Wednesday, January 25, 2017

C.H.U.D. (1984)

People are going missing in the Lafayette Street area of New York City.  Captain Bosch (Christopher Curry) and local soup kitchen proprietor Shepherd (Daniel Stern) investigate.  Meanwhile, photographer George Cooper (John Heard) and his life partner Lauren Daniels (Kim Griest) are drawn into this mystery due to Cooper’s work shooting the local homeless people.  But the C.H.U.D.s, as the film’s tagline states, aren’t staying down there anymore.

I’m not even going to bother trying to hide it; I have a tremendous amount of love for Douglas Cheek’s C.H.U.D.  The story, the monsters, the characters, the sly sense of humor, it all works in spades for me.  It bears a gritty New York feel to it stemming from not only the texture of how it was filmed but also in how it portrays the city.  It’s a dangerous, lonely place to live.  A great many of the exterior street scenes have almost no background people in them.  The characters in the film die alone almost exclusively, even in the company of others.  Just look at the opening hook of the movie.  A woman walks her dog along a wet, empty street, as a sewer plate steams in the foreground.  When she stops to pick up a baggie she dropped (assumedly loaded with dog poop), a clawed hand erupts out of the sewer and snatches both she and her dog down into the depths beneath the city.  They will both play rather grim roles later in the film.  

Aside from it being wildly successful as a creature feature, C.H.U.D. contains subtexts that elevate it above the standard horror films of the day (this is when slashers were heavily in vogue), aided by the fact that all its characters are adults and it doesn’t have sex on the brain even slightly (there’s nothing wrong with gratuitous sex and nudity; but it’s refreshing to get a break from it sometimes).  Oh, there’s a shower scene, but it’s the furthest thing from titillating you can imagine.  I will now bore you with my very mundane thoughts on these very obvious themes.  

The homeless and how they are treated is front and center from the film’s opening credits.  As they roll, we see a man turn a corner talking animatedly to himself, clearly a member of the lunatic fringe.  He passes by a woman slumped in a doorway, her eyes staring out at nothing.  A street cleaner scours the road of detritus, scooping up the shoe of the woman from the film’s first scene.  They and their fates are ignored by the city at large, a constant reminder of the state of affairs that more affluent people would rather put blinders on then pay attention to.  Cooper, on the other hand, stares at them through the lens of his camera from his upper floor apartment.  He was a fashion photographer who has changed his focus to more “relevant” topics, including a recent article about the homeless who live underground.  This change of calling is signified by the replacement of a framed photo on his wall of a model with one of a homeless person.  His editor/collaborator Derek is dying for new photos and a story to follow up on their first team up to the point that he’ll “fudge it” if Cooper just gives him anything at all.  And yet, Cooper is not as involved with his subjects as he could be.  Yes, he bails out Mrs. Monroe (Ruth Maleczech) and takes bandages down to her brother Victor (Bill Raymond), but Cooper has no skin in the game.  The homeless are something to feel bad about and devote himself to from a distance (i.e. from behind his camera).  He pities them but doesn’t truly understand them.  

Contrast this to Shepherd (the name alone has meaning).  He refers to the homeless who come to his soup kitchen as his “family.”  He is bowled over when one of his “flock” gives him a single flower as a gift.  He takes food down to his basement to feed the more “shy” people who reside under the streets.  Shepherd lives among these folks.  He even refuses to leave when he’s told his life is in direct danger because he has to get dinner started for his people.  Further, he’s the center of the film’s religious aspect.  Aside from his church/kitchen and its significance, there are characters like Val (Graham Beckel), who quotes from the Bible’s Book of Revelations.  Later, Shepherd witnesses a groups of C.H.U.D.s worshipping at a rather unholy altar.  

Bosch sees the homeless and deals with them every day, and he is willing to listen to what they have to say.  He and Shepherd both have a vested, personal interest in what’s going on.  The police under Bosch mirror the city’s indifference and enmity toward the homeless and toward their own responsibilities.  Sanderson (Cordis Heard) rolls her eyes whenever Bosch gives her an order.  Jackson (Gene O’Neill) won’t follow Cooper and Mrs. Monroe down into the tunnels off the subway because of the smell.  He has no dedication, and the task is more or less beneath him (no pun intended).  Officer Crespi (Sam McMurray) is outright hostile to the homeless and their allies, trading barbs with Mrs. Monroe (“How do I know you didn’t take anything?”  “How do we know you didn’t give us anything?”) and telling Cooper to “get the hell outta here!”  The disparities between these viewpoints is what allows the monsters to do their thing and flourish.  After all, the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

Which brings us to the other prevalent matter in the film, the conspiracy/paranoia angle.  This is represented by a triumvirate of power: Chief O’Brien (Eddie Jones), the Commissioner (John Ramsey), and government stooge Wilson (George Martin).  Like the mayor of many a town in monster movies, O’Brien and the Commissioner blow off Cooper and Shepherd’s story, more interested in saving face and maintaining the cover up as they have been ordered to from on high.  This cover up even included Cooper, who clearly has a guilty conscience over this but has been willing to go along up to a point.  The bureaucrats look down their noses at people like Shepherd, and this will, of course, come back to bite them.  More than this, though, is the truth behind everything that’s actually going on (and if you don’t know the film’s big reveal, I won’t ruin it for you here).  The highest echelons of government cannot be trusted, because they only care about their own needs.  The people under them (read: everybody else) don’t matter until they and their problems become inconvenient.  The government heads in the film are dirtier on the inside than the outside of the homeless people they disdain.  Their callousness feeds the apathy of the general populace that allowed the monsters to come into being.

Arrow Video’s bluray of C.H.U.D. is outstanding, to say the least.  First of all, we finally get a high def copy of the film’s theatrical cut along with the integral cut.  The differences between the two are noteworthy, though they both have their own virtues.  The integral cut develops the relationship between Lauren and Cooper significantly.  It follows up on the film’s opening scene, which fuels some of the emotion of the finale.  It deletes the voiceovers that the theatrical cut uses as New York City flavor, reinforcing the loneliness and ennui of the city.  Most importantly, it changes the placement of the film’s diner scene.  In the theatrical cut, this comes at the film’s end, but in the integral cut it comes at the start of the third act (it’s also extended a bit).  In the former, it’s a stinger ending that plays to the creature feature nature of the film.  In the latter, it escalates the tension of the story as it rounds third base, so to speak.  Likewise, the integral cut’s final moments resonate more on an emotional level, in part because there’s nothing coming after them.  We’re left to dwell on the aftermath of the experience and how it has affected the characters.  This is augmented by David A. Hughes’ wonderful synth score.  The disc also contains a couple of fun interviews, one with production designer William Bilowit and one with special effects makeup artist John Caglione, Jr.  There is a featurette on the film’s locations featuring Michael Gingold, who also provides writing about the film’s production in the illustrated booklet included in the package.  The bluray case has reversible cover art from Dan Mumford along with the film’s original poster art.  There are also a couple of commentary tracks, one of which focuses on the score with isolated selections and the other of which gathers the director, writer, and the three leads for one of the most entertaining commentaries I’ve ever heard for a film.  The film itself looks great, as would be expected with all the grain and grit that informs so much of its aesthetic.  As far as I’m concerned (and I don’t see anyone ready to dispute me on this) this is the definitive release of one of my favorite monster movies of all time.

MVT:  The film’s depth and sense of maturity, combined with its sense of fun.

Make or Break:  The film’s cold open provides a terrific setup of both story and tone.

Score:  8.75/10      

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Midi Minuit (1970)

Helene (Sylvie Fennec) and her beau Jacques (Jacques Portet) drive all the way out to the middle of nowhere to visit their pal Laurent Lorrain (Laurent Vergez), who is staying with his bizarro family of tortured/torturing artists.  Things get weird, to say the very least.

Pierre Phillipe’s Midi Minuit (aka Moon and Midnight) is excruciatingly odd and chaotic, yet it still manages to be captivating (probably because of its odd, chaotic structure).  It could easily stand comfortably next to the work of Alejandro Jodorowsky or Juan Lopez Moctezuma.  Not surprisingly, it also fits nicely in line with their Mouvement Panique which was founded on the idea of transgression surpassing the surreality in vogue at the time.  By that same token, Midi Minuit feels a bit toned down from something along the lines of, say, Alucarda.  Sure, there is the scene where Helene spies a woman held captive in chains, and later said woman is having sex with a man, suggesting in the way it’s portrayed that she is being used specifically as a sex object, just not necessarily unwillingly (these chains will come into play again later on in the film in a similar context).  But there are also scenes where characters, especially the creepy, quasi-pedophilic father Robert (Daniel Emilfork, perhaps better known for his appearance in City of Lost Children), will discuss things at length which feel both oblique and expositional.  

There’s no real plot to speak of, much like in Radley Metzger’s similarly-premised Score, but elements of one creep around the edges and cause moments in the film to happen that further reinforce its points.  Instead, the film is, first and foremost, about the discovery of Helene and Jacques that they, and by extension the audience, are all a bit mad.  They just need to discover it within themselves and allow it to blossom, and the Lorrain family is the key to this.  “Nympho” sister Elsa (the stunning Beatrice Arnac) goes through men like she goes through paint, and after she has them wrapped around her little finger, she dumps them in fickle acts of whimsy.  These jiltings typically involve her suggesting that her latest stud beat up her current one.  Sex and violence are inextricable to Elsa, because these are the only things she sees as useful in her self-centered world (the inspiration for her art, perhaps?), and she is up front about all of it.  Naturally, Jacques falls under her spell, and it costs him in more than one way.  Conversely, Laurent is sensitive on the outside, as evidenced by his wearing of a caftan and walking around shoeless like a hippie cult member.  He and Helene connect on a soulful, emotional level, but it won’t be until much later that his big secret is revealed (I have to say, it’s a doozy).  Elsa and Laurent share the same basic nature (read: insanity), just one is external and the other is internal.  It almost doesn’t matter which one of them draws in which of the outsider couple.  Jacques and Helene were going to be pulled in no matter what, because it’s all part of our base human nature.

Bearing this in mind, there is the metaphor of art as it relates to madness.  Robert enjoys acting out (non-sexual, at least onscreen) stories and/or fantasies with his coterie of young playmates, and he isn’t above getting a kick out of drugging someone (courtesy of uni-browed boy toy and all-around chemist Walerian [Patrick Jouane]) and watching the results.  His art is philosophical in nature; after all, he’s the ring leader.  The youngest Lorrain sibling (Veronique Lucchesi) performs pagan rituals involving pigeon sacrifices, takes and beats prisoners in militaristic roleplaying games, and revels in jesting about the “sadic of the garrigue” (basically, “the sadist of the Mediterranean region of Southern France where this film is set” … I think).  According to Elsa, she’s “on the right path.”  Speaking of Elsa, her paintings are High Renaissance in style (from what I could discern of them), especially in how they focus on the representation of the flawless (male) human form.  Laurent’s art is primarily in metalworks, perfectly shaped and alluring in its shininess while also having the ability to wound with its sharp edges and pointy ends.  In the same way that the insanity within Elsa and Laurent is displayed as external and internal, respectively, their art seems to be the opposite; Elsa’s is more traditional, while Laurent’s is experimental.  Even the “estate” the Lorrains live on reflects madness and art as lifestyles.  The place is in ruins.  The rooms are strewn with fur throw rugs and stuff that appears to be trash and lamp sculptures that have to be manipulated to operate.  The “family dining room” is more or less a cave with a large round stone table.  The images of decay are married to the images of art floating around the place, and they form a union between art and psychopathy that weighs heavy on every frame of the film.

Midi Minuit is at constant odds with itself, the same as the characters embody the duality of beauty and madness.  We get Hitchcockian moments like in the shot where Helene is stripping down to go skinnydipping, and the camera pulls back to reveal a dead man lying on the hill overlooking the water.  Then we get constant smash cuts to things which may be only tangentially connected to the scene they’re cut into, may be some portent of things to come, or may be just images intended to shake up the viewer from traditional modes of watching films, fragmenting linear narrative with non-sequitur symbolic images.  For example, as Laurent, Helene, and Jacques are driving around, there is a quick cut to an image of the same person in chains Helene saw earlier (or maybe it’s someone else), only this time the person is in a car which is being driven around.  There is no other reference to this image in this context in the film at all.  Helene and Robert have a conversation that is loaded with metaphorical subtext (both in what’s said and in what’s seen; Helene is explicitly included in Robert’s childish theatrics, and she either plays along or gives in to it) but relates directly to Helene’s feelings for Laurent.  The film jumps around like mad (no pun intended), and even though I honestly couldn’t say precisely what’s going on at a given moment or what it necessarily means, I still found myself ultimately following along and rather enjoying the ride.  For me, it appeals just enough to the avant garde and the exploitative sides of my cinephilic character (there’s that madness creeping in?).  It’s as visceral as it is elliptical, and while I would say it won’t appeal to every cinematic taste by a long stretch, it’s very much recommended by me to those with more adventurous filmic appetites.

MVT:  The film is so bizarre.  Yup, that’s about it.

Make or Break:  The first dinner scene will fully let the viewer know whether or not Midi Minuit will play to their fancy.

Score:  7/10            

Friday, January 13, 2017

Cold Sweat (1993)

This is weirder than you would expect from a 90’s erotic thriller. I mean yea of course you get a handful of Shannon Tweed sex scenes and yea there's a glow in the dark body painting scene and of course breasts and long-butts get popped out willy nilly but there's something extra happening in this. First of all, we got Dave Thomas (of SCTV and Strange Brew fame -or Grace Under Fire fame if you're a sick fuck) as a conniving lowlife which he plays rather lethargically but it's good to see him nonetheless. Animal Mother himself Adam Baldwin shows up here and there as someone? I think he's a hitman or a bodyguard (?) and he’s also one of Shannon Tweed's umpteenth lovers, this movie is pretty convoluted. But the real standout here is Ben Cross who plays a British hitman that is being haunted relentlessly by his most recent target (the killing of whom happens within the first 3 minutes of the movie and yes she is naked and having sex). By haunted I don't mean brief hallucinations or flashbacks I mean having long conversations with her, inspecting the bullet wounds he inflicted, coming pretty fucking close to having sex with her in a hotel, and the ghost takes a bubble bath at one point. THE GHOST TAKES A BUBBLE BATH AT ONE POINT.  It's a damn strange plot beat that ultimately takes backseat to a confusing series of double crosses.

I'm still not sure I have a handle on the ending because my brain had been running comfortably at about 25% throughout so when the twist kicked in I couldn't get the engine warmed up in time to completely follow. Too laggy and lumpy overall to be anything really special,  cut down to 75 or 80 minutes it would fare much better. Definitely recommended if you want to see a ghost lady take a bubble bath though.

MVT: Overall tone. Cold Sweat manages to transcend its Skinemax by-the-numbers veneer by being a little more oddball than most others of its ilk. 

Make Or Break: First appearance of the ghost lady. If that isn’t enough to get you to stick around then don’t bother with the rest.

Score: 6/10