Sunday, April 12, 2009

Never as Good as the Second Time

Everything old is seemingly new again in this day and age. The studios are remake-crazy, especially when it comes to glossifying up old drive-in films: now, seemingly every horror film made between 1972 and 1988 will have to be preceeded by "the original" when talking about it. Of course, I'm not a knee-jerk elitist who always assumes that the original has to be the best - let's not forget that the best-known versions of The Wizard of Oz and A Star Is Born were not the first, and that Last House on the Left was actually a contemporary update of Bergman's The Virgin Spring. However, it does seem today that they don't remake 'em like they used to. Here are six remakes that are not only truly great, but I feel, superior to their original counterparts.

A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
Kurosawa's samurai films were famously influenced by John Ford westerns, so it's ironic yet fitting that two of his best films would be remade in the very genre that inspired them. For my money, The Magnificent Seven is a wonderfully fun film but it really can't hold a candle to the beautiful nuance and majesty of The Seven Samurai. On the other hand, Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars are about equally great, Leone's film just ever so slightly more so, for kick-starting the spaghetti western subgenre and launching the careers of Clint Eastwood, possibly the only human being tough enough to inherit the crown of Manliest Man Ever from Toshiro Mifune. Though Leone would later indulge himself a little too much on his film's runtimes and pace, Fistful is a wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am affair, which makes its bleak and nihilistic outlook all the more satisfying.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978, Phillip Kaufman)
Don Siegel's original Invasion was one of the best sci-fi movies of the 50's, and has been read as both an anti-Communist parable and an indictment of McCarthyism. Phillip Kaufman's re-do used this framework for one of the best subversively conservative genre pictures ever made: by shifting the action to flower child-populated San Francisco, his film is a sly satire of hippie herd-think, as the permissive, anything-goes attitude makes for the ideal setting for an alien takeover. The imagery is some of the most terrifying in any film and the cast is top-rate, the standout being Leonard Nimoy as a touchy-feely psychiatrist who is secretly in cahoots with the aliens.

Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979, Werner Herzog)
Max Shreck's Count Orlok was the cinema's first great boogeyman, and master director F.W. Murnau's film one of the few silent films that still has the ability to make you want to hide behind the couch. Werner Herzog's updating of the tale is almost devoid of shocks: a haunting and lyrical work that depicted a vampire's wrath as part of the universe's cyclical coming and going of chaos and entropy. And as portrayed by his man-muse Klaus Kinski, the titular character is less a nightmare beast than a truly pathetic, pitiable creature, for whom eternal life has brought nothing but loneliness and misery. Likewise, the film's horrors do not pop out from the shadows, but can be powerfully felt in the lingering shots of mummies during the opening credits, on the faces of nonchalant townsfolk in a village overrun by rats, and upon the milk-white brow and bottomless eyes of Isabelle Adjani's Lucy Harker.

The Thing (1982, John Carpenter)
Carpenter's best film is both a more faithful adaptation of Joseph Campbell's novella Who Goes There and an homage to his hero Howard Hawks, producer (and allegedly, also director) of the original. Here is a film that truly gets better with each viewing because it is so marvelously steeped in ambiguity. We're never told exactly how the titular body-possessing, shape-shifting creature works, whether it is capable of overtaking a human entirely or slowly possessing them, and how much of the characters' actions is caused by alien intrusion or by their own paranoia and anger. Puppetry and prosthetic effects had reached their peak with this film, although the gross-out shocks never feel gratuitous or overwhelm the story. It's really a shame that Carpenter has gone into semi-retirement, because we really need him today to show us just how masterful horror films can be.

The Fly (1986, David Cronenberg)
While the original Vincent Price film, is adored by the Famous Monsters of Filmland generation, I was never really that impressed with it - apart from the brilliant "help me!" scene, it's rather dull. Cronenberg's re-working of the tale, however, is a true masterpiece and one of the great films of the eighties, and one in which all of his body-horror hangups came together into a film that is deeply moving and profoundly human. Jeff Goldblum's slow transformation into a half-human-half-insect beast, to the horror and alienation of his girlfriend, becomes a metaphor for cancer, but the brutally unsentimental film avoids the syrupy trappings of almost any other movie ever made about sick people. Though the film is undeniably a yuck-effects masterpiece, the scenes of baboon implosions, fingernails falling off and maggot births wouldn't be as resonantly powerful if not for the deeply felt performances by Goldblum and Davis. Unlike the original, this isn't a movie about monsters, it's a film about human beings.

Cape Fear (1991, Marvin Scorsese)
Scorsese's most beaten up-upon film is a glorious and hysterical pop-art experiment masquerading as a big budget summer blockbuster; as drunk with cinema-love as his equally underrated New York, New York, only more fun. In the original classic by J. Lee Thompson, Gregory Peck is a decent family man pushed to extremes who must defend his angelic daughter and wife from cooly sadistic rapist Robert Mitchum. Scorsese keeps the plot essentially the same but drastically changes the characters: the Bowden family are dysfunctional and miserable behind the facade of their white picket fence, and De Niro's Max Cady, while insane, is a still more moral and virtuous than the supposed good guys. It's as if all of American fear cinema comes together in a blender here: the thrillers of the 60's are mixed with the bunny-boilers and unkillable slashers of the 80's; Cady's wardrobe pays homage to 70's kitsch and his tattoos to Night of the Hunter. Scorsese even reused the original's Bernard Herrmann score and gave Mitchum and Peck cameos as a kind-hearted cop and an Atticus Finch-style lawyer who unwittingly becomes a monkey wrench in the works. Of all the remakes that are indulgent homage/love affairs (like Jim McBride's Breathless and Peter Jackson's King Kong) this is one that really works beautifully.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Celluloid Gypsy Chronicles: An Introduction

These past few months I have been beavering away hard on a short documentary about Dwain Esper, legendary exploitation filmmaker in the 30's and 40's. Like his contemporaries, he made numerous very cheap and dubious films on taboo subjects expressly forbidden by the Hays Production Code: drug addiction, venereal disease, adultery, prostitution, homosexuality, and other forms of debauchery. Some of these films had nudity in them, while others had various geek-show attractions like filmed births and disgusting VD symptoms. In order to make money without attracting the attention of local bluenoses and censor boards, these movies had to make a claim of educational value. Whatever sick, depraved nonsense they were showing had to be packaged as a decent, patriotic act of educating the American public.

Some of the most famous exploitation films of the day were Kroger Babb's Mom and Dad, William O'Conner's The Cocaine Fiends, and Louis Gasnier's Reefer Madness, which Esper actually bought from him and turned into a roadshow attraction (more on this later.) But the fact is, these films look like David Selznik-produced epics compared to most of the stuff Esper helmed himself. Some have labeled him a 1930's Ed Wood, which isn't far wrong. Esper's movies are so ridiculous, so staggeringly, insanely bad, so genuinely cheap and scuzzy and completely bizarre, that they almost seem to have been beamed in from another dimension.

Esper was a former circus sideshow barker who became a successful real estate agent. He got into filmmaking purely by accident, when a business deal went sour and he got a film processing studio out of the deal. He and his wife, Hildegarde Stadie, collaborated on a number of early, scandalous, envelope-pushing films in the pre-Code erea. The earliest film of theirs that survives is 1933's Narcotic. Unlike most of the drug-scare films that would come later, the protagonist is not some impressionable whelp, but a middle-aged doctor who really should know better. He gets starts taking opium to help with the stress of his job, and begins the downward spiral. The film is actually a pretty accurate biography of Hildegarde's great uncle, a medicine show huckster who sold a miracle cure called "Tiger Fat" in the late 1880's. Part of his act, at one point, featured a prepubescent, completely nude Hildegarde onstage with a boa constrictor wrapped around her neck.

Narcotic is interesting because it's a drug-scare film that features a pretty sympathetic main character, a comparatively well-written script, and an unusually high level of intelligence. The pair's next film, Maniac, from 1934, would be almost the complete opposite. This is a film so bizarre, nonsensical, and utterly amazing that it staggers the mind. The plot, which concerns Maxwell, a mentally unstable former vaudeville actor who kills, then impersonates, his mad scientist boss, segues off onto weird tangents whenever it sees fit. There's a raping psychotic next door who thinks he's the orangutan from Murders of the Rue Morgue. His other neighbor farms cats for their pelts. Two women fight with hypo needles and splintered two-by-fours in a scummy basement. Maxwell pops a cats eyeball out of its head and eats it. He and Professor Miershultz revive a dead woman by giving her a shoulder massage. There's implied necrophilia jokes, rape, naked boobs, and intertitles dropped in seemingly at random that describe the symptoms of mental illness. This film is truly a sight to behold.

When first released, Maniac was a flop, until Esper re-titled it Sex Maniac and played up the more risque aspects of the story. His next two features, Marihuana and Sex Madness, would strike a clearer balance between Narcotic's somberly moralistic seriousness and Maniac's boundless sensationalism and gleeful depiction of bad taste. Esper also found he could make more money if he acted as the booking agent and exhibitor of his films as well as the director and producer. Sex Madness, a sometimes over-the-top but mostly frank portrayal of a young woman who contracts syphilis. This film, and others like it, would've been shown to audiences segregated by gender. There would have been an intermission in the middle where some scamster pretending to be America's foremost sex hygenist (possibly even Esper himself) would give a lecture and sell brochures on maintaining a healthy sex life.

For years, Esper roadshowed films he'd directed and others he'd acquired from other sources; some legally, like Reefer Madness, which was formerly a church group produced feature called Tell Your Children, others, almost certainly illegally, like Freaks, which was also sold under the title Nature's Mistakes and Love Among the Freaks. He retired from directing after unleashing The Strange Love Life of Adolf Hitler onto the public, with which he toured across the country in a '37 Mercedes that he claimed was Der Feurher's car. He retired from the business sometime in the forties; just as the world of exploitation films as he knew it started winding to a close. After World War II, it would seem that audiences' attitudes changed to a darker and more cynical one. It's more than likely that after seeing the outcome of the war, Esper and his ilk's goona-goona tactics ceased to be as shocking and scary as they once were.

In any case, my mini-doc, which will be titled Dwain Esper: King of the Celluloid Gypsies, will illustrate the man's life and work, will feature clips from his movies and a 30's jazz soundtrack including Cab Calloway, Jack Teagarden, Benny Goodman and Jelly Roll Morton. I will report on my progress here and post the occasional little nugget of Esper-related goodness. Below are some links to a number of his pictures which are now in the public domain, and can be downloaded free of charge from the incredible Internet Archive.

Maniac (1934)
Reefer Madness
Marihuana (1936)
Sex Madness (1938)