Tuesday, October 18, 2011

She Freak (1967) ... because calling it "Freaks" might have been too obvious.

Did you ever see the classic movie "Freaks" by Tod Browning?  Well, so did the makers of "She Freak".  If "Freaks" was a bottle of moviemaking fun that people bought in 1932, the makers of "She Freak" decided to soak the original bottle, remove the label, and slap a new label on it that said "She Freak".  Presto, something brand "new" to sell! 

The same wraparound gimmick used in "Freaks" is present here, with a bunch of people in a carnival freak show looking at some atrocious abomination they keep penned up for exhibit.  We don't see it, though, so we know that's the movie's big surprise.  If you've never seen "Freaks", and you were sometimes kept guessing by episodes of Scooby Doo, you will probably not realize who the freak exhibit will be.  The plot then flashes back to introduce us to a cold-hearted B named Jade Cochran.  Whether intentional or not, the film has a nifty little twist in the beginning when Jade is seen waiting tables in a greasy spoon.  Claire Brennan was a beautiful woman, and she makes Jade seem really cute at first.  Then she turns mean.  Real mean.  A redneck tries to pick her up and she turns him down, and then the lecherous diner owner puts the moves on her.  Jade has a complicated view of the world, though.  She smiles, and then she tells you you're pond scum and she wouldn't piss on you if you were on fire.  No, Jade reveals her gold-digging ways early on, and when a man stops by the diner bringing news of a carnival on its way to town, Jade wastes no time begging him for a job.  He refers her to the carnival boss, much to the chagrin of Jade's Mel Sharples wannabe diner boss.  His parting words to her are "You're goin down...all the way down...you're goin to Hell!"

From here on out, it's the plot of "Freaks".  Jade makes an impression on people at the carnival by smiling a lot, and she even makes a girlfriend out of a girlie-show dancer named Pat, who invites her to be roommates.  Jade must not be familiar with carnies though, because she wanders by the freak show and runs horrified back to Pat, complaining about how horrible they are.  Pat gently reminds Jade that these are her coworkers, but in a pivotal plot point, Jade insists she hates freaks. Pretty soon Jade's putting the moves on the carnival boss, Steve St. John, and all it takes is for one long, silent montage of Jade & Steve riding the ferris wheel (metaphorical?) and they're married!  What Jade reallys like, though, is the brutish Blackie Fleming, who roughs her up a little behind Steve's back.  Jade goes on another one of her anti-freak tirades, and Steve doesn't seem to be bothered that she's acting like a total sociopath, especially considering he explains to her that he gives the outcasts a chance to make their own living where they might not have that opportunity elsewhere.  Here's the funny thing, though: aside from a little person they call Shorty, none of the sideshow performers are unusual.  They're ordinary looking people doing unusual things, like swallowing swords and dancing with snakes.  A couple of them have frightmasks glued on their faces.  Big deal, they're not even interesting enough to hold someone's attention in a carnival freak show, let alone be considered "different". 

Shorty catches onto Jade's affair with Blackie and tries to warn Steve about it, and Steve slaps him for his trouble.  It isn't long before Steve finds out the truth when he catches Jade with Blackie, and Blackie stabs him to death after a fight.  Jade stands by and smiles coldly while Steve dies, and she sits back and inherits the carnival while Blackie gets carted off to jail.  Amusingly, she thinks she's going to run the carnival with an iron fist; she sends Shorty packing, and tells her former friend Pat to get back to the hoochie tent and shake her stuff where she belongs.  Jade's position as Queen of All Bitchdom is short-lived, though, when Shorty returns one scene later and corners Jade outside a couple of trailers with the entire group of "freaks".  Just like that movie called "Freaks" that you might have heard about, they cut Jade up real good and turn her into a sideshow of her own: the narrative returns to the present and shows Jade huddling in a pen with snakes, wearing some weird makeup.  So the people we're supposed to pretend are freaks ganged up on her and turned her into...a person we're supposed to pretend is a freak!  How's THAT for your M. Night Shyamalan moment?

This pseudo-remake (not to be confused with Pseudo-Echo) is of interest to me only because of its retro-chic appeal. And believe me, dear reader, the appeal is humble. "She Freak" was fun for me because I liked Claire Brennen's deliciously evil performance, too. She was a lot better than she needed to be for a movie like this, that's for sure. I loved seeing the old traveling carnival footage, and lucky for me it comprised about half an hour of this film's runtime.  "She Freak" has the vacant, meandering atmosphere of a Doris Wishman film. Long sequences are shot silent and presented as a montage, with imitation Lex Baxter lounge music over top of it. Lots of minor-key vibes tinkling over scenes of ferris wheels spinning. It's dead space, but it has a hypnotic effect as well. Sometimes it's interesting to see just how empty a cheap movie like "She Freak" can be.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Drive-In Super Monsterama 2011!

Tonight, we hearken back in time to a month ago. Better late than never, right?

I love, love, LOVE the annual Drive-In Super Monsterama.  This year's lineup was great; I only got to go Saturday night, and there's no way I was gonna miss that.  You think I'd miss BOTH Dr. Phibes films??  On the giant outdoor screen?? Watching them in the night air, while sitting on a lawn chair eating a funnel cake?  You've got to be freakin' KIDDING me!

First up was "The Abominable Dr. Phibes" and "Dr. Phibes Rises Again", back to back.  After you've grown used to a film on the small home screen, seeing it projected onto a giant screen can change the entire way you look at it.  The minute the film started and I heard that pipe organ blasting out of everybody's car stereo, I got the chills.  The lengthy opening sequence that passes entirely without dialogue was extremely surreal, almost like we were watching a silent movie. 

We also hung out for "Count Yorga, Vampire".  I'm pretty sure this is a repeat for the festival, although I know they showed the sequel, "Return of Count Yorga", one year in the past.  "CY,V" was a favorite of mine when I was a kid and vampires were the shiznit for me.  Nowadays, it doesn't grab me the way it once did (especially now that I'm too old to actually wonder whether vampires just might be real).  I do love that moment when the young couple breaks down in their van while driving down Count Yorga's long, winding driveway. They decide to go to sleep in the van, which is a far out 70s screwmobile with a bed in back.  Erica awakens in the middle of the night and opens the curtains to see the Count peering in at her...EEEEEE!  Well, what did she expect, breaking down in the driveway of a vampire?

The fourth and final feature was "I, Monster".  I, Was Tired.  So we left instead of watching Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing go through the paces of Jekyll and Hyde.  I did miss out on seeing some drive-in size Cushing, but at least I got to see him in his brief cameo in "Dr. Phibes Rises Again".  See you next year, Monsterama! 

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Asphyx (1973)

In 1973, period horror flicks were a dying breed, although they probably didn't realize it quite yet.  How cool to discover this very British, very weirdo flick called "The Asphyx", a Victorian-era period piece about an inquisitive upper class scientist who dabbles in experiments related to the nature of death.  Although it was made in 1973, it aspires more to the old days of classic Hammer-style horror.

OK, so there's this guy.  A squire, I think, and be honest--you're not really sure what a squire is, are you?  No, I didn't think so.  Well, I will tell you a squire is...a rich guy who lives in a big house and gives lectures to people about weird smudges on film. Yes, photography, which was so cutting edge back in the Victorian era, is the major plot point here.  The squire guy's name is Hugo Cunningham, and he's just married a second wife.  They're way too happy together, so you know something awful is going to happen to her, right?  Right.  Well, before it happens, we discover Hugo has some strange research going.  He studies pictures taken of subjects who were moments from death, and discovers an unexplained smudge on the images.  Hugo is convinced the smudges are images of the soul leaving the body, and he's determined to prove the soul can be photographed. 

Ladies and gentlemen...the Asphyx.
The trouble really starts when Hugo acquires a new-fangled "motion picture" camera, and while filming his family rowing boats on the water, an accident claims the lives of his wife and son.  Again a mysterious image appears on the film, but this time before his son's death, not after.  Hugo realizes the smudge is not the soul of the nearly departed, but rather something hovering near the subjects moments before their deaths--perhaps causing death itself.  Becoming more obsessed with finding the answer, Hugo films the hanging death of a prisoner and witnesses a startling phenomenon when a beam of light he uses for his photography reveals a bizarre apparition struggling to reach the victim.

Hugo dubs the apparition the "Asphyx", and his hypothesis is that the Asphyx is what truly extinguishes a human being's life.  An experiment with a guinea pig reveals the Asphyx can not only be trapped in Hugo's beam of light, but also imprisoned inside a lighted bottle, rendering the guinea pig immortal because it's Asphyx cannot reach it.  It isn't long before Cunningham enlists his daughter's fiance to help him with his experiments, and he turns himself immortal by trapping his own Asphyx.  Hugo's immortality, however, also causes him to become even more determined to pass this morbid little curse on to his daughter and her fiance.

"Oh, Good God, I just remembered I left the iron on!"
I have to say, the idea here is a lot more interesting than anything else.  It's a wild story, and the fact that it doesn't make a whole lot of sense doesn't seem to slow it down in the least.  The plot moves along at a fast clip, and it doesn't leave you sitting around thinking for too long.  Truthfully, I don't know what to think of the Asphyx itself.  As seen on camera, it is a blurry, squirming wraith that screams a lot.  They're kind of like the green slimer ghost in "Ghostbusters", and they scream like the pod people from "Invasion of the Body Snatchers".  They might be ridiculous, but they're pretty weird and disturbing, too.

In the end, "The Asphyx" is one of those films that wants to tell us that even though nobody wants to die, living forever could really kind of suck, too.  Although I wouldn't call it pure 70s Doom, especially since it's a period movie, this idea alone is enough to lend it a little doomy cred.  It's not a bad way to spend an hour & a half.