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Sunday, Apr 8, 2007


It’s been three days since it arrived on the web and yet the verdict is still out on Rob Zombie’s “reimagining” of John Carpenter’s classic slasher film Halloween. The new ‘teaser’ trailer, providing only the slightest glimpses of lead villain Michael Myers and the concerned psychiatrist chasing after him (the desperate Dr. Loomis is played this time around by Brit legend Malcolm McDowell), promises a lot – and Zombie himself instills a similar feeling of anticipation. After all, this was the man (rocker turned director) who delivered one of 2005’s best films, the excellent exploitation retread The Devil’s Rejects. Similarly, he’s a very serious student of the horror genre, as his flawed if still fascinating debut feature, House of 1000 Corpses, confirms.


But taking on a legend like Halloween doesn’t seem like the smartest move for this fledgling auteur. Unlike Marcus Nispel’s work in the remake of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, or Zach Synder’s efforts to bring Dawn of the Dead up to date, Zombie already has an established style. Call it schlock shock sensationalizing or Grand Guignol grindhouse, but he’s not the unknown quantity of say, Alexandra Aja or Christophe Gans. Here’s a man steeped in the creature feature concepts of the past, a person who’d fit in perfectly among classic TV horror hosts, the monster spook show spectacular, and as a standing member of the legendary 40 Thieves of exploitation. So why take on Carpenter’s signature film? Why bring so much potential criticism down on your recently revised reputation?


The answer appears to be twofold. First, it’s an obvious case of paycheck payback. Zombie’s Corpses was a trouble production from the very beginning, a full blown work of motion picture macabre in an era as yet unprepared to embrace same. For his tireless efforts, his release dates were endlessly bumped around, his vision eviscerated by mandated studio and MPAA cuts, and actual ownership of the title was tossed from distributor to distributor. That anyone got to see the final film is amazing in and of itself. But then Zombie played on that cinematic sob story, parlaying his problems into a gig creating an Evil Dead II style sequel. Unlike Corpses, The Devil’s Rejects had a clear intent – to mimic the drive-in grime and slime of the ‘70s slick sick flicks. As usual, success bred options, and taking a stack of greenbacks from MGM and Dimension for this remake was obviously something Zombie wanted – or needed.


The second response is far more compelling. A study of this new teaser trailer indicated a less stylized, more aggressive approach to the Michael Myers story. Carpenter, clearly a student of old school suspense and masters like Alfred Hitchcock, wasn’t aiming to dissect or probe the disturbed psychopathic mind. Instead, he wanted to manipulate the language of film to create the ultimate edge of your seat entertainment. He also wasn’t out to start the slasher fad (which, unfortunately, he did) nor did he think his initial effort would begat a continuing scare series. In essence, Halloween was a one shot deal that de-evolved into a callous cash grab. Any substance sustained from the way Carpenter imagined the story has long since disappeared into a ridiculous realm of repetitive revamps.


But Zombie’s concepts appear more honest, draped in reality and stripped of the first film’s slayer as superhuman characteristics. Delving deeper into Michael Myers backstory (the trailer offers fleeting glimpses of animal abuse and youthful violence – standard serial killer profile stuff) and envisioning his holiday night of terror in more everyday small town terms (another amazing shot comes near the end as a seemingly silent house reveals a death struggle at its doorstep), Zombie is apparently looking to bring Halloween into the vaguely voyeuristic 21 century.


Back when Carpenter created the story, there was a sense of neighborhood nonchalance in his tone, an acknowledgement that friends and family were beginning to close themselves off from one another over a palpable feeling of distrust. Gone were the days when front doors remained unlocked and homes were warm and inviting. In the nasty new world, undeniable dread was just a turn of the latch away, and Carpenter made grand use of such startling social designs. Zombie has no such logistical luxury. The present world is one in complete sync with suspicion and fear, a place where panic has unseated common sense as the overriding interpersonal emotion. Thanks to years of media fear mongering, and the government’s desire to use alarm as politics, he faces a populace already antsy and ready to react.


The teaser seems to tap into this idea in ways both obvious and indirect. We see a shot of Michael Myers entering a home, butcher knife poised to do some decidedly deadly damage. Quickly the camera pans over to a shocked girl sitting motionless in a stairwell, her defeated screams and lack of action indicating a repugnant resolve. It’s as if she’s already given up on life before our villain has a chance to take it from her. Similarly, there is a moment when our fiend is featured full faced (behind his shoddy Shatner mask, as always), Zombie’s lens focusing directly on the killer’s cold, empty eyes. In the background, McDowell is narrating, making his case for Michael as monster. But the two concepts don’t quite match. The words are alarmist, but we’ve actually seen that vacant look before. It’s a blankness that’s paraded out before us everyday during endless crime updates on the 24 hour news channels.


Still, the biggest hurdle Zombie faces here is making an idea that once seemed so novel – the unhinged spree killer – into something fresh and inventive. Thanks to endless Dateline ‘documentaries” and other fictionalized versions of the mass murderer’s mentality, we know this kind of character well. In fact, it’s become a thriller cliché; the mindless maniac with the singular desire to slay. From what we can decipher in the trailer, Zombie hopes to combat this by bringing clear-cut authenticity and realism to the narrative. By keeping the surroundings as recognizable and mundane as possible, while inserting within this scenario a shockingly non-supernatural “boogie man”, he hopes to bridge the gap between one trick pony and real onscreen terror.


It remains an uphill battle. Messageboards have been aflutter with negative views of this project ever since a copy of the supposed script was “leaked” onto the web. Those who revere the original have argued over every artistic choice Zombie has made, from dealing with Michael Myers as a young boy to jerryrigging some of the narrative’s most memorable shock elements. And since he proved at least twice before that he can handle original takes on horror and violence within the genre, many find it hard to dismiss the substantive stench of ‘sell-out’ clouding this entire enterprise. Following this fledgling filmmaker over the last decade or so, ever since Beavis and Butthead made his band a hilarious household name, it’s hard to imagine that Rob Zombie is only doing it for the dosh. Until August, when we get a more complete glimpse of his Halloween vision, we’ll be left wondering just how this entire nightmare scenario will play out. The odds, unfortunately, are in its favor, no matter the promise temporarily ‘teasing’ us.


View the Halloween (2007) Teaser Trailer Here


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Friday, Apr 6, 2007


It’s not the most visualized holiday in the motion picture canon. Perhaps it has something to do with the bifurcated nature of the celebration. On the one hand, you’ve got the solemn grace of the Christian conceit, a moving proclamation of faith and forgiveness as best illustrated by the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Then, for some perfectly pagan reason, this honorarium for the dead turned into a brightly colored pastel puke fest, as baskets laden with all manner of glucose grotesqueries became the annual endowment to dentists and dieticians everywhere. Even worse, the King of Kings was cast aside for some oversized animal with a tendency toward rapid preproduction and raisin pellet feces. Trying to explain this all to an impressionable youth has got to be one of the greatest challenges in all of parenting. No wonder they saddle their bratlings with all kinds of caffeine and caramels instead.


Hollywood’s been no help. They’ve treated Easter like a leper in the motion picture punchbowl, sticking with either the saintly (The Robe) or the silly (Easter Parade) to illustrate their interest. Of course, kids catch the brunt of it, with all manner of egg and eye candy creations used to keep their attention off the obvious death and dying subtext. Between standard animated offal (It’s the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown) and the unusual ersatz religious revamps (the Veggies Tales take on Dickens called An Easter Carol) it’s no wonder children choke down sweets. But here’s a way of avoiding all this conceptual contradiction. As part of our cinematic service to the planet’s populace, SE&L suggests tossing out the typical and trying a few new entertainment entries this holiday. While they probably won’t fill you with much spring spirit, they will definitely make the time period more tolerable. Divided into the recognizable symbols of the season, let’s begin with:


Rabbits – Night of the Lepus (1972)


So you think all bunnies are cute as a button and snuggly as freshly dried cotton fluff? Well, the gigantic clod hoppers at the center of the surreal creature feature hope to cure you of your one note view of the long eared brotherhood. In one of those typical “science gone screwy” concepts, standard desert pests are given an injection of hump-hindering genetic material to keep them from…well, you get the idea. Anyway, as kind of an infertility payback, the bunnies go ballistic, growing to over 50 feet in size and packing an equal quantity of ludicrousness. Traipsing in between all this Hellspawn hasenpfeffer are noted has-been movie icons Stuart Witman, Janet Leigh, DeForest Kelly and Rory Calhoun, each one testing their acting mantle in respond to good luck charms the size of an SUV. Even Mr. McGregor would have a hard time keeping these elephantine entities out of his precious cabbage patch.

Runner-Up: Evil Anthony conjures up a horrifying rabbit of Hate in Joe Dante’s entry from Twilight Zone: The Movie.


Eggs – Aliens (1986)


As a symbol of fertility and the creation of life, the familiar oblong shape we associate with this time of year can actually hold a deep dark evil. Take the final sequence in James Cameron’s brilliant follow-up to Ridley Scott’s haunted house in space epic. Our heroine, reluctant warrior Ellen Ripley, must take on the monstrous Alien queen to save her Newt, the orphaned child she’s come to care for. Walking directly into the creature’s incredible brooder, the character is confronted by hundreds of face-hugger filled pods. Ripley’s solution? Blast the bejesus out of them with a flamethrower and grenade launcher. Naturally, our birthing beastie gets good and pissed. High octane action ensues. If your own lasting memory of Easter Egging is the slight scent of vinegar and the reluctant discovery, six month later, of the particularly rotten remnants of same, then this battle between the species for the fate of the cosmos will provide a welcome alternative.


Runner-Up: Chad Everett takes on an underwater mutant hatched from a prehistoric omelet in The Intruder Within.


Sweets: The Ice Cream Man (1995)


What do you do when you’re a well meaning maniac, freshly released from the local loony bin and looking to make little children happy with your heartfelt, wholesome intentions? Why, if you’re the stiflingly psychotic Gregory, played with proto-punk brilliance by that human goofball Clint Howard, you don a Good Humor uniform and dish up the frozen treats. Oh, and if you run out of tri-colored Rocket pops – or mood altering medication – you can always add a few corpses to your creamery. Thus we have the perfect antidote for all the sugar-addled pre-adolescents who view the Easter extravaganza as part of a bi-annual excuse to push their internal diabetic tolerances to their very limits. One visit from this frozen custard creep and you’ll be rotting in the ground, instead of your tooth enamel. Besides, nothing can beat Ron’s resplendent little brother as a gap-toothed terror with a 31 flavors jones.


Runner Up: The sickly sweet killer cream at the center of Larry Cohen’s satiric The Stuff.


The Passion:  Dead Alive (1992)


If Mel Gibson’s mega-hit from two years ago taught us anything about the trial and persecution of Jesus Christ, it’s that the Romans really dug their gore. Their skin shredding lashing of the Lord God and Savior was as brutal as it was bloody. If you’re looking for a similar amount of mindless flesh tearing to remind you of the deliverer’s time under the lash, then cast your eyes upon this pre-LOTR classic from Oscar winning wunderkind Peter Jackson. Applying his love of unbridled bloodletting to a surreal story involving a whipped Mama’s boy, the gypsy girl he falls for, and the infected bite of a Samarian rat monkey, it’s not long before the grue goes gonzo and our hero is surrounded by all manner of reanimated zombies. Eventually, claret literally covers every inch of the set. Equally hilarious in its darkly comic creativity, you’ll get a mountain of meaningful violence out of this brilliant bit of bile.


Runner Up: The Japanese argue for the title of most depraved fright fans around thanks to the callous corpse grinding of the Guinea Pig series.


The Resurrection: Deathdream (1974)


In case the brain dulling chocolate rush you’re experiencing has given you a kind of spontaneous amnesia, the main reason most religious types sanctify this time of the year can be summed up in a single phrase – “after three days, he rose from the dead.” Of course, for even the most avid believer, coming back from the grave sounds suspiciously scary. So how about a movie that plays on these allegorical elements to significantly amplify the angst. A masterpiece of uneasy dread, the late Bob Clark’s Dead of Night (known by most under the title Deathdream) uses the old ‘monkey’s paw’ myth to tell the story of a fallen Vietnam soldier “returning” home to his family. In a clear case of being extremely careful what you wish for, our reanimated vet starts exhibiting behavior that would be unacceptable, even in the middle of a murderous war. And all his parents can do is pray – pray that he doesn’t target them for his evil vampiric desires.


Runner Up: The black zombie “redeemer” leading his fellow ghouls out of bondage in George Romero’s Land of the Dead.


The Redemption: The Omega Man (1971)


Ask any Christian you happen to see, and they will tell you that the reason Easter is important is that it signifies Jesus’ sacrifice for all of mankind. In essence, he died on the cross so that the entire world could live. Counteracting such a selfless stance may seem impossible – unless, of course, you’re the fabulous Chuck Heston. First, you warned the world about a certain meat by-product based snack in Soylent Green, and then you challenged mean-spirited mutants in a blitzed out LA as The Omega Man. Either one of these arch epics would satisfy your annual altruistic needs, but the best Messianic complex bet remains Omega Man. Loosely based on Richard Matheson’s masterful I Am Legend, our hopeful hero spends his days driving around an abandoned metropolis. At night, he battles albino throwbacks who want him to die for their new world order. Kind of sums the whole Easter ideal up in a nice little nutshell, doesn’t it?

Runner Up: An international team of scientists, military men, and hack actors all try to save the planet from a Virus that threatens to turn everything into one big Japanese disaster movie.


And there you have it – six films guaranteed to get that nasty taste of bargain basement discount department store pseudo-milk chocolate bunny out of your mouth once and for all. No matter your denomination, or beleaguered belief system, everyone could use a break from tried and true tradition. So give the MGM musicals a rest, and try not to subject yourself to another helping of James Caviezel’s snuff film style scourging at the hands of some psycho-Italianos. Nothing beats the boredom of another mindless spring fling better than something that smotes it right in the repetitive ribcage. With this sly sextet of offerings, it may be a halfway Happy Easter after all.


 


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Thursday, Apr 5, 2007


Well, well, well…what do you know? A weekend where the available choices range from pretty good to actually great. Isn’t that odd? Must be something in the air over at the premium pay movie channels – either that, or the crap film warehouse has run out of available made for cable dung to deliver. In either case, it’s time to feast while the banquet is bountiful. Indeed, choosing between the top three offerings on Saturday night may be quite a chore. While some would look at the titles and figure “no problem”, there is enough entertainment value in either the Sandler sob story or the Reeves/Bullock spook show to satisfy even the most discerning cinematic pallet. And with Russ Meyer and Roger Corman waiting in the wings, it’s a veritable smorgasbord of fun filmmaking to choose from. Starting with the mainstream blockbuster that redefined the career of a notoriously outspoken director, here is what SE&L will be celebrating come this Easter weekend:


Premiere Pick
Inside Man


Spike Lee spices up the heist film with his own unique brand of urban angst, and brings Tinsel Town A-teamers Denzel Washington, Christopher Plummer, Willem Dafoe, Jodie Foster, and Clive Owen along for the ride. He ended up with the biggest box office hit of his career, and an outpouring of critical affection almost unheard of in this auteur’s 20-plus years behind the lens. While some felt the ending was unsatisfying, especially in light of all that came before it, this is still one of the most entertaining and engaging films in the director’s diverse career. Along with his definitive documentary on Hurricane Katrina (When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts), 2006 showcased a maturity and an intelligence that argues for a new phase in the filmmaker’s always contentious canon. (07 April, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
The Lake House


Audiences avoided this Western remake of the Korean classic Siworae, ignoring the hype surrounding the much anticipated re-teaming of Speed co-stars Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves. Now, The Lake House seems ready for redemption. There is something cathartic about a good old fashioned weeper, and while many critics seem to shutter at the thought of something emotional, Argentinian director Alejandro Agresti mostly avoids the maudlin. (07 April, HBO, 8PM EST)

Click


Starting off high concept and only rarely venturing into the low brow, Click represents a kind of career stepping-stone for the superstar Adam Sandler. Getting to the point, age wise, when his goofy fratboy foolishness stops looking hilarious and begins feeling pathetic, this family farce tried mightily to move in directions the comic never before considered. Click is more than just a remote control gimmick – it’s every man’s middle aged crisis come to life. (07 April, Starz, 9PM EST)


Jiminy Glick in Lalawood


How former SCTV star Martin Short managed to milk this mediocre Comedy Central character into a full blown mock doc motion picture is anyone’s guess. He must have some racy photos of Hollywood Execs laying around his Canadian estate. Whatever the reason, this effete fatso with a penchant for corrupting his celebrity junket interviews in about as hilarious as a hemorrhoid. This film is the perfect example of a sketch being stretched beyond its talent tolerance levels. (07 April, ShowToo, 10PM EST)

Indie Pick
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls


Working within the confines of an actual motion picture studio for the first time in his career, and wanting to see just how far he could push the typical milquetoast mainstream, exploitation master Russ Meyer teamed up with buddy Roger Ebert to craft this story of an all female rock band’s pilgrim’s progress through the entertainment biz. Required to tone down the level of smut inherent in his other work, and unable to achieve the same outrageous surrealism he often strived for, Meyer managed to make a movie that both alienated audiences and flummoxed true fans. Thanks to time, and a little retrospection on the part of critics, what was castigated back in 1970 is now seen as campy, kitschy and decidedly deranged some 37 years on. While not the best example of Meyer’s infamous ‘babes and boobs’ dynamic, what we have here is highbrow schlock, carefully crafted by an auteur always aiming for somewhere around said aesthetic. (07 April, IFC, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
The Last Seduction


It was a cause celebre when it arrived, an argument against the Academy’s rules about release dates and allowable nomination medium. Since it made its first appearance on cable TV, star Linda Fiorentino and director John Dahl were automatically disqualified from Oscar consideration. This didn’t stop critics from campaigning for this unusual post-modern noir, or from Dahl becoming a filmmaker of note throughout the rest of the ‘80s and ‘90s. (8 April, IFC, 9PM EST)

Unborn But Forgotten


As part of the Sundance Channel’s weekly dive into Asian horror (under Tartan’s Extreme tag), we are presented with this standard Eastern spook show about a haunted website that kills you 15 days after you visit it. Does that premise “ring” a bell with anyone? Anyway, as South Korean creepfests go, this is no Two Sisters, but if you don’t mind seeing yet another example of stringy haired ghost girls doing the creature crawl, you may enjoy this overly familiar frightmare. (8 April, Sundance, 12AM EST)

Breathless


As one of French New Wave wonder Jean-Luc Godard’s certifiable masterpieces, Breathless remains a unique and undeniably original take on the crime caper. With Jean-Paul Belmondo as a car thief on the lam and Jean Seberg as his muse/moll, Godard takes the language of cinema and retranslates it through an ‘anything goes” ideal. The results are resplendent in their deconstructive power, a film that finally examines what makes movies artificial…and artful. (9 April, Sundance, 10:30AM EST)

Outsider Option
A Bucket of Blood


Though not as well loved as Roger Corman’s other horror comedies (in particular, the crackpot classic The Little Shop of Horrors), this incredibly whacked out wonder deserves more respect than it gets. Goosing bohemia and its beatnik brethren, AIP staple Dick Miller plays an artist who’s only inspired when corpses become part of his sculpting strategy. Naturally, fame and notoriety are his undoing. With that standard combination of craven terror and unsubtle satire that Corman did so well, what could have been another House of Wax turned into a crazy cult creation. Presented as part of TCM’s Underground movie series (one wonders if the deep in production Rob Zombie will make an appearance), here’s hoping that Walter Paisley and his tainted tableaus find the same accepting audiences that Seymour Krelboyne and his killer plant Audrey have enjoyed for over 40-plus years. (6 April, Turner Movie Classics, 2AM EST)

Additional Choices
Double Indemnity


Billy Wilder built his entire auteur reputation on being a filmmaker unhappy to stay stuck in one particular genre. While most remember his comedies, or his operatic dramas, this amazing film noir stands as a telling testament to his talent and tenacity. Featuring fabulous performances from Barbara Stanwyck and Fred McMurray, and enough twists and turns to keep the plot percolating, this suspense standard bearer remains one of the director’s numerous motion picture masterworks. (10 April, Retroplex, 9:40PM EST)

Kaw


First off – big ups to that title. Nothing screams ‘cheesy b monster movie’ better than a single syllable shout out to a creature’s signature sound. Here’s hoping the rest of this knotty narrative about a “conspiracy of ravens” overrunning a small town can live up to such humongous horror hype. Since it’s making its debut on the SciFi Channel, however, there’s not much hope in that. (7 April, SciFi Channel, 9PM EST)

Deep Impact


It remains the “emotional” disaster movie from 1998, one of two competing ‘asteroids hitting Earth’ epics to come out that year. Using subtlety over bombast, director Mimi Leder proved that even the most outrageous special effect film can have a heart. While it looks a little clunky nearly a decade on (the CG destruction of New York does not hold up), it feels more fully realized than Michael Bay’s awkward Armageddon. (9 April, TNT, 11PM EST)

 


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Wednesday, Apr 4, 2007

As part of SE&L’s tribute to the late Bob Clark, we republish this career overview piece from December 2006.



If it were possible for one filmmaker to represent both the best and the worst that film has to offer, if one director can be both an artist and a hack, brilliant and unbelievably bad, that man would be Bob Clark. For nearly four decades, this amiable auteur (or faux-teur, depending on your interpretation of his canon) has made both exemplary examples of cinematic excellent and movies so mind-bogglingly poor that Ed Wood and Dr. Uwe Boll should sue for bad film copyright infringement. It’s an interesting dynamic to consider, especially if you believe in the notion that talent trumps ancillary elements like acting, scripting and viability of material. Even in the course of his stumbles, Steven Spielberg’s unmistakable style notoriously shows through. But in Clark’s case, his efforts are like motion picture multiple personality disorder. You never know which version of the man - talented or intolerable – you’re going to get.


So, the real issue becomes - is Clark a good filmmaker occasionally falling into an abyss of artistic atrocity, or a major league motion picture bungler who turns luckily lucid on occasion. It’s a comparison that’s fraught with several sizable creative caveats. You see, aside from his 1983 take of Jean Shepherd’s hilarious short story collection In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash (reconfigured and retitled A Christmas Story), Clark’s recent legacy is overwhelmingly negative, from remarkably mediocre efforts like Turk 182, Now and Forever and It Runs in the Family to out and out outrages like Rhinestone, Loose Cannons, and the squalid Baby Geniuses films. There’s also the belief of time tempering critical consideration – both pro and con. Clark’s Porky’s, seen by many as a likeable lowbrow coming of age comedy upon its initial release (1982) now gets mentioned along with other known examples of excrement like The Karate Dog. On the opposite end, a one off exploitation effort like She-Man (1967) has found a new life (and respect) thanks to grindhouse preservationists Something Weird Video.


Black Christmas is a perfect example of this two-pronged dilemma. In 1974, no one was quite ready for a holiday-themed slasher film where an unseen killer stalks and slays a group of sorority girls, all the while spewing insane, schizophrenic ramblings. Dark, sinister and incredibly disturbed, Clark’s Christmas remains the natural link between Michael and Roberta Findlay’s slice and dice sex films (highlighted by the fabulous Flesh trilogy) and John Carpenter’s genre rejuvenating Halloween. Yet thanks to a marketing campaign that made the movie look like a blasphemous spree-killing First Noel sleazefest (the narrative occurs over the holiday season, but that’s where the Yuletide significance ends) and the lack of significant star power (John Saxon and Margot Kidder where the film’s known names), Christmas came and went without much more consideration.


Now, three decades later, it is finally acknowledged as a pure post-modern masterpiece, a weird and wicked exercise in terror by a man who (believe it or not) made his initial cinematic splash in the horror genre. Unlike the hippies vs. zombies zip of Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, or the Monkey’s Paw via Vietnam thrills of Deathdream, Clark’s clever Xmas creature feature fascinates the notoriously picky macabre fan because of everything it fails to do. After decades under the splatter spell of Freddy, Jason, Michael and others, it’s hard to imagine this sort of film without an identifiable killer at the center of the story. But Clark purposefully eschews showing us “Billy”, the babbling bad guy with no internal monologue whatsoever. Using an inventive, first-person POV whenever Bill is up to his life-taking tricks, the director keeps his villain invisible. All we see – or better yet, hear – are the horrific imaginary confrontations occurring in Billy’s head. Sometimes spoken out loud (in truly terrifying obscene phone calls to the sorority girls) and sometimes reserved for our killer’s demented thoughts, there is more inherent fear in this aspect of the film than in a dozen, derivative deaths.


But Clark doesn’t stop there. By providing no clear motive or connect to the victims, and never resolving the issue of identity, even at the end, Black Christmas balks at being an open and shut scare film. Instead, it uses the purposeful happenstance of Billy’s “arrival” at the sorority (it is just a random place to hide from a previous, perverted crime) and the indiscriminate way in which life is tripped up and taken to deliver unheard of suspense in a mid-70s movie. In many ways, Christmas stands right along side such well-known terror titles as The Exorcist, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Carpenter’s Hitchcock homage. Yet because of his incredibly uneven track record, Clark and Black Christmas can’t get the respect they deserve. Instead, a seemingly unending stream of subpar efforts blot out the occasional positives in the man’s varied oeuvre.


Indeed, just like a massive pendulum, Clark’s critical favor always seems to do a deserved about face, moving from ‘easily celebrated’ to ‘undeniably shitty’. Loose Cannons illustrates just how low his reputation can go. Much worse than the Sylvester Stallone/Dolly Parton pariah Rhinestone (which could have never worked, considering the casting and the concept – singer must turn cabby into crooner) and easily usurping the intelligent infant idiocy of the Baby Geniuses films, Cannons is cause for concern from the minute the movie announces its premise. In this dim crime comedy, Hitler made a porn film and it has fallen into the hands of some underground nogoodnicks. Two detectives – Gene Hackman and Dan Ackryroyd - must buddy up and figure out the shady pseudo-pornographic doings before the 90 minute running time expires. Oh, and Danny boy suffers from a surreal psychological disorder which causes him to impersonate famous characters from cartoons and TV shows. 


Yes, it’s as baffling - and BAD - as it sounds, which is shocking when you consider that the screenplay was written by the Mathesons – famed father Richard (I am Legend) and his son Richard Christian. Obviously formulated as a starring vehicle for the rapidly receding power of the former SNLer, Cannons can’t decide if its plot, or its peculiar idea of comedy (Ackryroyd ad-libbing and riffing through a painful parade of “alternate” personalities) is its most important element. It’s literally a movie making up its cinematic rules as it goes along. Oscar winner Hackman seems flummoxed by everything around him, from Danny’s vile voices to Dom Deluise as the most sexually suspect flesh peddler in the entire adult industry. Even worse, the whole Fuhrer f*ck film angle is so shockingly out of character for the narrative – Cannon‘s constantly positions itself as a simple cop/buddy actioner – that its justifiably jarring, and along with the uncompromising amount of onscreen violence, Clark seems to forget the first rule of film – consistent tone is everything.


In fact, that appears to be the problem with many of the man’s movies. When a supposed family film about super smart bratlings hangs the majority of its so-called humor on the suggestion of severe child endangerment, when the schmaltz of a heavyweight Hollywood melodrama – in this case, the legendary Jack Lemmon weeper Tribute – gets lost in a journeymen like lack of staging and emotional substance, overall atmosphere begins messing with your movie. In something like Deathdream, or Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, Clark finds ways to invest his fear with infrequent funny stuff, yet he never once undermines the general mood. But in uneven efforts like From the Hip or the Porky’s films, Clark’s concept of continuity appears to be set on ‘random’. He will introduce uncomfortable sexuality one moment, absolutely uncalled-for slapstick another.


Yet none of this addresses the question of why Clark’s career is so sporadic. It doesn’t explain Black Christmas (or his sensational Sherlock Holmes effort, Murder by Decree), or unravel the mysteries of Rhinestone‘s repugnance. It would be easy to say that Clark is a “personal” filmmaker and be done with it, suggesting that he succeeds when he’s personally interested in a project, and tapers off when his dedication wanes. Maybe there is something to the whole ‘source material’ argument. After all, how could a movie about Nazi nudie films possibly be good? Truth be told, when one pays close attention to Clark’s career, he really is just a lucky stiff whose many missteps fail to fully destroy his irregular reputation. Heck, even A Christmas Story was initially dismissed as a soft, silly seasonal effort and more or less failed at the box office. It took a few years away from the spotlight, and millions of reruns on Ted Turner’s cable networks, to reestablish the film’s family classic stance.


What’s clear from all this filmic archeology is that Bob Clark makes bad movies. His 40 years in the business are riddled with them. Fortunately, he’s also delivered a couple of major (and minor) masterworks. Instead of viewing him like a series of peaks and valleys, it’s best to imagine him as lying in an endless ravine of rot, floundering around like a wayward cinematic soul, only capable of occasionally seeing the light of legitimacy. Time will not rescue him. It is hard to imagine that, decades from now, people will be comparing Loose Cannons or Baby Geniuses to other important artifacts. In fact, it’s safe to say that Clark will be less heralded, and more hated, for his numerous works of noxious nausea. But oh those amazing mountains. It is clear that many a genre maven would gladly trade a gargantuan gorge of Porky’s just to view the summit of something like Black Christmas one more time. Perhaps this justifies Clark’s entertainment existence. Or maybe it makes it that much more confusing. One thing’s for sure – such a puzzling quandary will definitely be Bob Clark’s true lasting legacy.


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Tuesday, Apr 3, 2007


At a recent shareholders meeting, current President and CEO of the Walt Disney Compnay, Bob Iger, dared suggest what many film fans have long considered impossible. Though no specific plans were announced, the House of Mouse big wig seemed to indicate that after a long stay in unacceptable entertainment exile, 1946’s live action fantasy feature Song of the South MAY finally see a DVD release. Amid much hemming and a great deal of hawing, Iger stated that “the question of ‘Song of the South’ comes up periodically, in fact it was raised at last year’s annual meeting. And since that time, we’ve decided to take a look at it again because we’ve had numerous requests about bringing it out.” But the product path is not cleared just yet. “Our concern was that a film that was made so many decades ago being brought out today perhaps could be either misinterpreted”, he continued, “or that it would be somewhat challenging in terms of providing the appropriate context.”


For those unfamiliar with the pro-PC stink surrounding the film (even though it’s been shown as part of the standard Disney re-release theatrical schedule in 1956, 1972, 1980 and 1986), the main complaint stems from something that stains most pre-‘60s cinema – obvious awkward racial stereotyping. At the center of the narrative is kindly literary figure Uncle Remus, a happy go lucky slave seemingly oblivious to life as part of his Master’s post-War plantation. He regales the coy white children of the house with his mischievous tales of Brer Fox, Brer Bear, and Brer Rabbit. Using their patented pen and ink skills, Uncle Walt’s animators created a kind of seamless branching between the character of Remus (played by James Baskett) and the cartoon trickster tales he spun. With the entire feel good enterprise wrapped up in an Oscar winning tune (the immortal “Zip-Pa-Dee-Do-Dah!”) Song of the South appears innocent enough.


But once you look below the surface and examine all aspects of the South story, you begin to see why the film remains missing in action. To begin with, the Remus books, written by post-Reconstruction journalist Joel Chandler Harris, have not held up over time. Using a horribly inappropriate dialect slang to realize his narration, and portraying slavery as almost idyllic, Harris’ tomes suffer from good intentions couched in basic bad judgment trappings. No one is suggesting that the actual plotlines he presented are racist – indeed, like all good fables, they offer up life lessons that little ones can relate to and appreciate. Yet it’s the exterior aspects of the Remus issue that taint and trump the inner motives. While many can forgive some of the more misguided ideas, there is an overriding feeling of frivolity that just doesn’t mix with American’s historically harmful treatment of minorities.


The film doesn’t lessen the impact. In fact, many argue that by visualizing the patronizing ‘pie in the sky’ ideal of Remus’ reality, what could be almost forgiven on the printed page becomes undeniable in Technicolor reality. Critics championed Baskett’s portrayal, claiming he brought humanity and dignity to a role that required very little of same. And since Disney was creating this during Hollywood’s shameful treatment towards people of color, many appreciated the fact that Remus wasn’t copying the “Stepin Fetchit” style of slow, lumbering black man. Still, nothing can remove the humilation associated with having a subservient African American character kowtowing to the whims of some spoiled little white children (there’s even a token slave child just to maintain some kind of corrupt cinematic balance).


It’s clear then where the problems lie. In the 60 years since Walt Disney envisioned bringing Harris’ heartwarming tales to the silver screen, race has become a solid social undercurrent in the United States. Where once it was an unspoken scourge, a misguided communal corruption that found no problem in separating individuals (and the services to same) based on the color of their skin, it’s now a given facet of any interpersonal interaction. For as many strides that have been made to equalize the scales, to take ethnicity out of the equation and keep bias against individuals based solely on their own actions/attitudes, we still live in highly prejudicial times. No matter the positives achieved during the ‘60s, or the setbacks suffered in the ‘80s, one cannot deny that race remains a weeping wound on the American dream.


So any film that wants to champion a perplexing pitch of revisionist history should definitely be discussed before returning to the cultural marketplace of ideas. But there seems to be a higher benchmark towards potential family fare than entertainment geared more toward adults. For the longest time, film fans and cinematic scholars feared that 1936’s Green Pastures would never see an official home video release. Based on a novel by Roark Bradford (another 19th Century Southerner) with the troubling title Ol’ Man Adam and His Chillun’, and adapted for stage by another white man, Mark Connelly, this all black cast retelling of the Old Testament was long considered unreleaseable. For starters, the Good Book narrative featured the broadest ethnic archetypes around, with various characters called “shiftless”, “trifling” and “wicked”. God is seen as serene and subjugated, while his angels speak in jargon-based buffoonery that saps them of all pride.


But perhaps the worst part of the production is the over reliance on so-called modern euphemisms – in essence, obvious intolerant depictions of African American traditions and customs as a short cut to three dimensional characterization. In heaven, every day is a fish fry, and watermelon is plentiful. On earth, juke joints become the primary focal points and Biblical figures like Noah and Moses are taunted by jive spewing no-accounts with loose dice, switchblades and ever present bottles of liquor by their side. For all of Remus’ mindless ‘Massa’ merriment, Green Pastures is nothing short of a primer on prejudice. So how did Warner Brothers finally manage a recent DVD release with all this potential controversy in play? Why, they let the film speak for itself, and offered up clear scholarly support for the narratives many positives and negatives via an in-depth audio commentary


Disney’s movie doesn’t have such luxuries. You see, at its core, Green Pastures is a film about faith. It wants to depict matters of the soul in ways that will emphasize and support the way religion and belief uplifts and binds us. No matter how stupefyingly stereotypical they may seem, the depictions of the Archangel Gabriel and ‘Da Lawd’ himself are housed in an undeniable coating of spiritual joy. They are so open and genuine with their conviction, so single minded and celebratory in the devotion, that one cannot help but feel their strength. Such a hefty foundation helps overcome many of the movie’s more troubling elements, and allows stateliness and solemnity to trump intolerance again and again.


Song of the South seems incapable of this kind of subtext. Instead, it flounders amid a full blown fantasy illustration of Antebellum benefice. It’s hard to imagine times being this good for any black man before or after the Civil War, but Remus is shown as carefree and oblivious to any sort of suffering. True, this could form the basis of an argument that, just like Green Pastures, Song of the South exists in a world wholly its own, made up and modified to look like reality – well, the majority’s version of the real world. But unlike Gone with the Wind, which stretches its Hollywood classicism to legitimate breaking points, or Birth of a Nation, which is significantly sunk by its mean-spirited minstrel show ideals (not to mention the pro Klu Klux Klan conceits), Song of the South wants to be forgiven for its flagrant disregard for the facts. In fact, it asks that innocence be substituted for all the clear contextual problems.


The most compelling argument for maintaining the reissue boycott however centers on the status of video – and now DVD – in the lives of children. When Disney discovered that parents would pay through the teeth to provide their wee ones with a non-stop supply of surrogate babysitter fodder, they marched out every title in their canon, purchased a few more to continue the commercialization, and even went so far as to draft new direct to market merchandise. While the bottom line was served and served well, the repercussions of such a decision were never questioned. Neither was the impact all this unattended viewing was having on pre-adolescent brains. It is clear that, without a host of supplementary support, Song of the South could cause impressionable minds to become confused about race. Since parents rarely take the lead in educating their kids, Uncle Walt’s view of slavery would have to suffice.


That being said, Song of the South will indeed be released on DVD one day – if not now, definitely within the foreseeable future. There is too much money at stake, and if the House of Mouse can find the proper presentation, and select the right explanatory bonus features, the initial uproar will be masked by the sound of ringing cash registers. There will always be people who automatically feel disrespected and/or demeaned by the kind of craven characterization offered in this film, and they have an absolute right to complain. For almost a full century, Tinsel Town treated minorities like laughing stocks in a crass Caucasian view of acceptability. But other studios have found a way to avoid the stigma while standing by their less than likeable output. Disney’s dilemma is a little deeper though. No matter how many apologetic bells and whistles they surround it with, Song of the South still carries a disturbing disrespect that’s hard to hide.


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