Saturday, July 31, 2010

Still Crazy After All These Years: RE-ANIMATOR at 25

I just got in from a showing at the AFI of Stuart Gordon's RE-ANIMATOR. I have to say...a quarter of a century later, it still packs a whallop.

Loosely, very loosely based on a short story by H. P. Lovecraft, it chronicles the adventures of Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs, in a star-making performance), mad scientist extraordinaire, as he experiments with a new "reagent" that reanimates the dead. He ropes in med student Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott), who's dating the dean's nubile daughter (Barbara Crampton, who was quite a sport for enduring this movie), and also has to deal with the hostile dean (Robert Sampson) and deranged brain specialist Dr. Hill (David Gale). And the result is gore galore.

When I first saw it (rented in the 80s from my small-town video store; I never saw it on the big screen until tonight), I was first a bit shocked by how it turned a Lovecraft work into a comedy. But then...I had to worked, like gangbusters. As a more mature horror fan, I read Lovecraft and see how easy it is to turn it into comedy; Lovecraft's over-the-top phrenzy is easy to parody. Combs' West is a great interpretation of the mad scientist; it's just restrained enough to make the character believable and somewhat sympathetic. West is obviously the smartest man in the room, and he knows it. He's unconcerned with emotion and ethics; everything is done to further his research, and while sometimes the things he does are shocking, they make sense from his viewpoint. The late David Gale had a ball, hamming it up as Dr. Hill; he later said in interviews that he thoroughly enjoyed the role and took an active part in developing Dr. Hill's personality.

What the flick is famous for is the cheerful over-the-top gore, in amounts that films today rarely touch. Not to mention one of filmdom's most gruesome sight gags, when Meg is strapped to the table and Dr. Hill is paying her some attention.

But what stands out for me now is the homoerotic subtext. West's recruitment of the hunky Cain as an assistant seems as much motivated by Cain's looks as his qualifications as a medical student. (We're never led to believe he's anything more than an average student.) The static existing between West and Meg is natural for rivals, and she's furious when she catches them together...well, in an experiment, but still. West and Cain's first human experiment is a tall naked hunk (played by Peter Kent, Arnold Schwarzenegger's stunt double). And when Cain goes into shock after an experiment goes awry, West's solicitous treatment is about as loving as he can get.

I've only seen the sequel, BRIDE OF RE-ANIMATOR, once, but I recall it carrying the subtext, with West doing what he could to hold on to Cain, even creating him a woman if it meant that Cain would hang around. ("Look, OK, I'll let you have a woman on the side, just stay with me! I need you!")

All that aside, it's stood up well. There was a second sequel, BEYOND RE-ANIMATOR, that I've never seen, and a fourth film, HOUSE OF RE-ANIMATOR, has been languishing in Development Hell for years (and the buzz is that it will never happen, but some still hold out hope). It's hardly totally loyal to Lovecraft (although a wonderfully funny and macabre scene, where a reanimated headless body sneaks into a morgue with a fake head strapped on, is lifted more-or-less directly from Lovecraft), but it's a breath of fresh air in an age when horror films tend to focus on killing as many teenagers as possible. It's flawed, sure (Meg is underwritten and an annoying character, and the technical crudeness shines through from time to time) but the nostalgia helps make up for any missteps.

Hardly a film for horror beginners, and not for those with weak stomachs, it's still a worthy rental (or even a purchase) for longtime fans.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

At the Theater: Molotov's THE HORRORS OF ONLINE DATING

It's Molotov's first musical! It's AVENUE Q with gore! It's a gleefully tasteless romp! And with far more depth and meaning that you might think!

HORRORS is the tale of Judy (Jenny Donovan), who's cruising for dates online under the name "Carrie." She has conversations with her cat, her laptop, and a bottle of antipsychotic medications (all played by puppets), and ends her hookups with torture and murder. She has a prickly situation with co-workers Donna (Karen Novack) and Kent (Graham Pilato), but eventually hopes to find salvation in the form of self-help guru Francis Rabassa (Lucas Maloney)....

It was about ten times the play I expected. Sure, it gets down to the brass tacks with a disembowelment in the opening scene, and blood flies left and right and up and down (plastic ponchos are issued to audience members as they walk in, and no, sitting in the back row won't save you), but it's pleasantly surprising by showing some real depth. Donovan, who was the innocent victim in MONDO ANDRONICUS, is exceptional here as Judy; it's a role easily played as an eye-rolling maniac, but she brings out Judy's loneliness, vulnerability, and confusion, until she becomes a sort of homicidal Everywoman who simultaneously evokes sympathy and terror. Her murders stop seeming gratuitous and instead are a symptom of a person who finds ways to hurt other people before they have a chance to hurt her. At one point she's asked about the last time she had sex, and maybe she wouldn't be so uptight if she actually would have sex instead of murdering people? Another time she explains her murderous habits by saying that it made her happy...but Donovan's expression tells that the happiness she finds is only fleeting.

Judy is a mess, seeking affection and affirmation willy-nilly, swallowing a motivational speaker's bulldada about how healing comes from within, but still expecting him to personally fix her. And she's lost in a world of duplicity; the men she meets are almost all cheating on their spouses, her friends are hiding their affairs from her, and her one ray of light is a cynical opportunist merely hoping to get in her pants. She depends on, and resents, her medication, and wishes her laptop would leave her alone. She's the ultimate alienated single person in today's screwy world.

Aside from Donovan's performance, the script by Shawn Paul Northrip touches on the many realities of dating in today's world. I kept thinking of the times I've met with less drastic treatment, dumped in various passive-aggressive ways, or used to find fleeting satisfaction and then discarded. It's something many of us have experienced, and Northrip simply takes it a few steps further.

The songs work well within the context of the show; nothing seems forced or ill-fitted. Donovan has a lovely singing voice, and the rest of the crew range from the serviceable to the pleasant. (OK, there's no major Broadway talent here, but it works.) The puppets and their puppeteers work very well. They're not simply people controlling the plushy puppets, but amalgamations requiring that you divide your attention between the puppet and the person. (In other words, they actually ACT.) Kudos to Luke "The Duke" Ciesiewicz as Frenziapine the antipsychotic medication, Julie Garner as the vampy, leggy Laptop, and Genevieve James as the petulant Mittens the Cat. James is delightful as a sort of Greek chorus appearing between acts, as a little girl jumping rope and making macabre rhymes commenting on the action. Alex Zavistovich isn't in the lead here, but does appear in a succession of victim roles...and takes his chance to add zest to the character of a philandering husband. But he's also the mastermind behind the show's gore effects, ranging from the aforementioned disembowelment to gunshot wounds, power tool murders, and amputated fingers. (In other words, wear something washable.)

This is part of the Capital Fringe Festival, and there's only a few performances left, so run and catch it!

Monday, July 19, 2010

MONSIEUR MAURICE by Amelia B. Edwards

The very name of "Amelia B. Edwards" summons up an image of a prim Victorian lady, and the above photo kinda reinforces that idea. However, it seems she was quite an interesting lady. Amelia Ann Blandford Edwards (1831-1892) was a novelist, poet, journalist, suffragette, travel writer, amateur archaeologist, and passionate advocate for the preservation of Egyptian monuments. She published her first full-length novel at the age of 24, and in 1864 scored a big success with BARBARA'S STORY, a tale of bigamy, and later with 1880's LORD BRACKENBURY, her last novel, that was a runaway bestseller.

She was well-regarded in her time as a social and domestic novelist, but of her fiction, her ghost stories are the most remembered works these days. And gives us the third of Bleiler's collection, FIVE VICTORIAN GHOST NOVELS, although MONSIEUR MAURICE is really more of a novella, or extended short story, than a real novel.

Edwards' work as a domestic novelist shows in this. It's narrated by Gretchen Bernhard, in a flashback back to when she was six years old, shuttling from an unlikable aunt in Nuremberg to living with her father, an official at the Electoral Residenz at Bruhl in 1819. There, in the midst of the Napoleonic wars, she becomes friends with a civilized prisoner there, the gentleman of the title. He's actually a very nice man, a polymath who's knowledgeable about the arts and sciences (his furniture includes a telescope and microscope), and serves as a sort of tutor to the girl. As years pass, there's an escape attempt, and then a poisoning attempt following the revelation of a plot, and both times Maurice's life is saved by the ghost of a faithful Indian servant. Eventually, the Elector uncovers that his imprisonment was wrongful, and he is released.

Sounds rather blah, but Edwards gives it enough detail and charm to be entertaining without being overly cloying. The story of Gretchen's friendship with the French prisoner is actually fairly pleasant reading, but one does get impatient for the supernatural content...and when it shows up, it's blink-and-you'll-miss-it, which is the problem. Being part of a collection of "Victorian ghost novels," one expects more ghosts. There's not much of a presence of the supernatural here; it just shows up when it's needed, and life gets back to normal. MONSIEUR MAURICE is probably the most stereotypically Victorian of the novels here, with its ordered content and the ordered lives of its protagonists.

So it's not great as a horror story, but works as a pleasant kindasorta coming-of-age tale with guest appearances by a ghost.

Edwards, however, got more interesting. Shortly after publishing MONSIEUR MAURICE in 1873, she embarked on a tour of Egypt, which resulted in her bestselling travel book A THOUSAND MILES UP THE NILE, and Edwards devoted the rest of her life and work to Egyptology, receiving three honorary degrees and endowing England's first chair in Egyptology, which appropriately went to her friend, Flinders Petrie, who defended her when she was being edged out of archaeology by sexism. And in the late 20th century, she inspired Elizabeth Peters' lady archaeologist, Amelia Peabody.

Edwards never married, and did her traveling with a female companion. (Can't help but wonder...) She actually made enough from her writing to be self-sufficient after her parents' deaths, so she didn't need to marry, but still, makes me a bit curious.

Anyway, MONSIEUR MAURICE is an OK story, but the story of its author is fascinating.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

At the Cinema: the (almost) complete METROPOLIS

Just got in from seeing the almost-complete cut of Fritz Lang's METROPOLIS at DC's Avalon Theater.


OK, it's hard to write anything about this 1927 flick that hasn't been discussed to death before, but I'm going to go ahead and write a few things about it.

A quick rundown of the plot, for those who haven't seen it before. At some unspecified time, presumably in the future, there's a huge city, Metropolis. Underground there are dispirited workers who slave away at the machines that keep the city running. The city is the brainchild of industrial titan Joh Frederson. His son, Freder Frederson, is a spoiled child of privilege, romping in a luxury garden until he sees the lovely Maria (Brigitte Helm) leading a group of the workers' children into the garden, calling on the rich to see their brothers. Freder is taken by her beauty and at once is a convert to her philosophy, and goes to the undercity for the first time to see for himself the conditions of the workers. He witnesses an explosion at a giant machine and in a mini-nervous breakdown, envisions it as the fiery idol Moloch. He rushes to his father's office, but his father is uncaring, except for firing Josaphat for being behind in the news. Freder stops Josaphat from committing suicide and convinces him to be on his side. Freder returns to the undercity, switching places with a worker, and meets Maria again when she leads a church service/rally in which she promises a mediator who will be the heart that connects the brain and the hand. Naturally, Freder sees himself as that mediator.

Meanwhile, Joh Frederson pays a call on mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), who was once in love with Frederson's wife, Hel, who died giving birth to Freder. Rotwang has now constructed a robot woman to take Hel's place, at the cost of his hand. Frederson has some charts that have been found on the workers, and Rotwang deduces that they lead to a chamber in the 2,000 year old catacombs beneath the city. The two go there and spy on Maria's lecture, and determine to make use of Rotwang's robot. In the now-famous transformation scene, the robot is made to look like Maria, and is sent to destroy the worker's trust in her.

Freder has a big nervous breakdown finding the evil Maria in his father's arms. Evil Maria does an erotic dance in the decadent Yoshiwara nightclub, embarking on a career of sin and depravity while inciting the workers to revolt. This is all Rotwang's doing, part of his own plan to destroy Frederson. Eventually, she leads the workers to destroy the machines...which leads to the flooding of the worker's underground city. The real Maria escapes and makes it to the city, in time to be joined by Freder and Josaphat as they rescue the worker's children. The workers realize too late what they've done, and hunt for Maria on the surface, chasing the good one until they finally meet the evil one, partying with her Yoshiwara friends. Evil Maria is burned at the stake in front of the cathedral, good Maria is almost killed by Rotwang until rescued by Freder, and a hopeful future is promised.

Quite a story, eh?

First off, I've seen it before, many times, and seeing the new footage is amazing. There's an entire subplot that was lost, in which industrial titan Joh Frederson (Alfred Abel) sends his operative, the Thin Man (Fritz Rasp) to spy on his son Freder (Gustav Frohlich), and a lot of scenes with Frederson's former assistant Josaphat (Theodor Loos), in his city apartment and aiding Freder.

There's also short scenes that were cut that add dimension to the story. There's many reaction shots of Joh Frederson that let us see him as other than a sneering rich bitch, but as a man moved by what he's seeing, but not enough to make him sway from doing what he thinks is best for his position.

There's some bad, too. The extended cut lets us see how badly Helm chomps the scenery; her Evil Maria struck me as closer to Carole Lombard doing a parody of villainy. The final confrontation on the roof the cathedral goes on waaaay too long. Freder's character is inconsistent; one moment he's strong and driven by a sense of purpose, the next he's a weak, neurasthenic fool having hallucinations from his latest psychotic episode. The Thin Man seems fairly silly today, and Freder's interactions with Josaphat almost always include long hugs and extreeemely close face-to-face conversations, and I kept expecting them to start playing tonsil hockey right then and there.

But there's a lot that's interesting. METROPOLIS is a surprisingly Gothic film. Rotwang's house is a medieval pile almost forgotten in the towers of the city, and his laboratory seems equally scientific and supernatural. There's even hints of black magic with his robot, who sits before an upside-down pentagram.

There's the presence of the crumbling cathedral, complete with a statue of Death and the Seven Deadly Sins that animate during one of Freder's hallucinations. And a ton of Biblical references, to boot. Maria tells the story of the Tower of Babel as a parable of brain vs. the hand. The Evil Maria dances dressed as the Whore of Babylon (seen in a Bible earlier) and finishes her number seated atop the ten-headed dragon on a pedestal held aloft by the Seven Deadly Sins. (Gee, symbolic?)

Of course, there's all the social/political/economic factors at work here. It can be seen as anticapitalist, as it condemns the exploitation of the working man by the oligarchy. But...the rebellion and mob rule of the proletariat is portrayed as counterproductive and self-destructive. The Bolshevik Revolution was still fresh in everyone's minds and one can suppose that there was quite a bit of commentary going on about that in here. The regimented life of the exploited workers can be viewed as both a result of unregulated free market capitalism and as the result of communism. There's definitely a criticism of mob rule going on here, when the workers destroy their own city and endanger their children's lives, then immediately nearly kill the good-hearted Maria, who only sought to improve their condition.

The film's message, applied with a sledgehammer, is that "The Mediator between the head and the hand must be the heart!" and it makes sense. METROPOLIS doesn't necessarily condemn or condone capitalism or socialism or communism, but is really a call for understanding and compassion between the levels of society, and an end to exploitation.

There's still sections missing; title cards talk about missing scenes of Freder seeing a monk preach in the cathedral, and a missing scene of Frederson's struggle with Rotwang. This cut is about 2 1/2 hours long; supposedly Lang's full cut was a full hour longer than that, and I doubt we'll ever see it.

It's making the rounds, folks, so go see this if you can. Despite a few flaws, it's still an amazing experience and well worth seeing. And I think it's due on DVD come fall...

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Musical Interlude for the July Heat

It's hellishly hot here in DC, so I'm slouching around inside and listening to some music. I recently discovered Janet Klein and Her Parlor Boys, who do songs from the 1910s, 20s, and 30s, in the traditional styles. If only I could get them to come out to the East Coast...