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Tuesday, Oct 7, 2008

Throughout the years, there have been certain movies where hype has played a more significant role in its popularity and notoriety than the actual film itself. One such area where this occurs frequently is the horror genre. When it was released in 1974, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a major commercial success. But it also developed a reputation as being the goriest, most disgusting exercise in excess ever created. Anyone who has actually seen the film can attest to the fact that it’s rather tame by today’s effects standards and is more unsettling in tone than in its use of blood.


A few years later, a cheapo Italian horror film called Pieces, again about a chainsaw killer, sold itself to the public based on the tagline “it’s exactly what you think it is.” And true to its word, it was a repulsive exercise in human vivisection. Now another title long debated for its content and its context within society makes it to DVD. The subject of a report on 60 Minutes, numerous episodes of talk shows, and bans by British and other foreign markets, The Toolbox Murders boasts a title perfect for terrifying exploitation and a reputation as a grueling exercise in sleazy, demented cinema. But the question is, does this film earn its infamous status? Or is it all just propaganda?


An apartment complex in Southern California is hit by a string of gruesome murders. Each of the women is killed by a man in a ski mask wielding various tools: a hammer, a screwdriver, a drill, and most shockingly, a nail gun. Seemingly unconnected, the police are baffled. However, when a teenage girl is kidnapped, there is an entirely new mystery to solve: why was she taken, and does it have anything to do with the string of killings? The answer brings the apartment owner, his nephew, and the missing girl’s brother together in a showdown over who and most importantly why this all happened.


It is 1977. Producer Tony Didio is reading the Los Angeles Times when he notices that some three years after it first played in town, Tobe Hooper’s 1974 hit is back for a second, seemingly successful run. He contacts the distributor and Mr. Didio discovers that this genre classic is still earning untold sums of money. This fact compels him to try making one of his own. He gets in touch with a writing team he knows, hires out a print of the film, sits them down in a theater, and gives them one simple mandate: create a variation on this idea and movie. Thus The Toolbox Murders is born.


When it is released, it creates a sensation. Angry protests denounce its misogynistic view toward, the victimization, and the exploitation of women. Critics complain of its sleazy and graphic violence. Fans, in these innocent days before Dawn Of The Dead, Friday The 13th, and a bevy of other splatter films, relish the gore and makeup effects. Britain, long notorious for its banning of so called “video nasties,” makes The Toolbox Murders one of its lead offenders.


But then a funny thing happened. Time, that criminal to all “of the moment” material, took the film and shuttled it off into afterthought land. Once Jason and Freddie and their bastard kin took over the movie screens of the 1980s and ‘90s, The Toolbox Murders became a forgotten “classic,” and then merely forgotten. Video releases of the film extended its life for a while, but soon, just like many titles in a local or chain rental outlet, it became another silly, sloppy horror film. Sure, videotape undersold its visual style with lousy prints and cropped images, but just like most exploitation motion picture product, created to fill the market and make a buck, any significance or lasting appeal it had within the culture seemed gone once the final balance sheet was tallied. The film became buried and dismissed under a mound of knockoff maniac murder movies.


In many ways, The Toolbox Murders is a cut above (no pun intended) your average exploitation horror film. The cast here are all television and film veterans. Cameron Mitchell plays the apartment superintendent with a bad habit of murdering his tenants. Wesley Eure (Land of the Lost), Pamelyn Ferdin (too many TV and movie credits to mention), and Nicolas Beavy (The Cowboys) are the hapless teens caught in the middle of the carnage and chaos. They are all outstanding. First time film director Dennis Donnelly, another old pro from television, does a good job of creating mood and setting tone. He does rely a little too often on the made for television medium shot, but there are times when he opens the frame and creates interesting widescreen compositions. Even the special effects, for the mid-‘70s, are fairly good. While not overly bloody, the film does have several upsetting shots of gore, much more than other films from its time (like Chainsaw, or Halloween for that matter). Still, the jury remains out on this film. While it is effective, it is also bisected into almost two completely different stories. And there is a crucial scene that may, or may not, hold them together.


The first tale indeed revolves around the tool murders. We go through a good thirty minutes of stalking and slaying. No explanation, no exposition, just an over the credits set up followed by four gruesome killings. As they stand, they are par for the cryptic course. There is ample nudity (and even some sexual content, although it is only of the “self-loving” variety) and the prerequisite cat and mouse mechanics over where and when the killer will strike next. Donnelly even adds some weird sequences, like the masked maniac taking the victim out into the stairwell to kill her, only to bring the bloody body back into the apartment, to underscore the disturbed nature of what is taking place. But once the police begin their investigation, and Pamelyn Ferdin’s character (Laurie Ballard) is kidnapped, the film takes a more introspective, psychological thriller turn. And as stated before, it all rests on one key scene to hold it together. (Those who do not want to know more about the plot or the surprises may want to stop reading here and pick up the review in a couple of paragraphs).


The scene in question lasts over fourteen minutes and takes place in Cameron Mitchell’s home (his character’s name is Ben Kingsley). Some time before the killings, Ben lost a daughter in a car accident. The loss eats him up inside. So one night he goes on a murderous spree, slaughtering residents in the apartment complex he owns. When he returns the next evening to commit even more atrocities, he sees Laurie Ballard. Instead of harming her, he kidnaps Laurie and ties her up in his house. To Ben, Laurie is his long dead daughter, and he must protect her. He dresses her in frilly clothes and surrounds her with stuffed animals and dolls. After making her lunch one day, Ben sits on the bed and tells Laurie that he is doing to protect his “little girl,” including the murders of those “bad women” in the complex. Bound and gagged, Laurie can only sit in utter shock and silence as Ben pours out his heart, and his insane brain, in long soliloquies of pain and perversity over the loss of innocence and the death of his family.


Acting wise, Cameron Mitchell and Pamelyn Ferdin are excellent in the scene. Mitchell chews the scenery and then hits the film stock for a little more cinematic mastication. He is determined to sell the sequence as being an honest peek into a very disturbed mind. Pamelyn Ferdin, on the other hand, does a brilliant job of portraying silent terror using only her body language. The rigid manner in which she sits, the glazed and alarmed look in her eye, the single tear dripping down her cheek, underplays everything that Mitchell’s method is shooting into the ionosphere. The two competing styles create a consistent tone of realism to the scene, so that we begin to understand and sympathize with the characters. But the real question becomes this: do we buy it? Do we willingly throw away what we came to see—toolbox murders—for this new twisted tale of mental illness and psychological torture?


Unfortunately, the answer is a kinda sorta almost. Indeed, the last half of the film is an exercise in tension and unexpected plot turns, never once cheating or swaying from hinted at character motivation. In essence it’s a narrative bait and switch. You came to see naked women getting hacked up by a madman. Do you now want to stay around and watch the powerful acting and subtle suspense? They even hint at the theme of incest (not with Mitchell, thankfully) to further expand the psychological dimensions.


Indeed, if The Toolbox Murders has one major flaw, it is in the division between the gory slasher and neurotic thriller film. Imagine if, after the first few killings, Dr. Loomis and the rest of the cast actually caught Mike Myers and spent several minutes discussing Mr. Shape’s problems. Or what if, after a couple of campfire crushings, Jason decided to exorcise his internal demons to a group of captured campers, not with a machete, but with a monologue? Do we want our murder getting on our psychological mind games and visa versa? This is the quandary facing Toolbox. The first half is gruesome. The last half is unsettling. But they really are almost two different movies. Once the kidnapping occurs, there is no physical reference back to the initial murders. The last few killings are with fire, knives, and scissors, and even one of those occurs off screen.


It feels like the makers of the film are saying, “Okay, you got your toolbox killings, we roped you in…now sit back because it’s time for the real story.” And it all begins with the scene between Ben and Laurie. It is at this moment where you as an audience member will either stay with the film (this reviewer sheepishly did) or decide you have been had. If you accept it, you’ll be rewarded with a satisfying, startling conclusion. If you don’t, the last forty minutes of the film will drone on and on.


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Monday, Oct 6, 2008

It arrived during the final phases of classic ‘70s horror, an era that had seen The Exorcist, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and Halloween reestablish the genre’s credibility as a cinematic art form. John Carpenter’s slasher suspense story specifically reinvigorated a flagging industry interest in scary stuff, and the marketplace was preparing for a flood of finely tuned copycats. But standing out there all alone in the macabre wilderness was independent filmmaker Don Coscarelli. Having had some minor success with more family-oriented fare, the young director noticed that an inconsequential moment of fear during one of his more genial movies really gave audiences a start. Wanting to capitalize on such a crowd reaction, he parlayed a dream he once had, along with a collection of ideas and icons he had collected from years as a drive-in B-movie buff, into an experiment in terror. Labeling his final product Phantasm, he sent his monster movie out into the commercial landscape to see what would happen. The results were unexpected.


Something strange is happening over at the Morningside Cemetery and Funeral Home. People have been disappearing and interned bodies have gone missing. The enigmatic director of the parlor, a strange figure only known as The Tall Man, appears to stalk the small suburban California town, and this makes Jody Pearson, his little brother Michael, and their pal Reggie very uneasy. When a mutual friend is found dead in the local graveyard, all eyes shift to Morningside. A late-night visit inside the mausoleum reveals some stunning supernatural surprises. The paranormal follows the Pearson boys as they try to make sense of what’s going on. It’s not long before young Mike is seeing the Tall Man everywhere he goes. With his older sibling firmly in the madman’s demonic sights, Mike knows something sinister is definitely afoot.


Phantasm was the Scream of its era, an ironic nod and wink to the formulas and familiarities of the creature feature deconstructed by a man who really understood the genre he was jeering. Since the slasher film was still a glowing glimmer in Tinseltown’s tainted eye, director Don Coscarelli relied on the previous two decades of drive-in horror, a catalog of films filled with monsters, graveyards, psychotic killers, and even a smattering of science fiction, to foster his vision. They became the bricks for his new form of fear, the building blocks for a surreal narrative that sacrificed sense in order to keep the shivers alive and electrifying. While some didn’t mind that the plot seemed pointless, a creative clothesline upon which various shock set pieces could be fashioned, others saw beneath the scattered surface to recognize what Coscarelli was really after.


Between the tender familial drama, the clever character turns, and one glorious moment of gore, at its core, Phantasm was and remains a movie about the nature of dread. It’s an experiment in what makes us afraid. It uses any and all terror tenets—suspense, bloodletting, the unknown, the unstoppable—as gears in an ever-churning macabre machine. Perhaps the clearest indication of Coscarelli’s success remains the enigmatic villain he created, the iconic Tall Man. It’s rare when a movie can leave behind such a lasting impression. For Phantasm, this lumbering ghoul remains its legitimate legacy.



But there is more here than just Angus Scrimm in a badly fitting suit. For anyone who grew up with old-school horror, Phantasm felt like and continues to play like a primer. Coscarelli obviously knew what fans expected and what the average person believes to be scary or unsettling, and went with a clear kitchen sink creepy approach. From the opening which mixes sex and slaughter to the sequence where a severed finger turns into a ravenous beastie, there are no set rules in the Phantasm universe, no logic to the way terror becomes part of the real world’s temporal plane. Coscarelli has often said that he was influenced by surrealism, recognizing the inherent power in particular imagery juxtaposed together.


Phantasm is full of such moments: Mike’s vision of the Tall Man in an antique photo; the Lady in Lavender’s subtle shape shifts; the fog encased vision of Reggie’s ice cream truck overturned and motionless; the menacing marble mortuary with its floating metallic “caretaker.” Though they seem to have no link to each other (and let’s not get started on the whole Jawa/space slave issue, okay?), and individually would appear more singular than substantive, Coscarelli manages to make them seem wholly organic to the strange circumstances we are stuck in. As a result, their inherent power to unsettle stays with us long after the final false ending has arrived.


The key to making this all work starts with solid performances from a completely complementary cast. Your performers have to play with, not against you, adding to the overall effectiveness of the terror. In this case, Coscarelli found a good friend (the excellent Reggie Bannister), a well-meaning musician (Bill Thornbury), and a precocious kid he had worked with before (A. Michael Baldwin), and forged a unique and totally authentic bond. Some may wonder about the front porch jam, Reggie and Billy banging away on some self-penned blues stomp, but the truth is, nothing establishes communion better than the sharing of something as personal as music. We immediately understand the connection and recognize the attachment both have for each other.


Similarly, Billy and Michael play siblings with a love of cars (in this case, a completely bad-ass Barracuda) and tinkering, and it’s a mutual experience that helps fuse them together as a family. With other standard ‘70s touches like dead parents, issues of abandonment, and the usual adolescent concerns of growing up and taking responsibility, Coscarelli creates a character dynamic we truly believe and support. Since we accept the relationship of the trio, we have a much easier time of falling into the fear.


Still, Phantasm remains a director’s film, a highlight reel that also manages to be an effective fright flick. Coscarelli, who had made a couple of midlevel mainstream movies before diving into dread, obviously knows his way around a camera. His placement throughout this film is fascinating. He uses low angles and obscure framings to keep things uncomfortable, and applies handheld and other POV techniques to keep the audience directly involved in the action. This is particularly true of a late-night car chase between the Pearson boys and the Tall Man’s driverless hearse. As Jody climbs out of the Cuda’s sunroof to level a shotgun at the vile vehicle, Coscarelli’s lens is right there, standing directly between the trigger and the target.


There’s also a sense of Hardy Boys-like adventure here, a concept of personal ingenuity and everyday invention that keeps viewers curious and connected. When Michael is locked in his room and looking for a way out, his MacGyver-like creativity results in one of the movie’s most memorable stunts. Similarly, when faced with having to outsmart the villainous maniac mortician, the boys rely more on their brains than their brawn to find a shorthanded solution. It’s all part of the queer contrasts at play here. Phantasm has a narrative locked in its own perplexing universe, yet its director constantly strives for some manner of realism and authenticity.


There will be some who complain about the special effects (though the movie’s most memorable bit of brain-draining is still as shocking as it was three decades ago) and the often ambiguous explanation for just what is going on at the Morningside Funeral Parlor. Yet Phantasm remains a viable entity some 28 years after its release because it represents something unique in the post-modern world of horror. By mixing up all the hocus pocus possibilities of the genre into a single supernatural stew, Coscarelli both reinvigorated and set the death knell for the next two decades.  But Phantasm remains his best known effort, a four-film (and growing) franchise that has its basis in one fabulously fascinating movie. At the time, it literally shook the scare fanbase. Today, it’s a testament to one man’s amazing ability.


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Sunday, Oct 5, 2008

The theory that sequels should exceed their originals is nothing new to the filmmaking machine. Most big budget blockbusters attempt the “pile on” conceit when creating a follow-up to a smash summer hit - more robots, more explosions, more stylized CG spectacle. The conventional thinking is that audiences want the same thing, just much more of it. The horror genre tries the same strategy. When Jason Voorhees kills several teenagers in any number of Friday the 13ths, you know that the next visit to Camp Crystal Lake will be bigger, badder, and bloodier. It’s the same with other fear franchises like The Evil Dead and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Fledgling series Feast wants to capitalize on the cult status of the original Project Greenlight to set up a gruesome collection of gross outs. Thankfully, Feast II: Sloppy Seconds doubles everything that made the first film so unforgettable.


The morning after the initial attack, a few survivors remain. The Bartender is picked up by Biker Queen, sister of Harley Mom. She and her gang of roughrider gals want revenge on the guy who betrayed their friend and fellow chopper chick. Elsewhere, a pair of dwarf wrestlers who also own the town’s only locksmith establishment are out to escape the creatures who interrupted their recreational fun (read: sex with a buxom babe), while a car dealer known as Slasher discovers his Secret-preaching wife is sleeping with his number one salesman. And Honey Pie, who escaped the melee the first time around, is back battling sexually aggressive monsters with the same slapstick struggles. As the small town is overrun with repugnant randy fiends, our rag tag group tries to infiltrate the only safe building left - a jail controlled by a junkie Meth-head whose desperate to keep them out. 


Geek shows don’t get more gloriously gruesome than Feast II: Sloppy Seconds (new to DVD from Dimension Extreme and The Weinstein Group). They also don’t offer up this many splatter rampage laughs. This is one funny, fudged up film, an outright amplification of everything John Gulager did when given the opportunity to make his original madcap monster movie. Simultaneously schlocky and sickening, with just enough creature carnality to make you question the sanity of everyone involved, Feast II simply picks up where the first film left off, tosses in a bunch of tattooed biker chicks, a pair of wrestling midgets, and enough vomit, blood, and beast bodily fluids to start a specimen lab. Then it treats everyone as a potential victim and goes gangbusters for the throat. The result is something rare in the world of cinematic scares - a completely fearless offering that has the audacity to exceed audience expectations while stumbling along to its own unique drummer.


The first thing you notice about Feast II is how Gulager riffs on recent independent mythos. There’s lots of Tarantino here, as well as some Rodriguez lifts and a couple of looks back to early era Raimi, Romero, Fulci, and Jackson. Yet as a filmmaker, the son of Clu understands how best to handle his homages, using the boffo bits to accentuate his often unhinged ideas. This is not to say that Gulager has nothing original to offer. Any film that has sex crazed creatures running around trying to copulate with everything that walks (including pets) while tearing said potential partners limb from bloody limb is exploring underserved terror-tory. Indeed Feast II is really obsessed with finding as many unusual ways to destroy a human (or creature’s) body as possible. And for the most part, we are willing to watch the funky foul slaughter in all its Unrated glory.


In a film full of extremes, the best/worst is perhaps the scattershot autopsy of a supposedly dead monster. As our wannabe surgeon slices open the corpse (with a blowtorch, of all things), we see various viscera. As the exploration goes deeper, there are torrents of bile, lots of post-mortem flatulence, and a shower of stinky beast spunk that would make a paid porn star jealous. Clearly looking to be as irreverent as possible, this is the point where fans will either stay on board, or balk at Gulager’s outright offensiveness. Feast II doesn’t want to play by the standard genre rules, should they mandate the protection of old ladies or little babies. Nothing is safe or sacred here, and in many ways, that’s the movie’s specialty… and saving grace.


Sure, some of the sequences don’t work. Honey Pie’s endless physical comedy torment in a local five and dime becomes dull - especially when we, the audience, see her potential escape routes staring her square in the face. Equally drawn out is a rooftop roundelay where all the remaining characters get a few faux emotional beats. After the frenetic pace of the opening, and the nonstop carnage that ensues, seeing individuals we barely know aching about their personal problems offers little direct interest. Still, when Feast II falls back onto its buckets of bloodletting, we gladly accept the atrocities. After all, the legacy of movie macabre is peppered with crazed claret carnival barking - and most fans find themselves lining up again and again.


Besides, everyone is clearly having a good time uncorking the awfulness. On the cast and crew commentary included on the DVD, Gulager and the gang marvel at the hideousness of this version of the film (read: lots more gore and boundary-pushing brazenness). They giggle at inside jokes and wonder aloud how they ever thought they’d get away with such nastiness. Of course, with Part Three on the way, they recognize the need to save some splatter for later. The disc also contains a look at all the Gulager’s involved (along with John, Dad Clu and brother Tom make an appearance) and you can tell the family enjoys working together. Finally, the Making-of featurette finds the residents of a small Louisiana town startled by the sudden influx of a major movie production - and lots of latex body parts.


Indeed, shaking up the standard genre dynamic is at the core of Feast II: Sloppy Seconds strategy. J-Horrors dark haired spook showboating is dead, and Eli Roth has taken torture porn and its surrounding influence back to the urban legend realm where such faux snuff films belong. Michael Bay is remaking every ‘70s’/‘80s franchise he can find (next up - The Puppet Master movies) while zombies still can’t catch a respectable break. Maybe making a good old fashioned literal flesh feast is the right way to go. Forget the explanations and rationales - bring on the offal and aim as low as you can. If you enjoyed the first film, Feast II will definitely provide your mandated Andre True connection. If you haven’t had the pleasure of being fully Gulagered yet, this is as good a place as any to start. Gore doesn’t get more goofy than this.


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Sunday, Sep 28, 2008

When one considers Asian cinema, certain countries instantly command our attention. China (and its Hong Kong companion), Thailand, Japan, and South Korea typically lead the conversation, names like John Woo, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Yuen Wo-ping monopolizing all meaningful discourse. With its history of colonial conflict and Domino Theory demonizing, Vietnam rarely gets a mention. For decades, the US ‘defeat’ in the region relegated anything associated with the tiny nation to a sour, shunned status. But over the last decade, we’ve warmed to the work of the former enemy of the state, celebrating everything from its food to its films. Now, the definitive Dragon Dynasty Collection is releasing the highest grossing film in Vietnamese history to DVD, and with its mix of history, culture, and martial artistry, The Rebel reveals a great deal about its sovereign source.


After failing to thwart yet another assassination, double agent Le Van Cuong begins to question his dedication to the French. In Colonial Vietnam during the 1920s, our hero lives the easy life - that is, as long as he plays ball with the ruling elite. But when a rebel girl captures his heart, he decides to give up his life of undercover work and regain his sense of national pride. Naturally, this makes his associate Sy very angry. Pressured by high ranking government officials to stop the freedom fighters or die trying, he soon finds himself tracking his fellow spy through the countryside. Of course, over the course of their journey, Thanh Van Ngo begins to question Cuong’s loyalties. Is he really interested in helping her famed father and his resistance, or is this all a trap, a chance for a well-placed mole to infiltrate her trust. With Sy hot on their tracks, it all becomes a question of faith and allegiance to one’s traditions and heritage.


On the outside, The Rebel is nothing more than a pretty period piece with lots of historical high points and potboiler plotting. It’s the kind of sweeping epic with a doomed love affair at the center and several fringe social statements that sustained Hollywood for several decades. With its attention to detail and feeling of fictional authenticity, director Truc Nguyen clearly understands the needs of the genre. There is nary a false step along the always enticing way. But since this is also a martial arts movie, albeit one draped in the kind of free wheeling fighting one rarely gets a chance to see, everything is amplified. Abruptly, the drama becomes even more serious, the threats and various double crosses that much more damaging. That the director can balance both elements speaks volumes for his talent and vision.


Luckily, he has a cast that’s quite capable of carrying out his various intentions. In the lead, Johnny Tri Nguyen cuts a very charismatic swath. Playing both sides of the situation until the last setpiece, he creates an enigmatic lead, one which we question throughout the entire storyline. Cuong is supposed to be the best at what he does, and we definitely see that in the beginning of the film. The opening assassination is handled with deft cinematic skill. And because of the actor’s suave persona, we believe he could be fooling his newfound rebel liaison. As the lady in his sights, pop star Veronica Ngo is absolutely amazing. Beautiful, but able to kick butt with genre authority, she’s a real find. Her scenes with Tri Nguyen certainly sizzle, and there’s chemistry to spare.


But the real revelation here is former 21 Jump Street star Dustin Tri Nguyen. Playing his first bad guy in nearly 20 years in the business, he handles the part with pure evil panache. Sy is so wicked, so lost in his own unhinged world of anger and hate (mostly aimed at his French advisors) that we sense he would do anything to rid himself of what haunts him. That makes his actions even more frightening, especially when he matches Tri Nguyen roundhouse kick for kick. It has to be mentioned that all the actors truly excel at what could best be described as a very gymnastic style of kung fu. Many attacks start out as cartwheels and flips, and when body blows are delivered, the victims fly through the air with incredible power and authority. Our director perfectly paces the moments of marital fisticuffs. They seem to flow naturally out of the body of the narrative. Even the last act train attack seems logical and within the limits of the story.


As they do with all their releases, Dragon Dynasty (a division of Genus Products and the Weinstein Group) overstuffs this two DVD set with mountains of added content - the most important being the full length audio commentary found on Disc One. Led by the consistent presence of Hong Kong film expert Bey Logan, our three leads show up to explain how such a sweeping piece of cinema was made on a ultra-low ($1.6 million US) budget. From the iron mine set to a horrific village massacre, the actors discuss location difficulties, the endless fight training, and the sense of history within the production itself. It’s a wonderful conversation, and truly supplements the source. Similarly, the interviews and featurettes found on Disc Two - while repeating some of what we already know - gives us a chance to understand these actors and the struggles they’ve had to overcome to be part of this effective film.


While it sometimes is too luxurious for all the violence it propagates, and frequently fails to flesh out subplots (Cuong’s opium addicted dad, Sy’s prostitute mother) that could have added even more to the movie, The Rebel is still a wonderful and exciting experience. It shows us a nation struggling for an identity, even before the Americans came in with their napalm and supposedly noble intentions. As a condemnation of colonialism, it’s rather insightful. As an example of amazing physical skill, it’s a stunner. It’s easy to understand why this movie was such a monster hit. Rarely does a country get a love letter as broad and cinematically sweeping as this. The Rebel reveals a Vietnam ready to take its Asian filmmaking fraternity head on. Here’s hoping Dragon Dynasty continues to cull more titles from all areas of this fascinating foreign canon.


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Saturday, Sep 27, 2008

Back then, it just wasn’t done. Society shunned the family that “forced” their handicapped child on the rest of the world, and doctors relied on the institutionalized warehousing of the developmentally challenged, assuring their loved ones that the patient would be better off in such a setting. There was no true home care option. Private hospitals were for the rich and privileged, insurance unwilling to foot such a lifetime claim. If you were a parent in the late ‘50s, and found yourself caring for a child with Down’s Syndrome, severe mental deficiencies, or any other unacceptable ailment (frequently misdiagnosed), your offspring were shuttled away to someplace like Staten Island’s Willowbrook State School. It promised professional treatment and training. What really happened once they got there would become the sordid stuff of scandal.


Even after Bobby Kennedy lambasted its treatment of its patients, Willowbrook continued its cost cutting, cruel care-giving ways. When local investigative reporter Geraldo Rivera was given a key to the facility (and a heads up from a doctor quitting over the conditions), what he found would change the face of mental health care forever. Like a concentration camp, there was squalor, misery, and death. Children were naked and covered in feces, filth filled the air with an appalling, putrid odor, and when attendants and nurses were finally located, their overwhelming workload resulted in neglect, detachment, and other subhuman standards. This was 1971. Oddly enough, Willowbrook would stay open for almost another decade. While reforms were rampant, seems society’s acceptance of individuals with disabilities took a little while longer.


That’s the main message of Unforgotten: 25 Years After Willowbrook (finally arriving on DVD courtesy of City Lights Media). Made in the mid ‘90s, when words like “retardation” were still in fashion, this flash forward focus on four families (and one unfortunate man) that were forever touched by their time with the infamous facility is meant as a kind of reflection and critical closure. A talking head assessment of what life was like back when Ike was the President and prosperity ruled the emerging suburbs, we hear the heartsick stories of struggle and a sense of helplessness. For many outside the system, Willowbrook looked like an answer. It had all the Establishment trappings. Three decades later, it’s clear that no amount of shame could shelter these unfortunates from a bureaucracy incapable of being compassionate for them.


The main stories center around Patty and her incisive sisters, Luis and his harried older brother, and most importantly, the unbelievable case of cerebral palsy victim Bernard. Taken to Willowbrook after being wrongfully judged, the young man spent 18 years under some of the worst conditions imaginable. When Rivera shows up at the facility, Bernard is one of the individuals he interviews. The truth is apparent from the moment he opens his mouth - there is nothing wrong with this boy mentally. He is clearly incapacitated by some terminal physical ailment. Now in his 40s Bernard has a message for everyone watching Unforgotten. While he is a successful consultant, he dreamed of being a lawyer. A place like Willowbrook was supposed to tap into and nurture his potential - whatever it was. Instead, he spent nearly two decades in “Hell”, and his hopes were stolen from him.


It’s a clarion call that resounds throughout this extremely powerful documentary. When we learn about Luis, his severe limitations, and the sacrifices made by his family just to keep him safe and cared for, we feel nauseous inside. Not for the boy’s obvious issues, but ill from a world in which people like this are often cast out and left without viable options. Luis’s family, including his stoic sibling who stands in for most of the interview, look like the benefactors of clearly compartmentalized choices. While they trust the new facility he is in, they still spend most days by his side. The scars from Willowbrook are just that deep. It’s a similar situation to Patty’s. One sister even states how embarrassed she was of her “unusual” relative. The resulting tears simply rip you apart inside.


Like the forgotten legacy of segregation, there is a clear sense of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ when it comes to the way in which circumstances such as these were dealt with in the past. For individuals of a certain age, the notion of a family simply “forgetting” that they had a handicapped relative was not unheard of. Some households even hid pictures of the “problem child”, sequestering him or her away like some Gothic mystery secret. They became the subject of whispered conjecture. No one spoke of such things in polite and proper circles, and as is the case with Patty’s late father, many men felt the birth of such as baby as a stain against their masculinity and potency. By the time of Unforgotten, a great many of these attitudes had changed. By 2008 - the year of the DVDs release - we’ve become even more aware and active.


Part of the problem with remembering is perspective. It is easy to dismiss what came before, especially when today’s policies promote respect, and grassroots groups win legislative battles and mandate services. City Lights wants individuals to participate in the process, and as part of the digital package offered, they present information on how to get involved. But the biggest service they do to the continuing cause is the presentation of Geraldo Rivera’s complete half hour report circa 1971. Even in light of what we know now, it’s devastating stuff. The images are straight out of a horror film, the so-called “snake pit” warned of by RFK is more like a torture chamber when Rivera arrives. Naked children are covered in filth. Patients are seen shoveling soggy food into their faces, their mealtimes cut down to mere minutes. When it was first opened, Willowbrook was rated for 2000 ‘students’. By the time Rivera uncovered the corruption, there was upwards of 5000.


As narrator Danny Aiello explains, there were lots of reasons Willowbrook wound up a national calamity. Rising costs produced budget cuts. Staff demands resulted in hiring difficulties, and then freezes. Soon, the patient to attendant ratio (originally set somewhere at four to one) had risen to 70 to 1. As Rivera points out in his updated Q&A, there was no way such a strategy would or could have worked. Outside the arrogance of thinking that human behavior could be promoted and protected in a clinical, insular environment, what the wounded of Willowbrook really needed was love - especially the comfort that comes from family. Some 25 years after the fact, the relatives of those affected are still learning said acceptance. Thankfully, we’ve come along way in making sure it will never happen again…we hope.


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