Liquid Sky: 1982

 

And I was taught that to be an actress one should be fashionable.

And to be fashionable is to be androgynous.

And I am androgynous not less that David Bowie himself.

And they call me beautiful.

And I kill with my cunt. 

 

This is a very unhappy movie. Russian/Israeli director Slava Tsukerman’s vision of the New York underground reminds me of a Victorian anthropologist coming to terms with an island full of cannibals. While often referred to as a punk rock movie, this assessment isn’t accurate. It’s a forerunner of a fashion/music trended termed New Wave. This aesthetic impulse was the final iteration of commercial culture that attempted a breakout from conventional paradigms, only to find there was nowhere to go. Heavily influenced by the dehumanization of modernism and the delusions of postmodernism, this movie takes viewers through the nightmare underworld of a culture desperate for innovation, yet only succeeding in alienating people from their art as well as one another. And, it contains one of the coolest science fiction concepts I have encountered.

 

First, let’s do the trigger warnings. This movie is deeply embedded in the culture of addiction and the main protagonist Margaret (played beautifully by Anne Carlisle) is the subject of repeated nonconsensual sexual encounters. I am not a big fan of rape scenes, particularly when they are presented as a lame excuse for titillating nudity. That is not the case here as the scenes seem to be symbolic of the manner in which beauty itself has been raped by the modernist aesthetic. Interestingly, there’s no nudity in the film as all of the sex scenes take place with the participants fully clothed, almost as if they are simply vignettes pulled from the pages of the vacant fashion magazine that still adorn American shelves. While these scenes are not gratuitous from a nudity or violence standpoint, there is something authentic in the dialogue and blocking that make them very disturbing. But the movie rewards the viewer with moments of poetic insight, marking those moments where the mass culture shatters against its own drive toward novelty.

 

The film is about a flying saucer landing on a rooftop in New York. The aliens in this ship begin harvesting the dopamine produced in the human brain during orgasm and/or heroine highs. Carlisle’s portrayal of a fashion model named Margaret is inspired. She beautifully navigates the relentless, plodding universe of banging synthesizers and self-indulgent performance art. Her character begins the movie someone laconic, almost like a mannequin in a store window, then slowly blossoms into full-blown mania toward the climax of the film. Carlisle also portrays Margaret’s narcissistic, sneering, drug addict alter ego, Jimmy. While this is not the first movie to play around with androgyny, it portrays issues of sexuality and gender in a way that was groundbreaking at the time. It also imbeds these conversations in the aesthetics of market exploitation. Think of Project Runway on PCP after three days without sleep. The film is also worthwhile for a really memorable performance by Paula Sheppard who plays Margaret’s performance artist girlfriend Adrian. “I always wanted to fuck a dead body,” she says when the corpses begin piling up in their apartment. Their relationship is sick and tenuous, reminding us that, in this world, all human covenants are brittle.  

 

There are aspects of the movie that modern viewers will find difficult to connect with. The pacing is steady and the lingering shots of the New York cityscape may not appeal to a contemporary sensibility. It should be noted that some of the acting in a couple of the subplots is wooden. Also, while Margaret is adorned like some exotic bird of paradise, many of the costumes in the clubs date the film. But, if you have ever wondered why the popular culture has reverted to endless repetitions of remakes, sequels and prequels of predigested narratives, this film gives you one answer. Humans can only innovate so much. When art is purely self-referential, it becomes a nightmare where people consume one another for nothing more than an orgasm. As a result, Margaret’s attempts to bring beauty to the world of steel and glass are met with violence and degradation. This was the nightmare underbelly of the New Wave, destined to be torn apart by an unholy alliance between modernism and individualism. At least Margaret finally finds her own means of transcendence, but at what cost? When there is nothing left to consume, one is left to devour oneself.

 

Rating: 4 Hits

Black Christmas 1974:

 

Random Sister: You know, that town girl was raped a couple of weeks ago.

Barb: Darling, you can’t rape a townie.

 

Here’s a little Canadian entry. It’s Christmas Eve and the girls at the sorority house are being stalked by a killer with a penchant for obscene phone calls. I’m going to make this one easy. I really don’t recommend watching the entire movie unless you are really on the edge of your seat about whether or not the main protagonist will have an abortion over the objections of her asshole boyfriend who plays atonal music down at the conservatory. Nope, there are only a couple of reasons to watch this movie. First, Marian Waldman does a nice job as the drunken house mother who needs to stay wasted to deal with her role as the chastity police for the sorority sisters. Anyone who has ever really needed a drink then found that forgotten bottle stashed away somewhere should really appreciate her character. But the real show is Margo Kidder playing the lead mean girl in the house. It’s a nice sativa film that provides more than a few laughs. Be warned. The humor is cutting and, at times, uncomfortable.

 

Barb is a complex character and I have to confess that I was rooting for her from the beginning. I almost had myself convinced she might make it, particularly because I had trouble discerning the actual protagonist. It’s like that around here—always playing the longshot. Why do the interesting ones always have to die? At least the viewer is treated to a complex female character in a traditional slasher movie. I have no doubt screenwriter Roy Moore must have known this person in real life. Barb resembles one of those traditional mean girls that would show up in later films. She almost gives the movie a bit of a Heathers vibe. She’s deeply damaged, but sleek and obscene. I suggest watching the film up until Barb passes-out. The rest is kind of downhill.

Margo Kidder plays this character brilliantly. Barb is intelligent and prone to making shocking statements (see above). It’s the kind of writing that one rarely sees in modern film. Her wealthy mother wants nothing to do with her, so Barb uses the sorority as her primary sphere of intimacy. The only problem is that intimacy is impossible for her. She connects to others through her capacity to shock. She is constantly lashing out at the universe—particularly at the good girls who do what they’re told. The entertainment value in the film comes from watching her perform—little moments that are alternatively amusing and dismaying for her audience. Once again, she’s too vivid not to be a real person. If you stick around for her character resolution, you will note it’s a brutal sequence (a crystal unicorn horn?) in an otherwise relatively tame movie. It’s almost as if the film needs to punish her in order to counterbalance the energy she brings to the screen. I wonder if the writer dated her at some point. There was quite a bit of rage there.

 

Barb… If you’re still out there, I hope you’re still giving them hell.

 

Rating: 3 Hits/Four Shots

 

 

The Witch Who Came In From The Sea (1976):

 

“I’m gonna break the bones, then suck the marrow!”

 

This is a complicated film—definitely not for the squeamish. Here is the short version. A woman played by Millie Perkins, an actor who started her career playing Anne Frank in 1959, seeks revenge for the sexual abuse suffered at the hands of her sea captain father by castrating the hyper-masculine men she seduces. That’s the short version. But, like I said, it’s complicated.

 

Let’s start with what it’s not:

 

It is not a monotonous slasher film. If you are looking for a Friday the 13th type of experience, this is not it. The text is much too dense and cerebral.

It is not softcore porn. The sex scenes are far from gratifying.

It is not a troubled woman film such as in Repulsion (1965). The main character is far too complicated and far from hysterical. It is also better written.

 

The difficulty in defining the film is one of the primary reasons it has not been enjoyed by a wider audience. Hollywood can’t market what it can’t classify. You should prepare yourself for a deep dive into the psychology of a person suffering from PTSD. It’s definitely a sativa narrative—meditative and dark with moments of profound violence. It’s a hollow scream from the dark pit of the 70s. It’s probably not a good idea for survivors of sexual abuse to view this film unless they have really processed that material. It did receive a backlash at the time for the subject matter, which is saying something.

 

Perkins was evidently not proud of this movie. In an article by April Wolfe published in Film Comment, she notes that writer Robert Thom, who was then married to Perkins, wrote the script from a hospital bed on a morphine drip. They were desperate to pay the bills. Perkins asserted that it was only due to the supportive nature of the cast that she was able to complete the project. Her performance is memorable to say the least—oscillating between homicidal and helplessly catatonic—the settling into adrift and poetic.

 

I am not a big fan of comparative analogies, but here goes. This film might be thought of as a hybridization of Hal Ashby, Thomas Ligotti and Olivia Newton John. For those who do not know Ashby (Being There, Harold and Maude), he is one of the best directors of the 1970s. His films often featured damaged characters using the economic refuse and mass-mediated garbage of their time period to draw perilous connections with others. This film resembles these narratives in that it is imbricated within the commercial shaving culture of the 1970s. You might think of it as one of the earlier meditations on what some people today call “toxic masculinity.” How close do you want to be to the woman in your life? Don’t bruise the lady. For those unfamiliar with Thomas Ligotti, he is probably the best horror writer of his generation. His stories are not about vampires or werewolves coming to get you, but the externalization of a damaged central nervous system. Imagine your most nauseating depression. Imagine it as a physical place from which you can never escape. His work is like a fever dream where the characters try to break out of a sick, repetitive universe, but ultimately fail. The Witch has a similar vibe with is tiki bars and dark wood paneling. This is a world where no one elevates above their circumstances because the laws of physics will not allow it. And, as for Olivia Newton John… Remember the video to that song Physical? You know, the most popular song of the decade. Yep… Lots of speedos with bulging genitals—ripe for the picking. I did mention the castration, right?

 

I have to admit, I almost turned this one off, but I am glad I stayed. Perkins is surrounded by a group of acolytes who have become implicated in her life—like some type of collective codependency cult. You know the way certain charismatic, but psychologically damaged people can collect a following? They supply her with shelter from the authorities, emotional support and drugs. If you stick with the meditative flow of the film, it rewards you with a series of beautiful soliloquies tumbling from her lips. As she narrates her own psychosis, her familiars stand in mute witness to her contemplations of self-doubt and defiance. I think this is the reason the film was made. It’s some damn good writing.

 

There are a host of other reasons to watch this film if you have the stomach for it. The way she subverts the affection of her two nephews from her seamstress sister is disturbing to say the least. Also, you have to love the hairy, tanned 70s guy standing nude in a hot tub, cocktail in hand, along with two women. All this occurs while a couple of cynical, world-weary police detectives interview him. It reminds one that the aesthetics of one era often look sad and despairing when viewed through the lens of another. Once again, this is not a film for those still processing PTSD suffered from sexual abuse. It also contains coarse language regarding human sexuality that modern film and television avoids. So, this one has a select audience. But if you meet the film at its own level, it’s definitely worth your time.

 

Rating: 4 Hits/3 Shots

Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974):

While many of the movies discussed on SNBC will be a bit more obscure, I have decided to go with a true classic for the first review. The reason for this is twofold. First, Tobe Hooper’s film is a masterpiece that left an indelible imprint on the collective consciousness and can serve as a touchstone for other films of this period. Second, I notice that many younger film viewers are often unaware of gems like this one, relying on lower quality sequels for accessing the mythos.

This is definitely a Sativa film. You will want to surrender yourself to the narrative. It suggests a central nervous system with amplified anxiety levels. The first thing I suggest is to be attentive to the rich visual and auditory environment that Hooper provides. Enjoy the bleak Texas landscape. Listen to the radio in the background. Everything in this film is claustrophobic and speaks to a culture imploding in its own senility. This is a universe where people commit suicide, refineries explode and cemeteries are defiled. The madness experienced by the characters is not unique, but an extension of the world around them—the world most people do not want to see.

I will not belabor the narrative since it is familiar to most horror fans. A group of young people travel through decaying, central Texas and stumble into the territory of a family of cannibals. They are traveling to Sally’s ancestral home, now being sucked back into the unforgiving Texas soil. Contrary to popular myth, it is not a gory film, but achieves all of its effects through strategies that are designed to evoke foreboding and panic. There are inspired performances by Marilyn Burns, who plays the protagonist Sally, and the trio of cannibals who each express differing types of psychosis (Edwin Neal, Gunnar Hansen, Jim Siedow). As antisocial as the characters are, they are also victims of the unforgiving landscape and climate, living in abject poverty. Murder and cannibalism is all they have. But I would like to give special attention to one of the often overlooked characters in the movie.

Among the group of unfortunate young people is Sally’s brother Franklin played by Paul Partain. I don’t know where Hooper found this guy, but he is terrific. Franklin drives the first half of the film and I believe he is one of the best written and best portrayed characters in cinematic history. Often, fans of this movie will describe how they find this character distasteful or anxiety provoking. He bothers them. That is exactly the point. Franklin, a wheelchair bound man with a morbid imagination, is constantly needling the viewer. The way his voice breaks when he is upset puts the viewer on edge. In the opening scene, where the annoyed travelers have to stop so he can urinate into a coffee can along the side of the road, illustrates the problems he represents. When the air-blast from a passing truck sends him tumbling down through the weeds, leaving him weeping in histrionics, the stage is set for a once in a lifetime performance.

Franklin is the only one in the group who can see the oncoming storm, though he cannot quite discern its outlines. At the same time, he is a burden to those around him. Perhaps this is the source of his heightened sensitivity. One of the best scenes in the film occurs when he and Sally fight over who is going to carry the flashlight when nightfall comes. As the crisis mounts, his desire to meet the oncoming threat is thwarted by his own inability to manage the profound self-pity that clouds his judgement. But it is precisely his helplessness and the way that he functions as an obstacle to those around him that puts the audience in the correct psychological state. He pisses-off many viewers, but because of his perceived helplessness, some of that anger must be suppressed. The suppression of anger often leads to profound anxiety. And that is why the first half of the movie works so well. He sets the stage for Sally’s ordeal as she travels through the slaughterhouse. She will learn the lesson well. As Charles Manson once said, “The truth is in your stockyards.”

Rating:

Five Hits/Two Shots

Saturday Night Bong-Water Cinema

This space is reserved for forthcoming reviews of antisocial films of the 60s, 70s and 80s. The 70s in particular was a dark decade with perverse strands of nihilism running through its discourse. This was not an age of redemption. The title of blog stems from the simple recognition that most of these films were made during a time period when many creators were experimenting with their central nervous systems. The results were often shocking and strange. There are currents in these movies that the sober, upright citizens we all strive to be will not fully appreciate. A few might be well-known, while others will be so obscure you need a bathysphere to dredge them out of the slime. This is an archival effort, commenting on the sort of movies we shall never see again. I welcome you to journey with me through the murky bongwater of the horror cinema of one of the truly strangest periods in American cultural history.