Sunday, June 01, 2008

It's been awhile. In my defense, I'd been holding off because I'd jotted down what I recall were some great notes on Hated, a documentary about G.G. Allin, but I'd since misplaced them and was determined to locate them before making my next posting. Unfortunately I think they're gone forever, so I'll just have to watch it again.

Movies watched, April 29 to May 4, 2008
(The gap between April 12, the latest date covered in my last post, and April 29 was mainly comprised of watching Twin Peaks, which I plan to write about once I've finished the series, not to mention the feature film, Fire Walk With Me.)

Black Christmas, Bob Clark, 1974

Nearly ten years before Bob Clark directed one of the most beloved—or at least most frequently watched—Christmas films of our time, A Christmas Story, he made another holiday film, one that’s not likely to be included in the usual seasonal TV programming.

One of the original slasher films (perhaps the original), and definitely the scariest film I’ve seen in recent memory, Black Christmas opens with a sorority holiday party, an ostensibly harmless event—until we realize we’re watching the girls through the front window, from the viewpoint of a stranger who is stalking their every move. In a camera technique utilized a few years later in the opening of Halloween, we then climb a trellis on the side of the house and into an unlocked attic window that no one ever thinks to check—even after the house’s residents are picked off one by one.

There are a number of factors that contribute to the horror: for one, the viewer knows very little about the killer. He reveals his name (“it’s me, Billy”), and he often refers to someone named Agnes. And that’s it—we never even see his face. One can imagine a Halloween-like scenario, wherein the escaped mental patient returns to his childhood home seeking his long lost sister (and, while he explicitly states that John Carpenter did not steal his idea, Clark claims that he'd envisioned a sequel to this movie—it was even to be called Halloween—that did exactly that).

Sound is also a significant aspect. The girls have been receiving frequent disturbing phone calls from Billy (perhaps the first instance of the whole “the calls are coming from inside the house!” urban legend—it precedes When a Stranger Calls by five years), in which he speaks in a variety of different voices, from a whimpering child, to a crying girl, to a reprimanding figure of authority. The distinctly separate voices are unnerving, especially when you realize it’s one person making all of them. One can attempt to piece together the events being ranted about: the little girl screams, “No, don’t Billy!”, the young boy moans about “the baby,” and the shrill, screeching adult shrieks “What your mother and I must know is, where did you put the baby? Where did you put Agnes, Billy?” From this we can surmise that as a child, Billy’s younger sister Agnes died while left in his care, either by accident or through some malicious act—why he’s returned, and what’s led to his extreme psychopathy, is another story, one we’ll never know*. Other auditory and visual factors include the subtly creepy soundtrack of strummed piano strings, and frequent use of ominous camera angles, often looking downstairs at the girls, as if from a voyeuristic viewpoint.

But perhaps what’s truly terrifying is the way that it challenges the viewer’s sense of security. One’s home is the place where one usually feels most comfortable, safe, and protected—but this film makes you question that, makes you wonder if your basement windows are actually locked, if there isn’t someone lurking down there in some dark corner, waiting for the right moment to come upstairs and stab you in the chest with your own glass unicorn figurine.

*A remake from a few years ago attempts to, like Rob Zombie’s recent Halloween does with Michael Myers, expand upon the characters of Billy and Agnes. I haven’t seen it, but I’ve read some detailed plot descriptions and it sounds ridiculous. As in the case of Halloween, the moral of the story is that less is more.

Straw Dogs, Sam Peckinpah, 1971

In this rather dark exploration of what happens when people are pushed to their limits, American mathematician David Sumner and his attractive British wife Amy move into a farm house in the English countryside. They experience some immediate hostility from the handymen who are working on the house, one of whom, Charlie, knows Amy from her younger days. They seem to have a bit of a history, which he reminds her of somewhat aggressively (“you were begging for it”)—she brushes him off, but perhaps not as repulsedly as one might expect.

It quickly becomes evident that David is far more interested in his work than in his wife. Before having sex he stops to check that the alarm clock is set, to ensure that he won’t oversleep and cut into his work. Another time Amy wanders into his office in a playful mood, and he sharply asks her to leave him alone with his equations. Their marital issues are heightened as they continue to face the harassment of their neighbors. When they find their missing cat strung up in a closet, Amy wants her husband to question the handymen, but he chickens out, which makes her even more furious.

One day the repairmen ask David to go hunting with them, which he seems to interpret as a feigned gesture of reconciliation—I have to say, I wouldn’t trust the guys who likely murdered my pet cat to take me out into the woods with guns—and, of course, this isn’t quite the case. Charlie shows up at the house, and Amy inexplicably invites him inside, insisting that he stay even when he offers to leave. When he comes onto her, she tries to fight him off, unsuccessfully. One gets the feeling that despite her motions of protest, she’s really enjoying it, that she only wants him to stop because she’s married and knows she’s not supposed to be enjoying it. But then Norman, another one of the repairmen, comes in and sodomizes her, which she certainly does not enjoy, particularly because this person she has albeit complicated feelings for has just allowed—perhaps arranged for—her to be violated. Oddly, her husband doesn’t notice any marks on her, which seems odd, and perhaps kind of unbelievable, but I suppose it’s consistent with the lack of concern for her that he’s displayed so far.

The mounting tensions ignite towards the end of the film, when the townspeople try to hunt down a mentally slow man who accidentally killed a young woman, a la Lenny from Of Mice and Men. David rescues the man and tries to shelter him inside his house, which, considering their feelings toward him, only serves to provoke the rage of the townspeople, who have become a lynch mob by this time. They start smashing windows, pounding on doors, trying to breach the Sumners’ home. David responds in kind, rather unexpectedly, as until this point he’s been kind of a pushover—which illustrates that everyone has a breaking point. His home is being invaded, and he is prepared to defend it to the death, his primal instincts emerging from his usually mild demeanor.

Boxcar Bertha, Martin Scorsese, 1972

For his first Hollywood film, Martin Scorsese was given $600,000 by legendary schlock producer Roger Corman and told to make an exploitation movie, no doubt to cash in on the success of the Oscar-nominated Bonnie and Clyde of a few years earlier. Loosely based on the autobiography of Bertha Thompson, who robbed the railways with her lover and his gang during the Great Depression, it certainly retains many hallmarks of the exploitation genre—plenty of sex and violence, as well as some offbeat humor—but manages to go beyond it as well. Picture a low-budget B-movie filtered through Scorsese’s albeit nascent directorial vision.

In Jim Sangster’s Scorsese, the director says that “I attempted to show the characters as people acting like children, playing with violence until they start getting killed—then they’re stuck in a real game, a life and death game.” This is effectively communicated—for instance, in Bertha’s childlike grin as she busts into a room full of rich people and announces, falteringly over a giddy laugh, “This is a stick-up!”, as she piles the women’s jewels and tiaras on like a little girl playing dress-up, and likewise in Bill’s pronouncements that “I’m not cut out for this” as things start to go amiss.

The film isn’t without its flaws, but one can detect many of the elements that Scorsese would develop and expand upon in later films. In the end, I’d have to agree with John Cassavetes, who, after seeing Boxcar Bertha, reportedly told Scorsese “You just spent a year of your life making shit!,” urging him to make a more personal film—he then went on to make Mean Streets, possibly one of his best.

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