The Birdman of Leavenworth, a Death Row Proto-Kevorkian

I’m currently working on a new book (new, as in I have an OLD book and you should probably go buy a copy because my publisher deserves money for enduring my head-casery) and as I research I keep finding interesting alleys off the main street of my reading.  So many little snippets that likely won’t have a place in the larger story but are entertaining enough that I want to share them.

My upcoming book will be a look at personal manifestos and their role in shaping particular parts of contemporary culture as well as serving as at times unintentional autobiographies of the people who wrote them.  Less Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto and more Elliot Rodger’s My Twisted World.  Some of the manifestos I am analyzing are quasi-political, like Valerie Solanas’ The SCUM Manifesto or Anders Behring Breivik’s 2083, but most of them are  analyses of the self that also stand as a statement or declaration of social or political aims.  One such manifesto is Carl Panzram’s autobiography, wherein he discusses how he came to be shaped into a multipurpose psychopath and why he felt entitled to engage in the mayhem that saw him imprisoned multiple times and ultimately executed.  As I researched Carl Panzram, I came across Panzram: A Journal of Murder by Thomas E. Gaddis and James O. Long, editors, and an unexpected look at how the politics of the death penalty played out among the condemned.

Before he was The Birdman of Alcatraz, Robert Stroud was The Birdman of Leavenworth (which actually makes more sense as a moniker since he was never permitted to keep birds at Alcatraz).

Seriously, if there’s a bird with Stroud, he was at Leavenworth. Don’t challenge me on this, I’m ready.

The movie about him, starring Burt Lancaster, was before my time and I probably should watch it in due time, but from what I can tell it portrays Stroud in a very sympathetic manner (as does a more recent film about Panzram that stars James Woods).

Yep, that’s the wiener sidekick from House M.D. standing behind Woods/Panzram in the film Killer: A Journal of Murder.

But bear in mind, if Carl Panzram, dream date of late-child murderer Ian Brady, was a one-man-mayhem-machine, Robert Stroud, had he stayed out of prison longer, would have been his peer.  Though he spent decades nursing birds and researching cures for avian diseases at Leavenworth, Stroud was also a pimp and a murderer, and once imprisoned he was the instigator of many fights and eventually killed a prison guard.  That murder landed him on death row at Leavenworth, but his sentence was commuted and he spent 1918 through 1942 in solitary confinement at Leavenworth (which sounds much different than what prisoners experience in solitary in the USA today).  It was in solitary confinement in Leavenworth that Stroud “met” Carl Panzram.

Oh, and in case you were wondering how Stroud ended up in Alcatraz, the Birdman was caught using the equipment a benevolent prison warden gave him for his birds to make alcohol and sell within the prison.  Upon discovery of this side hustle, he was transferred to Alcatraz.

There are so many mug shots of Carl Panzram, under varying names, that it was hard to pick just one. I selected this one because I like that little curl of hair sticking up over his forehead. It’s easy to imagine him as a kid with hair like this, which is sort of awful now that I think about it.

Carl Panzram was a life-long criminal and an utter psychopath whose crimes ranged from audacious financial exploits on oil rigs in Africa to child rape to murder.  A victim of the harsh practices in reform schools and even harsher practices in prison, all attempts to rehabilitate him made him even worse.  He’d been in several prisons before ending up in Leavenworth, often under false names.  Panzram in prison was a man who just wanted to be left alone.  It’s hard to be left alone in prison and Panzram, in Leavenworth, became a pot waiting to boil over.  He reached his limit and started a prison riot when he killed the foreman in the prison laundry.  That earned him the death penalty and he was kept in solitary during his trial and the time during which he was awaiting execution, in the same solitary block as Robert Stroud.

(There’s a funny story about the end of the riot, too.  Or at least it was funny to me.  Panzram beat the prison laundry foreman to death with a pipe and rampaged through the prison with it in his hand.  When he reached a wing that a guard, Red Ballard, locked down anticipating his arrival, Panzram shouted at him to open the door. Ballard, terrified and shaken, said, “I will never let you in with that in your hand.” As if he forgot he was holding it, Panzram tossed the iron bar away and declared that this must be his lucky day.  Ballard called for assistance and, presumably, opened the door.)

During the trial, Panzram was clear that he wanted to be executed.  Many anti-death penalty groups tried to intervene on his behalf and in response Panzram essentially told them to take their do-gooder notions and go fuck themselves.  He was set on execution, not only because he was tired of the misery of prison life, but also in the spirit of telling the state and the penal system that since they created this monster, they needed to kill it.  A sort of slow-motion suicide by cop.

This attitude alarmed Robert Stroud to the point that he intervened. Or at least he tried.  Despite both men being in solitary confinement, there is ample evidence that Stroud and Panzram managed to effect some sort of communication, and that communication focused on one aim: Stroud wanted Panzram to kill himself.

Unsure if that is the actual gallows where Panzram was executed but I found this pic on a site called The Temple of Ghoul and with a name like that I have to think that if anyone has the actual photo, that site does. (http://templeofghoul.blogspot.com/2013/02/carl-panzram-spirit-of-hatred-and.html)

Stroud found himself on Leavenworth’s death row for the same offense as Panzram, for killing a prison employee, but his sentence was commuted to life.  Stroud to the end felt that Panzram’s yearning for execution was a bluff, that he would, like any reasonable man, want to cheat the executioner, even if it meant dying by his own hand.  But Stroud also felt very strongly that the death penalty – either through the state of Kansas or through the federal government – should never be performed on Leavenworth soil.  He even went so far as to give money to a campaign to prevent another solitary inmate from facing the death penalty for murdering a fellow Leavenworth prisoner.  There had been no executions at Leavenworth and Stroud, as well as many other death penalty abolitionists, did not want a death penalty precedent set.  From his isolation cell, Stroud could see the gallows being constructed and it fired his resolve that Panzram should be encouraged to kill himself to avoid being the man who brought the death penalty to Leavenworth.

Interestingly, Stroud managed to get information to Panzram regarding ways to end his life, and Panzram, afraid his death sentence might not be carried out, made a genuine suicide attempt.  From Panzram, A Journal of Murder (228):

Stroud began long disquisitions to the guard Red Ballard, to the orderlies and to Ono Manuel [another inmate] in a clear, loud voice, hoping that the information would reach Panzram.  He talked about how simple and painless it would be to end it all: press two fingers into the groin until the throb of the femoral artery can be felt, work the fingers back and forth until the artery is brought against the skin, and cut it with a long thumbnail or a chip of a razor blade.  Death would come in minutes.  This artery, Stroud explained in loud tones, is the only one which can be easily reached, yet cannot be tied off.  He also spoke of making a paper quill, opening a large vein anywhere, inserting the quill and blowing a bubble or two into the vein.  Or, he added, simple tap water would do it.

Ballard said nothing.  He closed the wooden door to Panzram’s cell and cautioned Stroud to lower his voice.

Red Ballard kept a very close watch on Panzram but he could not prevent the suicide attempt Panzram made on June 20, 1929 (the one year anniversary of beating the laundry foreman to death).  He had hidden a plate of beans he let go bad, making them poisonous.  He ate those beans and then opened a six-inch gash in his leg using a sharpened button.  Had he just slashed his leg he might have succeeded because it was the sound of him vomiting up the tainted beans that alerted the night guard that there was a problem in his cell.

Once the execution date was firmly set and no appeals were made, Stroud was still convinced that Panzram was bluffing, that he really did not want to die at the hands of the state and that he had simply been too incompetent to carry out his prior suicide attempt.  Since Panzram feared that the state might consider him too mentally unwell to execute, which was the impetus behind the attempt, there may have been some truth to the notion that he was inept with fear. Stroud may have been correct on that front because if there had ever been a man who knew how to kill, it was Panzram.  Still, a failed suicide involving bad beans and a button might help the case that Panzram was too mentally ill to execute and surely Panzram knew this.  It seems very likely that Panzram engaged in overkill with his methods of choice rather than failing due to incompetence. As the execution drew closer, Stroud upped his game and Panzram, in the end, showed his genuine intent.

Two weeks before the execution, Stroud saw his opportunity.  He wrote his earlier instructions on a slip of paper, broke a new Gillette blade in two and wrapped the paper around the top halves of the broken blade. Having found an old tube of watercolor gray, he painted the package the same color as the concrete floor.  He then persuaded a new short-term prisoner, who had been made an orderly in the isolation section, to throw the tiny packet into Panzram’s cell the first time the guard, Red Ballard, turned his head.  The orderly agreed […].

The packet was dropped into Panzram’s cell without incident […]. 238-239)

Stroud had some hope that Panzram would use the blades and take his own life because Panzram held onto the blades until two days before his execution, and then turned them over to guard Red Ballard (who really needed to be paid far more than he was for dealing with all he endured during his tenure at Leavenworth).

“Where did you get these?” Ballard demanded.

“None of your damned business,” said Panzram. (239)

Stroud may have been onto something because why else would Panzram have held onto the blades for around ten days, turning them in so close to the execution.  Was he wavering until the end, perhaps mulling over how he wanted to die?  Did the packet with the blades sit unseen on his prison floor for a while, so well camouflaged by Stroud’s watercolor? More likely he wanted insurance in the event the state decided on a last minute pardon and commuted his sentence, one that carried a better chance at success than rotten beans and a shaved-down button. It’s hard to say why Panzram kept the blades for so long, but in the end the state did execute him. He had the option of slashing his wrists or neck or groin but went to the gallows instead.

And of course, the statement Panzram is most famous for occurred on the gallows.  He sneered at his executioner, saying, “Hurry it up, you Hoosier bastard.  I could kill a dozen men while you’re screwing around.”

He probably could have, too.  But he didn’t.  Nor did he kill himself.

I admittedly knew very little about Robert Stroud, Birdman of Alcatraz, before I read about Panzram, and what I knew was very fluffy, redemption-oriented sort of quasi-knowledge.  While I could have guessed a man like him would be anti-death penalty, I certainly didn’t anticipate him being so keen on enabling a suicide he considered more ethical in the macro and having more dignity in the micro, nor did I expect him to be so knowledgeable on methods of suicide.  Child of the media that I am, I now have visions of Burt Lancaster encouraging James Woods to commit suicide.

The things you learn when learning about other things…

Crypt of the Living Dead by Doug Brunell

Book: Crypt of the Living Dead, Sinful Cinema Series #2

Author: Doug Brunell

Type of Book: Non-fiction, film criticism

Why Do You Consider This Book Odd: It shows the charm and marginal merit of a film that I initially felt had neither but could see once I read Brunell’s take on the film.

Availability: Published by Chaotic Words in 2017, you can get a copy here:

Comments: I’ve begun to despair of the horror genre as of late, and it may be because I’ve reached the age to where there is very little that’s new under the sun.  It’s not helped by the fact that so often genre films are endeavors where those with marginal talents do the bare minimum necessary to get a film together, as evidenced by many of the anemic offerings on NetFlix.  For every Babadook or It Follows, there are a dozen miserable titles that one shouldn’t bother to remember because they all tell the same story, poorly acted, with little spark.

But perhaps I’m being an old crank.  Well, actually, I am being an old crank, at least where the horror genre is concerned and I needed to be reminded that sometimes the desire to see only that which is wholly new, unconventional or somehow rarified can cause us to overlook films that might be interesting if only paid attention.

Enter Doug Brunell’s look at little-known films.

I came across Doug’s work after he read my compendium TL;DR and introduced himself on Twitter. I looked up his work and was delighted to see that he was a fellow traveler in the bizarre and fringe and had written analyses of the cinematic corollaries to some of the books I discuss here.  I saw the title Crypt of the Living Dead, and thought it had something to do with zombies.  Nope, this is a vampire film. (Matt Kaplan’s The Science of Monsters links zombies, werewolves and vampires together as monsters conjured by mass fears of overpopulated cities, disease, especially diseases caused by bodily rot, and though that is certainly not relevant to this discussion it was interesting to see all three monsters represented in this film, as it features a vampire who turns into a wolf and the title leads modern audiences raised on George Romero films to think of zombies.)  I decided it would be interesting to watch the film first and then read what Brunell had to say about it.

Though Mr OTC and I agreed that the film might have gone down better had we been watching it with a space janitor and two wise-cracking robots, it wasn’t wholly bad.  In fact, I found myself uttering Yogi Berra-worthy statements as I watched it, like, “This film would be pretty good if it wasn’t so bad.”  Because there were moments in it that were entertaining, and most of those moments were entertaining because they were so weird.

A quick synopsis, and here be spoilers but I don’t think anyone will be watching this film with an eye toward creative storytelling or unexpected plot twists (but I will try to minimize them): An older man, who came to a small, almost inbred European island to study their customs, is crushed under the crypt topper of a woman called Hannah, who died in 1269.  He is crushed because a wild man (a literal wild man who resembles a cave man with an eye patch) and a robed man knock him over, shove him under the crypt, and knock the supports out from under it, crushing him, effectively decapitating him.  The man’s son, Chris, comes to the island and is greeted by the man in robes, Peter, who lives on the island with his sister, Mary.  We don’t know what Peter’s game is but he seems very helpful to Chris, helping him navigate the stand-offish islanders who are slow to welcome newcomers.  Mary is a schoolteacher and the kids are suitably creepy, as are the islanders, especially the fishermen who won’t even speak to Chris.  We find Chris has come to the island to get his dad out from under the crypt – the islanders were just going to leave him there, minus his head, because the tomb was too heavy to lift, evidently.  So Chris, with Peter’s help, organizes the fishermen on the island to try to go underground and lift the tomb and though they are divided on whether or not they should be messing around with Hannah’s tomb because, as you probably know, she was interred as a vampire and to mess with the tomb risks letting her out, they ultimately try to help. Mary and Chris “bond” and Peter seems excited at the prospect that his sister may leave the island with Chris. But nothing goes easily because Hannah has gotten out, she preys on the islanders and everything ends rather poorly for many of the islanders and, of course Peter, who was in thrall to the undead Hannah.  And it all seems okay at the end, once Hannah has been dealt with in a rather pyrotechnic manner, but alas, peace will be short-lived because evil now infests this little island.

As I watched the film, the deficits, which were funny rather than infuriating, were what I noticed first.  Here are the best of the “WTF” moments:

–When Chris’s dad was exploring the catacomb area, he walks under a sacrificed goat that has been strung up high and is bleeding out.  He feels the blood drip on his face and looks up and stands there staring at the bleeding goat as it spills blood all over his face.  When he finally starts walking again, he doesn’t bother to wipe the blood off, but instead wanders the catacombs with goat’s blood all over his face and head.

–Chris is such a dead ringer for notable porn actor John Holmes that it was distracting.

–Inexplicably, the only person who saw Hannah in her wolf form was, I am not kidding, completely blind.

–Mary, who taught in a one-room school house, forced one kid to stand in the corner ALL DAY because she found him playing in the cemetery because that is a totally reasonable thing for a grade school teacher to do.  The entire classroom is filled with children who would need a bath and a complete set of chromosomes to qualify as extras in Children of the Corn.

–Hannah, the person for whom the film is named and who ostensibly should have at least been a peripheral character, never says one word in the film.  Instead she writhes about in her tomb, wanders about in a filmy white dress, and generally looks kind of pretty but is basically just a piece of animated scenery.

–Chris and Mary hook up and Peter, who I may remind you is Mary’s brother, watches from outside.  Okay, sort of gross, right.  Then the next day when he sees them he is super pleased and overly enthusiastic about Chris nailing his sister and immediately demands that Mary leave the island with Chris because nothing says emotional security and trust like a stranger having sex with your sister within days of meeting her even though he’s supposed to be trying to haul his dad’s carcass out from a vampire’s tomb.

There are other moments that left me wondering what on earth was at play but mostly I focused on the silly plot points because the movie seemed very simple and the details of the film seemed secondary to the gentle mockery that made up most of my reaction.  But then I followed it up by reading Brunell’s analysis of the film and it changed the film for me.  Of course, the film isn’t suddenly rendered amazing after seeing it through Brunell’s filter – and Brunell himself points out the movie’s many flaws – but the efforts the filmmakers put into the film, as well as details that went completely over my head, combined with the themes that Brunell saw in the movie, certainly rescued it from the mental file where I had placed it alongside Manos: The Hands of Fate.

Halloween 2017: Masks

It’s Halloween, so what better time to talk to you all about the masks or mask-like uses of make-up that annoy, upset or absolutely terrify me.

One of my earliest memories is of a television commercial promoting an Alice Cooper concert in Dallas.  I must have been three or four at the time.  I was absolutely terrified by his appearance, with the heavy eyeliner that appeared to be running down his face, the wild hair, the marks around his mouth that might have been blood for all I knew – our old television was in black and white.

Seriously, fuck this guy.

My parents decided that the best way to help me overcome my fear of this horrible man on the TV was to force me to watch it every time it came on.  My father would prevent me from running from the room when it aired, holding me there and telling me over and over that it was just a television commercial, it was just a man in make-up, that none of it could hurt me.  It didn’t work.  I screamed and cried and still he and my mother persisted, convinced they could reason with a frightened child.  I had similar reactions to KISS, mostly Gene Simmons.

Interestingly, I am not particularly unnerved by clowns.  I look at a clown, and I know it’s some asshole wearing a bunch of make-up and a wig and maybe some stupid clothes.  I know what the intent is behind clown make-up – to delight or terrify.  When I know the intent, it’s hard to be afraid, and that is where my parents, as well meaning as they were at the time, missed the mark.  I didn’t need to know that it was a commercial and couldn’t hurt me.  I needed to know why the man was dressed that way, what his intent was, what he planned to do in that get-up.  And of course I could not express this so young and of course my parents had no idea what was at play in my terror.  Variations of not knowing the reason behind the disguise fuels my adult uneasiness around masks, I think, though surely there are other explanations, from Jungian collective unconsciousness ruling my response to just plain jitters.

There are a lot of explanations as to why it is that people wear masks and costumes at Halloween and I am loath to discuss them because to do so means I have to cover every potential reason going back to early recorded history or someone will show up and leave a very long comment schooling me on Samhain-this and Pope-Boniface-that and how it’s racist for a white woman even to say Dia de los Muertos, let alone discuss the purpose behind sugar skull make-up.  But this is a time of the year that makes a woman who finds the purpose behind masks very important somewhat uneasy.  And perversely, because it makes me uneasy, I expose myself to it in ways that make me even more unnerved.  But I can’t seem to avoid it, and since I can’t stop poking at this canker sore in my psyche, I’ve decided to drag you all down with me.

Halloween 2017: The Seventh Victim

As always, assume this discussion (of a film over seventy-years-old!!!) contains spoilers.

Every Halloween I always promise to myself that I will watch all the old horror films that I feel I should have watched.  As a fan of the genre, I have watched precious few of the early horror films and even fewer of the 1960s and 1970s fare and am unable to hold my own in conversations about Hammer films.  But I have to confess that I can never get through older films with legends like, say, Boris Karloff or Vincent Price, without wishing I was in space with two robots sitting next to me.

It was a simpler time.  I know that. What frightened people eighty to ninety years ago is going to seem a bit quaint and possibly silly to a modern audience. I guess I am a result of growing up with John Carpenter’s Halloween films and the Friday the 13th and Hellraiser franchises, which are now cheesy in their own way, come to think of it.  So I’ve been looking for an old horror film I can watch without mockery and I came close with The Seventh Victim.

I learned about The Seventh Victim watching a documentary about horror films – it may have been Nightmare in Red, White and Blue but it’s been a while.  I filed it away mentally because it sounded interesting – the description of “a woman who dreams of death meets a woman desperate to live” or words to that effect plus a possible Satanic cult and of course I would eventually want to see this film.

Not sure where the “robbed of the will to love” part comes in…

It wasn’t entirely as described but it was still interesting.  Made in 1943, it presented a very calm and genteel look at human evil while using some tropes that I have come to associate with Hitchcock and Polanski. The femme fatale was surprisingly fragile, the teen sister looked like she was in her thirties, and all the men were sort of… dumb and/or sappy, but I think this film worked so well because it had elements of some of the more sophisticated horror movies, fare that genuinely unsettled me the first time I saw it.  Christopher Lee as a vampire and Boris Karloff as a mummy never scared me, even as a kid, but Janet Lee in a shower and a cabal of Satanists in a swanky New York apartment seeking their heir did.  Before I discuss this film, here’s a quick synopsis:

Mary Gibson, attending boarding school, finds out her older sister Jacqueline has gone missing.  Jacqueline is her only family and has not paid Mary’s school fees so Mary decides she needs to try to find her sister.  She travels to New York and discovers her sister had given away her cosmetic factory and salon to an employee called Esther Redi.  She manages to trace the man whom she ultimately learns to be Jacqueline’s husband, Gregory Ward, and with him and a very sketchy psychiatrist, whom I think was the same psychiatrist in Cat People, and a dopey poet they manage to find Jacqueline.  Jacqueline, who killed a private eye who was looking for her, is in hiding from both the law and a cabal of Satanists who think she has betrayed them by telling the psychiatrist, Dr. Judd, about them.  Only six people have crossed this cult before and all were killed, and Jacqueline is to be their seventh victim, giving us the title of the film.

Though some of the characters were hokey – seriously someone needed to punch the stupid poet – this short, melodramatic little film was pretty good.  Kim Hunter played Mary, the naive and innocent girl gone to the big city alone to find her sister. The terrible hair and fashion of the time made her look so much older than she was, but Hunter managed to pull off a neat balance between terrified virgin and intrepid girl scout on a mission.  She stays in New York, Gregory Ward helps her get a job, she takes a room over an Italian restaurant (called Dante’s) and is pretty resilient without being too plucky to be unendurable.

Early on, Mary is helped by a private detective who realizes that Jacqueline is being held in a locked room at her salon, and she accompanies the PI to the salon at night and is too terrified to open the door herself.  The PI reluctantly does it and she hovers in the shadows, frightened to her core, and later we learn that Jacqueline was indeed in that room and was convinced a member of the Satanic cult had come to kill her.  The PI drops to the floor, having been stabbed with a pair of scissors, and Mary runs away, leaving him there. Initially, this scene seemed off, but later I realize how well it worked because what was Mary to do?  He was dead, she couldn’t have removed him, and she had no idea how he came to be stabbed – was the killer still there?  The fear and flight were the right reactions.

Gregory Ward, played by Hugh Beaumont (yep, Mr. Ward later became Ward Cleaver), knows he is being cuckolded by Dr. Judd, but is so taken with Jacqueline’s exquisite beauty and cluster-B tendencies that he supports her even on the run, though when he finds out she is a killer he encourages her to turn herself in.  He also finds himself falling in love with Mary, probably because she is so uncomplicated.  He abetted Jacqueline’s craziness to a shocking degree, and she was nuts, no two ways about it.  Jacqueline was obsessed with death and suicide.  Because she was so interested in death, she rented a room – over Dante’s restaurant – and the only things in the room were a noose and a chair.  Gregory Ward kept up the rent on that room because he was besotted with what sounds like the mercurial nature of the personality disordered.

Interestingly, everyone felt Jacqueline was one of the most beautiful women they had ever seen.  When we finally meet her, it’s a hoot.  She’s a bog-standard proto-goth, down to the dyed-black hair and uneven baby bangs.  Her affect is utterly flat, she seems to get by on her quirkiness (death obsessed, continually telling charming lies, being the sort who would get in deep with Greenwich Village Satanists and then rat them out in therapy), and given that this film is ostensibly about finding her it matters very little when she is found.

Her hair proves how mysterious she is.

Dr. Judd, Gregory Ward, the poet whose name really doesn’t matter, and Mary finally track Jacqueline down and drag her back to Mary’s apartment to stay until Gregory can arrange a good time for her to turn herself in for killing the PI. But they don’t count on how intrepid the Satanists are.  They find Jacqueline and escort her to their lair, which is an apartment and filled with a cast of characters we met earlier during a party (the woman who owns the apartment has one arm, inexplicably), and give her poison to drink.

But this cabal of Satanists are civilized.  They will not kill her.  They will just pressure her to commit suicide unless she refuses and then, maybe, they will kill her.

Most civilized Satanic attempted murder ever!

Unsure why this cabal exists – they seem to just like having parties and talking about being bad while not actually being bad – but among them are Esther Redi and an extremely emotional hairdresser who worked for the salon Jacqueline owned.  When Jacqueline seems to be close to drinking the poison, the hairdresser loses it and breaks the glass and the cult sends sullen, affect-less Jacqueline on her way, only to follow her and try to kill her.  Jacqueline gets away, desperate to live, and races back to Mary’s apartment above the restaurant.

It is here that she encounters the dying woman who wants to live.  We had seen glimpses of Mimi, the coughing, dying wraith who lives in the building with the poet and Mary, but this is the first time she speaks.  Jacqueline, so paranoid she sees this sick woman and is fearful she is part of the cult, demands to know who she is, and Mimi explains that she is dying and that she is tired of being sick.  She wants to go out dancing and drinking and have fun, if only for one night, and then she might end it all.  She will only kill herself because she so wants to live and is sick of not enjoying life as she slowly dies from her illness.  Jacqueline, having refused to kill herself and having fought to remain alive, sees Mimi and rushes to her rented room and hangs herself.  Don’t ask me why.  Not the reaction I would have had. Conveniently her death clears the path for Mary and Gregory to be together, and Mimi does indeed dress up and have a lovely night on the town.

I was rather surprised by the way the Satanic cult was handled.  The cult called themselves Palladists – presumably a name that nods to Pallas Athena – and looked like a 1940s bridge tournament was being held.  The only one who seemed the least bit odd was the woman with one arm.  Otherwise they seemed perfectly normal, got up to little that was evil – killing only those who threatened the cult and adhering to non-violence whenever possible – yet operated in such secrecy that one was certain that some horrible stuff had to have gone down at some point.  One does not keep a 1940s exemplar of borderline personality disorder locked away in a room for months and later plan her death for squealing if one’s dopey cult does little more than hold interesting salon-style soirees and occasionally hail Satan.

You can tell they are evil because of the lighting.

The cult reminded me a bit of the Satanists in Rosemary’s Baby, another New York Satanic cult that would not have raised an eyebrow initially, consisting as it did of daft old ladies like Ruth Gordon.  Ultimately we saw what the cult that impregnated Rosemary Woodhouse was about, but in the 1940s I supposed filmmakers had less leeway to present Satanic evil to its fullest cinematic glory.  In a way, if you know real life Satanists, the vast majority likely live lives not dissimilar to the lives of the Greenwich Village Satanists in The Seventh Victim, hosting tea parties and discussing the human will.  Leave out the stalking and killing part and it was a surprisingly modern approach to Satanists.  But since the stalking and murder were a part of this cult, it definitely harked back to Rosemary’s Baby – those who are genuinely evil in your midst may be the last people you would suspect.

Then there was the shower scene.  Janet Leigh being stabbed to death in Psycho was more than fifteen years away from hitting the silver screen, but I’ve seen it, as have most horror fans, and that scene definitely colored how I viewed Mary’s shower scene.  Mary had gotten her hair done at the salon her sister once owned, and had pumped the hairdresser for information about Esther Redi.  Esther Redi finds out and goes to confront Mary.  Mary lives in a single room over Dante’s Restaurant, and shares a bathroom with other tenants.  She is in the shower, complete with shower cap to cover her freshly styled hair, when Esther Redi enters the bathroom, which presumably Mary forgot to lock.

We do not know much about this cabal of Satanists that Esther Redi belongs to, but it is never good when a young girl is caught at such a disadvantage.  The shower curtain is clear so we can vaguely see Mary’s essential outline from Esther’s perspective.  However, from Mary’s perspective, all we can see is Esther’s backlit shadow towering over her.  But thankfully the Palladists are, at their core, gentle Satanists and Esther simply warns Mary away.  But the menace was clear – Esther could get into the bathroom, and presumably into Mary’s room, and had no trouble sneaking up on the naive teen when she was at her most vulnerable.

The use of showers in horror films is a ringer – it’s almost too easy – young person, generally a woman, naked and defenseless, becomes an easy and titillating target for the killer/supernatural monster.  But I note that in mostbest shower scene in a horror movie lists,” the lists don’t include any films prior to 1960’s Psycho.  Did this shower scene in the 1940s cause viewers the same apprehension it did me?  Did that menacing silhouette have anything close to the same baggage then as it does post-Psycho?  As I went looking for stills to demonstrate the scene, I found this snippet of the film on YouTube. The person behind this account clearly felt the same way I did.

This was not a terrifying film, but there were enough modern signifiers – a death-obsessed woman whose appearance was a precursor to more modern female death junkies/manic-depressive dream girls, Satanists that were not goat and baby sacrificing lunatics and judicious use of shower-menace – that it set far better with me than early monster movies and seriously hokey Hammer films (god, I want to enjoy Hammer films but they are just so purple and over the top and it makes me feel like a crappy horror fan that I sort of recoil when I hear the names Christopher Lee or Ingrid Pitt).  I recommend watching it if you can find a copy.  It’s not too hard, because you can stream it from Amazon.

If you watch it, let me know what you think.  Feel free to make fun of me for not liking Hammer films.  I’m used to it.

Halloween 2017: Curve

This next offering in Halloween 2017 is not a traditional horror film, nor is it particularly Halloween-y.  It, is, however, utterly frightening.  This little ten minute film perfectly encapsulates what it must feel like to be doomed with no chance of reprieve, yet unable to let go of the very human need to keep fighting even when you know that all your effort may well come to nothing.  I’ve watched this several times but each time I still feel the same tension, the same gritty fear as I imagine myself in the protagonist’s place.  It’s been a long while since a horror film of any sort has left me this rattled.

Halloween 2017: It Comes at Night

This film was absolutely not what I was expecting. I tend to ignore book and film reviews before I consume media so it’s not uncommon that I find myself surprised when I finally watch the movie or read the book. But even with that in mind, this film was still surprising to me. When I see a title like “It Comes at Night” I have some expectations. Like a monster or killer or band of roving post-apocalyptic warriors literally coming at night, attacking the protagonists, creating the violent tension that makes horror films worth watching.

I felt let down by this film, and though that opinion has changed a bit, I still think this film has a core of dishonesty that ensures that the viewer can never know for sure what caused the events to unfold as they did. Which is fine in a way – nothing in the rule book says horror films have to be easy to parse out. My adoration of It Follows should show that I don’t mind doing the work necessary to figure out what is going on with a film.  Sometimes half the fun comes from piecing together the details and clues so that we understand the filmmaker’s intent.  That fun fades when a film that has only six characters and takes place mostly inside a single home muddies the plot line with so many dream sequences and Macguffins that the viewer will never be able to understand exactly what happened.

And I must say that even though I find this film to be dishonest, it still comes no where close to being as dishonest as the most dishonest horror film of all time, High Tension. I genuinely do not know how anyone could praise that film after viewing the last ten minutes. The ending shows that the entirety of the action up to that point could not have happened as presented, that literally the entire movie’s sequence of action could not possibly have occurred as the blonde heroine presents the action and experiences it, and therefore the film deliberately misrepresented everything that happened in order to achieve a GOTCHA ending. But the film likely still gets views because the action up until the directors shot us the middle finger was excellent and the lead actress was very effective in the role.  While the actors in It Comes at Night do a fine job, the film is very static, with very few thrills.  I guess if a film is going to dishonest, it needs to go big or go home..

Above the cut, I want to tell you that the actors did a fine job with the material in It Comes at Night, that the bulk of the film works on a very basic level, and that there are worse ways you can spend an hour and a half of your time. I’m telling you this above the cut because below the cut I will be utterly spoiling the film. If you want to take my reaction and run with it, now is the time to stop reading. For those who have seen the film and want to discuss it with me or those who don’t care about spoilers, let’s dissect this little film.

MrsMisanthropy and Other Fan Video Channels

Because I’ve had a number of people land on this site looking for what happened to MrsMisanthropy over on YouTube, I wanted to share that she’s back!  I have no idea what happened to cause her to shut down her channel initially but she’s been busy uploading all her old content over the last few weeks.  Here’s her new URL: https://www.youtube.com/user/prefevetler/videos.

She’s also linked to two other accounts associated with her videos that may be serving as back-up in case she ever loses content on YouTube again.  Over on Vimeo, she’s Atrocity Exhibition (a suitably Oddbookian name to be sure) and she’s MrsMisanthropy on Google+.  Several people had found a Google+ account for “MrsMisanthropy” but there was not enough content to know if it was her or not (and again, no idea if MrsMisanthropy is really female but I think of her as a women and will until told otherwise).  Bookmark the other links in case she leaves again.  I will update my links to her videos sometime today.

While she was gone, I spent time looking for other fan video makers whose musical and cinematic tastes were interesting and I found several.  For now I feel I must share one specific video-maker and the films behind his fan videos because one of his videos triggered a month long endeavor that I feared was going to be a godless one.  I feared I would not be able to find the originals behind the clips used in Piperbrigadista’s fan video for “Synthetic Potion” by a band called Noir for Rachel.

As I was sifting through the videos on this channel, I was immediately drawn into this one because there is something about the woman’s face that makes me want to keep looking at her.  She appears as if she was confronting a voyeur, or maybe just a run of the mill Peeping Tom.  Her face is so serious and beautiful in a manner that reminds me of Ingrid Bergman and Sophia Lauren.  So I watched and listened and became entranced by the song and even more so by the video.

The song reminds me of what would happen if you crossed early Duran Duran with early Cure and made it all instrumental.  I loved the song “Synthetic Potion” so much that I did something I’ve never done before – I bought an album off Band Camp.  The album, entitled Witches, is a righteous purchase.

The video created a strange obsession in me to run to ground the movie these clips were taken from.  The scene beginning at 1:05, ending at 1:48, was incredibly compelling.  The woman was not confronting a voyeur, but if she was, the experience became something else entirely for her.  She sees this disheveled looking man standing outside the window of her home as she is wearing a dressing gown and underwear. After looking at him for a moment, she reveals her lingerie-clad body to him and waits for his reaction.

The woman in this scene conveys so much with her eyes, mouth and a simple tilt of her head.  Before she opens her dressing gown, she steels herself up.  She raises her chin and takes a small step back, never taking her eyes off the man.  She waits for his response.  Seconds pass, and you see a bit of trepidation pass over her face and she begins to list very slightly as she stands.  She takes another small step back and tilts her head in what looks the beginning of a shrug, an expression of disappointment and rejection.  Then before she completes the dismissal, he steps forward and she does too, leaning toward him.  Her expression only changes a bit but that bit is expansive in its depth.  Her lips show a minor, almost imperceptible sneer of power, her eyes focus on him with even more intensity as he touches the glass.  She’s received the reaction she wants and she wanted this reaction because she wants him at least as much as he may want her.

It was so compelling that I spent a month trying to find this film.  And I finally ran it to ground but only after hours spent searching. 

YouTube Creepiness: MrsMisanthropy and Alceste Esseintes

I’ve been consuming a lot of media on YouTube lately, mainly in the form of various “creepypasta” channels. Various people with good or interesting voices read short stories and vignettes written for online readers – Reddit’s nosleep is a good source of creepypastas – and sometimes put in appropriate sound effects. I listen to hours and hours of such readings as I sew or iron or do repetitive tasks that don’t need my full attention to perform. It reminds me a bit of old radio serials – I wonder if my grandmother did the same, listening to assorted radio dramas as she ironed or cleaned the bathroom.

Creepypastas are fun but ultimately most are pleasant diversions as opposed to something that inspires me to write about them, but the last few months I’ve found myself combing through a couple of accounts that have proven to be far creepier than story recitations that have creepiness as an actual goal. Of course, both accounts aren’t shying away from presenting unpleasant, upsetting or gross content but when it’s not the goal and it happens sort of organically, it’s all the more interesting, I think.

Ethics in Horror Films – It Follows

I wanted to discuss some horror films before Halloween and have watched quite a few in the last couple of months. I haven’t been too impressed with what I’ve seen. Last year I wrote about the somewhat pompous but ultimately enjoyable Only Lovers Left Alive (which featured Anton Yelchin, may he rest in peace) and wanted to look into more vampire films. I remembered seeing Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction some years ago and watched it again and was… well, kind of appalled. Was it really that unredeemingly pompous when I first viewed it? Was the dialogue that stilted? Was Lili Taylor’s character that tiresome? Not even Christopher Walken could save it and I lack the energy to write about how sincerely disappointed I was.

I then watched The Hunger because I’ve watched it several times and always loved it (and, of course, may Bowie rest in peace). But this time it hit some sour notes with me. It was hard to see Susan Sarandon’s allure. She lacked any sex appeal – she seemed like she had no muscle in her body, her eyes bulged like Barbara Bush, and her very voice made me wonder how I ever bought the notion that after living with David Bowie’s character for years Catherine Deneuve found Sarandon to be a good replacement. But I’m also in what my late mother used to call “a mood.” I’ve found myself hating everything lately so maybe I just need to avoid discussing vampire movies I’ve seen several times. I’d hate to go on record as hating this film and next year realize my views were altered because I was in “a mood.”

So I watched a few I’d never seen before and found some good films. What We Do in the Shadows was fun but there’s not much to discuss in something that is successfully funny without much depth beyond the humor. The Collector and The Collection were also fun in that improbable way that complicated “fiend” movies often are. Josh Stewart is actually a pretty good actor and the films had a The Cell-like quality to them, especially The Collection. But I do confess that I appreciated style over substance and when I make a conscious decision to enjoy that which will fall apart if analyzed, I try to avoid discussing it. We all have our failings.

But then I watched It Follows, the film everyone was talking about in 2015. People either loved it or hated it. First time I watched it, I hated it, too. But something about it niggled in the back of my head and I watched it again and suddenly everything about it that seemed wrong with the first viewing fell into place. I realized that the ending that I initially found pointlessly ambiguous showed a clear moral decision on the part of two of the characters as they deal with the supernatural evil stalking them.

Oh my god, I am going to spoil the hell out of this movie in the discussion that follows under the jump. Stop reading now if you have not seen this film yet but are planning to see it. In fact, you should always assume I am going to spoil the hell out of everything I write about here, but seriously, I am going to ruin this movie for you if you haven’t seen it yet. Clear? Good! Let’s discuss the ethics in It Follows.

Pompous Skinny Vampires with Really Bad Hair

11ONLY-articleLarge
Vampires have no need for deep conditioning!

Yeah, I am going to discuss Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive. I’m sure my title for this entry totally gave that away but, in spite of my initial glib reaction, I like this film. But it has to be said: the main characters are pompous, thin and have the worst hair ever. Tilda Swinton’s weave is one of the worst weaves ever seen in film since the one Michael Wincott was forced to wear in his role as Top Dollar in The Crow.  Hiddleston doesn’t fare much better on the hair front.

Several people told me I would love this movie and I suspect it is because Tilda Swinton’s character, Eve, packs nothing but books when she travels. Or maybe they assumed I shared the current online love of Tom Hiddleston, who plays Adam. Not that Adam and Eve, for this Eve has an annoying little sister named Ava, though it may be justthat Ava is her blood kin via vampirism, so maybe they are that Adam and Eve.  Those who are into Shakespeare authorship conspiracies will find elements of this film charming. Christopher Marlowe, as played by John Hurt, makes it clear who really wrote all those plays attributed to Shakespeare, so Marlovians may want to have a look.

images-5
Blood popsicles play no role in the shenanigans. But they are worth mentioning because, you know, frozen blood…

Quick synopsis: Adam lives in Detroit and is a musician who spurns the spotlight, and has done for centuries, yet has influenced and written for famous musicians throughout history. Eve lives in Tangiers, drinking the blood Christopher Marlowe procures for them both, but travels to Detroit when Adam is obviously in distress. The modern world inhabited by “zombies,” as they call humans, with all its increasingly aggressive planned obsolescence, weighs heavy on Adam, to the point that he is suicidal. Eve comes to comfort him, her kid sister shows up, shenanigans ensue.

But be warned – though there be shenanigans, they are sedate shenanigans. Not much happens in this film and what happens is… mostly very calm. Never before has disposing of a body been so tranquil. As much as I appreciated the Jim Jarmuschiness in Only Lovers Left Alive, I did find myself longing for Bill Paxton (of Near Dark fame) overacting. I think we all find ourselves longing for Bill Paxton overacting regardless of the situation – don’t deny it.

I’ve always been fond of Jim Jarmusch. Mystery Train is one of the best movies from the ’80s. No one ever put John Lurie to better use than Jarmusch did in Stranger Than Paradise. But I have to admit that even Mystery Train, one of Jarmusch’s more involved films, has a very minimalist plot. Jarmusch films are atmospheric, stylish and deadpan – you can’t really expect gore or intense story-building in a Jarmsuch film, which I think is what caused this film to seem a bit pompous. All the name dropping of the people these vampires spent time with throughout history wore thin – evidently Mary Wollstonecraft was “delicious” and I don’t know exactly what was meant with that description – surely Adam didn’t drain her. Or did he? Who knows? But he hung around with Byron and Shelley, and during a scene where Eve questions her husband about events in his life she surely already knew about, I was reminded of a lyric from a Rod Stewart song: “I couldn’t quote you no Dickens or Shelley or Keats, because it’s all been said before.” If you’ve been married for centuries, you’ve said it and heard it all before but if you remain true loves – only lovers left alive, remember – you want to hear the stories again. They will always sound new to a lover, if quite pompous to outsiders.

Despite the cluttered and run-down house in Detroit that Adam settled into in his attempt to avoid the zombies, their increasingly grotesque world and their often diseased blood, this is a pretty film. There are scenes where Adam and Eve take night time drives in Detroit that are very visually arresting, and Adam shows Eve the ruination of paradise – the empty Packard factory, the theater turned into a parking garage. Yet of all the amazing places in Detroit that revolved around excellent music, music of the sort that Adam and Eve play and listen to (Wanda Jackson, Denise LaSalle and Charlie Feathers), he takes Eve to see the house where Jack White of the questionably talented White Stripes grew up. Jack is evidently the seventh son in his family, and I guess that matters to vampires, but surely he could have run by Florence Ballard’s house or the Leland Baptist Church where Bessie Smith performed with Louis Armstrong. Except we only see one black dude in all of Detroit and he’s the doctor who sells Adam untainted blood. It’s a strange, discordant note in this film that otherwise seems to pay a lot of attention to detail and name drops so many important people of cultural worth.

The clever jokes in the film also sort of fall flat. Adam and Eve travel using passports under the names “Stephen Dedalus” and “Daisy Buchanan.” Why Stephen Dedalus? Kit Marlowe says in the film that he wished he had known Adam when he wrote Hamlet because Adam would have been a far better model for the suicidal Dane, and Stephen Dedalus, if I remember my college analysis of Joyce, shows Hamlet-like qualities. So that kind of works. But Daisy Buchanan? It would be hard to find a more loyal, faithful wife than Eve, despite living on a completely different continent than Adam. Whenever Adam is in need, she rushes to his side. She has no other lovers. She is no Daisy Buchanan. It’s hard for me to think of a better female literary character for her to use for her passport identity, but I’m no filmmaker, to be sure.

And if it sounds like I am bashing this movie, I may be a little bit, but I tend to like pomposity when it is handled well. Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is one of my favorite books. I love the films of Whit Stillman, one of the most pompous filmmakers ever to breathe life into preppy culture. But it speaks to the nature of this film that the best part is when Ava comes into Detroit and wreaks havoc on Adam and Eve’s reunion. She is a force of chaos in Adam’s very cloistered life, a vampire who loves the modern world as much as Adam hates it, who gives in to her base impulses in a way her sister cannot. The scenes with Ava are the price of admission for this film.

images-6
No idea what Kit Marlowe is holding here but it isn’t a comb.

But even as I found myself wondering how it is that Adam made the transition from writing adagios for Schubert to becoming a Detroit rock god, how the fuck their passports made any sense, I still found this film enjoyable. As I mentioned it is visually appealing, even when it is shabby. There is no humor but there is plenty of wit. And the actors are all very pretty – including the aged John Hurt – even if they have terrible hair. I think this is a movie that I felt strangely about when watching, realized I enjoyed it at the end, and will love it the second time I watch it.

This film has also given me a terrible itch to see The Hunger, Trouble Every Day and Near Dark before Halloween gets here. All three vampire movies, all three extremely stylish in very different ways, and I think this Halloween needs David Bowie, Vincent Gallo and Bill Paxton to join Tom Hiddleston in the vampire game. Oooo, maybe I’ll watch The Addiction and add Christopher Walken to the mix, too. And all four of those actors have much better hair than poor Hiddleston as Adam. So if nothing else this movie whetted my appetite for more bloody fare (and bloodier fare, too). If you have a favorite vampire film, share it, and if you’ve seen it, let me know what you think of Only Lovers Left Alive.