Well, I had intended to follow up yesterday’s entry about the WKCR radio broadcast hijack with some new information I found about the names uttered in the chant in the audio clip. I have, predictably, fallen down a rabbit hole. Like I think maybe I’ve solved the link between the names but need some more time, or I’ve hit the bottom of an empty rabbit warren and need to dig my way out, probably filled with shame at my hubris. We’ll see. Once I know which way it’s going, I’ll post about it.
And that’s kind of a lame way to end Oddtober 2019. But hey, I’ve written about a lot of weird crap over the years and I seldom do revisiting compilations so I feel like maybe I’ll just link to some of my lesser seen odd/creepy/horrific entries and get back to listening to a weird audio recording that reminds me I have tinnitus every time that bell rings.
Type of Book: Non-fiction, cinema review, film history
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Because the film is a huge, steaming pile of horse shit but Brunell’s love and enthusiasm for this type of grindhouse/sexploitation genre actually made me second guess my initial reaction.
Availability: Published by Chaotic Words in 2016, you can get a copy here:
Comments: Jesus Allah fuck, this is a terrible film. I’m not going to say you in particular would hate this film because a lot of you have weird tastes or you wouldn’t be reading here in the first place. Also, if you mute it so that you are not subjected to appalling dialogue delivered by people who probably would have been better used in outright porn, there are some interesting things going on. For example:
–If you are tired of seeing buoyant, surgically enhanced breasts, the natural boobs in this film may be just what the doctor ordered. Additionally, people tired of the PAWG trope will delight in the mostly flat, often saggy butts found on the women (and men) in The Abductors.
–How do you feel about pubic hair? Fans of the bush will love this movie.
–Do you have strong opinions about hairy chests on men lacking even the 1970s Burt Reynolds version of muscles, who look hilarious when they get handcuffed to trees? You are in luck.
–Do you harbor unresolved and unsettling feelings about helicopters, especially when you see them flying low over trees or landing on lakes so small you sense that they received a fine for even trying to land, let alone trying in the dead of night? Take this film to your therapist. It could be key in your recovery.
–Have people told you that if the Olympics had a “cringe” category, your grimaces could bring home a gold medal? Do you need practice covering up second-hand embarrassment so that you can endure your Uncle Jack’s casual sexism as he gets drunk at Christmas dinner? Consider this film your training camp.
So it’s clear that this is a bad, bad film. And that’s okay. Without bad films we wouldn’t have had Mystery Science Theater 3000. The bad film has its charms, and Doug Brunell has such a keen eye and sympathetic take on the genres that bring us terrible films that if you read his books after you watch the films he discusses, you can genuinely find yourself wondering if maybe you got it all completely wrong. To be completely frank, you probably won’t find much in Brunell’s writing that redeems this film, nor does he serve as an apologist for bad cinema (he refers to this film as being part of a “sleaze saga”). Rather, he accepts films as they are, discusses the times that spawn such films and the career arcs of the people involved. He recognizes the film’s many (many, many) flaws, but he also has such a great knowledge of genre, the specific cinematic tropes at work when older schlock was released, and the various ways filmmakers attempted to subvert those tropes, that the background he gives as he discusses the movies is the price of admission for the Sinful Cinema series.
And to be blunt, there is charm to schlock. For interior designers, it’s the Memphis Group. For bibliophiles, it’s the “so bad it’s good” that writers like Richard Laymon and VC Andrews bring to the table. What would bad music discussions be without The Shaggs and Jandek? When you read Brunell’s take on schlock films, you see the charm. Whether or not the charm works on you is subjective. But when you read Brunell’s work, objectively you see how one bad movie’s reach can extend into cinema you’d never expect from a sexploitation film. Brunell sees how it is that the worst can be a link to the best, or maybe just a link to something that isn’t quite as bad. His knowledge and love of the topic are infectious, so much so that I actually sat through the whole of The Abductors so I would be assured I could follow his book about the film.
Quick synopsis: This film is the second in the “Ginger” trilogy but if Doug Brunell doesn’t write a book about the other two films I’ll be damned if I watch them. So the plot is simple: White slavers are kidnapping women to sell to men who can blow $100k in 1970s money on cheerleaders taken hostage and “trained” to be excellent companions for really old men who wear Sansabelt slacks and live in a split-level home with orange shag carpet. After a convertible with three witless cheerleaders is run off the road, the three women kidnapped, a private investigator calls in Ginger, a woman who may be a spy, may be a detective, but never wears a bra, to help him.
(Honest to god, the first time we see her in street clothes, she is wearing a cropped denim vest with no buttons or zipper and no top underneath. Later when she tries to seduce a bad man who unties her bizarre top that looks like the old Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders’ tie uniform but as imagined by Fredrick’s of Hollywood and made by a hippie who learned to crochet in rehab, she takes forever to retie it and when she does, she ties it with her boobs outside of the fabric. She spends a lot of time topless or naked. Oh, and I remember this most clearly: the credits say “Chantilly Place” provided Cheri Caffaro, the lady who played Ginger, with all her “knits.”)
Together Jason, the private eye, and Ginger manage to track down the slavers by recruiting a pretty private eye and having her swallow a pill of some sort that allows them to track her for up to 25 miles. But before this happens, Ginger gets involved with a pudgy dude who looks like Steve Majors but isn’t (the scene where he dances with Ginger in what appears to be the courtyard of a rest home for geriatric hotel band members is cringe-gold – she’s actually got maracas). Pretty private eye gets kidnapped by slavers, Ginger watches her be relocated on a helicopter on pontoons, and is so upset she befouls a white shag carpet with like-Steve-Majors-but-isn’t and dun-dun-DUN, afterward he takes her hostage because SPOILER ALERT: he’s the head slaver.
Predictable stuff happens – all the men involved are dumb and will spill any number of beans if you show them boobs or grab their dick. Sex is had atop a pool table. An enormous henchman who “trains” the girls gets kicked in the crotch by a girl and then kicks her in the crotch in response (his name is weird and I cannot recall it now but Mr. OTC and I called him “Jablowme”). A woman gets gut punched, sexual torture is implied, but it all ends well when Ginger escapes and gets all the information she needs out of like-Steve-Majors-but-isn’t by, and I shit you not, restraining him in a shower, spraying him with water from the shower head and soaping him up. He is utterly undone by the water spray, begging her not to spray his chest anymore. Brunel actually manages to discuss this scene in a thoughtful manner that never would have occurred to me.
The three kidnapped girls end up really liking the men who bought them and stay with them. Ginger and Jason are nearly shot by a banker’s desk guns, but good prevails, the end.
The biggest problem with the film is that no one can act. Ginger speaks only in double entendres and they are delivered with a flat, smirking dullness. The men are all dumb or speak in gangster-ese. Every man seems like he’s dressed like a leisure-suit Harlequin, all the women have their nipples exposed at all times, and what is represented as the height of luxurious domestic decadence would need to be fumigated to qualify as a modern Motel 6. The abducted girls only speak when they are introduced to the used car salesmen who purchased them, asking them innocent questions over dinner, wondering how they will be able to explain to the neighbors that they are sex slaves. But the plot, oh the stupid plot, and the acting, tend to make all the excellent cheese turn into something that is merely cheesy.
Most notable is how difficult it will be for modern audiences to stomach this film.
This 90 minute film is sometimes a chore to watch. Bad acting, inexplicable costume and hair changes in the middle of a driving scene, and the idea that all women need is either a skilled lover or to be raped in order to “break” them all work to erode the average viewer’s patience, tolerance and sanity. Watching young women’s breasts be groped and twisted as they are told they are about to be tested for their sexual skills is something rarely seen in current non-pornographic, semi-mainstream or mainstream films, though it was a bit more common place in the daring ’70s.
But applying current mores to an old film should only be done when one is comparing the changes, not condemning that which is outdated for being outdated. Brunell doesn’t do that and his refusal to condemn these films for their lack of PC content is refreshing. He actually reproduces a couple of lines from an Amazon review that remarks that this film is an affront to all that is politically correct. But placing the film in the context of the time when it was made, Brunell points out that while the film is sexist, even as it tries to make Ginger into a badass investigator/spy who can kick ass and suck cock and always solve the case, it is notably lacking in the casual racism that was part and parcel of the sexploitation and grindhouse film industry.
And because he has watched all three Ginger films, Brunell can sincerely explain how this film is an improvement upon the first, that Ginger has a character arc that was as important to the filmmaker as showing her boobs in every scene. I think that’s important to know, that underneath it all, goals were set and achieved and that some people may have actually improved their acting chops. This was someone’s artistic vision – they were trying very hard to make a good movie.
The best part of Brunell’s examinations of these films is his look at the people in the films and where they ended up. He has an interview with Jeramie Rain, who played “Jane,” one of the three abducted cheerleaders (she’s the one with the short dark hair, which naturally means she’s the one who was best suited to be a dominatrix, hilariously beating the bed next to her new owner with a double-coiled black whip). Rain is very notable for her role in The Last House on the Left, the Wes Craven film that fucked me up so badly that I will never forget Mari’s near-pre-Raphaelite death scene, her hair spreading out into the water as she dies. Rain plays Sadie, the psychopathic moll who delights in the violence her male friends inflict on the girls they abduct. Rain has some interesting stories about the film.
Brunell also notes that future porn actor Harry Reems, from Deep Throat, has a role in this film of the “blink and you’ll miss it variety.” Best of all, he shows the direct line from the director of this sleazy and unintentionally hilarious film to a lucrative Disney franchise. The cast info at the end of Brunell’s books never fail to surface some WTF details that show how small the entertainment world really is.
So what I am trying to say here is that this is a terrible film and you should only watch it in conjunction with Brunell’s Sinful Cinema series. The worst film has to offer is often swallowed easier when you have someone who is knowledgeable in the genre, both sympathetic to and willing to discuss with humor the film’s many flaws, and able to write about it all in books that inevitably are better than the films that Brunell examines. I highly recommend you check out Brunell’s work.
And yeah, this is more Odd than October, but maybe if you watch The Abductors, you’ll find the perfect Halloween costume. Seventies banker, hot pants cheerleader, plaid-suited sex lord, or maybe you can just walk around naked like Ginger did. All you’ll need is a platinum wig!
Availability: Released in 2012, you can get a copy here:
Comments: I’ve shared more than once that I sit on the OCD spectrum. I specifically struggle with dirt, grime and germs – basic contamination obsessions. While the obsessive element of contamination fears will likely always be at the back of my head, the compulsive element seems better in check these days. I can get a little tense if things get dusty or if the cats have been shedding or puking a lot, but I don’t really find myself wanting to crawl into the vents to scrub them with a tooth brush anymore. Over the years I guess age and a good pharmacological combination have helped me tamp down the worst of it but mostly I’m doing pretty good, OCD-wise.
So of course I watched a movie about a woman who, essentially, rots to death. Of course I did. My skin crawled, I felt my scalp prickle, and about half-way in, I began to mindlessly tug on the hem of the t-shirt I was wearing. Luckily the film ended before I began chewing on my hair. It’s a bad sign when I begin to chew my hair. It means I will be going to Target to get several bottles of Lysol, sponges with a mesh scrubber on one side, and a new pair of rubber gloves. What I am trying to convey is that this film ended just in time for me to be able to collect myself and avoid sanitizing everything in the house for the next couple of weeks.
Also, I feel I should mention I will be spoiling the hell out of this film.
Brief synopsis: Thanatomorphose literally means the signs of decomposition the body exhibits after death. This film’s title is what happens in the film. Laura, the heroine, begins to show signs of the sort of decay commonly experienced after death. Initially, she has a few bruises and her joints are stiff, but once she turns the corner from freshly dead to recently departed, her bodily decay begins in earnest and speeds up. All of this is normal if one is actually dead, but Laura still breathes, still walks, and still talks, though all of that becomes harder and harder as her body continues to decay. Eventually genuine death catches up to the rot and she finally decomposes past the point of being able to remain mobile and sentient and the film ends.
This is not an allegory. There is no subtlety. Laura may be able to breathe, have sex, interact with others, but she’s dead. She’s an artist – a sculptor – but she is unable to make any headway into becoming a working artist. She had just moved into the apartment where the first scene takes place – unpleasant sex with her boorish boyfriend Antoine – and one of the first things she does is uncover a clay sculpture she was working on, an oval, almost egg-like mound of clay, but can find no inspiration.
Antoine steps on a nail after having sex with Laura, and she takes care of his wound with competence but shows little caring. She’s naked, sponging off the wound, pouring peroxide on Antoine’s instep, and the first signs of rot show on her body. She has a bruise along her jaw, a large bruise on her upper arm, and one on her ass. The bruises were settled and showing brown or purple – they were not fresh. I believe they were the first signs of Laura’s death. After Antoine leaves and she gives up on trying to work on her sculpture, she attempts to masturbate but cannot reach orgasm. This implies she probably didn’t have enjoyable sex with Antoine – which seems very likely, actually – and she’s feeling increasingly separate from her own body.
The next morning, she wakes and gets ready for work. While in the shower, she drops the soap and catches her nail on the drain, pulling it off. The rot is beginning to accelerate. She goes to work and comes back to a rejection letter from an art co-op. Later her friends come to visit until her landlord throws them out. One of the friends, Julien, comes on to Laura, annoyed that she seems to prefer the brutish Antoine. When her friends leave, Antoine again forces himself on Laura, even hitting her at one point. He comments that her body is very cold, and he means it literally, but she doesn’t seem aware of it. She taunts him, insinuating that she is cold because he is lousy in bed and more unpleasant sex ensues. After they go to sleep, she wakes and vomits on him, collapsing several times as she tries to get water or go to the bathroom.
Evidently Antoine leaves her in this state because when she rises again that morning, it is undeniable what is happening. Laura is dead. Her body is showing the sort of effects one would see in a corpse dead for around 24 hours in a hot place. She is unsteady on her feet, and it is here that she gives into the death that she clearly wants. She accepts no help and asks for no help. Julien shows up at one point and is appalled by what he sees happening to her but she refuses to leave for the hospital. Instead she gives him a blowjob, and he is both upset but unwilling to make her stop. She’s already beginning to smell, her head is bleeding from one of the falls and he ends up with her blood on his hands, yet he doesn’t make her stop. He leaves after ejaculating and she spits it onto the floor that previously she kept spotless.
Antoine comes back and Julien returns a second time, but I won’t reveal exactly what happens to them but it really can’t be called murder because the dead cannot form intent to kill. Laura descends into a claustrophobic nightmare, wherein she begins to document her decay, using fingers and teeth that fall off in her egg-like sculpture. She duct tapes her limbs when tendons begin to separate from the bone. She cloaks the windows with sheets or tapes trashbags over them in an attempt to cool her apartment because the summer heat is accelerating her decay. She puts ice in cold baths, she becomes riddled with maggots, shits out the lining of her intestines, vomits up maggoty bile, and tries to preserve the parts of herself that she cannot tape or sew back on, in jars with some sort of alcohol, taking Polaroids when she can. At some point she attempts to masturbate again, and this time she is able to climax, thinking about harming Antoine, which may have happened or may not have happened. I’m not sure. But only after she accepts her death does her sex drive return.
And she does accept her death. She’s suffered a metaphorical death in that she hates her relationship, her friends seem like assholes, her new apartment comes with a pushy landlord who considers people listening to music a party, and her art offers her no sense of accomplishment. She’s already dead but doesn’t lie down yet. She seems to revel in her decay, the ultimate form of self-harm – rotting to death while photographing the ruin of her body.
However, at the end, just before her body finally falls apart due to the rot, heat and continual submersion in cold water, she accidentally knocks over her sculpture and breaks it. She no longer has the physical capacity to pick it up and make it right again. I initially thought that the pain and misery of dying this way caught up with her because it was here that she showed her first real sign of anguish, screaming in torment. She has another spell of screaming when she deals with Julien the second time, and she lets out a banshee-like wail just before the remaining components of her body give way to decay. Her scream ends when her jaw falls off and her skin falls away, her limbs dis-articulating.
She wants this death. She’s a calm, competent young woman. There is nothing hysterical or irrational in her behavior. She’s had enough of her life and the world as a whole. But her death takes long enough that she engages in diversions of the sort that give the viewer a belief that perhaps if she manages to create the piece of art that shows her talent and expresses her inner loathing, she may escape this death, maybe it’s a hallucination caused by a breakdown and not really happening. But it is happening. And there’s no way out. This is one of the most complete forms of self-annihilation you’ll ever see in a film, and she embraces it without equivocation.
This sense that she wanted this suffering, this end, is probably what kept me from bathing in bleach the moment the film was over. She did not feel misery because she was rotting. She was rotting because she was miserable. The decay was her salvation. In a way that made the film easier to stomach.
This film takes place entirely in Laura’s apartment – a living area with a kitchenette, a bathroom and a bedroom. As her decay progresses, the space seems even smaller as Laura blocks out the windows and makes makeshift dividers between rooms to filter out the light. It wasn’t an entirely claustrophobic feeling, seeing this play out in a small apartment but it was certainly stifling and limiting, an apt description of Laura’s life.
Additionally, the actress who played Laura, Kayden Rose, was naked throughout most of the film. Once she took off her clothes after sex with Antoine after the “party,” she never again has on clothing.
Kayden Rose’s body’s decay is hard to watch.
The actress herself is attractive, and she possesses a thin but decidedly “skinny fat” build, with little muscle tone. Her continual nudity, even before the rot really set in, stopped registering as nudity. Her body was a repository of death and maggots, and in that state the most beautiful of bodies stops possessing any erotic qualities (unless you have some very specific paraphilias). Her body was a waiting room in the ICU. It was waiting for the end, as well.
Kayden Rose also has a capacity to look gawky when her hair is swept off her forehead and she is wearing glasses, to looking beautiful when her hair is loose and wearing makeup. Sometimes just a change in lighting could cause her to look angelic one moment and distressingly plain the next. Similarly, her naked body could in some scenes look like an Hellenic marble statue with hipster tattoos or could look strangely flabby and unkempt.
The ability to offer such differing views of her body in a film wherein her body was rotting away, is an interesting talent. Kayden Rose carried this odd, upsetting film all on her shoulders, and to be able to change how the viewer perceives her form is remarkable. I looked her up after the film ended but she’s only been in three other films, two short films and one segment of a larger film. Finding out she has not done more since this film was akin to watching Morten Klode in a death metal video and finding out he’s never starred in a leading role in a film.
I guess sometimes you have to take what you are given. But it’s a shame she’s not in more recent films.
Though it really did make me physically and psychologically uncomfortable, I’m glad I watched this film. I found it on Amazon as I was searching for a copy of yesterday’s film, Where the Dead Go to Die. I deliberately try not to know too much about a film before I watch it, but by the title I more or less knew what I was walking into. But the film was simultaneously far more disturbing and much more appealing than I anticipated. Bodily rot will always be disturbing but for me there is something very compelling about a heroine who has just had enough and embraces her end, however slow it comes. This film is a slow suicide with no redemption but in the end Laura had more control than she ever had before in her life and once you get past all the “suicide is bad mmmmkay?” bullshit, this is a compelling, weirdly comforting film.
Availability: The best place you can find this film, which was made in 2012, is on Amazon:
Comments: This discussion is happening in a deliberate vacuum. In my search to find the film, I couldn’t help but notice the very low ratings this animated movie has received. I deliberately didn’t read those reviews, which is standard operating procedure for me, but I mention the low ratings as well as my intentional ignorance about this film so hopefully my very specific perspective will make sense to those who may know more about this film and its origins than I do. Had I not watched this film with a specific bit of information in mind, I suspect I would have panned it myself. But that little piece of information makes a big difference in my perspective.
That book is disturbing and completely fucked, but eventually inspired Where The Dead Go To Die. Also seems less crazy and far fetched in this day and age….
So yeah, I had to track down both the book and the film it inspired. And jimmyscreamerclauz is unfortunately right: given what we know now about Jeffrey Epstein, the Lolita Express, Nickelodeon and Dan Schneider, it’s harder to dismiss claims of extraordinary sexual abuse. Though it must be said, those cases are more terrestrial than the “flushed down the toilet so Walker, Texas Ranger could rape me then carried by hot air balloon to the cemetery where I was forced to dig up corpses” narratives that came out of the McMartin scandal, the inspiration for Don’t Send Me Back, Mommy. Five years ago, had a starlet complained that she was pressured to have sex, and when she refused she was raped by a producer, and it was an open secret, and that famous renowned actresses may have set her up for that rape, I would have waved it away as bullshit.
But even as I realize mankind is not as depraved as the Satanic Panic narrative wants us to believe, we still suck and do terrible things. The McMartin case is firmly debunked by all reasonable people, but just because one thing is a manufactured drama doesn’t mean children don’t come to grave harm daily, though generally in far less fantastic ways. This film covers the more realistic harms – child abuse by parents and child porn creation – along with other, stranger and nearly impossible harms (but even those “impossible” harms show up in current Pizzagate narratives, more on that in a moment).
I think the sort of shambling and random nature of the narratives in this film are seen as unique due to the lack of proximity to similarly random, outrageous sexual violence, and the narrative is indeed a stagger through various hells. The film has three chapters:
–“Tainted Milk” is clearly a riff on the old Lassie films. Labby, a black dog with glowing red eyes, tells Tommy, an unhappy kid whose parents are equally unhappy, that the baby his mother is carrying is the Anti-Christ and must be killed. Tommy can’t bring himself to do it so Labby does it for him. This chapter is rough – all of the content is rough, really – featuring forced abortion, emasculation, murder and bestiality. Followers of serial killer lore will also hark back to the dog that supposedly egged on David Berkowitz to shoot happy couples as they made out in parked cars.
–“Liquid Memories” features a character whose name I did not catch. He looks a lot like Jesse Custer from Garth Ennis’ comic, The Preacher. He likes to kill people in churches and before they die he inserts a needle into their necks to extract their final memories. He injects himself with the memories of a dying prostitute who has crawled into the church for help, experiences her psychedelic and horrific memories, and promptly kills himself in response.
–The final chapter, “The Mask That Monsters Wear,” is the longest and most upsetting. Ralph was born to fundamentalist whack jobs who refuse to get a parasitic conjoined twin removed from his head because God has plans for all His children and that would be murder. They torment Ralph with the notion that he is abusing his brother by wearing a ski mask that covers his head and blame him for what happened to his brother. Ralph is treated kindly by a neighborhood girl named Sophia. She is abused and pimped out by her father, who also makes kiddie porn of her. I am unsure of her age but she and Ralph are in grade school, and Sophia sounds like she is no older than ten. Kindred spirits, Sophia and Ralph develop a deep friendship. In what was strangely the most heart-wrenching scene in the film, Sophia finds out that Ralph keeps bugs that come into the house so his mother can’t kill them. Sophia tells him the bugs are worse than dead because now they are trapped in the jar habitats he keeps them in. She takes him to a place in the woods she calls her “garden,” full of pretty flowers, and they release the bugs. Sophia says it is the happiest day of her life.
But then Ralph is recruited into the porn movies Sophia’s father makes, and finds out his own father is also involved in Sophia’s abuse. After Ralph is forced to have sex with Sophia on tape, Sophia reveals his bugs destroyed her garden. Ralph’s involvement in her abuse kills what is left of her spirit. Ralph, disfigured and emotionally abused himself, runs amok and kills his parents, strangling a rabbit near a well that a voice comes out of from time to time, a voice that speaks to Ralph, Sophia and Tommy. Ralph’s corruption is now complete.
The key for me understanding all of this and how it all links together is the book that inspired it (though clearly the film has a lot of influences and inspirations). Don’t Make Me Go Back, Mommy, is an attempt to offer help to children who suffered satanic ritual abuse and mirrors the McMartin pre-school case. I am unsure what Doris Sanford’s motives were in writing such a book – as I explain in yesterday’s entry, her books became more outrageous over time, beginning with self-help books for kids whose parents have depression and eventually including books for kids who survive prison/death camps. Though I found the book ridiculous, I approached it with seriousness, willing to see what it brought to the table, and I approached the film it inspired from the same perspective.
The at times tenuous links in the content seem less tenuous when you look at this through the focus of Doris Sanford’s work. James Creamer is parroting back to us what many insisted happened during the Satanic Panic. I suspect the good, moral folk who believed in stories like McMartin, who genuinely think such atrocities happen routinely to children, would condemn this film because it’s violent and obscene. But it is no more obscene than court transcripts from the McMartin case, Michelle Remembers, or any other Satanic Panic tell-all. Every horrible element from this film can be linked to a genuine Satanic Panic account or belief. The Satanic Panic belief will be followed by the detail that describes it in the film:
–Unborn babies ripped from wombs/Tommy’s mother’s baby being torn from her womb
–Evil animals used to control or harm children/Laddy the dog urging these kids to do terrible things in the name of God
–Killing bunnies to frighten children/Ralph strangles a rabbit at the end to show his utter loss of innocence
–“Naked Movie Star” used as a game to make child porn/Sophia’s father making porn of her with neighbors and Ralph
–Claims sacrifices happened at the Episcopal church/the unnamed man who kills people in churches
There’s more but those are the more obvious correlations. Interestingly, though this was not a claim in any of the Satanic Panic beliefs from the 1980s through the mid-1990s, the serial killer who extracts spinal fluid for memories is a bit on the nose when one considers the Pizzagate belief that children are held in terrified captivity because terror makes their adrenal glands produce hormones that jaded celebrities remove and drink. Sometimes the adrenal glands themselves will be removed, according to these legends, and Pizzagate and QAnon message boards are full of accusations that weird beverages consumed by famous people contain AdrenoChrome harvested from abused and forsaken children. I did a search on “adrenochrome” in the Pizzagate Voat and there were dozens of entries. (I wanted to link to the search but no matter what I did, the link would not work. If you’re curious, and if Voat is accepting new registrations, maybe make an account and read through the above search and Pizzagate as a whole because there are so many rabbit holes to fall down.)
I am unsure how far back claims that elites were drinking brain fluids from children go, but if they post-date Where the Dead Go to Die, it’s a sign that there is literally nothing so far-fetched that people will not believe it, and there is nothing so horrible someone can do that a person sufficiently plugged in to the zeitgeist cannot predict it.
In the end, this film parrots back at Satanic Panic True Believers the very things they believe, yet if they ever watched this film they would be outraged and upset. Increasingly I see this as an excellent gambit to use in argument culture – repeat back what others say and watch their reactions to hearing themselves in a different voice.
Like I said, the reason I was able to stomach this film was because I understood some of the source material. I don’t know if those who hate this film would reconsider if they knew what I know or what anyone who has studied the Satanic Panic would know. But it makes a difference. It gives the at times hallucinatory and seemingly gratuitous gore a tether that leads back to the witch hunt cycles that plague mankind. Once you have the premise behind even the most outrageous display of depravity, you find yourself unable to dismiss it out of hand and you may even find yourself taking it seriously like I did.
This film is a reflection of beliefs that ruined lives, and it’s also a wallow in the worst mankind can do. It’s content that is very hard to take in and I don’t think I will watch this film again, but to be fair one reading of Michelle Remembers tends to be enough for the average whacked-culture student. But watching it with its inspiration in mind enabled me to see this film in a wholly different light than I would have had I just randomly stumbled across it online.
I have no idea if you want to see this film, and I can’t really recommend it because my experience with this film is very specific. If you’re a gorehound, you may want to have a look. Similarly students of the Satanic Panic or those very interested in the current Pizzagate lore will find this film interesting The rest of you may want to give it a pass. But at least now you know it’s out there, and that one beleaguered woman thinks that once you look past the DIY or Die-style production and link the content to the notions that inspired it, it may not be as pointless a wallow as others seem to think.
Availability: Released in September of 2019, you can see it several places online. I’m linking to the Amazon Prime listing mainly because I have an Amazon Affiliate account but it currently appears to be on Google Play and on the pay to watch section of YouTube.
Comments: Not all of the Oddtober entries will be wholly odd, and this film is a good example. Graphic, violent horror films will often be a bit odd to some, but had this film not ostensibly been released as a Halloween film (Dia de los Muertos features heavily in the latter hour of the film), and had it not been Sid Haig’s last film with Rob Zombie, it likely would not have been discussed here.
Yeah, Sid Haig died. He is only in the opening five minutes or so and he looks rough but I’m glad he got to rally and be in the franchise he’s so well associated with one last time. His role in House of a Thousand Corpses was one of the funniest horror film roles. Though evil to his core, Captain Spaulding provided viewers with coarse humor to blunt some of the very graphic violence and gore.
I strongly suggest that you go watch House of a Thousand Corpses again rather than mess with 3 from Hell because Sid Haig’s absence is felt acutely. Fuck yo mama, indeed. But if you’re the sort who must see all the entries in a franchise, or you just wanna pay respects to a fine character actor, I guess you could do worse than this latest installment. But still, this is not a particularly good film until the last 30 minutes or so.
There may be spoilers throughout this discussion. But really, you already know what is going to happen. You can’t spoil Zombie’s formula, really. So if you get worked up by spoilers, skip this off-the-cuff discussion until you’ve seen the film.
Synopsis: Okay, I’ve mentioned Sid looks rough and his role is over in five or so minutes but that’s okay in a way because at least we get to see Captain Spaulding one more time, defiant and clowny. Otis Driftwood is still Otis Driftwood, pompous and given to long diatribes, but Baby Firefly is fucked. For people who hated her shrill laughter, baby doll mannerisms and cutesy psychopathy in House of a Thousand Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects, she will be unbearable in this film. Gibbering and insane from years in solitary confinement, her character is so over the top and weird that even Otis eventually notices she’s more whacked than usual when he breaks her out of prison. Oh yeah, he breaks out of prison with the help of his half-brother, Winslow Foxworth Coltrane, an Argus Filch look-alike who is clearly a replacement for Captain Spaulding. Bloody mayhem ensues, as you knew it would, Baby becomes a bit more grounded to reality, and some shitty town in Mexico is essentially destroyed. The end.
Me: Holy shit, is that Danny Trejo?
Mr. OTC: Of course it is. It’s always Danny Trejo.
Baby is really batshit. It’s hard to explain how batshit she is because she’s that batshit. But she’s also competent in a violent way, able to beat the shit out of and kill sadistic psychopaths while in chains, even able to write taunting messages in their blood, unnerving the brutal and sadistic guard who set her up to be murdered. She’s a force of chaos with amazing hair. She’s a white trash River Tam.
Me: Oh my god, is that prison guard the mom from ET: The Extraterrestrial?
Mr. OTC: (begins typing into IMDb.) “Yep, that’s her.”
Damn… She really pulled her role off well. She reminded me more of Mindy Sterling as Frau Farbissina in horn rimmed glasses than the mom from The Hills Have Eyes.
There are a lot of homages to other horror films or killers. For example, in the beginning of the film Otis Driftwood is a stand-in for Charles Manson and Baby can be seen as one of Manson’s molls, an extra-demented Susan Atkins. When Baby chases down and stabs to death a naked woman, there is something about the woman’s carriage as she fled, covered in blood, that reminded me of the final scene in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre when Sally runs for her life into the two-lane highway, desperate to either escape or find help. In an earlier scene, Otis flays a woman’s face and the camera pans to the mask he made of her facial skin, a call back to Wisconsin skin-wearer Ed Gein.
Mr. OTC: Can you guess who that clown is?
Me: Not really.
Mr. OTC: He’s played by Clint Howard, Ron Howard’s younger and creepier brother.
The clown is meant to represent John Wayne Gacy’s Pogo the Clown. Maybe. And maybe he’s meant to hark back to Captain Spaulding. But mostly I have no idea why a clown was involved. Otis and his brother had taken the prison warden, his wife, and another couple hostage. The couples were planning on spending the evening eating dinner, had no plans for a party that would need a children’s party clown, yet a clown showed up at the house in the middle of the mayhem.
Baby: What’s with the dead clown.
Otis: I’ll tell you later.
Mr. OTC: Could you explain it to us?
There is no reason for the clown to show up other than that he could sort of represent Gacy. It was a weird decision, plot-wise.
Me: Is that old dude Wilfred Brimley?
Mr. OTC: Nope. (types into IMdb again) That’s a character actor from Office Space.
Me: Wilford Brimley would have been a better choice.
Mr. OTC: Isn’t he dead?
Me: I don’t think so.
Conversation devolves into a discussion about whether or not Wilford Brimley is dead. Eventually Mr. OTC checks and I’m correct. He’s still alive (and it would have been awesome had it really been him in a Rob Zombie film).
Baby, the most lunatic member of the trio, suggests they head to Mexico, which is a good idea. She got the idea from the Halloween party guest she gutted and slashed because he was dressed as a vaquero, complete with hat and serape. So they drive to Mexico during Dia de los Muertos celebrations, though it seems unnecessary in the long run because it didn’t seem like law enforcement was engaging in a careful search to find the escaped prisoners.
In Mexico, we meet a host of ridiculous characters. The motel owner (cue me saying: “Is that Eddie from Stranger than Paradise?”) and townspeople are weird. Best Mexican characters are the one-eyed dwarf and the three-legged dog.
Mr. OTC: If they kill the dwarf with one eye or the three-legged dog, we riot.
While Baby, Otis and Winslow engaged in enough debauchery to cause the fall of the Roman Empire, the motel owner calls who I can only assume is some sort of drug cartel boss whose father Otis killed and who wants revenge. The drug boss shows up with an El Camino hauling three coffins. Men in white suits wearing luchador masks spill out of several cars, ready to find and kill the three from Hell. The suits are so synthetic that when one is doused in gasoline, it pooled on the surface of the fabric until it finally absorbed. I wondered how hot those men were, wearing polyester in the Mexican heat.
Me: Ah, fuck, Baby’s respecting the one-eyed dwarf’s dignity. He’s clearly about to die.
This movie was disgusting in a “please make this character take a shower” sort of way Dirty feet, smelly armpits, soggy navels, gargling with tequila. When a Mexican prostitute poured booze into Otis’ navel and lapped it up, I was finally certain that God is dead and that He never loved me much in the first place. It’s just a grubby, dirty, smegma-smeared film and you can smell these characters from where you sit. But then again, I’m afraid of grime and one doesn’t expect nihilistic serial killers and a bug-fucked lunatic to practice good hygiene when on the run from the law. I suspect that few people will be grossed out by the implied body odor and halitosis when there’s so much blood. I just thought I’d share.
The last 30 minutes are quite good for the lover of good schlock. Consider fast forwarding to the final confrontation between the Mexican men wearing wrestling masks and clothes reminiscent of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. Lots of topless women die, Baby becomes the Bellevue Barbie equivalent of Daryl Dixon from The Walking Dead and everyone gives too many long speeches when they could just kill their foe already. It’s campy, violent, excessive and ridiculous, a winning combination when you don’t really know which side to root for.
So I guess I am saying that if you watch this film with a friend who grew up watching MST3K or with a case of beer on hand, it won’t be the worst horror movie you’ve seen this year, especially if you’re into the whole “Annabelle” doll franchise. But don’t watch it in earnest. If you watch 3 from Hell with an ironic eye and an eagle eye to catch all the character actors in this film, you may very well enjoy yourself. Not highly recommended but not utterly panned, either.
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).
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 most “best 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.
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.