Thursday, December 8, 2016

"Just Like a Coat or a Piece of Meat" - A Day of Judgment (1981) - Part 2 of 3

This is Part 2 of our discussion of 1981's A Day of Judgment, probably the most moralistic of the slasher films of that year. You can read Part 1 here.

Previously, we watched the townspeople of a small southern town in the 1920s as they committed various sins, to such an extent that the minister quit and left town, only to pass a dark scythe-wielding stranger pass him on the bridge.

The next day, the sheriff visits Mrs. Fitch. He says he will talk to their families and leaves, which does not satisfy her. Then her maid quits and the woman reacts in a manner that is both racist and dismissive.

In an inferior film, the travails of elderly Mrs. Fitch might be presented as a minor subplot, but A Day of Judgment is deeply concerned with the details of her relationships.

The sheriff finds the three children and their goat Doodles playing unsupervised beneath a waterfall.

He scolds them lightly and then gets into a detailed conversation with the children about Mrs. Fitch's life and history.

Meanwhile, we watch as Mrs. Fitch tries to call the sheriff again to warn him that the children are planning something.

The saga of Mrs. Fitch continues. At night, she peeks through the curtains suspiciously, frightened the children and Doodles will return--and they do! Twice! What terror will they unleash?

But Mrs. Fitch has apparently spread some type of poison on her flowers. Doodles dies--immediately--and the children throw rocks at the house. When Mrs. Fitch steps outside to yell at the children, the sheriff returns--also immediately--and now he scolds Mrs. Fitch for killing the pet goat, then he drives off.

The next morning, we follow George, the disrespectful gas station attendant. He asks the local lawyer how hard it would be to commit his parents to the county home. The lawyer says he will look into it, and that he himself had thought about committing his own parents. George whistles as he goes through his day until his flapper ex-girlfriend Missy confronts him, dropping hints about the matter of an unwanted pregnancy, for which George blames Missy.

Seconds before Missy storms off, the lawyer, whose name appears to be Greg Grigg, delivers papers to George so his parents can sign over their power of attorney to George. The lawyer says, "You can do whatever you like with whatever they have...If you have their signatures, you own all properties. As they have none, they go to the poor farm....The only other way is to put your parents--both of them--into the insane asylum."

George is conflicted. He can either have his parents sign, or he can commit them to the asylum without a signature. There is no third choice. Feeling regretful, he decides to trick his parents into signing over their power of attorney. "It's a new kind of tax form," George says. "It has to do with property."

"Ever since they set that new income tax upon us, just before the war..." his mother laments.

Once both parents have signed, George snatches the papers. "Freedom!" he cries. "Power of attorney! That's power enough to take me to New York...or California...or France!"

"What are you trying to do, George?" his father asks. "You think you're gonna become some kind of a Broadway Boy?"

After this Sorkinesque scene of conflict, we return to Mrs. Fitch, sitting in her house reading at night. She hears hoofbeats outside. "What in the world can that be? Imagine! Someone parked an old wagon in front of my house!" She investigates by peering through the curtains. Whatever she sees, it makes her cry out. Perhaps displaying poor judgment, she goes to the front door and steps outside. A scythe rises in the night. She screams. We see that it was not Mrs. Fitch who was attacked but her precious flowers.

Then we observe a sublime scene of horror as hands reach up out of the garden and pull Mrs. Fitch down into the soil.

Finally, for good measure, the garden catches fire.

The filmmakers next turn their attention to Mr. Sharpe, the surprisingly greedy banker. After berating his only teller, who complains about working on Sunday, Mr. Sharpe drives to a farm to check on one of his investments, apparently followed by an offscreen Dixieland band. The farmer, obviously an honest man as he sports a chin-beard, cannot repay his debt to Mr. Sharpe due to the blight, and also the grasshoppers.

Mr. Sharpe imparts to the farmer an important lesson when the farmer minimizes the importance of dollars. "I'm not worried about dollars. Back at the bank, I have ledger books. On every page there's a name, and beside every name there are figures, and those figures are DOLLARS, and they ARE important."

"I got hope and I got my hands, and I ain't got much else," replies the farmer.

Mr. Sharpe calls in the farmer's loan, giving him until noon tomorrow to pay his debt.

Mr. Sharpe whistles like a Broadway Boy as he drives to his next appointment.

Again, the film shines as it dives deep into the stories of these rich characters. The farmer, Morgan, asks for help from a wealthy plantation owner named Jess Hill, who promises to lend Morgan the money. He will have the necessary funds at the bank tomorrow before noon. But tomorrow comes, and Morgan tries to get his money at the bank from Mr. Sharpe, who has a surprise in store for the farmer. "If you knew the ways of the world, Mr. Morgan, you'd know that a man's word can be bought just like a coat or a piece of meat."

Morgan has had enough. He grabs Mr. Sharpe, but Sharpe pulls out a revolver and forces Morgan out of the bank, to the mild interest of the other bank patrons.

When night falls, Mr. Sharpe drives the sheriff out to Morgan's farm to evict the farmer. But Morgan is ready for them. He shatters one of the windows of his own house and points a shotgun at these morally reprehensible representatives of the law and financial institutions. The farmer fires a warning shot, but then he decides there is a way out. He will stay here with his memories. He disappears inside the house. There is a gunshot. Morgan has committed suicide.

That same night, Missy and Greg Grigg look for George at the Go-Mor gas station. They find him in a Renfield-like state, cowering in a corner, muttering something about a shadow. "It was a person," he says. "A person. Wings. A scythe. And smoke. Face."

There is nothing to do. They take George to the state insane asylum.

We shall end Part 2 of our discussion of A Day of Judgment here. Stay tuned for Part 3.