Friday, May 13, 2016

The Kids Are All Dead

Brenda (Laurie Bartram) at Camp Crystal Lake's archery range in FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980).

That's it, I've had it. I had to shoot four or five hipsters today. And it's not just because I've had more than my fill of stupid hats and manufactured ennui. The term "hipster" did not always apply to such an odious breed of the human race. In the '50s, a hipster was someone who felt alienated from consumer-driven mainstream society, embraced the offbeat and drifted around on an existential quest. Hey, I can get behind that! Now a hipster is a sheltered, entitled "artiste" from an affluent suburban family armed with a self-absorbed arrogance disguised as irony who tries to dress like a homeless person. And being a poverty poseur in an economic recession is just downright rude.
While subcultures of past generations all believed in something, hipsters only believe in their own "coolness." Instead of rejecting the mainstream culture and creating their own fashion, music and art, all hipsters have to offer is a feigned superiority that only allows them to like things ironically. And while other subcultures from past generations were united by common beliefs, similar tastes in music and shared attitudes about the world, hipsters don't even like other hipsters. It's a crowd of one; a self-admiration society.
Is this really the best my generation could come up with? I guess that's what happens when parents instead of raising their kids to be self-reliant, to think for themselves, to go make mistakes and figure things out, produced a bunch of narcissistic whinemeisters who were taught that their feelings mattered more than accomplishment, had all of their time managed for them and were sheltered from anything too offensive or scary. HUNTER S. THOMPSON once wrote of The Generation of Swine. This is Generation of Wussies.
Lest you think hipsters are harmless, keep in mind these post-modern putzes invade every city and drive up the cost of rent for those who actually work for a living. They've infested Austin and New Orleans like a particularly obnoxious zombie apocalypse. And now I can't go to a midnight movie without a goon squad of these boho buttheads cackling like rabid hyenas after every single line to convey they only like the movie because it's "sooooo stuuuuuupid."
I won't stand for this skinny-jeans sporting skullduggery. I've got my machete handy and I'm heading out to every Whole Foods and coffee house in the country to send all these unnecessary headband-wearing wimps back to the ninth circle of hell where they came from.

And speaking of killing sprees, today's Friday the 13th! Thanks to the folks at Paramount Studios, the day will always be associated with Jason Voorhees, a drowned disabled boy turned unstoppable boogeyman killing machine who goes down only to rise again and again for vengeance, much like Otis Calhoun after too many tequila slammers at Crabs and Crabcakes Singles Night. But before all the sequels there was a low-budget popcorn movie attempting to cash in on the success of HALLOWEEN.  And before Jason, there was his devoted mama, Mrs. Voorhees. Today I'm talkin' about the movie that started it all and that's the one and only FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980) directed by SEAN CUNNINGHAM, producer of the infamous LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and written by New Orleans-native VICTOR MILLER.

We all know the story: In 1958, a pair of counselors at Camp Crystal Lake are brutally murdered when they sneak off from the rest of the crowd to make the beast with two backs. 21 years later, Camp Crystal Lake is thought to be cursed by the locals, but that doesn't stop Steve Christy from buying the place and planning to open it back up. Despite the hostility from the DELIVERANCE-lite townspeople, a group of college-aged kids (one of which is a young KEVIN BACON) help Steve make renovations, prepare to be counselors and have some summertime fun out in the New Jersey woods. However, an unseen assailant is stalking and murdering them one by one. When a storm strands them at the camp without power or help, only final girl Alice Hardy (ADRIENNE KING) is left alive to face the killer.
And it's not Jason.
The culprit is Pamela Voorhees, Jason's mother. Seems twenty-one years ago, two hormone-crazed counselors abandoned their duties to go play whack the weasel off in the bushes and negligently allowed her disabled little boy drown.
There's nothing quite like a mother's love.
Or the agony of a mother's grief.

Betsy Palmer as Mrs. Voorhees in FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980).

FRIDAY THE 13TH, while an unexpected box office hit, was lambasted by critics upon its release (my personal favorite critique declared it, "The cinematic equivalent of belching in art class") mostly for its (for the time) graphic violence and perceived puritanism. Sure, FRIDAY THE 13TH is kind of a pale imitator of MARIO BAVA's outstanding proto-slasher film BAY OF BLOOD, without really matching the style, wit or finesse of its forebearer. But it's hardly the blundering clunker that critics have made it out to be; the production is lean and competent. While slasher films (sometimes rightfully) draw derision for poor acting, the cast here does a good job and brings a lot of their enthusiasm to their roles. Seasoned pro BETSY PALMER gives a bravura performance as Mrs. Voorhees, perfectly illustrating the intense rage that would drive a grieving mother to mass murder. I can't imagine anyone else delivering the line, "Look what YOU DID TO HIM!" with as much delicious venom as she does.
SIDENOTE: ESTELLE PARSONS was at one point cast as Mrs. Voorhees. As much as I love BESTY PALMER in this movie, I would have loved to see what ESTELLE PARSONS would've brought to this part.
As for the puritanical aspect of the film, I'll discuss that more in a bit but the criticism leveled at the film that the virginal girl survives while all of her sexually active friends are mutilated is unfounded. From their interactions together, the viewer can easily draw the conclusion that Alice has been sleeping with Steve Christy. Then she throws him over to openly flirt with fellow counselor-to-be, Bill (HARRY CROSBY, son of BING CROSBY).
Virgin she is not.
Alice, like all final girls whether virginal or not, is drawn as an introspective observer (she's an artist) and resourceful enough to survive the night.
However, I may be alone in this, but I always wish that Brenda (LAURIE BARTRAM) had been the final girl. Though she sports some stylish turquoise jewelry, Alice just kind of bugs me, okay? Brenda's intelligent, sarcastic, reads for fun and is sassy enough to instigate a game of Strip Monopoly.
And I thought she and wise-cracking, BOGART-impersonating jokester Ned would've made a cute couple.
Oh, Brenda, though you did not survive the movie, you'll always be Final Girl in my heart.

Laurie Bartram as Brenda in FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980)

The violence in the film, thanks to relaxing censorship standards and rapidly improving special effects, was definitely more extreme for its time, but really not as extreme as its reputation suggests. Aside from a few "money shots," the film relies more on suspense generated by the film's craftsmanship (particularly the PSYCHO-inspired score by HARRY MANFREDINI and the killer's POV device borrowed from giallo films). The pioneering special effects by Wizard of Gore TOM SAVINI (fresh off DAWN OF THE DEAD) still pack a punch today, but the violence in the film is never mean-spirited or sadistic as it is in a lot of recent horror films. It has the quality of a haunted house at Halloween time: the filmmaker's want you to have fun being scared and to wonder how they were able to pull off such neat visual tricks.
The violence is stylized rather than realistic. If you've ever seen crime scene photos, people's hands and arms are completely battered from defensive wounds. There are some murder victims who don't even look human anymore.
But in FRIDAY THE 13TH no one fights for their life; these kids have zero survival instinct and two of the film's victims even stand completely still for the convenience of the killer. This is a pretty far cry from the agonizing violence of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT. Violence here is spectacle.
It's hard to see what critics back then were making such a fuss about, but then again old fuddy-duddies always have to have something to get upset about.

Alice (Adrienne King) finds Bill's (Harry Crosby) corpse in FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980)

And speaking of old fuddy-duddies, generational conflict is at the heart of FRIDAY THE 13TH and part of the reason it resonated with young audience members. Mrs. Voorhees, judging by her age in the film, is a member of The Silent Generation: she grew up in The Great Depression, most likely experiencing a childhood of austerity and struggle. Not only having endured the worst economic crisis in American history (although the 2008 crash is trying to give it some serious competition) and World War II, her young adulthood lands her in the ultra-conservative, McCarthyist '50s where any rebellious behavior is labeled dangerous and anti-American. While it's the Silent Generation that brought us iconic screen rebels MARLON BRANDO, JAMES DEAN, PAUL NEWMAN, WARREN OATES, CLINT EASTWOOD and JACK NICHOLSON (to name only a few), conversely the Silent Generation was characterized by their reserve and keep-a-stiff-upper-lip-resilience. Decades of cultural storm had silenced their youthful expression.
On the other hand, the kids in FRIDAY THE 13TH came of age in the privileged '60s, matured following the cultural upheaval of the late '60s and '70s and entered young adulthood in the affluence and hedonism of the late '70s. Just as FRIDAY THE 13TH rose from relaxing censorship standards for sex and violence, the kids in the movie grew up following radically changing cultural attitudes regarding sex and gender roles.  While I'm sure members of Mrs. Voorhees' generation engaged in pre-marital sex and drug abuse, with the new generation it was taken out of shadows.
The kids in FRIDAY THE 13TH are pretty far from the entitled, instant-gratification seeking douchebags featured in later slasher movies (and some of the FRIDAY THE 13TH sequels): they've taken a summer job in the middle of nowhere working with children for crying out loud. After days of painting and fixing gutters, if they want to goof off a little, it's well-earned.
Besides, Marcie (JEANNINE TAYLOR) does KATHERINE HEPBURN impressions just to amuse herself. What's not to like?
However, Mrs. Voorhees, has embraced the conservative morality of the '50s and carries with her the stern values from her Depression-era childhood. She is emblematic of the older generation's hostility towards the new generation.
She probably reminded young audience members of all of the disapproving adults in their lives.

The cast of FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980)

You've got to feel some sympathy for Mrs. Voorhees. After a hard-scrabble childhood, she's raising a disabled son all alone on a minimum-wage salary as Camp Crystal Lake's cook. And as a summer camp cook, it's got to be one in a series of temporary, intermittent jobs. There are not a lot of resources for disabled children now - especially on Mrs. Voorhees' limited income - and there were even fewer back then. One who has dedicated their life to hard work and caring for a disabled son does not usually have the opportunity to create an extended social network for support; when Mrs. Voorhees lost Jason, she lost everything. And worst yet, she lost him due to the irresponsibility and selfishness of people who were put in charge with his care.
And who wouldn't want to kill those two counselors?
Not only did they not get fired for allowing a little boy to drown because they couldn't keep their pants on, they're still making gooey eyes at one another without a shred of guilt!
I'm with Maw Voorhees on that one -- those self-absorbed jerk-olas were in need of a harpoonin'!

Mrs. Voorhees, though - like many of her cinematic sisters I've discussed on this blog - clings to her grief. She's unable to heal so her grief turns into intense rage. Camp Crystal Lake becomes the focus of her anger. Remember when the locals were saying there were mysterious fires at the place and one year the lake was even poisoned?
That was Mrs. Voorhees' way of saying "talk to the fist, 'cause the face is pissed."
Jason even speaks to her from beyond the grave.
"Kill her, Mommy!" she says to herself in a child's voice.
The current counselors have nothing to do with her son's death. And spunky Annie, the ill-fated would-be camp cook, who declares she wants to dedicate her life to working with children, would have only been attentive and kind to a child like Jason. However, it doesn't matter: Mrs. Voorhees just wants others to hurt as badly she's been hurt.

It's really hard to agree with those cranky ol' critics that thought FRIDAY THE 13TH represented the decline of Western civilization. Like all movies, it was a result of different things brewing in the culture at the time. And while critics decried the violence in the film, a fear of random acts of violence permeated the '70s. Already a turbulent decade of war and riots, Alice and her friends would have caught glimpses of news stories about the Manson Family murders, Charles Whitman and the Texas Tower shootings and the multi-state serial killing spree of Ted Bundy all before they graduated high school.
When the film was produced, being brutally butchered by a faceless assailant wasn't a horror trope: it was a real and terrifying possibility.

So there you have it: the film that launched a thousand sequels and the mayhem was all spawned from a mother's love. It's kind of interesting that Jason became the icon of the series, transformed from plot device/victim to superhuman murder machine powered by some unexplained supernatural phenomenon and the greed of the Paramount executives. But wouldn't it have been kind of great if Mrs. Voorhees had become the horror icon? I know, I know, she gets decapitated by Alice at the end of this one and it's kind of awkward to get around with no head. But, hey, Jason's been decapitated, burned, electrocuted and impaled and he always comes back, so why not Mrs. Voorhees? They could've figured out some creative way for her to get her head back. Or just not even bothered to explain it. It's not like the FRIDAY sequels are known for incorporating logic. I think an undead unhinged mama out for revenge would have made a helluva franchise. Instead of a faceless monster crushing heads, throwing people through windows, murdering people on toilets and stalking people performing nerdy '80s dances, it could have been a zombied-out BESTY PALMER!
What a missed opportunity!

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Children of Her Rage

Samantha Eggar as Nola Carveth in THE BROOD (1979)

Happy Mother's Day! We at DESCENT INTO MADNESS (and by "we" I mean me and the voices in my head) take this day seriously as there's nothing that can be more horrifying than one's own mother.  There's always a thin line between love and hate in a mother-daughter relationship. With my own mother, sometimes we're very close and get along like old friends. Then there are other times I wonder if she's possessed by JOAN CRAWFORD.
Anyhoo, with all the emphasis mainstream society at large puts on having babies, I wonder how many people realize that parenting is hard work. It's a 24-7 often thankless job that requires utter selflessness and for one to juggle being a nurturer, a teacher, a counselor and sometimes a prison warden. To be eloquent, bringing a little life into this world is a big fuckin' deal.
In a modern society obsessed with babies, most people seem to miss this point, though.
Even my normally pragmatic dad got sucked into baby mania. I had just graduated college and been accepted into grad school, but was totally eclipsed because my fertility monster stepsister got pregnant about the same time.
"We're on baby watch," my dad proclaimed with a glassy-eyed fervor that reminded me of the Manson Girls.
"Big deal," I sneered. "This is just the first one she's carried to full term." I don't know why I was the only one who thought her passing along that conehead forehead to an innocent human being was not a cause for celebration. I don't know why no one else was concerned that my stepsister was a made-for-TV-movie with FARAH FAWCETT waiting to happen.
"How can someone have children when they act like a spoiled child themselves?" I asked, which got me ostracized by my dad's family but if I had said that on DR. PHIL they would've clapped.
I think our culture tries to get people to have children for all the wrong reasons. I know my cousin Lula who's dumb as a sack of hammers and insists she's too good to get a retail job keeps getting pregnant so they don't cut off her food stamps. To give an example of Lula's parenting style, her first-born daughter didn't learn to talk until she was three years old. When I asked Lula is she ever read to her kids, she rolled her eyes and said, "That's what the schools are for."
Despite all of this, my relatives still chorused, "Don't you want to see the new baby?"
"I'm sure I'll see it if I get a job with the public defender," I replied.
Babies have become a living, breathing fashion accessory. They're like puppies but better and all you have to do is feed them, provide shelter and make sure they don't chew up the furniture. If you get tired of them, they'll be somebody else's problem.
Women particularly who do not want children are perceived as monstrous. I'm usually greeted with horror or asked to explain myself if I ever reveal that I don't want children. I just tell people, "I can't. My cats are allergic."
This is not a popular opinion, but the truth is there are a lot of people who really shouldn't be parents.
Without the responsibility, time and effort it really takes to be a parent, we're just creating future candidates for the criminal justice system. And most of them won't be able to afford a lawyer, which just gets on my nerves.
So I guess my lesson to you today, gentle readers, is please don't have children if you don't want to do that hard work it takes to be a parent. They'll grow up and kill us.

And speaking of trauma mamas, today I'm talkin' about THE BROOD written and directed by DAVID CRONENBERG. Frank Carveth (ART HINDLE of BLACK CHRISTMAS and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS) is going through a rough custody battle for his five-year-old daughter, Candice. To complicate matters, his emotionally unstable ex-wife Nola (ever-classy horror leading lady SAMANTHA EGGAR) is receiving treatment at the Somafree Institute from controversial psychologist/guru Dr. Raglan (the imperious OLIVER REED). Raglan, best-selling author of "The Shape of Rage" practices an experimental form of therapy called "psychoplasmics" in which patients manifest their negative emotions physically. Seems Nola is consumed by rage as a result of years of abuse she endured at the hands of her alcoholic, probably personality disordered (albeit very stylish) mother. Abuse that her kindly but also alcoholic father chose to ignore. When Candice returns from a weekend with mummy dearest at the Somafree Institute covered in bruises, scratches and bitemarks, Frank is naturally afraid that the cycle is repeating itself and refuses to let his ex-wife see Candice. But Frank's got more than an unhinged ex-wife on his hands: Nola's therapy causes her rage to manifest itself in the birth of a bunch of snow-suited dwarf monsters with mallets that bludgeon the objects of her intense anger to death.
And not even her own daughter is safe.

A member of THE BROOD (1979).

DAVID CRONENBERG has stated that THE BROOD is his version of KRAMER VS. KRAMER, but more realistic. Lest some think he was joking, I agree with him that this film is a more accurate portrayal of the pain inflicted by divorce. Though KRAMER VS. KRAMER is the more critically lauded of the two, I never bought that a career-driven man like DUSTIN HOFFMAN's character would have learned to become a dedicated father rather than hiring a full-time nanny. And I always thought it was a pretty big cheat that the little boy be handed back over to the narcissistic mother who abandoned him in the first place. Most importantly, though, KRAMER VS. KRAMER completely neglected to mention a point explored in-depth by THE BROOD: that children are the silent victims of divorce. This was a deeply personal film for CRONENBERG who had gone through a custody battle of his own and like all smart horror films, utilizes the genre to mine darker emotional terrain than more mainstream films.
Candy spends most of the film in a state of shell shock, numbed by pain she does not fully comprehend and helpless to do anything about the adult machinations around her.
The most chilling moment in the film for me was the scene in which Frank takes polaroids of the injuries on Candy's back, placing them in a folder labeled "CUSTODY."
"Sometimes it kills me to think I've screwed up my kid already," Frank confesses.
Nola's father, Barton, expresses the same worry, lamenting that the trauma Nola endured as a child as a result of his and her mother's divorce is now all happening again, but with Nola as a willing participant and her daughter as the helpless child.
I'm tellin' ya, KRAMER VS. KRAMER completely glossed over all this shit. The kid was all happy because DUSTIN HOFFMAN learned how to be a good dad and then he was all happy to go live with his mom. So, THE BROOD is really a more honest film.
It is significant that the film ends on a close-up of Candy's tear-streaked face, then tilts down to show fleshy sacs growing on her arm, indicating that the cycle will continue.
Some critics have stated the behavior of the characters in THE BROOD is exaggerated or unbelievable. I'm willing to bet these same people have never been to family court. As a family law paralegal, I've seen conduct that guests on THE JERRY SPRINGER SHOW would be ashamed of.

Cindy Hinds as Candy Carveth in THE BROOD (1979).

THE BROOD also offers a critical view of modern psychiatry. I used to joke that I would never go see a psychiatrist because it's to their benefit that their patients get better because there'd be no one left to write them a paycheck. Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of great therapists out there. However, there's no shortage of ineffectual or downright terrible ones either.
Frank dismisses Raglan as "an emotional opportunist." It's a pretty fair assessment considering that Raglan exploits Nola's mind and body to the benefit of his career. He even goes far as to neglect his other patients for Nola. Worse yet, he constantly re-opens old wounds without giving her the tools necessary for her to heal.
There are plenty of therapists who will have their patients rehash the same traumatic episodes over and over, mainly collecting a check and offering nothing more than a few affirmative statements like, "That's sounds stressful" or "That must have made you feel very angry."
Or what about those psychiatrists who are really nothing but glorified drug dealers, peddling highly addictive prescription medications rather than any coping strategies?
While there are patients whose lives are positively transformed thanks to the right prescription medication, there are many psychiatrists who use them irresponsibly, handing out boxes from their sample closets like candy. In light of this, does Dr. Raglan really seem so far-fetched?

Oliver Reed as Dr. Raglan against THE BROOD (1979).

And then there's Nola. Unable to heal from the abuse she endured as a child, she remains a wounded child herself. She's emotionally reactive, possessed by rage to the point where it warps her body, poisons her mind and destroys all of those around her.
The inability to let go of rage is a frequent subject in horror. After all, anger is one of those taboo emotions, particularly for women. A woman expressing anger, even if it is justifiable, is usually written off with, "Oh, she's a bitch" or "She just needs to get laid."
The pathologist notes that the members of "the brood" only see things in black and white. This is ultimately Nola's problem. Everyone is a perceived enemy while she is the helpless victim. Rather than acknowledge her own part in her marriage's failure, she blames Frank and her parents. She perceives Candy's teacher as a serious romantic rival even though she and her husband are divorced with no hope for reconciliation. Nola's anger ultimately consumes her life and destroys all of her relationships.
In a role-playing exercise, Raglan remarks that mummies don't hurt their children.
"Yes they do," Nola insists. "Bad mummies, fucked up mummies do."
Nola, spending all of her time focusing on her own wounds, is blind to the fact that in her selfishness, she is inflicting the same damage upon Candy that she blames her mother for inflicting upon her.
"I'd kill Candice before I'd let you take her away from me!" Nola screams at Frank.
Candice is not a daughter to Nola; she has become a possession, a pawn to be used to hurt her ex-husband.
Nola, in focusing everything upon her own anger, is blind to the fact that she has become the "bad mummy, the fucked up mummy" like her own mother she so despises.

Samantha Eggar as Nola Carveth in THE BROOD (1979).

Like most of CRONENBERG's work, THE BROOD explores the relationship between the mind and the body; something that can be explored by science, but perhaps never fully understood and certainly never controlled. The notion of intense emotions manifesting physically is not an outrageous one. Many sufferers of mental illness experience physical symptoms in conjunction with their psychological ones. I've never spawned any homicidal dwarf monsters though.
I'm kind of disappointed.
The color scheme of the film is made up of the reds, whites and yellows of bodily fluids. Some reviewers have pointed out that the color red signifies femaleness in the film. Red is the color of Nola's hair and Candy's parka. Is this related to menses, one of the things that characterizes the "Otherness" of the female body and differentiates it from the male body?
And what exactly is the film saying about the female body? Is Nola, with her fleshy sac and asexual mutant monsters spawned from intense anger, a monstrous representation of motherhood?
Does the red of the female characters represent the tradition of abuse and dysfunction passed down from mother to daughter for multiple generations in the film?
I think there may be a little bit of "yes" to all of these. And I think the film can explore male anxieties about the female body without being misogynistic. After all, pregnancy, birth and motherhood can be frightening for women as well. Despite the idealization of pregnancy in Western culture, it is something that is pretty taxing on a woman's body -- and often pretty gross.
But then again, red is also the color that characterizes the Somafree Institute which puts an interesting wrinkle on things. In that case, the functioning of the female body is not monstrous; the female body manipulated by men in authority becomes a monstrous thing -- and something they ultimately cannot control.

I have to add that even though critics dismissed THE BROOD when it was first released, the film is skillfully crafted. The production design and photography are accomplished, particularly considering the small budget. The film is filled with the kind of carefully composed symmetrical shots that STANLEY KUBRICK was so fond of. Perhaps it's just hard for critics to give a film about mutant dwarf rage monsters it's due. The performances are all excellent as well, particularly SAMANTHA EGGAR, who deftly conveys Nola's intense anger without making her a one-note harridan. In the infamous "birthing" scene, she also renders something that could have, in lesser hands, been ridiculous into something harrowing and emotionally raw.

THE BROOD ultimately illustrates the thing I love about horror movies so much. Through genre tropes and symbols, they explore the taboo subjects that people are afraid to discuss and mine darker emotional territory that more respectable films are afraid to venture into. You almost never see films that realistically convey the pain, the trauma, the straight-up crazy behavior involved when a couple decides to get a divorce. And you rarely to never see a film depicting the damage experienced by the unwitting children involved as their batted back and forth like a shuttlecock between two unhinged parents. Without snow-suited dwarf monsters, I guess it would get too depressing for most people. So, THE BROOD isn't really an exploitation movie -- it's just honest.

THE BROOD (1979)

Sunday, April 17, 2016

It's More A Story With Ghosts In It

Mia Wasikowska as Edith Cushing in CRIMSON PEAK (2015)

As much as I hate people, I love any excuse to talk with them about books, so I joined a book club. Well, technically it's my second because I got kicked out of the first one. It was a classic literature group but I thought it was pretty telling that they had left a modern masterpiece like VALLEY OF THE DOLLS off their reading list. But c'est la vie. Henry Campbell, criminal defense legal wizard and best buddy extraordinaire, was also banned for life from the group for showing up to meetings pleasantly sloshed with a Coke can full of gin so that just proves those people are sucking the class out of classic literature. So, in addition to being president of the local chapter of the WARREN OATES Fan Club, Henry took the initiative and formed a brand new book club for the true lovers of literature.

I, for one, appreciated his discussion points from last week's "SINCLAIR LEWIS Is A Wimp" lecture. He talked about how LEWIS is the equivalent of that obnoxious guy at the bar who thinks he's the smartest guy in the room and laughs at all his own jokes. Then when you don't think he's that funny, he tries to pick a fight but then he's all mouth and gets his nose knocked square down to his ass by some biker guy who's not gonna put up with that punk-ass nonsense. I'm looking forward to next week's lecture, "JIM THOMPSON eats other writers for lunch."
However, not everyone is a fan of Henry's boozy, folksy literary lectures. Butch Walker's half-brother (those parents have racked up a few ex-spouses over the years) is vying to unseat Henry as president of the book club. See, before those voices in his head told him to steal a Zamboni and go on rampage through the mall food court, he had earned an M.F.A. in Literature at UVA. He knows more about DREISER than anyone on the planet. While he was doing Rorshach fingerpaintings in a state mental institution, he even formed his own "literary appreciation circle" among his fellow inmates and tried to educate some of the staff about the finer points of THE BROTHERS KARAMOZOV. He even tried to mount a production of THE ICEMAN COMETH with his fellow inmates but there were some real divas in that crowd. Anyhow, he didn't find that SINCLAIR LEWIS lecture amusing.
He couldn't understand how someone could stand back and desecrate American literary masterpieces like BABBIT and IT CAN'T HAPPEN HERE.
"Easy," Henry answered. "They're not very good."
Butch's half-brother was saying something about Henry didn't understand the satire of those books and Henry just answered, "How couldn't I understand 'em? They're about as subtle as a sack full of buttholes. Less profound, I might add."
I don't entirely know what that means, but he's got a point.
"Let me put it to ya this way," Henry said. "IT CAN'T HAPPEN HERE and ROBERT PENN WARREN's ALL THE KINGS MEN were both inspired by the same real-life subject, right? But ALL THE KINGS MEN is writing, where IT CAN'T HAPPEN HERE is whining. And ain't gonna read no damn whining."
Butch's half-brother gets madder than a wet nun and insists that literature is sacred and discussion of it should be conducted with a serious air.
Henry just responded with, "Is it just me, or is FLANNERY O' CONNOR pretty hot?"

Where do I stand on this proposed change to the book club's direction? I'm damn opposed. I refuse to take anything seriously and nothing gets on my nerves more than a bossy guy on Seroquel.
Dave Spencer is also angling to take over as president as it would provide him a captive audience for his one-man show about TRUMAN CAPOTE. He walks around spitting out bitchy putdowns in everyday life anyway so the one-man show really can't be much of a stretch.

And speaking of an appreciation for literature, today I'm talkin' about GUILLERMO DEL TORO's love letter to the Gothic romance, CRIMSON PEAK, co-written with MATTHEW ROBBINS, starring MIA WASIKOWSKA as the resourceful candelabra-wielding heroine, the lovable JIM BEAVER as her father, SONS OF ANARCHY's CHARLIE HUNNAM as her Sherlock Holmes-loving best friend who gets a chance to solve a real mystery and TOM HIDDLESTON and JESSICA CHASTAIN as the sinister Usher-like Sharpe siblings. But the real star is the decaying mansion of the title, resting on acres of blood-red clay.
Things are gonna get a little SPOILER-ific so be warned!

Allerdale Hall in CRIMSON PEAK (2015).

In turn-of-the-century Buffalo, NY, Edith Cushing is an outspoken aspiring writer. Her ambitions are met with derision by the high society folks around her, particularly since it is not customary for women to write ghost stories.
"It's not a ghost story," Edith corrects a condescending publisher. "It's more a story with ghosts in it."
Edith is not interested in being a typical, vacuous Victorian lady. When her best friend's social climbing mother patronizingly refers to her as "our own JANE AUSTEN" and remarks that Ms. Austen died a spinster, Edith retorts, "Actually, Mrs. MacMichael, I prefer to be MARY SHELLEY. She died a widow."
Perhaps Edith's upbringing granted her a different outlook. Her mother died when she was only ten and she was raised by her successful industrialist father. He's supportive of Edith's ambitions and her stubbornness. After all, those are the qualities that allowed him to rise from rags to riches. He even gives her a gift of a pen for her writing.
Edith's interest in the supernatural stems back from a childhood incident in which she was given a warning by her mother's ghost.
And of course, a warning that does not make sense to the recipient will go unheeded and figure into the plot. It would be helpful if ghosts would be a lot more specific.
Anyhow, Edith also does not suffer fools gladly and defiantly rejects the wealth and position that her peers embrace, dismissing an aristocrat as "a parasite with a title."
However, she revises her opinion when she meets a real baronet in person: the mysterious, handsome Thomas Sharpe is not only a misunderstood dreamer like herself (he's an inventor), he also praises her writing.
"Where I come from," he says. "Ghosts are serious business."
Edith is charmed by Thomas and the two fall in love, despite the consternation of Thomas's dour sister, Lucille and the disappointment of Edith's best friend, mystery-loving opthamologist , Alan MacMichael. Edith's father, however, is not so easily won over and takes an instinctive dislike to the Sharpe siblings. Perhaps it's that new money versus old money hostility or the fact that they look like living EDWARD GOREY drawings, but Mr. Cushing is mighty suspicious and hires a private investigator to see if there's any dirt on the duo.

Thomas and Lucille Sharpe in CRIMSON PEAK (2015).

There is, of course, but the audience will have to wait patiently to find out what it is. In the meantime, Mr. Cushing's attempt to break up this doomed romance ends in a violent head-splitting murder in a washroom that leaves Thomas free to whisk Edith away to a whirlwind marriage and life as a newlywed in his decaying mansion in Cumberland, England.

Married life is not quite as romantic as Edith anticipated. The house is, as Lucille puts it, "full of nothing but shadows, creaks and groans," falling apart and sinking into the red clay pits below. Thomas is curiously distant from his new bride and any moment the two are alone is interrupted by the domineering Lucille. And just what is in that bitter tea that Lucille serves that's making Edith awaken in the middle of the night with severe stomach pains? And just who are those howling, red ghosts appearing to Edith to deliver cryptic messages on her nightly wanderings around the mansion?

With its enthusiasm for Gothic tropes, MARIO BAVA worship (just look at those colors!) and liberal sprinklings of THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER and NOTORIOUS, CRIMSON PEAK is similar to the characters of Edith and Thomas in that it's a little out of its time and a little out of its step with its peers. Coming from me, that is definitely not a criticism, though. The film even wears its old-fashionedness on its sleeve with the use of silent cinema techniques like irises and wipes.
Audiences expecting more oogie-boogie haunted housenanigans were disappointed; after all, in CRIMSON PEAK, horror is not derived from the supernatural.
True horror comes from the living.
While ghosts in the film are something of a bridge between the past, present and future, the living are the dangerous ones.

In the park, Edith and Lucille discuss butterflies and moths. The butterflies are beautiful but cannot survive the winter.
"That's sad," Edith remarks.
"It's not sad," Lucille retorts. "It's nature. It's a savage world."
Not only do the fragile butterflies perish without the sun, they are cannibalized by moths, creatures that, Lucille explains, "thrive on the dark and cold."
The Sharpe siblings make recurring mentions of the weak being consumed by the strong in nature and living things turning savage in order to survive.
When Edith remarks about the bitterness of the tea at Allerdale Hall, Thomas laments, "Nothing gentle ever grows in this land" and that things need to develop bitterness if they don't want to be eaten.

Edith (Mia Wasikowska) and Lucille (Jessica Chastain) marvel at the butterflies in CRIMSON PEAK (2015).

Their grim outlook on life begins to make sense as, unlike Edith, the Sharpe siblings did not grow up in a nurturing household.
"Father was a brute," Lucille reveals.
Seems the patriarch of the Sharpe clan broke their mother's leg before abandoning the family and squandering much of their fortune on what Blanche DuBois would refer to as "epic fornications."
When Edith remarks about imagining Lucille and Thomas as small children, Lucille tellingly remarks, "We were confined to the nursery. In the attic."
The siblings were subjected to brutal beatings and emotional abuse by their mother. Lucille, the eldest, became a sort of surrogate spouse and punching bag.
Isolated both physically and by their social class, Lucille and Thomas had no one else to turn to. Attempting to fulfill a series of emotional and physical needs that are normally met by several different people, the Sharpe siblings began an incestuous relationship.
The inbred aristocratic family is a trope of Gothic literature but in the emotional core of the story it rings true as well. Thomas and Lucille had no one to rely upon or trust except for each other; as a result, their relationship became perverted.
Lucille, unlike Edith, has known only trauma and suffering. Lucille sees herself as a moth -- a predatory creature destroying more delicate, pretty things, one that "thrives on the dark and cold" as she lives separated from the rest of the world in a disintegrating old mansion she despises.
She has come to believe one needs to be vicious in order to survive.
It may also indicate feelings of self-loathing as she sees herself as a creature without beauty but that cannibalizes the pretty butterflies.

Jessica Chastain as Lucille Sharpe in CRIMSON PEAK (2015).

Her relationship with Thomas, the only person she remotely cares for, is characterized by dominance more than affection. She has transformed him into her willing prisoner and ultimately she would prefer to destroy him rather than have him leave the family home.
Lucille, like many abused children, has adopted the role of the victimizer rather than continue being victimized herself, venting her rage on others weaker than her.
Also, like many children of dysfunctional families, she refuses to break the cycle: it's just too familiar and any other way of living seems suspicious. Thomas, at one point, proposes they simply take what is left of the family fortune and leave the house.
Lucille will not hear of it. As much as she loathes the deteriorating Allerdale Hall, it is comfortable for her.
After all, murder has proven to be a successful method of venting her pent-up rage and she has come to relish her role as a predator. When the Sharpe skeletons all come dancing out of the closet, Lucille literally has her hair down and her long, billowing nightgown flows freely around her (like moth wings?).
"This is who I am," she proclaims.
She has proudly taken on the role of the domineering, abusive matriarch and even wears her red ring.

Jessica Chastain as Lucille Sharpe in CRIMSON PEAK (2015).

Lucille, however, has imprisoned herself as well as Thomas. Unable to let go of her rage, she cannot move forward and it consumes her (as well as everyone that crosses her path). At the end of the film, she remains a ghost eternally playing her piano in the decaying house.
She's stuck forever.
The performances in CRIMSON PEAK are all excellent, but I think Ms. Chastain's may be the one that really lingers with audiences. It's like if JOAN CRAWFORD played Lady MacBeth and it doesn't get any better than that.

While Lucille identifies with the moths, the film aligns Edith with the butterfly. Contrasted with the severe blacks and blues of Allerdale Hall and the Sharpe siblings' wardrobe, Edith sports brightly colored dresses. The one she wears most often is even a yellow one, the same color as the butterfly wings seen earlier in the park. The designs on several of Edith's blouses even resemble butterfly wings.
However, the film does not agree with the views espoused by the Sharpe siblings about things in nature becoming cruel and preying upon the weak to survive.
Edith, unlike the butterflies in the park, does not perish in the snowstorm besieging Allerdale Hall. She survives her ordeal through her intelligence and inner-strength.

Mia Wasikowska as Edith Cushing in CRIMSON PEAK (2015).

I was talkin' about CAT PEOPLE here the other day, which is another film that never quite got the respect it deserved. I don't think this is a coincidence as both are dark fairytales for adults centering on a female character's coming-of-age.
Unlike Irena Gallier, who was on a quest for identity, Edith Cushing has a good idea of who she is. However, she still struggles to define her place in the adult world -- namely as a writer. No writer worth their salt has had an easy, happy life. And while Edith is not pampered by any means, her life experience does not extend far from her father's house. She is fascinated by the mysterious, dark and hidden aspects of life but she has not had to face much of them herself.
Having discovered the dark secrets of the Sharpe siblings, Edith's father commands Thomas to break Edith's heart and leave or else.
Thomas obeys, hitting Edith where it really hurts: her writing. He tells her she only knows what other writers tell her; that she knows nothing of real love or heart-ache; and -- the real ouch -- that she's nothing but a spoiled child.
Some reviewers have complained that Edith does not have a character arc: she is the same strong-willed young woman in the beginning that she is at the end. I'd disagree: at Allerdale Hall she is forced to confront the darkness she has long been fascinated with and survives her traumatic ordeal.
She now has her own insights into the human heart -- and the monstrousness that can dwell within. By surviving trauma, Edith defines herself as an artist and becomes a published writer.
It's not a coincidence that she defends herself against Lucille with the tool of her trade, a pen.

Mia Wasikowska as Edith Cushing in CRIMSON PEAK (2015).

And what about Thomas? Where does he fit into all of this?
Though he's got the melancholy part down, Thomas is not the Gothic hero we've grown accustomed to.
In many ways, his character is more tragic than Lucille. He is stuck in the past -- his aristocratic social standing, the decaying house, the trauma from years of abuse -- but he can also see the future. After all, he is an inventor.
Unlike Lucille, who fancies herself a moth, Thomas has a distaste for violence. While Lucille is incapable of loving, Thomas falls in love with Edith for her kindness and creativity. He senses there is a better way and longs something different, but is unable to break free from his sister's grip and the trauma that haunts him.
"You're always looking to the past," Edith tells him.
Thomas does not possess the strength that both Lucille and Edith demonstrate. Had he been born into a different family, he would have been a genuinely beautiful soul, but instead he is ultimately too passive, too fragile to survive and transform himself.
While the dominant roles in the film's narrative are played by Lucille and Edith, Thomas takes on the role of the doomed heroine. He's the Madeline Usher while Lucille is Roderick.
The character is deftly played by TOM HIDDLESTON who is able to be simultaneously sinister and gentle.

Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) looks at Edith (Mia Wasikowska) with love in CRIMSON PEAK (2015).

As it is in all Gothic fiction, the house becomes an Expressionistic space, a metaphor for the psychological state of the characters inhabiting it. Allerdale Hall is decaying, literally sinking into the blood-like red clay that resides beneath it, much in the way that the old aristocracy is sinking in the face of the future and much in the way the Sharpe family has turned inward and destructed. While they have survived living an isolated existence from the modern world, the many shots of snow falling through the holes in the roof into the entrance hall remind us that the reality of the outside world they have tried to barricade themselves against is increasingly intruding.

And speaking of which, there is much ado in CRIMSON PEAK about social class and the past versus the modern. The European aristocracy, one in which you are born into money and social standing, is contrasted with the new money of the industrial age. Edith's father even states to Thomas Sharpe that he knows he has never worked a day in his life; after all, Thomas has the smoothest hands he has ever seen. Unlike Thomas, his hands are rough. He has earned his money not through birth-right but through hard work. 
The casting of the actors illustrates this as well with the fine-featured, distinctively English TOM HIDDLESTON contrasting with the more weathered, gruff-voiced, bearded JIM BEAVER.
While the old aristocracy is collapsing in on itself, the new (new money, new technology and the new frontier, America) is thriving.
Neither is maligned; the aristocracy as represented by the Sharpes is ultimately tragic in that it cannot adapt to the new age so it simply implodes upon itself.
Ghosts, unlike both, are ultimately timeless. On the one hand they are remanants of the past; ghosts in Gothic fiction are metaphors for the inability to let go of the past for, as WILLIAM FAULKNER would remind us, "the past is never really dead." However, in CRIMSON PEAK, ghosts are also aware of the future, offering oracles of what is to come.

Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) finish the waltz in CRIMSON PEAK (2015).

As a lover of the Gothic and snowy ghost stories, I was instantaneously seduced by CRIMSON PEAK's many charms. I don't think there's been a more beautiful looking film in the past five years; the photography, production design and wardrobe are all gorgeous. And while some critics will balk at the familiarity of the story, I think that just makes it the cinematic equivalent of an oversized sweater and a nice cup of chamomile tea on a rainy day. There's even a waltz sequence - who can argue with that? It's just too damn classy!
Something about it also spoke to me when I saw it on the whim in theaters many a month ago and I think that has to do with both the female characters both being close to my heart. I can identify with Edith; she resembles the face I present to the world, a composite of the qualities I really like about myself -- the horror writer, the defiant outsider, the outspoken well-educated woman and the survivor who turns her trauma into art. On the other hand, I think my dark side looks a lot like Lucille; the side that's all wounds and bitchiness, the side that wants to remain isolated and thrive on insanity, the side that leaves a bear trap on the front lawn so those jerk neighborhood kids will stay off my turf. It's the side that wants to lay down a lot of whoopass while wearing an elegant updo.

The moth and the butterfly: Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain) and Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) in CRIMSON PEAK (2015).

A Gothic love story with just the right amount of stomach-churning violence, ghosts, feminism and a touch of class all guided by the hand of a masterful auteur -- what more can a culture vulture ask for?

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Putting Out Fire With Gasoline

Tree of panthers in CAT PEOPLE (1982)

Maybe I'm missing some essential component of femaleness, but I never got into SEX AND THE CITY.  Don't worry, you will never hear me say a negative word about SJP: anyone who played a Sanderson sister in HOCUS POCUS is immune from criticism in my book. And hey, I did even make some attempts to watch it and see what all the fuss was about, but I have to admit, I was far more interested in the presence of KYLE MACLACHLAN and JAMES REMAR (I mean, c'mon, nothing can top JAMES frickin' "I'm gonna shove that bat up your ass and turn you into a popsicle" REMAR) than any of the sexnanigans, relationship melodrama and designer label dropping. I just couldn't make the same connection with it that other young women did: while the ladies in my peer group were identifying themselves as a "Charlotte" or a"Miranda" or a "Samantha" in their own clique of friends, I identified with JESSICA LANGE in FRANCES.
My friends that gushed about the show found the women's sexual attitudes and behavior "liberating" because they behaved "like men do" and they were successful enough in their careers to afford a glamorous lifestyle.
"What's liberating about sleeping with a multitude of underwritten losers and using your education and hard career work to obsess over overpriced shoes?" I asked.
"It's things like that that make people think you're an angry lesbian," they would sniff.
"If only," I always said. "I would be eligible for a lot more writing grants."
I don't know. If I wanted to watch a show where a group of female friends act like drag queens, THE GOLDEN GIRLS were a lot more relatable.
Carrie's highly toxic on-again-off-again relationship with noxious narcissist extraordinaire Mr. Big (really, writers?) was especially disgusting. Wouldn't a successful, intelligent woman with any self-respect have set him on fire after the first season?
And then after she finally breaks up with him after an entire series and a spin-off movie, her friends console her by taking her on an expensive luxury vacation where they drink more pink drinks and buy more shoes or something.
That's just not realistic at all. When Marie Janisse finally ended her on-again-off-again relationship with Lyle Calhoun, we went to Chipotle. Nachos were on me.
Then we got some of those daiquiris in a bag from the Winn-Dixie and went to hang out in the cemetery.
Then again, I realized I'm trying to mold my adult life into a psychotic version of the RHODA show, so perhaps it's just different strokes for different folks.

And while we're on the subject of female neurosis, my brief hiatus was not due to incarceration or institutionalization, I swear! Those winter doldrums I was going through reduced me to seeking refuge in a trance-like state induced by binge-watching multiple seasons of DALLAS. When the hypnosis finally wore off and I emerged from underneath the pile of empty pizza boxes, burrito wrappers, Cadbury mini-eggs and Mountain Dew cans, I realized that my Travis Bickle-like existence had caused me to miss not only the Superbowl, Mardi Gras and Valentine's Day, but pretty much the entire months of January and February. But today I'm back with a vengeance and while we're on the subject of female neurosis and rampaging sexuality, it's time for me to talk about one of my favorite movies, the remake of CAT PEOPLE (1982) starring Nasty NASTASSJA KINSKI, lovely daughter of veteran movie psycho KLAUS as the heroine; MALCOLM MCDOWELL, who since A CLOCKWORK ORANGE has been making many a movie psychopath so damn charming, as her brother; JOHN HEARD of C.H.U.D. fame as the romantic hero; and fellow Houstonian ANNETTE O' TOOLE as his former girlfriend-turned-best-friend. It's written by ALAN ORMSBY, the twisted imagination who brought us the seriously icky sick flick CHILDREN SHOULDN'T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS and underrated zombie-combat-shock-masterpiece DEATHDREAM, and directed by auteur of the disturbed male psyche PAUL SCHRADER, who penned the screenplay for one of my top five favorite films of all-time TAXI DRIVER.

The film is a very loose remake of the original film produced by VAL LEWTON. They both feature the same premise about a young woman descended from a shape-shifting race that will transform into a voracious panther after sex and tear their lover to pieces. While the original film was about a tormented woman finally driven to destruction by her (real or imagined) demons and her intense jealousy, the remake is about a young woman (just like many protagonists in Southern Gothic fiction) in search of her identity through her ancestral history and family.

Irena Gallier (Nastassja Kinski) is drawn to the panther at the New Orleans zoo in CAT PEOPLE (1982)

Irena Gallier knows little of her family history. Her parents were performers in a traveling circus but she was orphaned at age four and sent to live with a series of foster parents. As the film begins, Irena travels to New Orleans to reunite with her long-lost older brother, Paul.
"I used to dream about you...that you would come and rescue me," Irena confides.
Paul admits he used to have the same dream too, but one gets the sense from those sidelong glances he shares with his Creole housekeeper and caretaker, Female (pronounced like Tamale and played by the fabulous RUBY DEE), that his had a more nefarious undercurrent.
When the film introduces Irena she is shy, soft-spoken and even a little afraid to take up space. Her rigid posture and slight, nervous movements betray the fact that she is not only apprehensive about meeting an estranged brother but that she has been a stranger in strange homes for most of her life without ever really finding a place for herself.
Paul shows Irena a cabinet filled with memorabilia from their family's days in the traveling circus and gives her a picture of their parents. He gets her to perform a juggling act they used to do as children with him, which she completes on her own.  This first connection with her past and family is the first time the viewer sees Irena come out of her shell and really light up emotionally.

Paul Gallier (Malcolm McDowell) teaches Irena about their family's circus days in CAT PEOPLE (1982)

Now that she's been able to reconnect with her only living family, Irena plans to make a life for herself in New Orleans. 
Transfixed by the newly captured black leopard at the New Orleans Zoo, Irena meets introspective zoo curator, Oliver Yates and a mutual attraction develops between the two. The Oliver in this version of the film is completely different than the Oliver in the 1942 version; in the original version, Oliver was a boring dunce who was attracted to Irena because she was mysterious and challenging, then when her baggage proved too difficult to handle, rejected her in favor of a less complicated (and more sexually available) woman.
Oliver in the 1982 version of the story is thoughtful, well-read (his house is filled with books and he knows Dante by heart) a
willing loner, has a wry sense of humor, shares Irena's affinity for animals and is a bit of a misanthrope.
"I prefer animals to people," he tells her.
I think I just fell in love with him.

John Heard as Oliver Yates in CAT PEOPLE (1982)

He too, is attracted to Irena for her mysteriousness and sense that she is not a typical young woman but in many ways they are also kindred souls. Both are sensitive and observant (evidenced by their hobbies: Irena sketches and Oliver is an amateur photographer) and though Oliver's past is not revealed (the only personal photo in his home is one of him standing with an elderly woman: raised alone by a grandmother, perhaps?), one gets the sense that like Irena he has spent a majority of his life, feeling different and isolated from others, on the outside looking in.
They are also both romantics; they are the kind of people who do not form attachments lightly and are truly devoted to those few that they have let in.
Alice, Oliver's spunky former girlfriend-turned-best-friend, who briefly befriends Irena is dismayed to learn that Irena is still a virgin.
"I never met anyone I liked enough," Irena explains.
Alice does not fully understand, but it's reasonable that someone with Irena's extensive history of loss, abandonment and trauma (she also reveals to Alice that one of her foster fathers repeatedly made sexual advances towards her) would have difficulty with the trust and vulnerability required of a sexual relationship.

Irena Gallier (Nastassja Kinski) and Alice Perrin (Annette O' Toole) at Cliff's Bar in CAT PEOPLE (1982).

For Irena (and Oliver), sex is more than just entertainment and too emotionally powerful to have indiscriminately. However, a revelation about their family history from Paul shows that sex may be physically as well as emotionally transformative for Irena.  Other than selectiveness and romanticism, he explains there may have been an unconscious barrier keeping her from becoming sexually active. They are descended from an extinct race of shape-shifters who after sex will transform into a black leopard that will tear apart their partner. He has been tormented his entire adult life by this curse, but proposes a solution: it seems they can still mate with their own kind without transforming. After all, he explains with a smile, their parents were brother and sister, but eventually killed themselves anyway to put an end to their cursed existence. He has lured Irena to New Orleans not to re-establish a connection with her, but to coerce her into an incestuous relationship so that he will be free to indulge in his sexual desires without fear of transforming.

Paul (Malcolm McDowell) reveals their family's secret to Irena (Nastassja Kinski) in CAT PEOPLE.

It's a night-time soap opera league love triangle and dilemma for our heroine, folks. Does she submit to an illicit, incestuous relationship with her brother to maintain a fa├žade of normalcy or does she follow her heart and consummate her relationship with Oliver even though it may let loose the beast inside?

Whereas the Irena in the original version self-destructs, the Irena in this version completes her journey into adulthood and embraces her identity. Were-cat curse or no, the thing that really prohibits Irena from engaging in a sexual relationship, is that she is still uncertain of who she is and where she wants to go in life. She has not had the anchor of a supportive family that most young women have. It is when she begins to shape her own identity that she begins to exude confidence and is finally secure enough to consummate her relationship with Oliver.
"I am not like you," Irena hisses to her brother, more than once in the film.
And it's true, her desires are not selfish or destructive like Paul's.
Unlike Paul, Irena does not simply accept her family's history as her destiny. She becomes the curse-breaker in her family, by ending the cycle of violence and dysfunction. She will not hurt others just to gratify her own physical desires and she won't continue the line of perverted relationships either.
Irena may have monstrous tendencies but she refuses to become a monster herself.
In an ending devised by PAUL SCHRADER's pervy genius, Irena has Oliver tie her arms and legs to the bedposts so she won't be able to attack him when she transforms.
"Make love to me," she says. "I want to be with my own."
The act is both one of self-sacrifice for the one she loves and self-acceptance; she embraces the monster within and claims her place in the world.

Nastassja Kinski as Irena Gallier in CAT PEOPLE (1982).

In addition to Irena's quest for identity (of which sexuality is a part), the film explores the duality in Western culture of puritanism and permissiveness. Paul epitomizes this as he is a minister by day but literally devours prostitutes and one-night stands with his voracious sexual appetite.
Throughout the film there are icons of sexuality such as the painting of MARILYN MONROE Irena looks it while walking through Jackson Square or the Greek statues looming in the corners of several frames featuring nude Dionysian women munching on grapes.
Sexuality is something that is ever-present but rarely talked about openly.
The equation of sexuality with becoming a ravenous animal is a Freudian one that betrays cultural anxiety about sex and a reflection of the Judaeo-Christian notion that non-reproductive sex is evil. The film is rife with other Freudian images as well particularly the none-to-subtle symbols of blood from a leopard attack on ED BEGLEY JR.'s zookeeper gushing onto Irena's white shoes or Irena standing dripping wet in her nightgown in a rainstorm (an image that graced many posters for the film).

Irena (Nastassja Kinski) dripping wet in a rain storm in CAT PEOPLE (1982).

With its steamy climate, reputation for good-natured debauchery, unique architecture and polyglot of cultures, New Orleans is the perfect setting for this story and it is beautifully captured on film here. New Orleans (my favorite city) was really in its prime in the 1980s and I don't know if it ever looked lovelier. Just take a look at these screencaps!

St. Louis Cemetery in CAT PEOPLE (1982).
Paul Gallier's house (591 Esplanade Ave) in CAT PEOPLE (1982)
Irena (Nastassja Kinski) walks through Jackson Square in CAT PEOPLE (1982).

GIORGIO MORODER's moody synth score (and the DAVID BOWIE sung theme "Putting Out Fire With Gasoline") is a big contributor to the film's success, the low droning tones (particularly the motif that accompanies Paul and underscores the stalking of Alice as she jogs through Audubon Park) perfectly evoking both sensuality and menace.

Actors in horror movies rarely get praise but I think the cast of CAT PEOPLE deserves a pretty big hand. NASTASSJA KINSKI is the perfect combination of ingenuous and simmeringly sensual; she conveys so much of Irena's transformation through her body language, accomplishing much without the aid of special effects. VINCENT PRICE once said the horror movie actors were the true method actors because they made the ridiculous seem believable and KINSKI does just that with her performance.
JOHN HEARD gives Oliver an understated charm and deftly underplays the character's obsession. Rather than moving him into John Hinckley Training Camp territory, he instead conveys that Oliver is not one who falls in love easily -- and when he does it's with complete devotion.
ANNETTE O' TOOLE (who I always love no matter what she's in) adds a lot of spark to a character that could have been a boring throwaway. She and HEARD display a comfortable camaraderie that its easy to envision that they were once close enough to be a couple but appreciated one another's humor enough to stay friends.
RUBY DEE lends a gravitas to Female that really packs the most punch into the short amount of screen time for the character.
And no one does sinister sex appeal better than MALCOLM MCDOWELL. No one, I say!

Paul Gallier (Malcolm McDowell) and Female (Ruby Dee) in CAT PEOPLE (1982).

And no, I did not forget LYNN LOWRY. She leaves quite an impression in her brief scene as Ruthie, a wise-cracking prostitute and I don't think anyone else could have sold being attacked by a ravenous black leopard with quite as much dedication as Ms. LOWRY does here.
With her roles in SHIVERS, THE CRAZIES and this, she is something of a Twisted Man's Sex Symbol. On a sidenote, she is also one of those rare people who is as awesome in real life as she is in the movies.

CAT PEOPLE is just one of those films that's close to my heart. Irena's journey, the New Orleans setting - it all just speaks to me. Hey, my parents, at one point in time, were even looking at buying the house on Esplanade Avenue where Paul lives in the film!
And it does what a good remake is supposed to do and employs the concept of the original to mine new territory.  SCHRADER, using ORMSBY's emotionally layered script as a blueprint, explores his favorite themes (obsession, conflict between repression and desire and creating one's own morality in an immoral world) with horror imagery and as a result delivers a more complex and subversive film than the original. Hey, I had to say it, my day isn't complete until I've made some film purists explode into a violent baby tantrum. But why destroy the monster when you can make love to the monster, hmm?