June 18, 2013


The summer of 1985 was a chilly one for Hollywood executives, with box office grosses declining 160 million dollars from 1984′s take. In his Los Angeles Times moratorium, Jack Mathews blamed the lack of an all-ages “sequel to a blockbuster” for the downturn, with the adult arterial sprays of Rambo: First Blood Part II sitting atop the charts. Franchise hopefuls Explorers and Return to Oz tanked, while even the successes (The GooniesCocoon) didn’t crack $100 million. The family dollar was being kept in-pocket.  It was inauspicious timing for exploitation operation Cannon Films to release one of their few big-budget items, the eroto-horror whatzit Lifeforce. They signed Tobe Hooper, fresh off of Poltergeist, to direct, Henry Mancini to write the score, and John Dykstra (Star Wars) to head the effects team. Instead of a Spielberg theme park ride, they delivered an obsessive head trip in 70mm, one which details the ways in which quivering men fail to satisfy a voracious (alien) woman’s sexual desire. Ravaged by critics, Janet Maslin memorably described it as “hysterical vampire porn”, and it made only $11.5 million on a $25 million budgetIt comes out in a loaded Blu-ray today from Scream Factory.


Producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus were Cannon Films, and they signed Tobe Hooper to a three-picture deal following the success of Poltergeist. To sign the contract Hooper dropped out of Return of the Living Dead (1985), for which screenwriter Dan O’Bannon (Alien) took over as director.  In their first meeting Golan and Globus handed Hooper the novel The Space Vampires (1976) by Colin Wilson. The production began a few days later, with Hooper fondly remembering how they “bypassed all the usual development things you have to go through.” One of those “development things” they went without was having a completed script. Hooper hired O’Bannon and Don Jakoby to write it, but it was far from finished by the time the compressed shooting schedule began.The tight schedule also frustrated the effects team led by Dykstra, who later complained that a rushed film processing job introduced flaws into the delicate optical printing work (read more about his analog techniques in the film here).


If Golan and Globus expected the Spielbergized Hooper of Poltergeist, they were to be disappointed. What they got instead was the uncompromising horror nerd who made Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Hooper recalled his own attitude as, “I’ll go back to my roots, and I’ll make a 70mm Hammer film.” Recognizing Colin Wilson’s novel as a variant on The Quatermass Xperiment, he made Lifeforce with ripe colors and riper melodramatics, his actors adopting the postures and tones of his favorite Hammer icons. Frank Finlay, for example, in his character of Dr. Hans Fallada, takes on the epicene inquisitiveness of Peter Cushing. The title was changed to Lifeforce and the producers cut down the film for US release by 15 minutes and replaced Mancini’s score, but it didn’t help at the box office. Hooper believes that changing the title was a mistake, that everyone then, “expected it to be more serious, rather than satirical. It isn’t quite camp, but we intended it to be funny in places.”


The film starts as exploratory sci-fi, with Col. Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback) leading a British-U.S. space mission to investigate Halley’s Comet. As they float on wires through matte-painted backgrounds worthy of Forbidden Planet, they discover the corpses of hollowed out devil bats. Then they enter a crystalline chamber modeled on the diamond-shaped alien pod from Quatermass and the Pit (1967), where they find three perfectly preserved human bodies, one a well-proportioned woman (only known as “Space Girl”, Mathilda May) who exerts a hold on Carlsen, even in stasis. Here the horror begins, as this female is, yes, a space vampire, sucking the life force out of anyone in her path. Once she and her two male companions (including Mick Jagger’s brother, Chris) reach Earth, they leave piles shriveled up human husks in their wake, which realistically twitch in the animatronics by Nick Maley.


Space Girl embodies female desire without socialized restraint, ignorant of Madonna/Whore complexes or slut shaming. She knows what she wants and she gets it. After she escapes a government facility, one of the doctors is asked how she overpowered him. He responds: “She was the most overwhelmingly feminine presence I’ve ever encountered.” If this were a male character, he would be a raffish romantic lead (Gerard Butler maybe?), but as a woman she could only be a (nude) world-devouring hell beast. It’s a thankless role for Mathilda May, who is tasked with striding naked with a zombified gaze for two hours, but she does get to cow the men and their toys.

The male characters are either insular pedants or macho creeps, playing with their spaceships or microscopes but utterly befuddled at the presence of an unprepossessing nude woman.  Railsback is in a perpetual cower, prematurely embarrassed at his inability to fully please the Space Girl. By the end he’s sweating and flinching so much he becomes Renfield to her Dracula. The only time he can gain some measure of control is by injecting her with gallons of sleep serum, and that’s only when she’s taken over the body of Patrick Stewart (yes, Captain Picard). She speaks through Stewart’s  mouth, ““I am the feminine in your mind, Carlson”. Railsback then kisses Stewart, in one of the more radical moments in 1980s Hollywood cinema. Railsback is, very literally, embracing his feminine side.


February 26, 2013


Following the gargantuan success of Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Blake Edwards acquired the freedom to develop his own projects. Typecast as a director of light comedies, he was eager to explore the stylistic opportunities offered by other genres. Experiment in Terror (1962) is the initial result, a thriller shot in stark B&W,  in which Edwards tries out a dazzling variety of styles, from baroque expressionism to naturalistic location photography of San Francsico. The plot, about a bank teller forced to rob her employer, is a dry procedural that moves from clue to clue with Dragnet terseness. Its main job is to move the protagonists around the city, so Edwards can light them in flamboyant chiaroscuro interiors or at Candlestick Park.   Experiment in Terror has the feel of a preternaturally talented kid playing with toys previously denied him. Twilight Time has released this bewitching oddity in a richly detailed Blu-Ray available through Screen Archives.

Edwards described that period of his life as one of “constant testing”. He wanted to “try something that was…away from the things that I was suddenly finding myself involved with.” The opportunity to do something different came when Columbia Pictures optioned the novel Operation Terror for $112,500, an astronomical sum at the time. The book and resulting screenplay were written by the husband-wife team of Gordon and Mildred Gordon, who spun Gordon Gordon’s experiences in the FBI (as a counter-intelligence officer during WWII) into crime fiction novels. This particular tale involves bank teller Kelly Sherwood (Lee Remick), who is forced to steal $150,000 from her job or a wheezing goon named Red (Ross Martin) will kill her sister Toby (Stefanie Powers). Kelly is able to contact the FBI, and Agent John Ripley (Glenn Ford) races against the clock to find the psycho before the money is lost or Toby gets snuffed.

The opening is a masterful bit of claustrophobic horror. To the strains of Henry Mancini’s wailing autoharp score, Remick pulls into the garage of her house near the Twin Peaks in San Francisco.  With shadows of plant fronds splayed across the wall behind her, she pauses as if hearing a noise. The camera pushes in, and the static shadows become a moving one, the darkened figure of Ross Martin sidles over and slides his hands around her neck. His face in darkness, what follows is an extended monologue of sexual aggression in extreme close-up, as he slides his hands down her body offscreen and ticks off her measurements. This is profoundly disturbing, made even more so by Edwards’ refusal to diffuse the tension with a long shot.


Interiors become filled with grotesques, which Edwards forces in his frequent use of extreme closeups and canted angles, reminiscent of Orson Welles’ delirious Mr. Arkadin (1955). This motif reaches its climax inside the apartment of a mannequin designer and friend of the killer whose apartment is a necropolis of plastic appendages. When Red appears among this pile, he looks like just another mound of soulless molding. A creature more of sound than sight, his labored breathing is the only thing that identifies him as human.


The usual thriller mechanics would demand Remick be piled with stress until she snaps into hysteria, waiting to be saved by a male interlocutor. Instead she is spooked but self-assured, as inflexible as the FBI and as fiercely independent as any criminal. She is completely self-sufficient, with no romantic interests and a cold-eyed intensity at getting the job done. She is so self-confident it rather drains the film of tension – there is no question she will succeed. The interest in the film lies in the how, and in what lighting scheme.


Gradually the film moves from baroque interiors to naturalistic exteriors, all shot on location throughout San Francisco, as if Edwards flipped the channel from Welles to Rossellini. Along with his DP Philip Lathrop, whom he worked with on the TV series Peter Gunn,  he captures the Twin Peaks neighborhood, the Fisherman’s Wharf and Candlestick Park with a mix of atmospheric long shots and handheld work. Outside the world is legible with nothing to fear. It is inside buildings and inside characters were there are stresses and manias and kidnappings.

Interiors and exteriors collide in the bravura final sequence at Candlestick Park, during a game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the hometown Giants. While most films just use grainy stock footage of games, Edwards actually shot gorgeous footage on the field, and went to the expense of getting additional insert shots of the sweaty face of Don Drysdale before throwing a pitch (anticipating where network coverage was heading). While this is a boon to baseball nerds like myself, this extreme closeup is an indication that the claustrophobia of the opening sequence will reappear in this outdoor space. The climax occurs after the game ends and the crowd is filing out, the cover for Red’s takedown of Kelly and the money. The previous frames of looming faces and headless mannequins are here replaced by a mass drunken revelers. It is only when Glenn Ford can cut through this morass and empty out the film frame that the threat can be nullified. In the final shot a helicopter pulls up and away from Candlestick Park, out into nothingness.

Don Siegel pays homage to that final shot with his own in Dirty Harry, another story of a San Francisco psycho in which the camera pulls away from a blood-strewn stadium into the sky, as if revulsed by humanity. There are also a number of circumstantial echoes in David Lynch and Mark Frost’s landmark TV series Twin Peaks. The title is taken from the San Francisco neighborhood Lee Remick lives in, and Red’s full name is Garland “Red” Lynch. Perhaps tickled with the coincidence of sharing a name with the movie’s murderer, he also named a Twin Peaks character Garland (Major Garland Briggs) as well. So while the film is a compilation of Blake Edwards’ influence, his triumph of style over substance has had its own curious effect on the films that came after.