Tag Archives: Brian De Palma

1978 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE, PART ONE: THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL AND THE FURY

We open 1978 with a double feature of also-rans from the nunsploitation subgenre. It appears the not-so-good sisters unwittingly blessed the exploitation/horror/science fiction genres, because the year is chock-full of titles that cleaned up at the box office.

The Sins of Sister Lucia (directed by Koyu Ohara) isn’t boring with its ramped-up sleaze and nudity, but it’s also derivative of every nunspolitation feature made, without a single surprise. It was a hit in Japan where the genre was gold.

Behind Convent Walls (directed by ) manages to be a dull affair, even with bestiality thrown in.

 Zombies go to the mall in Dawn of the Dead, ‘s belated sequel to Night of the Living Dead (1968). It was a huge critical and commercial success, with the late Roger Ebert proclaiming it one of the greatest horror films ever made. Unnerving and well-crafted, it still can’t match the original, and Romero topped it this year with his masterpiece (below). remade DotD in 2004. Not surprisingly, it’s a piece of crap.

‘s Halloween became the most successful independent film up to its time, setting the mold for American slasher films, and consequently having much to answer for. It’s supremely well-crafted and still holds up far better than the bulk of its offshoots and pseudo-sequels. Doc Loomis () warns of the evil known as Michael Myers, who escapes the asylum and steals a mask, guaranteeing a visceral Halloween night for Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis, who became the modern scream queen, as her mother, Janet Leigh had been for Psycho). Carpenter’s handling of the violence is near perfect, but the supernatural ending is a curious misstep.

The Toolbox Murders (directed by Dennis Donnelly) has a cult reputation as being one of the sleaziest and grittiest low-budget films ever made. It stars and earns its rep.

Don Siegel’s orginal Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an undisputed genre classic and one of the best films of the Fifties, which makes Philip Kauffman’s kinetic 1978 version all the more surprising, because it’s equally superb and excitingly expands on and reinvents the original. , Brooke Adams, Veronica Cartwright, , and Leonard Nimoy do exceptional work. Don Siegel, Kevin McCarthy, and Robert Duvall have memorably chilling cameos in a film that puts contemporary horror to shame. This was the second of four adaptations of Jack Finney’s novella. The Body Snatchers (1993, directed by ) is a successful further variation, but The Invasion (2007) was one visit too many.

Take a big director, a big author (Ira Levin), and a couple of big stars, put them in a big budget Hollywood production of a popular exploitation genre () and show those indie filmmakers how to do it. The result is the laughably ludicrous The Boys from Brazil. Director Franklin J. Schaffner is wrong for the material, but he’s not as wrongheaded as playing mad Nazi Dr. Josef Mengele. At the time, the whereabouts of the Auschwitz Angel of Death was unknown, which opened a path for much paranoid speculation that went both ways. Continue reading 1978 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE, PART ONE: THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL AND THE FURY

1976 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE, PART ONE: THE OMEN & CARRIE

1976 is such an astoundingly productive year in exploitation and horror that we’re forced to divide it into two parts. Religious-themed horror takes front and center in this first part, beginning with Alfred Sole’s Communion [better known today as Alice Sweet Alice], one of the most substantial cult films ever produced. Beginning with a young Brooke Shields torched in a pew, dysfunctional Catholicism is taken to grounds previously unseen. Mantling the most pronounced trends of the 1970s, Sole plays elastic with multiple genres (slasher, psychological, religious, independent movies, horror) with such idiosyncratic force that the movie’s cult status was inevitable. It should have made Sole a genre specialist, but his career as a director never took off, and he only made a few more films. Surprisingly, critics have been slow in coming around to Communion. It’s essential viewing and we hope to cover it in greater detail here at a later date.

Larry Cohen’s God Told Me To remains one of the most relentlessly original films of the 70s, already covered here and a solid List contender.

Richard Donner made a bona fide pop star out of a pre-pubescent antichrist with The Omen. It was a marketing bonanza, spawning endless sequels and a pointless 2006 remake. Sensationalistic, red-blooded, and commercially slick, in a National Enquirer kind of way, it’s predictably most successful in coming up with ways to slaughter characters—the most infamous of which is a decapitation by glass. In that, The Omen is a product of its time. The creativity in many of the later Hammer Dracula films was often solely reserved for ways to dispatch (and resurrect) its titular vampire. The Abominable Dr. Phibes took tongue-in-cheek delight utilizing the plagues of Egypt to annihilate everyone in sight. It was also the decade of Old Nick and deadly tykes. Throw in apocalyptic biblical paranoia, and The Omen is practically a smorgasbord of 70s trends.

Still from The Omen (1976)The Omen is helped tremendously by Jerry Goldsmith’s score, which is reminiscent of Carl Orff and still remembered (and imitated). Three character performances stand out: Billie Whitelaw, who literally lights up as a nanny from the pit, David Warner as a photographer obsessively trying to avoid his predestined end, and Patrick Troughton as a priest who “knows too much” (and gets his own Dracula-like finish). Unfortunately, the film is considerably hindered by its two leads. Gregory Peck, nice fella that he was off screen, is his usual wooden self and poorly cast as Damien’s adoptive ambassador father. The role was first offered to , whose old school conservative machismo and hammy charisma would undoubtedly have been a better fit. Alas, even though he rightly predicted it would be a major success, Heston objected to a film in which evil triumphed over good, and chose instead Continue reading 1976 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE, PART ONE: THE OMEN & CARRIE

1973 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: ANDY WARHOL’S FRANKENSTEIN, SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA, AND SISTERS

Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein was the fourth film directed by under ‘s banner; although it seems that apart from co-producing, the American pop art icon had no creative input, which may be why, in Europe, it was released under the title Flesh For Frankenstein. Morrisey made this film back-to-back with Andy Warhol’s Dracula, which we will cover when 1974 rolls around. Both films star and (who also starred in the Morrissey/Warhol “hustler” trilogy Flesh, Trash, and Heat). Frankenstein is the more outrageous of the two horror films. It stars Kier as a fascistic, narcissistic, necrophiliac Baron Frankenstein who, in his most infamous scene, cuts open the ribcage of a woman (Dalila Di Lazzaro) and has sex with her gall bladder.  Naturally, this scene made Kier a cult celebrity, a position he would cement with 0Dracula.

Still from Andy Warhol's Frankenstein/Flesh for Frankenstein (1973)Shot in 3-D, Frankenstein aims directly to satirize the sexploitation/horror demographic with a high quota of gore and sex—the latter supplied by Monique Van Vooren as the unloved nymphomaniac Baroness, wife and sister to the Baron, and Dallesandro as the stable boy who services her. Aptly, the film opens with the Baron and Baroness as children dissecting and  beheading a doll, but “Addams Family” this isn’t: the good doctor’s supply of cadavers comes from bordellos rather than the traditional cemetery. Kier and Van Vooren are ideally cast, with her armpit sucking competing with his gallbladder screwing. Although undeniably dated, it’s every bit as outrageous as it sounds.

When writer and director unleashed The Exorcist on the world, few had any idea the impact it would make. Shining across our small 1973 TV sets, the original trailer was subdued. Although the book upon which it was based had been a best seller, only its readers knew what it was about. I don’t remember a lot of publicity beforehand, but all that changed on the weekend it was released. Newspapers were issuing warnings of something unimaginably terrifying, theaters were equipped with barf bags, and in our neck of the woods, churches were condemning it as propaganda coming from Satan himself. Indeed, the fallen angel had been rising quite high since 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby, but, at least as far as box office, even that seminal (and superior) film did not have the impact of The Exorcist. Initially, its critical standing was mixed, although now it seems to top all those “best of” horror lists.  Word of mouth made a trend of fear, and it was years before anyone from our tribe saw it. The tidal wave of Satanic themed films to follow was unprecedented, and, needless to say, preachers and Sunday Continue reading 1973 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: ANDY WARHOL’S FRANKENSTEIN, SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA, AND SISTERS

BRIAN DE PALMA’S PASSION (2012)

Alain Corneau’s French thriller Love Crime (2011) turned out to be that director’s last film (he died in 2010). Despite a promising premise, it was an altogether unsatisfactory coda to a career. Enter , coming out of semi-retirement (his previous film was 2007’s Redacted) to improve on the original with the ultra-voguish, maniacally erotic remake, Passion.

De Palma, perhaps the most shrewdly experimental mainstream filmmaker of the last half century, is also one of the most polarizing. The conventional critical breakdown of his oeuvre goes: 1968-1972, early, blatantly avant-garde films (Greetings, The Wedding Party, Hi, Mom, Get To Know Your Rabbit) followed by 1973-1974’s narrative experimentations (Sisters, Phantom of the Paradise). 1976-1984: his sell-out to tinsel town (coupled with his ian obsessions—Obsession, Dressed To Kill, Blowout, Body Double). 1983-1998: gangster dramas (Scarface, The Untouchables, Carlito’s Way), overlapping with self-parody (1992’s Raising Cain, 1998’s Snake Eyes), and, finally, post-2000 fatigue (Mission To Mars, Black Dahlia).

Such a summary is a slipshod reckoning; gleaning an artist’s body of work through a brisk glance in a catalog, missing his edgy diversity, color, and gradual development.

Whittling down De Palma’s diving board to Hitchcock is also woefully inadequate. When an art critic listed 90 of Picasso’s influences, the artist wrote back: “You forgot Gauguin.” Sergei Eisenstein, , , , Michelangleo Antonioni, Dario Argento,  Sam Peckinpah, , Irvin Kirshner,  and Robert Flaherty have all informed De Palma’s work and are filtered through his pre-existing sensibilities, which include a background in mathematics and avant-garde narrative. This diversity renders De Palma far more eclectic than any of his predecessors or peers.

Contrary to the claims of populist criticism, an aesthetic path is rarely linear. De Palma’s malleability is evident in his returns to low budget satire (1980’s Home Movies), observational cinema (2007’s Redacted), and the Warholian pop vibe via mod thriller of 2002’s Femme Fatale and 2012’s Passion.

Still from Passion (2012)De Palma once again makes use of a grandly dated split-screen, juxtaposed to Pino Donaggio’s hyper-lush score, dressing and undressing the oozing, ribald, kinky milieu. More than once, De Palma quotes Dressed To Kill, throwing in and Noomi Rapace as the AC/DC couple who go the distance to liven up a potentially dull advertising firm with dark red lipstick, Skype, high-heeled Euro fashion, chic Debussy, explosive sex tapes, provocative primary colors, slow-mo pursuits, and a gleaming stiletto.

True to form, De Palma milks manipulative bad acting from his two leads, which punctuates the obligatory opulent set piece (an impressionistic ballet) and unfolding illicit crime caper.

Passion giddily enjoys being a movie for the sake of movies. A few bourgeoisie critics have complained that De Palma is simply stuck on repeat mode, but if you are willing to entertain his inviting disregard for neorealist trends, you may discover a deepening of his art and be transported into a celluloid Canaan.

179. PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (1974)

“The reason Fox found it unwieldy — the scabrous humor about the music industry, the unhappy love story and the weirdness of some of the characters — are exactly the reasons why people love it now.”–Gerrit Graham on Phantom of the Paradise (quoted in the New York Times)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: William Finley, , , Gerrit Graham, George Memmoli

PLOT: Swan is the world’s most powerful music producer, who dreams of opening a grandiose concert venue called the Paradise, while Winslow is a composer who has created a rock cantata version of “Faust.” Swan steals Winslow’s work; while seeking revenge, an accident disfigures Winslow’s face and destroys his vocal cords. Now wearing a mask, Winslow takes up residence in the basement of the Paradise and strikes a deal with Swan to rewrite the opera for Phoenix, a female singer whom both men lust after.

Still from Phantom of the Paradise (1974)
BACKGROUND:

  • Although Brian De Palma became famous for thrillers and action movies like Dressed to Kill, Scarface, The Untouchables, and Mission Impossible, he began his career making subversive underground comedies, and his earliest films for major studios were oddball farces. Phantom of the Paradise marks the apex of De Palma’s comedic phase; his next film would be the horror hit Carrie, following which he would largely abandon his burlesque and experimental impulses.
  • De Palma was inspired to write a satire on the commercialization of rock music when he heard a Muzak version of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” in an elevator.
  • Paul Williams, a successful songwriter who had penned hits for The Carpenters, wrote and performed the soundtrack (dubbing in William Finley’s singing voice). Williams was originally cast in the role of Winston, but asked to play Swan instead, and proved a natural for the role.
  • The movie was a financial flop, but Williams’ score was nominated for an Academy Award.
  • A bizarre bit of trivia: although Phantom was a box office bomb, for some reason it was immensely popular in Winnipeg, Canada, where it played screens on and off for over a year. (I like to imagine famous weird Winnipegian , who would have been about 18 at the time, was a repeat customer).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: We’ll go with the assassination of Beef, who is killed in improbable fashion by a neon lightning bolt. To ecstatic applause from the spectacle-hungry audience. Not only is it an unforgettable sight, it’s also the moment when the operatic Phantom solidifies its weird credentials.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It’s a wadded-up plot of “Phantom of the Opera” and “Faust,” with a bit of “Dorian Gray,” rolled up into a music biz satire ball and sprinkled with a dusting of crazy.


Edgar Wright commentary on the original trailer for Phantom of the Paradise (from Trailers from Hell)

COMMENTS: There’s a critical cliche that says that you can’t deliberately fashion a cult movie; it must be discovered. In other words, it’s the Continue reading 179. PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (1974)

PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (1974)

Phantom of the Paradise has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies. The official Certified Weird entry is here.

Brain De Palma, , , and  were among the directors whose films we passionately watched and discussed in that now extinct haven once known as art school. It was De Palma who topped our list, enough that we ranked him as high as, if not higher than, Alfred Hitchcock. There is justification in the criticism that Hitchcock’s films are often cold, mechanical exercises. De Palma was more experimental, and emotionally incinerating in ways that Hitchcock could not be. De Palma is decidedly unbiased when it comes to provocation: Scarface (1983) unintentionally inspired the current trash thug culture, and Casualties of War (1989) still manages to boil the blood of extremist patriots. He has been accused of being a misogynist and a feminist, an innovative bohemian and a plagiarist, a shrewdly manipulative avant-gardist and the quintessential sell-out. Any director this divisive deserves attention.

Unfortunately, one must briefly address the De Palma/Hitchcock comparison primarily because lazy, hack critics have long held De Palma to Hitchcock’s standards. De Palma was too much his own man to simply imitate Hitchcock. Rather, Hitchcock was one of several influences filtered through De Palma’s preexisting sensibilities. was another, and it is no accident that De Palma has been referred to as an example of American Nouvelle Vague.

Greetings (1968), The Wedding Party (1969), Hi, Mom! (1970), Get To Know Your Rabbit (1972) and the scrappy Sisters (1973) were distinguished early films that reveal De Palma’s eclecticism and underrated sense of humor. De Palma’s horror-comedy-musical Phantom of the Paradise (1974) came out a full year before The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). Despite the fact that the latter came to define cult hit, De Palma’s is the better film; its shrewd satire was not accessible enough for American audience, even of the cult variety. It is the only worthwhile adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s pulp tale “The Phantom of the Opera”, possibly because Paradise recognizes the source as pedestrian. Even the unjustly famous silent version of Phantom of the Opera (1925) is primarily noteworthy for its star’s masochistic makeup, set design and a few choice scenes (such as the masque of the red death ball and the unmasking). Despite these highlights, Rupert Julian’s direction was flat and uninspired, resulting in a dissatisfying whole. The less said about Opera‘s remakes, the better; the story reached its nadir when adapted for the musical stage by  (but then, Webber’s treatment of anything could probably be considered its ultimate low point).

Still from Phantom of the Paradise (1974)De Palma’s Phantom is not content with a sole source: strands from “Frankenstein,” “The Picture of Dorian Grey,” “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” and Psycho are woven into a glittering glam horror extravaganza staging of “Faust.”

The casting of  as a gnome-like demonic cherub is delightfully idiosyncratic. De Palma regular William Finley (as the titular Phantom) and 70’s favorite (as the love interest Phoenix) fill out an equally odd cast. Gerrit Graham, as the glam rocker Beef, virtually steals every scene he is in, revealing a musical magnetism on a par with the likes of and .

For all the sharp satire and cynicism regarding the pop music world, Phantom of the Paradise has at its center an authentically felt camp sentimentality. On paper, this sounds like yet another postmodern disaster, but De Palma’s innovative approach melds it into a cogent, maniacal, cinematic firework display. The nexus of De Palma’s film is locating the grandeur amongst the pandemonium, making one regret that it was Oliver Stone and not De Palma who eventually helmed The Doors (1991) (which De Palma was originally slated to direct).