Midsommar (2019)

Midsommar

Welcome home. When her sister kills their parents in a murder-suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning, psychology student Dani (Florence Pugh) tries to repair her relationship with cultural anthropology student Christian (Jack Reynor) who’s been trying to break up with her and is taking off to Sweden with classmate Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren. He has invited Christian and their colleagues Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter) for a traditional pagan festival held just once every 90 years. Dani decides to guilt trip Christian into asking her along. When they get there they are disoriented by the permanent daylight, drugged, separated from one another and gradually start to disappear, leaving just Dani to be made May Queen and Christian to perform a very special service… All of our oracles are deliberate products of inbreeding. Writer/director Ari (Hereditary) Aster was offered the opportunity to do a Swedish slasher film but chose to make this instead, a variation on The Wicker Man but with a gang of stupid students instead of one innocent policeman, succumbing to the lure of ancient rituals which are just a cover for sex, incest and murder. As in all horror movies, when people go missing nobody thinks of going for help or contacting the police. They hang around until they are murdered and disembowelled, their body parts reassembled with flowers stuck in their eye sockets. Pugh holds it together in yet another unflattering wardrobe (will someone please dress her properly in one of her films?!); while Reynor is the dumb selfish schmuck ignoring all rational ideas in favour of writing up a thesis. Undoubtedly stylish, this is pretentious and absurdly overlong at 140 minutes and an exploitation film in all but name if the nudists crowing over a copulating couple of ginger mingers are anything to go by. If this doesn’t put you off group activities, religion or Scandinavians, nothing will. I can see you possibly doing that

Whitney (2018)

Whitney 2018

Her parents were preparing her for legacy music. Kevin Macdonald’s documentary about Whitney Houston was made with the co-operation of her family and is executive produced by her agent Nicole David, one of several associates interviewed here, and he has access to the music, so it’s a different creature to Nick Broomfield’s film on the subject, Whitney:  Can I Be Me. Macdonald admirably makes this a story of a time and place by dint of regular montages placing us in a year – culturally, socially, politically – with news and current affairs footage and symbols giving a firm context. And it’s jarring to hear Houston’s brother tell us how she got her name – their mother, the famous backing singer Cissy Houston, liked ‘a white sitcom’ on TV so named her for the actress Whitney Blake. Racism of all kinds looms large in this story. Newsreel footage of the Newark riots and the bodies of black men killed by the police remind us of what life was like for black people in New Jersey in the Sixties. Her father John is called both a dealmaker and a hustler, a man who gained powerful status in local circles, and he nicknamed their light-skinned daughter ‘Nippy’ because she was a beautiful but tricky child, and she was bullied in the neighbourhood. She sang in the church choir and sometimes sang backup for her mother who was trying to launch a solo career that didn’t take off. When her parents divorced following her mother’s affair with their church pastor, Whitney left home as soon as possible and moved in with her friend Robyn Crawford who she had met aged 16. Her brothers were aware that Robyn was a Lesbian. One interviewee says that these days Whitney’s sexuality would be designated ‘fluid’ while her longtime hairdresser and friend Ellin Lavar says Houston loved sex, with both men and women and discussed it with her to an embarrassing degree. Whitney modelled but soon sang on her own and two big labels courted her and she signed with Arista’s Clive Davis. He announced her to the world on the Merv Griffin Show and the footage of her singing Home from The Wiz is spinetingling. It is used on the audio track later in a different context in the film, to chilling effect. One contributor talks about the issue of ‘double consciousness’ – the problem that a black entertainer has in having to satisfy a white country and a black world, but in this context it could also refer to Houston’s sexuality and the difference between being Nippy and being Whitney, a stage character. Macdonald does not shirk from the role of the black community – divided on colour lines of its own – and the pressure it exerted on Houston directly or otherwise. In the Eighties, Rev. Al Sharpton appeared in front of her venues with signs calling her ‘Whitey’ Houston (ironically his TV condolences are aired when her death is announced); and of course there is the infamous incident at the 1989  Soul Train awards when the audience booed her – presumably for not being black enough, for having sold out, for singing pop and being brilliant at it. She was asked in an interview why she thought it might have happened – and she claimed she didn’t know. It was the kind of bullying that had provoked her parents into sending her to a private Catholic school in the first place. That was the night she met bad boy (and acceptably black soul singer) Bobby Brown – the ghetto type the Houstons had wanted to keep her away from – and the conclusion is that the couple who would marry and have a child were mutually co-dependent. As her star rose with The Bodyguard, his could never hope to meet it, a year after she had performed The Star-Spangled Banner at the Superbowl, an appearance that still stuns the viewer and nailed her ability and popularity simultaneously when the US was at peak patriotism following the Gulf War. Her Bodyguard co-star, Kevin Costner, was proud of the fact that their interracial kiss was such a significant shot in the film – pointing out the 180 degree camera move, replayed here. (How odd that thirty-plus years after Island in the Sun this should still be a contentious point [and odder still that when he gave a eulogy at her funeral his entrance was greeted with booing by the black attendees – not something mentioned here]. Odder still to a white viewer is Lavar saying that she and Houston were afraid of making the film because they were so outnumbered in the middle of ‘all these white people’:  racism is a beat constantly underpinning the narrative.) She was a good actress. I always used to tell them, Whitney’s in there somewhere. But she’s trapped. That film and the theme song I Will Always Love You (written by Dolly Parton) made her a global superstar:  she is shown being comforted by Nelson Mandela when she gave the first concerts in South Africa after he came to power.  She could find nuance in songs that even the writers didn’t know was there. That record got a British woman gaoled for a week when she drove her neighbours nuts playing it 24/7. An Arab version played endlessly on his campaign trail propelled Saddam Hussein to power. When Brown is asked directly by Macdonald about Houston’s drug use he refuses to discuss it – and perhaps given that it was her own brothers (two full, more half-) who admit introducing her to drugs when she was still a child, he has a point, despite the tabloid headlines about their married lifestyle and on-camera evidence produced here about their home lives (which they eagerly broadcast in their horrifying reality TV show). About two-thirds of the way through the film is the big revelation: her brother Michael volunteers the idea that it’s something in a person’s childhood that drives them to drug use and declares that as a boy he was abused by a female relative. Then Whitney’s aunt says the singer revealed her own experience to her of abuse by the same woman when they were discussing their daughters – this is supposedly why Whitney was afraid to leave Bobbi Kristina (called Krissie) at home while she toured:  the same female relative was her cousin Dee Dee Warwick (Dionne’s sister, another singer). Dee Dee is shown in TV clips from the Sixties, a dour-looking heavy-browed character. Bizarrely, Houston is pictured in one home movie lying on a bed under a huge photo of the sinister woman. For all her concerns about her own daughter, Krissie was an unstable cocaine addict by 18 and in and out of rehab, unsurprisingly given what family and friends say she was growing up around [and her own dreadful death, replicating her mother’s, is recounted here]. Houston made a lot of magazine headlines (the National Enquirer alone was running almost weekly updates for a decade) for her drug use; and many more complications arose from 1999 onwards when she signed a $100 million contract for new recordings. By that point she knew her father and accountant had been robbing her blind and her father then sued her – for $100 million. Once her father had taken over managing her there were many members of her family riding the gravy train, other than her mother and Robyn, who was invited to tender her resignation, a decision Whitney endorsed, despite the fact that Robyn had been doing her best to protect her from the sharks throughout her career. I don’t think she knew the layers being created by others. After an excruciating performance in honour of fellow fame victim Michael Jackson, a car crash interview with Diane Sawyer did not help. She had to quit rehab after 8 months because the money ran out. Then there was appalling evidence of her drug-ravaged singing voice in mobile phone footage of one of her last concerts, with one concert goer offering that a dead rat would have performed better. Years were spent pointlessly attempting to record new music, recalled with tragic diplomacy by the producer Joseph Arbagey, who remembers her disappearing for weeks at a time behind her hotel room door and returning emaciated.  Many millions of dollars were expended on the fruitless project. No longer fit to perform, she was given a lifeline in a remake of the movie Sparkle, a lodestone film from her childhood that had starred Irene Cara. She played the mother. Her agent says that Whitney had been clean throughout the production and didn’t go home for three or four days after the job was done but at the time she wasn’t aware of it until her driver told her Whitney simply didn’t board the flight and eventually asked him to drive her cross-country to her home. Her agent refers to it as ‘that hole’ in Atlanta.  We don’t need to be told what followed. Despite the access, the film still feels curiously incomplete, as if the dots have not been joined: sex abuse, parental ambition and divorce, drugs, Lesbianism, being a light-skinned black in a community divided, being a black singer performing pop songs better than anyone ever had. Cause and effect are not entirely or convincingly linked. Perhaps because this is the official version, unlike Broomfield’s, who talked to Robyn. Or perhaps because the person at its centre had stopped doing what she was good at long before her incredible demise in a bathtub in a Hollywood hotel while her aunt went out to get her donuts with sprinkles and found her dead when she returned just thirty minutes later, as she tells us. The camera enters the hotel room and tracks into the bathroom where Houston was discovered face down in the water. Graced with the voice of an angel in the body of a beautiful black woman exploited by all the people she trusted most in a divided industry produced in a divided country, this biography is a tale of total tragedy, something that regularly occurs in the music business but it’s a story that shows absolutely nobody in a good light, not even Houston herself. It was in every sense a life half-lived. Whitney Houston died 11 February 2012. I’m pissed off. And people think that it’s so damn easy

The Velvet Vampire (1971)

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Aka Cemetery Girls. Remember – this is the desert and out here the sun can be destructive. Nice guy Lee Ritter (Michael Blodgett) and his pretty wife, Susan (Sherry Miles) are introduced by friend Carl Stoker (Gene Shane) to mysterious vixen Diane LeFanu (Celeste Yarnall) to visit her in her secluded desert estate. She lives with Juan (Jerry Daniels) whom she says her family raised when his died on their reservation. However when she takes them to a graveyard where she claims her husband is buried tensions arise – trouble is Mr LeFanu was buried in 1875.  The couple, unaware at first that Diane is in reality a centuries-old vampire, realise that they are both objects of the pale temptress’ desire but that doesn’t really stop them lying in the way of her systematic seduction… Diane, I think I want to drive your buggy. This homage to Irish horror maestros Bram Stoker, Sheridan LeFanu and the recent Euro-Gothic erotic vampire genre, is the kind of cult exploitationer that should be seen more regularly but still belongs firmly in that realm despite its contemporary dayglo modern California setting, dune buggies and post-hippie glam.  While played straight, the lines aerate the daft premise with humour:  There is no life without blood, says the marvellous diaphonously clad Yarnall, a veteran of TV’s Ozzie and Harriet who died one year ago this week. You’ll recognise her from Live a Little, Love a Little as the beautiful girl who inspires Elvis to sing A Little Less Conversation. Miles is a lovably clueless ditsy blonde, barely clad in a bikini but topless more often than not. Blodgett (Lance in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) is perfectly engaging as the good guy who just can’t help himself. The low budget is put to one side by the clever setting – that Spanish Revival house in the desert where the sunlight plays havoc with those pale of skin who prefer to socialise at night but also gives costumier Keith Hodges some fun opportunities and Daniel LaCambre shoots it beautifully. There’s a well conceived climax at LA’s bus terminal and a rather appetising coda. Blues musician Johnny Shines performs his song Evil-Hearted Woman. Directed by cult fave Stephanie Rothman and co-written by her (with her producer husband Charles S. Swartz and Maurice Jules, who also co-wrote that voodoo vampire outing Scream Blacula Scream), this gives you a good idea why her point of view as a feminist filmmaker was so significant in the drive-in era and it’s a real shame her women’s movies aren’t more widely known. Roger Corman was somewhat disappointed with the finished result and released it on a double bill with the Italian horror Scream of the Demon LoverI was having the same dream

Attack of the Puppet People (1958)

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Aka The Fantastic Puppet People/War of the Puppet People/Six Inches Tall/ I Was a Teenage Doll. Living in the moment is the most important thing. Inexperienced secretary Sally Reynolds (June Kenney) is grateful to her seemingly kind new boss, eccentric expert doll maker, Mr. Franz (John Hoyt), when he introduces her to a dapper young St Louis salesman Bob (John Agar). Little does she know that Franz is really a mad scientist who fights off loneliness with a machine that shrinks people to one sixth of their size forcing them to serve as his living dolls. But when he shrinks Bob after her predecessor Janet (Jean Moorehead) has disappeared, Sally then becomes his victim and she and Bob refuse to be his playthings, eventually escaping into a dangerous world that towers over them... Nobody can hear little people like us! The Amazing Colossal Man is playing at the drive-in and there’s something so eerie about Mr Franz’s amazing lifelike dolls it would drive a girl crazy with suspicion. George Worthing Yates developed producer/director Bert I. Gordon’s story into a fully fleshed screenplay, inspired by The Incredible Shrinking Man, no concept being beyond the ken of AIP in those exploitation-hungry days. The aforementioned Colossal was Gordon’s own work, hence the generous clip. Kenney (Teen-Age Doll) is terrific as ever as the innocent but the film is best when Hoyt rationally explains his daft plans; and when Sally and Ben are introduced to their fellow captives – US marine Mac (Scott Peters), teenager Stan (Scott Miller), aspiring pop singer Laurie (Marlene Willis) and a broad called Georgia Lane (Laurie Queen of Outer Space Mitchell), who bathes in a pot of instant coffee granules. From the misleading title to the paucity of effects, this is cheap as chips but deadly serious. This guy takes friendship seriously so he does old puppetmaster (Michael Mack) from the old country a favour that leads to the gang’s escape attempt during a very unnerving theatrical debut. That’s the director’s daughter Susan as the irritating little girl who gives the game away to LAPD Sergeant Patterson (Jack Kosslyn). Don’t leave me! I’ll be alone

Dementia 13 (1963)

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Aka The Haunted and the HuntedI think you should spend more time with your wife to be. After John Haloran (Peter Read) dies suddenly, his wife Louise (Luana Anders) fears she will be denied his inheritance and conceals the death. She travels from the US to join the rest of the Haloran family at their Irish estate, Castle Haloran, as they hold a memorial for John’s young sister, who died in a lake eight years ago. Her brothers-in-law Billy (Bart Patton) and Richard (William Campbell) perform a strange ritual. Louise schemes to convince her mother-in-law Lady Haloran (Eithne Dunne) that she can speak with the dead child. However, this plan is interrupted by an axe murderer on the loose and family members start dying off, one by one.  Local medic Dr Justin Caleb (Patrick Magee) attempts to solve the mystery  It’s a true sign of the late, great lord y’are. A neat little slasher made by producer Roger Corman with funds left over from The Young Racers (and three of the stars, Campbell, Anders and Magee), this is Francis Ford Coppola’s proper debut following two nudie pics. It’s nicely shot on location in Ireland (at Ardmore Studios, Howth Castle and Dublin Airport) by Charles Hannawalt.  It’s an effective little slasher flick made in the mould of Psycho, with some new sequences shot by Jack Hill when Coppola’s original didn’t fit Corman’s exacting requirements with a tacked-on prologue done by Monte Hellman. It’s a good role for the underrated Anders, one of my favourite actresses of that era and there’s oodles of atmosphere with the murderer appearing out of the dark in the many murder sequences, making superb use of the picturesque setting. Who could have guessed that the director of this story about family business would turn into America’s version of Luchino Visconti in less than a decade with The Godfather?! He made a wax doll to relieve his guilt

Christiane F. (1981)

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Aka Wir Kinder Vom Bahnhof Zoo. You’ll never forget her … In mid-1970s Berlin, an aimless teenager (Natja Brunkhorst) who lives with her single mother and sister in a social housing project falls in with a drug dealer Detlef (Thomas Haustein) after meeting at a nightclub where her hero David Bowie is performing. Soon her addiction leads her to hanging out with other junkies at Bahnhof Zoo subway station and then to a life on the streets… I only did it because I wanted to know how you feel. Adapted from tape recordings with the real-life junkie whose story it tells, this has cult written all over it. From the Berlin setting, the drugs, Bowie and the excruciating portrait of a beautiful child lost to sex and heroin and, well, rock ‘n’ roll, it’s tough stuff. Working from a screenplay by Herman Weigel and director Uli Edel adapting Kai Hermann and Horst Rieck’s non-fiction book, Edel directs with verve and a realistic grit. This is not an attractive experience despite the superficial elements of cool – its low budget, graphic sex scenes and shooting style place it in the exploitation realm while the classic score by Bowie (Station to Station, Boys Keep Swinging and unofficial theme song Heroes are the most famous tracks) and the great Jürgen Knieper give it a real kick. The cast are mostly non-professionals and the beautiful Brunkhorst is the only one who proceeded to an acting career. However watching dead-eyed kids having underage sex, shooting up and overdosing ain’t pretty and this squalid depiction of Berlin in the 70s is miserable – no wonder it cleaned up. A film that truly shocked upon release, it’s dedicated to Atze, Axel and Babsi, all portrayed here and all dead from heroin ODs.  A grim Euro-classic with a cameo performance by Bowie actually recorded in NYC.  I can’t get hooked if I just use a little, only once in a while. I can control my using

The Love Witch (2016)

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Men are like children. They’re very easy to please as long as we give them what they want.  Elaine (Samantha Robinson), a beautiful young modern day witch, is determined to find a man to love her following the death of Jerry, the husband from whom she was divorced. She moves from San Francisco to Arcata California to rent from a friend and in her Gothic Victorian apartment she makes spells and potions, then picks up men and seduces them. Lecturer Wayne (Jeffrey Vincent Parise) is so overcome by their hallucinatory lovefest he dies and she buries him in the grounds of his cabin (actually a huge house). Her spells work too well, and she ends up with more hapless victims including Richard (Robert Seeley) the husband of interior decorator Trish (Laura Waddell). When she at last meets the man of her dreams, Griff (Gian Keys) the policeman sent to investigate Wayne’s death, her desperation to be loved drives her to the brink of insanity and murder... l’ll bet you like to spend time in the woods. ‘To say that this oozes style is to understate the affect of a fully-fleshed sexploitation homage from auteur Anna Billen – who not only writes and directs and edits but designs the costumes, painted the artwork, designed the production, composed the theme song and for all I know manufactured the lenses and served the crew gourmet lunches from the craft vehicle.  Clearly the woman can do just about everything. It’s fabulous – a wicca-feminist twist on a serial killing murdering witch who just wants to use sex magick for ultimate personal fulfillment but gosh darn it wouldn’t ya know it, men just never know what to do with their feelings after an amazing session in bed. Shot by M. David Mullen so that this beautiful out-of-time pastiche looks like it could have been made circa 1970 (only a cell phone conversation removes the impression), it works as a satire that goes full tilt boogie at the tropes of romantic melodrama while evoking sly commentary on what men really want from women, principally in the performing styles and an occasional internal monologue. At this rate, never the twain shall meet. If there’s anything wrong with this is it’s overlength:  at two hours it could lose 25 minutes without any fatal damage, probably from the police procedural subplot. But it’s quite incredible, a loony tunes essay on gender roles that’s drenched in sex, sensuality and humour, a pulpy delirium no matter how you look at it and the soundtrack culled from Ennio Morricone’s Italian giallo scores is to die for. Literally! According to the experts, men are very fragile. They can get crushed down if you assert yourself in any way

Dick Miller 25th December 1928-30th January 2019

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Cult actor Dick Miller has died. A veteran of Roger Corman’s American-International Pictures, he rarely got a starring role but it was as Walter Paisley in Beat satire A Bucket of Blood that he made his name and he reprised the part several times, including in his final screen appearance for the upcoming Hanukkah.  He became a favourite character actor, particularly for Corman alumni like Allan Arkush, Jonathan Kaplan and especially Joe Dante, who never made a film or TVM without him. He appeared with fellow exploitation stars Mary Woronov and Paul Bartel several times. Whenever he popped up, in anything from The Howling to The ‘Burbs or Gremlins or The Terminator he brought a smile to everyone’s face, like a friend you’re happy to see again. What could be better than that? Now that’s a real legacy.

Death Wish (1974)

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I mean, if we’re not pioneers, what have we become? What do you call people who, when they’re faced with a condition or fear, do nothing about it, they just run and hide? Once a mild-mannered liberal, New York City architect Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) snaps when intruders break into his home, murdering his wife Joanna (Hope Lange) and violently raping his daughter Carol (Kathleen Tolan). On a business trip to Tucson, Arizona he is given a gift from a client Aimes Jainchill (Stuart Margolin), a revolver he uses to patrol the streets when he returns home when he realises his ideals have been completely compromised in the worst possible way. Frustrated that the police led by Detective Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia) cannot find the intruders, he becomes a vigilante, gunning down any criminal that crosses his path. Then the public finds his vigilanteism heroic… Wendell Mayes adapted Brian Garfield’s 1972 novel which arose from his own spontaneous reaction to being a crime victim. Under the direction of Michael Winner this exploitation fare becomes a muscular revenge thriller, brilliantly honing Bronson’s persona to effectively express what any normal individual might feel like doing – but would restrain themselves from actually pulling the trigger. His transformation is key to establishing the audience’s empathy. You’ll have fun identifying the thugs – watch for Jeff Goldblum. Also in the cast:  Stephen Elliott, Paul Dooley, Christopher Guest and that’s Olympia Dukakis in the precinct. The cinematography by Arthur J. Ornitz is realistic and the score by Herbie Hancock immersive, making for a powerfully atmospheric narrative. Probably Winner’s best film. Fantastically judged and controversial, this is for anyone who’s ever felt f****d over.

My Bloody Valentine (1981)

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It happened once, it happened twice. Cancel the dance, or it’ll happen thrice. Ten years ago, an inexperienced coal miner named Tom Hanniger (Jensen Ackles) caused an accident that killed five men and put a sixth, Harry Warden (Peter Cowper), into a coma. A year later, on Valentine’s Day, Harry woke up and murdered 22 people with a pickaxe before dying. Now Tom has returned home, still haunted by the past. And something else is back in Harmony: a pickaxe-wielding killer in a miner’s mask, who may be the ghost of Harry, come to claim Tom and his friends.  The accident long forgotten, the dance resumes. Many of the town’s younger residents are excited about it: Gretchen (Gina Dick), Dave (Carl Marotte), Hollis (Keith Knight), Patty (Cynthia Dale), Sylvia (Helene Udy), Howard (Alf Humphreys), Mike (Thomas Kovacs), John (Rob Stein), Tommy (Jim Murchison), and Harriet (Terry Waterland). Of this group, Sarah (Lori Hallier), Axel (Neil Affleck), and the mayor’s returning son T.J. (Paul Kelman) are involved in a tense love triangle. … This Canadian exploitationer is notorious for its gore and violence which led to it being heavily cut but it has become something of a cult item due to its status in the vanguard of the slasher genre. What’s striking about it at this distance is how it treats its subject – seriously! You may think twice about using a nail gun after this. Written by John Beaird with a story by Stephen Miller, this is directed by George Mihalka.  And this holiday serial killer flick gave a certain great band their name. For that at least we are grateful.