Sunday, January 22, 2017

This Ain't My Party


Spending a weekend in a cabin in the woods, a group of college kids tell scary stories in SCREAMS OF A WINTER'S NIGHT (1979)


Political pundits are chewing their manicures off trying to figure out how the Democratic Party became the biggest loser in this year's election. What's going on out there in flyover country that resulted in epic losses for the Democrats on both a state and federal level?  They could, of course, travel about the country and talk to a sample of working and middle class people, but that would just be silly. Instead they've taken to the airwaves and interweb with a whole bunch of theories.

The most popular is the angry white man theory. Yep, it's all Travis Bickle's fault. He's got a chip on his shoulder because technology, globalization and the gig-centric Uber economy have denied him the comfortable, middle-class life his parents had. But hey, he needs to get real and realize it's his own fault and he should've taken out $50k in loans for college and then he wouldn't be so ignorant as to vote Republican.
Then there's the related "white-lash" theory: the white working class lashed back against a changing country. They're threatened by the "browning" of America and the fact that we had a black president (who was half white, but whatever). They reject political correctness not out of concern for their civil liberties, but because they want to go around hollering racial slurs. And those blue collar slobs should've been grateful that thanks to Obama they have affordable healthcare except it's not really affordable. Oh well, if they're complaining about paying twice as much out-of-pocket or sky-high deductibles or the fact that their doctors no longer accept their insurance it's probably just because they're a bunch of racists.
But what about all those people waving "Blacks for Trump" and "Latinos for Trump" signs? Oh, they were probably confused so who cares about those folks anyway. And what about people like Dr. Cornel West and Tavis Smiley who were anti-Trump but also vocally critical of Obama and opposed Hillary Clinton? Ignore them, they just don't understand.
There's the Weimar theory: that those ignorant rubes just can't figure anything out so they're looking for a strong-man authoritarian to solve all of their problems. Never mind that a lot of those folks have strong objections to limitations of their civil liberties and opposed Obama's autocratic methods, all they want is a dictator.
The pundits can't seem to figure out what's going on in the Rust Belt. They don't understand those incorrigible Southerners at all, but they're just a bunch of Bible-beatin' rednecks who're looking for people to lynch anyway. And they completely forgot the Southwest was even there until BREAKING BAD came on.
Now, I don't have the benefit of an Ivy League education like those other jokers - I went to art school and then I got my paralegal certificate from Earl K. Long College (go fighting crawdads!) - but I think I have a theory of my own.
I grew up in Red State-land and I've been a loud-mouthed power-to-the-little-guy banker-punching populist Democrat my whole life. My parents were both proud Democrats - after all, the Democratic Party was the party of the working man.
Unfortunately, that's no longer true.
What was once the party of the factory workers, the farmers, skilled tradesmen and small businessmen is now the party of Wall Street bankers, Silicon Valley billionaires and the Hollywood elite.
The party has transitioned from epitomizing the values of Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and William Jennings Bryan - more direct democracy, a government by the people, pro-worker, anti-globalist, anti-war, equal opportunities for all and special privileges for none - to becoming a party of Hamiltonians who favor globalization, imperialist wars and the rule of an elite. They'd like to exile all those unpleasant working class people to Siberia and create a beautiful America where a bunch of hedge-fund managers and illegal aliens all get naked together and sing "This Land Is Your Land."
Looking at today's Democratic Party,  I haven't seen a group this despicable since Marie Janisse's ex-boyfriends got together to form that Los Lobos tribute band.
And as much as what was said about the Deplorables, I found the Obama/Clinton devotees a lot more frightening; those folks have a bloodthirsty fervor that rivals the Manson Family.
I've got a gaggle of Obamatons at my office and normally I keep my mouth shut around them because I've been tarred and feathered before and it wasn't fun. But after listening to a string of sneering epithets about "those ignorant people" (it was either the people who voted for Trump or the Bernie Sanders supporters who refused to vote for Hillary, I couldn't really tell) followed by gushing accolades about President Obama being the best president in the history of the United States, I couldn't stands no more.
"Only if you think appointing a cabinet full of Citibank and Goldman Sachs executives, signing a taxpayer funded bailout for the architects of The Great Recession, a healthcare bill that's more beneficial to the insurance companies than it is to working people, bringing down the hammer on whistle-blowers and trying to ramrod a super-secretive global-corporatist anti-democratic trade bill through Congress is a legacy to be proud of," I said.
And then as a smell of ozone crept into the air, a low growl emerged from their collective throats as their lips curled back to reveal their fangs. Their hands curled into talons and their eyes began to flicker and roll like a lizard's.
"You must be some crazy redneck racist!" they screeched. "You just don't understand!"
Yeah, I think I do.
And that's the other thing -- this new breed of liberal has two defenses when confronted with a dissenting opinion, either:
1) Accuse the dissenter of being a racist to shut them up. I find this abhorrent for so many reasons. Racism is a serious problem, not some flippant label to be tossed around like a volleyball.
2) You don't understand. See what that condescending little phrase does? The only reason you dare disagree is because you're ignorant.
Rather than championing the working class, today's Democratic Party despises them.
One of the Office Obamatons even said she opposed raising wages because then the price of goods would go up and we'd have rampant inflation.
"The price of goods is going up and we have rampant inflation anyway," I said. "When only a few corporations have ownership of everything prices go up because there's no competition."
"You just don't understand," she said.
The reason people in middle America have abandoned the Democratic Party is that the party turned its back on them decades ago. With its economic elitism, imperialist warmongering and shrieking self-righteousness on social issues, it's no longer a good fit for them. Once the party of the common man, it's now a party for the kind of people who watch a Marx Brothers movie and say, "I really like MARGARET DUMONT -- but I find those little weird guys highly offensive."
The Democratic Party isn't the party of the people anymore. And it really needs to check its class privilege.

And speaking of uncomfortable parties, the second film in this regional horror film bonanza is SCREAMS OF A WINTER'S NIGHT (1979) made in Natchitoches, Louisiana. You used to be able to get some good meat pies there. Ten college kids head out in a van for a weekend at a cabin in the woods near the allegedly haunted Lake Durand. For some reason surprised that spending the weekend in the woods means they'll be out in the middle of the woods (jeeze, people, what did you think was going to happen?), they decide to spend the evening telling scary stories.
The first is the weakest of the bunch, a re-telling of "The Hook" urban legend with a bigfoot monster added to the mix. The second tale is my favorite of the bunch in which three boys pledging a fraternity must spend the night in an old abandoned hotel that's reputed to be haunted. Sure, it's nothing new, but it's got great atmosphere: it's all dread, creaking stairs and long hallways with looming shadows. And I can't put my finger on why, but there's something about the ending that gives me a serious case of the creeps.


The green light in SCREAMS OF A WINTER'S NIGHT.


The last story is the tale of a shy young woman who snaps and kills her date after he attempts to rape her. The incident leaves a mark on her fragile psyche and years later, she's driven to kill again. The story has no dramatic arc and the ending is completely abrupt, but I think that's the point.

It's not a perfect movie by any means, but what it lacks in the script department, SCREAMS OF A WINTER'S NIGHT makes up for in dread-filled atmosphere. It evokes the feeling of being at a party where the conversation is riddled with frosty silences and insidious little jabs, the hosts insist on serving a vegan menu and you can't leave and go home because the person who drove you there already passed out drunk in the bathtub. In a neat twist, the characters in the vignettes are all played by the same actors who play the kids in the wraparound stories. There's something twisted about the kids making up ways for their friends to die.

With echoes of THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE and elements that predate THE EVIL DEAD, one of the things that makes SCREAMS OF A WINTER'S NIGHT so unsettling is its apocalyptic view of the universe. In many anthology horror films, the misdeeds of the characters are punished with an Old Testament-style justice. However, in SCREAMS OF A WINTER'S NIGHT, bad things happen completely at random and without much reason and explanation. The universe isn't a nice place; it doesn't give a damn about you. In fact, it's all too willing to smack you down just to prove it can. The film opens with credits over a black screen accompanied by a cataclysmic barrage of voices, howls, wind, animal cries, screams, gunshots and weeping children. It immediately catches the viewer off-balance as we're instinctively alerted to danger by the sounds but have no sense of where we are or the source of danger. It reminds me of the opening of THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, which used a barrage of radio news broadcasts detailing random acts of violence and industrial accidents to depict a world defined by chaos. However, in CHAIN SAW, human beings were the cause of all of the mayhem, while in SCREAMS, there are supernatural forces at work. The supernatural happenings at Lake Durand supposedly date back to the time when Native Americans still occupied the land.
The land may have been colonized - but natural forces will not be tamed. It makes sense this film would come out of Louisiana where you're completely at the mercy of the elements: floods, humidity of epic proportions, mosquitos, kamikaze flying roaches and the lingering fear that the state could be wiped off the map next hurricane season. Some people wonder why anyone would want to live in such conditions. Why don't those yahoos just move somewhere sensible like Connecticut? And to those jerks I would respond a powerful sense of history and pride in unique culture and tradition has a strong hold. Louisiana is the kind of place that gets in your blood. Hell, I'd move back there in a shot if I weren't dodging that outstanding warrant.


SCREAMS OF A WINTER'S NIGHT


Though the tales at its center may be a little weak, the all-hell-breaks loose finale totally makes up for it.  Despite its clunkiness, I really enjoyed SCREAMS OF A WINTER'S NIGHT. It has never been released on DVD, but I think that worn-out VHS-filtered-through-YouTube picture that has the same color palette as a healing bruise just enhances its uneasy charm.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Don't Go Home Again

Susan Bracken as Amanda Post in DON'T OPEN THE DOOR (1974).


Many an emotional support dog has been cuddled to death and there's inflation in the Play-Doh industry now that The Donald will take office as the 45th President of the United States. But rather than engaging in this display of full-on wussiness or mindless twitter tantrums, let's take the time to reflect upon the many lessons we have learned from the 2016 election.

1) Everyone keeps using the word "Fascist" but nobody knows what it means.

2) Everyone keeps using the word "Socialist" but nobody knows what it means.

3) It doesn't matter whether you're a Republican or Democrat, neither party has a sense of humor.

4) We have forgotten all of the important lessons about freedom of speech that THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT taught us.

5) Facts have no place in the mainstream media.

6) Next go round, the presidential debates should be moderated by STEVE WILKOS and RUDE JUDE. Or at least have an all-star panel hit a giant gong whenever a candidate starts to go off topic or says something stupid.

7) Celebrities are too busy riding around in limousines and getting their assholes bleached so their political opinions don't mean much to working folks.

8) We live in a democracy where everyone's vote should count. Unless you voice support of a third-party candidate, then you'll be promptly drawn and quartered.

9) Prejudice and bigotry will absolutely not be tolerated unless it's directed at the white working class, Southerners, Christians or anyone who doesn't subscribe to the standards of Berkeley.

10) The election results are all Boris and Natasha's fault.

11) America's rallying cry of "Give me liberty or give me death!" has been replaced with "WAAH! I'm offended!"

12) I could totally take RACHEL MADDOW in a bar fight.

And speaking of lessons, the heroine of today's movie learns the important lesson THOMAS WOLFE taught us, that you can't escape your demons by leaving home and you can never go home again. Today, we're starting off this Regional Horror Movie Bonanza in my native state of Texas with DON'T OPEN THE DOOR directed by low-budget auteur S.F. BROWNRIGG.
I could find very little biographical information about Mr. BROWNRIGG other than he cut his teeth on military training films before striking out on his own with distinctive drive-in classics such as DON'T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT, KEEP MY GRAVE OPEN and SCUM OF THE EARTH (aka POOR WHITE TRASH 2). At one point he wanted to make a sequel to TODD BROWNING's FREAKS but, alas, this project never came to be. BROWNRIGG's films may have been made on a shoestring budget, but they have a distinctive style, sleazy atmosphere and dedicated performances.

Feisty Amanda Post (played by SUSAN BRACKEN, daughter of comedian and frequent PRESTON STURGES leading man, EDDIE BRACKEN) departs Dallas to return to the small town of Allerton after receiving an anonymous phone call that her grandmother is ill and dying. Upon her return, Amanda discovers her grandmother drugged into a comatose state and a conspiracy by local doctor, Dr. Crawther (JIM HARRELL), sinisterly congenial Judge Semple (BROWNRIGG regular GENE ROSS in a deftly understated performance) and museum director Claude Kerns (LARRY O' DWYER) to acquire the house for themselves.
But the sketchy good ol' boy gang is no match for a strong-willed Texas gal and Amanda's more than ready to open up a good ol' fashioned can of whoop-ass.
Returning home re-opens some old wounds for Amanda as well. Seems thirteen years ago, she witnessed her mother being murdered by an unseen assailant.
And the killer was never caught.
She enlists the aid of her (sometimes) boyfriend Nick (HUGH FEAGIN) who fortunately happens to be a doctor, but before she can get to the bottom of any nefarious schemes, she begins receiving a series of increasingly threatening obscene phone calls.
The journey home to face her childhood demons leads to a new series of unsolved murders, forced phone sex and a descent into madness for our heroine.


Amanda Post (Susan Bracken) in DON'T OPEN THE DOOR.


DON'T OPEN THE DOOR is my personal favorite of BROWNRIGG's grassroots oeuvre and his most stylish. With its canted angles, expressionistic shadows and saturated colors its a marriage between European arthouse and drive-in grindhouse. If MARIO BAVA and TOBE HOOPER got drunk and had a baby and it would look like DON'T OPEN THE DOOR.
Maybe I'm just a sucker for the winning combination of '70s film stock and creepy harpsichord music, but DON'T OPEN THE DOOR is a favorite of mine, combining elements of proto-slashers like BLOOD AND LACE (1971) and BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974) with elements of Southern Gothic (the return home to face past trauma, the battle over a coveted estate, the corrupt courthouse gang, desire contorted into sexual deviance). Not to mention there's a feminist subtext!

The male characters in the film all try to manipulate or browbeat Amanda into submission. Claude and Judge Semple even present a sexual threat. Ironically, it's seemingly meek Claude that is the more overt danger as the film quickly reveals that he's the perpetrator of all the mayhem in the film, having been perversely obsessed with Amanda's mother and now transfers his obsession to Amanda. Judge Semple openly leers at Amanda upon first meeting her and alternates chauvinistic bullying with come-ons.  Nick is more of a well-meaning knucklehead, but even he is dismissive of Amanda's hysteria rather than listening. And it never goes well for the Doofus Boyfriend Who Never Listens in a horror movie. Amanda is far from a whimpering victim, however, and any attempt to bully or control her is met with a razor-edged tongue-lashing.


Amanda Post (Susan Bracken) faces off against Judge (Gene Ross), Dr. Crawther (Jim Harrell) and Claude (Larry O'Dwyer) in DON'T OPEN THE DOOR.


CARL JUNG thought that the home in dreams symbolized the self, our individual personality. The battle between Amanda and the male characters for her childhood home could be interpreted as her fight to remain true to herself against domineering men who want to coerce her into becoming a more submissive, traditional woman.
Judge patronizingly remarks, "Pretty little thing like you all alone in this rambling old house...but you're a big girl now..."
Like Scout in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, Amanda is not interested in being a "lady."
The childhood home takes on extra symbolic significance for Southerners as we tend to place a lot more value on home and familial history than folks in other parts in the country. Your history -- and your family's history -- is a big part of who you are. After all, as WILLIAM FAULKNER once wrote, "the past is never really dead."

JUNG also thought that the childhood home in particular symbolized the maternal womb. Judge Semple attempts to control Amanda both by threat and by sexual come-ons. Claude harbors an obsessive sexual desire for Amanda, not as a romantic partner but as an object that he can possess. Male exertion of control over the female body was (and still is) a hot-button issue at the time and the Roe v. Wade decision was handed down the year before the film's production.
Dolls are also a dominant symbol in the film, often juxtaposed with Amanda. JUNG thought if a person dreamed of playing with dolls, they were trying to come to terms with something from their childhood or an infantile aspect of themselves. Naturally, Amanda's journey home requires her to confront childhood trauma that she has tried to run away. JUNG also believed dolls could be interpreted to mean an immature attitude towards the opposite sex. This hits the nail on the head with Claude. He has never learned to relate to women in a mature way and regards them like the dolls and mannequins he surrounds himself with: things that he can dress up and pose any way he waits, but have no will of their own.
"Go on back to the museum and play with your mannequins, Claude," Judge sneers. "I don't have time for your nonsense right now."


Amanda Post (Susan Bracken) in DON'T OPEN THE DOOR.


So is this the tragic story of an outspoken, headstrong woman driven to madness THE YELLOW WALLPAPER style by The Patriarchy?
Not entirely.
The first time I watched DON'T OPEN THE DOOR, I thought Amanda was too tough a cookie to crumble so easily. But Amanda's inner demons (that thing you can't escape by running away from home) are responsible for her fate as well.
We never learn many details about Amanda, except that she's an amateur photographer. But it's implied that she's still deeply wounded by the loss of her mother.
Amanda keeps everyone at arms length and doesn't trust anyone. And hey, I can relate. I consider myself a pretty good judge of people which is why I don't like any of them. But no one is an island - we all need to have someone that we trust and can rely on.
She even perceives Annie (DON'T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT's ANNABELLE WEENICK), Judge Semple's former paramour who places the anonymous phone call to Amanda alerting her about her grandmother, as a potential enemy rather than an ally.
In fact, Amanda's paranoia causes her to suspect everyone EXCEPT the actual culprit. I always thought it was strange that she didn't suspect Claude. You would think that mannequin he dressed up to look like her murdered mother would be a pretty big red flag, but maybe she dismissed him as a suspect since he's an emasculated weirdo type.
But hey, everyone knows wimps are the most dangerous, hostile people of all!


Claude (Larry O'Dwyer) shows Amanda (Susan Bracken) the mannequin he has dressed to look like her murdered mother in DON'T OPEN THE DOOR.


That brings me to another theme in the film, perception versus reality. In the opening scene, Annie walks down a long, narrow corridor and into what appears to be a train car where the Judge sits reading a newspaper. We hear the sounds of a moving train on the soundtrack. After a fight, Annie runs and exits. Brownrigg cuts to an exterior shot revealing that the characters were actually not in a moving train car, but in a train car converted into a house. So what gives with the train sounds? BROWNRIGG cuts back to the Judge inside. He walks over to a cabinet and reveals a recorder playing a tape of train sound effects.
"All aboard," he smirks, as the plot of the film kicks off.
It's pure BERTOLT BRECHT. It not only draws attention to the conventions of the medium, but calls to challenge the perceptions of the audience.
Perception versus reality pops up throughout the film. Dr. Crawther, wandering through the museum late at night, believes he is passing a mannequin dressed as Amanda's mother. The figure begins to move revealing itself to be Claude dressed as Amanda's mother!
Later, Amanda believes a sleeping figure in a bed to be Nick, but it is actually a mannequin.
The Judge even quotes LEWIS CARROLL to Amanda, foreshadowing her fall down the rabbit hole.

BROWNRIGG's work, much like the work of many Southern storytellers, is infused with a downbeat fatalism. In DON'T OPEN THE DOOR, Amanda, like many a Southern Gothic heroine before her, is finally overcome by her tragic history and loses her mind. That may be the most frightening thing of all in the film: death is bad enough, but being robbed of your sanity is much, more worse. And the fact that you were doomed from the beginning is worst of all.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Get Ready to Bleed Red, White and Blue

Well, folks, 2016 was a helluva roller coaster ride. Sluggish economic recovery. Sky-rocketing healthcare premiums. A mind-blowing federal deficit. Race riots and police shootings. Mall fights. Hate crime hoaxes. Business-killing bathroom bills. 

And not to mention we had to endure the death of Prince of Gore H.G. LEWIS, the double whammy loss of CARRIE FISHER and DEBBIE REYNOLDS and that CLINT EASTWOOD death hoax.

Then there was that never-ending presidential election that played out like an apocalyptic episode of THE JERRY SPRINGER SHOW starring two Bond movie villains accompanied by a chorus of non-stop screeching hysteria and feigned outrage.

A lady I work with insisted that Donald Trump grabbing America by the pussy was the first sign of Armageddon.
She wasn't joking.
I just told her nobody with a good car needed to be justified.

I don't know about you, but I need to sit down with a nice cup of chamomile tea and watch something redemptive like DOOR TO DOOR MANIAC.

But hey, it's a whole new year. Still, we're starting off 2017 as a bitterly divided nation - economically, politically, regionally, racially - so some serious healing needs to be done. Are Americans, as HUNTER S. THOMPSON once wrote " a nation of two-hundred million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns and no qualms about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable"?
At this point, America seems more like the family in THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE - automated (and outsourced) out of business, barely surviving in squalor and lashing back in vain at the people who got fat off their labor and then tossed them aside.

But I'm cautiously optimistic. For all of our flaws, Americans are a pretty resilient bunch.

In the terrific book REGIONAL HORROR MOVIES, BRIAN ALBRIGHT highlights a particular kind of low-budget horror movie, all written, financed and produced by enterprising regional filmmakers far from the slimy tentacles of the studio system. They were (and are) an alternative to mainstream Hollywood with their own visions of America and their own system of distribution.
The studios may have had more money, but it was movies like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER that took no prisoners and sympathized with the plight of the working folks that Hollywood wants to forget.
And if taking the power of filmmaking medium out of the hands of the elite and giving it back to the people isn't populism in its best form, then I don't know what is.

So, folks, let's celebrate all things Made in America with two whole weeks of regional horror movies. I tell ya, this is gonna be the best thing that happened since we stole this country from the Indians.

Here's the line-up:

DON'T OPEN THE DOOR (1974)  Texas
SCREAMS OF A WINTER NIGHT (1979) Louisiana
BLOOD SALVAGE (1990) Georgia
FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM (1987) Georgia
SOMETIMES AUNT MARTHA DOES DREADFUL THINGS (1971) Florida
ABBY (1974) Kentucky
BLOODLETTING (1997)  Ohio
HOMEBODIES (1974) Ohio
BLOOD HARVEST (1987) Wisconsin
BLOOD MASSACRE (1991)  Maryland
MALATESTA'S CARNIVAL OF BLOOD (1973)  Pennsylvania
I DRINK YOUR BLOOD (1970)  New York
FIGHT FOR YOUR LIFE (1974)  New York
THE BOOGENS (1981)  Utah

and a lagniappe for your trouble: MAFIA MASSACRE (1974)  California

And blog along if you like. I don't know about you, but just reading those titles just makes me want to sing the national anthem.