Monday, October 31, 2011

1 Mystery, 2 Houses and lots o' Wax

So, I blew the dust off of the covers of a couple of flicks and decided on a pre-Halloween mini-marthon.

When the remake House Of Wax was released to disc, I was a little in doubt as I normally am with anything that has "Paris Hilton" on it anywhere, porn included. However, on the massive plus side was a re-release of the Price version, and much to my shock and joy was finding it was a dual sided disc, with, almost a footnote, the flip side being the Lionel Atwell/Fay Wray Mystery Of The Wax Museum.

What the hell, right? So, off I went, starting with the middle piece, a dreamscape with which I am most familiar.

Watching it now, it is a little worse for the wear, Carolyn Jones' character giving a giggle that sounds as if it were stolen from The Music Man (missing only "Ye gods!"), and she along with Price are really the only two worthy of being on screen as often as they are. Not to slight the rest, but for the most part the remainder of the cast is phoning in a quick check, very common for the B list.

Two things immediately leap off the screen, however. The first is that the film was attempting to cash in on the Can't See This On Your TV empty headed crap Hollywood was grinding out in the then latest innovation Jump Off The Screen O Rama! aka 3-D. Like the current embarrassments, there is one scene in particular that makes the eyes roll and the hand to lurch towards the eject button. A hawker is sent out to drum up business, and in doing so is using a paddle and ball bouncing the ball into the camera, going so far as to cry out "oh, there is a man with some popcorn! Don't move, sir!"


However, on the much more interesting side is that being shot in 3-D lead to a more close inspection of creating the illusion of depth via camera angle and focus, which when viewed in 2-D gives the film a certain beauty. Deep focus, when used correctly, does not need 3-D, film itself is an illusion and this is rather magical... or magickal, if you prefer.

The real reason to sit through this again is, of course, Price. His performance here may well be the one capping moment of his career, other and greater to come, some outstanding prior, but it is here that one sees the Iconic Price take center stage. His man is bitter to literal insanity, but there is a wild black humor dished with every syllable and facial motion. He is hysterically funny, the Clown Prince Of Horror that his fans know and adore, but here it is "funny." The lines are comedic and played to full comic effect, but his delivery makes for a nervous laughter: this character is fully insane, tormented at his deepest portion of his id.

More important, if that can be possible, is that Price often thought of himself as something other than an Actor, thinking himself more workmanlike. This was neither false nor mere humility, and the man turned down many "legit" stage options, not thinking himself capable, which fortunately lead to his accepting Dr. Phibes Part 3 (or as it is known, Theater Of Blood) and the entire supporting cast rushing over from The Royal Shakespeare Company just to have the chance to perform The Bard with Price... if you have never seen it, love Price or really enjoy well done Shakespeare, you owe it to yourself.

Price here is shown as a remarkably physical actor. Here, he uses his body in a manner that is more in keeping with Brando, Dean or Clift. Not a series of twitchy movements or mumbling, though: body motions of surgical precision. Watching him without his mask, he is contorted, one foot twisted, and I did go back and check. He never missed a cue. Total character immersion. Flawless.

The issue was the dialog. This is where the film nearly jumps the shark. My eldest son, 28, was watching it with me, and the groans lead to his excusing himself. A workmanlike performance is no loss, but the actors have to have something to use, and Price alone makes every syllable count.

Flipping it over, and watching Mystery Of The Wax Museum lead to a series of shocks.

Filmed 20 years prior to the first House, color was a new thing, and sound was still in and of itself rather new to the scene. Needing the Criterion Clean Up (as we call it here at our house), the weird washed out color actually adds to the overall effect of the film. It looks like a bad, bad dream.

The story is the same, but it is presented in such a manner as to be far different, and it is here that my personal film theory is underscored... that the times and era are captured, warped and reflected back onto the audience, zeitgeist as auteur.

This film, released in 1933, would have come out during the Depression, and after WWI. The sense that the world was a violent, disturbing place and one of debatable future was a precursor to the aftermath of WWII and the existentialist movement. Atwill's performance is based almost word-for-word the same as Price's, but the differences are shocking when seen back-to-back.

Atwill is also a bitter man driven to madness from his loss and disfigurement, but his rage is not hidden beneath a thin veneer of black humor, but instead is barely controlled rage, lashing out at everyone and everything that does not attach itself to the obsessive pursuit of his art.

Price is more of a serial killer, or signature killer may be more appropriate, putting his "art" on display, and in doing so mocks the world around him. In comparison, then, the "lesser" performances suddenly take on a different weight. Price's film, released in 1953, seems more a slam on the times, Price as hep cat beat artist, similar to Dick Miller in A Bucket Of Blood than anything else, and really, in essence, that is both the Phibes/Lionheart characters in a nutshell (forgive the wanton pun...).

Atwill is mad in a 1933 sense, mad meaning both insane and enraged.

In Mystery, too, the remaining performances take on a wholly different meaning and depth. The dialog is machine gun fast, crackling like a screwball comedy, razor sharp delivery. That heightened sense of verbal daring is the source of comedy then, and it is important because the humor and its source shifts from the Greek Chorus of the supporting players and onto the star. Thirty years made the difference.

The Zeitgeist as auteur has been in the back of my mind for a couple of decades, but watching these three films so close to one another really carved it in stone. Films are produced as art, of course, but in some cases art comes from merely the correct grasp of the mindset of the audience. The film is made in the hope of gathering enough of an audience to recover the cost of its production, and those films that act as our collective id, horror, reflect back to us more of where we were and are than other genres. It is there in our darkest recesses that we see the most clearly defined shadows.

Mystery was released 1933. Price's House was released in 1953. Consider the social changes, the era, and how much things had changed in that 20 year period. The essence of the actual story remains for the most part unchanged: the focal villain is a genius sculptor, albeit odd, who has chosen wax rather than stone as it is more real, more fleshlike. Both have focused on creating Art, capital A included via intonation, and both are poor. At open, both have been approached by a Dickensian Rich Man who will make all financial worries end. Both have a commercial partner, but the partner has been pushing the Artist to give the audience what they want: Blood, death and torment.

Because in Horror there is cash.

The Artist refuses, tells of the Rich Man bail out approaching, but it is too little, too late for the partner, and in both films the fire insurance scam is enacted. This leads to violence and mayhem, the fire begun, and both capture what must be said are still, even now, rather disturbing images of melting human faces. From this moment, both occurring in the first 10 minutes of screen time, all else follows. Disfigurement and loss of fine motor skills to the Artist feeds bitterness at the injustice, which feeds an internal "fire" of rage, and that way leads to madness.

Flash forward, then, to 2005, and the film that has been so wrongly discussed as the "Paris Hilton" House Of Wax.

The title is the same as the Price film. There is murder, and public placement of victims as a form of art.

The times, though, have changed, and changed so drastically as to render the earlier films to nothing more than a mere nod.

This is the post Viet Nam audience, butt more than that, an audience that has little frame of reference to that conflict other than the notion of madmen walk among us. This is the post 9/11 era, and from that comes the notion of a world that resembles nothing so much as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a world that allows for no rhythm to destruction, no sense of Art that would allow for a pattern, any one can die at any moment with no warning whatsoever.

It is also an era that has grown weary of irony, tired of clever for the sake of clever that even the most inspired of clowns would face groans. It is impossible to see Price in this world; he would be groaned off the screen. Instead, we have the visual pun, the crude innuendo and, of course gore. Lots of gore. Implied sex combines with violent, painful death.

The film takes more than one viewing to see its value, and in watching it in context with its two older, somewhat peculiar siblings, the film takes a rather remarkable twist. Rather than one central villain, it has two, formerly conjoined brothers. Is this a comment on the two, earlier films? If yes, I doubt if it was intended to be so, but it does serve the third film well.... think of the bottled hatred and rage that drips off of Atwill, and that defines one of the brothers perfectly. His rage and madness is all-encompassing. He commits acts of brutal ferocity to release that rage.

The other brother is shown as the Artist. His genius is unmistakable, and it is his face that is mangled, but not due to a fire set for insurance fraud, but in the surgical disconnect to the Mad brother, and this sets an entirely different mindset.

It is the Mad brother that controls the entire community, creating it in his twisted image, an entire town that could have come from the mind of Ed Gein, taxidermy and wax statues combine to fill a small town. The Artist brother is, interesting, without speech. His work speaks for him, a fetishistic approach that perfectly combines with the Atwill/Price characters. Atwill/Price were both mad, but they also had a passion for the figures they created, openly speaking with the inanimate objects as if they lived, and did so openly, repeatedly. Here, the Artist appears mentally challenged, and just as importantly, the "weaker" of the two brothers, more inclined to follow the Mad instructions and simply pleased to continue the Work.

What does this say of our era? What can we discern from this?

More important than that, however, is the notion of taking the title and turning it into a reality: instead of a Wax Museum that is called a House of Wax, the entire building is made of wax.

What madness is this? Surely not: a home built entirely of wax would collapse... but then... this is the post 9/11 world, the world of a morality that shifts from one discussion to another. By 2005, the world around the audience is so completely alien to both worlds of 1933 and 1953 as to have almost no basis of comparison at all.

It is also a world in which a person famous for naught but fame can affect our perception of a work in and of itself: the "Paris Hilton" effect, if you will.

So much discussion of the 2005 House is based on her appearance in the film that the film itself becomes a punch line, a joke: Fame is now a virus, a destructive disease that corrupts the perceptive capacity.

Thus, we now turn back to the 1933 and 1953 versions, and compare them to the 2005 version, considering the passage of time and perception of our own era and place.

Carol Clover must now enter into the discussion. Frankly, there is no true critical discussion of the genre without her. It would be less than rude, but disingenuous. Ms. Clover is the one that brought out the understanding of gender in horror film, and identification, and in so doing, coined the most important critical analysis term in regards to the genre: The Last Girl.

Watching the earlier versions, prior to Ms. Clover's Last Girl, the creakiest part of both films becomes apparent primarily because there IS NO Last Girl. There is no central character to identify with other than the villain, and to the 21st century mind that is incompatible with the way we view the genre as a whole.

In the 2005 House, however, as the film struggles to make its point (one... more... rewrite... just one, that was all that was needed), which is that at the core is: The Last Girl and The Bad Boy.

The mirroring used here is the two brothers, the Mad Killer and The Weak Artist on the one side and The Last Girl with The Bad Boy on the other.

Normally, any current horror film that would have at its core a both female and male characters would have to generate some kind of romantic/sexual tension, but here, siblings, also twins. The Bad Boy has a hidden heart of gold (should have shown some of that earlier in the film, would have made him stronger), but his devotion to his sibling is based on a caste and pure love.... just tempered by the fin de siecle pomo dysfunctional family. Comedy replaced by pathos.

It is significant, then, in looking at this film and pay attention to the idea that the dysfunction but murderous brothers reside in a house built of wax, a house that is not a home, and is not purified by fire, but instead is distorted into a melting stream.

The major weakness come at the end of the film, and that too is indicative of the 21st Century horror genre. With a wave of a hand, the ending becomes nothing more than a grab for "Hey, if this makes enough money, we can grind out a sequel!"

Sadly, although so much of the culture of the 70's is rejected, and rightly so, it was in the media of film that such great strides were made, endings in films did not have to be a closing of a book but allowed for the notion of "there are no third acts in America," a feeling that there is something more, however elusive.

That allowed the film makers to create a work that stood alone, said its piece but opened the door for discussion, for contemplation of the work just presented.

It was the horror genre, more than any other, that crushed that invitation to the audience to do more than passively be entertained, but to actually participate in the critical discussion. It is here that again we must acknowledge Ms. Clover, and we as fans must restart that fire, that driving need to look deeper into a film and no longer be content with merely sitting in the dark watching others die.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Final Statement Of A Dead Man

The Black Iron Prison never ended...

After the Collapse and the after the Riots, the Plague and the creation of the Control Government, there was the moment called the Naked Lunch, in which a social order that was broken into levels, each level consuming those beneath and being consumed by those above, and that which was thought was the bottom was in reality feeding on the top... and everyone, everywhere simply stopped. The Naked Lunch was the awful, frozen moment when everyone saw what was really at the end of every fork.

The Control Government as was run in Mishawaka, Indiana had taken over certain existing buildings and structures to be used in a manner not originally intended.

The old Methodist Church which had been specifically designed to replicate the cathedral of Notre Dame du Paris had become the Hall Of Justice. A building that was nearly completed before the Collapse and had stood empty was made into the Clear Central, publicly a mental institution but actually a place of torment and pain.

A gazebo built upon a hill was transformed into a gun turret. An empty high price condominium was a prison, the House Of Correction.

Those found to be Enemies Of The State were brought to the Hall Of Justice. Under the Control Government law, any lawyer who allowed the accused to plead innocent and later found to be guilty would suffer the same fate as their client. The plea of innocent never ceased to exist but it did cease to be heard.

The accused could do so, but in doing so, the lawyer would ask to be recused, often revealing into the public record information that was still thought to be covered under the Client/Attorney privilege but under Control Government law that was considered an act of patriotic virtue and was protected. The accused would then stand trial as guilty with innocence needing to be proved, and without representation.

Thus, the only two pleas heard in court were the rare guilty, but the most common, insane.

Insanity as a defense was accepted, as any questionable behavior would then be considered through the lens of sanity, sanity defined as the rule of law, and the law was of the Control Government.

If found insane, the accused was then remanded to the custody of the Clear Central for treatment. Here the accused was tormented flesh and spirit until the replies given to questions were completely in order with the world view of the Control Government. It was also here that the place of pain, Room 101, was used to take that one terror, that deepest id secret would be brought forth, the greatest fear held by the accused would be turned against them, making all prior agonies become happy memories.

Once the accused was cured, it was the province of the Control Government to determine if the accused was at core a threat to the state. Should one be found to be such a threat, the torments of the damned were visited upon them, day into night, night into day, world without end. Once the clarity was finally achieved, the accused became the guilty, and from there they would be sent to the House Of Correction, to await the time that would come, the call to the Great Owl Bridge.

Upon their final hours, the guilty would be lead into the open air, would be allowed a last statement, and then be summarily hanged. Not in the traditional means of hanging, it must be said, but via the placing of the noose about the neck and then raising the accused into the air. Death was always slow, and the soon to be corpses would kick and thrash, much to the delight of the gathered crowd.

There was always a gathered crowd. This was law. All executions were mandatory in attendance. Gathered also would be the wide variety of media. On that day, the usually weeping prisoner would beg forgiveness, and bless the state for their coming demise.

As was the tradition of the Control Government, those awaiting execution would be also required to watch the executions from their House Of Correction. Tradition also held that within the last week prior to their own death, the prisoner would be allowed to walk outside again, to record their last thoughts in the event of a lack of coherent thought or speech at the penultimate moment.

They would be heavily sedated prior. Their freedom was an illusion, a thought that was planted and replanted again and again under chemical hypnotherapy.

These final videos were more often than not discarded, as the spectacle of the crowd and media often inspired the most entertaining speeches, and always drew the highest ratings.

The video that became known as The Final Statement Of A Dead Man was kept after the speech given by that Hero of freedom that day, to be examined fully for hints and clues as to how the method had failed. The ending of his speech is still not on the tape, which he recorded as a rehearsal of sorts (although this has never been confirmed). That day, as is known, he began to speak, and sounded at first precisely as the Central Government had hoped.

As is well known, all recording by the media had been cut off at what had later become the rallying cry of the Truth Movement, all cell phone coverage was severed. What came out later, and the moment of the Naked Lunch, was when the aftermath had been discovered. The entire community was executed shortly afterwards, the turret in the gazebo became the burning lead rain of the wrath of the Control Government. The entire city was burned to the ground, bulldozed over, and offically was removed from all maps of that time.

The shrine of The Dead Man stands there now, a gigantic statue of his face in the final visual image seen by all the world, and beneath his legacy, carved in marble six feet in height:

You have been lied to.