Thursday, July 24, 2014

Curtains (1983), or Girl Jealousy Kills Girl Love

Repost from 2010. This movie will finally be released in a modern format (Blu-Ray & DVD) on July 29th!

Dir. Richard Ciupka (a.k.a. Jonathan Stryker) || 1983 || Canada

The more I watch Curtains, the more odd I find that the film is. Canadian horror productions from the 1970s and 1980s as a whole tend to deal with adults more so than teenagers. Curtains is about being an aging actress and the treachery of the film business. It also has a weird level of meta to it, because the credits list the director as "Jonathan Stryker", which is also the name of the director within the film, played by John Vernon. The lead actress is played by Samantha Eggar, of Cronenberg's The Brood, playing an actress named Samantha. Samantha has bought a dramatic property named Audra, for her to star in and for Stryker to direct, since they seem to have a collaborative relationship of sorts (although more is implied as the film goes on). Audra seems to be an Ibsen-esque piece of work, and Samantha being the Method actress that she is, has  herself placed in a psychiatric hospital on some sort of indefinite basis so she can study the patients and find out what it is like to be mentally ill. There is a vague deal that Stryker will bail her out when the time comes, but as time wears on, he stops visiting her in the hospital and she finds out that he is holding auditions at his private residence for the weekend to find a new Audra. So although she has a mysterious friend break her out of the hospital, we never see any other instance of Samantha having friends or support.

Here we meet the other six or so aspiring actresses. While according to Wikipedia, their characters do have names, I swear I barely heard their names uttered within the film (but my copy of this film does have wonky sound). With the exception of one, all of the women look like Samantha. They all have dark hair, are pale, and are pretty. Therefore they are all interchangeable for the most part, but unlike in most slasher films, this seems to be done on purpose to display just how expendable they are. It is never said how old Samantha is, and although she is still very pretty, one can guess that she is perhaps 35 at the most. All of the women auditioning are in their early-mid 20s. So the aspiring actresses are more or less defined by what they were doing before they were called to audition. One is an ice skater, one is a serious actress like Samantha, one was a centerfold, one was a ballerina, and one is an unfunny comedienne who kind of dresses like Robin Williams circa Mork and Mindy. There is a sole blonde woman who is characterized by her love of acting out rape fantasies with her mustachioed boyfriend, but she is killed en route to the audition house.

As you can imagine, Stryker pits the women against each other, while at the same time sleeping with almost each and every one. Of course, after he sleeps with each one, they are killed by a figure in an ugly crone mask soon after. Some of his actions seem to be to get Samantha's attention, as if he is pushing her to go insane, like Audra. But as the film wears on, his actions seem more indicative that he is just selfish and on the misogynistic side. As the women begin to go missing, the remaining actresses tension levels go up, and Stryker uses that to get them to the apparent Audra-level as well. It is somewhat vague as to how the women feel about the other actresses going missing. While they are not overly snipping at each other and spend some nights hanging out together, their attempts at friendship are not unlike the awkward attempts at bonding and friendship made during early episodes of each season of shows like America's Next Top Model (however the words, "I am here to win, I am not here to make friends" are never uttered). There is want of human contact with people other than the creepy director, but no one acknowledges too much that they are in competition, or how unfair this audition process is. Still, no one calls the police, no one tries to leave the house, no one suspects that a killer is amongst them. During the day everyone continues with their audition exercises, including one instance where Stryker has the meek ballerina feeling up the woman who was in the centerfold. It is made clear at this point that this is not an audition process for Stryker, but a way to have sex with as many women as possible within one weekend. The fact that he is played by an actor who is middle-aged, balding, and paunchy does not help matters, as he seems to seduce the actresses by making them feel protected (while also verbally abusing them in some cases), and the actresses are inherently going to feel as if they cannot turn him down for sex for fear of losing the part. Only the centerfold sleeps with the younger attractive guy at the house, although it is never said what his role is or why he is at the house. Curtains is good for keeping the killer's identity a mystery until the end. Of course suspicion is placed on Stryker until he is killed, and Samantha because she disappears for a large portion of the film.


The ending is a twist, because we find that there are two killers. Samantha killed Stryker, and inadvertently the other serious actress after they had sex. She shot them, and they fell through a window. One of the other aspiring actresses as killed everyone else, and in the final scene kills Samantha after she tells her that she killed Stryker, that there will be no film now, and that she will wait patiently for the police, if you would be so kind as to call them. The irony is that Samantha killed Stryker in a crime of passion perhaps, but is not insane. She understands what she did, but her motives are somewhat unclear to the audience. Was it out of jealousy or was it because Stryker had left her in the psychiatric hospital, stolen the dramatic property she had bought for herself, and was going to place another actress in the role, thereby making it murder for revenge? Samantha is shown as to not having much issue with the other actresses, just Stryker. There is the small implication that she is not the first actress he has left in the dust, and that he will continue the pattern again if he does find another actress amongst these women. It is an attempt to end the cycle of abuse, if you will.

The aspiring actress uses the motif of creepy dolls the size of real toddlers to get the attention of some of her victims, including the blonde actress and most notoriously, the ice skater. While the use of the dolls is almost fleeting, it also implies that this is how the killer feels about herself and the other actresses, that they are dolls just being played with for the weekend, and that they will be put away as soon as Stryker is done with them.

The murderous aspiring actress' motives are just plain ambition, hunger for fame, and jealousy gone awry, for Stryker has barely paid attention to her the entire weekend, although that may be hard to do if  you are slipping out to murder the other actresses. She wanted the role of Audra enough that it drove her insane to have to compete with other actresses. Remember, the murder of the sole blonde actress was before the weekend auditions had started, so her actions were presumably pre-meditated. So this was her twisted response to the unfair audition process for the film, not protesting it, or even working hard in the auditions, such as they were. The sole instance that she comes to Stryker's attention and reluctant admiration is when she confronts him about his lack of attention towards her. Other than Samantha, she is the only other actress who confronts him in anger. While she is seen throughout the film as being the most friendly towards the other actresses, it displays how underhanded jealousy can be at times. These traits make her more of the equivalent to an Iago, even if she does not understand it.

The two killers give Curtains a strange and confused duality in their approaches to confronting problems with sexist men. While murder should not be endorsed as a way to solve problems anyway, Samantha goes for the source of the problem, Stryker; while the aspiring actress goes for the other victims of this problem.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Demons & Demons 2 (1985 & 1986)

Repost from 2009.

Demons (a.k.a. Demoni): Dir. Lamberto Bava || 1985 || Italy
Demons 2 (a.k.a. Demoni 2): Dir. Lamberto Bava || 1986 || Italy

It’s taken years and I probably had too many beers when I watched this for a third or fourth viewing this past weekend, but I think Demons is finally growing on me. Does it make any sense? No, it still doesn’t. Will I ever understand some of the academic theories around this movie? Not for awhile, but mostly because I’m thinking about the scene where the blond guy is riding a motorbike through a theater slashing at demons with a samurai sword. And how right after that, a helicopter magically falls through the ceiling. Or what that red haired chick dressed as a Irish pilgrim had to do with any of this. Same with the guy in the silver mask. Why do the blond guy and the silver mask guy look like characters from Mortal Kombat?

Demons is about an assorted group of people who are given tickets to a sneak preview for movie at this mysterious art deco-style theater. No one knows what the movie is about, but it turns out it’s a horror movie that seems to be about young archeologists on the search for a mask. A similar mask was in the lobby and one of the prostitutes attending the film with her pimp and co-worker puts it on, and is cut on the cheek. Something similar happens to a person in the movie, and all hell breaks loose.

I like Rosemary, the ground zero demon. She has hair like my middle school chorus teacher (or Rick James if you prefer). She is one badass demon.



The movie has a good, apocalyptic ending once you get past the goofy points that come before it. Also, a cameo appearance from the kid from Fulci’s The House by the Cemetary.

As far as Demons 2 goes, I want to like it, but it’s kind of a mess. I do not know whether or not it was supposed to be in continuity with the first movie. The first character we see is the guy (who looks like the result of what would happen if you mixed Michael Berryman’s genes with a young Rupert Everett’s) who played one of the coked up punk kids in the first movie, as a security guard for this building in the second movie. Also in this movie: the guy who played the pimp in the first movie, this time as the building’s very bossy/poor man’s Ken Foree-type personal trainer; and a young Asia Argento.

This time the demons are coming through the television in a show that most of the characters seem to be watching. The show may or may not be a documentary on what happened in the first movie, or it may be more of the movie or a sequel to the movie the people in the first Demons movie were watching. I honestly don’t know, and wish I did know. This time the ground zero demon is Sally, who has having a birthday party in her apartment. Sally is one of those needy friends who is a gigantic drama queen. She storms off into her room at one point while her friends are dancing to The Smiths, where she catches the show and the demon that somehow makes it out of the television.



Demons 2 is somewhat reminiscent of David Cronenberg’s Shivers. It is a film that takes place in a completely secure and locked down high-rise apartment building, meaning that the other inhabitants become infected really quickly, although mostly because blood is continuously seeping through the floors and pipes. That’s a terribly made building right there. Under more capable hands, the main story of the hunky physics major who is trying to save his pretty and pregnant wife, would be more compelling. Instead, you just root for them cos even as a demon, Sally is still pretty annoying.

The ending is also not particularly satisfying. It’s pretty disappointing actually. It’s almost as if the budget ran out. The film in general leaves a lot of unsettled stories, like, what happened to lil Asia Argento?

I don’t live in a large city, and it’s probably goofy for me to think about this just based on Shivers and Demons 2, but why would anyone think that having a self-contained building and/or a building where if something goes wrong, the building is completely locked down and impossible to get out of a good idea? Was this entire sub-subgenre of film based on The Towering Inferno, where “people trapped and in danger in a large building = entertainment”?

I can’t remember whether or not I’ve heard recently that Demons is up for a remake. It probably is, since at this point, one may as well believe that any horror movie made in the past 30 years is up for a remake. Unless the makers find even someone more incompetent than Lamberto Bava to be at the helm of these films, the remake(s) may not be that bad. Which I hate to say about Lamberto Bava, because his first film, Macabre, is actually pretty good. I want to think that for some reason, Demons and Demons 2 got seriously butchered at some point, but considering that both movies have been on video or DVD in America for at least 20 years, I find it hard to believe that there are better versions of these movies out there, versions that match the pretty good concept with good quality. Oh well.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Flicker by Theodore Roszak

Repost from 2009.

Theodore Roszak's 1991 novel Flicker concerns a young academic named Jonathan Gates and his spiraling obsession with an obscure German horror filmmaker named Max Castle. Castle was one of many Germans who came to Hollywood after World War I. Due to his obscure religion and the handlers from the religion that came along with him to Hollywood, Castle was eventually reduced to directing trashy, incoherent horror films after being dismissed as "difficult to work with." Castle was rumored to have died in a plane crash over the ocean at the age of 42. The novel follows Gates for roughly 20 years in his hunt for information about Castle, Castle's religion, and the lost or uncut versions of his films. Roszak does show off his history degrees by having Castle's religion tied to the Knights Templar, as well as being knowledgeable about film history. It is only when Gates begins to ironically preach about the films that are now considered cult classics, but were midnight movies in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and how they are bringing about the downfall of the world does the novel start to lose hold. It is that Gates never resolves his opinion of the cult movies of the 1960s and 1970s, nor is self-aware enough to know that he is obsessed with them and that his work on Castle may have partially brought these films about (at least in this fictional world, Roszak almost fully ignores the real-world events of the 1960s and 1970s in the novel), as well as his obsession with a young director also in Castle's religion who is making nihilistic "cult"-type films. Roszak seems to be implying that these types of films will bring about the downfall of the world, either overtly or subtly, but if that is the message, then it is extremely muddled.



Roszak barely covers how the Vietnam War, the impeachment of Nixon, the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and how these events effected the films of the late 1960s and early 1970s. It is only treated in tertiary and occasionally humorous terms on why Gates was not drafted into the Vietnam War. But overall, these historic events are not given any coverage in Flicker. Considering that academic writing correlating the tragic events of the 1960s and 1970s with the edgier films of this time period did not emerge until the early-mid 1980s, Roszak may have cleverly averted the historical issues and their relation to films with good reason, considering the state Gates is narrating from by the end of the novel. Roszak makes a few clever set-ups throughout Flicker, things that are likely meant to annoy some readers for much of the novel, but eventually have some sort of pay-off. This includes Gates’ habit of sleeping with every woman that is introduced into the book. This aspect quickly became annoying to me, but Roszak has this as a part of the book for a reason, even if it is for purely contrasting reasons, as to eventually show how far Gates has become obsessed with Max Castle and his religion, the Orphans of the Storm.






Towards the end of the novel, he correctly equates himself to Joseph Cotten’s naïve character in The Third Man. Gates is perhaps not the most compelling or smartest character in the world, which is at a detriment to the story, whether it is an homage to The Third Man or not (side note: Orson Welles does make an appearance in the novel, as does John Huston via letter). While Flicker is in part a detective story (that takes about half of the book to get to), Gates spends the first half of the novel relying on one woman to teach him what he should think of film and film history. His obsession with Castle creates a break in this relationship, but he still trusts and relies on others too much, which is another factor in his downfall.


The character of Jonathan Gates may be a more modern take of Doctor Faustus. Gates does everything short of selling his soul to the Devil to acquire more knowledge on a single film director. It takes him around the world, and in the end, he loses what little he had to begin with. Like Faustus, Gates does not use his knowledge to benefit himself in any way. Although he is able to sleep with every woman he encounters, whereas Faustus is only given that option (such as it was in the sixteenth century), his friends encourage him to use his knowledge and his stature as an expert on this one director to gain tenure at UCLA, yet he continues this obsession because he thinks he can write a book once he figures everything out. His friends know that this obsession is going to lead to Gates’ end, and that according to the majority of the characters in this novel, searching for Castle’s films may not be the noblest cause to begin with. The main question Flicker seems to ask is if film has the ability to mask evil images and ideas either layered under the film’s main image in the print or within a film’s flicker, and if these “evil” images and ideas hidden within films can cause evil in people or in the world. Of course, this question is never resolved.


A stereotypical Robinson Crusoe device is used for the ending. It is a somewhat pampered Crusoe device, but a device nonetheless. Although I guess there are only so many ways to end a novel that heavily concerns conspiracy theories attached to a secret religion, but placing the narrator on an island is not the most compelling ending.













Flicker seems to have had an influence on a few films that have come out in the past few years. Cigarette Burns, one of the episodes in the first season of the television series Masters of Horror, concerned a young and troubled repertory film theater owner and his commissioned search for a film only screened once because it caused an entire audience to go insane and burn down the theater it was being screened in at a film festival. The search for the film of course leads the man on a dangerous path. Directed by John Carpenter, Cigarette Burns is both the most worthwhile episode in the Masters of Horror series and possibly the only worthwhile film Carpenter has made in the past 10-15 years. As a side note, Cigarette Burns was one of the first episodes of the 2-3 season series (at least if you count its major network-spinoff show Fear Itself), however, Masters of Horror got progressively worse from the end of its first season and into its second season. Carpenter’s second season episode, Pro-Life, is completely awful and preposterous. The recent DVD release The Hills Run Red follows a documentary film student and his friends as they try to hunt down the director and a print of a horror film called The Hills Run Red. The film was only screened once, immediately banned, and all prints were thought to be destroyed. While the first 45 minutes or so of The Hills Run Red are interesting in that it tries to subvert the typical horror film tropes, it fails in that the last 30-45 minutes return to other horror film tropes. It’s a shame really because the film, the film-within-the-film, and the film-within-within-the-film feature the creepy slasher Babyface. But The Hills Run Red and the documentary film inside of it do not focus on Babyface, and instead try to make the first two films a character drama, and a somewhat weak one at that. None of the characters are written or developed well enough to affect the audience when bad things start happening to them. This means that the filmmakers stuck to the biggest horror trope of them all. Not that sticking with Babyface would have likely been much better, but he was perhaps the only pitiable character in the films. Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Inglorious Basterds shares a theory that Flicker puts forth. Lt. Archie Hickox (played by Michael Fassbender), the British soldier and film critic espouses the theory that while German Expressionist films of the 1920s reflected German’s damaged psyche post-WWI, it also weakened them and allowed the rise of Hitler. Of course, Flicker adds to it that secret images and messages may have been added to these films to allow that.


What Jonathan Gates and the protagonist of The Hills Run Red have in common in that both seem to pursue their obsessions with their one “lost” film director as a hope that in the end, they will also find themselves. While this idea is directly expressed by the protagonist in The Hills Run Red, we’re not given enough background on him for it to be compelling or valid. The same idea is not directly expressed in Flicker, but it would make sense for a person like Gates, who basically spends half of the book in the shadow of a smarter and eventually more successful woman, to attach himself to a cause so he can find himself and achieve his own success. Gates really does not have much of a personality, is not very bright, and it is frankly hard to accept him as a character to follow for 600 pages.


When Jonathan Gates compares himself to Holly Valens, Joseph Cotten’s character in The Third Man, it is not a totally correct assessment. Holly’s quest in The Third Man is yes, naïve, but almost completely unselfish. He wants to clear his old friend’s name. Even when his old friend turns out not to be an upstanding citizen, Holly does what is considered the moral thing. Valens has his own career, and has not seen his friend Harry Lime for several years when The Third Man opens. Throughout the story, it is his intention to be the good old moralistic American hero in the film, not to find himself. Holly has the elements of being a lost man-child, although on the surface he is too old and too well-dressed for it by modern standards. He comes to Vienna for a job with Harry, although what sort of job is not revealed until much later. His only reason for seeking work is probably because he is bored with writing cheap pulp western novels, and because he misses his old friend. This displays a sharp contrast of the men and young men in Flicker and The Hills Run Red. The Third Man takes place after the end of World War II. Flicker opens in the late 1950s while Gates is in college, and American culture is changing just as much as film culture, with each affecting the other and vice versa (although Roszak does not acknowledge this). Film criticism, especially post-war European criticism is beginning to be taken seriously, and film studies programs are opening up at universities. Within a decade, it is okay for people to say things like “I’m trying to find myself.” Cut to almost a decade into the new millennium, and a young person’s search for the self becomes intertwined with the mega nerdy fanboy era and the need to discover and revive the most obscure film objects for glory and a place in obscure film history books, or at least Wikipedia. Reviving lost art, literature, and film is nothing new and often results into the formerly lost works becoming canon, especially if the works were by a member of a marginalized group of people (i.e., not white heterosexual males). Flicker, first published in 1991, predates the meteoric rise of director Quentin Tarantino, a man who has almost single-handedly revived obscure genre films and brought them to the public, albeit usually indirectly. Besides his former Quentin Tarantino presents video series, just his endorsement of an ultra obscure film will cause a cheapo DVD boxed set to be produced by a company willing to cash in without providing quality DVD transfers, but wanting to cram as many supposed-Tarantino-endorsed films as possible onto 3-4 discs and sell them all in a boxed set for $15-20 at Best Buy. Finding and reviving these films are for a niche market. How would one find themselves in such a project? It shows how much the world has changed since the 1940s that one has the ridiculous combination of privilege, egotism, and naïveté to believe that they can discover who they are by trying to uncover a “lost” film or director.


What Flicker merely touches on, and Cigarette Burns and Hills Run Red do not, is that it is normally works of art by marginalized peoples that become part of the canon after they have been rediscovered. Max Castle is somewhat marginalized because of his ancient, obscure, and secretive religion, and his religion’s dark influence over his films. But part of the conspiracy Jonathan Gates is trying to uncover in the novel is the Orphans of the Storm’s attempts to use film as a way to make their views become mainstream, and Gates’ work on Castle, conspiracy aside, does allow Castle’s work to become somewhat canon, even if on a cult level. Since all of the protagonists in these three stories succeed in their individual goals at a terrible price, these stories imply that searching for “lost” films for purely selfish or egotistical reasons is a path to destruction on its own, nevermind the films.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Girls Rock! (2008)

Repost from 2010.

Dirs. Arne Johnson & Shane King || 2008 || USA

Stories of the Rock 'n Roll Camp for Girls have always warmed the cockles of my dying post-riot grrrl heart. The documentary Girls Rock! is no exception. The film follows four girls aged between 8-18 as they spend a week at the original camp in Portland, Oregon in 2005 (the camp has since spread to have locations in other parts of the US - including Tennessee, NYC, and Washington, DC, if I remember correctly). The camp teaches the girls who attend to play instruments after they form bands (it seems as though the camp is split into two different age groups, so the eight year olds aren't playing with the high school girls) and they practice for a week that culminates in a bit show with an audience of 750 people. There are also workshops for self-defense and zines (barely shown because watching people cut and paste and do layouts is boring, plus you know, zines are forever the lowly art when compared to being in a band). Camp counselors include Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney and Excuse 17, STS of The Need and Shemo, and Beth Ditto of The Gossip.

Each of the girls that the film follows has had some sort of serious issue in life. The youngest has divorced parents, has moved around a lot, has a baby brother with Down Syndrome, and is already experiencing chronic anxiety to the point where she misses school every other day. The oldest is a girl who used to be in a gang, has parents who deal with drug addiction and mental illness, and was living in a group home during filming. The film is actually pretty good in showing girls who come from different race and class backgrounds.

Interspersed throughout the film are statistics about self-esteem and body image for pre-adolescent and adolescent girls. Most of the studies are cited in the end credits of the film, but it's a little disheartening that most of the statistics are 20 years old, especially when juxtaposed against the subjects, like the eight year old with chronic anxiety issues, or the eleven year old who is already dealing with mean girls and frenemies (something I relate to - it still does not seem out in the open yet that it is possibly middle school that is a warzone, not high school).

Also interspersed are the retro short films about being a girl. This is something that always seems to be done in independent documentaries concerning DIY/punk rock feminism. There is one instance where the Le Tigre song "They Want Us to Make a Symphony Out of the Sound of Women Swallowing Their Own Tongues" is played over the stock footage that is surprisingly effective.

The only issue I had with the film is the sort of trite introduction where we get a quasi-history of late-20th century of the role of women in rock music. It plays like "everything was A-OK until Britney Spears came along!" Granted, this isn't a documentary on that time period, but like everything else, it wasn't that easy, or cut and dry. It was the Spice Girls' popularity in the mid-90s that begat the rise of boy bands, then Britney Spears, not to mention they left out the rise of macho bands like Limp Bizkit as a reaction to the women-friendly music that populated the 1990s. I definitely wouldn't blame Britney Spears, she has enough problems of her own that could possibly be correlated to some of the issues that this film discusses. Besides doesn't everyone know that musical styles are cyclical? Blaming a pop star just seems too easy and a total cop out, and frankly, isn't this what Eminem does on the majority of his records?

It seems like one of the forgotten lessons of riot grrrl was that it is unnecessary and un-feminist to hate on other women just because they do not belong to the same subculture as you. I was flipping through my copy of Bikini Kill #2 recently and there was something about how grrrls should not hate on other women for being cheerleaders or strippers or whatever because they are soldiers in the girl army too. I have a longtime zine buddy who recently closed her zine distro and who has often said that there are a lot of neo-riot grrrl zines that do have a lot of girl hate in them, and she wouldn't pick them up to sell at her distro.* In the film, one parent cries on camera because she loves how the camp teaches the girls how to get along, and that there are no mean girls.

Part II: It was all a dream, I used to read Sassy Magazine

What I liked about the camp in the film is that they hold mediator services for when the bands are fighting, which seems inevitable when you're put together with strangers and are in a sort of high-pressure creative environment. One band is fighting about changing the name, and the band with the eight year old is upset because she punched another member of the band (in a mis-use and misunderstanding about what the self-defense classes were about) and believes that she gets to make all the decisions because she is the lead singer. It's a good and perfectly understandable idea to have these mediator services. But to me, it also radically defies the promoted idea that once all women and/or feminists come together, everyone will get along and things will be okay. I've been through enough (mostly failed) feminist or feminist-driven collectives in the past 10 years of my life to know that isn't the case. It makes me wonder if the camp organizers feel the same way, since some of them were around in the original riot grrrl days through the semi-recent Ladyfest era. I think when it comes down to it, we're going to be humans with flaws first, no matter what. **

* See C's post on Jennifer's Body and the horror and feminist horror communities initial reactions.
** The only other recent work I've seen that does this is the Y: The Last Man series of graphic novels, written by Brian K. Vaughan, who works on Lost sometimes. It does make a good case that even if all the males in the world die, women are going to react in different ways, with different motivations.

There are now Ladies Rock Camps for women over 18 too. In Portland, and I think I've heard of one in NYC as well.