One week in 1953, things went very badly for military scientist Frank Olson (played by Peter Saarsgard in reenactment footage). After he’s given LSD at a cabin getaway, he does something wrong (“they laughed at me”) then asks to be fired from his job. Instead he’s escorted to NYC, taken to see a psychiatrist (actually an allergist) and a magician, and one night he goes out the window of his hotel room and falls to his death. Few specifics are known for sure – what happened in the cabin, who else was in the hotel room, what the NYC trip was even for – but Frank’s son Eric has spent six decades learning all he can, trying to piece it together. So the film follows his investigation, fleshing out the story more and more as he learns details over the decades from court cases and document searches and unofficial visits.

Eric’s collage art must have inspired some of Morris’s compositions:

Dr. Balaban… I thought this was Morris and his interrotron when I first saw it:

Saarsgard is lost in the reenactment scenes, dazed or drugged or having a breakdown, and we barely see or discuss him behaving normally before the fateful week. Other actors hover about, such as Tim Blake Nelson as sinister boss Gottlieb (who once tried to assassinate Lumumba) and Bob Balaban as the allergist, but these scenes never quite come together, because the investigation doesn’t. We get close enough to make assumptions – that Frank was dropped out the window, staged as a suicide – but it all leads up to the terrible final moments of the Eric Olson interview:
“I remembered my father but I forgot who I was… you become lost in a sea of questions, all of which pertain to the other, none of which pertain to yourself… Because the value of the lost one is infinite, the sacrifice becomes infinite.”

It’s a powerful ending, and I love some of the editing tricks, echoing and split-screening the interview images. But something is off with the big-picture editing – the episodes were either meant to be watched a week apart (watching two in one sitting yields too little progress, too much repetition) or they had enough material for four good episodes and extended it to six when they got the netflix deal.

The Tabloid television setup:

chemist Robert Lashbrook:

Lawrence Garcia in the new Cinema Scope:

Uncertainty, unknowability, and the nature of truth are subjects that Morris has revisited throughout his career, specifically in relation to (American) structures and systems of authority. And despite its overt epistemological explorations, conspiratorial tone, and more unconventional trappings, Wormwood still bears the hallmarks of traditional journalistic reportage. But there’s been a marked change as well: the relative certainty of something like the Randall Dale Adams case — built around a clear miscarriage of justice, with a self-evident corrective goal — has been traded in for McNamara’s fog, Rumsfeld’s flurry of memos (nicknamed “snowflakes”), or the recurring image of the sea in The Unknown Known. It’s a shift from thin blue line to churning, Rorschachian haze.

I was going to watch this right after Southbound then realized they were both anthology horrors, so spaced it out by a few days. My second Corman / Poe / Price movie this month after Pit and the Pendulum


Morella

“It’s Lenora, father.” Maggie Pierce (The Fastest Guitar Alive) hasn’t seen her dad Vincent Price in 26 years, and is visiting now because her marriage has failed and she has a mild cough (and therefore, since this is a movie, only a few months to live). Price still blames her for the death of his beloved wife Morella, is wasting away in his Miss Havisham house. Poor Lenora doesn’t even know how her mom died since she was an infant at the time, so Price explains that she collapsed at a party while yelling “it was the baby.” Hardly seems fair, but apparently Morella (Leona Gage of Scream of the Butterfly) still blames the baby, rises in the night to murder Lenora and burn the place to the ground.


The Black Cat

Montresor Herringbone is a hopeless drunk who steals from his working wife Annabel (Joyce Jameson, who’d costar with Lorre and Price again the following year in Comedy of Terrors) to get enough wine to stop the hallucinations. He’d be a hateful fellow if he wasn’t being played by Peter Lorre in comic mode… and speaking of comic mode, Price plays Fortunato Luchresi, a foppish wine expert whom Lorre challenges to a tasting competition in order to get free wine. Surprised by Lorre’s knowledge and (lack of) technique, Price follows him home and falls for Annabel. When Lorre finds out he chains them in his cellar and walls them in – the perfect crime if not for the black cat he accidentally bricks up, whose howls alert the police.

Loved the acting, the reptile hallucinations and dreams (Fortunato and Annabel playing catch with Lorre’s severed head, the picture smeared and distorted). Each scene ends with a 400 Blows zoom. Price calls the wife “my treasure,” but isn’t that what Lorre’s name “Montresor” means?


The Case of M. Valdemar

Valdemar (Price) is dying of an incurable disease, and mesmerist Carmichael (Basil Rathbone, Sherlock Holmes of the 1930’s and 40’s) agrees to relieve his pain for free in exchange for participation in an experiment – to mesmerise Price at the moment of death to see if they can extend it. Medical Doctor James (David Frankham, who worked with Price in Return of The Fly) is against all this, of course, but Price insists, and also wishes his devoted wife Debra Paget (the dancer in Fritz Lang’s Indian Epic) to marry Dr. James when he dies. But the hypnotist has other plans, and when he successfully has the dead Price’s soul trapped in mesmeric limbo, he holds it hostage until Paget will marry him instead. Price solves this problem himself, rising from his death bed and melting all over the amoral Carmichael.

The Good Doctor and Good Wife:

“Beer has its own way of sorting things out.”

Julian Barratt (Mighty Boosh’s Howard Moon) seeks Whitehead, is looking for a field, then abruptly dies. Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith, a lead in The League of Gentlemen series) will be our movie’s lead coward, joining with some companions in a field in the midst of a filthy war in search of his dead master’s nemesis O’Neil, who stole some papers I guess.

Companions: hood-wearing Friend (that’s his name, took me all movie to figure it out) played by Richard Glover (minor role in Sightseers) with a great low voice, wide-hatted Cutler (Ryan Pope of TV’s Ideal), Jacob (Peter Ferdinando of serial killer movie Tony). They finally find O’Neil (Michael Smiley, the lead guy’s co-hitman in Kill List) at the end of a long rope (?) and a struggle ensues.

The point is less the war, the companions, the stolen papers and struggle than the weird ride. There’s a game of tug-o-war vs. mystical forces, poop humor, many mushrooms are consumed, Whitehead fasts then vomits runestones and the dead don’t stay dead. Maybe it’s Jodorowsky-influenced, seeming mythical without making any proper sense.

Set during the English Civil War, 1650ish, which reportedly caused some trouble coming up with period-appropriate words. The dialogue is great when you can make it out, which we couldn’t on my dad’s surround system (was fine in headphones). Writer Amy Jump and cinematographer Laurie Rose also worked on the other two.