Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Happy 70th Birthday David Lynch! And 30 Years of Blue Velvet (1986)

For today's post, we're wishing a very Happy Birthday to another living legend and U.S. born film director. Now 70 years young, David Lynch is, like John Carpenter, arguably one of the finest and most unique film-makers America has produced during the past 50 years. But while the former is pretty much universally loved by horror film fans, the latter is, understandably, much more polarising within this crowd and, of course, outside it... no doubt due to his surrealist bent and a taste for absurdist humour that's often in uncomfortably close proximity to the more disturbing and nightmarish content the films also contain. Which is of course a long winded way of saying Lynch isn't going to be everyone's cup of coffee. 

For myself though, I've long been a fan, ever since first seeing the likes of Eraserhead (1977) and the underrated Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) late night on TV as a young 'un. It's hard to articulate the effect these and other films of his had on me upon first seeing them but for one thing, they (along with others by the likes of Dario Argento and John Carpenter) are among a select group of films ultimately responsible, but better or for worse, for igniting my interest in and insatiable hunger for "midnight" movies... i.e. those that seem like broadcasts from another planet and/or dredged up from the depths of the unconscious sleeping mind.

Working in tandem with this tantalising, dreamlike quality his films so potently exude, was Lynch's power to pull me completely into his world... a world which while strange and often unsettling, also feels completely real, living and breathing, down to the smallest tactile details. In fact I struggle to think of many directors who are as adept at conjuring mood and atmosphere and creating such a believable sense of place. A lot of this I'd attribute to Lynch's background as a painter giving him an eye for texture and also, his brilliant use of sound design and music. I mean in this latter capacity alone, Lynch is still probably ahead of most of the cinematic curve. 

Anyway, enough hero worship from me for now. I could of course go on but I realise y'all have busy lives to be living and all. So yeah, David Lynch rocks in my book. Aside from the great man himself though, we're also here today to talk about what's perhaps his most well regarded film, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Yup, it's...

Undoubtedly one of the most talked about and analysed movies of the 1980s, there's not a huge amount I can add to what's been discussed and recited over and over about Blue Velvet. Most of the theory and trivia behind the film is, I'm sure, well known enough already. So instead I figured I'd share my own history with/opinions of it with you. And maybe we will get into a little bit of behind the scenes stuff too as we progress...

I must admit upon first seeing the film, I think I was a bit underwhelmed. In retrospect though, I'd attribute this to a few factors. First and foremost, I'd already eagerly devoured and loved stuff like Eraserhead, Wild at Heart and Mulholland Drive and came to Blue Velvet later... and going into it with very high expectations (seeing as it's so critically lauded) was always going to lead to something of a let down. Only slightly though, as there was still enough in there I loved or was intrigued by to warrant many repeat viewings. Also, the DVD I had back then was fairly muddy... and seeing the film later in all singing, all dancing HD, it really came to life a lot more... especially during the darker scenes (of which there are a good few, this being a Lynch film and all).

Before we continue, a brief synopsis for anyone unfamiliar. College student Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) is home from school as his father has just had a stroke (as witnessed in the now iconic and still startling opening, post-credits sequence). Walking home one day from the hospital he finds an ear in the grass (crawling with insects; an image which, as many have pointed out, recalls Un Chien Andalou). He takes it to local Detective (and neighbour) John Williams (George Dickerson). And later, said policeman's daughter, Sandy (Lynch favourite Laura Dern, making her first appearance in one of his films here) gives Jeffrey more info on the case (that she learned from eavesdropping), which leads the curious young man to launch his own investigation and later lands him right in the middle of a very shady situation involving kidnapping and a sado-masochistic relationship. Basically, nightclub singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) is at the mercy of the psychopathic Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper, who is like a force of nature in this film), who has kidnapped her husband and son, giving him the power to get her to do whatever he wants.

Sorry, that wasn't exactly brief. Anyway, that's the setup. And young Jeffrey (and, to a slightly lesser extent, Sandy) gets lured in deeper and deeper, eventually becoming involved with Dorothy and later being taken for the joyride from hell with Frank and his gang of ne'er do wells (who include Brad Dourif and another Lynch regular, Jack Nance). 

Unlike Lynch's debut feature, Eraserhead, and the trilogy of sorts comprised of Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, Blue Velvet is, relatively speaking, quite classical and conventional in terms of its narrative... which is probably why it's his most widely respected film. Sure, there are mysteries and ambiguities here and there, but for the most part, everything proceeds in a linear fashion and is wrapped up happily at the end. And it's this I suppose that may be another reason it took me a bit longer to really dig and love this film, having been so enamoured of the more overt weirdness of some of the others.

These days though, my respect and appreciation for Blue Velvet keeps increasing... to the level where now it's probably on a par for me personally with the likes of Mulholland Drive and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. I mean I'd always dug the atmosphere of certain scenes (e.g. all those moody shots on the stairwell leading up the Dorothy's apartment and Jeffrey's nightmarish night out with Frank and co) but the more I watch it, the more I'm coming to appreciate all the other elements more as well, not to mention the film as a whole.

Anyway, I feel like I'm rambling now without really saying a whole lot, so before I let you go, here's a few things I've come to love about Blue Velvet over some fifteen years of having been familiar with it...

First and foremost, the humour. While undeniably dark and serious, I also find it very funny in parts. Case in point, all Frank's beer related shtick... as exemplified by this now classic exchange of dialogue:

Frank: What kind of beer do you like? 
Jeffrey: Heineken. 
Frank: [shouting] Heineken!? Fuck that shit! Pabst Blue Ribbon!

Kudos to the artist who made the above by the way. That was for a Lynch inspired art show I think. I'll try and find their name and add a link here later. Anyway, all sorts has been read into the above back and forth, basically saying how Jeffrey's choice suggests aspiration for a more exotic lifestyle and conversely, how Frank's shows him as a proud blue collar man. Oh and by the way, check out this ad for Pabst someone posted on Youtube using footage from the film. Gave me a giggle, I can tell ya!

And speaking of Dennis Hopper, I think it's safe to say (while all the cast are excellent) that he really steals the film. Just a phenomenal, balls-out performance... and a career defining one. I mean when I hear the actor's name, Frank is the first role I think of. Well, that and Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, which was released the same year. And holy shit, that and Blue Velvet would make for a hell of a double bill I imagine. 

The intensity of Hopper's performance aside, its also the range of it which really impresses me. As I said, he can be hilarious at times... but he's also terrifying at others... and sometimes the two overlap. He even manages to evoke the odd bit of pathos I think... as seen in a still further up from a scene where he's watching Dorothy perform. I mean you get the sense he actually loves her in his own twisted way.

Rossellini also deserves high praise for a fearless performance. I can't imagine many other actresses going to the places she does here, before, at the same time or since this film.

Again I'm aware this post is going on a bit so I'll try and wrap things up shortly. I'd be remiss though if I didn't mention the music. The inspired appropriation of the title song and the Roy Orbison number "In Dreams" aside, this also features a great score by a man who would become a key collaborator with Lynch starting with this film, and continuing for pretty up to the present day (although he's absent on Inland Empire I think). His music here sometimes evokes old school melodrama (especially the main theme) and is sometimes finger snappingly jazzy. And coupled with the inspired sound design (by Lynch and Alan Splet), it really helps bring you further into this foreboding yet intriguing world. Finally on the subject of music, hats off to Badalamenti, Lynch (who wrote the lyrics) and Julee Cruise (who sang it) for the sublime song "Mysteries of Love". Absolutely gorgeous.    

I mean really, everyone involved here deserves some kind of award, but if I went into all the specifics, we'd be here all night. Suffice to say, all the cast and crew brought their A game. 

As I said earlier, I think most of the trivia behind this film is well known, so I won't recite it here (if you're unfamiliar though, hit up the Wikipedia entry or its trivia page on IMDb). One thing I did spot though that I hadn't heard before was regarding the casting. Apparently, Val Kilmer and Molly Ringwald were offered the roles of Jeffrey and Sandy. While I'd be intrigued to visit an alternate universe and see that version of the film, for the most part I can't really imagine anyone else in the roles but MacLachlan and Dern.

So what's there left to say in summation? Well, for a start, if you've still never seen a Lynch film or have tried others and struggled, this is probably the best place to start. I mean if you hate this or find parts too weird, it's probably safe to say you won't like his other movies either. 

But if you're already well familiar, what better day to re-visit it, or any of his other works for that matter? I re-watched Lost Highway last night and am going to re-visit Mulholland Drive later this evening. I'll probably return over the next several days to talk about those two and also, possibly Inland Empire to boot.

Happy 70th Birthday David! Cheers for all your incredible contributions to film, music and TV, and roll on next year when we finally get to go back to Twin Peaks. I can't wait!

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Happy Birthday John Carpenter! Two Underrated Films from the 1980s: Big Trouble in Little China (1986) & Prince of Darkness (1987)

All things considered, John Carpenter is probably my favourite American director... especially as far as horror is concerned. And as I knew the great man's birthday was coming up, I decided to have a double feature last night in order to have something to post today to mark the occasion. I went for these two films for a few reasons. Firstly, they appear next to each other in JC's filmography. Secondly, one is a light-hearted action-fantasy romp and the other a serious supernatural horror film, so it seemed a good way to mix it up. But most importantly, while well loved by many cult film fans, I still feel these two fall somewhat in the shadow of some of the other movies made by Carpenter both before and afterwards and am therefore of the opinion that any extra affection and attention thrown their way is more than welcome.

First up, and celebrating its 30th anniversary this year (on July 2nd), is Big Trouble in Little China. Starring Carpenter favourite Kurt Russell as wise-cracking truck driver Jack Burton, a man who gets more than he bargained for while waiting to collect on some gambling debts owed by friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun), ending up right in the middle of some supernatural shenanigans involving kidnapped green-eyed Chinese girls, cursed sorcerers and a few gangs all apparently intent of kicking (and sometimes shooting) the absolute shit out of each other. 

A hybrid of comedy, fantasy and martial arts action, this was met with mixed reactions when it was first released, seemingly being misunderstood by those who didn't pick up on the humourous undertones, but, three decades on, it's now better appreciated and has become a firm favourite of many.

Russell (who seems to be channelling John Wayne throughout) is perfect as Burton, a character apparently intended to somewhat lampoon and poke fun at western and action stars. I mean he tries so hard, bless him, and eventually does come through in the end, but really, he's clearly meant to be the sidekick to his more capable friend Wang, as clearly underlined by at least two moments in the movie and admitted by Carpenter himself during the DVD audio commentary. And for me, this makes his character all the more endearing, unique and memorable.

Further regarding the cast, all involved are excellent. Both the aforementioned Dennis Dun and Kim Cattrall (as fast talking lawyer Gracie Law) have great chemistry with Russell, making their scenes a delight to watch. James Hong (of films as various as Chinatown, Airplane! and Blade Runner) is great as the villainous David Lo Pan. And Victor Wong provides solid support as benevolent magician Egg Shen.

Kudos to DoP Dean Cundey (who'd collaborated with Carpenter on all of his classic films from Halloween through to The Thing. This would mark the last time they'd work together) as always for some striking cinematography, and Production Designer John Lloyd, for both his impressive undergrounds sets and his re-creation of Chinatown. Also well worthy of note is choreographer James Lew, who supervised the often quite complex fight sequences, which contain many cool moments. And finally, Boss Film Studios, headed by Richard Edlund (who did great work on Ghostbusters), did a solid job providing the special effects with what was apparently a miserly budget for such a hefty task.

As is generally the case with his films, Carpenter provides the score, assisted again by Alan Howarth, who had previously worked with the director on Escape From New York, Halloween II and Halloween III. A driving, muscular mix of trademark throbbing synthesizers and rock and roll riffs, the score intentionally tries to get away from the cliches of martial arts movie music, and certainly succeeds in doing so, while still providing a more than apt accompaniment to the action unfolding on-screen.

A few bits of behind the scenes stuff before we move on. Firstly, this was the last big studio film Carpenter would work on during this decade, having had some difficulties with the higher ups during the production. Apparently the original story was a period-set western and was later extensively re-shaped and written into what was the film became. And Jackie Chan was the director's first choice to play Wang but the actor declined (wanting to concentrate on his Hong Kong career) and the producer was against it, fearing Chan's English wouldn't be good enough.

So if I haven't made it apparent already, I'll simply say now that while not one of my own favourites from Carpenter (mainly as I'm more biased towards horror), I still find it consistently engaging, very entertaining and eminently re-watchable. And finally, I forgot to mention before but JC's band, The Coup De Villes, provide the theme song, heard over the end credits. If you haven't seen this amazing promo video, featuring the director, fellow film-maker and collaborator Tommy Lee Wallace and also sometime director/Michael Myers himself, Nick Castle rocking out, stop what you're doing right now and click the link. God I love the '80s and this video is just one illustration why. Now, let's move on to the second half of this double feature...

Released the following year (on October 23rd), Prince of Darkness is, as I suggested earlier, almost the polar opposite tonally to the film we've just been looking at... and I say this descriptively and not critically of course. The second part of Carpenter's Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and followed by In the Mouth of Madness), this might be (I'm sure somewhat controversially) my favourite of the three films. Hard to say really as it's certainly a formidable trio... up there in my opinion with another trilogy of movies suffused with otherworldly foreboding and a sense of creeping dread... Lucio Fulci's Gates of Hell films, City of the Living Dead, The Beyond and The House by the Cemetery

Incidentally, Prince of Darkness feels almost Fulci-esque to me in places... specifically in terms of the we're-all-doomed, apocalyptic atmosphere  and some scenes featuring the kind of putrefaction (i.e. insects and desecrated bodies) you might associate with the Gates movies. And it's this feeling of the film being almost an honourary '80s Italian horror film that no doubt gives it the edge for me over the other two in the trilogy.

Before we go any further, and for the benefit of anyone unfamiliar, a quick synopsis. A priest (played by genre legend and Carpenter favourite Donald Pleasence) asks a professor (Victor Wong, one of two actors returning from our previous film) to help him investigate a mysterious cylinder filled with a green liquid of mysterious origins that's now residing in the basement of a run-down Los Angeles church. The professor invites some of his students, including male lead and possible Carpenter surrogate (it's the 'tache), Brian Marsh (Jameson Parker), to assist him in his inquiries. Needless to say, especially to anyone familiar with The Thing, but this ominous object was probably best left alone, as almost straight away we see the unholy effects it has upon its surrounding environment and anyone dwelling nearby. Although having said that, left unchecked by our religious and scientific investigators, who knows what kind of hell it might end up unleashing even further afield...

Utilising the under siege setup familiar to many Carpenter films, Prince of Darkness is initially somewhat slow-burning (which of course makes sense as this is perhaps as much an intellectual movie as it is a visceral one) but of course once the ball gets rolling, you're in for it. Like in The Thing, the encroaching horror is, once unleashed, unpredictable and might strike from anywhere and at any time. Even in sleep, the characters aren't safe from the supernatural onslaught either, as seen in some (now arguably iconic), creepy ass recurring dream sequences (the dialogue of which was later sampled by DJ Shadow on his seminal debut album, Endtroducing.....).

Like Big Trouble in Little China, this received mixed reviews upon release but has also been re-evaluated and more widely celebrated in the years since. As evidenced by Carpenter's pseudonym he used for writing the film, it was intended as a homage to the brilliant Nigel Kneale (of the Quatermass serial and films, The Stone Tape and more), who himself didn't really appreciate it, fearing people might think he had something to do with the film (he'd also written the original script for Halloween III before asking for his name to be taken off it, being unhappy with what it was shaping into). And I guess the splatter elements familiar to horror movies of the '80s may have been off-putting to his tastes. But for myself though, I love the mad mix of heady ideas regarding quantum psychics, doom-laden atmosphere, slasher-esque gore (as seen in at least two stand-out scenes) and surreal imagery (e.g: early on, Brian finds insects crawling in his TV).

A few notes on the cast and crew. Like Victor Wong, Dennis Dun also returns from Big Trouble in Little China, playing one of the students. Alice Cooper was brought in to write a song but was later also cast as the apparent leader of the homeless hordes that surround the church throughout the film. And a prop he used in his gigs was also utilised for a famous scene in this. I'll say no more regarding that in case you haven't seen it though. 

This was Carpenter's first time working with Peter Jason, an actor who would appear again repeatedly in the director's films over the following years. The rest of the cast aren't particularly memorable in my opinion but they all do a solid enough job. And I'm generally warming to them more and more with each re-watch. Jameson Parker is pretty decent as the ostensible hero, playing the sort of '70s/80s dude you don't see so much in movies anymore sadly. Again, it's the 'tache that does it I think. And to re-iterate what I said before, I'm almost convinced he's there as a sort of stand in for JC. Speaking of him by the way, he apparently provided the voice-over in those aforementioned dream scenes.

Behind the scenes, this was the first time JC would work with another person who would become a regular collaborator... DoP, Gary B. Kibbe, who steps into the rather sizeable shoes of Dean Cundey but doesn't disappoint at all. As the stills throughout this review hopefully show, he did a great job. And nice use of wide-angles lenses by the way. Again, Carpenter composes with assistance from Alan Howarth. I really like the score they produced... eerie, ethereal and occasionally melancholic. 

As mentioned r.e. Big Trouble in Little China, JC had become disillusioned with working under a studio and hence Prince of Darkness marked the beginning of a deal with Alive Films, where the director was given a $3 million budget and complete creative control. The next film to come out of this arrangement was They Live, so of course this worked out very nicely indeed for all involved.

I think that just about covers it (if I overlooked anything, feel free to write in the comments folks), so in summation I'd say if you're a Carpenter fan and haven't seen one and/or the other, maybe it's time to give it/them a shot. Individually, they're both very well made and acted and superlative examples of their respective genres. And taken together, they show the wide range the director is capable of. As I said at the top of the review, while my horror obsessed tastes mean I end up re-watching Prince of Darkness more often, when I'm more in the mood for something fun, Big Trouble in Little China never lets me down.

Below you'll find a few eye-popping foreign posters for our second film, and below that, a bad ass promo shot from the first, featuring Carpenter and Kurt Russell. Happy Birthday JC! And thanks for all the awesome movies. I'll watch at least one more tonight to mark the occasion. Am thinking most likely The Thing, especially as it's cold out and has even been snowing a bit, meaning, of course, that conditions are perfect.