Opening on an image that links fashion with death (“Poison”) and the purchase of two gaudy Christian Dior ties, an acerbic tone is immediately set for Robert Altman’s Ready to Wear (initially titled Prêt-á-Porter, which it retains in its opening credits). After all, a film that promises to take a gander at the world of the vacuous fashion industry through the eyes of Altman, one of filmmaking’s keenest observers of human nature no matter how ridiculous, comes front-loaded with delicious possibilities. Unfortunately, everyone (Altman included) looks like they’re having too much fun and in too good of spirit for any of it to land with much weight. Ultimately, this is a movie where looking good is primary. The inability to match any piece of clothing with the stupid tie at the beginning of the movie is the catalyst of the perpetual conflict in the film which is also its greatest flaw. Nothing matches and nothing fits. In the end, clothes become meaningless. Yeah, the world of fashion is all stupid and gouache but, honestly, who gives a fuck when time is short and life is so much fun? Fair enough. But if everything is such a trifle, why should I care about any of Ready to Wear and devote 132 minutes to it if it doesn’t say anything beyond the obvious?

Ready to Wear, like many other Altman films, is an ensemble, wide-canvassed affair in which a multitude of characters mill around a central location and we traverse the course of their lives over a fixed amount of time. In this instance, we find ourselves in France during Paris Fashion Week where armies of journalists, designers, models, photographers, and schmoozers will crawl all over each other and a bunch of dog shit to get the front row seat for a glimpse at the germination of what will be the style for next season. If the financially hectic and cacophonous world of commodity futures seems baffling but fascinating, the world of fashion seems eerily similar, just pitched on the other side of the spectrum. Instead of utilizing information and guesswork to set monetary benchmarks for certain products, what we wear today was based off of something high-end yesterday which got its idea from something ultimately unwearable and ridiculous that was salivated over and ambulated across a catwalk during Paris Fashion Week.

Like Nashville (1975) and HealtH (1980), Ready to Wear builds towards a Big Event conclusion. Unlike those two films, the road to that conclusion is fun but entirely inessential. Beginning with the choking death of the tremendously disliked fashion mogul, Olivier de la Fontaine (Jean-Pierre Cassel), and ending with the unveiling of Simone Lowenthal’s (Anouk Aimée) newest clothing line, the creme filling of Ready to Wear is sometimes rich and sometimes delicious but also messy beyond the point of charming and, curiously, not very filling. For Ready to Wear is a tapestry of various vacuums lacking a feeling of true integration for all of its parts. As bickering newspaper reporters full of as much piss and vinegar as they are devoid of professional or personal integrity, the two (Julia Roberts from the Houston Chronicle and Tim Robbins from the Washington Post) end up falling into a French mini-comedy that sticks them in the same hotel room they cannot seem to ever leave as drinking and fucking become the primary activities that rule supreme in their orbit. As cute as this bit is, it feels completely disconnected from the rest of the film.

And this is double ditto for the thread involving Teri Garr and Danny Aielllo which is only worthwhile for the appearance of both actors appearing in the same frame. In this thread, Garr is set up as a secret paramour to Aiello but the punchline that eventually arrives lands like a big “so what?” while trying to get more mileage out of a (better) visual gag from 1974 with Bert Remsen in California Split. In the instances of these two character couples, I can’t help but feel like both stories are loose strands that would have been better off cut from the whole picture which may have also tightened up the narrative, created more focus, and put this in the company of Altman’s sharp and unjustly maligned, aforementioned HealtH. As they stand, both give the game away and tip Ready to Wear more in the direction of a grand party on the edge of the end of the century and less a wickedly biting satire on the fashion industry. And, consequentiallly, their pieces bloat the project and dilute it of its venom.

I can also say the above applies to Kim Basinger’s arch performance as hick reporter Kitty Wells. Forever out of her depth and highlighting the world of high fashion as steeped in all kinds of invented eruditeness, her “cultured” subjects always juxtapose with her ridiculous, bumpkin patois (both syllables of Dior are blasted out of her mouth like a shotgun and given equal weight). Cute, but she’s just Opal from the BBC in a hillbilly skin and adds nothing to the project other than giving the then-in-demand Basinger a chance to work with Altman again.

While excess is the name of the game in Ready to Wear, Altman seems downright undisciplined in parts. The MacGuffin of hunting for the “murderer” of Cassell’s character feels lazy and, like the threads mentioned above, it would be relatively easy to excise. After all, we still have quite a bit of structure left regarding some palace intrigue surrounding Simone’s business due to the machinations of her ambitious son (Rupert Everett) and a comedy of errors regarding three fashion editors (Sally Kellerman, Linda Hunt, and Tracey Ullman) trying to court a pretentious and self-satisfied photographer (Stephen Rea). In both cases, these two pieces of Ready to Wear are the ones that bring out some of the film’s richest and funniest characters, both primary and secondary. Of course, it’s entirely possible that there is more footage that exists that would go a long way better integrating some of these elements (Kellerman said as much in the press at the time of the film’s release). Given that this is a Miramax film of a certain vintage, it would shock me none to find out that Altman learned the lesson that most all learned when passing through the now-disgraced House of Weinstein and that creative control was all illusory. In the end, this was the only time he worked with the company, taking his action to other, smaller indies for the remainder of his career.

The 90’s were more or less as if the hedonistic 70’s had returned from a vacation in the money hungry 80’s and Ready to Wear ultimately finds Robert Altman caught up in the giant spectacle of colorful and loud vapidity that colored the decade. In fact, this movie is probably the closest in spirit to a celebration of the 90’s that there ever was. In highlighting the outlandish and garish nature of the world of fashion, Altman unveils a shallow culture that doesn’t give a shit about politics, gender, sex, or anything else. Everything is a hustle in the pursuit of a good time which, obviously, runs on money. This is a film that says those things with some elements of criticism but this is also a film that was also a multi-media product generator as it was released alongside its mass market screenplay book from Hyperion Press (almost a staple with any Miramax film released in the 90’s) and its uncommonly hip (for an Altman joint) soundtrack, the latter a crass idea satirized by Altman in the opening credits of Nashville all those years ago.

Not without its own certain charm, Ready to Wear is by no means a bad movie. It’s just a phenomenally inconsequential one. For all of its light callbacks to previous Altman films, its charming moments (mostly all belonging to Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroiannni), and is heavy emphasis on 90’s excess, the film feels like a soft confection wrapped up in opulent packaging. The end is explicitly articulated as the closing of a circle and Altman is a little ahead of the curve, but Ready to Wear’s denouement is a little more satisfyingly nihilistic than it is laugh-out-loud funny. If the idea of a clothing line that features no clothes seems like an unthinkable thing not worth considering, let me tell you about the vulgar game show host from Queens, New York who one day became the President of the United States.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain


Robert Altman’s Short Cuts is a mosaic of people who are perpetually faced with bad decisions and who constantly take the wrong path. So, basically it’s about you and me. A spiderweb crack of broken souls stitched together by geography, relationships, and happenstance, Altman takes his well-traveled formula of regular folks just doing regular folks things and applies them to the disconnected, minimalist tales of Raymond Carver, lyricist of the Pacific Northwestern middle class.

The intertwining tales of twenty-two main characters as they navigate a 48 hour stretch in Los Angeles, Short Cuts is the quintessential Robert Altman film and reflects just what a beautiful match his cinematic vision was with Carver’s literary one. And, remarkably, it’s not a straight adaptation at all. Where Carver’s characters existed in their own vacuums that were ripe with meaning in the nine stories that make up the bones of Altman’s film, the common thread afforded to the characters in Altman’s universe is one of miserable parental neglect and colossal personal failure, two themes later played in a similar key in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, itself an operatic ode to casual SoCal connectivity.

Altman also relocates Carver’s rainy and soggy world to Los Angeles of 1993 as it is just on the precipice of technological progress that will forever change the landscape of human interaction. There is no interconnectivity due to the internet but cell phones make an appearance in Short Cuts,though they are of the Zach Morris variety and look more like blunt instruments than tools of communication. In the world of Altman, people are linked together by television programs and natural disasters, both major and minor. In Carver, the only thing connecting the characters is the book binding and the author’s name at the top of each page.

Some of the stories Altman and co-screenwriter Frank Barhydt utilize for the film survive in a form resembling completion. “So Much Water So Close to Home,” the story that makes up the action involving Fred Ward, Huey Lewis, Buck Henry, and Annie Archer, is more or less intact. Other stories are stripped for parts; “Vitamins,” an epic tale about a man who carries on with his wife’s co-worker, only faintly exists in the club confrontation between Chris Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Darnell Williams.

In this world, people meet randomly at concerts, bump into each other in parking lots, and otherwise drift in and out of clustered orbits due to their professions. Class is separated by a phone line as sisters gab with each other amid the chaos of their spouses leaving for work, one a doctor and the other a motorcycle cop. Race is bisected by hospital rooms, with two different kids’ lives hanging in the balance, one is black and one is white; both are victims of the dumbest luck imaginable. People invade each other’s space and engage in transference of energy, creating and destroying as they go oftentimes so absorbed in themselves that they’re oblivious to the wreckage they leave behind.

In Short Cuts, the children are either over-coddled or dysfunctionally adrift. Parents hold dark, wounded secrets and keep their offspring distant by design lest they have to reckon with the damage their choices have caused. Jack Lemmon’s estranged father is one of his most painfully realized characters of his entire career. When he wanders into the film at the halfway mark, he’s treated as if he is a stranger who has been lost for thirty years. We soon learn that he’s been living in Riverside which, despite being about an hour’s drive from his son’s house, might as well be on the other side of the world. When Annie Ross’s adult daughter shows up at the club in which Ross works, the owner is stunned to learn she even exists even though she lives with Ross nearby.

Pursuits are futile. The fish, the symbol of an event that creates a schism between a fisherman and his wife, goes up in smoke before it can be eaten. The cake, the center of the film’s nastiest (and cruelly hilarious) passages and a representation of the last vestige of a grieving mother’s dead son, ends up in the goddamn trash before she can even see it. Death is dealt with in a stark, unsentimental way. These things happen and this is what it looks like. A woman who is raped and killed creates a moral and practical quandary for a group of fishermen but it emotionally waylays another character. A deadly attack on a young girl, generated from emasculated sexual insecurity, is misidentified as an earthquake accident. Things shake up, people fall down, but everyone seems to survive and move forward.

I realize that the descriptions above make Short Cuts sound like a depressing slog or a funeral dirge but nothing could be further from the truth. Altman’s precision-oriented focus on character causes every single line of dialogue (often, in true Altman fashion, overlapping with other lines of dialogue) has a breath of life and even when they go wrong, the characters’ actions seem as familiar as muscle memory. Unless you’re an uptight, humorless bore, human foibles are only no fun when they’re yours but they’re highly entertaining when they’re being displayed by someone else. Short Cuts is literally like people-watching a cross section of American society without any of the voyeuristic guilt. And with the film’s impossibly perfect cast giving some of the best performances of their individual careers (Tom Waits has entered the chat), the film should be seen as downright irresistible to anyone interested in the craft of giving an understated performance lacking in all pretense.

Like California Split, the Los Angeles landscape is almost gone its own character, steeped in the functional ordinariness from the pavement-up instead of the Hollywood sign-down. And, just as the previous year’s The Player existed on the edge of change, Short Cuts is a snapshot of an America in rapid flux. Those cell phones will get smaller, our worlds will grow and shrink simultaneously and, parking lot photo huts, the location of the film’s best gags and once as ubiquitous and recognizable as the red roof of a PIzza Hut, will soon be replaced with drive-up ATM’s.

Stylistically graceful, threading the stories of randomness and chance with clever match cuts and seamless transitions, the canvas may be as busy as any Altman film but it’s never not a clear view of humanity at its most mediocre while attempting to be just good enough. A celebration of remarkable ordinariness that uncannily matches Raymond Carver’s triumphs in minimalism, if not for Nashville, Short Cuts would be Robert Altman’s crowning achievement.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain


It’s remarkable to consider the elements that went into the production of Robert Altman’s The Player, the 1992 adaptation of Michael Tolkin’s incendiary novel from 1988 about the bitter grist mill that is Hollywood. Here was a hot screenplay, written by Tolkin himself, that quite literally took the fiercest of aims at itself with a toughness not seen since Alexander Mackendrick’s The Sweet Smell of Success in 1957. That Hollywood would want to get fifteen feet of it was surprising. That the project would fall into Altman’s lap as he was hazily stumbling out of a decade-long exile in the show business wilderness on the shoulders of his triumphant Vincent & Theo, a miniseries made for British television in 1990 that was then edited and released to stateside theatrical audiences to some of Altman’s best notices in years, was unthinkable. That Altman would use the project with maximum glee to give both fingers to Hollywood with the loudest “fuck you” that he could muster was glorious. That Hollywood participated in and loved him for it, showering him with the kind of accolades and support not felt since about 1975 was as heartwarming as it was puzzling. After all, Altman used the film to charge them with being shallow, amoral phonies and they responded with “we know; welcome to director’s heaven.” For after The Player, Altman was never starved of a juicy theatrical project with A-listers champing at the bit to work with him. As Harvey Keitel’s character said in Altman’s Buffalo Bill and the Indians “Boy, I tell you there is no business like the show business.”

One of Altman’s greatest films, The Player is, on the surface, a neo-noir involving studio executive, Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), who, after receiving a litany of anonymous, threatening postcards from a writer he once brushed off, accidentally kills an idealistic screenwriter (Vincent D’Onofrio) who Mill believes to be the originator of the postcards. Mill then does his damndest to avoid suspicion and arrest by members of the Pasadena police department (Whoopi Goldberg and Lyle Lovett) while reckoning with the fact that his his position at the studio is in continuous jeopardy due to internal politics.

I say The Player is a neo-noir because the film is awash in both references to shadowy crime films of the past (posters of Laura, The Big House, and Niagara decorate the offices of the unnamed studio in which Griffin toils) and in the attitudes of its characters, most especially studio security chief, Walter Stuckel (Fred Ward), who doesn’t seem to care that movies were made after 1958. Mill himself is not a man who’s been wrongly accused but more like a Colombo antagonist, dipping and ducking the cops while drawing the worst kind of attention to himself by brazenly dating the dead man’s girlfriend (a fantastic Greta Scacchi).

This is a strong film made stronger by the details. Not only is the main story of the beleaguered executive utterly compelling, the studio politics swirling about are fascinating, revealing an industry not to terribly different from any other despite its high-powered glitz. Gina Gershon’s ambitious assistant is an easy character to miss on a first watch but a real joy to observe on repeat viewings as she slyly moves with the winds of corporate change. Like the best of Altman’s work, this film has a life beyond its central story. The movie’s color palate, captured brilliantly by cinematographer Jean Lepine, gets darker and darker as the film goes on and as the characters become more and more corrupted. When Robbins and Scacchi beat retreat to a desert hot springs, they wander about as if they are in a Stygian hell, both of them sweating profusely during a sexual encounter and then, in the bright daylight and finding themselves both morally compromised, they relax in a vat of mud. Even therapeutic measures taken by the characters look dirty and unclean.

And if one thinks the film is just aimed at the upper crust of Hollywood, it should be mentioned that The Player spares absolutely nobody. Even writers are portrayed as pretentious, failed artists who cannot reconcile the fact that Hollywood is a machine that produces content that might accidentally stumble into being art; folks perpetually screaming into a void about quality, grit, and realism in a sausage factory.

Ten years after the alumnus of the New Hollywood movement had mostly become for-hire workhorses in an industry overtaken by corporations and accountants, the Hollywood in The Player is bursting at the seams with buzzy soothsayers who spend their days reducing movies down to one sentence and twisting them in the lights of various movie stars to see just how much money could be made with the right alignment. They’re able to pinpoint what makes money and what doesn’t by dispassionately rattling off a litany of attributes necessary for a film to be successful as if it were second nature.

Due to its extensive roster of incredible cameos, The Player also now functions as a Hollywood graveyard in perpetual motion, both literally and figuratively. On one hand, each year seems to bring the end of one of the many faces seen on the margins or in the cast of The Player and, as of this writing, the light of the seemingly indestructible star that was Dean Stockwell is the most recent to go dark. Julia Roberts, a fresh-faced talent when cameras rolled on this film is now a long-time vet, replaced many times over by Americans Sweetheart. Bruce Willis, such an A-list action star that his name and appearance is a running gag in the film, is now relegated to tongue-in-cheek action films for the AARP set. The specific brand of Hollywood that was in flux in 1992 is, in the waning days of 2021, a thing of the past.

And, of course, no conversation about The Player can occur without the mention of its breathtaking, staggeringly choreographed, eight and a half minute opening shot. To give some kind of measure to the difficulty in getting the shot from its opening image to ending on a cryptic postcard message that is read by the audience between two slats in a set of Venetian blinds, pulling it off in one take is like diving off the edge of the Grand Canyon in the hopes that you’ll stick the landing in an area with the circumference of a shot glass. And the self reflexive nature of the shot is stunning. Buck Henry shows up in the shot to pitch The Graduate Part II just as a conversation about Julian Temple’s long take in Absolute Beginners is referenced; Henry himself having participated in Temple’s “one-take” piece in Aria, an omnibus film from 1987 to which Altman also contributed. This is a movie about movies and, moreover, Altman always wants you to be aware of that. Before the action even begins and the first onscreen credit is witnessed, Altman allows his voice and the slate marker to be heard and witnessed, all in front of a tapestry of a filmmaker in action. We’re always looking through the looking glass that’s three panes deep.

And what we see is Hollywood as a poisonous food chain perpetually getting fatter, more desensitized, sleazier, and more desperate as the times change. “Movies… now more than ever” is the motto of Griffin’s studio that’s on the hamster wheel that will inevitably break down and will likely someday be swallowed by a giant whale. What more imagination can be expected from a place where decisions are made by a guy who, when told of a movie idea about a planet with two suns, automatically wants to know who plays the sons?

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain


Outside the lack of a need for an optical house to create the opening titles, as far as one can tell, the major aesthetic difference between Russ Meyer’s gothic period and his soap opera period really comes down to whether he was shooting in color or black and white. On a thematic level, there was generally a little more whimsy allowed in the soaps that, in the gothic films, was a little rougher-hewed. Where he was once shackled a little more closely to the conventions of the roughies in his earlier work, the soap operas allowed him an even longer leash to explore sex and violence, albeit in his trademark style which draped everything in melodrama that was taken so seriously by the characters on screen, it’s not readily apparent to the viewer that everyone is in on the gag.

Bowdlerized from its more suggestive title of How Much Loving Does a Normal Couple Need?, 1967’s Common Law Cabin finds Meyer in mostly fine form as he keeps many plates in the air by delivering all the requisite elements found in a Meyer picture while trying to lay a sheen of cartoonish sensibility over everything. Initially set up as something of a con film in which Dewey Hoople (Jack Moran); live-in companion, Babette (Babette Bardot); and daughter, Coral Hoople (Adele Rein), run a tin-roof tourist trap of a dump in Nowheresville, Arizona that survives on suckers rooked in by their alcohol-soaked advance man, Cracker (Frank Bolger). When an ailing Dr. Martin Ross (John Furlong); his oversexed wife, Shiela (Alaina Capri); and beefcake detective, Barney Rickets (Ken Swofford) get hooked into daytripping to Hoople’s Haven, all hell breaks loose causing everything to spin out of control in an orgy of passion and destruction!

Common Law Cabin succeeds in breaking Meyer’s previous narrative mold while still retaining chunks of material that makes it very much his work. It’s a veritable cornucopia of match cuts and rapid fire dialogue either delivered by actors who hold accents so thick the lines are rendered inscrutable or it’s barked and cooed by those for whom camping it up to the nth degree is a professional sport. While the outer limits of the California deserts are exchanged for the Colorado River on the Arizona side of things (with some material filmed in the Coachella Valley), the universe inhabited by the characters in the film is 100% Meyer; desolate, barren, and 15/10 the absolute least conducive locations in which to engage in sexual congress with any comfort whatsoever. The violence which began to permeate Meyer’s work in Lorna is audacious and jaw-dropping in Common Law Cabin as the audience slowly weaned on catfights, gunshots, and the occasional dynamite mishap will probably feel as jolted as Barney Rickert does when, in the film’s utterly bananas climax, a racing and out-of-control Chris-Craft demonstrates how smoothly it can go through a human face.

Unlike the transition from the last of the nudie cuties to the gothic film, the tone and timbre of the soap operas don’t quite gel right out of the gate. Common Law Cabin has more than a foot in the fundamentals of what would make the next film in the soap cycle, Good Morning…and Goodbye,absolutely shine, but it’s also a little unwilling to let loose some of the broad, comic book flair that made Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! such an irresistible gas. In one corner, Alania Capri is the pillowy prototype for Erica Gavin’s Vixen, a prowling, libidinous creature with a sexual appetite that can never be fulfilled. In the other corner is Babette Bardot, the centerpiece of Mondo Topless who is getting held over for a second run much like Lorna Maitland before her. Amazonian and necessary for one specific joke in the story, Bardot is not nearly as impressive as Capri who chews into her part like it’s a five inch steak and never throws a bad pitch. In the middle, Adele Rein never has to do much except stand around and have a meet cute with a runaway teenage millionaire (Andrew Hagara), which is sort of a shame given her impressively mature turn in Jack Hill’s Mondo Keyhole the year before.

In terms of the men, Jack Moran (also the co-screenwriter) is fine but he can’t help but be completely overwhelmed by pro scene-stealers Bolger and Furlong (who also lends his majestically dry vocals to the film’s aggressively funny table-setter of an opening narration). Ken Swofford cuts quite a figure as one of Meyer’s hulking men-beasts who also performs a double function as the reviled and corrupt authority figure that is found in much of Meyer’s oeuvre. Leering, dangerous, and highly charged, Swofford’s scenes with Capri earn the horny and corny burlesque score music atop of them while he also serves as a convincing figure of menacing and towering terror as the film moves toward its conclusion.

Meyer also does something interesting with some of the more lurid elements of the story, namely the downplaying of the incestuous angle that’s baked into the script and played to the real raincoaters in the crowd. While the convention was rife in sexploitation films of the time, one gets the impression that the ogling of a daughter by her dad is not something Meyer was entirely comfortable with, leaning out of it instead of into it. While he showed fewer scruples when it came to displaying brother and sister pairings (Vixen and, I guess, the wraparound for Cherry, Harry, and Raquel), there is something in the way Meyer dips and dabs with the specific material here that reflects a filmmaker whose robust love for sex came when there was an explicit buy-in for everyone involved. Kinks are one thing and are nobody’s business but the parties engaged, but Meyer clearly feels there is a demarcation between that and a place where things get a little more creepily complicated. Much like hardcore pornography which would begin to encroach upon his work in the 70’s, there was just a place where Meyer would not dare go whether it was due to matters of taste or something deeper and personal.

And while thinking of Meyer’s work as not being very deep and personal is probably the norm, a closer view of his work in total doesn’t much give evidence to that opinion. Regardless of his public proclamations to the contrary, Meyer’s sexual identity is laid bare in his films and, as he went along, it feels like that identity gets a little more complex and is deeper than the rote and standard observation that he loved big tits.

Or, as Mr. Rickett succinctly puts it in Common Law Cabin when asked if everything he says is a double entendre, “It’s not what people say that’s important. It’s what they do.”

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain


I’ve never read anything by American novelist James Fenimore Cooper, author of the book from which The Last of the Mohicans was adapted. But if Mark Twain is to be believed a decent critic of letters, I’m not missing much. Or, to be precise and on the contrary, I’m missing a lot because, as a friend once opined, “I wish he were James Feniless Cooper.” So it seems that the consensus is that if Cooper was anything, it wasn’t economical. And neither, really, is filmmaker Michael Mann (though it’s not necessarily a bad thing with him). A man who toils in ostensible action films, Mann’s work slowly percolates before hitting a full roil as he allows minute details to create the fuller flavor when the action finally hits.

So it’s sort of a surprise that Mann’s adaptation of The Last of the Mohicans is such a tight and nimble affair that yet still feels robust and epic. But in all transparency, Mann’s film isn’t a finely combed reworking of the original source material, but is a copy of a copy; less adapted from the novel itself but from the 1936 adaptation by John L. Balderston, Daniel Moore, Paul Perez, and Philip Dunne which was the basis of the George Seitz-directed version of The Last of the Mohicans starring Randolph Scott.

Set in 1757 during the third year of the French and Indian war, The Last of the Mohicans spins the yarn of Cora (Madeline Stowe) and Alice (Jodhi May) Munro, daughters of British Colonel Edmund Munro (Maurice Roëves) who are attacked by their Mohawk-née-Huron guide, Magua (Russell Means) on a march to a military fort and are subsequently intercepted and led to safety by a frontier family unit made up of the white born/native raised Nathanial ‘Hawkeye’ Bumppo (Daniel Day-Lewis); his Mohican father, Chingachgook (Russell Means); and brother, Uncas (Eric Schweig). Throw in some frontier romance that looks like the cover of a million and one bodice-rippers that would litter the rack of a Safeway in years long extinguished, a gloriously unsubtle and full-blooded score by Randy Edelman and Trevor Jones, and Dante Spinotti’s cinematography making damn sure that every shot looks like a gorgeously textured painting, and you’ve got yourself one hell of a rousing adventure film that cleverly folds pulp into purpose.

If all of this sounds a little rustic for the glossy kind of urban plotting favored by Michael Mann, it’s not. For The Last of the Mohicans plays very well to Mann’s strengths and shows what makes him such a special filmmaker. Here the examination of a crime scene is replaced with the almost preternatural knowledge of just who and what slaughtered a defenseless frontier cabin. Nobody cases a score but Magua plots diligently and carefully to satiate his obsession with slaughtering the entire Munro family. Nobody has a history of existential baggage causing their personal lives to be high-tension quagmires of personal failure but there is an inevitable march to the same kind of doom and loneliness that befell Thief’s Frank and Miami Vice’s Sonny Crockett and caused the endings to their tales to contain bitter, Pyrrhic victories.

Aside from expanding the widescreen visual language that had eluded Mann the previous seven years during his sojourn in television, The Last of the Mohicans is perhaps the most foundational embodiment of the Mann hero. Nathanial Bumppo is a man without a heritage, a white man raised in a native family in a land that is wild and tangled beyond its small British foothold. Not only does this expand to Magua, likewise disconnected from his roots after being taken a slave by the Mohawk people, this also expands to Mann’s reflection of the America as contemporarily dressed westerns in which the protagonists reside in the absolute middle between law and lawlessness, even when they themselves are cops and/or criminals. Mann’s heroes are just the progeny of the cast of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch; fiercely independent and untamed criminals with a modicum of personal honor battling against authority figures right on the dividing line of the two. This is why Nathanial’s declaration of “I do not call myself subject to much at all” sounds suspiciously like Frank’s “I am Joe the Boss of my own body.”

As is his wont to do, Mann’s insistence on giving Magua a third dimension and not rendering him a cartoon villain without proper motivation makes the character a little less than the symbolic Francis Dollarhyde from Manhunter who served as a literal reflection of the protagonist. Here, the antagonist is placed into much more devastating territory, painted as someone understandably twisted by a hate in regards to a tragedy with which the audience can empathize. After all, didn’t we cheer Clint Eastwood’s titular character in The Outlaw Josey Wales back in 1976 for doing pretty much the same thing? And let the record state that I don’t exactly not root for Magua to kill Colonel Monroe and eat his heart, I’m just a little bearish on him killing the kids.

Mann puts his actors through the absolute ringer as they traverse uphill and down dale in some pretty rough terrain, earning themselves every layer of dishevelment that occurs to their wardrobes along the way. And while the whole cast is amazing, special mention has to be given to Daniel Day-Lewis for giving straight men the meaning of what it is to look like a whole snack. Despite its technical prowess, flawless pacing, and containing some of the most beautiful cinematography this side of Barry Lyndon or The Duellists the secret sauce of The Last of the Mohicans is likely its casting. Every now and again, I see a tweet make the rounds that states “My sexual orientation is the cast of 1999’s The Mummy,” replete with four stills of its principles. Well, I’ll see your Mummy and raise you a Last of the Mohicans because I know of no other film that oozes base sexuality and affects its viewers quite like this one without doing much of anything at all (though, quite honestly, neither does The Mummy). For about 55 minutes into the film, Mann stages one of the most erotically charged moments of his career that is astonishing in its ability to raise the temperature to a ridiculous degree without showing a single thing outside a passionate kiss. And it serves as a reminder that, though not generally thought of as a composer of romantic moments, Michael Mann certainly knows how to create almost painfully gorgeous sequences of physical sensuality. When Madeline Stowe coos “The whole world is on fire,” one is tempted to mutter “Yeah it is. Go ahead and let it burn.”

Put another way, a family dinner with my much more conservative parents and sister turned into a literal thirst trap as my mom, a woman who thinks long hair looks positively awful on men, couldn’t help but bemoan the fact that Daniel Day-Lewis cut his hair after production on The Last of the Mohicans wrapped and my sister, generally demur in such moments, offered up “Now… see… I liked his brother in that.”

A little something for everyone, America.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain


Robert Altman’s Vincent & Theo begins amid an industrial clang of a score by Gabriel Yared over a vibrant smear of colored oil paints which suddenly shifts to a Christie’s auction in which Vincent Van Gough’s 1888 still life, “Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers,” is going up for sale, climbing higher and higher in value as ridiculous amounts of money are outbid by even more ridiculous amounts. As the auction’s image gives way to a disheveled Vincent (Tim Roth coming in like a force of nature), crumpled up on a bed like a graying wet newspaper and awaiting a chewing out by his more responsible and nattily dressed brother, Theo (Paul Rhys perfectly camped out on the edge of an emotional outburst), the audience is given a sense of how much people are paying for pain and debasement when they’re investing in a Van Gough. For the disparity between a pauper’s life of misery and anguish and the revered saint of post-impressionistic art whose works can now fetch the price of a small island state is a vast one, indeed.

But Vincent & Theo isn’t about the raving mad Vincent Van Gough, although it has plenty of that. As Altman’s film is a two-hander and there is as much Theo as there is Vincent, it is a full examination of co-dependency and masculine love, almost becoming the California Split of painter biopics. But it’s also making a comment on the very tenuous and special relationship between the crazy, hedonistic, and unchained artist and the very real, very tangible world of dollars and cents that have to be considered which generally takes a cooler and more centered head to navigate. How in the wild world do these two things exist in a relationship?

I don’t know but it sounds an awful lot like the relationship between a producer and a director which is why Robert Altman seems so keen on this project. It’s a meditation about the heavy conflict between creation for sanity and curation for profit which dogged Altman almost throughout his entire career. While his work mostly settled on American culture and dotted the entire map like a beautiful quilt, Altman’s Vincent & Theo is decidedly outside the confines of the United States and, in terms of laying all of his out in chronological order, predates everything else in his canon, setting itself out to be an origin story of the independent artist guided by a mad spirit that cannot be defined.

Smartly written by Julian Mitchell, the story of Vincent & Theo is bracketed between Vincent’s desire to become a painter and his suicide, with his brother Theo, an art exhibitor and dealer, always playing the shadow side of the narrative coin. If 3 Women is Altman’s most Lynchian film, Vincent & Theo is almost Cronenbergian in its vision of intertwined beings who can hardly thrive without each other’s influence on the other. And while this dichotomous relationship certainly didn’t originate with Vincent and Theo Van Gough, Altman directs it like it did. By utilizing bold and rich colors to express mood and setting, time and place, Vincent & Theo is front-loaded with a crisp and stately style that feels very controlled while still registering as Altmanesque, preceding the brilliantly shaggy Masterpiece Theater approach taken with Gosford Park a decade later.

Vincent & Theo, helped in no small way by Jean Lepine’s ravishing cinematography, does a marvelous job recreating some of Van Gough’s landscapes, subjects, and locations such as the hangout that was immortalized in “The Night Cafe” or the many number of rustic and vast fields touched golden by the bright and boisterous sunlight. Initially made for British television and composed of four 50 minute episodes that function like the seasons, the construction of the narrative, always creating a give and take between the two characters and showing yin and yang contrasts, is nothing short of breathtaking. In one scene, Vincent and his prostitute model/companion, Sien (Jip Wijngaarden), finalize their living arrangements with each other and in the next, Theo and Marie (Anne Canovas) discuss the same, followed by a monologue in which Theo reminisces about a painting he saw in which he wanted to enter and never leave. Cut to the following scene where Sien’s young daughter literally steps into the staging area of a panorama to micturate; both fulfilling Theo’s wish to enter a painting and also subverting it by pissing all over it. The staid domesticity of the syphilitic Theo and Marie is contrasted with the rawer, gritty poverty-laden life of Vincent and Sien with both men ultimately achieving the same result as both are eventually left alone and slathered in oils as if they were forever destined to the same fate. This goes on until the film begins to examine the relationship between Vincent and Paul Gaugin (Wladimir Yordanoff) who acts as a spiritual relation in the absence of Theo, married and in Paris, his own health slowly deteriorating. The relationship between Gaugin is volatile and competitive instead of nurturing and supportive, which causes a rapidity in Vincent’s mental decline which parallels Theo’s physical one. The madness that inhabited Vincent manifests itself in Theo in the films closing moments as, spiraling toward a death that would occur only the following year of his brother’s, voids his gallery of all commercial artwork and covers it, almost pathologically, with nothing Vincent’s work.

After spending a decade in the wilderness crafting mostly small, intimate adaptations of stage plays, with both Tanner ‘88 and Vincent & Theo, the latter of which had been edited down by an hour and released in theaters in November of 1990 to very positive notices, Robert Altman entered the new decade with two of his most ambitious and successful projects since the late 70’s under his belt. But during that period in which Altman had kept a lower profile and focused on the more intimate tasks at hand, Hollywood was beginning to reckon with smaller, independent studios encroaching on their territory and allowing inroads for newer, fresher talent. When all of this came to a head in 1989 with Steven Soderbergh’s modest sex, lies, and videotape which became THE story at the Cannes Film Festival by winning the Palme d’Or and emerging a small financial bonanza as it earned $24 million domestically against a $1.2 million production budget, the future of cinema was given a breath of fresh air. As it looked to be 1968 all over again, Hollywood again tapped the vein of the new blood who were all too eager to get their foot in the door and this push gave us the aforementioned Soderbergh, Whit Stillman, Quentin Tarantino, and Altman acolyte Paul Thomas Anderson.

“Do you always have to go so far on principle, Theo? Or does it come to you naturally?” is the first line of scripted dialogue in Vincent & Theo. It goes mostly unanswered by Vincent. But as the Hollywood tides turned and Altman’s mid-career artistic peaks were occurring at just the right time for someone to give the old master (who, by that point, had become a patron saint to the new class of filmmakers) a chance to get back into the majors, Altman would definitely give it an answer in his next endeavor.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain


If you track a filmmaker’s career, you’re likely to see things like Mondo Topless occur. No, I don’t mean that every auteur is going to crank out a quick-buck skin flick when they hit rough waters but, instead, there is a pattern of running back to material that’s bankable once experimentation bites them in the ass. Also gnawing at the filmmaker is the knowledge that only so many flops in a row can get you a one way ticket to director’s jail so the return to the familiar seems doubly enticing.

So it’s understandable that, after the box office failure of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, Russ took a step back, bought some color stock, went into his own archives, and stitched together Mondo Topless, a fleet, cacophonous, and full-bast of adrenaline which is as much fun as it is utterly inconsequential. And though its particular structure (which is more or less the same as the one utilized in Europe in the Raw) would get aped in Pandora Peaks, Meyer’s sad and unfortunate final film from 2002, Mondo Topless is minor Meyer; more or less serves as something you’d throw on at a party while waiting for all the guests to arrive. Even in his own filmography, it doesn’t do much more than stand as a mark in time to separate his silky, black and white gothic films from his garishly colored soap operas. But, by god, it’s good fun and one hell of a time capsule.

One part San Francisco travelogue, one part documentary, one part shameless flesh parade, Mondo Topless is Meyer having some fun with the then-nascent glut of “mondo” documentaries that were successful simply by giving middle-class Americans the promise of seeing footage that felt exotic and taboo. The central idea of Mondo Topless is that the topless dance craze is completely devouring the globe and Meyer, through the barking, breathless narration delivered by John Furlong (narrator of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and appeared as Calif in Mudhoney) aims to get to the bottom of it; tracing its origins in San Francisco and then as it spreads to all points beyond.

As was the norm for any of his location photography, Meyer’s multi-Dutch angled views of San Francisco are beautiful and capture what looks to be the last days of a generation right on the cusp of the Summer of Love. And, once again, it’s an absolute joy to see all the trappings of the time, most especially in the colors, the fashions, the automobiles, the signage, and the numerous reel-to-reel recorders and transistor radios, generally used as foreground texture in shots that look almost as if they were shot with a split-diopter.

As stated before, all of this is a setup to be a look at topless dancing. But Mondo Topless isn’t at all an actual expose on the topless dancing craze sweeping the planet in 1966. In fact, it’s not even close. For just a cursory glance at the movie reveals something that has most definitely been Frankensteined together from other works, finished and unfinished, that were lying around Meyer’s editing room. Some of Mondo Topless is newly shot material. Pat Barrington (here working under the name Pat Barranger), Darlene Grey, Mrs. X, Sin Leneee, and most definitely Babette Bardot (“50/50 where it counts!”) are contemporary. But some of this (ie, the moments where we see a performer but only hear Furlong’s narration) feels suspiciously like the cheesecake footage that was shot for Erotica from 1961 or Heavenly Bodies from 1963. Likewise, all of the staged strip routines that are purported proof of the topless craze having jumped the Atlantic and spreading across the globe in 1966 are, in fact, reused from 1963’s Europe in the Raw. This double dip is just as well since nobody saw Europe in the Raw the first time around and the burlesque acts by Veronique Gabriel and Abundavita simply should not be missed. And Lorna Maitland’s bit, a crass but understandable way to get her corpus in the actual film and her name on the one-sheet, is just reused footage from production shoots for Lorna.

But none of this really matters as Meyer’s rapid fire editing and wall-to-wall women go a long way in making the 60 minutes that make up the running time of Mondo Topless go down a lot smoother than the 60 minutes that make up one of his nudie cuties. And, once again, Meyer accidentally stumbles onto some feminine truths while also giving the audience what they came for. While it’s almost a meta-concern that the women are being objectified given that objectification is the name of the game when one is a topless dancer, sex and body-positive messages drift over the soundtrack alongside some verbal deconstruction of the mechanics of the craft as the candid audio interviews with the performers are laid over images of them dancing alongside oil rigs in the California desert, climbing electrical poles, or writhing around in the mud, among other sundry things.

For Russ Meyer, Mondo Topless was his wouldn’t be the last time Meyer would go back to the tit (pun 15/10 intended) that supplied the mother’s milk as Supervixens would later prove to be a retreat of sorts after two back-to-back, less pneumatic projects would be met with crickets. And like Supervixens would prove to be, Mondo Topless isn’t quite a return to the type of film he used to make, here specifically the pre-Lorna, narrative-free nudie cuties that made him famous. Instead, Mondo Topless employs even more frenetic editing, louder music, more extreme camera angles, and more suggestive undulations to point outrageously toward the future.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

DARK STAR (D. John Carpenter, 1974)

It’s curious how little Dark Star is discussed in the canon of John Carpenter. It’s also puzzling given its rather large contribution to the sci-fi boom of the late 70’s that resulted in Star Wars in 1977 and Alien two years after that. Both franchises continue to dominate the market almost 40 years later and Carpenter has never been hotter as he’s successfully parlayed his iconic status into successful second careers in music and comic books.

In recalling the time between the heady and serious 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and the more fantastical and forgiving world of Star Wars, it’s hard to think of any other title that perfectly bridged the two. Even in 1970, George Lucas would sear the sci-fi genre by releasing a dark, grim vision of the future with THX 1138, cementing his preferred sensibilities in the more sobering and academic and less in the pulpy adventures of Buck Rogers, something he admiringly mocks in the opening moments of the film. As the promise of the 60’s deteriorated and a public wanting more escapist fare, Lucas regressively stumbled backwards, awash in the nostalgia bug he picked up when escaping the realities of 1973 with American Graffiti. What he landed in, though, was Star Wars, a far sunnier vision of sci-fi that was bronzed with the American Western and Japanese Samurai films that informed Lucas’s creative mind.

So 1977 got space via the grand adventure films of Akira Kurosawa and 1974 got, according to Carpenter, “Waiting For Godot in Space.” Not only is that an apt description of the movie, it also is a dead-on example for the type of mindset that the defeatist and exhausted American movie-going public was in in 1974.

At the time of Dark Star’s creation and eventual theatrical release, Stanley Kubrick was still at the top of his game. Though his most recent film, 1971’s A Clockwork Orange (yet another sterile, grim look at the future), had been met with an alarming amount of controversy and wasn’t exactly embraced by all (Roger Ebert wasn’t all that hot on it), Kubrick’s reputation was still riding high from 2001: A Space Odyssey, a game changing mind-blower that still rendered him exciting and mysterious. And even though the worst of the Cold War’s nuclear fears were behind them, America still held Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove in high regard but, at only 10 years old, as a slightly older, yet still contemporary film.

Co-written by Carpenter and fellow UCLA alum Dan O’Bannon, Dark Star utilized the vision and satirical sensibilities of Kubrick’s freshest and exciting works as the foundation for a yarn about the crushing boredom and claustrophobia that is shared among the crew of a star cruiser, charged with destroying unstable planets. And, honestly, it’s totally fair to treat Dark Star as a true collaboration between Carpenter and O’Bannon as the latter’s contributions turn Carpenter’s budgetary shortcuts into imaginative miracles. Co-writer O’Bannon, later co-writer of the screenplay for Alien and computer animator for Star Wars, leads a crew including Bill Taylor (The Thing, Blade Runner), Jim Danforth (Flesh Gordon, Twilight Zone: The Movie), Bill Cobb (Star Wars, Alien), Gregory Jein (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek: The Motion Picture), and John Walsh (2010). Perhaps only 1970’s Equinox, another backyard project that was stewarded to a theatrical release by Jack Harris, would prove to be as potent a mix for future sci-fi professionals, matching Danforth and future Star Wars alum, Dennis Muren.

And like Equinox before it and the surprisingly enduring Flesh Gordon, released the same year as Dark Star, the low-budget effects are more than worth the price of admission. Though it lacks the absolutely amazing stop-motion animation of those two films, Dark Star mixes models and animation with ingeniously crafted production design; muffin tins, beach balls, 8-track tapes, ice cube trays, styrofoam packing are all utilized to surprisingly brilliant effect.

But while the innards are dressed by O’Bannon’s gadgets and his clever gags, the visual flow and sound design are all Carpenter’s which makes his presence as equally towering as that of O’Bannon’s. The classical visual compositions and the gently fluid camera crawls all recall certain specific moments that would appear later in Halloween (1978) and The Thing (1982). And Carpenter’s score is, if not one of his best, one of his more underrated; a menacing, droning wave of bad, electronic vibes that seems to elevate the film when its on the soundtrack.

Dark Star is also an excuse for Carpenter to indulge his inner Howard Hawks for the first time as he serves up a story that, however comic, is populated by Men in Extreme Situations. The interaction between the characters is interestingly humorous in the same fashion that the blunt dullness found in the uncomfortable silences of Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise (1984) is what makes that whole endeavor so hilarious.

As a story, there’s not too much to Dark Star. It’s a barely cohesive string of set pieces that build the framework of something that looks like a movie. And like both Equinox and Flesh Gordon, there’s not too much in the filler that sticks these moments together. But Dark Star is like raw, uncut magic. From Carpenter’s direction to the impressive number of special effect pros that sprang from it, Dark Star is like watching a wonderfully entertaining visual resume. Funny, liberating, and fueled on sheer energetic talent, little wonder that the galaxy far, far away that was created from Dark Star’s potent elements was such a phenomenon in 1977.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain


In the opening seconds of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, Russ Meyer marries sex and violence by employing a stern narration that explicitly welds the two together over the visual of the ever multiplying, squiggly optical soundtrack that quickly fills the frame like a hostile takeover. The narration warns the audience that you’ll never know where that mix of pleasure and pain will turn up but that, among other locations, it COULD happen in a go-go club.

And that’s absolutely goddamn right because the go-go club in question is the place of vocation for Varla (Tura Santana), Rosie (Haji), and Billie (Lori Williams), a group of pneumatic, ass-kicking thrill seekers who roam the edges of the California desert and look for kicks in a manner so cavalier that they might as well be going antiquing. If this sounds a little familiar it’s because it is as Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is basically Motorpsycho! but with females in hot rods instead of dudes on bikes. But the question isn’t whether this is a copy job or not. Hell, even Howard Hawks, John Ford, and Alfred Hitchcock explicitly remade their own pictures. The question is whether or not the formula is bettered by the update. And, like the celluloid equivalent of Ms. Pac Man, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is a marked improvement on an already enjoyable foundation.

There’s a bit more to Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! than there was to Motorpsycho! as Varla and company not only find lethal kicks in the California wasteland in the guise of Tommy (Ray Barlow) and Linda (Sue Bernard), two all-American kids who run afoul of the group. They also find a crippled degenerate (Stuart Lancaster) who lives on a piece of dusty property, lording over a hunk of money he received after a railroad accident. His heart twisted with misanthropy and misogyny, he is assisted by his hulking, simpleminded son known as The Vegetable (Dennis Busch) and Kirk (Paul Trinka), his more sophisticated, well-read, and saner progeny. All of these combustible elements explode in the final reel as the film tacks close to Meyer’s precedence of directing ultra violent climaxes, delivering on the promise in the opening narration and then some.

Though Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! was a financial failure and ended Meyer’s gothic period (and, sadly, was also the last film he shot in black and white), saying time has been kind to it would be a grand understatement. While the financial success of Motorpsycho! was the impetus for making Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, who the hell even talks about Motorpsycho! these days except for Meyer fanatics? Conversely, the image of the trio of Varla, Rosie, and Billie emblazons the front of many a t-shirt and poster and their cinematic legacy seeps into the DNA characters running all the way up to and beyond Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof from 2007.

Wasp-waisted, Porsche-driving Tura Santana reigns supreme as the black souled Varla, an amoral animal who doesn’t much deliver her dialogue as she does whip it. She’s equal parts turn on and terror as a high-octane, hedonistic creature that swings every which way as long as it’s pushing the envelope of getting her rocks off. “Whatever you want,” she purrs to the man she’s seducing out of his fortune, “I’m your cup to fill.” Wielding dictatorial control of the group, Varla turns on everyone who displeases her whether they are friend or foe. When Billie breaks free of the caravan and decides to go for a swim all by her lonesome, she gets beaten for the infraction by Rosie at Varla’s command, the latter leering at the two of them as they wrestle in a wet and sandy tangle. She assets dominance in a dangerous and impromptu game of chicken with her two friends across the salt flats and when she is later in danger of losing a timed race against a mid-level square, she simply runs him off the track, beats him to death, and kidnaps his bubble-headed girlfriend. Varla is simply not to be fucked with. As she snarls “I never try anything. I just do it. I don’t beat clocks, just people,” she sounds more like the Jedi school teacher I’d rather have than that dull-ass Yoda.

By contrast, Rosie is tough as leather but still has something of a tender heart when it comes to her feelings for Varla evidenced by the sad jealousy that masks her face as Varla rolls in the hay with a mark showing a knowingly bitter and heart-sinking ring of truth to it. And Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! was, in fact, the first of Meyer’s films to introduce lesbian relationships into his ever-expanding encyclopedia of sexual progress that was as sociological as it was personal. And even though he didn’t craft the most positive role model on the planet, the bisexual Varla has since become a symbol of tough, feminine independence and her plain-spoken, unvarnished honesty is admirable even if it would be a total HR nightmare in any other world.

But even though she’s soft for Varla, Rosie is anything but everywhere else. As played by the amazing Haji, Rosie’s ersatz, overblown “shutta up your mouth” accent is 15/10 hilarious and she gets one of the greatest lines of the film when she speaks incredulously at the mention of a soft drink by ensuring Linda understands that Rosie and the gals “don’t like nothin’ a-soft.” The rest of the cast, most especially Lori Williams and Meyer stalwart Stuart Lancaster, deliver their performances with gusto, spitting each bit of astonishing dialogue with glee and slowly elevating everything until its fever pitch climax which earns its feminist praise by giving even its weakest character the most satisfying deliverance.

Russ directs, edits, co-produces, and gets story credit for Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, but the absolutely incredible screenplay was written by Jack Moran, one-time child actor who popped up as the prospector/narrator in Meyer’s Wild Gals of the Naked West and would go on to appear in Common Law Cabin along with penning the deliciously quotable Good Morning and Goodbye and Finders Keepers…Lovers Weepers, ranking Moran only second to Roger Ebert as Meyer’s greatest third-party scribbler. And in keeping uniform with Meyer’s usual compositions, Walter Schenk’s amazing camerawork is kept at tits and ass level but always on the uptilt to exude the strength of the characters while putting a big bright spotlight on their physical attributes (especially in the case of Varla and Rosie). In a lot of ways, this is still a roughie but, quite unusually, the women are the ones to inflict almost all of the violence. And, like Motorpsycho!, this is the rare Meyer film that contains no nudity.

Capped off with the awesome title tune by the Bostweeds, Faster, Pussycat! Kill Kill! was a breakthrough for Meyer even if if didn’t seem like it at the time. This was mostly evident as he entered his soap opera phase with lead women who were still randy, ribald, and ready for action but a little more demur than the nihilistic Varla and who are trapped in worlds and circumstances she’d simply karate her way out of. Varla was the first of the Meyer heroines of whom it was asked if she were woman or animal and perhaps the public just wasn’t ready for it at the time. But Meyer would work his courage up to grace the screen with another in just three years time and, at that time, they’d be ready. Boy, would they EVER…

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain


If Eggshells was Tobe Hooper’s way of showing Texas as a hospitable place where the entrenched past and the progressive future could find an uneasy truce in the name of peace, love, and harmony, then The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, his sophomore effort from 1974, aims to tear all of it down with shocking abandon. From the iconic opening flash shots of graves being desecrated to the tightly-wound, climactic ending, director Tobe Hooper and co-screenwriter Kim Henkel give the audience absolutely no breaks, immersing viewers in a cinematic world far beyond nature where exactly nothing is sacred.

In terms of plot, there may be no simpler film in the horror genre than The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Five young people travel to a dilapidated family homestead out in the wilds of rural Texas and fall victim to a neighboring backwoods clan of cannibal ex-slaughterhouse workers.

Gosh, it feels really stupid to reduce the film to just its structural elements because recounting the broad outline of the film is kind of like calling a Jaguar “a car”; you’re not technically lying but you’re vastly underselling the product to a stupid and irresponsible degree. Yeah, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is exactly as described and is more or less what you think you’ll be getting but it also achieves the absolute impossible by transcending the medium, establishing itself as a true nightmare printed on celluloid. It’s not that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a masterpiece of modern horror, it’s also that it’s the greatest horror film ever made and the clear victor in a race that’s not even particularly close. While Jaws did a number on people and shaped their attitudes about going to the beach, in reality there are only so many spots in the U.S. where a practical fear of sharks can really take hold. On the other hand, there are countless miles of country roads and rural highways dotted with the barest signs of civilization and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre roots itself in the mind in a way where each one of those dilapidated or barely functioning dwellings becomes suspect.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre exists in a landscape where things are once close and a great distance; a place where time slips from day to night and back to morning in a sweaty compression. In Texas, the normal Jeffersonian survey grid that covers about 90% of the rest of the United States gives way to the weird, claptrap geometry of surveys and abstracts but this film exists in a land that feels even beyond that nonsense, landing somewhere totally uncharted. Geographically, it is a barren place where there is nowhere to turn when looking for solace or relief and where the characters are trapped between the two poles of a farmhouse and a gas station. There was a swimming hole that could once be found if you took the trail between two old sheds but it now leads to a dried out canyon of rocks and wild sunflowers. The only people who provide comfort and help are passers-through and absolutely are not native to the region. The only things on the radio are news reports about unspeakable horrors across the globe and twangy country music, all seemingly on a constant loop both day and night. Everything operates behind infinite curtains of unforgiving heat waves.

Conventions straight from gothic literature, specifically the examination of folks who untether themselves from society and live in a vacuum out in the middle of nowhere, are updated and amplified and contrasted with modernity in the guise of the post-Eggshells hippies in a van. We are forced to size up the primitive family with their more civilized counterparts and wonder why we get so much glee when Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) digs his chainsaw into the gullet of the whiny, needy, and disgusting Franklin (Paul A. Partain), invalid brother to final girl Sally (Marilyn Burns) who, in a Freudian move pulled off no less than two times, quite literally points three of his peers (Terri McMinn, William Vail, and Allen Danzinger) in the general direction of their doom as if he were being subsidized by Leatherface’s clan to do such a thing.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a film made up of memorable moments both great and small. Pam approaching the house as the camera tracks under the swing as it looms larger and larger like a giant that is about to swallow her whole; the corner of room packed with an animated, spindly nest of granddaddy long legs; the beautiful and darkly comic moment where the Old Man (Jim Siedow) confronts the Hitchhiker (Ed Neal) in the middle of the road, beautifully and macabrely backlit by the headlights of a pickup truck. One of the film’s greatest centerpieces, namely the introduction of Leatherface, is shocking and displays one of Hooper’s most favorite cinematic ideas (and one to which he would return time and time again) which is the unholy center of a world infested and rotten. As the set up is one big layered journey into hell and his initial appearance comes as a cold shock to the audience, Hooper parks it on the outer edge and plays the audience out to an unbearable level of discomfort, finally forcing the audience to simmer in the same paralyzed shock of Pam who sits dumbfounded among the detritus of bones both of animal and human origin after she literally stumbles onto same. Once orientated, Hooper springs the trap from the hell within the hell as Leatherface bursts out from behind the metal door, snatching Pam back into the house as she is trying to escape, her legs akimbo and lungs tearing themselves in half from her screams of terror that turn into screams of excruciating pain upon being unceremoniously hung on a meathook.

Employing a subjective camera that floats along the overgrown brush and looks out from the inside of roadside edifices as if something bigger and unseen is slowly deconstructing the known universe and all the logic and space that holds it together, Hooper and cinematographer Daniel Pearl set the audience on edge by hinting at something omnipresent that’s always observing even if the audience never actually sees it or knows what it is. Additionally, Hooper forces the audience to puzzle out just what exactly going on with the slaughterhouse family. Where every other Chainsaw film wears its cannibalism like a badge of honor bordered in bright neon, Hooper’s original keeps everything opaque with pieces of evidence floating about in a hazy, nightmarish rush that are never explicitly discussed but gel once one’s bearings are brought back center.

On a technical level, there is just nothing like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. While every other Chainsaw film has tried to recreate the ghoulish interior of the family house, none have even come anywhere close to achieving the kind of natural sense of a completely functional yet terrifying place as Robert Burns created and dressed it in 1974. In every other Chainsaw film, the house feels like a trapdoor-festooned dark ride developed by professional funhouse workers, completely inorganic and phony. The cinematography is nightmarish which seems pretty upside down given than half of the film takes place in the daytime but the palpable heat and humidity almost mixes with the 16mm color-reversal blowup to create something chemically upsetting to look at yet entirely alluring all at once. Hooper and Wayne Bell’s musique concrète score is jangling and knows how to create a forever disquieting sonic atmosphere and the sound design finds the most upsetting of tones and puts its foot on the gas. While the special effects are all great, John Dugan is under some aging makeup courtesy of W.E. Barnes that’s some of the best stuff I’ve seen this side of Dick Smith and can’t help but impress given the film’s budget.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a perfect film. It holds not one wasted shot, not one bum performance, and not one extraneous minute. Not one seam shows in its disorienting, maddening, uncomfortable, oppressive, and apocalyptic vision. There will never be another film like it nor will it ever find an equal. Tobe Hooper never came anywhere as close to hitting the heights as he does here but it really doesn’t matter as he could have directed nothing but industrial videos on 3/4” videotape for Honeywell for the rest of his life and gotten into director’s heaven and any and all halls of fame for just gestating The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. And that’s that.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain