Monday, September 24, 2018

"Why Are Your Paintings So Grotesque?" - Scream Baby Scream (1969)

It is now my pleasure to talk about a relatively obscure film, Scream Baby Scream (1969), written by the brilliant Larry Cohen. As a film that features a mad artist and a mad surgeon, this film could not help but be a classic.

As usual with undiscovered classics, many critics from your universe are incapable of seeing the quality of this film. Reviewer chanvat writes, "This film is absolutely not scary. To even call this horror or a 'thriller' is laughable." Reviewer tromafreak writes, "Scream Baby Scream very well may be the worst in Florida horror/gore of its era, but, I suppose, underneath the unlikeable characters, and the incoherent plot, lies potential." Reviewer cameraslave43 writes, "Uuuugh this is an ugly movie. The ultimate bargain basement thriller."

It is time to explore Scream Baby Scream in more detail. Please read on...

The film begins, like most classics, with a man running for his life through a forest to the beat of bongo drums. After the credit sequence, which shows freeze-frames of the man in various running positions, the man continues running—until he is struck by a car.

The running man, Jason, who bears some resemblance to Albert Brooks, is still alive, so he is taken to a hospital. He tells his life story to the surgeon, which dissolves into a flashback. “Two weeks,” the man says in voice-over. “Was it only two weeks when this began?”

Jason is in an art class, sketching a nude woman along with the other art students. When the session ends, Jason brushes off the nude model to spend time with Janet, another student.

Later, the artist’s model is in a dressing room. She hears someone walking along a sidewalk, because the dressing room appears to be half-outside and the sidewalk leads directly into the room. She is startled by a man with a grotesque expression on his face. She screams!

Meanwhile, Jason and Janet discuss their relationship. He wants to move in with her. In a clever display of writer Larry Cohen’s classic way with dialogue, he says, “We can be living proof that two can live as cheap as one.”

“Dead proof,” she says, “if my parents come into town for a little visit.”

The next day, the art class receives a guest lecture from artist Charles Butler. Jason says, “Charles Butler, the master of the macabre. Well, I certainly hope he doesn’t look like one of his paintings.”

Jason and Janet flip through some of Mr. Butler’s works, including a dark portrait of a clown. Macabre indeed!

Mr. Butler himself interrupts them with a Shakespeare quote. Like most famous artists, particularly masters of the macabre, he wears a nice business suit with a tasteful tie.

“Why are your paintings so grotesque?” Jason asks.

“Grotesque? No man can dictate to another where he must find his beauty. Each man must find his own truth and create according to that truth as best he can. I have found mine and it is reflected in my work.”

Mr. Butler takes an interest in Janet, sparking jealousy in Jason, who fails to appreciate Butler’s artwork. About Mr. Butler, Jason says, “Maybe he can paint me into a corner, but he doesn’t compete with me. Not for you.” Of course, she finds this charming and gives him a long kiss.

Jason’s friends all want to take an acid trip, but Jason demurs. Janet says she’ll twist his arm.

Later, Jason, who is now looking less like Albert Brooks and more like a cross between Charles Fleischer and Jesse Eisenberg, tells Janet she should concentrate more on giving him attention than on her artwork. “I’ll give you all the anatomy lessons you need,” he says.

After they make love, a zombie face appears at the window, but it disappears. “I must be going out of my head,” Janet says.

The next day, Jason and Janet and their two friends take LSD for the first time in a coffee house. The four of them ride motorcycles through Florida while undergoing a psychedelic trip represented by double exposures, feeding a baby elephant, and playing inside a monkey cage. Jason and Janet end up dancing and playing guitar. Janet says she wishes the trip would never end.

Jason replies, “Too bad we have to be stoned to feel like that.” Then he jokingly imitates a German psychoanalyst before kissing her.

Shockingly, the zombie man appears again, now in broad daylight.

Janet screams and runs to find Jason, but he finds only an un-zombie-like gardener cutting flowers. The others believe Janet had a bad trip.

Later, Janet works on her art until she is interrupted by Charles Butler, who has painted an unflattering portrait of her. “I can’t help being attracted by it,” she says.

“It was done for you,” says Butler, “yet I will always possess it, in my own way.” He explains the philosophy of the film: “Yesterday’s nightmare is today’s dream. And tomorrow’s reality.”

Mr. Butler continues with the philosophizing: “If you go beyond imagination and create an entirely new world, the one you have left becomes far less real than the one you have found. Even if you have to build that new world yourself.”

Like many classic films, Scream Baby Scream has a musical interlude in the middle filled with a psychedelic music number. The show also includes a comedian pretending to be a caveman who strangles his cat (again, like many classic films).

Janet and Jason have a fight. “This time you went too far,” she says after he punches their friend. She walks away so Jason nearly cheats on her with their other friend—at the same time as Janet walks along a windy beach in a white feather boa holding a cat and flirting with their male friend. After the cat runs away, Janet is again attacked by the zombie man, and this time he abducts her and kills her friend.

Jason searches for Janet, but she is gone.

We eventually find out that Charles Butler, the artist, is responsible for Janet’s disappearance. He narrates a flashback of his origin story—why he paints grotesque images. “It started with my hands,” he says. “They began to lose something. They didn’t move the way they should. Not only the muscles, but the skin seemed to go bad.” He went to a doctor named Garrison who said he could help. “He didn’t look much like a genius. He was witty, friendly...and I showed him my hands.”

Mr. Butler must spend a few weeks at the doctor’s house, which he locates by walking through a swamp. The doctor also lives with his wife, Laura. Mr. Butler immediately falls in love with Laura and follows her around the swamp, while the doctor secretly watches them.

The doctor begins surgery on Mr. Butler. “When you wake up,” he says, “there will be some pain and some bandages. Don’t be alarmed.”

Although the problem is with his hands, the bandages wrap Mr. Butler’s face. “Doctor, I want to see my face.”

“There’s a mirror over there on the wall,” the doctor responds.

Mr. Butler looks in the mirror and sees a scar on his face. He screams, as does Laura when she walks into the room.

It seems the doctor scarred the artist’s face to punish him for walking around the swamp with Laura.

For some reason, Mr. Butler and Dr. Garrison remain living together as an odd couple in the doctor’s house after Laura runs out screaming. The doctor then becomes obsessed, for no apparent reason, with restoring Mr. Butler’s face. Mr. Butler also begins painting again (in fast-motion), and now his subject matter is more grotesque.

Mr. Butler stops telling his story to Janet, and we return from the flashback to see Janet’s face has become grotesque like one of his paintings.

“I know that you’re suffering, but you’ll see, you’ll have love and a place in our world.” Mr. Butler believes he is creating a new world, presumably through the combination of oil painting and plastic surgery.

Jason finds the doctor’s house. Both the doctor and Mr. Butler try to get rid of Jason, but he is persistent. He (slowly) breaks into the house, though Mr. Butler discovers him sneaking around. He finally finds Janet, who tells him to leave. He sees her face. “I’m sculpted like clay!” she says.

Horrified, Jason runs away, but one of the zombie men chloroforms him and Mr. Butler straps him down for surgery.

Later, Janet and Jason are alone. “Do you still want me?” Janet asks.

Jason changes the subject.

Janet lets him go. While attempting to escape the house, he fights some zombie men. Then he hits Mr. Butler with a vase, disfiguring the artist slightly.

Jason runs away, and we are brought back to the title sequence.

In the finale, Jason escapes from the hospital where he was taken after he was hit by the car. He returns to the doctor’s house without telling anybody about the strange goings-on.

I will not reveal the surprise ending, but suffice it to say there is no simple happy ending.

Sometimes, classics are made from combinations of elements that make other movies classics. Such is the case with Scream Baby Scream. There are many great films that feature insane surgeons, and there are many great films that feature insane artists. The story of Scream Baby Scream is predicated on the idea that great insane artists need great insane surgeons to survive. In the end, the insane artist literally creates his own world through mad science and plastic surgery, turning his models into the grotesque canvases he paints.

In the filmography of Mr. Larry Cohen, Scream Baby Scream comes after his television work and before his blaxploitation and monster-movie work. Perhaps it could be considered a transitional work, as Mr. Cohen was bursting the shackles of TV censorship, but not yet in control of his formidable screenwriting powers, as he would be when he directed his own scripts. Scream Baby Scream may not be a recognized classic like many of Mr. Cohen's later films, but it showcases his energy and his bold ideas, and it does so using little known Florida, of all places.

In the end, Scream Baby Scream is one of the finest mad artist meets mad surgeon films written by Larry Cohen of all time.