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World on a Wire

rwfworldwireI have two minds when it comes to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s sole trek into “sci-fi.”  Throughout, his touch–stylized but never over the top–is assured.  He shot the film, originally a TV movie, in 16 mm, which gives it a grainy, lurid texture; and Michael Ballhaus’s cinematography stuns.  It’s rich with blue hues, and makes the most of modernist German architecture.  I get that the story, a semi-sluggish trip into a “world on a wire” (a fragile, bent state of mind that may be the real world in which the hero seeks a real “reality”), is supposed to be disorienting.  That’s part of the fun.  But I wish the film had more zip.  Less mannered and less flashy than A Clockwork Orange, (perhaps the only other great look at a future-is-now dystopia from around that time), it lulls you along without ever making you notice you’re in the hands of a great filmmaker who’s as taken with the world of artifice as he is the concept behind it.

Rating: B+

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Trampled Under Foot – Led Zeppelin

led_zeppelin-trampled_under_foot_s-3Auto-body music from the varied, at times maddening Physical Graffiti.  The track reeks of diesel, coke, and funk, and is one of the heaviest numbers in a very heavy catalog.  The B side, “Black Country Woman,” is great fun, a catchy ditty that doubles as an acoustic blues.  Interesting fact: Zep, a devoutly AOR act while Bonzo was still alive, didn’t release any singles in the U.K. until long after they had disbanded; but in 1975 “Trampled Under Foot” was pressed for single release in the U.K. then yanked at the last moment.wow-its-zep

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From Beyond

FromBeyondThe problem with sex fetishes, beyond the perhaps obvious, is that to anyone who does not share them they are ridiculous. S&M freaks, furries, Japanophiles (guilty) — anyone who has a carnal interest in something that isn’t simply a human secondary sexual characteristic thinks they are being daring, and that others do not get it because of some flaw, when the truth is, if it doesn’t do it for you, it just looks stupid. And uncomfortable. And often gross.

Wedding H.P. Lovecraft to sado-masochism is From Beyond‘s big idea, and it’s the biggest part of From Beyond that does not really work. Mostly a titular adaptation (the tale is over and done with before the opening credits roll), From Beyond takes the Lovecraftian notion that danger lurks beyond not just the corners we can see but the ones that are invisible to us, and that as we learn more we bring ourselves closer and closer to danger, and weds it rather unhappily to the sad story of a scientist who can’t get it up. He seeks to see the Beyond because earthly sensual pleasures don’t do it for him anymore.

When I first saw the film, back in high school, I remember hating it and not getting it in equal measure. As a growed-up guy who has seen both parts of the world and what horror cinema has become, From Beyond fills me with longing. I long for movies where weird things that cannot be readily explained happen, and where disappointing visuals come from a failure of budget, not imagination.

Jeffrey Combs stars as Crawford Tillinghast, the rather woebegone research assistant for Dr. Pretorius (Ted Sorel, name stolen from Bride of Frankenstein) who, one dark and stormy evening, finally completes work on their joint project, the Resonator. It’s designed to excite the pineal gland with the intent of opening up new pathways of seeing, of experience. What it does is vibrate in such a way that it makes the invisible, monstrous world around the researchers visible.

After the machine powers up, Dr. Pretorious is found with his neck twisted in a spiral, head completely gone, and Crawford is arrested for the murder, locked away as a schizophrenic. Only Dr. McMicheals (Barbara Crampton) has a particular soft spot for schizophrenics, and an interest in Dr. Pretorious’s work, so she arranges to have Crawford sent back to the house, with a police escort, Bubba (Ken Foree), in order to see for herself just what the doctor was doing.

The antics that follow are half gore horror, half S&M soft-core. Pretorious was a sadist who believed the Resonator could bring him new levels of sensual pleasure. But, as I said in my opening paragraphs, one man’s sensual delight is another man’s laugh riot, and all of the S&M business leaves me so cold, it keeps all of From Beyond working for me.

What does work, though, are the buckets of gooey weirdness and outlandish oddity. Similar to Nightbreed, this late 80s special effects extravaganza was at the end of the world of cinematic practical effects. The monstrosities created for this movie run the gamut from fascinating to hideous to… maybe a little quotidian. (It’s a shame that when the Resonator first turns on, all we really see are eels and jellyfish.) Pretorious turns into all kinds of monsters, and eventually Jeffrey Combs becomes a hairless freak with an enlarged pineal gland spitting out of his forehead. He develops a taste for human brains — and likes to get them fresh.

It’s a gross-out movie, but more in the vein of Cronenberg than Friday the 13th, where every piece of penetrated flesh is ripped apart by a new idea, not by a knife or an axe. Maybe you could live the rest of your life without ever seeing two men share a single body and ripping each other to pieces from within (in a totally NOT gay way, honest), but it makes for interesting cinema. And it wouldn’t look nearly the same if done in CGI. It would be smooth. Real special effects required real world things to bang up against each other, to fill real space. Light bounces in better ways in the real world. KY Jelly reflects better than anything in an effects program.

Taken as drama (or even horror), From Beyond is okay. It gets a bit slow in the middle, and the structure is lumpy; the story is thin enough that they could have easily shaved 10 minutes from its already short running time. But it’s in the lumpiness of the storytelling, the strangeness, the willingness to engage with oddness, that makes it interesting. Besides Combs and maybe Sorel (who is barely on screen without being covered in slime for two minutes), the performances are not great. They are horror hammy. And there’s not much in the way of quotable dialogue. (The trailer line, “Humans are such easy prey” is lame.) But, similar to Society, directed by the producer of this film, Brian Yuzna, what deficiencies the movie has in its filmmaking are at least partly made up for by succeeding in its ambitions — to show crazy things that aren’t random nonsense, but that support the theme of the film.

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Body Double

_625body_doubleBrian De Palma’s sixteenth film is lurid Hitchcock (a novel idea the Master almost nailed in Psycho, had he not included that abysmal Talking Psychoanalyst at the end), souped up with doses of sleaze and swank, and more Fuck You potshots at the movie industry (and De Palma himself) than you could appreciate in one viewing.

From what I can tell, few if any critics in 1984 got the joke. Feminists decrying misogyny couldn’t see the humor in the woodenness of the acting, or the playful male gaze (e.g., the stand-in who’s in fact not the body double is drilled to death by a masked marauder who likes to watch; and the D-list actor who excels at playing the D-list actor hero is impotent to save the woman in peril [that last, too, a classic cinematic trope] after watching her perform within a performance, in a film made by a director who gloats in the hackdom for which he is ceremoniously trashed by the clueless taste-makers of the time). De Palma grins at us mischievously: The De Palma (2016) documentary reveals he had carte blanche to be as glossy and gauche as he dared. And, be it a Beverly Hills shopping plaza, or a Z-grade film set, the lovingly lit locations — and the way he lets the camera gracefully zoom or dolly in on them (the camera is the most important character here) — connote a director who revels in the flash, even as he pokes holes in it. In good Brechtian fun, he even throws in a Frankie Goes to Hollywood music video that at first seems anachronistic, but which we realize has grown organically from the story.

The film is about voyeurism, and the Hitchcock language of cinema; but it’s riveting because it chooses to be funny about it, and because De Palma has the balls and the chops to pull it off. We are constantly aware we’re watching a movie, and people who watch each other, deviously, lustfully — however they happen to do it. Body Double is also a parody of bad filmmaking — and by extension, a take-down of 80s Hollywood culture.

Maybe that’s intellectual bullshit.

Still, I defy anyone even remotely entertained by the film to not see De Palma (fresh off Scarface, and at the absolute peak of his powers, with full producer-director control) spying on, stalking, and finally busting a gut at the movie and the viewer in damn near every frame. This all adds to the film’s trance. He’s having a ball, yet his craft (his command of it) remains sincere.

It’s a comedy, folks. A violent as hell, tits-in-your-face laugh riot. Do you not see?

Of special merit: Pino Donaggio’s syrupy, half-electronic score, itself breathtaking and overwrought; and Melanie Griffith (Holly Body), a porn star who happens to be the only character who is “in her own skin” from beginning to end — except when she pretends to be someone else, and even then she exudes total confidence and sex appeal.

Rating: A

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Eagles – The Greeks Don’t Want No Freaks

eaglesgreeksLinda Ronstadt’s backing band go out with a stoopid ditty fit for a frat party. Incidentally, after years of honeyed licks, mellow vibes, and facile good times, they offer a window on a career they might have had (Don the Faun & The Golden Noses), had they rocked harder and been a lot less self-absorbed. The song says more about their End of the Coastline Debauch than anything else they did, or “stood for” — except, maybe, for that allegorical song about a haunted hotel. That one is really popular in some Thailand bars.