach out just at the right moment.

One that both beguiles and disappoints is the zombie deer stampede, which I have to say I’ve never seen before, but its originality is let down by the poor CGI and the repetition as they run past. The greenscreen work and the CGI is not great here, but then it’s not really a greenscreen/CGI kind of movie so I can give it a pass on that. I’m less forgiving about how many questions end up unanswered. I don’t mean the source of the zombies, which is theorised on half-heartedly but never figured out conclusively, because it isn’t of special interest and wouldn’t have been of any at all had the script not decided to conjure up intriguingly imaginative ideas and then mostly forget about them. I’m talking about the internal stuff. I get that Doc is treating the town like he would a terminal patient, but that doesn’t explain everything he does and there are questions left hanging at the end. I like how he plays God for real, making Elwood occasionally feel a little like Jonestown, with Lia the religious nut just a red herring on that front.
But why does nobody question some of his actions? We certainly do, out here in the cheap seats. Sure, he can claim all he likes with his blood tests and pronouncements as to who’s infected and who isn’t, but I’m not sold on all the townsfolk trusting him quite as far as they do. There’s too much that’s suspicious for it to go uncommented on. ‘Am I infected?’ asks Toni at one point. ‘Not yet,’ he replies. The questions extend to the other townsfolk too, starting with where most of them are. Rory and Toni are set up as a mystery, a young wife and an older husband, accused of killing his first wife. Why set up the mystery but not explain it? I saw a couple of competing theories but neither was confirmed. As to that first wife, there’s a glorious scene where Seiler asks him outright if he killed her. He looks long and hard back and says yes, but the editor cuts away and the subject is forgotten outright from that moment on. Well, we want some answers, not just to this but also to a host of other questions that keep coming up but never get squared away.

If I appreciated most the originality of this screenplay and the neat avoidance of most clichés associated with the horror and zombie genres, those unanswered questions were the most annoying counter. I liked the camerawork, which never does anything particularly flash but keeps the frame alive throughout, like a drummer who just sits there, keeping the beat but never trying to play lead. The worst acting is decent, though a few of the newer actors occasionally could have done with extra takes. The best is superb, with Zane, Wilson and Rose all spot on throughout, even when playing notably against type in a welcome and appreciated way. The other name actor, Mischa Barton, also gets an interesting role, though it’s not given all the opportunities that it could have been. And Wallace is superb in a role unlike any that I’ve seen her in, able to act and emote as if her typecasting restraints had been unshackled. Her daughter isn’t yet up to her standard but she has promise. And surely their scene together is why she picked this movie.

Friday, 22 April 2016

Love's Deadly Triangle: The Texas Cadet Murder (1997)

Director: Richard A Colla
Writer: Steve Johnson, based on an article by Skip Hollandsworth
Stars: Holly Marie Combs, David Lipper, Cassidy Rae, Gary Grubbs, Kurt Fuller, Joanna Garcia, Joanna Canton and Dee Wallace Stone
I'm asking major filmmakers to pick two movies from their careers for me to review here at Apocalypse Later. Here's an index to the titles they chose.
I know we’re not supposed to judge books by their covers, but this TV movie seems determined to set us against it. It has an unwieldy title, dating back to before such things became oddly popular (thank you for that, Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life); the producers wisely renamed it to Swearing Allegiance for its DVD release. It also begins with what could well be the most boring title sequence in movie history. Mildly creepy piano music plays as we watch the names of the cast and crew appear slowly in white text on a gradated blue background. That's the movie for almost two minutes! Perhaps the producers wanted to ensure that everyone watching on NBC in December 1997 made it back from the bathroom in time for the film to start, but I’d have thought that unnecessary, as the murder it explores was a hot story at the time and this docudrama version didn’t merely recount it, based on a confession no less, but also turned into a new story in the process because of its choice of timing.

Here’s the chronology. Diane Zamora and David Graham began dating in August 1995, while high school students. She attended Crowley High and he Mansfield High, each named for the neighbouring towns in Texas in which they can be found. It was apparently a lightning romance, as the couple announced their engagement in September, planning to marry after graduating college. However it was also problematic, as Graham confessed to infidelity around 1st December, with Adrianne ‘AJ’ Jones, a fellow runner on the Mansfield High track team. On 4th December, Jones was murdered on a remote road near Grand Prairie, northeast of Mansfield. Zamora and Graham were arrested in September 1996; both were now cadets at US military academies, she at the Naval Academy and he at the Air Force. Zamora was tried in February 1998, Graham separately in July 1998; each was quickly found guilty of capital murder and awarded life sentences. As I write, in February 2016, both are still behind bars.
So, the murder was in 1995, the arrests were in 1996 and the trials in 1998. We might expect that a TV movie aiming to explore this true crime would follow on, perhaps being written in 1998 and shot in 1999 for a 2000 air date. Well, not in this instance; this particular TV movie pre-dates both trials. How can that be, you ask. This parallel chronology begins when Lindy DeKoven, a senior vice-president for movies at NBC, saw the case reported on the Today show soon after the arrests. She called Steve White, who used the internet to assemble information from news reports which he then fed to Steve Johnson, who turned them into a script, his first draught being completed by October 1996, only a month after the arrests. It was rushed through production for an initial screening in February 1997, one of the four sweeps months for American television in which Nielsen TV ratings are compiled. It ran into legal difficulties, one lawyer asking for a temporary restraining order to block its broadcast. It was eventually screened in December.

It’s not hard to understand why and, in fact, protests didn’t just come from the legal defence teams; the parents of the victim also protested. The strongest objections were legal ones though, suggesting that a prominent TV movie speculating on a case that hadn’t even reached trial yet would be likely to prejudice jurors. Sure, Graham quickly confessed his crimes and his confession was printed in The Dallas Morning News, so there wasn’t much doubt in anyone’s minds about what went down, but innocent people have confessed before and airtight cases have been known to fall apart in court. NBC did succeed in quoting precedent and got this film on the air two months before Zamora’s trial and seven before Graham’s, but it would have been awkward for them if something new had come to light to change everything. Clearly they were willing to sensationalise the case because the film’s title is completely irrelevant; while both Zamora and Graham were cadets when they were arrested, neither was when the murder took place.
At least the film has something going for it beyond its reason for existing and the opportunities it gave to Dee Wallace in particular underline why she chose it as her first pick for my Make It a Double project. She has a surprisingly small supporting role here, as indeed she does in her second pick, the otherwise very different >Zombie Killers: Elephant’s Graveyard, but it’s a strong one that allows her to exercise her ability to show emotion on screen a lot more than in the standard mom roles in which she was typecast after ET: The Extra-Terrestrial. She’s a mom here too, but of Adrianne Jones, the murder victim, and that allows her to emote a lot more than in something like Critters, for instance. As I mentioned, though, it’s a small part so we don’t even see her for 24 minutes. Before then, we’re introduced to everyone else, none of whom were familiar to me, though Holly Marie Combs and Cassidy Rae are well known for American TV shows. I’ve only seen David Lipper in Bug Buster, hardly the greatest title to have on your resume.

We begin, of course, with the actual murder, which happens at night in the middle of nowhere. We see a couple in a car; she thinks they’re going to neck just like all American teenagers do in TV movies but he has other plans. She gets out, but he stalks her. She makes it over a fence but he goes back to get a gun from the car and he shoots her dead. There’s someone else sitting up in the back seat too, from a hiding place on the boards. We don’t see any of them well and off the car drives, leaving a corpse in a field. It’s certainly a lot more enticing for viewers than the first line we hear. ‘Diane’s beautiful eyes always played the strings of my heart effortlessly,’ narrates David while he types it into a word processor, presumably confessing to the cops in inappropriately florid fashion. We skip over to Diane next, as she flounces into a school corridor talking about him. ‘He’d do anything in the world for me,’ she tells a friend. Twice. Given what we’ve just seen, of course, these two brief scenes are complete giveaways.
They’re a cutesy couple in the annoying way that teens in love tend to be. They even have their very own code so that they can say ‘I love you’ without anyone else knowing: ‘Greenish brown female sheep’. Olive ewe, get it? The catch is that there’s obviously a catch. They’re choosing wedding rings together, but she doesn’t want to give up her virginity (though she does without much argument) and he’s horny enough to do the cute blonde from his track team in a side street, the one Diane was jealous about when she served them at the drivethru. It’s easy to see why, of course. AJ seems like a nice young girl who’s willing to take off her kit without even requiring a date first; she does explain that she won’t be with anyone who’s going steady, but only after the fact which is pretty dumb. Diane, on the other hand, is a creepy little thing who defines her life in terms of her fiancée. ‘I’m either going to die Mrs David Graham or Miss Diane Zamora,’ she tells her mum and she goes into hysterics when David, who can’t keep a secret, comes clean.

And now we get down to business. After an hour of meltdown, Diane calms down to proclaim that ‘She’ll have to suffer the consequences. She will have to die.’ Oh yeah, she’s really out there, and David is such a 24 carat wuss that he’ll let her do whatever she wants. Because, you know, ‘Once she’s gone we can go on as before.’ Oh joy. At this point I was torn between whether Holly Marie Combs was really good in this role or really bad. On the one hand, she sells the story well, believable as a girl who is quite willing to kill someone just because her guy cheated with her but still go to school in the meantime like everything was right with the world. On the other hand, she looked her 22 years so was a little too old for us to really buy into her being a high school student and she’s so obsessive and possessive with David that, even without a backbone, we wonder why he stuck with her. AJ was clearly his best option and Cassidy Rae plays that up without being pushy. David Lipper is the weak link as I don’t buy into him being such a pushover.
After the first commercial break, we skip forward to the aftermath of that opening scene and we’re off and running. We know whodunit, of course, so we mostly settle back and wonder whether the cops will figure it out before David caves. That’s not much drama to hinge this on, I admit, but that’s all we have. Diane’s like a rock, so confident that we’d believe her passing a polygraph test. David, on the hand, looks like he might confess to murdering Jimmy Hoffa if someone even looked at him cross-eyed. Fortunately, we have some experienced actors in the cast and we’re almost distracted by some serious acting at this point. As Linda Jones, Dee Wallace breaks apart astoundingly well to the news of her daughter’s death with a teary intensity that I can only imagine gave her a serious headache afterwards. Det Carl Baker has the temerity to look awkward here, given how brutally he told her. His colleague, Det Tom Green, does likewise, and I appreciated how Gary Grubbs and Kurt Fuller underplayed their roles here to give Wallace the limelight.

In fact, Wallace is so powerful in this scene that it remains with us through the routine investigation that follows. Sure, Bryan McMillan seems like a perfect suspect, given that he was obsessed with AJ, is unable to recall whether he rang her because of a combination of alcohol and pills and even answers rhetorical questions from the cops like, ‘If you did kill her, where would you have left the body?’ So the real killers move onward and upward, even though they’re dumb enough to go to the funeral and walk out halfway, while arguing about not proving anything. ‘That young man is a recruiting poster,’ Baker tells Green, as they look through the files again. In fact, as solid as both Grubbs and Fuller are in their roles as cops, it’s Dee Wallace who elevates the film with each successive appearance, even if there aren’t many. She gets a good scene where she comes into the station to ask what’s happening in the case and an even better one to wrap up the film, crying but attempting to compose herself by the memorial tree planted for AJ.
So this is a decent but routine TV movie that half sets up a mystery but then promptly spoils it by making it very clear whodunit. It gets by because of an uncluttered script that keeps on moving, a decent pair of performances from the leads and some capable support from some recognisable faces, both Grubbs and Fuller quintessential actors who you’ve seen before but can’t quite remember what from. At the time, the tie to an imminent court case was surely its biggest selling point, but that fades with the years to such a degree that we wonder who would really seek out the film today. Well, the answer to that resides in Dee Wallace’s performance, because I’m utterly unsurprised that it came quickly to her mind when picking a pair of films of hers for me to review. I’ve seen her in a lot of movies but I’ve never seen her so powerful as she is here. She did suggest that it was an important film historically, but I’d recommend it a lot more for the work she does in it than how it supported the freedom of the press.