“… a wagon is carrying the colossal head of a statue, the head of an emperor in marble, which bumps against the corners of the houses, chipping them.”
A couple of years ago over at the mighty Arbogast on Film site, a gauntlet of sorts was thrown down. In writing about Joe D’Amato’s sicko horror film Buio Omega (1979), Arbogast lamented the gruesome death of a “minor” character in the film. The question of “Who would you save?” is a bold and revealing one to ask horror fans since expressing empathy for a character is not always the primary emotion when watching these films. Can you imagine how raw and hollowed out you would be if every time you finished watching [insert horror film of choice here] you curled into the fetal position and sobbed yourself to sleep? I’d seriously advise retiring that DVD copy of Maniac (1980) and switch to Sonja Henie films instead… which is their own sort of nightmare. A couple of days ago, Arbogast tossed out the challenge again and I’m heeding the call.
Horror fans are a hardened sort. And the longer you’ve been at it, the thicker the emotional armor. After years of watching hundreds (thousands?) of nameless extras, minor characters with only a few lines of dialogue to mark their territory, and major players with name recognition fall to the death lust of rippers, sadists, creatures from the deep dark woods, cannibals, zombies, evil twins, and all the black-hearted rest of them… you can’t blame us for being a little discriminatory about who we mourn for.
Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) features a particularly painful death scene for me… a character that undoubtedly qualifies as the one I would save.
He cuts a fearsome, intimidating presence at first. A fascist-minded goon entrapped in his tower block, feeding off his own brand of rage.
In a normal world, no one would think less of you if you fled. Took your chances back on the street to find safe haven somewhere else.
But the definitions of normality have changed quite a bit since the end became extremely fucking nigh.
You have to take chances… accept hospitality from scary strangers…
And hope that they’re not as bad as you originally feared.
I’m not exactly sure why this character gets to me. Perhaps I’m just fond of Brendan Gleeson.
This character reminds me of plenty of blokes I’ve known over the years. He enjoys downing hearty pints of Guinness, eating a good plate of stewed eels and mash, and watching West Ham United struggle through another match on the telly.
He’s just a guy.
We’ve seen so many of these types go down in a hail of bullets, get chomped to bits by satanic beasties, and excised from films like dinner scraps from the table.
And maybe that’s why this one hurt so badly.
I got the feeling that this character just wanted a little more than that.
He’d certainly earned it… surviving with his daughter as he had in that fortified tower block.
He had a good thing going… relatively.
Until the main characters showed up and ruined everything.
Then again… the appearance of the raven gives the death an almost mythic resonance.
As if it were fate not chance at play here…
It’s like a part of him knows it was always going to end like this.
Something nestled in the deepest recess of his mind…
Calling him forth…
To stand alone…
Right in the eye.
There’s nothing romantic about it.
Death is simply the inevitable last chapter in all our lives.
It snatches us all.
Even our loved ones.
It’s not a comforting thought.
We spend our lives trying to protect our loved ones from that inevitability.
We certainly don’t attempt to speed things up…
Become the agents of their misfortune…
In a normal world… that would never cross our mind.
Sadly, those days are gone.
Today… things are much more difficult…
Everything’s in flux…
And no matter how hard you fight it…
How hard you struggle…
It’s so easy to give in to…
And blesses you with everlasting peace.
Based on a thriller novel by Jack Vance, who is better known for his science fiction and fantasy tales, Bad Ronald found its way to the screen via the glass teat on the ABC network’s Movie of the Week program. Yes, the major networks once made movies. Hard to believe, I realize, in this day of “reality” programming and the like, but it’s true. Most of the movies produced for ABC–as well as for NBC and CBS–were garbage, fondly remembered now for their camp value and little else.
Every once in awhile, though, something strange and memorable for the right reasons would air–Brian’s Song (1971), Duel (1971), The Point! (1971), The Night Stalker (1972), The Legend of Lizzie Borden (1975), Trilogy of Terror (1975). And this little curiosity… Bad Ronald (1974).
It’s not a “great” movie by any means, though it sure did make an impact on me when I first saw it as a wee lad. I have no idea if I saw it when it originally aired in 1974 (I would’ve been five) or when it was possibly rerun not long after. Whenever it was, I was young and impressionable.
It marked me.
Bad Ronald‘s twisted set-up–a misunderstood teenage boy in the Norman Bates mold kills a neighborhood girl after she taunts him and his domineering mother hides him from the cops within a secret room within the house–gripped me and haunted me for years. I told friends about this movie whenever I could, but I never met anyone who had ever seen it. And I suspect many thought I was making it up.
It had been issued on VHS at some point… but I only caught up with it again when it was shown on cable in the late-1980s. I was disappointed. Its power had faded. Like many of the films that make the biggest impact on you when you’re a child, they fail to live up to the significance you’ve given them when you view them as an adult. You hyped it too much over the years… falling in love with how your skull cinema screened it nightly rather than the less impressive reality.
Nevertheless, after the disappointment of watching it again, I still talked about it to anyone who’d listen. The premise was just too warped to shelve away. And the actors involved–Scott Jacoby, the excellent Kim Hunter, a brief straight turn by future comedic bumbler Dabney Coleman, and a young Lisa Eilbacher–all made it impossible for me to dismiss. It was schlock to be sure.
But it was my schlock.
While the flame of fond memories had dimmed, I looked forward to the day when one of the genre specialist video companies like Anchor Bay or Synapse Films issued a proper DVD of it. In 2009, Warner Brothers released the movie as part of their worthy Archive Collection. Like the majority of the discs in this series, the quality isn’t great… we’re talking burned-on-demand discs here… but it’s hard to complain since a movie like this is probably never going to see a remastered release.
Earlier this week I finally showed Bad Ronald to my partner in crime. It was the first time I’d seen it since the late-1980s. Surprisingly, I liked it much better this time around. Sure, on a technical level the movie is unimaginative and symptomatic of the drab, no fuss camera set-ups and lighting schemes so popular at the time in television movies and sitcoms.
But Bad Ronald gets under my skin. While watching it this week, I was shocked by how vivid many of the scenes, especially the one below with the girl on the bicycle, were to me.
It was like no time had passed….
Not so bad. Just misunderstood.
Mother sees him with different eyes.
Hopefully, his date will view him differently too.
See the talented young man beneath the awkwardness.
But the “date” goes wrong and Ronald is humiliated.
Best to just take a short cut and get back home…
Unfortunately that short cut intersects with her lifeline…
Triggering a chain of events…
changing the both of them forever.
In time he’ll reflect that it should have ended at that moment.
On the bricks…
His head splattered, his life ended.
Less trouble that way.
But at this moment, not knowing what awaits them in the coming seconds…
Both are grateful to be alive.
One doesn’t seem thankful at all.
One… only grows angrier…
While one grows tired of the role he’s being forced to play.
How come she doesn’t see his uniqueness?
But she’s not buying it.
He’s just a creep.
What he’ll always be.
The sooner he drops dead… the better.
“Take it back!”
It’s escalated too far for that.
He knows it.
She certainly does.
Maybe she should have been grateful after all.
Left it at that.
Learned to say “thank you” and bowed out…
Without hurting any feelings.
No one likes to have their feelings hurt.
It hurts more than you can imagine…
It feels like the pain will never end…
Even though it’s been only seconds.
It feels like you’re free-falling…
It feels like you’re being smashed into a million little pieces…
It feels like you’ll never get out of this misery…
It feels so final.
Like your life has just ended.
On the bricks.
But maybe mother can help.
She’s always seen you with different eyes.
Love won’t make it all go away though.
Love doesn’t make problems disappear.
Especially since murder has a way of complicating things.
“We’ll have to hide you.”
Prison will offer no mercy for such a talented young man.
At least all is forgiven.
Maybe in time… others will forget all about it.
They’ll learn to forgive too.
“You’ll be able to live in decency and cleanliness!”
There will be plenty of room.
No one will find you.
“It’s the perfect illusion!”
“You must learn to be quiet.”
It’s the only way to survive.
After awhile… couple of months…
People will forget.
Everything will be fine…
“I must be the only one who knows you’re here.”
“Two knocks for danger… four for safety…”
It’s a matter of survival.
There’s nothing to be afraid of…
You’ll leave one day…
It’s best to keep up appearances.
Pretend that this has never happened.
Ronald just never came home.
He could be anywhere.
One of my literary heroes has died after a long illness. You can read a brief BBC piece here. No doubt more substantial thoughts will drift out over the next couple of days.
I’ll post more later when I’m able to.
The great Forrest J. Ackerman, the man who unleashed countless monster kids into the world with the publication of his magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland, died last night in Hollywood at the age of 92. He will be missed.
I got a chance to meet Forry back in the late 1990s at the World Horror Convention in Phoenix, Arizona and he was kind enough to pose for a picture with me and some friends as well as show us the rings he received from the legendary Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. He also talked about those iconic masters of horror and I could have listened to Uncle Forry, as he was widely known as to his many fans, all night. I always meant to journey down to Hollywood to visit his fabled Ackermansion, his treasure trove of a house filled with cinematic arcana devoted to science fiction, horror, and fantasy… but alas, I never did.
You can read more about the king of genre fandom here.
I’ve long been a fan of John Wyndham’s apocalyptic science fiction novel Day of the Triffids. For such a ludicrous concept–giant carnivorous plants, possibly man-made, stalk the earth and leave humanity dead, wounded, or scrambling to fight them off–the book is a gripping read, mostly due to how Wyndham superbly delineates the power struggles between the different gangs of survivors in the waning twilight of civilization. The relatively mindless terror of the triffids is bad enough. But with the added pressure of argued, reasoned, collectivized tyranny enforced by a group of soldiers upon our protagonists, it’s difficult to decide what grim fate is worse.
Published in 1951, Wyndham’s novel has influenced everyone from George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead) to Danny Boyle and Alex Garland (28 Days Later), as well as spawning two direct screen adaptations. The first one was a 1962 version starring Howard Keel–sort of fun in a Saturday morning movie and cold cereal kind of way–and from what I can remember it’s not very faithful. The other version, made for British television back in the early 1980s, lacks the cinematic oomph! that the story demands, but its earnest acting and faithfulness to the source material make it essential viewing.
Here’s a clip from it:
Now, 57 years since its original publication, Wyndham’s monstrous veggies are getting a new chance at life with news that the BBC has commissioned a new mini-series from writer Patrick Harbinson (ER, Law & Order). The show won’t hit television screens until 2009, so if you’ve never read the book… you have plenty of time to rectify that.
I’m not sure if the majority of Americans truly understand how vibrant triffids are to the collective imagination of people hailing from England, Scotland, and Ireland. It’s sort of like the difference between Dr. Who in England (it’s part of the culture at large, not relegated to cult status) and Star Trek in the States (cult phenom). Triffids are part of the culture. Here in Ireland, hidden away in the wilds, I was more than amused hearing people toss out the word “triffid” to describe an overgrown plant or savage looking nettle. Thank the gods above and below that I haven’t seen any plant(s) actually move around in the jungle of weeds behind our cottage, but there is a rather large and intimidating looking beast of a plant nestled between the back door and the window that distresses me. The cat seems to like it, though, so I’m not completely ready to burn it down yet. But at the slightest sign of aggression… it’s broccoli.
You can read more about the allure of triffids and the perverse love of watching the end of the world in films here.
Charlton Heston is dead. At the time that Heston made The Omega Man in 1971 (featured in the clip above), the notorious conservative actor (who was still a card carrying member of the Democratic party at that point but a Nixon supporter) probably did feel like the last man on earth. Surrounded by counterculture Hollywood, a relic of the studio system and more a practitioner of a relentlessly old fashioned theatrical style than a Brando, Heston still loomed large over the decade of decline. It was a credit to his adaptation that he managed to survive in an industry that doesn’t always reward change.
I mourn his loss because as a youth growing up in the 1970s, he was my first real movie star idol, the first real impression I had of what an actor was. He also starred in one of my favorite films of all time, Planet of the Apes (and its sequel Beneath the Planet of the Apes), and to a lesser degree The Omega Man. As with the Planet of the Apes films, I loved Omega Man as a kid, then went many years without seeing it, in which I romanticized and misremembered it. When I finally saw it again in my early twenties, I was disappointed. It was far more campy and shoddy than I remembered it being, and unlike Planet of the Apes, lacked wit or imaginative bravado. But in its own misshapen way, I’ve come around and now love Omega Man and watch it at least once a year. Heston’s post-Apes roles in the 1970s are remarkable for the sheer number of times he suffered beatings and death at the hands of apocalyptic maniacs. I enjoyed, and still do, the Heston of the Epics (The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, El Cid, The War Lord) or the Westerns (The Big Country, Major Dundee, Will Penny, Heston’s favorite role). And then there was his role as a Mexican cop in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, arguably the last of the original American film noir cycle. It takes awhile to adjust to Heston’s casting as Vargas, but without him in the lead the film with Welles at the helm would have probably never happened.
As the story goes, Universal Pictures wanted Heston to appear as the star of the picture. But when the actor heard that Welles was only attached to the film as an actor, Heston recommended him to direct as well. It was a gigantic risk for the studio considering that Welles was virtually blacklisted in Hollywood due to pressure from William Randolph Hearst, the FBI, and a series of box office disappointments leading up to his exile in Europe from 1947 to 1956 where Welles conjured up new avenues of magic–though hardly anything Hollywood would want to touch. There’s a scene in Tim Burton’s otherwise fine Ed Wood in which the “world’s worst director” meets America’s best in a dark lounge. Welles, played by Vincent D’Onofrio, remarks to Wood (Johnny Depp) that he’s just been saddled with Charlton Heston to play a Mexican at Universal. It’s a funny moment, but there’s no way the real Welles would have said it considering the actor had just given him the chance to direct in Tinseltown again.
Apocalypse Heston. Disaster-mode Chuck. The slightly paranoid, cynical, volcanic Heston from the 1970s: that was the actor for me. Clint Eastwood, another early movie star idol for me, was meaner, tougher, and cooler. But for me, Heston was the quintessential Hollywood action star: masculine, intelligent, versatile, and absurdly charismatic. His portrayals of larger than life heroes was always tinged with a humanity and vulnerability that I don’t think many of the action stars that followed, e.g. Stallone or Schwarzenegger, were ever able to match. He was also the consummate professional and a gentleman from all accounts. You don’t last in the business for as long as Heston did without mastering the art of good manners.
It’s sad that for many, younger, film fans, Heston will be remembered for his “hammy” acting or as president of the NRA, conservative activist (though I find it amusing that so many of his detractors conveniently ignore Heston’s liberal past and his civil rights involvement) , or as the elderly Alzheimer-afflicted scapegoat in Michael Moore’s 2002 documentary Bowling for Columbine, where the intrepid filmmaker/gadfly bum rushes the ailing actor in his own home. I’m no apologist for Heston’s political beliefs. No doubt, I’d have more in common with Moore’s politics. But the scene is disgusting and a cheap shot. Regardless of personal beliefs, I know who I’d rather have dinner with.
Below are two more favorite clips from his dystopian science fiction period: the finales of Planet of the Apes and Soylent Green, the latter an aesthetic predecessor to Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic Blade Runner. You can also go here, here, and here for some rather wonderful and eloquent pieces on this true colossus of Hollywood.
“Adaptation is a profound process. Means you figure out how to thrive in the world.“–from the film Adaptation.
For those of you who don’t know–and you really, really, should, considering he’s been writing provocative science fiction, horror, and whatever else for three decades–John Shirley is an adapter. In the 1970s, Shirley was a pivotal figure in the punk underground in Portland, Oregon, antagonizing, engaging, and spreading the virus of ideas and sounds in bands like SadoNation. In 1977, Shirley and another local musician, Mark Sten, opened up the city’s first punk club (albeit an illegal one), The Revenge. Shirley subsequently left Portland for New York City, where he continued to work as a novelist during the day and chart sonic waters at nights with the band Obsession. Later on he played with The Panther Moderns and wrote a number of songs for Blue Oyster Cult, most notably on the underrated album Heaven Forbid.
His novels are strident, erratic, sincere, violent, thought-provoking, rubbish, and brilliant. His short story collections–Heatseeker, Neo Noir, Black Butterflies, and Really, Really, Really, Really Weird Stories–are probably the best place to start if you’ve never read him. And then check out the novels City Come A-Walkin’ and the Eclipse (Song of Youth) trilogy. Oh yeah, he also wrote the first draft for The Crow movie before horror/noir writer David J. Schow (another fine scribbler in his own right) took over.
Anyway… read Shirley. Without him there would’ve been no William Gibson (certainly not in the shape that he took on), and arguably the “punk” in cyberpunk would have been muted if not terminated all together. The above video* is Shirley with Portland noise/experimental musical pranksters Smegma from, I would guess, late, late 1970s or very early 1980s.
Doesn’t matter what time it is. It’s timeless absurdity.
* The alien subgenius intelligence that posted this video to YouTube would not allow me to replicate it here on this site. But you can simply go there and view it for yourself: