Thursday, October 10, 2019

Scared Sh*tless in the ‘70s

“I am a man of fifty-two years that is still dealing with his first ten years of existence. I am trying to recuperate from those first ten years.” – Guillermo del Toro (from 2016 interview by Keith McDonald and Roger Clark, Guillermo del Toro, At Home with Monsters)

So many of us spend X amount of dollars and fruitless hours, trying to get back something they can never regain, watching discs or streaming their favorite movies and shows from yesteryear. I’m here to tell you, however, that it’s not the fond memories, but the moments that creep you out that are truly the gift that keeps on giving. I spent my precious pre-teen years in the ‘70s, cementing my lifelong love of horror and sci-fi, but of course, you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. In a feeble attempt to re-experience the nightmares, I put each of my top offenders to the test. So, grab your favorite beverage, pull up a chair, and sit back while I take you on a brief tour of childhood trauma lane:

Frankenstein (1931) One of my earliest memories of watching a horror movie wasn’t in the theater, but on the small RCA TV in my parents’ bedroom, viewed furtively through my fingers. Frankenstein’s monster was certainly an imposing spectacle for five-year-old me, but that wasn’t the half of it. It was Mae Clark’s (playing Dr. Frankenstein’s bride to be) screams as Boris Karloff’s creature takes her by surprise, that induced the shivers.  

Does it hold up?
As a classic of horror cinema, of course. Is it still scary? Not so much. Jack Pierce’s signature makeup and Boris Karloff’s sympathetic portrayal are a winning combination for sure, but today the Frankenstein creature seems more worthy of our pity than revulsion.

Terror from the Year 5000 (1958) In the dim, cobwebby recesses of my memory, I vaguely recall a horror show on KTLA in the early ‘70s, Monster Rally, hosted by Seymour (Larry Vincent) that was my oldest brother’s favorite. I only remember bits and pieces of the show, since I was usually asleep by the time it came on. One fateful evening, I popped out just in time to watch a scene in which a man in a lab coat was puttering around in a laboratory. He adjusted a dial on some beeping equipment, watching a tall, windowed chamber, while delving into mysteries we weren’t supposed to know (you know the drill). Something goes wrong, and a screeching lady bursts out of the chamber, embarking on a one-woman rampage.

Does it hold up?
Are you kidding? Looking at the scene now, it’s tough to get in the head of my younger self. Clad in a sequined unitard, the object of my childhood fright looks more like an escapee from a second-rate Vegas act than a fugitive from the future. Once again, it was probably the screeching, more than anything, that set me off (Hmm… I see a pattern emerging). The movie was later mocked on Mystery Science Theater 3000, which makes me a bit sad, because for little old me, Terror from the Year 5000 was pure terror in the suburban family room. Note: Getting a good quality screen shot from this movie is about as likely as getting a decent shot of bigfoot (Hence, the cryptid-quality pic that you see above. Let you your mind fill in the blanks.).

Live and Let Die (1973) My earliest movie theater memory involved the drive-in, watching Roger Moore’s debut as Agent 007. Of all the bewildering sights and sounds in the film, the sequence that stood out was Baron Samedi’s (Geoffrey Holder) voodoo ritual, with his maniacal laugh and skull-like visage. I watched him (or more accurately, his simulacrum) rise out of the graveyard, only to witness James Bond shoot him in the head, blowing off half his skull, and watching the eyes roll back. I couldn’t distinguish between the fake Baron Samedi and the one played by Holder. I couldn’t process what I thought I saw, although it didn’t seem to affect Samedi, who appeared in subsequent scenes.

Does it hold up?
It’s still kind of a weird scene, but it doesn’t have the same effect. I can understand why the whole switch-and-bait thing with real versus fake Samedi would be confusing to my developing five-year-old mind, but scary? Not really. You gotta love Holder’s hearty laugh, though.

Jaws (1975) I still have vivid memories of seeing this at the dear departed Van Nuys drive-in. I got my first shock in the opening scene, where Chrissie’s (Susan Backlinie) moonlight skinny dip takes an unexpectedly fatal turn. The biggest fright, however, was reserved for later, when Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) discovers Ben Gardner’s head bobbing up through a hole in his submerged fishing boat.

Does it hold up?
Damn right. The Ben Gardner jump scare has become a one-trick pony with multiple viewings. In contrast, the visceral opening scene still haunts me. Quint’s (Robert Shaw) speech about the Indianapolis probably sounded like “blah, blah, blah” to seven-year-old me. Now, it chills me to the bone, as a sobering reminder that it’s not what you see, but what you don’t see, that frightens the most.

Coma (1978) By the latter part of the ‘70s, my (significantly) older brothers were already in college, doing their own thing. This left my parents without someone to watch me (a babysitter would have been out of the question, in their minds). Invariably, I saw quite a few movies in the theater that I probably wasn’t prepared to see (Coming Home, from the same year springs to mind, but that’s for another time and another discussion). A few scenes that freaked me out involved medical procedures, partially dissected corpses, organ harvesting, partially nude coma patients hanging on wires, and watching someone smothered by an avalanche of cadavers – heavy stuff for any 10-year-old (mind you, this was PG).

Does it hold up?
Decades after my initial viewing, the film holds up surprisingly well. Director Michael Crichton (working from a novel by Robin Cook) crafted a pretty solid medical thriller, filled with intrigue and shocks aplenty. The scene where Geneviève Bujold’s would-be assassin get buried under a pile of cadavers is still unsettling. Thanks to this film, what really sticks with me are the existential fears of going into surgery, and not knowing if you’ll wake up. And with increasing population and rising medical expenses partnered with corporate greed, the idea of a large-scale organ-harvesting operation doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

Alien (1979) With multiple sequels, prequels and crossovers, it’s hard to imagine that when the first movie came out, there wasn’t anything else quite like Alien. Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger’s otherworldly biomechanical designs were like nothing else I had seen before. I cringed at the scene where Kane (John Hurt) unwisely peered into an activated alien egg, followed by his famous demise in a later sequence. Thinking about the creature in its final form, with its vaguely insectile, skeletal appearance, kept me awake at night, wondering what was lurking in the shadows, waiting to grab me. 

Does it hold up?
Hell yes! The original remains creepiest. Giger’s artwork, steeped in phallic and yonic imagery, has stood the test of time. Ridley Scott’s film hits all the right notes, and no quantity of inferior sequels (Aliens excluded) nor attempts to explain away the origin of the creatures can diminish the impact of the initial film.

SIDE NOTE: The last three examples feature William Shatner. What is it about Shatner that merits his appearance three times in this piece (in all fairness, the first scene of the three I reference only has Shatner in a peripheral)? I honestly can’t say. Perhaps someone can help me analyze my deep-seated trepidation that comes with Shatner’s screams. I’ve never found Shatner himself particularly frightening, although his face indirectly contributed to the creation of the Michael Meyers mask, so there’s that.  

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) Yes, you read that right. Star Trek: The Motion Freaking Picture. The first film, based on the original TV series has a reputation for being visually spectacular, having an unforgettable Jerry Goldsmith score, and (at least to some) being kind of dull. There is, however, one scene that disturbed me to the core. While the recently refurbished starship Enterprise is being rushed back into service, the transporter malfunctions, killing two crewmembers. We only see indistinct, distorted images in the transporter room, but the thing that got me the most were the weird, high-pitched screams. When Admiral Kirk asks about the status of the poor crewmembers, he’s told, “What we got back didn’t live very long.” My mind was left to fill in the sordid details – all this from a G-rated film (thank you 1970s MPAA).

Does it hold up?
Say what you want about the movie’s languid pace or derivative storyline, the film still has its virtues (watch for a future review). And 40 years later, the transporter accident scene hasn’t lost its power to unnerve me. The idea that a device could tear someone apart on the atomic level and (hopefully) re-assemble the pieces, a sort of death and re-birth, never fails to give me the creeps.  

The Outer Limits, “Cold Hands, Warm Heart” (1964) Yes, everyone seems to mention “The Zanti Misfits” as their nightmare-fodder of choice, but for me, it was the episode “Cold Hands, Warm Heart.” Shatner plays Col. Jeff Barton, an astronaut who just returned from a perilous one-man journey to Venus. He encounters a terrifying event while descending into the planet’s atmosphere, with a hideous creature reaching out to him.

Does it hold up?
Well… I can appreciate the results, keeping in mind the show’s low budget, coupled with pressure to deliver a new monster every week. On the other hand, what freaked me out as a kid, an obvious puppet on strings, doesn’t quite have the same impact now. Something that occurred to me while revisiting the episode after several decades, was how this was a thinly veiled exploration of PTSD, its effects on the traumatized individual, and the impact on the people around them. Outside of Barton’s puzzled wife, he had a conspicuous lack of a support network. Hey, if that isn’t scary, I don’t know what is.

Star Trek, “The Man Trap” (1966) A hideous creature that drains the salt from people’s bodies attacks Captain Kirk (once again, it’s something about his agonized cries that sold it). The alien monster was the stuff of nightmares to my young eyes, looking something like an overly hirsute Morlock, with dead eyes and oversized sucker hands.  

Does it hold up?
My recollection of the episode, obscured by a fog of muddy memories, led me to believe that the salt monster had a lot more screen time than it actually does. It’s only briefly seen at the end, since it spends most of the film disguised as one human or another. It remains one of the original series’ most effective creatures, although I can’t help but feel sad for it, as the last of its kind.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (aka: Who Slew Auntie Roo?)

(1971) Directed by Curtis Harrington; Written by Robert Blees and Jimmy Sangster; Original screen story by David D. Osborn; Starring: Shelley Winters, Mark Lester, Chloe Franks, Ralph Richardson, Lionel Jeffries and Michael Gothard; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ***

“Isn’t it a shame there isn’t a way to make time stand still, keeping the children the way they are tonight, preserving their wonderful years, pure and perfect, before the ugliness and evil of the world crushes them. Don’t you think?” – Rosie “Roo” Forrest (Shelley Winters)

I’d like to extend a big thanks to Gill Jacob from RealWeegieMidgetReviews and Erica D. from Poppity Talks Classic Film for inviting me to join the Shelley Winters Blogathon, a multi-blogger extravaganza celebrating the work of this one-of-a-kind actress. Since this is Horror Month, I chose to get in the spirit with one of Winters’ more macabre offerings, Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?

Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?* belongs to a peculiar sub-genre (typically classified by a few derogatory terms, which I will not repeat here) showcasing high-profile middle-aged actresses in sinister situations.** Starting with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in 1962, and continuing roughly through the following decade, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and actresses of a similar caliber revived their waning careers in roles that were often less than complimentary. Director Curtis Harrington collaborated with Shelley Winters*** on two such projects in 1971 (both coincidentally presenting the audience with a question), Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? and What’s the Matter with Helen?

* Fun Fact #1: The original title of the film was Christmas at Grandma’s, followed by the working title, The Gingerbread House.

** Side Note: In the interest of equity and fair play, why didn’t we see a horror sub-genre focusing on male midlife crisis? The world may never know.

*** Fun Fact #2: Harrington reportedly wanted Bette Davis for the lead role, but Davis turned it down after concerns that it would further typecast her in films similar to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

The film begins on a twisted note, with Rosie “Roo” Forrest (Shelley Winters) singing to a child in a bed (the song gives us a lot of information about her perception of the men in her life). Our perspective abruptly changes to reveal that she’s singing to a desiccated corpse. In the following scene, we witness a séance, where she attempts to communicate with her deceased daughter. The story jumps to an orphanage, led by the stern Mrs. Henley (Rosalie Crutchley, probably best known for her role as Mrs. Dudley in The Haunting). Every year, ten kids are chosen to spend the Christmas holiday with Auntie Roo in her mansion,* while the unruly kids tend to get the short end of the stick. Not pleased with the second prospect, Christopher and Katy Coombs (Mark Lester and Chloe Franks) stow away in the trunk of the vehicle transporting the lucky kids to the holiday celebration.

* Fun Fact #3: According to the Blu-ray commentary, the Shepperton Studios office building conveniently stood in for Auntie Roo’s stately home.

Depending on the actress, Auntie Roo could have been a one-note, two-dimensional monster, but Winters brings depth and pathos to the role, as someone who’s at once unhinged and sympathetic. She conveys profound sadness when asked about her daughter, unable to bring herself to say that the child died (we witness the fatal accident, told in flashback). Instead, she skirts the painful subject. The Blu-ray commentary by David Del Valle and Nathaniel Bell describes her performance as “over the top,” but I think they’re missing the point. As a self-dramatist who thrives on adulation, basking in the spotlight is endemic to her character. She now lives vicariously through the children she hosts in her Christmas celebration, regressing to what she deems a happier time of her life. She subjects them to her one-woman pageants, in a desperate attempt to regain the attention she’s lost. Except for her deceased husband, who presumably left by natural means, all the males in Auntie Roo’s life take advantage of her. Mr. Benton (Ralph Richardson) earns her trust with his fake medium act. He conspires with her butler Albie (Michael Gothard) to maintain the illusion that the daughter is still around, albeit on some ethereal plane. Albie later blackmails her when he learns that she’s holding Katy (as a substitute for her daughter). Perhaps scorned by the interest Roo takes in his younger sister, and not him, Christopher finds a way to thwart the matriarch’s plans.

The film contains many references to the story of Hansel and Gretel, which in turn forms the basis of Christopher’s delusion. He convinces his sister that Auntie Roo is the incarnation of the witch from the fairy tale, who intends to fatten them up to be cooked and eaten like a Christmas goose. He plans to undermine Roo, but not without taking the witch’s treasure – a drawer full of jewels. Mark Lester (Oliver) is coldly convincing as the morally ambiguous Christopher. Along with his sister Katy, played by Chloe Franks (Tales from the Crypt, The House that Dripped Blood), the two children form a dyad against the rest of the world. Christopher is immune to Roo’s dubious charms, but his sister is easily swayed. Katy’s only crime is that she covets the teddy bear that once belonged to Auntie Roo’s deceased daughter. Otherwise, compared to Christopher, she’s eager to please. Together, they accomplish what she likely wouldn’t have attempted on her own. A couple of shots late in the film, showing an impish expression on Christopher’s face, imply an alternate interpretation of his motivations. Instead of being delusional, he might be using the fairy tale as an excuse to perpetrate terrible acts.

The not-too-subtle trailer suggests that Roo is the villain of the story, and from the children’s perspective, that may be so, but her character is to be pitied, not reviled. We can’t overlook the fact that she holds the children against their will, but her actions are not the actions of a sane person. As a result, we’re not left with a clear protagonist or antagonist in Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? For all its allusions to Hansel and Gretel, Harrington and crew present the material in a relatively straightforward manner when a more dreamlike approach might have benefited the production. Instead of a subjective lens, we’re left to evaluate the actions of Roo and the children from an objective view. Even if the film doesn’t quite work as a psychological thriller, it certainly merits a look for Winters’ off-kilter performance and as a refutation of childhood innocence.