Darling

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That Friday in July was just one of those nights. I was antsy, and I wanted to go out, but I delayed and delayed until chasing the night was pointless. At about midnight, I decided to watch a movie.

Netflix recommended something called Darling to me; Darling was one of the most well-received horror films of the year. “The Best Horror Film of 2016!!!” screamed multiple outlets.

It started off pretty well, with really stark black and white photography and the presence of Lauren Ashley Carter, a talented and striking actress who’s built a career out of being the horror film analog of, say, NBA player DeMarcus Cousins, a talented big man who puts up great stats on bad teams. Speaking as someone who’s sat through Jug Face and The Woman a couple times apiece, I can attest to her strength and grace as a performer. And like Cousins, who so readily elicits takes predicated on the notion that he’d be better served as the second option on a better team—because despite his immense talent, he’s never proven himself capable of dragging one of his sad collections of basketball misfits to the playoffs the way, say, a LeBron James has—, Carter fails to bring Darling off; she is committed and game, but it doesn’t matter, as the movie surrounding her is content to parrot Repulsion, but with Roman Polanski’s supreme control of atmosphere and tension and his sense of humor replaced by baffling and uncomfortable long takes and a self-seriousness determined to belie Carter’s miraculously effective, wide-eyed performance. I could imagine her in consultation with the director:

“Now, in this scene, you roll around on this small bed, screaming and crying, until I say cut.”

“…why?”

“Because it’s CREEPY.”

<Carter’s return smile is half-wince. She throws herself onto the bed, and begins yelling and weeping, grasping desperately at any small motivation she can, channeling the spirit of Margery Kempe, taking solace in the idea that there is some religious fervor in her pantomime madness. After five minutes of this, without hearing “cut,” she catches a glimpse of the director from the corner of her eye. He has contorted his body remarkably. His face is buried firmly in his crotch, and he is inhaling deeply.>

Midway through the film, I paused it, and I called my friend Lila, a talented writer whose sardonic wit and ability to appreciate my rants as they flit between apoplectic rage at the most minor deficiencies of the world and self-indulgent moaning about the most minor physical ailments has helped carry me through more than one depressing evening at home.

Lila listened—bemused, I’m sure—as I interrupted her assuredly more interesting evening to rattle off an increasingly unhinged list of grievances, ostensibly directed at the movie, but driven perhaps in part by a skin condition I’d developed over the waning summer months, something that seemed like prickly heat, the kind of thing that you scratch, and then don’t scratch, and then someone suggests that you soak your arms in cold water with powdered oatmeal and you listen because Gold Bond and Hydrocortisone haven’t worked, and it’s Friday at midnight, and the irritation is immense. My arms air-dried as I paced to and fro; the oatmeal clung to my skin in off-white streaks.

“Just turn the movie off, Manny. You don’t need to do this to yourself. You can go to bed. You can read. Darling isn’t worth it.”

“No, Lila. I can’t. It makes me too angry. If I stop now, I can’t effectively complain about it. I have to let it run its course. The movie is only 70 minutes long as it is, and I’m more than halfway through. I won’t let it beat me.”

“Boiling this down to some sort of nihilistic competition is insanity. There are no natural laws at work here. There is no course. It is all man’s creation. Just stop.”

“Enough! The rally is downtown, sister, not in this house. Take your bleating elsewhere!”

“The rally is within us all. And it is quieter than you realize.”

After we hung up, I listened carefully to the beating of my heart. It fluttered. Was my inability to shut off this thoroughly mediocre and over-hyped film school experiment a symptom of a larger problem? I sat, and I pressed play. I began to scratch one of the scaly lesions on my right arm. The oatmeal flaked away, and the flesh beneath was red and raw.

 

 

The Exorcist III (Shout Factory Blu-Ray)

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(I pitched this review to Slant Magazine, but never got a response—with the disc having been out for nearly two months at this point, I have my doubts that Slant will be picking it up, so I figure I’ll get it some air by posting it here.)

Beneath the shocking effects of the original Exorcist, there rests a simple story about the power of faith in our lives, and the means through which we confront evil. When William Peter Blatty—writer of the novel and screenplay upon which William Friedkin’s film is based—decided to take a crack at adapting his follow-up novel, Legion, for the screen, it was this aspect of the story that he chose to highlight. The novel is an examination of what Blatty calls “the problem of evil”—why it exists, what purpose it serves, how an ostensibly good and righteous God can allow it—wrapped up in the trappings of a supernatural murder mystery. It is quiet and contemplative where The Exorcist is abrasive and visceral.

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The film version, written and directed by Blatty and ultimately titled The Exorcist III, is, until its climax, similarly constructed. The Exorcist III is a film of ideas and dialogue, of men of various levels of faith wrestling with the often ugly realities of the world they inhabit. Lt. Bill Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb in the original film; George C. Scott here) is a Washington, D.C., police detective investigating a series of gruesome murders that bear a striking resemblance to killings committed fifteen years earlier by the since-executed Gemini Killer (Brad Dourif). Details indicate that the current spate of killings is not the work of a copycat. Kinderman’s investigation—and the trail of murders—leads him to a hospital where, in the mental ward, he discovers a patient who may very well be Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller, reprising his role from the original)—a patient who forces him to confront long-buried demons and reassess his own beliefs.

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Blatty handles this material with the confidence and sure hand of a seasoned director, despite having directed only one previous film (the Golden Globe–winning The Ninth Configuration in 1980). The Exorcist III is heavy on atmosphere and masterfully conveys a sense of dread—particularly during a justly famous scare scene that is shot almost entirely from one camera set-up in a hospital corridor. The performances are roundly excellent—especially those of Scott and Dourif, who bring life to exposition-heavy dialogue scenes that might have dragged in the hands of lesser actors. Also of note is Ed Flanders in the role of Father Dyer, whose friendship with Kinderman offers both a welcome source of levity in a film preoccupied with such serious concerns and an opportunity for Blatty to indulge in the sort of humorous writing that was his bread and butter early in his career (before The Exorcist cast him as a serious horror writer, Blatty wrote comic novels, and co-wrote A Shot in the Dark with Blake Edwards).

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Production company Morgan Creek was less enamored of Blatty’s quirky, quiet vision, and puzzled that a film entitled The Exorcist III (against Blatty’s wishes) did not contain an exorcism scene. Either Blatty was forced to shoot one himself, or one was shot without him (stories differ), but as a result, the climax is a special effects extravaganza that sits uncomfortably next to the remainder of the film. Nicol Williamson is hastily shoe-horned into the proceedings as Father Mourning, who heroically confronts the evil (as well as snakes, an exploding Bible, and some flesh-ripping) until Kinderman can arrive for an explosive, rain-drenched denouement.

Studio tinkering turned The Exorcist III into something it was never meant to be, but in spite of this, what remains—however flawed—is a thoughtful and creepy film that has achieved cult status and garnered its share of critical appreciation by relying on suspense, ideas, and creative direction.

IMAGE/SOUND:
Shout Factory’s Blu-ray is an upgrade from the previous Warner Bros edition of the film, but not a significant one. Flesh tones are warmer, and the contrast is stronger, but the transfer is darker, particularly in indoor scenes. On the audio end, Shout Factory offers both DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0 mixes, both of which provide great fidelity, though the surround track seems strangely focused on the front and center, only periodically dipping into the side and rear channels, which is disappointing for a film with such great and often hair-raising sound design.

EXTRAS:
Disc 1 of this Collector’s Edition Blu-ray of The Exorcist III includes a new 2K scan of the inter-positive of the theatrical edition, as well as a vintage featurette and interviews, TV spots, theatrical trailers, and deleted and alternate scenes. But the biggest news here is the long-awaited release of a Director’s Cut, included on Disc 2. According to Shout Factory:

We conducted an exhaustive search through a pallet of film assets from the original shoot to re-create William Peter Blatty’s intended vision. Unfortunately, that footage has been lost to time. To that end, we turned to VHS tapes of the film’s dailies to assemble the director’s cut. However, even some of that footage was incomplete, so scenes from the theatrical re-shoot were used to fill in the gaps. This director’s cut is a composite of varying footage quality from the best available sources.

Shout Factory has done a commendable job in its creation of this version of the film, and it is certainly a must-watch for fans, but the variable nature of the image quality has the unfortunate effect of hurting the atmosphere that is one of the film’s primary strengths. As a result, the Director’s Cut is more of an interesting curio than a revelation, though it is instructive to see how Blatty originally structured the film, particularly for those familiar with the novel, Legion; besides the alternate climax, some scenes are rearranged, and much of Brad Dourif’s performance (which was reshot for the theatrical version) has here been replaced with takes from the dailies. Also, in both versions, the final shot leaves the film somewhat open-ended, though in the Director’s Cut, the implications are much different.

A far-reaching interview with Blatty that touches on the production, his relationships with several of the actors, his thoughts on filmmaking and writing, and his faith can be played as a commentary over the Director’s Cut.

Additionally, Disc 2 includes a recent interview with Dourif in which he discusses the intricacies of his performance during the original shoot and his lingering discontent with the released version of the film (he essentially had to recreate his entire performance in a different location on very short notice), as well as his relationship with Blatty and his opinions on the various controversies surrounding the production.

A featurette about the reshoot relies on interviews with production manager Ronald Colby (who was brought into oversee the filming of the new climax) and editor Todd Ramsay, neither of whom was particularly impressed with Blatty’s original version of the film and whose commentary offers an interesting counterpoint to the mostly pro-Blatty slant of the other features (though much of their criticism of Blatty as a director indicates that neither is aware that he had previously directed a film).

Also of note is a featurette devoted to composer Barry DeVorzon’s chilling score.

OVERALL:
William Blatty’s The Exorcist III is a smart, scary, and atmospheric thriller that, despite its flaws, manages to step out of the long shadow of the original classic. The release of the Director’s Cut sheds long-awaited light on Blatty’s original intentions and highlights his oft-overlooked strength as a filmmaker.

Nova Express by Andre Perkowski

I have been absolutely, positively obsessed by these fragments lately, and I yearn to see the full version, should it ever show somewhere again. Mr. Perkowski, if you’re out there, watching, listening, reading, please tell me how I can see this all of a piece.

Perkowski seems an interesting cat—the king of repurposed footage. The stuff that he’s shot by himself leaves me cold, for the most part, but work like this, and his Silent Shadow of the Bat series, is absolutely brilliant.

La ballata di Hank McCain

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About a decade back, a friend of mine handed me a CD on the occasion of my birthday. “I burned it specifically for you,” he said, as he pressed it into my hand. Then he wrapped the crook of his elbow around the back of my neck, pulled me in for a quick, strong hug, and jumped into his car. I never saw him again.

On the face of the CD, in his inimitable scrawl, he’d written “Manny Birthday Mix.” But it wasn’t a mix at all. It was, in fact, the complete Ennio Morricone soundtrack to the film Machine Gun McCain, starring the great John Cassavetes as the titular Hank McCain.

For years, I’d play that soundtrack on my birthday; speakers turned to the maximum volume, I’d listen to “The Ballad of Hank McCain” as I made my morning eggs, bacon, and toast, before I’d even decided how I wanted to spend my special day. It became my own little tradition, one of those tiny bits of good cheer that many people don’t take the time to find.

It’s difficult sometimes to put into words the way a piece of music makes you feel, but “wistful” comes immediately to mind when I think of Morricone’s music for this sadly underrated film. I think the Italian film industry—in its ’60s, ’70s, and’80s form, anyway, choked as it was with innumerable rips from and riffs on popular American genre films—gets a bad rap, but there is a beauty in many of those films that lives on even after their American forebears slip into sad, concrete Iconography. Faces in the classic American crime pictures are etched into memory, the actors’ names carved into metal plaques that hang forever in the halls of the popular consciousness. But the faces in Italian genre pictures, even the American faces, the ones we recognize, slip into our headspaces and elicit surprise, and then slip away just as quickly, so that we’re left with vague recollections, the soft and hazy memories of a fugue state. Italian genre films are jazz pieces. The standard beats are there; nothing else can really be measured.

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It’s interesting to watch a film like Cassavetes’s Husbands and to follow it up with something like McCain, which also features Cassavetes and Falk. While you don’t think of McCain while watching Husbands, the reverse is not true. While McCain was released a year before Husbands, it manages to absorb the cultural capital of Cassavetes’s own film on subsequent viewings. More than simple period curios, these Italian genre films act like sponges floating in a stoppered basin, the years surrounding them engorging them with a level of pathos they might not have achieved on their own. They are anti-auteur in the extreme; instead of being the product of a unifying vision, they are inclusive and collaborative to the point of drawing from other films and associations, eternally unsatisfied with what’s in their own frames, reaching into your head for more. They are ambiguous and opaque and haunting even though you can practically set your watch to their plots.

My birthday was this past Friday. I woke up, I put on the soundtrack, I had breakfast. I felt reasonably content with my life. I watched Machine Gun McCain, and I realized how much I yearned for something to be missing.

 

 

What’s in the Box?

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Not even the great Kevin Hopgood could resist giant-ass guns in the ’90s.

The preponderance of superhero movies nowadays had touched even my sense of nostalgia, and so I cannot help but look back with fondness on my own comic-reading childhood, back in the early ’90s. I was always an Iron Man fan; Iron Man is hyper-popular now, but when I was reading, the big money was in the X-Men and Spider-Man; the other kids always looked at me, confused, when I brought up Iron Man. There were no Iron Man t-shirts, and there was only one Iron Man doll, which I could never find—at least until 1994’s short-lived Iron Man cartoon that lasted for two brief seasons, one absolutely terrible and the other pretty good (and with a Tony Stark with long, gorgeous locks and a rock-ass theme song). But Iron Man #250, from 1989, had been my first comic, and when—in the fourth grade—I was given the opportunity to actually subscribe to a comic book or magazine (I don’t recall, exactly, what the circumstances were, but as part of some…school program? Perhaps?…the whole class received a little booklet with a checklists of titles to subscribe to), I chose Iron Man without hesitation. Without much else in the way of outside influence, my fandom boiled down to me and the comics themselves, which, of course, has given me a smug sense of my own purity. If I were still reading today, I would certainly be an insufferable Iron Man hipster.

My first sustained exposure to the character came during the Len Kaminski run. Kaminski’s run has been lauded for its touches of “cyberpunk”; I’m not familiar enough with cyberpunk to really know if this is overstated, but I do know that Kaminski included scenes like this…

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…wherein Tony Stark codes his own nervous system (at the time, his own natural nervous system had been the victim of a techno-organic virus, the result of some particularly nasty corporate espionage…stuff like that was why I dug Iron Man).

Kaminski and artists Kevin Hopgood and later Tom Morgan (whom I actually preferred), brought Iron Man into the nascent tech realm. Those scenes in the movies where you get Robert Downey Jr’s face and the displays from inside his helmet? Likely influenced by Hopgood’s layouts during this run of issues. The Kaminski run also introduced War Machine.

I mention all of this as a preamble, mostly, because if there’s one thing I love almost as much as good art, it’s bad, bad, terrible art.

Like all good things, Kaminski’s great Iron Man run came to an end because of thoughtlessness and stupidity (and marketing, which in 90% of cases is a synonym). Marvel finally started paying some attention to Iron Man and the Avengers and decided that sales were low and stagnant and so, instead of actually putting some advertising muscle behind the quality work that was already there (at least in Iron Man’s case), the people in charge decided that a shake-up was needed. This didn’t start off…too badly. Kaminski remained on the main title, but in true ’90s fashion, Iron Man was saddled with a new, X-Treme team that was spun off into its own book, born of the “smoking ashes” of the west coast branch of the Avengers. The team was called “Force Works,” because the future of team names in the ’90s was short, imperative sentences.

Force Works started out okay. The concept wasn’t bad; essentially, Iron Man built a computer that could predict calamities and chaotic situations around the world, allowing the heroes time to arrive and exacerbate the problem, but he needed the Scarlet Witch’s ill-defined, plot-device-friendly powers as a catalyst, so he recruited her and made her the leader and then argued with her a lot. Some of this was in character (Stark was always stubborn and a bit arrogant) and some of it existed to promote the kind of soap operatic drama that helped the X-Books sell so well.

The biggest problem with Force Works was the art, which was uniformly terrible in a specifically ’90s sort of way:

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There was a lot of grimacing. And also hunching:

You can’t even see Iron Man’s face in that last shot, but you just know that he’s clenching the shit out of his teeth. All of these guys look like they’re trying to push their skulls through their faces, and there’s not even anything stressful happening in the story. These are all shots of them talking, without the presence of threats of any kind. In the center panel, Wonder Man (…) is joining the team after a stint as a heartthrob movie star, yet he looks like Clint Eastwood circa 2016.

Force Works meandered along for a while, but after a year or so, Marvel decided that the whole Avengers line of titles needed an even bigger shake up, which gave the world this:

 

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Remember Thor’s halter top days? Tony sure does.

Kaminski escaped before this whole mess happened, because one of the aims of The Crossing—besides making sure that The Avengers as a whole were Never the Same AGAIN—was to replace Tony Stark as Iron Man in the stupidest way possible, and Kaminski is a smart man with a fully developed sense of pride. Apparently, the idea of a company-owning hero with his feet planted firmly in the tech world, who’s brilliant but has some control issues, didn’t actually have legs, so Marvel decided that, to spice things up, they’d bring in a new, teenage Iron Man… who was actually a teen Tony Stark from an alternate timeline! To accomplish this, adult Tony Stark was revealed to have been either a sleeper agent for Kang the Conqueror or a bad guy all along (it’s never really clear, because issue by issue this seemed to change). The Avengers went back in time to get a Tony Stark from before he was “corrupted,” bringing the Teen Tony in to fight the Adult Tony. Because the Avengers are idiots, they don’t consider the fact that Teen Tony has no experience with any of Adult Tony’s weapons or armor, and so Teen Tony gets his ass handed to him and is nearly killed, but then Adult Tony is able to break free from his mind-control/decides he doesn’t want to be a badguy anymore and sacrifices himself to save everyone.

The Crossing is a giant, incoherent mess that would be mercifully written out of existence over the course of the following years. Its scope is enormous, but at no point was I ever sure why anyone was doing any of the things they were doing. Kang’s big plan is never adequately explained, and, again, it’s never really clear how much control Stark is under. Everyone’s motivations are mysterious, partially (probably) to build anticipation for future storylines, but also because—I’m guessing, based on the haphazard construction of this entire affair—none of the writers involved in this mess had any idea what those storylines would be.

Also, it’s filled with art like this, in which the sleek and practical modular armor design of the Kaminski/Hopgood/Morgan era gives way to Evil Face Rivets and the Onesie of Doom:

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And this:

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And whatever the hell is going on here:

Now, that Crossing cover further up? Pretty good art on it, yes? But that art was drawn in 2011-12 for the Omnibus edition of this thing, a handsomely mounted, strongly bound hardcover that collects the entire Crossing in one convenient book, which is like receiving a beautiful, bejeweled, 24-carat-gold box and then you open it and it’s filled with cockroaches. This is the end game of ’90s nostalgia.

I leave you with this:

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This is from 1993. The Crossing was 1995. It’s amazing how quickly things degrade.