Lance Henriksen is sent by a corporate board of sinister white men to date and impregnate Barbara, who is afraid of her own eight year old daughter Katy, who caused an explosion to win Atlanta a basketball game. But first: bald children, wicked clouds, John Huston in an Obi-Wan robe and an unhappy-looking Franco “Django” Nero, who I found out from the closing credits was supposed to be Jesus Christ and whose opening narration sounds an awful lot like Star Wars with the names replaced by Bible characters. This all sounds nuts, and it is – a lost classic of cheesy/weirdo horror cinema revived by Drafthouse Films.

Unhappy Jesus:

After the bonkers intro it’s back to the family scene, which is playing out like We Need To Talk About Katy. Soon Katy shoots her mom (Joanne Nail of Switchblade Sisters and Full Moon High), who is then confined to a wheelchair and hires Shelley Winters (of Bloody Mama and Tentacles) as a housekeeper who might be working for God/Huston. Shelley affects nothing in the household besides bugging everyone by singing “mammy’s little baby loves shortnin’ bread” and saying things like “A great philosopher said that our characters are our fates. And some scientists now believe that planets somehow understand this.”

Shelley introduces herself and her finches:

Huston (the same year he made Wise Blood) is God, who works in mysterious ways, allows Katy to kill the Atlanta cop (The Big Heat and Experiment In Terror star Glenn Ford) investigating her mom’s shooting, then after many scenes standing on Atlanta roofs frowning at the sky (and after playing Pong on a projection screen with Katy) he finally kills her and Lance with a flock of pigeons.

Playin’ Pong with God:

Huston looks surprised at what he’s done:

Have I mentioned that Katy’s Satan-Falcon kills a cop by messing with the street lights?

Or that between Pong and the pigeons, there’s a Lady From Shanghai funhouse scene?

Lance was just off The Omen 2, which this movie is ripping off. We’ve also got Sam Peckinpah (who I just saw in Invasion of the Body Snatchers) playing Barbara’s ex, and the leader of Lance’s white-man cabal is Mel Ferrer (of two unrelated films both called Eaten Alive). Director Paradisi had bit roles in some Fellini films, also made a movie called Spaghetti House, and cowriter Ovidio Assontis also produced Pirahna 2: The Spawning, as his IMDB bio mentions proudly. And have I mentioned this was shot in Atlanta?

The most brightly-lit and also most pessimistic noir shown in Emory’s series. Nicholson is very good at acting natural, which he does too seldom, and John Huston is haunting as the villain, a human monster in broad daylight. I remember Faye Dunaway as being hysterical in this, but apparently I was only recalling the “she’s my daughter AND my sister” scene. Polanski himself plays a dwarf thug who cuts Jack’s nose open near the beginning of the investigation, forcing Jack to wear facial bandages through most of the movie.

Huston plays Dunaway’s father – he and her husband Mulwray ran the water department for years before selling it to the city, and now Huston is running a water/real estate conspiracy, stealing water from farmers and dumping it into the river. Jack is a nobody detective taking pictures of cheating husbands when he’s used as a pawn in Huston’s schemes to discredit his former partner and recover his grand/daughter – though Jack is plenty smart enough to keep up with the plot. He almost gets ahead, too, but loses his evidence against Huston, and loses Dunaway when the cops shoot her through the head.

Nominated for all the oscars, but really, what chance have you got against the likes of Godfather 2, The Towering Inferno, Earthquake and Art Carney?

Wanted to check out some more late Huston before the upcoming Emory screening of The Dead, since I don’t believe Wise Blood is typical of his films. But now, having seen these two plus The Maltese Falcon and nothing in between, I still have no idea what is typical of his films. It’s got that familiar 1970’s grime all over it, so either Huston was late in adapting to 80’s-style cinema or, more likely, Mexico was still in the 70’s.

“Some things you can’t apologize for.”

“Hell is my natural habitat.”

Full of fun quotes, mostly spoken by literate drunk Albert Finney, who gave up sobriety when his wife left a year prior. Finney (a few years before Miller’s Crossing) is tended by his brother Hugh (Anthony Andrews, lately of The King’s Speech), and all is depressingly normal until the now-ex-wife (Jacqueline Bisset, the mother in The Ceremony) shows up unexpectedly. Finney goes off the deep end with the drinking and erratic behavior, ending up shot to death in a hostile bar/whorehouse, scaring a horse into trampling to death his wife in front of Hugh, with whom she’d been having an affair before she originally left Mexico. It’s a great ending to a movie which overall didn’t strike me as hard as it seems to strike everyone else.

Finney and Bisset:

Andrews spontaneously goes bullfighting:

Didn’t watch the many DVD extras so I still know nothing about author Malcolm Lowry. Alex North brings his heavy hand to the proceedings, not offending except once during a comedy scene when he got overexcited. Shot with Mexican D.P. Gabriel Figueroa, who worked on at least four of Bunuel’s best films.

C. Viviani makes connections to The Dead:

It was with The Man Who Would Be King (1975), a project that he had been thinking about since the 1950s—based on a Rudyard Kipling story—that Huston made his return to literary adaptation. After the success of that bold “action-adventure” (in which both the action and the adventure are more within the characters than on the screen), Huston began favoring fictional works that were problematic, in terms of translating them to screen, because of the importance given to internal monologue or their absence of action. In less than ten years Huston would adapt three stories considered to be “unadapt-able”: Wise Blood, by Flannery O’Connor, Under the Volcano, by Malcolm Lowry, and The Dead, by James Joyce. In each case the adaptation rose to the challenge by deliberately ignoring false problems and by choosing to render the spirit rather than the letter of the original. It was not a matter of filming everything but of filming only what Huston liked, which is, in fact, a constant throughout his work. The culmination of this approach, The Dead (1987), is a film that is both respectful and free, and it became a kind of legacy work, in which Huston does not so much film Joyce’s story as use it as a pretext for offering his daughter Anjelica and his son Tony the gift of his artistic heritage.

Salman Rushdie came better prepared this time. He’s a fan of John Huston in general, but after programming the long-unseen Wise Blood last year for his “great adaptations” series, he turned out not to like the adaptation very much. This one he talked about as if he’d just watched it.

It’s quite a strange movie, and seems profoundly appropriate as a great action/adventure director’s final film. Opens with some friends arriving at a small party hosted by a couple of older women, spends ninety minutes at the party, then a short cab ride home with Anjelica Huston (oscar-winning for her previous John Huston film) and her husband Donal McCann (obviously not a huge film actor, was in Rawhead Rex the previous year, and not even in the lead). She confesses to her husband about a boy who loved her when she was in high school, who loved her with a passion her husband has never known, who died when she left town. And after she falls asleep, he looks out the window, his thoughts in voiceover are the James Joyce story’s celebrated final paragraph.

Ebert has a really wonderful write-up on the film:

The Dead ends in sadness, but it is one of the great romantic films, fearless in its regard for regret and tenderness. John Huston … had an instinctive sympathy for the kindness with which the guests at the Misses Morkan’s party accepted one another’s lives and failings. … Gabriel is the witness to it all. An early shot shows the back of his head, regarding everyone in the room. Later he will see his wife, finally, as the person she really is and always has been. And he will see himself, with his ambitions as a journalist, the bright light of his family, the pride of his aunts, as a paltry fellow resting on unworthy accomplishments. Did these thoughts go through John Huston’s mind as he chose his last film and directed it? How could they not? And if all those sad things were true, then he could at least communicate them with grace and poetry, in a film as quiet and forgiving as the falling snow.

The only actor I recognized (besides Huston, of course) was Colm Meaney in a minor role. Also in the room here Dan O’Herlihy (Buñuel’s Robinson Crusoe), Donal Donnelly (of Richard Lester’s The Knack) as a drunk, Helena Carroll (The Friends of Eddie Coyle) as one of the hostesses (don’t know if she’s the one in charge or the one who sings a song who McCann imagines dead in the final monologue) and Marie Kean (Barry Lyndon’s mother).

“Nobody with a good car needs to be justified.”

Huston, in his seventies, still had six more films to make and his fifteenth oscar nomination to earn. This movie was far weirder (and dirty, run-down & location-shot) than anything I thought a respected veteran hollywood studio filmmaker would produce. His might be a career I need to obsessively explore some day! We saw a square-ish 16mm print, which looked fine and dandy to me (I mean, the film looked like it’d been left in the glove box of Hazel’s car for some years, but looked fine ratio-wise), but I see the Criterion DVD will be 1.78:1.

Hazel Motes arrives back home to find his family gone, his childhood home looted and decrepit. Instead of trying to find them, he stalks a street preacher and daughter, then decides to preach his own church, one without Christ. Simpleton Enoch Emery follows Hazel trying to be his friend, eventually supplies a Christ for his church (pygmy mummy robbed from a museum). Hazel spooks the preacher into leaving town and (inadvertently) charms the daughter into shacking up with him. A con man likes Hazel’s game and emulates it by hiring his own preacher. Cars are run into ditches and lakes, much preaching is done, and Hazel refuses to warm to anybody, finally blinding himself to the delight of his landlady who now has someone helpless to take care of… but when she forces his hand, Hazel wanders off and dies on the streets alone. An extreme movie (and book), full of heresy and, supposedly, redemption. Film is a quite literal adaptation of the book, with a few omissions and modifications.

Professional crazy-actor Brad Dourif (crazy doctor in Alien 4, crazy Wormtongue in Lord of the Rings 2, crazy doll in Child’s Play) played Hazel Motes. Tron star Dan Shor was alright as Enoch Emery – I’d pictured him younger and dumber. It’s good (hell, it’s great) to see Harry Dean Stanton as the fake-blind preacher with daughter Amy Wright (who just appeared in Synecdoche New York). William Hickey (Toulon in the original Puppetmaster!) was the fake preacher hired by con artist Hoover Shoates (well played by Ned Beatty of Nashville). Mary Nell Santacroce (Atlanta native who appeared in another fake-preacher movie, an ill-advised remake of Night of the Hunter) is the landlady who takes over the last few scenes after Hazel blinds himself. And the fictional city of Taulkinham is ably played by Macon, Georgia.

Adapted and produced by the Fitzgerald family (friends of the author). Appalling music by Alex North starts out with bloopy keyboards and wheezing horns then cranks into comic-book twangy versions of recognizable standards. Sounds an awful lot like what someone from Chester Pennsylvania would image people in Macon listen to. Steve agrees the movie would be a masterpiece if you could cut that music out. Let’s hope Criterion has found a way.

Canby of the Times loved it, “lyrically mad and absolutely compelling even when we don’t fully comprehend it.”