Archive for the ‘Bugs’ Category

The other day I was describing PHENOMENA to a buddy who’s similarly enamored of horror flicks, and when I kept emphasizing how wonderful a movie it is, he thought I was fucking with him, since I apparently had a devious smile on my face the entire time. It made me smile just to think about it, but smile weirdly, because the movie is insane. Let me say it here in black-and-white without quotation marks: I sincerely, absolutely believe that PHENOMENA is a brilliant horror film. You can find vastly differing opinions elsewhere, but this essay is about mine.

PHENOMENA, originally released in the United States as CREEPERS (the reason for which will soon be apparent), is the work of Italian horror auteur Dario Argento. I’ve had only limited exposure to Argento’s filmography. I’ve seen ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST at least a dozen times, of course, but Argento was one of several writers on that film, not the director. And I’ve seen DAWN OF THE DEAD a couple dozen times, but Argento’s main contributions to that film as far as I know were in the way of musical compositions and support to his friend George Romero.

The only Argento film upon which I can hold forth in any meaningful way (besides this one) is 1977’s SUSPIRIA, but SUSPIRIA is far from the only notable film in his arsenal. Argento’s primary milieu is within the genre of film known as giallo. PLEASE NOTE: I do not and would not claim to be any kind of authority on giallo cinema. I will explain it as best as I know how, but for a more comprehensive look, please visit my friends at Paracinema. They even have a piece on PHENOMENA, which I will finally read as soon as I’m done writing mine! I’m sure theirs is smarter, as you’ll see soon enough. But let’s try to sound academic as long as possible before bringing up the monkey.

So, Giallo: It literally means “yellow” and it’s an evocative reference to the yellowed pages of pulp novels. Giallo is a kind of pulp tale, but rather than more traditional pulp topics such as noir or sci-fi, giallo quickly diverged into its own thing. Generally speaking, giallo films tend to be lurid, bloody psychological thrillers. Think Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO, only with a significant level-up on the gore. Giallos may or may not have supernatural elements, but the color red (ironic, due to the name) is a near-constant. Stabbings abound. Quite honestly, I stayed away from the giallo genre for a long time because, despite its encouraging tendency to feature female protagonists, giallo as a result and by nature also features a preponderance of graphic and vicious violence towards women. I’m a guy who prefers monster movies to knife-murders, and — unfairly or not — I’d always figured giallos to be the artier precursor to slashers, like the FRIDAY THE 13TH series. That assumption is not entirely incorrect, but of course it’d be foolish to write off an entire genre, particularly one so influential.

Directors like Mario Bava, Massimo Dallamano, Umberto Lenzi, Sergio Martino, and Lucio Fulci were the most prominent practitioners of giallo films, though genre journeymen more famous for other types of movies, such as Enzo Castellari, Antonio Margheriti, and Fernando Di Leo, also worked in the arena. That’s how significant a movement it was. Of all giallo directors, Dario Argento is the one whose name is arguably most synonymous with the genre. His films THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1970), DEEP RED (1975), TENEBRAE (1982), and OPERA (1987), among others, are giallo hallmarks. The aforementioned SUSPIRIA (1977) is a giallo film with somewhat more of a supernatural angle than usual. 1985’s PHENOMENA is even more of a departure.

PHENOMENA is a deep, dark fairy tale. It’s a completely unrestrained work. It defies convention, throws peerlessly bizarre protagonists into the mix, and veers tonally all over the map. Clearly, if Argento and his co-writer Franco Ferrini had an idea, they put it in. No doubt this is what puts off some of the film’s detractors, but for me, the audaciousness is thrilling and inspiring. Let’s do a recap and you’ll see what I mean:

The film opens on a cloudy late afternoon in the rolling, lushly green hills of Switzerland. Right off the bat, what Argento manages to do with wind is eerie and evocative, and the primal unsettling quality of wind through trees is a recurring part of the film. The instrumental score by frequent Argento collaborators Goblin (the Italian prog-rock band who also did the score for Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD) and Simon Boswell is weird and unforgettable and also a kind of secondary character who wanders throughout the film. So by the time any human characters enter the frame, the tone for PHENOMENA is set. A busload of young tourists is herded onto a bus by their chaperone, and as the bus is driving off, one schoolgirl is left behind. She chases the bus, but as it disappears, she realizes how very alone she is. The girl is played by a young actress named Fiore Argento, and if the surname sounds familiar, that’s no accident. Argento had no reservations about featuring his nearest and dearest in his films, often in ways that might give meeker hearts pause. More on that in a moment.

In an epically eerie sequence, the girl wanders through the hillside until she finds a small isolated cottage. With literally nowhere else to go, she ventures inside, calling out for help. There’s something chained inside the house. It breaks free, slashes at the girl, and chases her outside. We don’t see what the girl sees, although we do see some angles from the vantage point of her pursuer. The girl runs to a cave near a waterfall, and is run through with a pike. The attack continues until it’s clear the girl is dead, at which point something falls into the waterfall and is washed away by the rapids far below. In case it wasn’t immediately clear, the object is the girl’s head.

The next time we see that head, it’s dessicated almost down to the bone, with maggots and worms and all manners of creepy-crawlies doing what they do upon it. The skull is encased in glass, in the laboratory of a wheelchair-bound forensic entemologist named John McGregor. McGregor is describing his work to the two police investigators who have come to see him: He’s a scientist who uses insects to determine the method and manner of a victim’s demise — basically, if the TV show CSI were like this movie, I’d watch the TV show CSI. Here’s why: McGregor is played by Donald Pleasence, the veteran British character actor who is probably best known to horror fans from his role in John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN. He serves a similar function here. I should also mention that McGregor has an assistant named Inga who happens to be a chimpanzee. By assistant, I mean that Inga helps McGregor with his experiments and helps him talk out theories and also pushes his wheelchair for him. If you’re still reading, I appreciate it and I will understand fully if you want to stop now and run off to watch the movie for yourself. It’s worth doing.

Into the movie comes young Jennifer, the teenaged protagonist of the film. She’s played by a then-14-year-old Jennifer Connelly in her first starring role, having previously made her debut appearance in Sergio Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA. Jennifer Connelly is shockingly beautiful in this movie — I say this not at all in any creepy way, that’s not the effect her appearance provokes — she’s like a fairy-tale princess, the kind you want to see no harm befall. Your eyes go right to her in every scene, but not in any kind of lustful way — she’s simply a striking figure, almost a special effect, and exactly the kind of visual anchor that an unhinged narrative like this one requires.

Jennifer — Argento allegedly gave Connelly’s character the same first name in order to help her get invested in the story — is headed to a Swiss boarding school, having been shipped off by a famous actor father who doesn’t seem to care much about her. Her chaperone is Frau Brückner, a local employee of her father, played by Daria Nicolodi, another frequent collaborator of Argento and the mother of his famous daughter, Asia. (Both of whom are actors Argento has used repeatedly in his films, to go back to an earlier point.) Jennifer is dropped off at school and nearly immediately ostracized by the other girls. There are two things you need to know about Jennifer: She sleepwalks at night, and she can commune with insects. She has psychic abilities that give her disturbing images of the future and torment her sleep.

So one night, while walking in her sleep, Jennifer is awakened by a schoolmate being murdered out in the surrounding woods. It seems that the killer from the opening scene isn’t done preying upon young victims. Jennifer gets lost in the woods, but is rescued by Inga, who introduces Jennifer to McGregor. With their shared affinity for insects, Jennifer and McGregor become fast friends and soon enough they team up to investigate the murders on their own. Since McGregor is house-bound, he sends out Jennifer with a fly in a box to aid in the investigation. Jennifer and the fly find the cottage from the opening scene, which leads to more disturbing revelations.

In other words, what I am telling you is that, in addition to a chimpanzee lab assistant, this movie also has a fly detective. And songs by famed metal bands Iron Maiden and Motorhead. And a little person with Patau syndrome. And I’m not even done recapping yet, but I’m going to stop there, because believe it or not, PHENOMENA has even more twists and turns and seemingly random factors that all collide and result in a uniquely fizzy combustion of weird inspiration. I don’t want to reveal any more than I already have.

PHENOMENA is an everything movie. Most people are understandably content with just one or two flavors, and such a mad mixture of elements is too much for them. Most movies would begin and end with the string of murders at a Swiss boarding school, or with the sleepwalking girl with psychic powers. The apocalyptic swarms of flies and the chimpanzee protagonist may be five or six too many layers of awesome for the conventional filmgoing mind to handle. But PHENOMENA is the only movie I know of in which a chimpanzee protagonist and an apocalyptic swarm of flies team up with Jennifer Connelly and Donald Pleasence in order to defeat a deranged murderer — if you know of any others PLEASE let me know — and that is the reason it gets a blue ribbon from me.

Throw everything at me on Twitter: @jonnyabomb

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When STARSHIP TROOPERS was released, the TV spots went heavy on the use of Blur’s “Song #2” (Woo-hoo!) and explosions and the Melrose Place prettiness of its cast.   I remember seeing those ads.  I remember how the marketing went overboard to make STARSHIP TROOPERS look like, for example, INDEPENDENCE DAY, from the year before, the kind of hooting-and-hollering us-versus-them supermovie that raked in cash like dead leaves throughout the 1990s.

This is normally the part where I go, “This movie is SO not that.”

Only this movie is so totally, absolutely, completely that.

It’s also a whole lout more than that, as an ingenious satire of the big dumb ugly-American blockbusters that were popular at the time (and are even moreso now — how YOU doing, TRANSFORMERS franchise?)  STARSHIP TROOPERS was written by Ed Neumeier and directed by Paul Verhoeven, the devilish tandem previously responsible for ROBOCOP, one of the great satires of the 1980s or any decade, really.  These guys have the tools  — state-of-the-art special effects, smooth cinematography by Jost Vacano, crisp editing by Mark Goldblatt and Caroline Ross (TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY), a triumphant score by the late Basil Poledouris (CONAN THE BARBARIAN) — to produce a thoroughly rousing action epic, and the brilliant perversion of STARSHIP TROOPERS is that they totally did.

STARSHIP TROOPERS is as well-made, visceral, and stirring as any other action film of the 1990s, even predicting the disturbing carnage of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN by a year, but while it’s played straight, its soul is anything but earnest.  STARSHIP TROOPERS was originally a novel by Robert Heinlein, which I haven’t read, but by every account it’s not a very faithful adaptation.  The basic premise is that in the distant future, humanity is colonizing planets and facing competition/resistance from literal giant “bugs” whose home planet is excellently named Klendathu.

 

As the story opens, this war against the bugs has been going on for years, and human teens are recruited right out of high school to enlist and see combat.  Military service is expected of them, and also generally desired by them.  Most of the kids in the movie are totally enthusiastic to sign up and suit up.  One reason is that the armed forces are co-ed, which, because this is a Paul Verhoeven movie, means shower scenes.  The other reason is that these bugs are nasty — gigantic, spiky, slimy beetle things — which of course stands in counterpoint to the almost-comical prettiness of the movie’s heroes (including a pre-Charlie-Sheen Denise Richards, and not counting Jake Busey).

 

STARSHIP TROOPERS confused mainstream audiences and humorless critics as much as it delighted those with sensibilities more finely attuned to skepticism, cynicism, and irony.  The original release is often classified as a “flop”, which isn’t technically true — it made money, but only a little, which isn’t viewed as a success because of how much it cost.  What is true is that many of the “straights” were turned off to STARSHIP TROOPERS.  Here in America we seem to like our blockbusters the same way we like our wars:  Unambiguous, neatly resolved, with as little consideration as to the thoughts of the enemy as possible.  Verhoeven uses conspicuous facist imagery straight out of Leni Riefenstahl in his depictions of the surging Space Marines, and unsurprisingly many critics of the movie missed the point.  The masses don’t much enjoy these sorts of dangerous ideas either.  We want to see our armed forces as Captain America, and everyone they battle as The Red Skull.  I’m not necessarily criticizing that instinct.  I’m the same way.

But I also happen to believe that the point Neumeier and Verhoeven are making is a viable one:  That war is violence, and engaging in violence makes monsters of all of us.  If you disagree with me, I invite you to see how you feel after reading this news article which I read just this morning.  If we really love our troops, we can show it by not sending them away to face (and occasionally to become) monsters if it isn’t absolutely necessary.

Or we can just keep on squashing the bugs and enjoy watching those green guts ooze out.  There’s plenty of fun in that too.

STARSHIP TROOPERS is playing at 7pm tonight at the 92Y Tribeca screening room.

Find me on Twitter: @jonnyabomb

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ants is a movie from 1977 that is not to be confused with Empire Of The Ants from the same year, because that kind of a mistake would be just terrible to make, of course.  It’s hard to believe that one year could see the release of two separate movies about an invasion of killer ants, and not so hard to believe that both movies could be so thoroughly forgotten in the years since. Ant movies aren’t a particularly popular horror sub-genre. One reason is that ants aren’t particularly scary.  Actually, that’s the only reason you need.  You can make them as comically huge as you want, as in Them!, or you can tell us that they’re poisonous, as Ants opts to do, but either way, the sight of a line of ants slowly streaming towards their prey is not likely to strike fear into many human hearts.

Undeterred by such business, the made-for-TV movie Ants bounded into the fray.  Yeah, I said “made for TV.”  Yeah, I said “1970s.”  That means Ants has charms that have nothing to do with its intentions, which would be to creep out or scare the viewer.  I wasn’t scared, but I laughed frequently, and we’re all going to have to live with that.  It’s the only way I can live with it, myself, since otherwise I’d have to confront the fact that I spent precious moments of my adult life watching this movie.

The credits for Ants include the following names: Myrna Loy (who was really famous a really long time ago, like even long before this movie was made), Bernie Casey (who was in Cleopatra Jones, Hit Man, Spies Like Us, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka!, and Sharkey’s Machine, and is awesome), “Guest Starring” Brian Dennehy, “and Suzanne Somers as Gloria.”  Brian Dennehy only appears for approximately three minutes, so don’t get too hot under the collar, Brian Dennehy completists.  But based on the presence of Bernie Casey and Suzanne Somers, I can see how I was initially drawn to watching this movie, like… a line of ants drawn to a dropped popsicle on a summer day?  I’m sorry.  Let’s just leave that line there and see how it sits.

Basically, Ants deals with a horde of poisonous ants being unleashed by construction work on a country club.  So more than a horror movie, Ants really belongs to the genre that has come to be known by film historians as “country-club disaster movies.” Disaster movies with all-star ensemble casts were all the rage in the 1970s, so why not set one at a country club?  I’m just spitballing here, but if I were a cigar-chomping 1970s film executive with my mind set on making a movie about an ant invasion, I would at least consider setting it at the Playboy Mansion.  Not that it isn’t a thrill to watch a wheelchair-bound elderly Myrna Loy stare uncomfortably at the ground for half a movie, but somehow I feel like my pitch sounds just a little bit more cinematic, at least.

Ants wears the 1970s on it like a thick, tweedy brown overcoat.  This was back in the day when a bearded man could play a romantic lead.  (He’s the construction foreman who helps spearhead the rescue effort — I’m not even going to bother to look up his name.)  In Ants, you get to see all the old movie clichés hooking up with each other and giving birth to all-new clichés. A doctor, noting the rash of ant-bite-inflicted collapses, notes: “We’re dealing with something I can’t diagnose or treat.”  The bearded hero notes, “People don’t die without a reason,” and later, ” Whatever it is, it’s mad because we’ve disturbed it.”  A young boy, covered in ant bites, runs to jump into a swimming pool and his mother screams, “Stop him please — he can’t swim!”

Some other great moments:

In a desperate attempt to make ant attacks suspenseful, the filmmakers use the bare feet of several characters as a vulnerable area for terror. Even the cooks in the kitchen wear open-toed sandals.

This exchange:

“What if it can attack us?”

“What if it can attack everybody?”

Shrieking orchestral strings on the soundtrack are deployed to signal the next ant onslaught.  This is particularly comical when the ants are played in reverse motion, as if to signify that they are running out of a shower drain rather than into it.

When the ants bite Bernie Casey, he starts whining.  That must be a first.  I’ve seen Bernie Casey play a hard-ass in tons of movies but when he finally breaks down, it’s because he got bitten by ants.  The bearded hero gives Bernie Casey a slug of whiskey as he recovers from his ordeal, and asks “You all right?” Bernie replies, “Yeah. A little woozy.”  Which is funny because he’s been drinking whiskey, which is known to make some people feel a little woozy.  In other words, the ants have no discernible effect on anyone, really.

Ants is also disappointing in the matter of Suzanne Somers, who shows up briefly to utter the line “Look beyond all the bumps and you might see that there’s a head up here!” before proceeding to jiggle said bumps just enough for a slobbering creep like me to notice that she spends less time in the movie than Brian Dennehy does.  (Though luckily, she jiggles more than he does.)  Sorry, Ms. Somers, but even if I wanted to, I can’t look beyond your bumps.  Without them, there’s not much of a movie here.

Creep up on me on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb