Stereo (1969, David Cronenberg)

“As an aphrodisiast, Dr. Stringfellow proposes the use of synthetic aphrodisiac drugs to assist those who wish to attain a fully three-dimensional sexuality.”

I rented this on VHS from Movies Worth Seeing (RIP) back in 2000-2002, watched and hated it. Now it’s in lovely high-def on my Scanners blu-ray, and I am older and more tolerant, so time to give it another shot. And I still hate it, but the visuals are extremely sharp and it has interesting resonance with Scanners.

The story, or perhaps the backstory, is told via narrator, with total silence at all other times (so no sync sound on the action). Eight subjects underwent brain surgery to extend the natural electrochemical network of the human brain to provide telepathic capabilities. So far so Scanners, but there’s more. The psychics are said to have strange reactions when in the same room as each other, and one “pierced his skull with an electric drill, an act of considerable symbolic significance.”

It’s set at a sanatorium in the woods, which I admit is wonderfully well photographed, as are the actors. The guy who we’ll call the star wears a cape with a giant amulet and carries a cane. I wish I could get away with this look, but I can’t – and neither can he. He appears at all times to be a pretentious film student, which would sink the movie if it didn’t sink itself in other ways, by being dull at all times, by depriving us of sound except for the posh intellectual narration, by having the psychics suck on pacifiers. He even uses slow-mo at times, as if the movie wasn’t already slow enough. In recent interviews, Cronenberg says it works better if you’re stoned. Four of the seven actors were also in Crimes of the Future, which I was going to double-feature with this but chickened out, and one actor got as far as The Dead Zone 13 years later.

Antiviral (2012, Brandon Cronenberg)

“Celebrities are not people. They’re group hallucinations.”

I wanted to double-feature this with a Jennifer Chamber Lynch movie, the children of my favorite horror filmmakers, but couldn’t get a copy of Boxing Helena in time so I settled for the Xan Cassavetes instead. Pretty sure that even if I hadn’t known the Cronenberg connection I’d have been able to spot it: a total body-horror flick with a cool and clinical atmosphere. Plus someone says “shivers” within the first five minutes, and lead actor Caleb Landry Jones even reminded me of Cosmopolis star Robert Pattinson.

Speaking of Pattinson, the movie is about a future where the public’s hunger for celebrities has become literal, buying lunchmeat grown from the stars’ cells and getting themselves sickened by viruses that come from the stars’ bloodstreams. I think the movie is acknowledging that this is farfetched by having the virus thing be a premium specialty business (no huge lines out the door) run by a small staff of technicians also acting as salesmen.

Caleb is magnetic as Syd, whose celeb-virus business contracts exclusively with star Hannah Geist, and who is always trying to turn a buck in black-market virus sales while trying to get close to Geist himself. The black-market aspect already brings mystery to the movie before the new twist where Syd has injected himself with Geist’s newest illness, which kills her – or so the story goes, but really she’s being kept alive while people in the Geist business fake her death while trying to figure out the poison plot and deal with the leak perpetrated by Syd. Really it’s more complicated than this, and either I missed some information or the big picture is never fully revealed, while Syd ends up where he wanted to be, selling Geist by day and having (parts of) her to himself by night.

Plus: viral copy-protection hacking, viruses represented with blurred, manipulated photographs, man-machine-fusing nightmares (and realities), and doctor Malcolm McDowell.

Metamorphosis (1975, Jan Nemec)

A very good hour-long movie of the Kafka story, with Gregor Samsa played by a first-person camera and off-screen voice, so there’s no creature effect to ruin the weird mystery.

First movie I’ve seen by Czech new wave director Nemec whose early features were released by Criterion alongside Daisies. An eccentric movie with long roving takes. I’d forgotten the three initially-silent tenants who move into the family’s apparently spacious apartment to help pay the bills after Gregor stops being able to work. Gregor’s disappointed father is played by Heinz Bennent (Heinrich in Possession).

I’ve also seen Caroline Leaf’s 1977 animated version, a 2008 short where post-death Samsa returns as a flock of CG butterflies to torment his family and coworkers, and the meta-version where Richard E. Grant plays Kafka. Apparently Tim Roth starred as Gregor in 1987, and there’s a well-reviewed Russian feature from 2002.

Altman (2014, Ron Mann)

A career retrospective of Altman, with short celebrity cameo definitions of “Altmanesque,” none of whom mentioned overlapping dialogue. Narration and interviews with family members, many of whom were at our screening. Some good Altman stories within, but not much to say about the doc itself, so instead here’s a list of his movies I should watch (or *rewatch) soon:

The Long Goodbye
Gosford Park*
Kansas City
Popeye*
Brewster McCloud
Buffalo Bill and the Indians
Thieves Like Us

Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell (1968, Hajime Sato)

This is a completely looney Japanese horror oddball movie released in the Eclipse Shochiku set. It’s cheap, weird and highly entertaining, also atomic-bomb-obsessed and weirdly Vietnam War-referencing, with stock footage edited in at key moments.

The most doomed flight of all time encounters a UFO, receives a bomb threat and hosts a gun-toting hijacker at the same time. Large-faced hijacker Hirofumi has little effect as the plane flies through red skies filled with crazed engine-clogging birds then crashes, killing the pilot and leaving first officer Sugisaka in charge. On the ground, the hijacker runs off and gets possessed by aliens in his forehead (recalling Jeffrey Combs in From Beyond), while the bomb-threat fella hides his bomb and claims he was only kidding.

Potential bomber allowed to roam free:

The gov’t rep gets homicidal:

So the survivors are hiding in the plane from alien vampires who appear to kiss people to death (Yuko Kusunoki of Dodeskaden and Kurahara’s Thirst for Love is next to be captured/possessed) except for psychiatrist Kazuo Kato (Kurosawa’s Ran) who wants to go outside and study the aliens, while government representative Mano (Eizo Kitamura of the Yakuza Papers parts 2 and 3, and Modern Porno Tale: Inherited Sex Mania) proves to be a bigger asshole than the aliens or hijacker, getting people killed in order to save his own skin. Bomber dies blowing a hole in the side of the plane, and American Mrs. Neal (Kathy Horan of Genocide and The Green Slime) comes after the vampire with a rifle and loses. When our hero Sugisaka (with his woman on his arm) finally lights the hijacker on fire, the alien oozes out of his forehead and possesses Rep. Moto’s underling then kisses Moto to death.

Sugisaka and the girl leave the crash site and find out they were about a mile from civilization, but everyone in the city has been killed by aliens – much more efficient aliens than the one attacking the downed plane, I guess. Burned bodies and atomic blasts are invoked in the apocalytic finale.

Sugisaka was Teruo Yoshida, in Ozu’s An Autumn Afternoon a few years earlier, must’ve starred in too many horror movies in 1968-69 (including this, Horrors of Malformed Men, Inferno of Torture and The Joy of Torture) because he disappeared from the screen in 1970, and his loyal stewardess was Tomomi Sato of the 1979 Jigoku remake and Blackmail Is My Business.

Rosemary’s Baby (1968, Roman Polanski)

Took a couple weeks off the blog, now back to the SHOCKtober backlog. Got a new visual theme to support larger images (and incidentally phones/tables/etc) so beginning with this post, screenshots are no longer limited to 640px wide. Party!

After enjoying The Tenant, I decided to rewatch the rest of Polanski’s “apartment trilogy:” this and Repulsion, both of which I’d seen on cable so long ago that I may as well have never seen them at all before now. Obviously these movies were the highlight of Shocktober this year, alongside Hellraiser, Scanners and Possession. After not paying him much attention until 2011, I’m a big Polanski fan. All three apartment movies have terrific peephole shots, and this and Repulsion both have a dream sequence in which a ticking clock is the only sound. I found out in the extras that Polanski threw off the lipsynch in another dream sequence on purpose – I’d been annoyed at the technical flaw but he meant it to add to the unreal atmosphere.

Omaha native Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and husband Guy (John Cassavetes, same year as Faces) shop for an NYC apartment with realtor Elisha Cook (Phantom Lady, The Killing), settle on a place with nosy neighbors whose previous tenant passed away just a few days before. Mia’s first friend (Victoria Vetri, Playmate of the Month right before this filmed) jumps to her death soon after they move in. Already this is sounding like The Tenant, but instead of the new tenants going slowly insane, aspiring actor Guy makes a deal with the intrusive Castevet couple next door to have his wife impregnated with the antichrist.

Collateral damage: the suicide woman, who it’s assumed was meant to be the demon child’s host before Rosemary came along, Hutch, the couple’s best friend before the whole demon pregnancy thing (Maurice Evans, a lead ape the same year in Planet of the Apes), Guy’s competition for a major acting role (he goes inexplicably blind). I think Rosemary’s doctor, the great Charles Grodin (as opposed to the doc the Castevets choose for her, Ralph Bellamy of The Wolf Man), is allowed to live.

Even without the demon baby, moving in next door to the Castevets seems like horror movie material – this may be what led to The Tenant. Paradoxically, the crazy Castevets also keep the mood light, injecting humor into the horror. Ruth Gordon won an oscar (beating the star of Cassavetes Faces), would star in Harold and Maude a few years later, and Sidney Blackmer played Leslie Nielsen’s dad in Tammy and the Bachelor. The ending is intense, though – Rosemary discovering the whole conspiracy, walks into a room with her demon baby, her traitor husband and a bunch of revelers yelling “hail Satan,” and instead of hurling herself out the window or burning the place to the ground, she approaches the cradle and starts to rock it gently.

Polanski’s first American film after Repulsion and two others in England. There was a sequel! It starred Pontypool‘s Stephen McHattie as the demon kid now in his twenties, with Patty Duke and Ray Milland. Mia Farrow starred in Secret Ceremony, another disappearing child/hysterical mom movie the same year as Rosemary’s.

Author Ira Levin in 2003:

Lately, I’ve had a new worry. The success of Rosemary’s Baby inspired Exorcists and Omens and lots of et ceteras. Two generations of youngsters have grown to adulthood watching depictions of Satan as a living reality. Here’s what I worry about now: if I hadn’t pursued an idea for a suspense novel almost forty years ago, would there be quite as many religious fundamentalists around today?

Repulsion (1965, Roman Polanski)

Catherine Deneuve is pretty and timid, a bit spacey, but nobody suspects (except possibly her older sister Helen, if she has ever paid that much attention) the extent of her psychosis until Helen goes on vacation with her awful boyfriend Michael (Ian Hendry, philandering zombie in Tales from the Crypt), leaving Catherine alone in their apartment with her thoughts. It turns out her thoughts are dangerous.

Maybe this is just a 1960’s thing, but when Catherine finally starts murdering people (first her stalker who thinks she’s in a relationship, then her landlord who offers an alternate method of paying the rent), I felt they were creeps who deserved it. But it seems from the extras that the movie just wants us to believe that Catherine is mad (and has always been mad, according to the final zoom into a childhood photo where she looks distracted/possessed).

A stylistic triumph on a tiny budget. Polanski’s follow-up to Knife in the Water and his UK debut, bankrolled by porn producers who would work with him again for Cul-de-sac. This one was written as the commercial hit that would fund the next one, a more personal work for Polanski. It’s lovely that slow-moving one-woman psychological horror with unproven stars (Deneuve had done Umbrellas of Cherbourg but wasn’t yet internationally renowned) used to be considered a sure hit.

Michael: John Fraser of Tunes of Glory

and Helen: Yvonne Furneaux, of La Dolce Vita

When Catherine is alone, the walls crack and ooze, rapist ghosts appear, hands grab her through the walls (a Cocteau-meets-Cronenberg effect using latex sheets bought from a condom factory). Polanski already showed a strong visual style with Knife in the Water, and here he’s got a ringer of a cinematographer: Gilbert Taylor had just shot A Hard Day’s Night and Dr. Strangelove. The film won a silver bear in Berlin alongside Le Bonheur (Alphaville got the gold).

TV 2014: New Shows and Old

Girls season 1 (2012)

“I don’t want to freak you out, but I think I might be the voice of my generation… or at least a voice… of a generation.”

I loved this. Most comedy shows look sloppy, like Parks & Rec, 30 Rock, The Thick of It, I assume as part of the improv/spontaneity/rewrite routine of ensemble comedy, but I love them anyway because of the actors, the characters, the writing. But this show has all those things plus a strong visual style.

I know Lena Dunham from Tiny Furniture. Best friend Marnie is Allison Williams, daughter of NBC News anchor/30 Rock guest-star Brian. British friend Jemima Kirke was also in Tiny Furniture, and her hyperactive virgin cousin Zosia Mamet is daughter of David. Lena’s boyfriend Adam Driver is the bass-voiced guy who says “outer… spaaace” in Inside Llewyn Davis. Marnie’s now-ex-boyfriend is Christopher Abbot of Martha Marcy May Marlene, Lena’s boss/Abbot’s best friend Ray is Alex Karpovsky, also also of Tiny Furniture and Inside Llewyn Davis.

Derek season 1 (2013)

The episodes follow a formula: Story setup, negativity and unappealing behavior, suspicion that the whole thing is exploitative of the aged residents who barely get any lines, gradual story resolution featuring Derek-provoked awkwardness, then beautifully compassionate Derek comments that leave me extremely happy and wanting to watch more episodes. Sometimes it’s too Derek-glorifying, like Gervais is compensating for his infamous The Office character by playing the most inspirationally compassionate character he could dream up, and the ending’s a total tearjerker but I think it’s setting up Derek’s dad for season 2. Regulars: Derek, Hannah, handyman Dougie (Karl Pilkington), gross hanger-on Kevin and volunteer Vicky.

Peep Show season 1 (2003)

The longest-running show by Mitchell & Webb (of two other self-titled shows, plus Bruiser and the new Ambassadors). Never seen these guys before, but I like ‘em. Mark/Mitchell is the guy with the steady job and Jeremy/Webb is the outgoing slacker roommate. The show’s gimmick is a first-person camera, swapping frequently between the two guys plus other people they meet, accompanied by voiceover of their thoughts, all quite well done.

Mitchell:

Webb:

Olivia Colman of Look Around You and Hot Fuzz (“Accidents happen all the time. What makes you think it was MUR-DUR?”)

30 Rock seasons 6 & 7 (2012-2013)

Still a good show, even if it stopped being a great show. Tina settles down with Cyclops and adopts babies. The show is cancelled, Baldwin becomes CEO of GE and appoints Kenneth president of the network.

We missed Tina Fey’s new Muppets sequel. Tracy Morgan did a voice in the Boxtrolls, was reportedly in a critical car crash this summer. Jane Krakowsi has a star-(and Adam Sandler)-studded sci-fi video-game comedy out next year. Jack McBrayer (from Macon, not Stone Mountain) is in They Came Together (and hopefully Wreck-It Ralph 2). Scott Adsit’s on some of the Adult Swim shows I’ve been missing and voices the inflatable robot in Big Hero 6. Judah Friedlander played Toby in American Splendor, appears in lots of horror sequels. Alec Baldwin’s upcoming films are still confidential or unconfirmed (there’s still hope that Boss Baby will fall through). Toofer’s got the lead in a drug-addict drama, Cerie appeared in horror Nurse 3D, Grizz has a show called Common Sense Police, Dot Com is in a romantic comedy about food in NYC which Katy will definitely watch on netflix someday, Lutz is a writer on Seth Meyers’s talk show, Jonathan does voices for two current cartoons, and Dr. Leo Spaceman is on Suburgatory and Archer.

The Stendhal Syndrome (1996, Dario Argento)

Someday I’d like to visit Italy and see if everyone acts the way they do in Argento films, moving all artificially and speaking poor dialogue out-of-sync with their mouths. Probably it’s just a very bad movie. And that’s not even counting the fact that it’s about a rape investigator (played by Argento’s daughter) who gets repeatedly raped (she’s also a cop who repeatedly gets her gun stolen), then it justifies this in the second half by having her become the killer. “He forced his way into me and now I can’t get rid of him.” Worse, I’m not even sure why I watched this. I’d previously read up on Argento and decided which movies might be worth watching (just the ones I’ve seen plus Crystal Plumage, Grey Velvet and Opera), and Stendhal Syndrome was not on the list. Maybe I put it on the netflix blu-queue as a placeholder? Anyway at least the picture on the disc looked fantastic.

The earliest Asia Argento I’ve seen, two years before New Rose Hotel. After being kidnapped and raped the first time she acts prickly towards a creep coworker (Marco Leonardi, love interest Pedro in Like Water For Chocolate) who is relentlessly trying to date her, starts seeing a psychologist (Paolo Bonacelli of Salo, one of the few films more icky than this one), and eventually returns to her stress-inducing family (to relax, haha), where she’s followed by both creep Marco and blood-obsessed rapist Thomas Kretschmann (Argento’s Dracula, also in Queen Margot with Asia).

Then she kills the rapist but keeps insisting he’s still alive, as she carries on his work, taking out the psychologist, her new French boyfriend Marie (a boy with a girl’s name as the movie continually mentions), Marco and a couple others.

Moo Orleans:

And by the way, Asia has the Stendhal Syndrome, which causes you to become entranced by works of art, but the movie doesn’t know what to do with this, plot-wise. It combines well-staged practical effects with the worst computer graphics I’ve ever seen, which is used with Fight Club excess (why, when she swallows pills, must we follow them down her throat?). It’s not just 1996 CGI – it’s Italian 1996 CGI. The movie has story problems (a half hour in, it’s already explaining its first scenes in flashback), missed opportunities (Marco brings Buster Keaton videos to a girl who imagines herself falling into paintings, but we get no Sherlock Jr. clip) and the unsurmountable flaw of having no recognizable human behavior. After reading that interview about invisible acting in The Dirties, and watching well-performed horrors like Hellraiser and The Tenant, this is especially disappointing. At least I could enjoy the paintings, the cinematography and the blatant Vertigo references.

Asia takes up painting:

Things I remembered while going through screenshots: (1) Asia gets amnesia between passing out at the art gallery and being raped by the loony, (2) she kisses a fish in a dream sequence, which looks like the romantic opposite of the zombie-vs-shark scene in Zombi 2, (3) she sees graffiti come alive in the loony’s lair, (4) her dad is freaky.

Asia loves fish: