03/27/13 4:00am

Raising Cain (1992)
Directed by Brian De Palma
March 29-30 at Nitehawk

After reading about writer/director De Palma’s reservations, it’s impossible to rewatch the theatrical cut of Raising Cain without projecting a divergent supra-narrative onto its already labyrinthine plot. As Peet Gelderblom elaborates in his compelling video essay, De Palma originally intended the film to foreground its female protagonist/lead victim’s perspective. But to make Cain‘s story more linear (and probably comprehensible), De Palma instead begins his story with Carter (John Lithgow), a deeply troubled man that suffers from multiple personality disorder. The movie does however wind up being about Jenny (Lolita Davidovich, wow wow!), Carter’s wife, and her need to love a more stable partner. She assumes that Carter is the lover and provider that Jenny’s new partner Jack (Steven Bauer) appears to be, but he’s not, as is apparent whenever Cain, Carter’s maniacal twin persona, or Carter’s parents (all Lithgow, in one of his best scene-devouring performances), appear.

In light of Gelderblom’s speculative new cut of Raising Cain, you can’t help but wonder: what if De Palma’s film were all about Jenny? This version is striking, though ultimately superfluous. With a number of characteristically teasing references to Psycho, like the sinking of Carter’s family car and psychologist Dr. Lynn Waldheim’s (Frances Sternhagen!) long-winded diagnosis of Carter’s problems, De Palma’s movie becomes about reversals of fortune. Starting with Carter’s story and ending with Jenny’s is an exciting and even essential way to show how crowded the film’s narrative is. Jenny’s story isn’t defined by a singular split personality but rather several hypertrophic splits.

03/13/13 4:00am

Leprechaun (1993)
Directed by Mark Jones
March 16 at Videology

After starring in Willow and way too many Ewok adventures, 23-year-old Warwick Davis headlined this half-assed horror-comedy that treats little green men like Irish vampires. Davis’s monster, who rides a tricycle and is repeatedly compared to the Lucky Charms character, reacts to four-leaf clovers like a vamp would a cross and feels compelled to shine shoes in the same way that the bloodsucking undead supposedly have OCD about counting grains of salt or rice. But while writer-director Jones (Rumpelstiltskin) takes himself more seriously than anyone that directed a sequel to his inept tentpole film, his ideas for Davis’s monster are similarly, uh, crude.

After Davis escapes decade-long imprisonment (the four-leaf clover that sealed him into a crate was removed!), he terrorizes a group of New Mexicans, including Jennifer Aniston’s snooty LA refugee. Jones condescends to his viewers in many ways, but especially by championing Aniston, in her film debut—no, being an extra in Mac and Me does not count—as Tory, the one character whose newfound faith in monsters save her poor podunk friends from Davis’s mythical menace. By assuming that only a cynical, but also neurotic (she’s from LA!) urbanite like Aniston’s character can save superstitious heartland Americans, like more-slow-than-autistic Ozzie (Teen Wolf‘s Mark Holton), from themselves reveals the extent of Jones’s cynicism. Meanwhile, only Warwick Davis takes his job seriously, cackling about his gold in a terrible Irish accent while riding his trike. You don’t have to be a fortune-teller to know that this guy would go the distance.

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03/06/13 4:00am

Candyman (1992)
Directed by Bernard Rose
March 8, 12:05am, at Nitehawk

One thing that makes this horror movie so compelling is that it’s basically a variation on the Jewish Golem myth. Its central urban legend is a variation on a familiar motif: a man with a meat-hook appears in mirrors whenever giggly girls and horny lovers say his name five times—and guts whoever spoke it “from groin to gullet” (the story is based on a Clive Barker story…). Candyman’s myth spreads throughout Chicago, filmed by writer/director Rose as an urban beehive in a handful of stirring bird’s-eye views. But Candyman (Tony Todd) is real, and supposedly lives in Cabrini-Green’s projects, keeping imaginative children, imprudent lovers, and superstitious black residents in check.

Candyman essentially protects the ghetto’s populace by keeping them afraid and incurious, reinforcing the invisible color barrier that separates Cabrini-Green from nearby affluent white residents. That barrier threatens to collapse when self-involved academic Helen (Virginia Madsen at her hotsy-totsiest) tries to demystify Candyman’s presence. She first mistakenly assumes that a presumptuous gangbanger that’s taken Candyman’s name is the man she’s looking for, but soon discovers just how mistaken she is after she blacks out, wakes up in a pool of blood, and finds a severed dog’s head in the room next-door. (Again, Barker!)

When the film gets into Helen’s tacky psychosexual cat-and-mouse game, it loses its way. But for a while, the tawdry allure of a black Golem is palpable. Phillip Glass’s score may understandably be the best part of the film, but Candyman is still the best Clive Barker adaptation because it’s an essentially good story that also happens to have been based on a story by that Hellraiser guy.

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02/13/13 4:00am

Modern Romance (1981)
Directed by Albert Brooks
February 14-17 at Anthology Film Archives, part of its Valentine’s Day Massacre series

Like Real Life before it, this is as funny as it is because it’s directed by an artist that’s visibly just as manic and fastidious as his on-screen persona. The film’s fussy pacing and precise camera placement present Brooks as a helmer that, like his obsessive lover/film editor Robert Cole, needs everything to be just-so. The obvious, key difference between Brooks as author and personality is that the former is desperate to eschew cliche expressions while the former seeks them out.

Robert’s obsessive-ness stems from the fact that he can’t back to “normal” after breaking up with Mary Harvard (Kathryn Harrold). First he tries to forget her, taking quaaludes and buying expensive jogging accessories, but fails. He’s too much like the paranoid old man he sees accusing his wife in a phone booth of cheating on him. So, after barraging Mary with phone calls, Robert shows her his love and need for control by approximating gestures he’s seen in movies (she even calls him on this before they have make-up sex, though he offhandedly dismisses her). But between the stuffed animals and the log-cabin fireside wedding proposals, Robert proves that he’s terrified of Mary as an independent woman, as when she does coke with two men she knows from her job at the bank or complains about how her nipples can clearly be seen through her blouse.

Every time you watch or rewatch Modern Romance, you’re seeing two different masterful control freaks at work. This makes peripheral, precise details that much funnier, like when Meadowlark Lemon asks after Mary, or when Cole passes out in his car while “Another One Bites the Dust” plays on the stereo. Even the visible bobbling of the camera during the introductory tracking shot in the sports-store scene is endearing. It proves you just how in control Brooks is of his inimitable not-quite-romantic comedy.

01/30/13 4:00am

Flesh for Frankenstein (1974)
Directed by Paul Morrissey
January 31 at Videology

A year before Morrissey directed Blood for Dracula, he helmed this X-rated comedy wherein Udo Kier’s mad, bourgeois scientist commands his assistant Otto to “fuck life in the gall bladder.” Just from that, you can tell the film is exceptionally… unusual. It even stands apart from Blood for Dracula, as it’s funnier and even more absurdly grotesque. Though both monstrous movies were advertised as being the product of Morrissey’s patron, Andy Warhol—originally, they were titled Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein and Andy Warhol’s Dracula—both films are now recognized as unique products of Morrissey’s po-facedly sarcastic sensibility; they’re also both essentially horror films with a juvenile class consciousness. But while Dracula features a funnier, more ecstatic performance from Kier, Frankenstein is more consistently charming in its own bratty way.

Along with several other 70s nudies, Flesh for Frankenstein was originally released in theaters in Space-Vision 3D, technology that allowed 3D films to be screened using one projector instead of two. But unlike other pseudo-subversive porno opuses, Frankenstein‘s most devious when it’s most sincerely invested in setting up the deviant machinations of the fascistic, organ-squeezing Baron von Frankenstein and his sexually inexperienced, armpit-sucking sister/wife, Baroness Katrin Frankenstein (Monique van Vooren). In spite of some memorably florid dialogue, most of the film is deceptively generic. It’s only when scars are tongued and corpses dry-humped that the film’s flagrant outre-ness becomes apparent. Flesh for Frankenstein is, in other words, a monster movie in kitschy, gut-busting drag. It’s also tellingly the only Warhol-produced film on Britain’s list of banned “Video Nasty” films.

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12/05/12 4:00am

Death Watch (1980)
Directed by Bertrand Tavernier
December 11 at BAM, part of its Max von Sydow series

If nothing else, BAM’s decision to program director Tavernier’s languid sci-fi drama as part of its current Max von Sydow retrospective is further proof of the institution’s eclecticism. Doing the math, Von Sydow doesn’t appear in Death Watch until the film is 111 minutes into its 130—and he isn’t even in those remaining 19 minutes. Still, maybe selecting this particular film has a sly meta-conceit: maybe it’s like saying that oftentimes, when von Sydow is a supporting cast member, it feels like we’re just waiting for him to enliven the film’s proceedings with his characteristically demure charm. Let’s run with that half-baked conceit for a moment!

Romy Schneider plays a woman who lives in a drab future in which death is so rare that it’s cause for a reality-show experiment. Harvey Keitel follows Schneider around, filming her last days using ocular implants that allow him to shoot everything he sees and instantly upload that footage to a television studio run by Harry Dean Stanton’s inhuman television producer. (“Everything is of interest, but nothing matters,” as Schneider’s character balks at Stanton.) For the longest time, Death Watch‘s plot is directionless. Schneider’s character doesn’t know what to do with herself, and it takes her some time to acknowledge (let alone get accustomed to) Keitel’s presence. But then von Sydow shows up and he gives her a sense of perspective: “Everything has to mean something,” even if not everything is “significant.” Max von Sydow: always worth the wait.

11/21/12 4:00am

Black Christmas (1974)
Directed by Bob Clark
November 23-24 at Nitehawk Cinema

The Christmas Story director Bob Clark’s other holiday movie is so delightfully monstrous because it gives viewers so much information while doggedly refusing them any sense of closure. Clark’s proto-slasher features several cruel instances of dramatic irony, as when he shows viewers the body of Clare Harrison (Lynne Griffin), the dead coed that everybody is looking for but nobody but the killer can find. Clark (who also helmed Deathdream, Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things and Porky’s) wants to show us everything, even going so far as to shoot some scenes of the killer moving into and around the Pi Kappa Sigma sorority house’s attic from the killer’s perspective—pre-Halloween.

But the obscene phone calls that Clare’s killer makes sound like those of a tortured schizophrenic whose many voices are talking simultaneously. There is, in other words, no way to know why the calls are being made or what he means when he jabbers about “pig cunts” and asks for a never-identified woman named Agnes. Meanwhile, all of the local authorities are ineffective: locals cops, led by a stern John Saxon, are stumped, and the sorority’s lush of a housemother (a hilariously punchdrunk Marian Waldman) is busy looking for another swig of sherry. Everyone wants to help, but, as Clare’s father (James Edmond Jr.) laments, nobody knows how: “I feel I should be doing something, but I just don’t know what.” Clark really puts the screws on his audience during the police-wiretap scene, and then later during the film’s chilling finale. Apathy kills—a perfect sentiment for the holiday season.

11/08/12 4:00am

Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
Directed by Adrian Lyne
Friday, November 9, at 92YTribeca, part of its Basic Cable Classics series

Director Lyne (Unfaithful, Fatal Attraction) rarely gets enough credit for his direction of Bruce Joel Rubin’s infamously too-great-to-produce screenplay. But Lyne and Rubin’s collaboration was essential to making Ladder as terrifying as it is. For example, Lyne’s influential “Vibroman” technique, an in-camera special effect in which speeding up the film speed to 4 frames-pers-second makes bag ladies and Vietnam veterans look like demons. Likewise, the way that Lyne situated Rubin’s narrative in a more a terrestrial setting was a small but essential change. Had Tim Robbins’s Jacob Singer, a Vietnam vet and PhD-holding postman, seen glimpses of Hell or Heaven beyond the deformed lizard-demons and angelic chiropractors that he meets on the still-grimy streets of 1990 Brooklyn—watch for the Bergen F stop!—Jacob’s Ladder would almost certainly have been less potent.

Lyne and Rubin made for a great team, but in this case, neither auteur’s contribution is more important than the other’s. Rubin’s elliptical narrative structure provides the film with its gnarled spine, skillfully transitioning from wartime flashbacks to memories of Jacob’s ex-wife (Patricia Kalember) and son (a very young Macaulay Culkin) and then back to “real world” experiences with his girlfriend (Elizabeth Pena). But without Lyne’s clear-eyed direction, particularly during action-intensive scenes like Jacob’s ice-water bath and the infamous James Brown-scored dance scene, those scenes wouldn’t be nearly as gutting. Rubin’s contributions outside of scripting Jacob’s Ladder should similarly not be dismissed. His unexpected success with Ghost—a script that he sold and was a big hit in spite of the industry rule that “ghost pictures” weren’t profitable—really helped to get Jacob’s Ladder green-lit. But in valorizing Rubin’s contributions over Lyne’s, we forget that both men’s work has been never been as good since then. And yes, that includes both Deadly Friend and the 1997 Lolita remake.

10/17/12 4:00am

Zardoz (1974)
Directed by John Boorman
Friday, October 19, at 92YTribeca

It’s amazing that Boorman was able to get a major studio to produce and release this trippy, campy science fiction drama that essentially encourages viewers to destroy everything and start from scratch; “everything” includes art, science and almost all other forms of higher learning and thinking. The film may be remembered as an epochal whatsit, but it’s also kind of an incendiary, unsparingly weird call to consciousness-expanding arms. And unlike something like Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain, another film that pushes viewers to leave the theater and start a revolution, Zardoz infiltrated multiplexes world-wide.

As Zed, a bondage-mankini-clad Renegade, Sean Connery similarly infiltrates the decadent Eternals’ high society in a mad scheme to raze all human civilization and hit the reset button. Armed with his mustache and gun, Zed takes aim at the Tabernacle, the repository of all human knowledge, and the Eternals, led by a young and very sexy Charlotte Rampling. Boorman’s scenario is so strange and rich that one can’t help but admire its sheer bugfuckery. For example, the immortal Eternals can only age if they psychically attack each other; once older, they imprison each other in a menagerie where all the other “Renegades” are kept. Looking at the scene where Zed discovers the Renegades, you can’t help but wonder: how the hell did they get away with this? Zardoz is Boorman’s baby all over, from the film’s hippy-dippy themes of universal connectivity right down to the transcendentally avant-garde set pieces. You may think you want Joss Whedon to direct Avengers 2, but after Zardoz, you might think twice.

10/03/12 4:00am

The Gate (1987)
Directed by Tibor Takács
Friday, October 5, at 92YTribeca, part of its Basic Cable Classics series

Why aren’t there more H.P. Lovecraft-inspired kiddie horror flicks? If nothing else, The Gate suggests that prepubescent paranoia meshes very well with Lovecraftian fears of an invisible world of ancient terrors. In fact, in the film’s first scene, a young Stephen Dorff tiptoes through a mysteriously empty house as if in a dream, terrified that he’ll have to face alone whatever monsters he may find. That fantastically creepy opening scene is a potent distillation of a typical Lovecraft character’s preoccupations.

Nobody is in the house to comfort Dorff’s character, so nobody can confirm that what he’s seeing is in fact real. It’s not a dream either, which makes the systematic way screenwriter Michael Nankin and director Tibor Takács disarms their pint-sized hero pretty impressive. Nothing, not his parents, not the Bible, not his best friend, not his big sister, nor even bad metal music can save Dorff. So while the film’s cabal of knee-high, glassy-eyed, hunchbacked monsters make it seem as if Sam Raimi covertly remade Invaders from Mars, to a child these evil gremlin-things might as well be Lovecraft’s Old Gods.

The Gate reveals that the comforts of the suburbs are a crock. You may not know this, but in 1987, humanity’s last hope was a little boy with a toy model-rocket infused with the power of “truth and love.” So next time you think about Somewhere, go easy on its star. If you’d seen what he’d seen and done what he’d done at such a tender age, you’d be a mute sex fiend, too.