Sunday, 20 September 2020

Reflections on ... Satan's Triangle (1975)


I am unrepentantly garrulous about my obsession with the Sam Pancake Presents the Monday Afternoon Movie podcast, in which our effervescent host forensically (and hilariously) analyzes the realm of kitsch unloved made-for-TV movies from the seventies and eighties. 

In his latest installment Pancake has exhumed a true gem: ABC TV-Movie of the Week Satan’s Triangle (1975). For connoisseurs of made-for-TV flicks, this supernatural horror thriller genuinely qualifies as a cult film. All children of the seventies remember Satan’s Triangle! I would have caught a repeat of this one on Canadian TV some afternoon when I was in my early teens. It comprehensively blew my mind and haunted my imagination ever since. 

And then Satan’s Triangle vanished into the ether. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it never received an official release on home video or DVD (made-for-TV movies were widely perceived as disposable trash). Over the years, collectors apparently began paying top dollar for bootleg tapes. More recently, versions of Satan’s Triangle occasionally surfaced on YouTube, but they were of such poor quality they were essentially unwatchable. But – KLAXON! – there is now a pristine copy of Satan’s Triangle viewable on YouTube, so I finally got to re-visit it all these decades later. So, does Satan’s Triangle live up to the hyperbole as “one of the scariest films ever made”? Truthfully - no! But it’s still eerie, riveting and abounds with irresistible campy moments. 

The synopsis on Rotten Tomatoes is nicely concise: “a mysterious woman is the sole survivor of a boat wreck caused by a sudden terrible storm off the coast of Florida.” The location is The Bermuda Triangle to be precise - aka The Devil’s Triangle aka Satan’s Triangle. (The Bermuda Triangle was a major conspiracy theory in the seventies). Hunky Doug McClure is the Coast Guard who arrives to investigate the SOS distress call. Once aboard, he discovers a battered, seemingly abandoned fishing vessel littered with corpses.  But below deck he finds the only survivor: a traumatized mystery blonde (sultry screen goddess Kim Novak in a rare TV appearance. Our first glimpse of Novak is unforgettable: we only see her feline green eyes framed by shadows). Via flashbacks, Novak recounts to McClure how all the men onboard met their grisly deaths. (Note: one of the deceased is Jim Davis – Jock Ewing from Dallas!). But how reliable a narrator is she? 

As ever, Novak collapses distinctions between “good” and “bad” acting. Depending on the director and material, she can be hauntingly remote and ethereal, or vacant, dead-eyed and catatonic. In Satan’s Triangle Novak alternates between both – but is always compelling to watch. And her early seventies look is fierce: heavy dark eye make-up, a pale frosted “nude lip” and a long blonde Dynel wiglet (it resembles Barbie doll hair) secured with a headscarf (think Valerie Harper as Rhoda in early episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show). But seriously: it’s easy and fun to mock certain aspects of Satan’s Triangle (the marlin-fishing scene with the stock footage rivals the one in The Flame of the Islands (1956)!), but the last ten-minutes will leave you gasping. No spoilers, but towards the end there is a jump cut to a close-up of a character grinning maniacally that will give you goose bumps!

Listen to Sam Pancake's podcast here. (Just wait until you hear his Whisperin' Kim Novak impersonation!). 

Watch Satan's Triangle here:

Thursday, 17 September 2020

Reflections on … Harlow (1965)

Make no mistake: as a truthful biopic, the infamous, ultra-trashy 1965 film Harlow is entirely misbegotten. But as a prime exemplar of the so-bad-it’s-fabulous camp classic, Harlow - directed by Gordon Douglas, adapted from Irving Shulman's scurrilous best-selling (and widely discredited) 1964 exposé Harlow: an Intimate Biography and starring Carroll Baker as doomed platinum blonde depression-era sex goddess Jean Harlow - belongs in the elite canon alongside Valley of the Dolls (1967), Diana Ross’ Mahogany (1974) and Mommie Dearest (1981). In fact, Harlow contains the essential components we demand in any film-making endeavor: emotions. Conflicts. Wigs!

Seen today, it’s fascinating how recklessly fast-and-loose the script plays with Jean Harlow's story, as if the facts are somehow insufficiently dramatic, tragic and action-packed enough. Harlow’s tumultuous, abbreviated life was marked by two scandals so shocking they’re still swirling with urban myths decades later. After just two months of marriage, her husband Paul Bern died of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound on 5 September 1932. Because MGM’s publicity department swept in to “manage” the situation before the police arrived, the precise circumstances – and Harlow’s role in them – remain one of Hollywood’s enduring mysteries. Harlow’s own abrupt death of uremic poisoning aged 26 on 7 June 1937 sparked further speculation. Was it caused by a botched abortion? Venereal disease? Were her mother’s anti-medicine Christian Science beliefs to blame? Or did the bleach used to maintain Harlow’s platinum blonde tresses cause “peroxide poisoning”?

/ A portrait of the real Jean Harlow (born Harlean Harlow Carpenter, 3 March 1911 - 7 June 1937) in 1933 /

Harlow the biopic displays almost zero curiosity about these aspects, instead opting to cram the bare bones of Harlow’s life into a hackneyed rise-and-fall show biz cautionary tale narrative imbued with the lurid sensibility of Jackie Susann’s Valley of the Dolls. (It’s astonishing how much Harlow anticipates the hysterical tone and sherbet-coloured look of the 1967 film adaptation of Dolls. When Harlow hits the skids and begins drinking heavily, for example, she suddenly becomes Neely O’Hara. Was Dolls' director Mark Robson carefully scrutinizing Harlow’s formula and taking notes?).

/ Actress Caroll Baker's extensive research for portraying Jean Harlow /

Harlow also makes no attempt to conjure the real Harlow’s unique brassy and hard-boiled comedic screen persona evident in her best films like Red-Headed Woman, Red Dust (both 1932) and Dinner at Eight (1933). Instead, Harlow – an archetype of brazenly overt and unapologetic pre-Code sensuality, who reportedly “iced” her nipples and eschewed underwear onscreen - is depicted as a victimized and misunderstood prig constantly fighting-off the casting couch advances of predatory film executives and determined to preserve her virtue. One jarring example: Harlow posits that the twenty-something actress was saving her virginity for her wedding night with Bern. But because the impotent Bern was incapable of “performing” on their catastrophic honeymoon, her virginity remained intact. In real life Harlow was married three times and Bern was her second husband – facts that Harlow gleefully erases.

Note also that Harlow was made without the cooperation of Harlow’s real studio MGM. (Her studio is called “Majestic” in the movie). Perhaps that explains why none of her actual films are cited. Instead, we keep seeing cinema marquees emblazoned with weirdly generic titles like Blonde Virgin, Sin City, Yukon Fever, Luscious Lady and Love Me Forever!

/ Baker as Harlow. Considering her wig was styled by the great Sydney Guilaroff, presumably it's meant to be crooked? /

Hilariously, the film also insists Harlow’s platinum blonde hair is all-natural. (While Harlow was genuinely blonde, she was also a peroxide pioneer to achieve that not-found-in-nature albino-silver shade). In any case, Carroll Baker sports a wig to portray Harlow. And what a wig! It may be styled by esteemed coiffeur-to-the-stars Sydney Guilaroff, but that ultra-fake acrylic-looking Dynel wig is so distracting it frequently upstages the actress sporting it. Interestingly, the makers of Harlow skip Harlow’s signature plucked-out half-moon eyebrows – maybe because they assumed sixties audiences would find them off-putting?

/ Intriguingly, if you do a deep Google Image search you'll eventually come across these pics of Baker as Harlow (presumably hair and make-up tests?) that suggest initially the makers of Harlow contemplated a more authentic look - and then decided against it / 

It must be said that at no point does Baker resemble Harlow that much.  In one glorious high camp moment, once she finally achieves mega-stardom, we see Harlow undergo an epic studio-sanctioned glamour make-over. The beautician’s chair is finally spun around for the big reveal – and the only change is that they’ve added a little black beauty mark under the corner of her mouth! Combine the outrageous immobile blonde bouffant wig, the heavy false eyelashes and the beauty spot, and Carroll Baker looks significantly more like sixties-era jazz chanteuse Peggy Lee than Jean Harlow.

/ Pictured: Miss Peggy Lee /

Baker also frequently looks gaunt and wan in Harlow, and so ravaged that it’s startling when Harlow’s mother must co-sign her studio contract because she’s meant to be a minor. (The film is studious to never specify what year it is or the characters’ ages). Certainly, Baker’s make-up, wig and lighting are surprisingly harsh and unflattering. But by all accounts, she was also stressed and miserable during the production (the script was still being cobbled-together during filming and Baker was feuding with producer Joseph E Levine). Her tension is tangible onscreen. Baker valiantly attempts to breathe some conviction into the material, considering Harlow is written as a one-note victim. (What counts for character development here: once Harlow becomes famous, she begins smoking with a long white cigarette holder).

/ A portrait of Baker around the time of Baby Doll (1956) /

Let’s pause here to contemplate Baker, a strange, distinctive (that weird, unmistakable drawling patrician voice!) and sensual feminine presence in mid-century cinema. How did Baker - a high-minded, risk-taking and serious Broadway actress steeped in the New York Actor’s Studio Method tradition – wind up typecast as a sexpot in so many vulgar melodramas? Certainly, her career started promisingly. After a breakthrough role opposite James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson in Giant (1956), Baker sparked an international furor as a thumb-sucking nymphette child bride in the controversial film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ Baby Doll (1956). The perverse Lolita-like image of Baker lounging in a playpen was as scandalous a depiction of wanton eroticism as anything Brigitte Bardot did in And God Created Woman (1956) – and that movie was French! 

And yet she subsequently wound-up starring in mostly tepidly received dross. (Although I treasure both Something Wild (1961) and Sylvia (1965)). Interestingly, the role of “Maggie the Cat” in the 1958 film version of Tennessee Williams’ play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was reportedly offered to Baker before Elizabeth Taylor. (Contract disputes with Warner Bros meant she couldn’t accept it). Maybe that part would have altered Baker’s trajectory?

/ Baker wore this understated ensemble (worthy of Jayne Mansfield!) to promote her "comeback" film The Carpetbaggers /

In any case, within a few years hit movie The Carpetbaggers (1964) gave Baker’s faltering career a major fillip. Under the guidance of that film’s producer Joseph E Levine, Baker was now marketed as “the next Monroe”. She even went so far as posing for a “nudie cutie” cheesecake pictorial in the December 1964 issue of Playboy magazine entitled “Baker in the Boudoir.” Baker had played a sexy Harlow type in The Carpetbaggers, so it made sense to cast her as Harlow herself when the Schulman biography got optioned. But as Penny Stallings concludes in her 1978 book Flesh and Fantasy: “the film and the hype were a disaster. There’d been all sorts of problems with the script and a rival production starring Carol Lynley, but the main problem was that Carroll’s PTA prettiness and clipped delivery just didn’t meld with her concocted image. She felt awkward in the role and her discomfort showed on screen. Perhaps even more to the point is the fact that cultural styles were rapidly metamorphosing when the film was released, and the public simply wasn’t in the market for a platinum blonde bombshell in 1965.”

/ "Baker in the Boudoir!" From Carroll Baker's December 1964 Playboy pictorial / 

Harlow was savaged by the critics, but it wasn’t a commercial flop. Nonetheless, it spelled the end of Baker’s career as a major American leading lady. In 1967 she moved to Rome, successfully re-inventing herself as the star of Italian giallo horror films before returning to US in 1977 as a gutsy middle-aged character actress (witness her vanity-free performance in the black comedy Andy Warhol’s BAD). But maybe author Ken Wlaschin is correct when he surmises “(Baker) is actually at her best in trashy movies.” Is there any higher praise for an actress? Baker is still with us at 89-years old. Let’s celebrate her as a cult icon now!

/ Baker's intriguing Italian filmography is ripe for discovery and should most definitely not be regarded as a "step down" for her. Her giallo films aren't easy to see: they sometimes crop up on YouTube, but usually sans English subtitles or dubbing! The only one I've seen to date is the extremely stylish Baba Yaga (aka Kiss Me, Kill Me) from 1973 (pictured). Baker is utterly magnetic as the enigmatic lesbian villainess. Read more about Baker's Italian era here.

/ Above: Carol Lynley as Jean Harlow /

(As per Stallings’ reference above: there was indeed a second overlapping biopic (also entitled Harlow!) under production at the same time. (Isn’t it bizarre to think Jean Harlow was such a hot property in the mid-sixties, almost three decades after her death?). It’s equally as bad as the Baker film, just in different ways. This version starred the pallid Carol Lynley and took a radically different interpretation of the Harlow story. A visibly low-budget effort shot in eight days in harsh grainy black-and-white (it looks like a William Castle quickie), it depicts Harlow as a sarcastic, tantrum-throwing bee-yatch as opposed to Baker’s sinned-against victim. It offers a more factually accurate account of Harlow’s life, and is notable for being Ginger Roger’s last major film role (she plays Harlow’s mercenary mother). A true oddity, you can watch it on YouTube. Keep your expectations low!).

/ Above: Carol Lynley in the rival biopic Harlow (1965) /

What I adore about Harlow: Gordon Douglas’ lazily old-fashioned, almost indifferent direction. His motto appears to be, when in doubt, cut to a montage! He also regularly employs newspaper headlines to explain what’s happening.  There’s great pleasure in watching the “all-star cast” flailing: Red Buttons as Arthur Landau, Harlow’s saintly-beyond-belief manager. Mike Connors as suave Jack Harrison (a cynical matinee idol who seems to be based on Clark Gable?). Angela Lansbury as Harlow’s weak-willed mother (note: Lansbury was only six years older than Baker) and Italian actor Raf Vallone as Marino Bello, Harlow’s parasitic lounge lizard stepfather. Puffy Peter Lawford as Harlow’s ill-fated husband Paul Bern (one of the few occurrences where a character is named after the real-life person). Did anyone exude jaded hungover sleaziness onscreen quite like Lawford? He really phones it in. Bern is introduced and killed-off so abruptly we can only shrug when he dies. Leslie Nielsen as cigar-smoking, silk dressing gown-wearing film mogul Richard Manley (apparently based on Howard Hughes) and Martin Balsam as studio head Everett Redman (Louis B Meyer).

/ Angela Lansbury (as Harlow's ineffectual but well-meaning mother) and Raf Vallone (as her stepfather) /

/ Saintly manager Arthur Landau (Red Buttons, centre) eavesdrops while leading man Jack Harrison (Mike Connors, a vision in beige suede) flirts with starlet Harlow /

/ Jack Harrison and Jean Harlow arriving at a premiere /

Harlow was a big-budget film and the lush production values are up there on the screen. The sensation that envelopes you watching it feels glossy, ridiculous and sumptuous. In fact, the sets – complete with banks of floral arrangements, candelabras and grand pianos - are all so garish (Harlow’s all-mauve dressing room! Richard Manley’s baroque mansion!) it feels like every scene is unfolding in some rococo brothel. But even with all that money, there is no sense of period and no attempt to replicate the Art Deco decor associated with Jean Harlow. The vibe throughout is ultra-sixties atomic-era rather than remotely 1930s. The soundtrack, for example, emphasizes the then voguish sounds of Latin exotica and bossa nova. There’s a justifiably notorious moment when Harlow appears to break into the twist – seemingly inventing the dance craze a good thirty years early! (To her credit, old pro Edith Head designs some spectacular slinky bias-cut gowns for Baker that successfully emulate the ones Harlow wore).

/ Jean Harlow pouting through the pain in her luxe dressing room (a real tart's boudoir!) /

And the dialogue. The dialogue! Everyone speaks in cliched show biz platitudes. Some representative samples: “You have the body of a woman and the emotions of a child!” Landau exclaims to Harlow. “She’s the girl you want to marry – and have for your mistress!” is how Everett Redman summarizes Harlow’s allure. “There’s nothing lonelier than a bedroom with only one person in it,” Harlow laments to her mother. She also admits, “I was looking at my body in the mirror to see what’s so different about it that makes the public go crazy over it!” Once Harlow has ascended to stardom, Jack Harrison snarls, “Welcome to the velvet prison!” Harlow’s dying words to her mother from beneath her oxygen tent: “Mamma! I’m going to be a good girl … a good girl!” Landau gets the last word: “She didn’t die of pneumonia. She died of life!” (Harlow didn’t die of either pneumonia or “life” – she died of uremia). 

Just when you think Harlow couldn’t get any worse, in one final flourish of bad taste, we’re treated to a slideshow of glamour shots of Baker as Harlow overlaid with the tear-jerkin' musical accompaniment of sappy ballad “Lonely Girl” by Bobby “Blue Velvet” Vinton! 

(You can view Harlow on Amazon Prime. Read further analysis of Harlow here). 

Saturday, 12 September 2020

Reflections on ... The Female Animal (1958)

"Hedy Lamarr underscored her own decline by appearing as an aging movie star in Universal's tacky The Female Animal. Another refugee from the greener pastures of MGM, Jane Powell, played her daughter. The screenplay called for the two women to clash over stud George Nader."

From the book Flesh and Fantasy (1978) by Penny Stalling

Recently watched: The Female Animal (1958). Tagline: “It is said that when a woman fights for a man, she is like an animal!” I’m using this period of enforced social isolation to explore the weirder corners of YouTube for long forgotten and obscure movies. (My boyfriend Pal is accompanying me only semi-willingly). 

For her final cinematic appearance, 44-year old Austrian-born glamour girl Hedy Lamarr bowed-out ignominiously with this tawdry behind-the-scenes exposé that purports to rip the lid off the Hollywood glamour jungle. Lamarr plays dissolute middle-aged movie queen Vanessa Windsor, who finds herself vying with her own wayward daughter Vanessa (Jane Powell) when they both fall for impressively buff film extra and wannabe actor, Chris Farley (hunky prime beefcake George Nader). 
In her thirties and forties heyday the exquisite but inexpressive Lamarr was frequently a bit frosty, stiff and dead-behind-the-eyes onscreen. In her last film, she abruptly changes tack and gives a bizarre, brittle what-the-hell-performance, suddenly so “loose” she seems constantly tipsy. As the troubled, neglected and alcoholic daughter Powell is pure nails-on-a-blackboard - was she meant to be quite this shrill and unappealing? (The age difference between Lamarr and Powell, by the way, was only 14 years. No wonder they never convince as mother and daughter). 

/ Jane Powell, Hedy Lamarr and Jan Starling in The Female Animal (1958) /

Vanessa’s kept boy Chris, meanwhile, frets about becoming “a tramp.” (The scene where Vanessa buys him a new wardrobe of expensive suits evokes Gloria Swanson and William Holden in Sunset Boulevard). The Female Animal does have its compensations, though. The action pings between Vanessa’s Bel Air mansion and Malibu beach house hideaway, and both are gorgeous. Nader wasn’t the most charismatic of actors, but the film offers a nice celebration of his impressively chiseled and sinewy physique. There are countless opportunities to contemplate him shirtless, in swimming trunks or tight jeans. I’m not making assumptions about the preferences of director Harry Keller, but when it comes to filming Nader, he has what we’d now call a “queer eye” and for that let’s be grateful. (A discretely gay actor in the uptight fifties, Nader is more interesting off-screen then he was on: he lived with the same male partner for decades and was a life-long confidant of Rock Hudson’s). 

And the dialogue is juicily campy. As the original NY Times film critic noted in 1958, “far and away the best thing about Mr Zugsmith's production is the jaded ugliness and brisk carnality of the chatter.” He almost certainly means Jan Starling, who steals the entire film as Lily Frane, a former child star, now an embittered adult has-been. "I was the first child star ever to be chased around a desk!" she worryingly declares at one point. (Hashtag Me Too!). Hungrily eyeing Chris and comparing him to her own gigolo escort, she purrs, "I adore the clean-limbed American type too but somehow I always end up with veal scallopini and sideburns.” Starling's comedic performance alone makes The Female Animal worth catching. Funniest line: Vanessa impulsively proposes marriage to Chris, then rushes for the telephone to alert the gossip columnists. “This story, I think, should go to Hedda!” 

Watch The Female Animal below:

Saturday, 5 September 2020

Reflections on ... Oy Vey! My Son is Gay! (2009)

/ Lainie Kazan and Jai Rodriguez in Oy Vey! My Son is Gay! (2009) /

Recently watched: my boyfriend Pal and I cringed our way through ultra-hackneyed romantic screwball comedy Oy Vey! My Son Is Gay! (2009). IMDb synopsis: “Every Friday night Shirley invites another "perfect" woman for Shabbat dinner in hopes that her son, Nelson, will marry a nice Jewish girl. Nelson, however, has something to tell them...he's gay.”

Some of the putrid “highlights” of this strained farce: Oy Vey was an actual feature film, but it’s got that harsh artless “made-for-TV” look familiar from Hallmark and Lifetime productions. The central gay couple Nelson and Angelo are so chaste that even when they’re alone at home, they only ever seem to kiss each other on the cheek. (Oy Vey’s sensibility is strictly PG13). Throughout, they feel more like clingy roommates than lovers. When Angelo panics about what to wear to a wedding, we’re treated to a kooky 1980s-style “fashion montage” sequence of him changing outfits set to the musical accompaniment of a bad cover version of Diana Ross’ “I’m Comin’ Out”. (This is sung by Jai Rodriguez of the original Queer Eye, who plays Angelo). There are Jewish stereotypes and gay stereotypes a-plenty. And then once we’re introduced to Angelo’s parents, there are Italian-American stereotypes for good measure, too! Carmen Electra from Baywatch crops-up as Nelson and Angelo’s sexy glamour model neighbour. Her scantily-clad segments are heavy on the jiggling tits and ass – which seems odd for a gay-themed movie? Also: we’re repeatedly told Electra is a Playpen Playmate. Could they not use the title Playboy for legal reasons? A nadir is reached when Shirley inexplicably declares to her husband Martin (Saul Rubinek), "You're a homophobe - so therefore you need to go to a gay bar!" And once he's in there, he's instant catnip to all the predatory gay men. (For a film ostensibly by and for queers, Oy Vey's depiction of gay characters is deeply confused).

But never mind all that! Exclaiming in Yiddish and swathed in forgiving caftan-type outfits, the fabulous Lainie Kazan is a zaftig, volatile force of nature as Long Island matriarch Shirley. Her overbearing, scenery-gobbling, life-affirming performance must be seen to be believed, bubbeleh! She is a raging torrent of emotion! It’s a shame that veteran singer, actress and durable all-purpose diva Kazan isn’t more embraced as a camp icon in the United Kingdom. You probably know her best as Bette Midler’s stage mother Leona in Beaches (1988) or as the stereotypical Mediterranean mama in My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002). But long before that Kazan competed with Divine for the affections of Tab Hunter in the cult Western Lust in the Dust (1985). And even before that, she posed for a nude pictorial in the October 1970 issue of Playboy! Kazan's full-throttle ultra-dramatic 1980 MDA telethon rendition of Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana” is a must-watch. 

Anyway, just when you think the worst is over, Lulu (!) caterwauls the theme song “The Word is Love” over the closing credits. Oy Vey offers wacky misunderstandings, laughs, tears, hugs – and rest assured heartwarming life lessons are learned along the way! If you still want to watch it, Oy Vey is free – as it should be! - on Amazon Prime. Apparently, it’s viewable on YouTube, too. (Thanks to columnist Michael Musto for recommending this monstrosity. Musto also recommended Disco Godfather recently. He never steers me wrong!).

Sunday, 30 August 2020

Reflections on ... The Fan (1981)

Recently watched: The Fan (1981). Tagline: “This is the story of a great star and a fan who went too far …” This notorious woman-in-peril slasher flick proved as popular as scabies when it emerged in 1981 (coincidentally, the same year as Mommie Dearest!), promptly sank into deep obscurity, rarely appears on television and has only intermittently been available on DVD over the years. But for cognoscenti of so-bad-they’re-great cult films, The Fan is exalted as an essential kitsch classic.

In a truly miscalculated career move, veteran Golden Age Hollywood queen Lauren Bacall stars as chain-smoking, mink-clad Sally Ross, a tough but vulnerable, bitter but sexy fifty-something Broadway diva (think Margo Channing or Helen Lawson. Or in fact, Bacall herself!). Just as Sally is embarking on rehearsals for an ambitious new stage musical, she begins being stalked by obsessive fan Douglas Breen (Michael Biehn).  Douglas bombards Sally with letters (today, he’d be trolling her on Instagram or Twitter rather than snail mail). As he grows increasingly frustrated and thwarted, the tone degenerates from lovelorn ("I bought a gorgeous new lucite frame for one of your most famous pictures”) to threatening (“Dear bitch. See how accessible you are? How would you like to be fucked by a meat cleaver?”). Eventually, Douglas turns homicidal: anyone in Sally’s orbit he perceives as an obstacle or a threat gets cut! (If you’re squeamish about spurting geysers of blood, The Fan isn’t the film for you).

To be fair, The Fan isn’t really as terrible as its reputation suggests. It certainly isn’t low-budget schlock. The production values are high. The direction is competent and even occasionally stylish, with effective flourishes of suspense. The milieu (disco-era show business glamour-meets-gruesome violence) isn’t dissimilar to the 1978 thriller The Eyes of Laura Mars starring Faye Dunaway.  It offers vivid glimpses of the lost grungy New York of the late seventies and early eighties. (As ever, I was riveted by a brief sequence in a smoky gay dive bar - with a sullen hustler loitering outside!). There’s (mostly) good acting from the A-list cast, like Maureen Stapleton as Sally’s loyal and wisecracking personal assistant (the Thelma Ritter role) and (DILF alert) James Garner as the ex-husband Sally still holds a torch for. And full credit to the distractingly handsome Biehn for attempting to breathe some credibility and conviction into the psycho fan Douglas.

And Bacall is simply majestic. (Unbelievably, Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine were offered the part before Bacall). Sally is a grand dame, a monstre sacré, a force of nature! “I’m a spoiled brat!” Sally exclaims in a moment of self-awareness. Men leap to light her cigarettes for her. “Get the hell out of here!” she’s apt to roar. (Bacall's growling acidic line delivery recalls another bronchial baritone babe: Bea Arthur). Sally laughs, she cries, she shouts. She drinks the shit out of her drinks, she smokes the shit out of her smokes. Sally also consumes one helluva lot of coffee, which can’t help but evoke the ultra-kitsch High Point instant coffee advertisements Bacall was doing on TV around the same time. (I noticed that at rehearsals Sally sips coffee out of those nasty white Styrofoam disposable cups that are verboten now in this more environmentally aware era). 

Some commentators unchivalrously snipe that 56-year old Bacall looks haggard in The Fan. And certainly, some of her close-ups are unforgiving. But this was decades before Botox and fillers were commonplace, and I’d argue Bacall resembles a gloriously ravaged, puffy-eyed lioness. Her face is “lived-in” in the style more commonly associated with older European actresses (think late-period Jeanne Moreau, Anna Magnani, Simone Signoret or Melina Mercouri) than American ones.

But what elevates The Fan to camp nirvana for gay viewers are the enticing glimpses of Sally’s glitzy musical Never Say Never. (Her previous play was entitled It’s Called Tomorrow). These scenes hit the same sweet spot as Neely O’Hara or Helen Lawson’s musical segments in Valley of the Dolls (1967). (The ballad "Hearts Not Diamonds" is Bacall's equivalent of "I'll Plant My Own Tree”). We get to chart Never Say Never’s progress from early rehearsals (cue dancers in leg warmers doing stretching exercises in front of a mirror and Bacall in a leotard) to glittering gala opening night. But what kind of gruesomely bizarre and inadvertently hilarious production is this meant to be? For one thing, it seems to feature a grand total of two songs. Everyone seems wildly enthusiastic about Sally’s singing, but raspy-voiced Bacall’s sixty cigarettes-a-day croak is grating. (Can I just point out here that Lizabeth Scott could sing?). What we see on the triumphant first night involves shocking pink neon lighting, male and female dancers gyrating Fosse-style on scaffolding, copious dry ice mist – and no perceptible plot. “She’s got no love – in Paris!” a male dancer hisses dramatically. At least we know who to thank. Note the credit “musical staging and choreography by Arlene Philips”. Phillips (formerly of British dance troupe Hot Gossip, much later a judge on TV’s Strictly Come Dancing) choreographed the disastrous Village People disco movie Can’t Stop the Music the year before, so she’s partly responsible for not one but two kitsch masterpieces! After the infamous debacle of Can’t Stop the Music, whose bright idea was it to hire Phillips again so soon? Whoever it was, I could kiss them!

Further reading:

Read some funny and perceptive analyses of The Fan here, here and here. 

There’s something perversely fascinating about seeing a classy, prestigious performer like Bacall wind up in an exploitation shocker like The Fan. When interviewed for a 1981 People magazine cover story supposedly to promote the movie, the leading lady was typically blunt: “The Fan is much more graphic and violent than when I read the script. The movie I wanted to make had more to do with what happens to the life of the woman and less blood and gore.” The producers must have been thrilled! Bacall’s appearance in The Fan is comparable to Lyle Waggoner in Love Me Deadly (1972) and Leslie Uggams in Poor Pretty Eddie (1975). 

My reflections on what I consider Bacall's most underrated performance in Young Man with a Horn (1950).

Monday, 24 August 2020

Reflections on ... Hot Blood (1956)

Recently watched: Hot Blood (1956). Rotten Tomatoes synopsis: “Set in the gypsy community of contemporary Los Angeles, dancer Stephano Torino (Cornel Wilde) is tricked into an arranged marriage with tempestuous Annie Caldash (Jane Russell).” Taglines: “In the midst of that steaming night their blood reached its boiling point!” and “Jane Russell shakes her tambourines and drives Cornel Wilde!” (Who doesn’t love a good boob joke?).

I’d always been intrigued by romantic musical comedy Hot Blood, made by visionary director Nicholas Ray (1911 - 1979) between two of his definitive artistic statements, Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Bigger Than Life (1956). Considering Ray’s status as a major auteur and that he was then at his creative zenith, Hot Blood feels like a weirdly forgotten entry in his filmography. Having finally watched it (via Cinema Paradiso), I can understand why – this is a minor work rather than a lost classic. The initial Taming of the Shrew-style antagonism between Stephano and Annie isn’t very engaging (it must have been written into Russell’s contracts that she must squabble with all her leading men) and the treatment of the “volatile” Romani characters is rampantly clichéd. 

But no movie directed by Ray and starring Jane Russell in the fifties could be without some compensations. Filmed in Cinemascope and Technicolour, Hot Blood is entrancing in visual terms.  In his 1957 review for Cahiers du Cinéma, Jean-Luc Godard (who once declared, "cinema is Nicholas Ray”) raved, “No reservations are necessary in praising the deliberate and systematic use of the gaudiest colours to be seen in the cinema: barley-sugar orange shirts, acid-green dresses, violet cars, blue and pink carpets.” To that list, I would add: the ever-present shocking pinks and deep blood-reds, the powder blue Thunderbird that Russell’s blonde love rival drives and for that matter, the thick coat of coral lipstick that Russell herself wears. The soundtrack is by maestro of exotica music Les Baxter! Russell gets to sing (the Middle Eastern-style ballad almost threatens to turn into “Misirlou”), and Wilde gets to go shirtless (phwooar!). The catfight Russell has with another woman is enjoyably vicious. As a homoerotic bonus, there are swarthy, dark-eyed and curly-haired “gypsy boys” loitering in the crowd scenes who look like refugees from a Bob Mizer photo shoot. (The character of Annie’s brother Xano is played by the stunning James H Russell - Jane Russell’s own real-life brother!).

/ Above: real-life sibling James H Russell (as Xano) and Jane Russell (as Annie) in Hot Blood /

Hot Blood’s s campiest moment: Stephano and Annie’s dramatic, elaborate and S&M-tinged dance routine at their wedding celebration (I say “S&M-tinged” because it involves a lot of whip-cracking). We see Wilde and Russell dancing together in close-ups and medium shots, and then in the long shots it’s transparently (and hilariously) obvious they are replaced by professional dancers costumed like them doing the complicated steps. Verdict? More like Tepid Blood!

Thursday, 20 August 2020

Reflections on ... The Thrill Killers (1964)

/ Cash Flagg (aka Ray Dennis Steckler) and Liz Renay in The Thrill Killers /

The Thrill Killers (1964). Alternate title: The Maniacs Are Loose. Tagline: “Homicidal Maniacs on a Bloody Rampage!” I’m using this period of enforced social isolation to explore the weirder corners of YouTube for long forgotten and obscure movies. (My boyfriend is accompanying me only semi-willingly).   

Recently I’ve plunged into the gleefully low-brow wild, wild world of naïve outsider psychotronic auteur Ray Dennis Steckler (25 January 1938 – 7 January 2009). While The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies (1964) was an entertainingly incoherent mess, surely dirt-cheap exploitation “roughie” The Thrill Killers - a precursor to the psycho killer slasher flick - is Steckler’s tour de force? (Full disclosure: I haven’t watched Rat Pfink A Boo-Boo (1966) yet). Yes, comparisons to Ed Wood Jr are merited, but to Steckler’s credit, in this instance at least he achieves genuine white-knuckle urgency.  It helps that Thrill Killers is only 69-minutes long, and that Steckler’s guiding principle seems to be: motivation? Backstories? Character development? Nuance? Who needs ‘em! Plus, there’s bongo music on the soundtrack, women with bouffant hairdos, cars with fins and glimpses of atomic-era Los Angeles!

/ Liz Renay and Gary Kent grappling in The Thrill Killers /

Thrill Killers follows three separate narratives that collide at the climax. Joe Saxon (Joseph Bardo) is an unsuccessful aspiring actor struggling in the Hollywood rat race, to the despair of his long-suffering wife Liz (glamour icon Liz Renay). Meanwhile, wild-eyed feral loner Mort "Mad Dog" Click (portrayed by Steckler himself under his fabulous acting pseudonym Cash Flagg) is embarking on a seemingly random killing spree. And then comes the news (relayed over a tinny transistor radio) that three ax-wielding psychotic murders have escaped from a high-security mental institution. While the violence is tame by modern standards (and mostly occurs just out of frame or in shadow), thanks to Steckler’s dynamic no-frills film-making it packs an unexpected jolt, with a visceral sense of panic and claustrophobia. Admittedly, the decapitated head bouncing down a flight of stairs is unintentionally funny.

/ Above: is it wrong that I found Gary Kent as one of the three escaped lunatics outrageously sexy? He looks like just the kind of handsome thug Bob Mizer used to photograph clad in nothing but a posing pouch for Athletic Model Guild. The life and times of stuntman and actor Kent (still with us at the age of 87) was reportedly an inspiration for the character played by Brad Pitt in Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) / 

/ Liz Renay in peril /

My favourite sequence: to ingratiate himself with the parasitic show biz community, Joe throws a lavish cocktail party at his home - which swiftly degenerates into an out-of-control bacchanal! Couples are gyrating frantically to loud twangy music. Hedonists are feeding each other bunches of grapes. One guy is wearing a toga. Alcoholic beverages are consumed. A girl gets pushed into the pool! Some delinquents drive a motorcycle through his living room! No wonder his wife is seething with disgust. 

/ Portrait of a marriage in turmoil!  Liz Renay and Joseph Bardo in The Thrill Killers /

Speaking of Liz Renay: surely any film featuring the b-movie actress / burlesque queen / convicted felon / naive outsider painter / gangster’s moll / authoress of multiple volumes of memoirs (including My Face for the World to See and How to Attract Men) and all-round super vixen is in is an instant camp classic simply by virtue of her presence? I thrilled to the shots of Renay running for her life through the woods in her tight cocktail dress, shrieking half-heartedly. For John Waters aficionados, Renay is synonymous with Muffy St Jacques in Desperate Living (1977). It must be said Waters elicited an infinitely superior performance out of her than Steckler (and weirdly, Renay looks considerably younger in Desperate Living). 

/ Note the poster for The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies on the wall behind Liz Renay - an in-joke? /

Renay is arguably upstaged, though, by Laura Benedict as Linda the café proprietress. In her sole film credit, the sultry and aloof Benedict is the embodiment of early sixties cool (winged Juliette Greco eyeliner, beatnik sweater, ironed hair) and is so imperturbably nonchalant throughout that she anticipates Aubrey Plaza.

/ Above: Linda Benedict - an appreciation! I've since learned that she was married to Gary Kent at this point. They must have made a stunning couple /

/ Watch The Thrill Killers on YouTube below /

Further reading:

Read more analyses of The Thrill Killers here and here.