Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Alone in a Darkened Room

The Devil Bat (1940)

Of course I love Dracula and White Zombie -- I'm not crazy -- but personally, my favorite Bela Lugosi mode is the totally schizophrenic. Like, say, Bowery at Midnight, in which his character is a psychology professor. Who runs a charitable soup kitchen on the side. AND is secretly a heartless underworld gang leader. He could give profitable time management seminars for psychopaths.

The Devil Bat is another fine entry in this delightful category. Here, Lugosi plays a kindly small-town doctor and cosmetics developer who performs "weird and terrifying experiments" with electricity and, apparently, hypnosis, to turn normal bats into giant, flying killing machines.

Yes, I said "cosmetics." Both an "experimental shaving lotion" and a "greaseless cold cream" are important elements of the plot. The town of Heathville is dominated by the Heath family's cosmetics empire, and inventor Dr. Carruther (Lugosi) has been driven murderously mad by the fortune they've made off his work. Logically, his response is to send test samples of his new shaving lotion to his enemies -- the scent of which drives the unleashed Devil Bat to attack.

Interestingly, Dr. Carruthers' resentment is completely hidden from his victims. They all think well of him, appreciate his work, and obviously want it to continue. If he'd just gotten a decent contract lawyer, a lot of unconvincingly photographed bloodshed could have been avoided. That would have been much less entertaining, and besides, it highlights the madness of the mad scientist in a way that's oddly realistic. He's eaten up with a seething sense of having been wronged, but it all seems to be mostly in his mind.

Some favorite moments:

-- A Chicago newspaperman and his comic-relief photographer come to cover the murder investigation, and, wanting to punch up the story, stage a photo with the help of a modified taxidermy model. It's no wonder that they temporarily fool people with it, since it really looks no fakier than the "real" bat does.

-- When a bottle of the sinister shaving lotion is found in the third victim's bathroom, it's sent to the lab for analysis. It contains a mysterious compound that the scientists can't identify. Once they find out that compound is a secret ingredient used in Tibetan mystical rites, the policeman and the reporter immediately rule it out as suspicious. Oh, sure, that explains everything!

(The reporter, by the way, is played by Dave O'Brien, who appeared inthe infamous Reefer Madness, as well as Bowery at Midnight and Lugosi's team-up with the East Side Kids, Spooks Run Wild).

-- Lugosi's character lounges at home with a skull on the table next to his telephone. And his killer creation is portable! He carries it around in the trunk of his car, and when he opens it up, whoosh! Out it flies, in search of the smell of shaving lotion!

It's hard to talk about a movie like this without the exclamation points. As the plot steamrollers toward its climax, the dialogue grows purpler, which is one of the best parts of these older, more theatrical horror films. For example, feeling condescended to, Dr. Carruthers tells his boss that "your brain is too feeble to conceive what I have accomplished in the realm of science." (Lugosi pronounces "realm" like "real" with an "m" at the end, not to rhyme with "elm"). This lapse into candor leads the other man to suspect his old friend may be behind "the most diabolical plot that a madman ever concocted!"

There are many different DVD editions of The Devil Bat out there. I'd steer clear of the Alpha Video one, since I've seen some pretty bad public-domain transfers from them. I'd also avoid any versions that come in sets of 100 films on 5 DVDs. The promoted "Bela Lugosi Presents" edition (the same people who did a very high-quality release of Bowery at Midnight) seems to be completely unavailable, and I'm not sure it was ever made, although there is, frustratingly, still a cover image on Amazon that implies it actually exists. I finally settled for the Roan Group double feature with The Corpse Vanishes, and I have no complaint about the DVD. I'd say that's about as good as we're likely to get, for the time being anyway.

A Spidery Zeitgeist

Turns out that my meditation on the joys of The Devil Bat was my 66th post on the local newspaper's blog site. Only 600 to go!

My household has, of course, been enjoying the dank and gloomy autumn weather we've had lately, and gone for several walks after dark, checking out the Halloween decorations and the general seasonal ambience. A few things we've noticed:

A lot of the displays seemed lower-tech than in recent years. There were fewer purple fiber-optic shapes glowing in people's windows, or elaborate light displays. I assume that's a response to worries about the electric bill, but it still seems to suit the season better. Some years, we've seen displays with so many strings of lights that they've ended up with an inappropriately Christmasy feel.

As a corollary to that, there seemed to be more real pumpkins: actual vegetables, and not the carvable foam ones. (No judgment is implied: we have both on our porch, with more of the "Funkins" than the real ones, because they're just easier to deal with. I totally understand why people use them). Still, it's nice to see real, hand-carved jack-o-lanterns, especially on the yards where they've been paired with honest-to-God shocks of corn.

We also saw a lot of hands reaching up out of lawns (plus one soft arm hanging out of the trunk of a car -- excellent!) and old-fashioned hanging ghosts, many the classic Kleenex-n-lollipop-sized, some larger, swaying in the damp wind.

And spiders, spiders, spiders everywhere! Cobwebbing is, of course, a staple of Halloween decorating, but the spider theme seemed more dominant than usual. There were large spiders in windows, hovering over porches, planted in the middle of front yards. I'm not sure why people should suddenly think to themselves, "That's it, spiders!" But whatever the reason, it warms my heart.

Halloween Retrospective

As I gear up for the Return of the Halloween Program, I've been trying vaguely to remember what I did for all the previous ones. A few are oddly hazy in my memory.

The most recent one is easy: As the Hearse Goes By. My decor was going for a Victorian mad scientist/anatomist vibe (I'm still proud of the heart-in-a-jar), my costume meant to evoke Victorian undertaker, and the piece I did was a selection from Dylan Thomas' The Doctor and the Devils. That's a book I acquired via flea market or rummage sale in late elementary school or early junior high, and long a favorite.

After that, I start losing track. But I'll try:

Night of the Ghouls. I used the zombie protection kit we ordered from )("Caution, fresh graves" police tape, and various mock biohazard signs), and possibly those hands that reach up from the floor, with leaves scattered over them). It seems that might have been my unsuccessful "Schalken the Painter" year, because it would fit the theme...That's one of my favorite stories, but I was recovering from a bad cold, and my head was still stuffed enough that I couldn't hear myself properly, so I felt like I had no inflection. I'm sure, though, that's the year I wore all the drapy bones to the dive bar afterwards.

Dark Carnival. That's the year I tried a costume contest, which was way too much work. My look was Vampire Magician's Assistant, and my honey was an evil clown, and afterwards we went to the anniversary party for the local small press, still in makeup, which I fondly remember. We built a small, purposely rundown circus tent...and maybe that's when I used those hands? I think I used an opening and closing piece from Something Wicked This Way Comes...

Thesaurus of Horror. My best title! One of my best fliers, and I'm sure it was the year my costume was Blood-Spattered Bride. (I popped out into the library before the program and startled someone: I'd forgotten my shirt was covered in stage blood). The ambience was more overtly gothy; that's when I made the photocopies of old tombsones and backed them with cardboard, for a portable graveyard. But I don't remember reading anything, other than a few poems.

Spookerama. The decorations were fairly minimal (blow-up photocopies of B-movie posters), but a lot of other things were elaborate. We made a loop of vintage spook show radio ads that I played in the lobby beforehand; I made individual treat bags to give away; and I had an actual assistance. She handed out "Spookerama" tickets as people came in, and, in my best entrance ever, I was wheeled in on a steel table, covered with a sheet, from whence I rose from the dead. That was a big hit. I believe I read from something I'd written myself.

Phantasmagoria. The first year, the decorations were pretty simple, and I read Poe's "Berenice." At the end, I threw little "teeth" into the audience. Ahh, I remember that fondly.

I think I'm completely forgetting a year. Maybe the individual treat bags were another year, and the Spookerama was the year with the eyeball cupcakes? I thought I did a theme of "kids' Halloween for grown-ups," with lots of old-fashioned plastic pumpkins, black/orange festoons, vintage look black cats and skeletons. But what was it called? What did I read? The piece I wrote myself would fit that better, so maybe I read something else for the Spookerama? I can't tell if I'm conflating two memories into one, or separating one into two.

Maybe I should start keeping, I don't know, some kind of records.

At least all my Mummy Shroud stuff is really coming along.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

"Jai Dharmendra"

That's the last line of Guddi (and the guy who says it even folds his hands as if in prayer, very funny). And yes, he means Dharmendra, who stars as himself in this occasionally preachy but mostly adorable romance about a starstruck teenager.

The future little Jaya Bachchan plays Kusum (Guddi to her friends and family). She's mischievous, but good-hearted, and loves films more than pretty much anything. While her friends swoon over Jeetendra (understandable, despite his Elvis hairdos) and Rajesh Khanna, Guddi's crush is on Dharmendra, and it exacerbates when he comes to town to shoot a movie, giving her an autograph and admitting he used to skip school too.

When she turns down an eligible marriage proposal because she loves someone else, but can't marry him either because "he's already married," hindsight can't help MST3K'ing in one's ear that it didn't stop Hema. Especially when Guddi says she doesn't grudge Dharmenji's first wife, who she thinks of like a sister. Eee, Big Love!

Since this is a large chunk of the team that will bring us Chupke Chupke, it will probably not surprise anyone that Jaya's "uncle" tracks down Dharmenji and talks him into showing Guddi the real life behind the scenes (boredom, exploiting the poor, people getting hurt doing stunts) and helping to make her suitor look more heroic than the characters in the movie world.

Om Prakash ("Gosh!"), Ashok Kumar, and Rajesh Khanna also play themselves. The most delightful cameo is by Pran, who gives Dharmendra a nice watch, causing Guddi to say "he never does anything without an intent!" They reassure her that, despite playing villains, Pran is "always doing good."

The film-in-a-film heroine is played by Vimi, about whom all the IMDB has to say is "Her death is still considered a mystery today." Which is, in fact, quite mysterious.

An interesting aspect of the movie, besides all the filmi stuff, is that the "real-life" romance is between Guddi and her sister-in-law's brother. The two have a clear rapport from the beginning, and probably are at the point where they're starting to "like" each other. Without their family trying to fix them up, the suitor would probably have never said anything (he's unduly reticent throughout, and seems to be in the shy guy loop of not wanting to declare his feelings, since he doesn't know how she feels about him). But because their family is trying to fix them up, it brings an awkwardness to their previously warm relationship.

Overall, it's a pretty realistic picture of the uncomfortable point where friends are becoming something more, or might be, or one of them thinks they might be, or the people they know think they should be. Boy, if that doesn't sound like college!

Friday, October 17, 2008

I Know What You Did Last Decade

For a while there, screenwriter Kevin Williamson could do no wrong. He'd infused fresh blood into the languishing teen slasher genre, and inflicted Dawson's Creek upon the world. He wrote a bunch of movies, directed one, and eventually dwindled to "hey, whatever happened to that guy?" status. Recently, he wrote the screenplay for that Christina Ricci werewolf movie, and has done a few more television series that were cancelled quickly, but have cult followings. A lot of people do worse.

In an anniversary celebration ten years after the 90s horror heyday, hearkening back to our courtship, the Octoberzine family watched a double feature of Scream 2 (1997) and Halloween: 20 Years Later (1998). I don't feel compelled to say much about the plots of either, because, well, they're horror movie sequels. Crazy people in masks are trying to kill our protagonists. Let's move on. 

Scream 2 was, of course, the direct follow-up to 1996's enormously successful Scream, which had inspired a whole slew of slasher knockoffs, full of pretty teenagers and self-referential dialogue. Titles like The Faculty, Disturbing Behavior, and Urban Legend come to mind, but I don't remember much about the movies themselves, except that everyone had very nice hair. Unfortunately, Scream's own sequel pretty much fits that same mold, especially when Neve Campbell turns up with a chic new haircut and a glossier, more fashion-conscious look.

While I warmed to her right away in Scream, I never felt like Campbell really hits her stride in this movie until she starts kicking ass ("You got a Linda Hamilton thing going.") Until then, she's oddly passive, like she and the movie are just marking time until the Final Girl scene. So let's get there, people!

 Jamie Kennedy is the best thing about this movie, especially when mocking the killer for copycatting such losers as the villains of the previous movies ("rat-looking homo-repressed mama's boy"). Of course, one of the film's problems is that he's right. In avoiding the kind of off-hand disrespect with which horror sequels so often treat their source material, the Scream sequels spend way too much time on the relationships between the surviving characters, and continually referring back to the first movie. Scream was a relatively original horror thriller enlivened with witty dialogue, but it's not some kind of slasher epic. The teen characters certainly didn't have enough weight for us to remember all the details of their lives and their killing sprees.

It also doesn't help that Williamson's scripts for Scream 2 and the same year's I Know What You Did Last Summer both feature scenes with their heroines trapped in the back seat of a police car, which made me suspect early on that the wunderkind was already running out ideas.

In comparison, H20 (as we all know it) is compact and efficient (at only 86 minutes, versus a hundred and freakin' twenty), which I greatly appreciate. It takes some time in the beginning setting up the characters and Jamie Lee Curtis' fragile mental state, but once the killer appears on the scene, it's pretty much go-go-go.

On this film, Williamson was credited as a co-producer, and had done a script "treatment" that wasn't directly followed, but supposedly influenced the production a great deal. Also, of course, Dawson's Creek star Michelle Williams is onhand, playing Josh Hartnett's girlfriend with real warmth and personality. I've always blamed this movie for inflicting Hartnett on us, in his "introducing" credit, but actually, he's not that bad here. Former child actor Adam Hann-Byrd and Prison Break's Jodi Lyn O'Keefe are also fairly vivid, especially given their roles as sidekicks/victims. Don't even bother comparing them to the teenagers in Halloweens 4-6, just to name a few.

I actually guiltily enjoy the Busta Rhymes Halloween: Resurrection (2002), as a no-frills slasher throwback, but it is disappointing in that H20 far and away provides the most satisfying climax to the franchise. When Curtis' traumatized Laurie Strode finally takes charge of her life by striding over to the fire ax, smashing the glass, and going after the Shape with it, it's the best scene in any of the Halloween sequels.

It is, of course, always great to see Nancy Stephens again (the nurse with the Rabbit in Red matchbook in the first movie, and also the manifesto-reading hijacker in Escape from New York. By the way, that latter role is credited as "Stewardess." I guess that's how she got on the plane, but it still seem incongruous).

Williamson's cache is probably what got H20 off the ground, and since it's the best of the sequels (faint praise, maybe, but true), that's definitely a positive. But while Scream was a worthy addition to the scary movie canon, the sequel immediately showed the signs of taking itself too seriously. Sequels in general are a brutal business...which reminds me, gotta check the status of those Phantasm follow-ups that weren't on DVD last time I looked...

(P.S. Phantasm IV: Oblivion did finally come out on DVD this summer, leaving Phantasm 2 as the lone hold-out, still unavailable in a Region I DVD).

Friday, October 10, 2008

It's a god-awful small affair the girl with the mousy hair...

Hey, that's me!

I watched the first episode of the American Life on Mars last night, and thought it was pretty good, for a television show. Aesthetically, I definitely prefer 1973 to 2008, although, yes, we've come a long way vis-a-vis feminism, etc. I was underwhelmed, though, with the actor who's the main character. He seemed a little too bland for my taste. I wanted someone in the role with more ... flair. Maybe like the guy who played the Master on Doctor Who?


Monday, October 6, 2008

In with the Out Crowd

I've been coming across various notes for various projects that have never been finished, including book I was going to write on teen movies (mostly horror, but not enirely). Here's some random fragments (and, ah, the mid-90s! I'd almost completely forgotten Courtney Love!):

"I Didn't Ask to Be Born: Initiation and Coming of Age films"

As in the old line about how recent converts are always the most fanatical, teenagers who are new to the lessons of socialization are often harsher on social transgressions than most adults. Adults have already internalized their places in society (dress codes, etc.), and can assume that these issues are all settled, except for their pet peeve nonconformities.

"I'm Sick of Waiting for the World to End: Punk Cinema"

What I had years ago that my teenage nephew doesn't have today was the luxury of believing myself to exist in a world that could be made separate from maintream culture. That's a big difference between punk and grunge. When I was young, MTV was a new phenomenon, mainly functioning to sell frothy, light-hearted pop music of the Cyndi Lauper/Duran Duran variety. It had not yet gotten into the business of promoting supposedly "underground" music and styles, and selling them in the same way.

Of course, my generation had been commodified long before MTV came along. We never knew a time without Saturday morning cereal commercials, just for one obvious example. I wasn't cognizant of being part of generational marketing until I crossed demographic categories, seeing ads aimed at people only a few years, but significant ones, younger than me. Today, however, the knowledge of one's self as part of a demographic category is almost inescapable.

...Whenever a square peg is forced into a round hole, it's going to be angry about it.

Recently, I saw a segment of the Jenny Jones talk show in which they did makeovers on punk kids and vampire dressers. I still find this offensive. It's not as if weirdos don't know how normal people dress, and aren't surrounded by the normal clothes and trappings of so-called normal life every time they leave the house. They could dress like normal people any time they want to.

"In with the Out Crowd"

It's the "In" crowd who rejects its chosen outcasts in the first place, not the "Out" crowd initially rejecting them. In time, as the groups solidify, the "Outs" may become as elitist and exclusionary to the "In" crowd as the "In" crowd was to them, becoming in effect a rival "In" crowd, with hipster points gained by their exclusion from more mainstream society.

Courtney Love's public personas and her stated admiration for The Breakfast Club illustrate the perennial question of why people take part in subcultures and act out artistic "individuality" only to conform later to the standards of the cult of mainstream culture. Is it because they'd be the Molly Ringwald character in the first place if they could be, but they think they're too ugly, too por, however disadvantaged, and so they become Ally Sheedys instead? A lot of people in the mainstream seem to think this is true, that all alternatives to a narrowly-defined normalcy are motivated by sour grapes, and that no one would "be themselves" if they didn't have to.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Chicks Dig Giant Robots?

This morning MySpace was advertising for the latest Saw movie, with the tagline "You won't believe how it ends." I don't believe it will end. I am, after all, a veteran of the Friday the 13th ad campaigns. Even if they do conclude the franchise, there'll be a Saw: the TV Series on the horizon, or a "re-imagining" in ten years, if they think there's money to be made.

Last night I watched Transformers, and for a while there I thought it was the only Michael Bay shoot-em-up I've ever seen. Only when I fact-checked did I remember that The Island even existed. And that was with Ewan! Eye of the Beholder and Nightwatch were more memorable. Anyway, the two best parts of Transformers were: the subplot about how the communications were down, and they saved the day with (what else? It's Zeitgeist City around here!) a shortwave radio.

Then my clear favorite was when the Camaro revealed itself as the enormous battle robot it is, and fought the bad robot, and then Shia and the chick got back into the remorphed Camaro, which drove itself for a crazy car chase. The whole time, the girl was screaming my own automotive mantra: "We're gonna die! We're gonna die! We're gonna die!" LOL with a Z on top.

As it was wrapping up, my honey came home with the just-released 2-disc Iron Man DVD, just to put battle robot movies into perspective.