Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Bid Time Return: SHOCK AROUND THE CLOCK and Memory's Slippery Stream

                                           Yeah, we all like to watch...

Every fall, I co-organize a 24-Hour Horror Marathon at the Grandview Theatre.  This is a review of this past weekend's second edition of the event.  It's written a bit for this blog's audience and a bit for the Marathon's message board, so the tone may not always be consistent.  But I hope that you enjoy it nonetheless.

“I have seen it, but I don't remember this part. Funny, it's like what's happening to us, like the past. The movie never changes -- it can't change -- but everytime you see it, it seems to be different because you're different -- you notice different things.”
Bruce Willis as James Cole in 12 Monkeys

Early last week, as part of my day job, I screened Chris Marker’s La Jetee, which, of course, was reworked by David and Janet Peoples in their script for Terry Gilliam’s 1995 Willis/Pitt time travel actioner.  Not twenty minutes before the screening, I read a Facebook comment by an old friend who had seen a picture of us from the 1994 Science Fiction Marathon in the Archives section of this site; coincidentally, he claimed to not fully remember the event pictured (our entry as the Bitter Bread Brothers in that year’s costume contest), that he believed that it had happened but felt like it was an episode from someone else’s life.  The screening of La Jetee was a lead in to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, so I spent most of the week swimming in the hazy ocean of memory.

Which turned out to be entirely fitting, because one of the main things I was struck by during the recently completed 2nd Annual 24-Hour Horror Marathon (a.k.a. SHOCK AROUND THE CLOCK!  a.k.a. the celebration of cinematic excess a.k.a. the back pain junkies’ convention a.k.a. this filmic thing of ours) was how even though I had seen almost every film in the lineup, I had forgotten much of what took place in their narratives.  In a few cases, I had gone so long between screenings that viewing them at the Marathon gave me a new appreciation for some of their charms.

Take Psycho, for instance.  During my first few years at Ohio State (way back in the mid-‘90s), I took at least three film classes that featured it as part of the curriculum.  Subsequently, I grew so familiar with the plot, the production lore and the analytical readings that I declared a moratorium on future screenings until I had some distance.  This weekend was the first time that I had seen it in its entirety since 2001, when it screened on Halloween at the Wexner Center.  Viewing it again after all this time gave me a newfound appreciation for what a sleek machine it is, propulsive and almost fat-free in its plotting and structure.  I had forgotten how much of the first reel is concentrated on Janet Leigh’s subjugation in a male-dominated world, how her defiant act of theft figuratively releases her from many of those societal strictures while simultaneously thrusting her into the literal arms of the law.  As she hurdles through the rain during her final doomed voyage to the Bates Motel, the growing smirk on her face as she constructs the hypothetical panicked conversations of her former oppressors is a gesture of subtle triumph.  The fact that she’s ultimately killed by a man plagued by feminine domination and Oedipal angst is doubly ironic.  It’s almost as if Norman Bates is a creation of her mind’s worst fears, sprung fully formed on the world after she encounters him and forever scarring the lives of others after her disappearance.

And speaking of creations of the mind’s sexual insecurities, there’s Dressed to Kill.  When I first saw this De Palma thriller ten years ago, I hated it, went along with the popular theory that it was merely an artily dressed up Hitch ripoff.  Early in the booking process of this year’s event, we mulled the idea of complementing Psycho with Richard Franklin’s underrated Psycho II and Dressed; the former was already booked elsewhere(and you should check it out if you’ve never seen it) but I’m glad that we were able to screen the latter, because I gained an entirely new appreciation for it.  Like Marion Crane, Kate Miller is a victim of a male-dominated society’s expectations, but De Palma amps up the angst by throwing the audience into the depths of her sexual panic.  Upon its original release, the big shock of Psycho was Hitchcock killing off the film’s star after a reel and a half of getting to know her.  De Palma takes that model to an almost operatic level (emphasized in Pino Donaggio’s lush score), as Kate’s nightmare world slowly encroaches on her reality, every facet of her sexual panic becoming manifest.  Her discovery of Warren Lockman’s VD notice is a great comic touch when seen with a crowd, but it’s also the capper of a sequence in which a sexually frustrated woman ultimately can’t even find refuge in the realization of her dreams.  And like Marion, she’s murdered by what is almost the creation of that sexual panic, who then infects the lives of others (casting the young Keith Gordon and Nancy Allen in the John Gavin and Nancy Allen roles is a particularly twisted comment on the Psycho legacy; the studly leading man becomes a nerdy teen and the good girl sister a prostitute…and they possibly hook up!.....hmmmmm…..Nancy (Mrs. De Palma) Allen played a hooker in this and De Palma’s follow up Blow Out…..and was Travolta’s slutty girlfriend in Carrie…and Hitchcock wanted Vera Miles for the role of Madeline in Vertigo but she supposedly got pregnant to avoid his domineering ways….uh, okay back to the topic at hand).  As well, the whole film is a fascinating update of Hitchcock’s obsession with voyeurism, as everyone in the film is seemingly watching everyone else (even Michael Caine watches himself in a mirror when he’s sexually aroused!)

Okay okay, I could go on about these two films for days, but the Marathon was about more than them, even though they weren’t the only films to deal with sexual fears and repression.  Of course, I’m talking about Cronenberg’s They Came From Within, another flick that I hadn’t seen in years and had thus forgotten most of (outside the barest of plot outlines).  It’s no secret that Cronenberg is one of my favorite directors, so getting the chance to see some of his key early works at various versions of the Marathon over the last five years has been a treat.  And while The Brood remains my favorite of these early endeavors, I was struck by how stark and spartan They Came From Within is and how so much of it perfectly prefigures the rest of Cronenberg’s career.  The repressed high rise dwellers who eventually give in to the slug-born disease, the well-meaning mad scientist who unwittingly unleashes a virus on the population, the increasingly ambiguous gender and sexual roles…they’ve all become iconic characters in his later films.  It’s a remarkably quiet film too, none too reliant on excessive soundtrack stings and the like. 

But wait, did I mention something about icons?  ‘Cause there’s no better place to start than with our first film this year.  Mea culpa: before this weekend, I’d never seen Frankenstein on the big screen in 35mm.  I didn’t even see the film itself until I was 25; as a kid, I knew about character and his legacy, but I always chased after the later entries in the series, with their dueling monsters or expanded casts.  Needless to say, seeing this classic projected was a stirring and profoundly moving experience.  At this point in film history, Whale’s chiller almost plays like a series of iconic images and tableaus, passages which have been so burned into the third eye of our collective consciousness that seeing them again brings a Proustian rush of recognition.  As noted by someone else on this board, Colin Clive is indeed very over the top, but it’s an excessive performance filled with passion and operatic mania.  And Karloff?  What can you say about Karloff?  I felt chills when he reached heavenward toward the light, shackled and unable to escape his dark world, so very frightening and so very sad.

Island of Lost Souls had a similar effect on me.  It’s another film that I had only seen years ago on VHS, so I was fairly taken aback by how deliciously evil Charles Laughton is as Dr. Moreau.  Yeah, he and Clive could go at it for hours in a ham acting competition, but they’re also both playing characters who have sold their souls in the name of scientific (ahem) progress.  Moreau is as much a Prometheus figure as Frankenstein, although while the latter wants to hold the hand of God, the former seemingly wants to create his own godhood and his embrace of unholy power destroys any tether to reality he once had, leaving him the king and victim of a museum of atrocities.

Straying not too far from the House of Pain was a different, more human version of that (to quote one of the radio spots on the intermission comps) Mansion of the Doomed.  When we booked it, Bruce and I knew that Martyrs would potentially be a divisive experience (although, granted, he was taking my word for it, as he hadn’t seen it until now).  I was surprised by how much of the audience stuck with it, and by the decent applause it received at its end.  I’ve said it before in this venue, but we’re firm believers that the Marathon can’t just turn into a nostalgia fest, that in order to remain vital it has to constantly push ahead and against boundaries.  At its heart, the horror genre has always been about stirring primal fears, dealing with uncomfortable issues and unsettling the audience (see the Serbian Film debate elsewhere in this board for more on this).  Domestic horror has been so anodyne over the last decade that most of the films which have pushed audience’s buttons have come from Japan, France, Spain, etc.  Is Martyrs extreme?  Yes.  Is it for everyone?  No.  But I think that it might eventually go down as one of the genre touchstones of this first decade of the 21st century.  I would heartily disagree with those who think that it has no meaning; hell, the Mademoiselle character spells it out in her speech to Anna.  There’s a direct line between Doctors Frankenstein, Moreau and Hobbes and the secret society that tortures young women.  All of them are looking to transcend the boundaries of the spirit and flesh, but the perversions inherent in their respective methods destroy lives.  Granted, Pascal Laugier deals with this in a much more realistic fashion, but in many ways time has made us more accustomed and comfortable with those classic doctors, while the society in Martyrs still seems very gut-wrenching.  Nonetheless, Laugier takes the greatest topic in human existence (what is beyond the vale of death?) and twists it on the audience: what would you be willing to do in order to find out the answer?  And aren’t horror films themselves rehearsals for death, a way for the audience to vicariously experience the thrill of danger and death without actually going there?  Seen this way, Martyrs serves as a metaphor for the entire horror film viewing experience, with us as a society who watch the deaths and dismemberment of people we don’t really know and emerging thrilled and (sometimes) informed.

I’ve gone quite in depth with these films, but I enjoyed everything in the lineup (save for Robogeisha, but I’m not really a fan of this sub-genre…films like Hausu and Versus are more my speed).  I’ll readily admit that I botched part of the flier when I described Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 as being Dennis Hopper’s show.  He’s great, but Jim Siedow is batshit bonkers; it’s like Tobe Hooper started the camera and let him improve for long stretches at a time.  And no, the film isn’t as great as the original, but it’s a crazy good time.  I almost wish that we had played it earlier with a larger chunk of the audience.  I could say the same thing for Hausu, which I’m convinced would’ve played somewhat better if it had bowed around midnight rather than around 2am.  Thankfully, 13 Ghosts managed to elicit the great crowd reaction we had hoped for with those two films.  I was impressed by how many people raved about it to us afterward.  And speaking of great crowd reactions, I was very moved by the applause at the beginning and end of Psycho, confirming that it’s still quite beloved and respected.

And ultimately, this crowd reaction is what much of the event is all about for me.  I absolutely love being able to watch all of these films with all of you (I should write more about why some day), but my biggest thrill at the Marathon has been the enthusiasm I’ve seen radiating from so many of you during and after the event.  It’s been said many times, but at its best this event is like a deranged family reunion.  I constantly joke about (and with) him, but Kevin O’Brien’s continued involvement with the Marathons is always a highlight for me.  You may not know it, but Kevin is longtime friends with our esteemed benefactor David Nedrow (who worked on Sandwich), our co-web manager and head lackey Dave Zecchini and at least half a dozen other longtime Marathon attendees, so when he comes back it enhances this family reunion feeling even more.  As goofy as they may be, the Bread films have come to serve as marking points of the event’s history and one of the few direct cinematic realizations of the Marathon spirit.  In many ways, they’re our home movies. 

This family has grown over the years, and I was especially struck this year by how many folks that I talked to, many of whom I only talk to once or twice a year, seem like blood relatives.  To Scott, Paul, Bob, JC, George, Carter, Xan, Chris, Juliana, Blanche, Tim, Geoff, Jeremy, Buddha, Kevin, Ralph, Syd, the guys who used to wear the bee headbands (sorry, sorry, I know) and especially to the esteemed decorators and good friends Todd, Rose, Matt, Shawna and Brian (and to many others whose names I’ve forgotten or don’t yet know) I say this: you make the Marathon what it is, a gathering of like-minded souls who are willing to take a terror-filled spin around the globe with each other.

The Saw is family?  Hey, for my money, the ‘Thon is family.

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