Monday, November 28, 2016

"These Things Happen" - Creatures from the Abyss (1994) - Part 2 of 3


This is Part 2 of our discussion of the maritime adventure Creatures from the Abyss (1994). You can read Part 1 here.

We left our five twenty-somethings on board the good ship Oceanographic Research Institute, a ghost ship with a mysterious lab full of dead and frozen fish. They have just discovered an unconscious crew member in the ship's basement.


Mike and Bobby drag the unconscious man out from behind steel drums of fuel and take him upstairs to the bar. The ID in his wallet says he is a chemist named Clark Dewison. "Dumb chemists," says Mike. "He won't be able to tell us a damn thing until he comes to." As I assume to be the case in your universe, in Universe-Prime most scientists are able to impart information while unconscious, with the exception being dumb chemists.

It deserves to be noted that, if it is possible to overact while unconscious, then Clark Dewison, played by director and occasional actor Deran Serafian, accomplishes that task.

Bobby, disappointed that a crew member is still alive and they won't be able to steal the yacht, suggests murder by throwing the chemist overboard. It is unclear whether he is joking.

Julie and Dorothy try to sleep on bunk beds in one of the neon blue bedrooms. Dorothy tosses and turns, the victim of eating bad fish. She runs to the head and vomits. Excessively. Her green vomit is filled with beetles. She screams and runs into the bar area, where Bobby, Mike, and Margaret intercept her.

The men return to the toilet and find vomit, but no beetles. They also encounter the talking shower with a video screen and a female personality, which they rightly ignore.

When Mike tells Dorothy they found no evidence of creatures in her vomit, Dorothy's demeanor changes. She strangles Mike and demands he take her off the ship.


Mike agrees, so he and Dorothy don raincoats and go out on deck in the pouring rain. They are surprised that their raft, still tethered to the side of the good ship Oceanographic Research Institute, has somehow filled with water. The lifeboat is similarly flooded, but Mike makes the fortuitous discovery of an axe and brings it back inside with him.

Moments later, Mr. Serafian's chemist has flashbacks of a strange eyeball and a monster attack. He also makes choking noises and says what sounds like the word "sex" while Mike gives him a glass of water.

Mike and Margaret return to the lab yet again. He turns on the computer and is presented with a DOS menu of commands. "This is way over my head," he complains.

The fisheye lens on the floor continues to stalk them until Margaret steps on it. "Ah! I must have stepped on something soft." But there is nothing on the floor.

When they activate a video screen with the image of a grotesquely disfigured person, Mike somehow realizes the truth. "I get it now. This is a control console for a distant telecamera," he says. "I believe they're in a bell at the bottom of the sea along with the rest of the crew." He also believes that the secret of the ship is somehow tied to these strange fish. (The discovery of the diving bell is a fascinating plot point, but the filmmakers have other things to get to and it is never mentioned again.)


From one image and access to the computer information that is way over his head, Mike has deduced that the crew found dozens of species of carnivorous fish feeding on plankton and thought to be extinct. These fish have "mobile eyes" and a wide field of vision, explaining the fisheye lens moving around the floor.

Mike raises his voice. "Carnivorous fish that live out of water? Do you know what that means?"

At that exact moment, with no warning, the terror begins. The fish on the operating table breaks free of its cables and flies into the air, attacking Margaret's throat.

   

Mike manages to pull the fish off and throw it to the floor. Bobby races to the lab to help, but he expresses skepticism that a fish from a museum bit Margaret, which results in the fish slapping him in the face and then disappearing.

Mike and Bobby search the lab for the fish. It jumps out of a sealed box and bites Bobby's backside, but they manage to impale it on a handy machete and kill it. Then, sensibly, they destroy all the containers and organisms in the lab, one of which falls into a convenient meat grinder. Oddly, however, they forget about the freezer housing dozens of the fish.

Later, while Margaret sleeps off her throat wound in the bottom bunk, Mike climbs to the top bunk. Under the mirrored ceiling, he looks at the drawings of the creatures from the abyss.

   

(It must be noted that the drawings are of high quality and extremely detailed. They are almost up to the quality standards of the hand-drawn map from Shriek of the Mutilated.)

(It must also be noted that the good ship Oceanographic Research Institute is a technologically advanced vessel; despite the storm that rages outside all night, the decks are rock-steady and always level, showing no wave motion whatsoever.)

Mike moves on from the drawings to the book he found, which is filled with trivia about the genitalia and sex habits of deep sea fish. We learn more about the book as Mike reads aloud: plankton, it seems, prefer jacuzzis and limousines to ocean life.

Mike realizes something from all this reading. He jumps out of the bunk and hurries to the living area to confront the chemist. He asks Dr. Dewison how long he has been having sex with fish.

Dewison replies, "They're old enough."

"I understand," says Mike. "These things happen." Then Mike returns to the computers in the lab, his suspicions confirmed. He puts two and two together and realizes that contaminated plankton have made the deep-sea fish sexually aggressive. He explains everything to Margaret, who sneaks up behind him and startles him. Radioactive waste contaminated the plankton in the area, causing the fish that ate the plankton to develop great strength and agility. And the powdery substance that Bobby tasted is actually pulverized, contaminated plankton!

Here is where the film's heady concepts come together. The filmmakers have one thing in mind by combining the vibrant neon bordello decor and the slimy undersea organisms, and that one thing comes down to two words: fish sex.

After Mike gives his explanations, Margaret uses this moment to remind Mike that this is their one-year anniversary, not to mention that she is pregnant. Mike is overjoyed.

Meanwhile, Julie climbs out of her bunk to join Bobby in his bedroom, which contains a stuffed polar bear and an elegant gold bedside lamp depicting an elf with a massive male member whose tip is the light bulb. The lamp turns Julie on; the bulb lights up as she strokes it.

The next scene between Julie and Bobby is perhaps the film's most impressive, and famous, sequence. Stay tuned!


Stay tuned for Part 3, where all the mysteries will be revealed, except the mystery of the diving bell, which will not be mentioned again.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

"When the Doctors Go Out for a Coffee Break During an Operation" - Creatures from the Abyss (1994) - Part 1 of 3

The last nautical-themed horror film we discussed was the adventure classic Blood Surf (Part 1, Part 2). Now we look at 1994's Creatures from the Abyss, a colorful and terrifying Italian film shot in Florida.

Again I must single out the prominent critics of your universe who fail to appreciate the brilliance of this exciting romp. For example, a reviewer on digitallyobsessed.com writes rather uncharitably,
"I can sometimes forgive a horror with either bad effects or bad acting, but the presence of both make it exceedingly difficult to tolerate." On Amazon, Wayne Cooper cruelly writes, "Well this is pretty close to the bottom of the barrel." On IMDB, Leofwine_draca foolishly writes, "Most aspects of the film are amateurish....Performances are abominable, the dubbing is also on the crude standard for the genre. The camera-work too is pretty dodgy...lots of cheap music to complement the cheap action and flimsy-looking sets." Such unsupportable vituperation must, again, be refuted once and for all.

The sun is going down. A group of five twenty-somethings carries an inflatable raft with pontoons and an outboard motor down a Florida beach toward the water. They pass a common sight on any beach: a chain link fence decorated with a dead piranha and an octopus tentacle. Then they board the raft and head out into the dusky ocean, leaving a can of gasoline on the beach.


In the dark, the group realizes they left the fuel behind. Fortunately, they have brought an electric lamp and a compass, so they know where the shore is. The girls are frightened. "What if we're attacked by a shark?" one asks. "That only happens in the movies," is the reply. "What if there's a storm?" "Storms don't happen during the summer."

Lightning cracks and rain starts to pour down on them.

Scenes of the group paddling and bailing water out of the raft are intercut with mysterious shots of fish, eyeballs, and a shipwreck.

Cleverly, the young people lighten the raft by jettisoning the outboard motor. Eventually, their oars strike something in the water, though it turns out to be a human head, which is not as useful as other floating debris might be, such as an outboard motor. In the confusion of seeing the human head, they lose their oars in the ocean.

Finally, they see a light through the rain. They come alongside a yacht called the Oceanographic Research Institute. They climb a convenient ladder onto the large vessel, then start to explore.


The first room they enter is a lab filled with specimens of sea life. One of the jars is broken, which the characters realize means something was alive and has escaped, but they pay this no heed.

One of the men finds a powdery substance in a container and tastes it, looking for drugs.

The audience is treated to the point of view of some unseen creature resting on the floor, watching the young people.

"What are you looking at those disgusting creatures for?" asks Dorothy.

"But Dorothy, they're only fish," says another girl.

"They frighten me," says Dorothy. "They have an evil expression."

The two men, Mike and Bobby, explore further, finding the empty pilot house. Apparently the good ship Oceanographic Research Institute is a ghost ship.

Next, they explore below decks. It is at this point that the film reveals it is interested in  much more than other films that show us creatures from this or that abyss. The production design and decor of the vessel's living quarters is truly visionary. The bar/living room is a blue neon masterpiece just a step or two away from a brothel in Michael Mann's wildest dreams. The sleeping quarters are wallpapered in silver foil, decorated with guitars, neon sculptures,  blue plastic princess phones, and six-foot stuffed polar bears. The "clock" in the hallway is an animated talking fish sculpture whose voice announces the time at inopportune moments. (Not only are the designs brilliant, but they will tie into the plot at a later point.)

      

One of the girls opens a closet. Startled, as one would be, she says, "It's full of clothes!" One of the guys replies, "Hey, what size?" Then the men get out of their wet clothes and slip into the absent crew members' clothes, while the women remove their swimsuits, dry off, then put their swimwear back on--Julie appears particularly comfortable in her pink gingham bikini.

Mike goes back to the lab with Margaret to check it out. They find more equipment hooked up to anethsesized fish, and a refrigerator full of frozen fish. "It's like in a hospital, when the doctors go out for a coffee break during an operation," Margaret says, perfectly describing the viewer's thoughts.

   

Mike and Margaret are observed again by something unseen on the floor with a fisheye lens for an eye.

Later, at the bar, Bobby describes his ambitious plan to steal the ship and outfit it through his brother, who runs a nautical maintenance company. He believes the ship's crew members were drug dealers and the frozen fish are just to fool the Coast Guard that the ship is really an oceanographic research vessel.

When his plan gets little traction with the others, Bobby puts on a disco CD and gets the party started by dancing with Dorothy. They are also being observed by the unseen eyeball.


Meanwhile, Mike orders Margaret and Julie to go to the galley to see about dinner. They find fresh fish in the refrigerator, along with French's yellow mustard, soy sauce, and more tin cans than might be expected in a refrigerator.


As Julie fries two of the fish, she sees a vision of both fish wriggling and screaming in the pan. She screams and burns the fish, so there is no choice but to fry the one remaining fish.

Everyone enjoys the meal of fish, mayonnaise, and some kind of sausage, served alongside a tray of red wine, yellow mustard, and a stick of butter. But their meal is interrupted by something banging somewhere below them.

Mike and Bobby investigate, which entails finding a door to a wooden staircase that appears to lead to the ship's basement.

In a highly suspenseful scene, the two men move through the dark basement. Suddenly, a human skeleton appears out of the darkness, but it was just Bobby playing a prank with a skeleton he found. Nothing to worry about.

Eventually they find plastic sacs full of powder in the basement that Bobby is certain are drugs. A self-described expert, Bobby says he'll fix a dose later so they can try these drugs, which should help them have sex with the girls. "I think you're nuts," says Mike. "I don't need drugs to make love."

They also find books and drawings. 

   

"What kind of animals are these?" Mike asks. "They're horny ones," replies Bobby.

They turn to leave the basement, but then they hear the banging again. It is coming from behind a steel door, which turns out to be unlocked. Behind it, they find an unconscious man. "Is he still alive?" Bobby asks. Mike replies, "No, I don't think so."

The man opens his eyes and moans.

Mike changes his answer. "I think he's alive."


We shall break here. Don't miss Part 2 of our discussion of 1994's brilliant nautical adventure Creatures from the Abyss.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Monday, November 21, 2016

"He's Very Knowledgeable on Possession" - Demon Seed (1982) - Part 3 of 3


This is Part 3 of our discussion of the supernatural chamber drama variously known as Demon Seed, Demon Rage, Dark Eyes, Fury of the Succubus, and Satan's Mistress. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Previously, Lisa's sexual frustration was alleviated through her affair with a bearded spirit, and then her affair with the bearded spirit was alleviated through a rekindling of her affection for her husband. The forces of evil and of good--or at least marital stability--are pitted against each other with Lisa as the prize.


Michelle is sleeping when she receives a vision from the self-described fallen angel Belline, whose voice intones, "Soon you will help us." The vision involves a great deal of screaming; it is a testament to the filmmakers' skill at producing ambiguity that we cannot tell if people are being murdered or making love. At the climax of the vision, Michelle sees her parents run to the beach and disappear, in fast motion no less, under the sand.

In the night, Ann-Marie visits Burt and kisses him. Lisa and the bearded stranger watch them embrace. Ann-Marie's fingernails scratch bloody marks into Burt's back. He wakes up screaming. It was just a dream.

The next day, Ann-Marie and her jokester husband Carl visit the beach house.


Carl provides some welcome, and truly funny, comic relief with his Dracula impressions and non-sequiturs. His performance is a high point of the film, distracting somewhat from the dark, serious, sophisticated tone of the rest of the narrative.

Carl goes upstairs while Ann-Marie checks out the basement. Her psychic powers give her frightening impressions of the goings-on at the beach house, such as a woman's head covered in chocolate sauce peering from behind a hole in a brick wall.


Disturbed by her psychic vision, Ann-Marie takes a walk with Lisa along the beach. She explains that Lisa is not the first to have a phantom lover. "In the psychic area, we believe that after death, the spirit walks the earth either waiting for another body or his final destiny." The wandering spirits are lonely and drawn to lonely humans. Evil forces can tempt these wandering spirits to become evil like them. Ann-Marie believes that the evil forces are using Lisa to tempt the bearded stranger to become evil.

Back in the house, the lights go off while Carl is joking with Michelle. Because he hates melted ice in his Scotch, he decides to go to the basement to flip the circuit breaker. Fortunately, the electrical box is at the top of the steps, so he tries flipping switches, but nothing happens. "There must be another one downstairs," he says, so he climbs down into the basement to search for the second electrical box. Michelle stays at the top of the stairs.

Next comes the film's most accomplished suspense sequence.

He searches through the basement until he sees legs in silhouette in front of him. When he turns, he sees a pulsing eye. He drops the flashlight and suddenly his head is trapped in the guillotine, facing up and staring at the blade. He tries to free himself but his struggles are in vain. The blade falls, beheading him.

The lights come on and Michelle sees what has occurred. She expresses some concern.


An ambulance takes the body away. A police detective walks over to Burt and admits he can't figure out what happened. "You gonna be around for questioning?" he asks Burt. Burt wanders off without responding.

The film leaves the beach house for a single scene in a cemetery, where Carl's body is buried. Only Ann-Marie and Burt attend the funeral, while Lisa and Michelle remain in the beach house for unclear reasons.

Ann-Marie convinces Burt to talk to Father Stratten, played by the great John Carradine. "He works with our psychic group," Ann-Marie says, "and he's very knowledgeable on possession."

   


Father Stratten recaps what Ann-Marie told Lisa on the beach: Lisa is being used as a lonely piece of bait for evil forces to take over the wandering bearded spirit.

It seems an airtight explanation of everything that has occurred. Burt is convinced.

Back at the house, Michelle has a vision that Belline is burying her in the sand while trying to convince Michelle to help her. Again, the filmmakers use ambiguity and contradiction to keep the audience off guard. Why is Belline so threatening to Michelle when she is apparently trying to convince her to help? Surely the answers will come in the climax of the film.

As Michelle experiences her vision, in the real world she is in a trance. Lisa watches over her, but when the bearded spirit arrives she abandons her entranced daughter and leaves with him. Burt and Ann-Marie arrive to find Michelle unresponsive, her eyes glowing red.


Burt and Ann-Marie also abandon Michelle to search for Lisa. When they see a ghostly image of Michelle's face in the roaring fireplace, Burt tries to climb into the fireplace, even though he just saw his daughter upstairs. Ann-Marie discourages him from self-immolation.


Burt and Ann-Marie investigate the basement, which has become a fiery vision of hell with low ceilings and topless strangers sitting around.


Father Stratten had warned them that the devil would use illusions to break their faith. Burt reminds Annie that they are experiencing illusions, but she rushes into the flames and they are real, despite the priest's warning. 

Lisa and the bearded spirit are in another corner of the somewhat cramped basement. Lisa watches an image of herself in a nightgown confronting a mime.


The mime rips off her nightgown and they roll around in the fire. This causes the other, presumably real, Lisa to be ashamed of herself. 

Burt tries reasoning with the bearded spirit. "Can't you see they've tricked you? Even if she went with you, they wouldn't let you have her." 

This line of reasoning strikes a chord with the spirit. He silently bids farewell to Lisa and walks off into the flames. 

Burt rescues Lisa from the burning basement by grabbing her shoulders and saying "Come on" in a very scolding manner. 

In the film's coda, Burt and Michelle play frisbee in the surf while Lisa sunbathes.



Burt is glad it's all over, his tone suggesting that the events of the past few days were comparable to spending a few minutes on the phone taking care of an overcharge on his cable bill.

But is it over? The answer is no. Lisa pulls up her sunglasses to reveal her eyes are blinking red.




The genius of Demon Seed lies in its absolute commitment to simultaneously exploiting Lisa and empowering her. It works hard to convinces the viewer that there is no contradiction between presenting the plight of an isolated, frustrated woman and showing her nude at every opportunity. It is a triumph because of the conviction of the filmmakers but also because of Lana Wood's tour de force performance as Lisa. Her performance is the definition of "brave," the word film reviewers use exclusively to describe a woman's performance when she appears nude many, many times in one film. Her underacting to come across as distant and her overacting during all her encounters with the mysterious stranger balance each other perfectly to result in a praiseworthy performance that centers the film.

The audience can only give in to the convictions of the film and enjoy both the abject exploitation of Ms. Wood's body and the suggestion that she is a feminist symbol of empowerment because she eliminates her husband's power over her through her supernatural dalliance.

The surprises the film provides are icing on the proverbial cake. The introduction of the cat and its later disappearance, Belline's rather incompetent attempted seduction of Michelle, and the vision of hell described as illusory but physically very real all keep the viewer on his or her proverbial toes, not knowing what to expect next. In the end, the result is an exciting vision of the resilience of the proverbial human spirit...even though at the actual end of the film, it appears the forces of evil have, in fact, won.



Thursday, November 17, 2016

"Doesn't Go with the Decor" - Demon Seed (1982) - Part 2 of 3


This is Part 2 of our discussion of the supernatural chamber drama variously known as Demon Seed, Demon Rage, Dark Eyes, Fury of the Succubus, and Satan's Mistress. You can read Part 1 here.

Previously, we watched as sexually frustrated Lisa was repeatedly ravaged by an invisible spirit. Strange things are occurring in the isolated beach house shared by Lisa, her inattentive husband Burt, and their teenage daughter Michelle.


The filmmakers next show the mysteriously black cat prowling around the beach house. They skillfully set up a feature of the house that we have not yet seen--like many remote beach houses, this one is equipped with a guillotine with a shiny steel blade in a dark room, probably the basement. No doubt we will see this piece of household equipment again.

In the night, the spirit, now a man with a physical body, enters Lisa's new room from the outside deck, somewhat like Count Dracula though appearing more like General Zod.


He moves to Lisa to ravish her, and now that he has achieved physical form, she feels satisfaction. Despite the fact that he never disrobes, their lovemaking lasts for several minutes, during which we see someone who might or might not be Ann-Marie walking along the beach and listening to Lisa's moaning.

The next morning, Burt, the picture of masculinity in his blue and yellow striped shirt, sips his coffee on the deck while Lisa paints in her room.


Burt knocks on her door, suggesting they do some sailing. There is no response. "Lisa, honey, are you still asleep?" he asks.

"Yes," she replies from inside the room.

"What?" he asks loudly. But she doesn't reply again, so he gives up and leaves.

In her room, we see that the spirit in human form has returned, and he and Lisa make love again.

All great films need to follow the rule of Chekhov's gun, so we move to the basement, where a  ghostly woman in Victorian garb has found the guillotine.

Possibly to find the sailboat and go sailing along, Burt goes down to the basement with a flashlight. He finds several portraits of himself ("Handsome devil," he comments), along with the guillotine, a halberd, and a suit of armor. "Doesn't go with the decor," he says to himself, explaining why these items are in the basement and not in the living area. Burt flashes his light around and sees shoes on the floor. He walks closer to the suit of armor, which falls onto him--and the halberd falls over, nearly slicing his head off.

Forgetting about his near death experience, Burt drives into town to have lunch with Ann-Marie.


The audience is led to suspect Burt and Ann-Marie are having an affair, but in fact Burt is asking their friend for help in getting Lisa back. She asks what Lisa has been painting, and he says evil faces. He tells Ann-Marie that he almost got killed in the basement. She has a hunch about what might be wrong, but she needs to do some checking before she shares it with him. She wouldn't be a proper professional psychic if she jumped to conclusions without solid evidence.

Burt returns to the house with some flowers, but he hears Lisa moaning in her room. He knocks on the door. She puts on a robe and opens the door, explaining that he wanted to spend some romantic time with her, but apparently someone else beat him to it.



Surprisingly open about her supernatural affair, Lisa tells him something close to the truth. She was having a fantasy dream about someone tall and dark.


Burt, self-centered as he is, assumes she is referring to him. The two of them make love, and now the bearded spirit is forced to watch them. He does not appear happy about it, which triggers images of the laughing Victorian ghost-woman and an eyeball hovering over the crashing waves. The ghost woman calls the bearded spirit a fool, then disappears.

Some time later, Michelle is walking along the beach when she sees the Victorian woman sitting in the shade. Michelle asks her if she's new. The woman says, "You might say I've been around a long time." Michelle does not pick up the hint. The woman says her name is Belline, explaining that Belline was one of the angels that left heaven to side with Lucifer.

The next morning, Lisa offers to fix Michelle a complete breakfast with eggs and toast.

Clearly, sex with her husband has made Lisa a better homemaker.

Burt enters and the once again happy family is reunited. However, Michelle starts cutting a banana and slices her hand where the cat clawed her. Blood flows from the wound. Michelle insists she didn't cut herself. Blood continues pouring out. Lisa notices a mysterious wind. Then the blood stops and Burt observes there is no cut.

Burt takes Michelle to school, primarily in order to get her out of the house.

Alone, Lisa calls Ann-Marie and then walks out of the room, spooked by the wind whispering through the curtains and by the wind chimes, which initially heralded the appearance of the spirit. After she leaves the living room, a photo falls off a table. A moment passes, then the glass of the frame shatters.


The viewer would be forgiven for thinking that this is a photo of Jim Nabors and Jo Anne Worley, but it can only be Burt and Lisa earlier in their marriage.

Lisa sits in the hot tub on the deck when Ann-Marie arrives. The two of them converse in the hot tub. Lisa explains her fantasies of a stranger. Ann-Marie asks her to describe the stranger. As a professional psychic, a description is important for her diagnosis.

Suddenly, the hot tub bubbles and steams--more so than usual--and Burt helps the women get out before they are scalded.


The black cat looks down from above, always watching. How will the cat play into the complex plot?

The answer is it will not [spoiler]. This is the last time we will see the cat.


And so we come to the end of Part 2 of our discussion. Stay tuned for Part 3, when secrets will be revealed and a beloved character will perish.


Monday, November 14, 2016

"Our Direct Link to...the Supernatural" - Demon Seed (1982) - Part 1 of 3

We now turn our attention to 1982's Demon Seed, as it is titled on Amazon Video. This film is also known as Demon Rage, Dark Eyes, Fury of the Succubus, and Satan's Mistress. (The number of titles is further proof that the quality of a film is highly correlated with its number of alternate titles.) A sophisticated erotic ghost story, it is not to be confused with Donald Cammell's 1977 film Demon Seed, the cautionary tale of computer impregnation.

Unlike our last film, the epic The Visitor, Demon Seed is a finely crafted character study with a small cast and a single major location. In many cases, such films are heralded by critics, but as usual the critics of your universe fail to see the true vision behind this film. For example, on IMDB, ronevickers writes, "The reality is that this is a turgid, slow moving, load of nonsense!" On letterboxd, a reviewer named street writes, "It's definitely super boring but I have a soft spot for horror films that make me feel like I'm crazy or fell asleep and missed something important." The Bloody Pit of Horror says, "By any title, it sucks....a dreary, poorly made bore."

The film is anything but a turgid, slow moving, nonsensical, dreary, poorly made bore, as I hope to prove with the following description of its clearly superior qualities. As always, the description below includes spoilers.

The opening of the film shows a woman in a nightgown standing on a beach in the night. A dark figure looks down on her from the hills above. A man walks toward her. She runs from him, moving in slow motion through the surf. Desperately, she runs toward a beach house with a lighted window. When she reaches the house, a man steps into view, causing her to scream.

Then she wakes up, screaming. It was all a dream.

The woman's teenage daughter enters her bedroom, concerned because her mother keeps having nightmares and waking up screaming. Her mother Lisa, played by Lana Wood, says she will be all right.

Lisa goes to the deck of the beach house to watch her husband Burt, down on the beach, strip off his pajamas to reveal bathing trunks. Burt goes for a swim, leaving his PJs on the sand. This, we find out, is his morning ritual.

After his two-minute swim is done, Lisa tries to talk to him, then she starts to disrobe to try and seduce him, but he is late for work. Lisa is frustrated. They bought the beach house in part to reinvigorate their marital life.

After the main titles, a text paragraph informs us that "The story you are about to see is based on the unusual experiences of a Northern California woman. As passion and love, once the cornerstones of her marriage, eroded, this woman became desperately lonely. There is a growing belief that, in the world of psychic phenomena, the loneliness of a human being may be our direct link to.....the supernatural." This text is superimposed over a pair of eyes starting directly at us.

Lisa's sexual frustration is extremely high. She disrobes in front of a mirror and gets into bed. Wind chimes cause a purple, amorphous shape to manifest in the room and float toward her. An unseen force slides the blanket and sheets off the bed. Lisa is alarmed as the invisible force has its way with her.

The sun goes down.

That night, Burt and Lisa host a dinner party at the beach house. Their friends are Ann-Marie, played by Britt Ekland, and Carl, played by Don Galloway. Carl is an inveterate jokester, while Ann-Marie, a professional psychic, appears genuinely concerned about Lisa's psychological state.


Unexpectedly, a black cat crashes the dinner party. Its meows echo bizarrely. "Declaw the beast," jokes Carl. "We'll have him for dessert."

But Ann-Marie senses something about the cat is mysterious. They call Lisa's daughter Michelle to take the cat out, but the cat scratches Michelle and she starts bleeding profusely. The cat jumps up on the wet bar and strides away.

Later, while Lisa and Burt are in bed, Lisa wakes to see a ghostly face staring at her from the ceiling. She tries to cry out to wake Burt but she is mute. Then the face is gone.

In this sequence, Ms. Wood proves her skill as an actress. Her ability to wordlessly contort her face wildly in all manner of positions expresses her character's fear and confusion.


In the morning, Lisa and Burt are tense with each other. Michelle asks if anything is wrong, but her parents are uncommunicative. Michelle packs her lunch for the day while Lisa wipes down a jar of mayonnaise. As Michelle leaves the house, she sees a bust in the foyer with blood running out of its eye.


Seconds later, the bust is completely clean. Michelle, who already feels there is something wrong with the house, quickly leaves.

Later in the day, Lisa stands out on the deck and watches a man and woman playing in the waves. She addresses them as Dave and Cissy. Despite the fact that they appear to be approaching middle age, they are cutting classes and enjoying the beach. For no reason, Dave breaks into a frankly terrible impression that viewers familiar with 1970s television might recognize as one of Peter Falk as Columbo, though both the words and the voice are barely recognizable as such.


The "young" people retreat down the beach to find a quieter place to "study."

Strange things--even stranger than middle-aged teenagers doing Columbo impressions--continue to manifest in the house while Lisa is alone. A rocking chair in the dark rocks by itself. A man's face appears in the tiles as Lisa showers. The spirit again has its way with Lisa; again she moans and struggles.

When Burt returns home from his job as an architect of shopping centers, he can't find his wife, but he does find Michelle sitting by a roaring fire. Michelle tells her father that Lisa moved out of the bedroom and into the empty room because she needs time for herself.

Immediately after Burt leaves, Michelle looks into the fire and sees the ghostly eyes.


The film cuts to the empty room, now not so empty, as Lisa works on a portrait of the spirit with the eyes (and, it must be noted, the well-developed unibrow).



The portrait is haunting and even slightly disturbing, with the eyes painted ever so slightly closer together than might be dictated by the rules of realism.

Burt enters the room and sees that Lisa has filled it with art supplies. Burt is not particularly supportive. "Here's a woman who doesn't even have to work. Yet she needs time for herself, poor baby. Well, what about time for your family?" He is very upset to have come home to a daughter staring into a fireplace. He pushes over her haunting painting and storms out of the room.

In the hall, he pauses, perhaps reconsidering, but the audience sees the lock turning, accompanied by mysterious music. Burt turns and tries to open the door, but it is locked. When he pulls his hand away, it is covered with blood, but then in the next shot, the blood is gone.


And so we come to the end of Part 1 of our discussion of Demon Seed. Stay tuned for Part 2, where the mysteries will grow deeper.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Alternate Universe Movie: Sequel to Peeping Tom (1960)

As you may know, especially if you have read the text at the top of this blog, I hail from a universe that is much like yours, but with some significant differences. For example, I was shocked to learn that in your universe there was never a sequel to Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960)! In my universe, the sequel is rarely screened and difficult to obtain. Fortunately, I have viewed this legendary film, so I am able to describe it to those in your universe who are unaware of its place in cinematic history.


Background


Bride of Peeping Tom (1961) was written, produced, and directed by the noted auteur Edward D. Wood, Jr.


The story behind the production is shrouded in mystery, but I shall relate as much as I understand from my readings on the subject. The story begins in 1960, when Mr. Wood was completing production of The Sinister Urge, a film about, among other things, a formerly successful filmmaker reduced to providing pornography for a "smut ring" tied to organized crime. Some have interpreted this story as autobiographical, paralleling what might be perceived as the diminishment of Mr. Wood’s cinematic dreams. Some have also interpreted The Sinister Urge as a precursor of Mr. Wood’s own eventual fall into disrespect as a pornographic filmmaker.

It is not clear from viewing Mr. Wood’s sequel that the writer/director ever saw Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. It is probable that one of Mr. Wood’s friends—likely actor Conrad Brooks—saw the film when a cut version played in one theater in New York City in 1960 or 1961. The friend then related the gist of the plot to Mr. Wood.

It is almost definite that Peeping Tom’s British reviews were available during the filming of The Sinister Urge. These reviews excoriated the film and its creators in terms that might have been appealing in some way to Ed Wood. "The sickest and filthiest film I remember seeing,” said Isabel Quigley’s review in The Spectator. Leonard Mosley, in the Daily Express, wrote that the film promoted ”sadism, sex and the exploitation of human degradation.” In the Daily Worker, Nina Hibbing wrote, "from its slumbering, mildly salacious beginning to its appallingly masochistic and depraved climax, it is wholly evil.”

In addition to the potential for controversy (and financial return), many aspects of Mr. Powell’s film probably appealed to Mr. Wood. The protagonist, Mark Lewis, is given a motion picture camera by his father at a young age; when Mr. Wood was 11 years old, his own father gave him a movie camera. Mark Lewis works as a focus puller in the British film industry and moonlights as a photographer shooting sleazy pin-up pictures of women; Mr. Wood worked for a time at Universal Studios, and the subject matter of his films would gravitate toward prurient themes.

Applying Mr. Wood's logic, the subject matter of Peeping Tom, combining titillation and murder, in addition to the breathlessly scathing reviews, ensured that Peeping Tom would be a massive international hit, and that a sequel or spin-off would be highly profitable.

Mr. Wood began working on the script, recycling some elements of The Sinister Urge and his earlier films but structuring them around the story of the voyeuristic Mark Lewis. Meanwhile, producer Roy Reid attempted to secure sequel rights (or arrange some other, less overtly legal way to use the Peeping Tom title). Production began in early 1961 under the original title The Return of the Peeping Tom, with Mr. Wood directing a cast of his regular actors: Conrad Brooks, Duke Moore, Harvey B. Dunn, Jeannie Stevens, and a handful of others.

Plot


The story follows a young man calling himself Louis Marks (Conrad Brooks), who works in Hollywood as assistant cameraman for a movie studio. We are informed the studio is the biggest in Hollywood, though the studio lot appears to consist of one alley bordered by two-story white buildings. Louis is a model employee; the director of the movie he is currently working on--Judgement at Yucca Canyon--tells him that he wants to use Louis as cinematographer on his next movie. Louis has even met a nice girl, Doris (Jeannie Stevens), an actress playing a saloon dancing girl in the film.


Trouble begins to brew when a group of extras asks Louis to use his photographic skills to take "special movies" of their girlfriends. Louis declines, but when Doris is threatened with eviction, he agrees to work with the men to get the money to help her pay her rent. Of course, this photographic work leads to Louis's urges resurfacing when he sees his models undressing; later he is unable to stop himself from killing one model with a knife by the side of a lake.


Louis's relationship with Doris advances, and he also meets an older gentleman on set, Professor Peterson, played by Harvey B. Dunn. Professor Peterson is an expert movie camera technician as well as an amateur scientist. Louis strikes up a friendship with Professor Peterson, who shares with Louis a new invention he is working on, a special camera that is able to not only register its subject's emotions but also to amplify them. "My boy," the professor says, "we are standing on the edge of a new and glorious era in scientific achievement. The next step is control over human emotions themselves. Imagine such a world, a world in which inflamed passions cannot produce the damage they are capable of doing to us now."


In Woodian fashion, the main story is intercut with scenes of a detective, played by Duke Moore, tracking the murderer of the models into the glamorous world of the movie studios. The detective is a no-nonsense fellow, unaffected by the glitz of the movie world: "Don't try to sell me on your glamour and dreams. It's all made up. There's been a murder here and somebody's responsible. Let that sink into your skulls if you can."


Louis begins to suppress his murderous urges as his dates with Doris become more serious. He walks the streets at night and continues his murders of attractive young women, now stealing Professor Peterson's special camera and using it to intensify his victims' fear as he stalks them. The professor becomes a father figure to Louis, which is problematic given the young man's history with his own father.

The movie reaches its climax when Louis attempts to use the camera on Doris, but at the last minute he runs away from her, driving to the professor's house. Blaming the older man for intensifying Louis's own natural urges, he murders Professor Peterson. Seconds later, the detective and uniformed policemen arrive and take Louis into custody.

The final scene shows a jailhouse wedding between Louis and Doris, who now, somewhat implausibly, understands Louis better and accepts who he is. She promises to wait for him until they can face their blissful future together. "I don't know how long we have to wait," she says, "but I know someday justice will bring us together." The camera pulls back from the jail cell as Louis embraces his bride.

Reception


Like many of Ed Wood's films, this one was not commercially successful, though considering its almost certain infringement of international copyright law, a small loss of investment money should not be considered the worst possible outcome of the whole misadventure.

No contemporary reviews of the film are available; again, considering the reviews that met Peeping Tom, the lack of published attacks on this film and its creators is a more positive outcome than might have been expected.

There are many confusing aspects of Bride of Peeping Tom as a sequel to Mr. Powell's film, a few of which I shall enumerate here.

  1. The film refuses to address the fact that Mark Lewis clearly died in spectacular fashion at the end of Peeping Tom. If Louis Marks is indeed really Mark Lewis, which he admits directly in the film, then traditional filmgoing logic would dictate that an explanation is owed to the audience. That explanation is never provided.
  2. Further confusion is generated by the occasional references to Louis/Mark being British, and his use at one point of what might be considered a British accent, ignoring the original character's Austrian origin.
  3. It is unclear how the professor's special camera records and intensifies emotions. One shot shows the point of view of the camera, which looks like poor day-for-night photography, but how this corresponds to different emotions is left unspecified.
  4. In Peeping Tom, Mark's father is presented as cruelly causing his son's voyeuristic and murderous tendencies but in this film the father figure of the professor is wholly innocent and sympathetic. Although Louis is also viewed sympathetically in most scenes, and especially at the end, there appears to be no sensible reason for the commission of his crimes, unless the viewer connects the dots backward to the original film.
In summary, Bride of Peeping Tom is both forgettable and unforgettable, a love letter to one of the most cinematic horror movies of all time by a filmmaker blissfully unaware of most of the details of that very movie. Like many Ed Wood films, it distills the wonder of filmmaking down to its very essence, to the point of splendid, awe-inspiring meaninglessness.


[Please note that I am not an experienced Wood scholar; anything recognizably Woodian in this post comes from reading Ed Wood Wednesdays by Joe Blevins and Greg Dziawer on Dead 2 Rights.]

Thursday, November 10, 2016

"No One Can Hurt You Anymore" - The Visitor (1979) - Part 3 of 3


This is Part 3 of our discussion of the epic The Visitor. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

The evil cabal's plans for world domination hinge on psychic eight-year-old Katy Collins having a little brother. Her mother aims to thwart those plans by having her pregnancy taken care of by her ex-husband Sam Peckinpah. Will the forces of good, represented by John Huston and his band of mute skinheads in velour track suits, prevail?


Katy, meanwhile, is confronted by housekeeper Shelley Winters, who slaps Katy repeatedly and tells her she has her number. Katy finds out her mother has gone, so Katy runs through the streets of Atlanta. She reaches an abandoned inner city office building, where John Huston and his skinheads taunt her silently. 

When John Huston walks outside, he hides in a small hot dog stand. Katy, from the roof of the office building, uses her psychic powers to remove the bolts holding up the iron fire escape directly above the hot dog stand. The entire structure falls onto the hot dog stand, destroying it and everything inside.

However, Mr. Huston is not so easy to eliminate. He appears from behind the wreckage and allows Katy to follow him through a parking garage and into a darkened theater. When she enters, the lights come up to reveal a hall of mirrors.


Katy's reflections surround her. At first, Mr. Huston, like a vampire, casts no reflection. Later, he uses his reflections to confuse Katy, and he even fades into existence in one of the mirrors. Despite her psychic powers, Katy is no match for Mr. Huston.

Seemingly at the same time, Barbara is surprised when all the lights in the house go off. Squeaky the bird, much larger now than before, flaps its wings in her face repeatedly but causes no real damage. Barbara locks herself in a room. Squeaky flaps its wings against the outside of the door. From inside the room, Barbara watches the doorknob thump up and down, as if the bird is using the doorknob to try to enter. Then there is silence.

After a moment, the doorknob turns slowly. Barbara braces herself. The door flies open and Barbara screams at the top of her lungs.

Shelley Winters steps into the room. "I've been sent to protect you," she says. She holds up the dead bird. "No one can hurt you anymore."

As if on cue, Katy appears behind Barbara's wheelchair, yells out "Squeaky!" and pushes the chair with all her might around the house and toward a giant glass fishtank. 


Barbara smashes through the glass and into a shower of water.

Atop the skyscraper, Mr. Huston and Ms. Winters reveal they are working together. She asks him where he will take Katy. To his home, he says, a beautiful and peaceful place. She would like to go with him, but he says only the children may go. 

We next see Katy confined to a room, under observation by doctors and her mother, who appears none the worse for wear after her trip through the fishtank. The doctors say Katy will need extensive therapy.

Back on the skyscraper, Mr. Huston's friends finally arrive from outer space. In a clever visual echo of Katy's Pong game, they appear as lights projected onto the roof of the skyscraper, moving back and forth between the lit edges of the frame. Then they coalesce into a single light.


Back at her house, Barbara is surprised to hear the Pong game and to find Katy sitting in front of the projection TV, her back to Barbara. How has she gotten out of the hospital? Why is she playing Pong? She does not say, though she does ask her mother for a kiss.

When she turns around to face Barbara, however, Katy has become some kind of demon with spots of light bursting from her face. She leaps onto Barbara, strangles her, then throws her to the floor.


Unfortunately for her, Barbara falls onto a skateboard, allowing Katy to drag her more easily through the house. Katy drags her around the living room by her hair.


Katy finally drags her mother up the stairs, then kicks her down the stairs. Lance Henriksen appears upstairs, watching with approval. He ties piano wire around Barbara's throat, using the electric wheelchair lift on the stairs to strangle her. It seems the end is near for Barbara. She has survived a bullet in the spine, shattered fishtank glass, strangulation, pummeling, and falling down a staircase, but even Barbara cannot survive forever. 

On the skyscraper, the lights become a cloud, then a flock of blue birds. 


At Barbara's house, the reckoning has come. The house shakes. Wind blows. Bright lights shine through the windows. The forces of good shatter all the windows in the house. Thousands of doves arrive. One of them helpfully slices the piano wire strangling Barbara. 

The birds surround Katy, some of them flying upside-down and backward.


An artificial bird flies through the air to attack Lance Henriksen, its beak becoming a switchblade. It hovers in front of him, then plunges its beak into Mr. Henriksen's throat.

Mr. Huston steps inside to observe the carnage wreaked by the forces of good. He comforts Barbara as they watch her daughter being picked apart by the birds.

Elsewhere, Mel Ferrer and the cabal are all dead for unspecified reasons. Possibly, the butler did it.

The forces of evil vanquished, Mr. Huston returns to visit Blond Space Jesus and his flock of bald children. We see one of the bald children embrace Mr. Huston--it is Katy, who has been taken from Earth after all. He explains to Blond Space Jesus that he didn't kill her; he only killed the evil part.

A happy ending achieved, the film closes on Blond Space Jesus' beatific smile.




The Visitor is a brilliant culmination of the themes and concerns of the 1970s, expertly tied together into a single cinematic package with car chases, backboard explosions, ice skating, and bird attacks. Like Beyond Darkness, it synthesizes ideas from lesser movies, particularly The Omen, but addresses their weaknesses by adding more topical themes. In this case, The Omen and its sequels included sufficient amounts of mayhem caused by an unruly child, as well as shadowy conspiracies, but they were notably lacking deities from outer space and confrontations over 1970s video games. The Visitor fills these holes admirably to bring together two of the 1970s' greatest cultural contributions: fear of adolescent rebellion via religious panic, and gullible beliefs that the world will be saved by advanced, peaceful alien races.

Perhaps the interweaving of such resonant cultural themes should be credited to the film's producer, Ovidio Assonitis, the Greek/Egyptian movie mogul whose contributions to cinema history include other timely syntheses of the zeitgeist like Beyond the Door, Tentacles, and one of the movies titled Lambada. Assonitis  made a career out of making art out of concepts he saw were fashionable and commercial at the time. But the film would not be as effective without the eye of director Giulio Paradisi, whose quick cuts, zooms, and bright colors make even the simplest shot exciting and new. Together, Assonitis and Paradisi performed a great service for humanity, picking up the loose threads of inferior movies from the 1970s and weaving them together into an optimistic spiritual vision for the future of humanity that just might come true in some ideal future world. So long as John Huston's mysterious visitor can kidnap foul-mouthed children from our world and kill their evil parts by spiriting them away so they can live in bald harmony with Blond Space Jesus, maybe there is truly hope for us all.