Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Deadly Messages (1985 TV-movie), 2.5 of 4

Kathleen Beller has haunted me since 1980, when I saw the PBS film of Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Rappaccini's Daughter."  (She plays the title character, left.)  Only recently, I recognized my avoidance of her other work.  Of course, I'd cherished the memory.

Beller's credits show an impressive run: for a decade, she was TV-movie royalty.  Granted, Deadly Messages is considered middle-of-the-pack (nor is it helped by the marginal dupe currently on YouTube).  It's a pleasantly wry DePalma pastiche, evoking Body Double especially.

The gaslighting subgenre is both timely and venerable, reaching back at least to the eponymous film (1940, and the Hollywood remake of 1944), Hitchcock's Rebecca, What Lies Beneath and others (and The Others).  In this form, the viewer guesses along with the female protagonist about who (if anyone) is menacing her, and why.  Here, the title alludes to a Ouija board which may or may not have supernatural powers.  The twisty ending comes somewhat abruptly, as it vaguely offers a sequel or series.

Thomas M. Sipos pans Deadly Messages as illogical, e.g., detective Dennis Franz discredits Beller's murder report only because she can't present a corpse.  This critique ignores the movie being an expressionist female nightmare, especially common in the era (The Stepford Wives, Demon Seed and many TV-movies, notably John Carpenter's Someone's Watching Me!).  Note that in Deadly Messages, the men all seem to resemble each other (variously ethnic-urban, proletarian).  Fraught as ever, Beller asks understanding, as she wonders about trusting any of them. 

in the 1981 TV-movie, No Place to Hide
The oddest thing about Deadly Messages is the way Beller is presented, almost as if to conceal her figure.  Was she hiding a pregnancy?  The choice may (also) reflect career anxiety.  Hers had depended on ingenues in hothouse romances, even in a feminist era.  By 1985, America had besmirched this baby-madonna with two years on the prime-time soap, Dynasty; there was no returning to the virginal victims of assault (as in Deadly Messages, and 1978's career-defining Are You in the House Alone?), stalking (No Place to Hide), or dying young (Mary White, Promises in the Dark).  Post-Deadly Messages, Beller made short-lived series and a few obscure features, before retirement in the early '90s.

In the fog that is fannish admiration, I imagined an exotic fate for Kathleen Beller, as in the decamp to Europe, or hie-to-a-nunnery like Dolores Hart.  Coincidentally, her last film, Legacy (1993, 55 minutes), was produced by the Mormon church, for internal use.  The actual bio is both appropriate and heartening: she married musician Thomas Dolby in 1988, they have three children.  (Dolby's 1982 hit "She Blinded Me with Science" is a gentle spoof of just such tales as Rappaccini's Daughter.)  Beller's IMDb page teases the cultist with a 2016 horror short, her first credit in 22 years.

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Sunday, September 1, 2019

Pharaoh's Army (1995) 3 stars of 4

Here's a modest, neglected gem, evoking the historical films of John Sayles as it dramatizes a minor, telling incident from the U.S. Civil War.  It's rather stately (excuse the pun), but worth seeing, as U.S. history and for the ravishing beauty of the Appalachian forest (thus evoking the Jesse James subgenre, including The Long Riders and The Return of Frank James).  It's the best-known film of Southerner Robby Henson (he wrote-directed 2002's The Badge, with Billy Bob Thornton and Patricia Arquette).

Pharaoh's Army: war violates the Southern interior
Advancing through Kentucky hollows, Captain John Abston (Chris Cooper) leads his Union troop on the farm of Sarah Anders (Patricia Clarkson) and son.  With Sarah's husband away fighting for the South, the Yankees help themselves to livestock and provisions.

One of the-boys-in-blue has a fateful fall from a hayloft.  His recuperation means an extended break for the rest, who have yet to "see the elephant" (or in today's military slang, "get some").  Rodie, restless Northerner who's lost a brother to the war, will accuse Abston of cowardice and "just wanting a poke."  The latter can only be true (Patricia Clarkson), but Abston's no coward, just old enough to know war is a mess left by sleeping Senators and not worth getting shot over.

Appalachia was border country (West Virginia exists because the Virginia mountains went Union).  Brother-against-brother was nowhere more common than in Kentucky and Tennessee, where bitter loyalties alternated town to town, man to man.  Here, Kris Kristofferson is a South-leaning neighbor who, hearing of the Union incursion, sends his slave to snipe.  Completing a sketched culture clash, the Yankees mock the patrician not doing his own fighting; Kristofferson ignores them (he also speaks the title phrase, referring to the Union Army).  The intransigents acquainted, tragedy unfolds, as regional rivalry leaps generations.

In addition to the excellent cast and cinematic setting, the film has a mournful (and presumably authentic) score.  Among recent films peripheral to the Civil War, Pharaoh's Army is superior to the rather stilted The World Made Straight (2015), and nearly as attractive as the large-canvas Seraphim Falls (2006).

A late, Leftist article-of-faith insists America's Civil War was fought over slavery, after all.  Some desire a flattering national history, but the truth hurts: the War Between the States decided regional dominance of a growing imperium.  Slavery was the flashpoint, at most.

If slavery caused the war, surely, it begins with John Brown's martyrdom (as he intended), not waiting 1½ years for Fort Sumter.  (Even today, Brown's the hero of radicals, not Americans per se.)  Most white Northerners did not care about slavery (any more than the recruits of 2001 could find Afghanistan on a map), as they assumed blacks inherently inferior.  Having a moral investment in African-Americans, surely, they didn't abandon them 12 years later, as7th Cav mass-suicide rationalized a culturally-bonding, consensus slaughter, and as Reconstruction reconfigured to Jim Crow reign of terror.

The progressive British, having banned slavery in 1834, were nevertheless poised to support the Confederacy, given reasonable encouragement, especially at (northern battles) Gettysburg or Antietem.  (To my way of thinking, the South couldn't afford to win either, thus at Antietem, a runner lost Lee's-orders-'round-3-cigars, i.e., "hey, here's a gift!")  Such a bellwether would only have meant immediate mobilization for the North's full, vastly superior population, and General Lee has an (even earlier) date at Appomatox Courthouse.