Thursday, October 31, 2019

underseen for Halloween 2019, Part 2: the It's Alive trilogy (1973-86)

ballyhoo: "one thing wrong ... It's Alive"
(Spoilers throughout.)

               20th century history seemed to destabilize, with new technologies, mass migrations, and a range of time-limited phenomena from rock n’ roll to genocide.  Industrialization, effectively, made us test subjects.  The fluctuations called for nervous parody. 
Larry Cohen, the late exploitation auteur, typically used high-concept as a stalking horse, building a provocative film around some scary-funny threat (e.g., revived Aztec god Q, addictive dessert The Stuff).  Recalling the shock of a baby’s tantrum, Cohen invented a movie-monster for the cocooning, post-Vietnam U.S.: homicidal infants.  Cradled in a Bernard Herrmann score, the blunt-headed metaphor remains morbidly funny (for some of us) half-a-century later.
The first and best of a trilogy, It’s Alive (1973) is the singular fertility narrative of Frank and Lorene Davis (the first-names evoke horror history).  Suburban and white, they’re habituated to television, prescription pills and cow’s milk — a motif, as when the Carnation man becomes prey — and live in California, where trends start.  Americans believe in “progress," and the new parents seem fairly indifferent to causes.  The smartly satiric horror film ends dropping-the-mic: “Another one’s been born in Seattle.” 
toughest job in the world ...

While acknowledging the comic angle, It’s Alive centers on John P. Ryan’s titanic performance as Frank Davis, as he's betrayed by friends and fate.  Still, he can’t erase his issue.  His Job-like travails deliver twin themes for the franchise: Americans have become fatalistic; the parent-child bond is nearly unbreakable.  The themes mutually reinforce, e.g., repeated speculation the mutants have superior resistance to pollution, similar to the children in These Are the Damned.
The series is less interested in the babies than in society’s reactions.  As in Night of the Living Dead, most characters are comically quick-to-adjust.  As writer-director of the trilogy, Cohen favors canted-angle shots of figures darting here and there: the “normal” characters are as flighty and reflexive as the babies.  If the sequels are less nimble than the original, and repetitive, that might also be the point. 
It Lives Again (1978) posits a hidden colony, for humane study.  Despite help from new dad Frederic Forrest, the rogue pediatricians are themselves too geriatric to manage their charges.  Meantime, the genetic shuffling seems to multiply, e.g., a birthday party where tykes crawl under low branches, and the birthday-girl looks like a  boy.  The location is a memorably cinematic hillside, symbol of the scramble for supremacy.

           The babies are unnerving (models designed by Rick Baker), but the filmmakers never solved movement.  Granted, the babies do more in the third film, but in the commentaries, Cohen cites Val Lewton, in saying both sequels showed too much.  Tone was a challenge, too: the premise is inherently funny, but Cohen wanted monster movies, first, so each suspenseful scene has to be (a little) funny, and vice versa.  He masters tone for the first two, but the third unravels, perhaps from anxiety over the series' misanthropic overtones.   
In the larkish It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive (1986), a new regime gives the babies an island to themselves.  Of course, these are babies, and the reparation is folly (compare A Clockwork Orange).  This time, the tragic dad is Steven Jarvis (Michael Moriarty, pre-Law and Order), a struggling actor with an antic sense of humor.  He takes to grandly introducing himself as “father of the monster.” 
Disillusioned with community — the movie begins in church, courtroom and '80s comedy club — Jarvis signs on for an expedition to the baby-island (Hawaii locations).  It’s Alive III becomes a stoner comedy, as Jarvis loses any interest in the social contract: imagine Apocalypse Now if Willard (Martin Sheen) and the photojournalist (Dennis Hopper) were one person. 
It’s Alive III isn’t the inspired lunacy of Cohen and Moriarty’s Q, but has its charms, as the latter sings sea shanties, threatens to defect, and muses on the babies’ telepathic potential.  The story defaults to an ending from midcentury space-invasions: an everyday element as deus ex machina.  Still, the viewer is free to imagine a next generation with stronger resistance.
           Nature gave "Larry's kids" a biting chance, whether or not in response to our behavior.  Pollution, abortion, and medication usage are only a few of the troubling associations.  Easier to miss: clawed and fanged babies are kin to Wolverine, Freddy Krueger, Ninja Turtles foe Shredder, and now, "baby sharks."  Like superheroes as a class, such forearmed characters may allude to narcissism, which seems increasingly common, even adaptive.  (If Americans dislike narcissists, why elect them president?)
            Larry Cohen died in March, aged 82.  In assembling an impressive (if spotty) body of work, he had the disarming knack for seeming less subversive than he was.  He's been deceptively influential, witness the Cohenesque likes of Gremlins, They Live, The Addiction, even Velvet Buzzsaw.  He also pioneered movie franchising, in devising Return of the Magnificent SevenHell Up in Harlem (sequel to his Black Caesar), and the Maniac Cop series.
            Like those films, the It's Alive trilogy helped validate small-budget, self-referential sequels, like the “dead” series of George Romero and Sam Raimi.  In having scientists study the mutants, the sequels are comparable to Children of the DamnedDay of the Dead and Terminator Salvation.  Finally, as in various franchises, notably the contemporaneous Planet of the Apes cycle, we're shown key engagements in what may be a global revolution. 

Sunday, October 27, 2019

underseen for Halloween, 2019: Vampire Circus (1972)

These Halloween posts accumulate more hits than the others combined (my thanks to all who've read).  It seems to have provided inspiration, resulting in enough text for (a planned) three posts, the last for All Soul's.    
On usage: "underseen" can be contested, of course, but these titles merit attention amid a wealth of choices.  

Spoilers throughout.

Vampire Circus (1972)

he may know a way out ...
While more of an art film, and closer to didactic than Hammer’s usual line, Vampire Circus is typically sumptuous in evoking an indeterminate past.  It has a liquid quality, like stepping into a river.  It seduces the viewer, as Count Mitterhaus seduces Anna, and Emil, Rosa.

 “a hundred delights!  the Circus of Nights!” 

Vampire Circus caps the horrific-circus/carnival trend of midcentury: Shadow of a Doubt, Nightmare Alley, Circus of Horrors.  In being seasonal, on the edge of town, the Dark Carnival stands for a liminal threat, possibly genocide.  Of its title ruin, dialogue in Carnival of Souls says, "The law has placed it off-limits."  This pavilion is contrasted with what is "safe," "reasonable" and "seemly."  Shtettel (the spelling varies), the town in Vampire Circus, is Yiddish for “town.” 

Another trope, with similar meaning, has survivors crossing paths with perpetrators, as in The Seventh Victim, Seven Men from Now, The Last House on the Left and Eden Lake.  Here, both terms apply to both groups, humans and vampires. 

Vampire Circus is tough on Anglo-Americans, its trigger-sin crouched in our blind spot.  The townsfolk can be deceitful and waspish, but their damning trait is division.  They’ve had time: after the execution of bloodsucker Mitterhaus, 15 years pass before vengeance -- modernity descends -- as half the town decides vampires don’t exist. 

“We make our own luck.”

Early rationalists, Dr. Kersh and schoolteacher Mueller scoff at the notion of vampires.  The teacher is an intellectual feather: after losing his family and killing Mitterhaus, he reverts to scientism, but still can say of the circus folk, “they are death.”  Later, he redeems himself, by believing in what he can’t understand. 

Divisions between men tend to leave a divided population.  Inevitably, an opposing residence becomes hostile territory, as couples and families assume entitlement to (toxic) privacy.  Parents become unaccountable, then suspect.  Thus, the revolutionary insight of Vampire Circus: estrangement from traditional religion as a cause of sexual frustration.

The town’s young adults also assume a type of rabies to be the only plague.  (Indeed, rabies may be the origin of vampire lore: science and folklore interrelate, despite attempts at segregation.)  Only as the skeptics recover faith (intellectual humility) can the town defend itself.  The humility should be in the context of a supernatural: it's too easy to own ignorance if never actually wrong.  

“it’s not life, just distortions …”

the protean Serena
Filmed narratives about demonic encroachment don't necessarily specify demons, e.g., Circle of Fear "Earth, Air, Fire and Water," Twin Peaks.  The horror films of John Carpenter assume a force of pure evil, malignant to humanity.  In both Prince of Darkness and Vampires, the Catholic Church is uneasy ally of the protagonists.  Carpenter is an atheist, but his movies at least flirt with the idea of the Church as hedge against something even worse.  

Like Twin Peaks, Shtettel seems to have no church, and everyone’s lying to someone.  After her son is snatched from danger, the mayor’s wife kisses the rescuer, humiliating her husband.  A splinter group negotiates passage from the barricaded town, and is killed.  Dora, Mueller’s surviving daughter, is safely “in the city,” but journeys home unannounced and unescorted.  Rosa’s mother keeps her daughter’s secret, the affair with Emil.  

Two boys sneak to the circus after hours, joining those snared by the hall of mirrors.  (If funhouse reflections are a door to evil, it questions my daily, four-hour gaze.)  These vampires are magicians and shapechangers, with an (unremarked) immunity to sunlight, and implied psychic powers (the film gets choppy late, reportedly from budget cuts).   

Kersh slips the barricade but, unlike Ivy in The Village, gets revelation.  Now, unanimous belief in vampires gives the townsmen a fighting chance: "Without a vision [no plurality] the people perish."  Shtettel has the advantage of a common heritage, including a recent (cultural) memory of faith.  Still, those attempting “a new kind of nation” should gird for failure.  

“If your wife’s in there, maybe she wanted to go.”  

The film's beginning is both mythic and horrifying: Anna Mueller's fall isn’t frightening, but we know the horrible has happened.  Though soon interrupted, her debauch leaves no doubt why she'd bring her daughter for slaughter.  Here, evil is thrilling and erotic; this isn’t soft-serve Schindler’s List or 12 Years a Slave.

The ending, which is too busy, reveals the circus-leader to be a disguised Anna, even as she saves Dora.  Despite this partial redemption, Anna made the town a target, by placing personal desire above commitments to (original) family and tribe.   

Some films are social-critically present to the point of (evidently) crippling the careers of filmmakers, including Freaks, Sweet Smell of Success, Peeping Tom, Dirty Little Billy, Ganja and Hess and The Sopranos.  The pattern may help to explain the obscurity of the Vampire Circus duo, director Robert Young and screenwriter Judson Kinberg.  Their film attempts to collapse the walls between art and entertainment, sensation and narrative, the erotic and the dramatic.