ISSUE #1            OCTOBER, 2000
page 4 of 8

Artwork by Brianna Namuth


Happy Halloween to All Blastitude Readers
i. porky’s 3: the quickening
I was watching Bob Clark’s drive-in masterpiece Deathdream (1972) with some friends and I noticed they were cringing because the actors weren’t, um, exhibiting the subtleties of their craft, shall we say. I tried to insert other stars into the film like reverse paper dolls -- replacing the faces and bodies under the outfits. And pretty soon I had Jessica Lange, Dustin Hoffman and Chloe Sevigny acting out Clark’s Vietnam-era Freudian nightmare.
     Here’s the back story before I bring our fine, academy-approved thespians into these low budget environs. Bob Clark (much later of Porky’s fame) and Alan Ormsby (later screenwriter for 1982’s Cat People and Karate Kid III) concocted the most delirious and unjustly ignored horror films of the early/mid-70s: Deranged (1974), Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things (1972), Deathdream and Black Christmas (1974). Deathdream is about a young man’s homecoming from Vietnam and the potential hideousness of a mother’s love. It’s better than The Deer Hunter and Coming Home where Vietnam is concerned and much better than Robert Redford’s Ordinary People Mom-wise, but it’s also a horror movie so nobody gives a shit.
     We first see the soldier’s family sitting around the supper table. The perfect little family but something’s off. The mother has her head tilted like a little bird, her face a mask of Valium calm as she rambles on about her son, Andy, and how nobody on her daily route of wifery can wait for him to come home. She just chirps and chirps and the father and the daughter barely contain a series of twitches and tics that tell us all is not right with their little carpenter’s gothic world.
      The doorbell rings and the first of many haunted shots bathed in front porch light ensues. A local ROTC officer brings the family word that their son, Andy, died in combat. Of course, this completely shatters the scene and some kind of animal order takes hold in the house, something much older than 1972. The mother makes some kind of pact with the dark woman/mother forces by candle light and that very night Andy returns home.
The family immediately begins whitewashing their hopeful expectations all over him while he remains quiet, unblinking, unfamiliar with his own body. This is glorious, they tell him. He can resume his sunny youth. There’s dating to be done. Wait until the neighborhood sees how great he looks in his uniform. Andy, can you believe, they ask him, can you believe they said you were dead?
     I was, Andy answers. Dad looks at Andy like his boy’s a busted appliance. Daughter looks at Mom like she’s a story problem. Mom looks like she’s trying out for a 60s Anacin commercial. Andy looks at Mom like they’re in cahoots. Then Andy’s face cracks open to reveal… what? Like baby teeth, teeth with just a little too much space between each one, gums that are too pink, and what’s that sound he’s making? Well, it’s a laugh I guess, but it seems to come from a ventriloquist hidden off screen. The laugh doesn’t stir his body, which remains perfectly immobile, one hand caught like a spider in the lace tablecloth, the other limp in his lap. Still, the family takes what it can get and soon they’re all laughing with high-strung warmth.
     Of course, Andy’s dead. It’s the old Monkey’s Paw story retold with counter culture vigor. By the autumnal, muted colors of the porch light, the family unravels slowly. Andy just sits in his old room in the dark, rocking back and forth in a chair. He’s surrounded by boyhood clarity (a Scooby Doo light switch, some cowboy toys) but he’s just more bric-a-brac now. To the family anxiously awaiting a return to normalcy below him, the rocking begins to sound like a tell-tale heart.
     In a day or two, they draw Andy (Richard Backus, who’s sad and terrifying and apparently never acted again) into the backyard for a picnic where all the young kids from the neighborhood descend upon him to quiz him on his heroism. In a fine exhibition of what military service has made of him, he strangles the family dog before their eyes.
     This sends Dad to the local bar and then back home where he hopes to confront Andy. No Andy, just an empty rocking chair. Dad stumbles down the stairs to see where his pet-strangling war hero son’s gone:

     Daughter: (Hearing her father slamming around in Andy’s room) Daddy? Daddy?
     Father: (Seeing a car pull out of the driveway) Is that Andy?
     Daughter: Yes, Daddy. He went out the back door. Mother gave him the keys.
     Father: (Calling out to his wife) Christine! Christine!
     (Mom appears)
     You let him go!!??
     Mother: Why not? I’d leave too if my father came home drunk.
     Daughter: Daddy? What’s the matter?
     Father: (Shoving her aside) Oh, mind your own goddamn business!

     John Marley, the film producer who wakes up to find his prize race horse’s head among the folds of his satin sheets in The Godfather, plays Dad as a befuddled sleep walker through the middle class until his only son returns from Vietnam a blood drinking ghoul.  Lynn Carlin, who plays the Mom, is perfect. Underneath a gauze of pain pills, muscle relaxants and tranquilizers there’s this coyote mother who must protect her little pup at all costs. And little sister is just a teeny-bop cipher, humming along on an oblivious teenage track that just took a detour to some dark cave where coyote mothers and ineffectual, drunken fathers hunch down in darkness until this unexpected flurry of evil spirits passes by. Sis is an accessory and one Mom is willing to jettison to protect her darling walking corpse. The acting by all three leads is so emotionally jagged and just plain off that the movie never lets you settle in to its rhythms. We are never offered melodrama as a substitute for discomfort.
     It’s a crazed scene of family dysfunction and when you insert Lange, Hoffman and Sevigny (or any other Hollywood A-list threesome), it simply doesn’t work. Why? Because perfect horror acting is pitched at either hysteria or catatonia. Pitch a performance somewhere in between, the realm where most Hollywood actors find Oscars and critical acclaim, and the whole scene collapses. Most mainstream Hollywood acting is about rhythms, keeping things on the beat is essential. Occasionally a scene will change up the timpani beats for rimshots, but rarely does a whole movie work off-the-beat. It simply isn’t done. Except in horror films or, for that matter, exploitation films in general. Here the rhythms are always off and to great effect. Even teen slasher films which give you a cadence as predictable as a Casio drum sample, usually (the Scream series being an exception and a horror novelty at best) benefit from strange performances: Crispin Glover in
Friday the 13th – The Final Chapter (Joseph Zito, 1984),  John Saxon and Ronne Blakely in Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984), etc. Though the technical rhythms (editing, lighting, music) of these genre exercises are etched in stone and delivered with stone age pragmatism, performances like these keep us from engaging completely.  Only in genre exercises is this essential. In a mainstream Hollywood product, the audience has to be engaged, often before the opening credits are through. In horror and exploitation, it’s either the blank or the dervish. In between is inconsequential. "Bad" acting enhances delirium, feverishness and horror’s powerful arrhythmia.

ii. waldorf salad and other just desserts
In the last twenty years Hollywood has been trying to weld B-movie thrills onto A-movie sheen and it rarely works. I suppose it all started with Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Here we have a pulp novel by Ira Levin, produced by the king of B-movie thrills, William Castle, and directed by Eurostentialist Roman Polanski. Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes share lead billing and, to their credit, their method chops pretty much lead them just shy of catatonic. In fact, most of the cast, good, evil and otherwise, play the script jaded, like they’re saying, "so it’s the devil in the Big Apple, what else ya got?" It’s a fine ruse and it keeps the stars from "peeling away layers" and "finding motivations".  Even the final Satanic coffee clatch is played like brunch at the Waldorf: "Hail, Satan," they lift their goblets and chant with all the conviction of conventioners toasting sprockets and sales figures.
     William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) played it straighter and suffered for it. The stars, especially Max Von Sydow and Ellen Burstyn, are ridiculous, trying vainly to get at some of William Peter Blatty’s spiritual subtext while nearly drowning in green spew. Only Jason Miller, as the priest who’s lost his faith, and Linda Blair who, God knows, can find her way around a B-flick, really shine in this cast. Miller is a slightly more controlled version of Jeffrey Combs, one of the great horror actors of the 80s and 90s. Combs can play madness on hold (the mad scientist in Stuart Gordon’s Re-animator), madness brewing (the terrified scientist in Gordon’s From Beyond), and madness de Mille (the totally unhinged cult expert in Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners). But it’s all madness and you’re not going to see him standing next to Robert Zemeckis this March at the Oscars or even next to David E. Kelly at the Emmys. He’s a creature made for B-movies and hell, he doesn’t invade Harrison Ford’s territory, why should Ford invade his?
     The Shining (1980), a prestige picture directed by American expatriate Stanley Kubrick, further blurred the line between mainstream cinema and exploitation crud. The Shining’s an odd bird because, while it’s a prestige picture, the performances are B-movie heaven. Of course Jack Nicholson, to this day, can run amok through hamdom like he never left the Roger Corman stables at AIP, but in this movie he doesn’t even try to contain himself. And this after prostrating himself before Oscar
several times during the 70s. He’s all over the place and the critics savaged him while horror and exploitation fans reclaimed an old idol.
     The real star of The Shining however, is Shelley Duvall with her stringy hair, pop eyes and horse teeth. Why she hasn’t found a permanent and lucrative home in horror films is beyond me. Maybe it’s because Robert Altman and other arty directors keep telling her she’s a star. Let her go hang out with Stuart Gordon. She’ll have fun. She and Jeffrey Combs can chase each other around the laboratory with iridescent zombie elixir.

iii. gandhi and the aliens
After The Shining, the real trouble started. Perfectly serviceable horror and sci-fi movies were ruined by "layered" performances. Great, juicy crap like Species, Mimic, Wolf (featuring a sadly restrained Nicholson and a ludicrous Michelle Pfeiffer), The Sixth Sense, The Haunting of Hill House and What Lies Beneath (more ludicrous Pfeiffer) were totaled by good acting.  What are Ben Kingsley, Forest Whitaker, Marg Helgenberger and Alfred Molina doing in Species, a potentially rip-roaring, sexy alien movie sunk by star power. What’s Mira Sorvino doing in Mimic? What are Lili Taylor (really overthinking sexual ambiguity) and Liam Neeson (really underestimating his Jeff Fahey IS The Lawnmower Mancache) doing in The Haunting of Hill House? What’s Harrison Ford doing….well, what is Harrison Ford doing? These films cry out for Combs, Bruce Campbell, Brad Dourif, Harry Dean Stanton, Shelley Duvall, Michael Madsen (who is in Species and tries hard to salvage it), Billy Zane, Jeff Fahey, Geoffrey Lewis and other ding dongs whose specialty is going from limp to BINGO! in a blink.

iv.  you’re not the man i married
When I was a kid I watched the Saturday night Creature Feature religiously. I saw a  million movies that scared the hell out of me back then, but the one I remember most fondly is I Married a Monster from Outer Space (Gene Fowler, 1958). In it, Tom Tryon (now Thomas Tryon and author of the spooky bestseller, The Other) plays Gloria Talbot’s brand new husband. On their wedding night, Tom is possessed by an alien monster that makes him act indifferently toward his new bride. In fact, he skulks through the house like a determined ghost while Gloria thinks she may have done something wrong. After all, this is her first marriage, maybe she missed something in the instruction manual. This isn’t the man I married just a few hours ago, she thinks to herself. But hey, no one said marriage was a walk in the park, maybe this is just the way it is once the bloom’s off the rose. Tom Tryon is terrifying in this film just by being boring and blank and dissociated. In my kid mind, he was the greatest horror actor I’d ever seen.
     Years later, I saw Tryon in Otto Preminger’s big budget snooze The Cardinal (1963) and in Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun (1971) and damned if he wasn’t just as terrifying. Hell, he was the same character – boring, blank, dissociated. Trouble was, the film had changed up on him, apparently without him noticing.
     In the three or four moments in my life when I’ve viewed people in extremis, people barely hanging onto sanity or who’ve actually become raving things, they’ve behaved far more like the characters in Deathdream and Deranged and I Married a Monster from Outer Space than the A-list actors who inhabit Robert Redford’s Ordinary People or that New Age fraud, The Sixth Sense. In fact, for most of the the late 60s my family was held fast in the thrall of suburban malaise, alcoholism, the war, adultery, tranquilizers and mental illness. They became, in essence, unfamiliar with their roles, method actors untethered from their stock leads. My Dad became Tom Tryon and my Mom behaved very much like Andy’s mother in Deathdream. My God, what performances..
(Note: This column is named for a misunderstanding. While looking up the film credits for the British director Charles Crichton, I came upon this entry: Things to Come, Elephant Boy (1936). For just a moment I imagined what this great lost picture might look like and then I realized Crichton had worked on two films that year, Things to Come and, later, Elephant Boy. Still, I’d like to write a script someday for this optimistic, wistful and brazenly exotic science fiction film, starring Sabu and Maria Montez.)

-- Charles Lieurance, October 2000



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