Monday, August 8, 2016

The Nightmare Never Ends (1980) - Part 1 of 3

Your universe's cinematic prejudices are no match for the film you know variously as The Nightmare Never Ends, Cataclysm, and Satan's Supper (the movie so fine they named it three times). In my universe, Universe-Prime, this film was one of the biggest hits of 1980, front-runner for the Oscar, a star-studded film that is both a brilliant philosophical discussion and a terrifying thriller. And yet your universe's top critics fail to understand, as always, its subtle implications. For example, your celebrated critic FieCrier, writing on IMDB, says "The movie is terribly shot, terribly edited, terribly acted, and at the base of it all, terribly scripted." Sacrilege! Your primitive misconceptions must be corrected.

In case you haven't seen this high-water mark of philosophical cinema, I will describe the story in detail so you can get a sense of its intricate plotting. I can only hope to give you the smallest taste of the film's subtleties.

(Note: I will follow the conventions of your universe and announce up front that my synopsis contains spoilers, rather than taking the more sensible approach of marking spoilers after a plot point is revealed. After all, how is it a spoiler if, through advance warning, it spoils nothing?)

The film begins, as all great stories must, on a road trip to Vegas. James Hansen and his wife Claire are taking a vacation from two things. One of them is the stress of his career as a Nobel prize winning, best selling author. The other...

The other thing is patriotism. (Impressively, this is only the third line of dialogue in the film. The first line is a confused "What?" This masterpiece manages to establish an entire backstory about vacations and patriotism and whatnot, all in the first minute and twenty seconds. I would like to see movies along the lines of your Citizens Kane or your Reservoirs Dogs manage that.)

James Hansen is played by the estimable Charles Richard Moll, a few years before his triumphs in MetalStorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn and The Dungeonmaster. Here he is at the top of his craft, oozing nonchalance one moment and screaming impatiently the next. The only thing more impressive than the range of his acting is the range of his hair color, which creeps from jet black to gray to impressively two-toned from scene to scene.

In Las Vegas, the Hansens attend the performance of Cecil Howard, renowned British clairvoyant who has flown directly from London to perform his three-minute act that consists of choosing one couple from the audience--the Hansens, fortuitously--and asking the wife to close her eyes and describe what she sees. What she visualizes, perhaps predictably, is Nazis machine-gunning a six-piece female string orchestra to meet their assigned quota. (Subtly, the Nazis represents sinfulness as they smoke, stuff themselves at a banquet table, kiss each other on the mouth, and even wear unbuttoned shirts.) The acting is particularly evocative in this sequence; note the delicate emoting of the man in the middle of the shot reproduced below:

Truly, Cecil Howard's classic close-your-eyes-what-do-you-see act is the pinnacle of Vegas entertainment in the 1980s. After the three-minute performance is done, Mr. Howard retreats to his dressing room, where Claire visits him. The philosophical discussion begins. Claire needs the clairvoyant's help. He asks her to plainly describe her problem. In direct response, she talks about her husband's work. She asks if Mr. Howard believes in God and the devil.

Like most British ventriloquists-turned-clairvoyants, Mr. Howard has experience with demonic possession.

After Claire leaves the dressing room, Mr. Howard tries to clean his stubbornly smeared mirror, the room turns red, and he falls to the floor, dead. Claire rushes back to the murder scene to join the investigating team: a uniformed cop, four detectives in suits, a Texan in a bolo tie, and two showgirls. And his tiny dressing-room mirror. And the edges of the set.

The detectives are stymied, unwilling to accept this death as another mirror-cleaning incident gone horribly wrong.

In the best literary tradition, the film then moves on to the second of its parallel plots. In the city, an old man pats the top of his friendly TV set and stares at his wall of newspaper clippings of Nazis. Lots of Nazis. Apparently in your universe, World War II was quite well covered by the print media. The filmmakers expertly set the scene and provide us with all the necessary information. The old man loves his TV set. We know he is Jewish because there is a menorah sitting on his dresser. Under a photo with a swastika. The man, Weiss, switches the channel to a ballet, which is interrupted by an on-the-scene reporter asking David Cassidy how he likes the ballet. David Cassidy is played by Robert Bristol.

Mr. Weiss is not happy with David Cassidy's assessment of the ballet. He runs into the hallway of the apartment building to get his friend, police lieutenant Sterne. Sterne is played by the great Cameron Mitchell, only three years after his triumphant performance as Vance Kingsley in The Toolbox Murders. Mr. Weiss, it turns out, is a Nazi hunter, and he has identified the man he has searched for all his life--David Cassidy--a man who murdered Weiss's family in Germany 35 years ago.

Weiss and Sterne race to the ballet as Sterne explains they have no jurisdiction to arrest this man. They can only try to find out where he lives. After that they can arrest him.

I will close this portion of my description at this point. I pray I am doing even the smallest justice to the narrative. Next time, I shall pick up at the same point, with Lt. Sterne and Mr. Weiss racing to find and arrest the despicable David Cassidy. Until then, good day. Read Part 2 here.