Tag Archives: 1970s

MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER (1971) – A REVIEW BY RYAN MARSHALL

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Surely a seasoned connoisseur of the silver screen can relate the experience of watching a film to emotional responses which seem to transcend the medium all-together. For instance, certain films may have a distinctive smell; others might even allow one to taste something either delectable or truly putrid on the tip of their tongue. Robert Altman’s MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER, a whiskey-soaked indictment of American idealism filtered through the abstracted gaze of a hazy opium den, truly has the best of both worlds – the film smells strongly of musk and is bitter to the taste but nonetheless warm once it’s in you. It has the benefit of seamlessly evoking homeliness and absolute desolation in equal measures; not once is one allowed to truly sit back and take in the spectacle on a base level, but if that’s not somehow oddly ingenious in its own right, then I’ll be damned.

John McCabe (Warren Beaty) arrives in Presbyterian Church, Washington as a stranger, but soon establishes himself as a legend of his own distinct variety. A gambling man with a detrimental love affair with the bottle, McCabe is immediately met with suspicion on the part of the townspeople, who suspect he’s really a gunslinger that shot one of their own over a card game some time ago. Nevertheless, it’s his reputation – coupled with his intense personality – that allows McCabe to be seen as a leader among loners and losers in this quiet little Northwest town. It is here that he aspires to establish a brothel, the first step in doing so being the acquisition of three women from one of the neighboring towns.

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This, of course, will hardly be substantial in the long run. Along comes another stranger, Constance Miller (Julie Christie), who proposes that the two become business partners. It’s an offer that McCabe simply can’t refuse, and they’re all the better for it; it’s not long before three girls turns into about a dozen and the establishment is doubling as a bathhouse. As rewarding as this venture appears to be, the attempted intervention on the part of a nearby mining company indicates there may be trouble ahead for both business and personal pleasure alike.

Only a select few films have a kind of palpable density that the viewer feels right in the gut, and as it turns out Altman has made quite a few of them. Throughout the course of just two hours, man himself is challenged (the tragedy of masculinity suppressing all which stands in its path), and everything – land and life alike – has a dollar value. For instance, when McCabe continually refuses the offers from the mining company’s shady representatives, they send over a trio of bounty hunters to seal the deal. Afraid for his life but unwilling to leave the town and business he helped start, McCabe turns to his lawyer for advice, but is instead treated to a spiel that basically amounts to the company’s safety being favored over McCabe’s. The poor bastard’s response is genuinely haunting: “Well I just, uh…didn’t want to get killed.”

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This is a film that soars, perhaps even more-so than the average Western (MCCABE is revisionist). Altman’s uncanny genius can be traced back to his modesty, quite an appealing quality in any artist, though given the sense of scale and impeccable attention to detail present in his work it’s almost a bit amusing. And yet, even though there are moments of genuine humor, no doubt provided by McCabe himself, the character remains a tragic one; one whose deepest flaws would appear to be almost entirely of his own making. The man is an enigma and a half to the naked eye. And Mrs. Miller, who as it turns out has a bit of an opium habit, is essentially the product of an unnecessarily harsh world dominated by the opposite sex, a world in which her expertise doesn’t seem welcome. And thus, the romanticism of the genre is stripped from Altman’s warped worldview, and in its place a new kind of grandeur emerges.

It goes without saying at this point, forty-something years after the fact, that Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography is absolutely note-perfect. The world in which the tortured, titular souls occupy is one largely confined to dark rooms and dusty bars; and the town’s exteriors couldn’t possibly be any rougher. There’s an inherent bleakness to it, and yet when there is any semblance of light shining bright at the end of the tunnel, it does not go unnoticed. Not only does this feel absolutely distinctive in terms of its genre, Altman and Zsigmond go the extra mile to find beauty in even the most deliberately obscured of images. Form is no longer so well-defined and the rules no longer apply in the same way that they used to.

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Altman’s films tend to have rich, multi-dimensional soundscapes in which the abstraction of sonic perception gives way to a new language of its own. Here, no spoken word is free of the director’s unique grasp. Conversations are always overlapping to the point where the subject becomes more important to the viewer than the content, which is ultimately an effective method of conjuring up such an off-kilter atmosphere. Lou Lombardo’s editing is equally as inventive – time feels almost nonexistent in this town after we’ve spent a considerable amount of time there. The focus shifts between characters both integral to the central relationship and generally insignificant, adding to their collective mystique. Altman challenges us to embrace this very quality head-on, to return to a sort of exhilarating ambiguity that audiences of today have all but shunned.

The frontier unveils new angles from which to exquisitely immortalize it and the frontiersmen themselves remain largely the same. The cinema of transcendence is alive and well, drinking bourbon by the fireside, mumbling incoherently under its bearded breath. The lovely, brooding songs of Leonard Cohen allow it – and us – to drift off into a state of near unconsciousness; a state from which we’d hardly like to return. MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER is a subtly colossal achievement, especially in the positively brilliant final twenty minutes, a film of dreamy, universal resonance. It’s a world you could settle into for twice – perhaps even triple – the length we’re provided with. “I know that kind of man, it’s hard to hold the hand of anyone who is reaching for the sky just to surrender. And then sweeping up the jokers that he left behind, you find he did not leave you very much, not even laughter.”

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BLOOD FREAK (1972) – A REVIEW BY RYAN MARSHALL

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Brad Grinter’s BLOOD FREAK is a consistently bewildering acidheaded cinematic turkey; in theory, it’s a real piece of shit, but in practice, its many moralistic contradictions and aesthetic misjudgments give it a flavor that is somehow anything but dry. A select few films are permitted to get by on their boundless imaginations alone, and this is one of them – a steaming pile of 70’s counterculture and pent up anxieties, to which Grinter’s film is hardly the solution, but you can’t help but commend him for trying.

On a sunny day, Vietnam vet Herschell (Steve Hawkes) spots a pretty young thing named Angel (Heather Hues) whose car has broken down on the highway, and promptly whisks her away on his motorbike. Angel takes him back to her house, which she shares with her promiscuous sister, who offers Hershell some pot upon his arrival. At first, he refuses, but eventually gives into temptation after the sister seduces him one day by the pool. Herschell finds himself with an immediate addiction (!).

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Herschell takes a job at a local turkey farm, where a couple of bumbling scientists are testing experimental chemicals on the livestock. They require a human guinea pig for this operation, and bribe Herschell into participating by promising to replenish his stash little-by-little. However, the effects of devouring the chemically altered meat prove to be nightmarish after Herschell suffers a seizure and enters a violent, hallucinatory state.

Without spoiling too much in regards to this bold new narrative direction, the film’s most memorable sequences reside after this point – any research on the film will surely lead to inspiring images of a horrible life-size papier-Mache turkey head. So that’s where this film goes; that is to say, way off the deep end. The entire last act is a hysterical collage of grotesque regurgitated sound effects and aimless animalism as Herschell carves his way through a series of sexual deviants and junkies.

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This can be most obviously read as an anti-drug PSA disguised as a cheapo psych-out horror picture, which is particularly amusing when one takes note of the director’s frequent appearances throughout the film in which he chain-smokes as he comments on the action. To think that Grinter’s tongue might be planted firmly in his cheek might be giving the director the benefit of the doubt, as the way in which he handles this material is almost characteristically incompetent. For instance, it is heavily implied throughout – and later confirmed – that Herschell suffers from PTSD and is self-medicating as a result. The film ignores the poignancy of the subject and goes straight for shock value; and let’s not even begin to discuss its puerile vision of rampant drug culture.

It’s an outsider view of just about everything it claims to stand for, which proves to be quite problematic – but it is precisely these kinds of seemingly innocent miscalculations that make it so consistently entertaining. The opening scene assumes a strange kind of schizophrenic rhythm that Jess Franco might have admired and then never follows up on it, the writing is a special kind of awful, its treatment of women is even more pedestrian now than it was back in the day – and yet there is so much enjoyment to be derived from the experience, in spite of patches which veer dangerously into Dullsville. The filmmakers can’t even seem to pull focus most of the time and yet they’ve emerged with a work of exceptional amateurism that would put most professionals to shame. Most seasoned viewers won’t appreciate it, but the sleaziest among us will continue to rejoice.

 

I DRINK YOUR BLOOD (1970) – A REVIEW BY RYAN MARSHALL

One look at David E. Durston and one might guess that he would be the least likely person to have directed one of the most genuinely shocking horror films of the 1970’s, and one brief glance at the truly ridiculous synopsis for his crowning cinematic achievement, I DRINK YOUR BLOOD, might cause one to anticipate that the sum will not indeed be greater than its parts. Billed during its time alongside I EAT YOUR SKIN, a voodoo cheapie straight out of the 60’s, this is the sort of film that we only think we know going in, although most viewers will soon discover that this is not the case. This is a curio and a half, an invigorating subversion of genre filmmaking that is as delightfully demented as it is thoroughly engaging. It wears its sleaze on its sleeves, devoid of any real pretentions; all thrills and chills with little time for filler.

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We open on a naked fireside ritual being held somewhere in the woods amongst a group of hippies with a penchant for the dark arts, led by the exotic Horace Bones (Bhaskar, an Indian performance artist). They kill a chicken and drain its blood into a goblet before spotting a local girl (Iris Brooks) sneaking a peek at the action from between some trees, who is then chased down and raped by a couple of their men. Devastated, she drags herself back into the sleepy town of Sally Hills the next morning, where she’s taken into the care of her kid brother Pete (Riley Mills) and the owner of the town bakery, Mildred (Elizabeth Marner-Brooks).  Her grandfather comes over to check on the poor girl and decides that these rowdy characters must be dealt with immediately.

Meanwhile, the Manson-esque cult makes themselves at home in one of the town’s many abandoned hotels, where they run rampant hunting rats and destroying what’s left of the furniture. The grandfather grabs his shotgun and heads out the door in search of the group, but when he finds them, they take him down and he is force-fed LSD before returning home. Unable to stand by whilst his grandpa is in the throes of a bad trip, Pete takes the gun and goes out into the woods to do some snooping of his own. While exploring the woodland, Pete spots a rabid dog that charges at him, but he’s quick to shoot and after killing the wild animal, he takes some of its blood in a syringe. And what, do you imagine, he does with it? Why, what any other reasonable young fellow would – meaning that he injects the blood into some meat pies back at the bakery, which are then sold to the hippies.

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Everyone but Andy (Tyde Kierney), the suspicious and insecure local kid who somehow got mixed up in the group’s nasty business, digs in to the pies and you can probably – emphasis on PROBABLY – imagine where it’s going from there. What ensues is nothing short of sheer lunacy. Psychopathic – not to mention hydrophobic – hippies running rabid around a US ghost town, foaming at the mouth and spreading their disease far and wide. Durston goes all the way, trying his damned hardest to offend as many parties as he possibly can – religious folks, animal lovers, anyone with the tiniest glimmer of hope in the Good Old American Way – and he gets the job done with a more genuine style and class than one might expect.

Jacques Demarecaux’s work here (as cinematographer) should be commended, certainly more than it has been in the past, with his ethereal and startlingly naturalistic compositions complementing the film’s shamelessly nasty contents. Sometimes, filthy movies are shot beautifully, and this is one of them. However, it’s Durston’s willingness to manipulate tone and audience expectations that makes this a significant cut above the rest and it’s interesting to note that it doesn’t immediately register as a dark comedy for most viewers. This nevertheless appears to be the intention, or so the unforgettably over-the-top dialogue (“Let it be known, sons and daughters, that Satan was an acid head!”) and performances, totally psyched-out self-aware soundtrack (credited to Clay Pitts, who has yet to be found), blatant disregard for scientific fact and frequently amusing editing would suggest.

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Sure, it all seems quite mean-spirited, but deep down it is the work of a man whose roots and interests were not necessarily in the macabre, and whose sole desire is to entertain. The tonal shifts may prove to be a bit much for some, alternating between hysterical hippie hangout and sad, disturbing body horror once the pies have been consumed, but they are undoubtedly what make up the film’s distinctive identity. For all their inherent crassness, one feels something akin to sympathy for the deadly deadbeats by the end of their separate ordeals, although it’s understood that they’ve made their own problems up to this point. As hard as it is to watch them destroy one-another, it does make for some spectacular set pieces, such as a sequence which has a mute Lynn Lowry wielding an electric meat carver, and another where Horace squares off against a fellow rabid Satanist, Rollo (George Patterson) in an axe-sword fight. There are many others, but one should embrace all the secrets and ask questions later.

The residents of Sally Hills are like lost souls occupying a space where time does not apply. Mildred looks as if she’s just walked off the set of a porno film, Pete’s an overly moralistic little shit who is most likely based on Durston himself, and the construction workers are an ugly bunch who show their true colors once the epidemic is well underway. A kind of hazy ambience hangs over the film, infusing it with a surreal sense of danger which in turn ensures that it never feels too relaxed. There is authentic tension here, and the pacing could not be more perfect; as mentioned before, there’s little time left for wandering around aimlessly. This is a spectacular entertainment as well as a surprisingly transcendent one and there even seems to be a running commentary about the deconstruction of the American Dream, but perhaps that’s all just as a result of context. It’s nothing that is explored in great detail, but these are the kinds of themes that can make or break a movie like this just by showing up (or not).

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We feel as if we’re seeing something we shouldn’t, and the emotions that such an experience arouses from deep within are conflicting to say the least, but healthy nevertheless. The grime oozes consistently from this one – reach out and touch it and you might just learn something. I DRINK YOUR BLOOD revels in its absurdism and artifice, playing more like a perverted piece of performance art than a silver screen serenade, and also works well as an invaluable time capsule. Some films skate by on that alone, but luckily Durston’s opus has plenty more going for it. This is quintessential viewing for the insane, the unstable, and the amoral; it may be the closest some come to sheer filth without actually involving themselves directly. The title may be misleading, as there is no drinking of the liquid red at any point and this is certainly no vampire tale, but make no mistake – this is a groovy good time, an important entry in the unofficial “psych” horror sub-genre that is less about mind-melting visuals and more about the essence of psychedelia.  Exploitation cinema doesn’t get much better. “Drink from his cup, pledge yourselves. And together we’ll all freak out!”

NOEL MARSHALL’S ROAR — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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For me, the primary job of any movie is to show me something I’ve never seen and to take me to a place that I’ve never been. Well, I’ve never been to Africa, and I’ve never been surrounded by 150 lions, tigers, cheetahs, jaguars, panthers, and elephants. So you’ll have to excuse me when I say that Noel Marshall’s berserk, perverse, masochistic, fascinating, totally nuts wildlife “film” Roar is unbelievable. And I should also mention that I’m a life-long cat lover; big, small, wild, domesticated – it’s a species of animal that I’ve been intrigued with ever since childhood, and there isn’t a day that goes by where I’m not thankful to have my own little buddy, Gus, who is now looked upon differently after my obsession with this film started earlier this year. You literally feel like an outlaw while watching Roar, which has got to be the single most irresponsible piece of filmmaking that I’ve ever seen. Upon first viewing, you essentially hold your breath for 90 minutes, waiting the other paw to drop. Outside of Grizzly Man, I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen mental lunacy of this nature before captured on film. It’s a miracle that nobody was killed, but cinematographer Jan De Bont was scalped, and numerous members of the cast and crew suffered injuries, so there’s that I guess. And let me just say something about the camerawork in this movie – it’s wholly ASTOUNDING. I don’t understand how this movie was achieved. One bit. It makes no realistic sense. How De Bont was able to gather the shots he did I’ll never understand. Why anyone showed up on day #2 I’ll never understand. All I know is that you feel like a criminal while viewing this wild piece of work.

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The entire thing is truly staggering in retrospect. If you’re not familiar with the premise of this movie, it seems that actress Tippi Hedren and her late husband Noel Marshall became big-cat enthusiasts after an African safari vacation back in the late 70’s. Upon returning to their Sherman Oaks estate, they started introducing lions and tigers and other exotic cats into their home life, allowing daughter Melanie Griffith to sleep with the animals, while their sons, John and Jerry, also became “friendly” with the beasts. It was customary to see a maid stepping over a fully grown male lion in the kitchen. PURE MADNESS. Marshall then had a genius if potentially deadly idea – why not make a movie that aims to highlight the plight of the wild cat, but also make a “monster” movie at the same time. So, he gathered an unhinged crew of daredevils, stuck Hedren, Griffith, his sons, and a few others into the scenery, and concocted an asinine narrative that centers on a wildlife preservationist (Marshall) bringing his wife and children (Hedren and the gang) into the jungle to visit him, only to have them terrorized by a gang of lions and tigers who proceed to trash and destroy the wooden house that they all “live” in. If what I’m describing sounds fairly psychotic, well, it is. And I don’t want to ruin any of the numerous surprises that this film has, but I will say that the sight of Hedren’s face covered in honey as a young jaguar licks it clean is something I’ll not soon forget. You can smell the fear on all of the “actors” in this film – the honest look of terror in their eyes is palpable, and despite everyone going on the record as saying that they “knew” these animals and that they were “comfortable” with them in the grand scheme of things, suggests an insane amount of hubris or a genuine, bonded relationship between human and animal that is simply extraordinary to ponder.

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At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter though. This movie got made (over the course of 11 years!), people went on to have prosperous careers (look at De Bont’s credits as both cinematographer and director!), and now the film is finding a second life as an oddball cult curiosity, with Special Edition Blu-ray dropping in November. I can guarantee you this – you’ve never seen anything like this movie, unless of course you were there to witness it being created in real time, or if you’ve tracked down a bootleg or the non-anamorphic DVD that’s floating around. It’s sensationally scary and almost too impractical to make sense of. Roar makes you feel like you’ve dropped acid when you absolutely know you haven’t been dosed. It’s a strangely personal piece of filmmaking that while shoddily directed (at times), is still somehow oddly coherent, a $17 million home movie that became a clear point of obsession for its makers. The unintended comedy of the mostly looped spoken dialogue only adds to the bizarre hilarity of the entire piece. Also of note: included on the straight-from-the-source-DVD that can be purchased on line is a vintage “making-of” featurette which includes some talking-head footage from “friend of the family” Richard Rush, sitting in this absurdly ostentatious living room, looking like Jack Horner’s older brother. It’s gold.