Saturday, 10 October 2015

No.72 - George Romero - Part II: SEASON OF THE WITCH (1973)


(Anchor Bay DVD special edition)

After the huge success of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, George Romero was keen to show he wasn’t just a writer/director of gory horror films. His follow-on, the ‘romantic comedy’ THERE’S ALWAYS VANILLA sank without trace, disparaged by Romero due to problems with undercommitted funding by wayward backers and distributors. Together with his wife Nancy as producer, he then made a film that dealt with witchcraft in modern-day suburbia and and also, unusually for this genre,  placed great emphasis and sympathy with female characters and the fuflfillment of their needs. In fact, it was pointedly Romero’s take on women’s liberation, very much a new hot topic in the zeitgeist then. This was to be a double-edged sword -  yielding artistic satisfaction but frustratingly to no avail at the box office.

Joan ‘Joanie’ Mitchell (no relation to the singer) played with commitment by Jan White is a bored suburban housewife who finds herself plagued with disturbing dreams filled with hallucinatory symbolic images: her domineering husband Jack abusing her, a lone baby in a field (a reference to her deceased child, unexplained in the script) and others more inexplicable. She goes to see a therapist who muses while sucking his Meerschaum pipe that “The least qualified to understand a dream…is the dreamer”.

Clearly, that was why she was seeing him but since he isn’t going to make himself useful, Joan must seek solace elsewhere. She is intrigued to discover there is a witch, Marion,  living in the neighbourhood so she and her friend Shirley go over and receive a Tarot reading. Later they return to Joan’s house and she meets Greg, a student teacher who is sleeping with Nikki, Joan’s daughter. Gregg has a dark secretive air about him which initially repels Joan. This is heightened when he cruelly tries an experiment on Shirley to trick her into believing he has given her pot instead of a regular cigarette. This is an interesting and vaguely unsettling scene as Shirley appears to veer from blissed-out to freaked-out, all entirely from auto-suggestion of what she images such forbidden  psychoactoive substances to do to her. Joan rids the house of Gregg, but after taking the hugely embarrassed Shirley home, she returns to hear Gregg and Nikki having sex. This awakens Joan’s own sexual frustration and she touches herself alone in her room.

After Jack goes off on a business trip, Joan’s loneliness compels her to activate her interest in witchcraft. She goes to a shop to buy herbs, books and other spell tools and creates a spell that attracts Gregg to her so they begin an affair.”You’re not bad in the sack” he tells her. Fortunately his physicality seems to console her more than his verbalisms. Her daughter Nikki goes missing but is then reportedly found by the police. She cuts off her affair with Gregg.

Gradually, Joan’s increasing absorption into the occult manifests nightmares involving a masked intruder in black who attacks her at home, dredging up her vulnerabilities to the fore. The night Jack returns, in a shock scene reminiscent of the ending of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, Joan blasts him to death with a shotgun. It seems accidental as he is not clearly seen, but this motivation is clouded as she willingly joins her friend’s coven in a ritual after she is acquitted of blame and at a later party she states simply and enigmatically to a friend that she is a witch.  She smiles with inner contentment for the first time as the film ends…

SEASON OF THE WITCH is certainly a worthy exploration within the field of a welcome, rare female-centric plot. The women not only outnumber the men, but their issues of role fulfillment and relationships with self-centred men are the main focus instead of merely being passive victims or flamboyant monsters. What it lacks for me is the payoff of what appears to be the promise of sex mixed with the occult. There is the tasteful suggestion of both but little that is graphic enough to hold continual interest, so what we’re left with is neither a domestic drama exactly nor a horror movie but something falling and failing between the two.

The circumstances of the making and release seem to have been largely responsible for the uncertainty of the film’s tone. The original script, called JACK’S WIFE, was off-putting to Jan White when she was first offered it. “ There were all these nude scenes in it. I really don’t wanna do a porno.” She told the Romeros. George assured her that it was only written so explicitly to gain the funding. He and Nancy were so keen on White, a local ex-soap opera actress, that they agreed to get her a body-double on the days requiring nudity. As it turned out, she became so comfortable during the actual shoot that she said she would have done the scenes herself but didn’t feel brave enough to voice changing her mind on-set. 

White also mentioned some spooky phenomena during the shoot which she attributed to the occult nature of the film, despite unusual events always being a possibility by law of averages in a creative environment of many people over time. The most interesting one concerns the scene in which she writes the Lord’s Prayer backwards. This had to be shot multiple times as the first two or three versions were sent to the lab for processing and each time failed to show up on the print.

The 30th anniversary reissue by Anchor Bay on DVD is a print that is slightly grainy yet the colour scheme really pops, distracting so much that at times it almost looks like a black and white film that’s been slightly tackily colourised. The attention deficit caused by the lack of driving action caused me to be inadvertently side-tracked by the lurid blue and red couch, not to mention the oddly jarring blues, greens and purples of the women’s clothes. To be fair, the period seems not to have been a high-point for such things; the ladies at times visually resemble the trashy 1970s’ mistresses satirised by Scorcese in GOODFELLAS.

The taint of ‘adult porn entertainment’ lasted through the planned original release  as the title was swapped from JACK’S WIFE to the more misleadingly exploitative HUNGRY WIVES on its first run. Eventually it became SEASON OF THE WITCH which also referred to the titular groovy Donovan song used in the film. Producer Jack Harris also turned a deaf ear to Jan White’s plea to put Romero’s name above the title to capitalise on his international reputation in horror earned by NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Sadly, this meant that the new film’s attempt at mature progressive themes within the genre never earned an audience. This is not to denigrate or patronise the risk that Romero willingly took as a maverick operating outside the system. He later felt that like THERE’S ALWAYS VANILLA, he was severely hampered before the release of this film by money men jumping ship part-way through the process. However, he would be on surer tonal ground wth his next pure horror movie – THE CRAZIES….

Friday, 9 October 2015

No. 71- George Romero - Part I: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)


The 25th anniversary reunion documentary for NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD begins with this neat introduction: “In 1967 a group of dedicated industrial film-makers, broadcast professionals, stage actors and actresses, ambitious amateurs and assorted family and friends became a virtual creative army in an attempt to pull off the seemingly impossible – a regionally produced feature film.”

Director George A. Romero at that time was part of a team of creative colleagues including Richard Ricci and Russ Streiner (and later John Russo) who formed the Latent Image commercials agency, a highly successful firm who won 37 awards for their superb, cost-effective adverts for big name brands such as Heinz, U.S. Steel, Alcoa and Calgon – often costing a tenth of the budgets of their competitors. One day, amidst bitching about the usual industry problems, Russo suggested they try their hand at producing their own feature-length horror film - with the original title of MONSTER FLICK. It was funded by each of the ten members of the partnership kicking in $600 and aimed at breaking in to the commercial movie business beyond the limited world of TV ads that they had clearly mastered. Ultimately the film cost much more, roughly $117,000, (but made back around $700,000 in its first year at neighbourhood theatres and the drive-in circuit). The team could not have known that the finished film as NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD would grow to become one of the seminal modern horror films, and its director Romero the under-appreciated godfather of zombie cinema…

The plot is pretty straight-forward, opening with two siblings, Johnny and Barbra (Russell Streiner and Judith O’Dea) making their annual pilgrimage to their father’s grave to plant a wreath. In the cemetery Johnny teases his sister about the spooky atmosphere as a stumbling sinister man approaches. He is a zombie, part of a horrific unexplained reviving of the dead, who proceeds to attack them both, fatally killing Johnny as he falls and strikes his head on a gravestone. Barbara flees to an isolated house, where she encounters Ben (Duane Jones), a level-headed black fellow escapee from the developing terror. Ben is a capable, level-headed survivor whereas Barbra retreats into a catatonia-like PTSD. They are joined by a likeable young couple, Tom and Judy (Keith Wayne, Judith Ridley)  and an older married couple, hot-headed bully Harry Cooper and his bitter wife Helen (Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman) who bring their daughter Karen (Kyra Schon) and an inter-‘familial’ tension that soon affects the siege-mates as they struggle to barricade themselves against the gradual waves of ‘ghouls’ from the outside.

Meanwhile the emergency broadcasting networks try to explain the phenomenon as triggered by a Venus orbiting satellite, Explorer, destroyed owing to the presence of some form of radiation  - but that has seemingly infected the eastern third of the U.S, causing the recently-dead to reanimate and cannibalistically devour living humans. They advise the crudest method of dispatching the walking dead, using bludgeoning, fire and bullets and foregoing civilised burial procedures to prevent the just-dead from rising as well: “The bodies must be burned immediately. They’re just dead flesh – and dangerous”.

In the final act, the plans that the impromptu housemates make fall apart: Tom and Judy are blown up in their truck as they attempt to refuel it for a planned group getaway. Harry’s streak of cowardice gets him fatally wounded during the climactic waves of zombie attack on the house when he wrestles a gun from Ben, who shoots him in the heat of the conflict. Harry stumbles down to the cellar he was so keen to hide in all along and dies of his wounds. Helen retreats there also where she witnesses the awful sight of their daughter Karen consuming her dead husband on the floor. Karen stabs her mother to death with a garden trowel. Barbra is shocked to see her brother Johnny as part of the undead horde forcing their way into the property. They envelop and kill her. Ben, the last survivor, hides in the cellar, shooting the revived Harry and Helen.

As dawn breaks, the posse of townsfolk led by Sheriff “Beat ‘em or burn ‘em. They go up pretty easy” McClelland cuts a neutralising swathe toward the house. A groggy Ben comes to the window, where he is mistaken for a zombie and clinically shot, leaving no survivors from the night’s desperate stand…

Despite its limitations, or maybe because of them, NOTLD is ground-breakingly effective in many ways: Firstly, the budgetary restrictions created a tight comradeship among the cast and crew, many of whom blurred the lines between the two by having to perform double or even triple duty in functions – Russell Streiner was not just acting in the film as Johnny, he was a co-producer, like Karl ‘Harry’ Hardman, who added a third role as one of the make-up artists on set.

The close collaboration off-screen was superbly warped on-screen to create a pressure cooker of bubbling tensions within the makeshift family unit in the house. After eroding our character identification by rendering Barbra catatonic (much like killing off Janet Leigh so early in PSYCHO), the threat level of being ripped open by the zombies outside is matched by the potential of being structurally torn apart indoors, Hot-headed Harry bull-dozes his way in, masking his cowardice with intimidation, pushing for the group to hide down in the cellar from the get-go whether they agree or not. He and Ben constantly duel for top-dog status, the latter losing his cool at the older man’s dangerous selfishness: “I oughtta drag you out there and feed you to those things!” Harry’s wife confirms that his behaviour is not situational - his combative, insecure nature is a catalyst in accelerating their demise. There is sociological commentary here about how a supposedly civilised society may descend into chaos if our instinct for self-preservation is allowed to dominate our humanity.

The elements that make up the grammar of the zombie movie originate here.  As well as the fraught vying for dominance between alpha males thrown together by necessity under the claustrophobia of siege conditions , the rules - the standard methods of dispatch so familiar as horror lore now of either burning or putting a bullet in the brain - began with NOTLD.

Linked to this, the casting of Duane Jones as the leader within the group was an important step in affirmative ethnic role models on-screen, all the more impressive as he was slotted into a script where the character was written as caucasian. No changes were made following his casting, no traces of tokenism - his ethnicity is not referenced in any way, and he emerges as a well-spoken, calm, resourceful, middle-class character, like a young Bill Cosby, but one with much-needed practical skills. (Today, I fancy this type of role would be cast more narrowly with a young, streetwise ‘gang-banger’ personality). During the filming, it took Jones some time before he felt comfortable with the opportunity as it was so rare in a society still supportive in many places of residual segregation and a period where civilian rioters and the Black Panthers battled militantly for equality.

The gory feastings by the zombies on human entrails (supplied by a local butcher shop) were fiercely graphic for their time, and although not as visceral as, say the later eye gouging of Olga Karlatos in ZOMBI 2 or some of the ‘head traumas’ and disembowelments in Romero’s awesome sequel DAWN OF THE DEAD and DAY OF THE DEAD, they still deliver strikingly queasy moments. Watching the undead hungrily devouring the remnants of Tom and Judy in the moonlight outside the house is memorably unsettling as is the quasi-Freudian snacking of young Karen upon her mother in the cellar.
The monochrome cinematography and raw feel adds to the almost documentary veracity of NOTLD. During the film, we are fed pieces of rolling news from the media as a state of emergency results in shelters being set up and newscasters attempting to gather expert advice from scientists and the government. Watching it now, it foreshadows the 24-hour news cycle coverage of today’s war and disasters covered by the likes of CNN. These scenes are credible in how they move from vague guesswork to concrete specifics of trying to handle the situation and public panic as more facts are known.

NIGHT’s cinéma vérité grimness of aspect is also powerfully amplified at the end. The shooting of Ben is a shockingly downbeat conclusion; just as we are led to believe a new day brings new possibilities for life, his death robs us of hope – an admirably brave choice for a movie aiming at commercial success. (The early ‘70s would usher in a similar air of cynicism in many film endings). This is reinforced by the added one-two punch of the casuality with which Sheriff McClelland deadpans “Okay, he’s dead. Let’s go get ‘im. That’s another one for the fire” and the cut to a final sequence of grainy newsprint-style photos of the clean-up operation. The all-night fight for survival of the people we have become invested in is now nothing more than routine sweeping-up.

It’s worth mentioning the effectiveness of sound-track cues as well. Whilst making understandably inexpensive use of open source music, the echoing screams chill as Karen slaughters her mother and the synthesised thudding pulse accompanying the closing still images compounds the hopelessness.
Romero and his colleagues ultimately lost a lot of revenue on the film owing to naivety. Before releasing it, they had copyrighted not the film of NOTLD, but simply the former script-stage title of NIGHT OF THE FLESH-EATERS, which meant that when the name changed to the one we all know it as, the copyright no longer applied. Subsequently, companies were able to print their own VHS releases and avoid paying any royalties to its producers. This did not prevent NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD from making George Romero’s name in the horror movie world. He would always labour outside the established studio system, forging a hard road but one with arguably more artistic control, later refining and expanding his apocalyptic vision with the more ambitious DAWN OF THE DEAD and the damagingly budget-constrained DAY OF THE DEAD, then to my mind over-extending his pioneering property a few films too far (DIARY? SURVIVAL?). He earned his place as a firm genre favourite and is hugely influential to this day as each generation re-draws his zombie territory.

Coming up next, I’ll be covering two of Romero’s follow-on films that explored other areas of horror – SEASON OF THE WITCH (1971) and THE CRAZIES (1973)…

Sunday, 4 October 2015

No 70. David Cronenberg - Part II: SHIVERS (1975)

SHIVERS (1975)

By 1974 David Cronenberg was worried that after three years his film directing dream would never properly come to fruition. He’d made his two short experimental films STEREO and CRIMES OF THE FUTURE and the TV shows he has hired for had not helped to build a reputations. He went to Los Angeles, wondering after reluctance if he would have to consider being part of the Hollywood machine to get funding for his latest script ORGY OF THE BLOOD PARASITES. Roger Corman’s company loved it, feeling its inexpensive sensational horror premise would be viable for their undemanding drive-in audience. 

Upon returning to Canada, Cronenberg suddenly found that the exploitation company Cinepix had come through with backing themselves, and so in wary conjunction with the government body the Canadian Film Development Corporation, his first feature was in business to the tune of $179,000. He narrowly avoided an early assimilation into Hollywood by just one month. This is something which he has still adhered to, having never shot any of his films in the industry environs of L.A.
SHIVERS deals with the horrific transmission of parasites between residents in the lavish apartments of the new Starliner high-rise complex on the fictional Starliner Island in Montreal. It is activated by the creation of a parasite by Dr Hobbes, who infects his young mistress with it as an experiment to connect people to their primal fleshy selves, but doesn’t realise how free his mistress is with her affections. Hobbes kills his mistress early on and then himself but he is too late to stop the infection outbreak.  Thus, the leech-like creatures are passed orally amongst the whole building, causing a psychosexual frenzy of lust and homicide-driven insanity across the Starliner’s occupancy. Finally, after the heroic efforts of the medical clinic’s doctor result in his being infected also, we see that come the morning, the hordes of libidinous occupants now drive out into the city and beyond, now apparently normal but calmly focused on spreading the terrifying contagion.

Shooting covered August to September 1974 and was a valuable first opportunity for Cronenberg to understand how to delegate to a professional crew; for his previous films he had been forced to handle all the technical roles himself. Now he needed to learn the various department’s names and duties and entrust them. Fortunately he had Ivan (later famous for GHOSTBUSTERS) Reitman as producer and music composer as well as Joe Blasco, whose under-skin bladder FX earned great admiration from make-up guru Dick Smith who had pioneered the technique. Cronenberg also saved money by living in one of the apartments in the Nun’s Island high-rise used for shooting – by doubling it as the FX workroom.  He had intended to use real leeches for the close-ups but they were accidentally frozen by a fellow crew member in the freezer.

The cast was made up of virtual unknowns for the most part, except for Lynn Lowry who’d been in George Romero’s THE CRAZIES the year before, as the nurse here, and famous horror genre star Barbara Steele as the vampy lesbian Betts. Those who’ve seen STEREO and CRIMES OF THE FUTURE will recognise Ron Mlodzik as the unruffled, soothing promotional agent for Starliner (It’s his voice you hear as well on the promo film at the start selling the complex’s virtues). He has a chillingly effective scene near the end where he helps take a terrified couple to a room and then reveals it’s a trap to throw them to the libidinous wolves waiting for their next sexual victim. Paul Hampton, the smooth Doctor Roger St Luc is overly-relaxed for the most part until the tension is amped to critical. He is more famous in real-life as a writer of pop songs. Probably the most accomplished performer of the supporting cast is Joe Silver as the researcher Rollo Linsky, making the connections between Dr Hobbes, the girl and the infection. He is also almost never seen without eating a pickle, even when driving.

The horror sequences and the almost documentary feel of SHIVERS have a nightmarishly effective tone. Despite some haphazard acting and awkward fight scenes, they have a macabre edge. The passing of the parasite through the throats of Steele and Lowry is unsettling, as are the corridor rampages and a great sequence where St Luc escapes outside from the pool only to be confronted by a zombie-esque chain of residents looming up out of the dark.

It’s not surprising that there are staging weaknesses occasionally in the scenes. Because of the intense budget strain, many more set-ups had to be shot each day than would be normal including FX, car-crashes etc

The title changed upon release to THE PARASITE MURDERS and then finally once the French-Canadian distributors saw how well it did under the French title FRISSONS, they used the English equivalent SHIVERS (aka THEY CAME FROM WITHIN in the USA). French critics saw the film as almost a political attack on the insulated, middle-class bourgeoisie and Cronenberg at least agreed enough to admit that “people vicariously enjoy the scenes where guys kick down doors and do whatever they want to the people inside… a vicarious thrill in seeing the forbidden”.

In the UK, James Ferman’s BBFC passed SHIVERS uncut, which is slightly surprising as he was known for being highly sensitive to film-makers who exploited clear combinations of sex and violence. Clearly, he felt that there was justification for sexualised brutality in the plot. There were complaints back in Canada from appalled people getting wind of taxpayers’ money being used to fund such a graphically-unpleasant horror movie. However, the film made a profit  - unlike many. Like Clive Barker later, Cronenberg had no patience with the idea of hiding the horror from the audience: “The very purpose was to show the unshowable, to speak the unspeakable…”.Also, as he pointed out, in a film that relies on visual depictions, if you cut away from the FX shots, the audience wouldn’t know what was happening.

SHIVERS not only made money, it began to make the writer/director’s reputation in the horror field. Even Martin Scorcese was quoted as admiring the ending’s power: “The last scene…with the cars going out to infect the entire world…is something I’ve never been able to shake”.

The perversion of science for human experimentation, the revolt of the body from the inside against its owner, public panic in the face of infection, all these themes would be developed by David Cronenberg in the follow-on RABID and then beyond into the decades to come…