1970s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Blaxploitation, Crime/Detective, Thriller, Western

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

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Director/Screenwriter: John Carpenter

By Roderick Heath

In the dark alleys of a modern cityscape, war is brewing. Heavily armed gang members stalk the dark, only to be spotlighted and coldly massacred by policemen, the bringers of death rendered dehumanised figures as the camera elides their faces and concentrates instead on their hands and weapons. In the following hours, the warlords of the gang, a peculiar multiracial confederacy known as Street Thunder, perform a blutbruderschaft rite, pooling their red blood in a bowl. They head out into a blandly shabby suburbia looking for any event, any victim, that will serve as a spark for a snowballing confrontation with authority, and give an excuse for an all-consuming mission of destruction. We’re where The Spook That Sat By The Door (1973) left off, the ghettos armed and battling the official death squads. This time, though, the institutional black man isn’t quite so outmatched. Late afternoon of the following day sees newly promoted police lieutenant Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) of the Highway Patrol assigned to take command at Precinct 5, Division 13, a police station in his own one-time home suburb of Anderson, a notoriously wretched area of Los Angeles.
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The station is closing down, a hollowed-out shell of institutional function with faintly wistful Art Deco curlicues that hint at the ambitions of a different age, left out in the urban wilderness as the tides of civilisation retreat a few blocks. In the station, Bishop encounters the station’s curt departing Captain (James Jeter), and his crew for the shift: weary desk clerk Chaney (Henry Brandon), and office stalwarts Leigh (Laurie Zimmer) and Julie (Nancy Loomis). None of them are happy about holding the fort for the night, least of all Bishop, whose grimaces give away his frustration at being handed such a chickenshit assignment for his first job as a lieutenant. Two intersecting parties will decide the course of the day and night. A father, Lawson (Martin West), and his young daughter Kathy (Kim Richards) drive into Anderson to pluck his elderly mother from her home in the decaying neighbourhood to come and live with them.
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A busload of prisoners, including a killer headed for Death Row, Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston), is put in the charge of Strayker (Charles Cyphers) to be taken to a state prison. Wilson is an enigma to the lawmen, fending off questions about his motives in some mysterious killings and seemingly ready to proceed to death row with stoic composure. But he’s sure to pay back his abusive jailer (John J. Fox) by contriving to trip him with his chains before boarding the bus. One of the passengers for the big house is sick, obliging Strayker to find a safe harbour long enough to fetch a doctor, so he chooses the Division 13 station to stop at. A hell of a time to make a stop. The warlords of Street Thunder, one white (Frank Doubleday), one Chicano (Gilbert De la Pena), one Oriental (Al Nakauchi), and one black (James Johnson), gather with arms to seek out the right stage for a clarion killing, a ritual that seeks its single, perfect sacrifice.
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Much like his hero Bishop, John Carpenter was a man trying to get somewhere when he made Assault on Precinct 13, one feeling the pinch of frustration. This was to be his second released feature, and his first truly professional effort, following the theatrical release of Dark Star (1974), the film he and fellow film students at UCLA including Dan O’Bannon had pieced together for a pittance. One of its makers later laughingly described the result as the best student movie ever made and the worst theatrical release. Afraid he might never get a shot at directing again Carpenter had set to work busily writing scripts, some of which were produced, including as Irvin Kershner’s Eyes of Laura Mars (1978). Carpenter was particularly eager to make a Western, like many young filmmakers of the generation pejoratively labelled the Movie Brats, but that genre was entering its long twilight. So Carpenter had the bright idea of making one in a contemporary setting, boiled down to vistas of sun-baked tar and ruddy orange sunsets over a concrete wasteland descending into grainy dark. This wasn’t entirely a new idea. Don Siegel had purveyed the same notion with a straight-arrow import for 1971’s Dirty Harry. Martin Scorsese was thinking the same way about his release of the same year, Taxi Driver (1976), but where his approach was neurotic and interiorised, Carpenter attempted to keep the ritualised form intact and render the modern concerns more implicit.
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Assault on Precinct 13 signalled Carptner’s real arrival as a director of force on the low-budget film scene, although its report would be largely drowned out by the colossal success of his follow-up, Halloween, two years later. Assault on Precinct 13 is however certainly one of Carpenter’s best films, perhaps even the best in a pound-for-pound sense. Not that Carpenter was subtle at this stage of his career about drawing on the influence of films he loved. Much like he’d do with Mario Bava and Dario Argento on Halloween, here he transposed Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959) into a modern setting, and mixed in a little of Night of the Living Dead (1968), which some Hitchcock and Sergio Leone references thrown in. Wilson drops quotes from Once Upon A Time in the West (1968) with a teacher who told him he was “something to do with death” and promise to explain what he’s about at the moment of dying. Cicatriz himself is the desk clerk. Bishop’s anecdote about a fateful childhood attempt to scare him straight was borrowed from a story Hitchcock liked to tell about himself. He names his heroine after Leigh Brackett, screenwriter of Rio Bravo and a slew of great films. He cast Stoker as Bishop in emulation of George Romero’s similar ploy, although where Romero had anticipated the nascent Blaxploitation genre, Carpenter was riding the tail end of the wave, contemplating the harsh scene of the post-Civil Rights and liberationist high.
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Carpenter’s attuning of his framing to environment is the stuff of film school classes throughout, from Bishop’s early drive through the streets of Anderson, a zone of horizontals where cars cruise straight flat as trains and there seems to be nowhere to hide from the baking midday sun, the buildings looming as taciturn and isolate as John Ford’s Monument Valley outcrops. Later, when the warlords cruise the same streets, the great, fat, lengthy silencer on a machine gun slides out of the car window and extends right across the widescreen frame, mimicking the horizon. This manages to be at once one of Carpenter’s most menacing shots and one of his most blackly humorous, the threat of militarised death immediately looming over anyone in range note with deadpan calm. Whilst the latter part of the film unfolds like a familiar war movie, this section clearly anticipates the gamesmanship of Halloween: the doped-up warlords are as alien and implacable as Michael Myers and arbitrary in their predations, but also armed with a very specific ideal, a faith that bringing terror and bloodshed to the world will shock it into some new state of awareness. So they drive around the blocks searching for the right moving target. The tense, cagey ice cream man (Peter Bruni) who’s plainly spent a lifetime bringing tinny, jaunty charm and sweets to kids around this neighbourhood even as he knows damn well what sicknesses its adults are cultivating, is wary enough to finger his revolver whenever he sees the warlords’ car drive by.
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Carpenter serves up his central, definitive shock early on. As her daddy tries to use a pay phone to get directions, Kathy walks up the parked ice cream van to make an order. The driver anxiously waits until the warlords’ car is out of sight, before serving her. But the warlords have doubled back, and the white warlord toys with shooting the ice cream man, inserting the barrel of a pistol into his mouth but seeming disappointed by his petrified lack of resistance. Ah, but here comes Kathy doubling back to swap her regular vanilla for vanilla twist; in a moment the white ice cream and golden locks are smeared with brilliant red, and goodnight Kathy. Even in the ruder climes of mid-’70s exploitation film, what balls it took to pull that off. Halloween’s famous punch-line to its opening scene, revealing Michael Myers as a child utterly given over to icy slaughter, and his grown self’s disinterest in killing kids, could well be Carpenter’s fiendish idea of payback as well as a mea culpa to all the shocked grindhouse patrons. Lawson doesn’t know what’s happened, as all the gang’s guns have silencers, until he returns to see his daughter dead and the drier expiring on the tar. The driver manages to tell Lawson about his gun in the van, so Lawson takes the gun and jumps in his car, pursuing the warlords through the streets. Forcing the warlords to pull over, Lawson’s focused rage proves an edge deadlier than the white warlord’s drugged-up berserker disinterest: Lawson guns down the warlord, and flees his comrades in stark terror.
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The closest safe harbour is, of course, Bishop’s new command. Lawson makes it to the station and collapses, gasping out vague explanations before folding up in a catatonic ball. Chaney ventures outside to see what he was running from, only to collapse on the lawn, assumed at first to be a pratfall, only for Bishop to venture out after him and very quickly retreat under a hail of bullets. The siege has begun. Carpenter’s poles of civilisation are blocs of anonymous drones dedicated to conflict, and the rest of the poor bastards caught between them, and he throws into its titular besieged outpost a cubic set of archetypes at war with a relentless, faceless enemy representing unleashed chaos: Cool Outlaw, Tough Woman, Flailing Patriarch, Aspiring Black Man. Street Thunder actualise a boogeyman of common imagining, the underclasses of the urban landscape uniting into a powerful and marauding force: lucky for the world their project is tinged with drug-induced nihilism. The white warlord’s cold, implacable face is a layer of whitewash away from Michael Myers’ incarnation of primal dread. The zombie-like implacability of the gang members also anticipates Carpenter’s radical-edged reconstruction of Hawks’ Thing from another world as a metamorphic gestalt in his 1982 remake, gathering everything into itself. Ripe for a multitude of interpretations, from a commentary on the anonymous quality of poverty and social exclusion to the state of modernity threatening old school hard-won individuality such as Carpenter’s heroes wield.
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Whilst mashing together his own favourite films, Carpenter is also rapidly developing his own private mythos. His uneasy feelings about authority, mediated by making the lawman another form of outsider, his instinctual fascination for the outlaw, complicated an apparent, blithe lack of compunction about working against all civilised rules. Wilson is the blueprint for Escape from New York’s (1981) Snake Plissken and Ghosts of Mars (2001) Desolation Williams, the superlative hard-ass maverick, outside the law, “out of time and out of luck.” Bishop is trying real hard to be the shepherd, but his annoyed grimaces and barely constrained irritation give away his rueful realisation his promotion hasn’t yet rescued him from patronising: “That sure got around fast,” he comments when the departing Captain lets slip he knows it’s Bishop’s first day out with his new insignia. “Black?” Leigh asks him, meaning coffee, but she’s answered with his immortal quip, “For over thirty years.” A couple of years earlier Stoker had appeared in Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) where he played the voice of intelligent and conscientious humanity speaking up for itself in the face of disenfranchising; here he’s the guy tolerating every slight for the sake of a project started when, in his own description, he walked out of Anderson by his own volition. Thomas Wolfe was right; you can’t go home again, as Bishop finds the locals are now packing high velocity weapons.
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Strayker and his menagerie arrive, only to find the station seeming to be quickly going to the dogs as the phones cut out, so Strayker contemptuously decides to move on, only to be cut down along with his underlings by the gang’s bullets. Wilson finishes up trapped under one of his dead prisoner pals and need Bishop to come haul him out. Only Wilson and Wells (Tony Burton) are left from the bus, bundled into holding cells and left to stew whilst Bishop and the two office workers try to work out what the hell’s happening. Sniper bullets start punching through the windows, shattering the glass, only the sound of breaking glass to announce the fusillade, all racket of gunfire perversely lacking, only George Washington’s youthful fetish for the sweet song of the whizzing bullet itself. This is a flourish Carpenter wields with particular cunning, threat without source, deadliness without catharsis, locked in a nightmare zone where the familiar rules of life (and movies) are suspended. Then come the invaders, dark figures in the windows, incarnations of blank threat. Guns are few, ammunition low. The heaviest weapon on hand is a pump-action shotgun the Captain was seen locking up in a chest earlier with import in castrating Bishop.
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The two women almost see to be in a uniform of their own, long skirts, wool sweaters, although character is soon divergent: Leigh is hardy and taciturn, Julie fretful and brittle, soon suggesting they haul Lawson out to please the besiegers and desperately hoping they’re gone when the bullets cease. No, they come breaking in the back door as Leigh goes to check on the two prisoners, a bullet tearing a groove in her upper arm. Leigh stays cool and waits until the gun-wielding thug gets close, then socks him in the face with the cell keys before a kick to the balls. And that’s how the modern action heroine was born, kids. Wilson helps her defeat the next goon, and Bishop manages to pass him the shotgun in time to blast away a few more suckers. Wilson’s eye gleam with ferocious glee as he comprehends the chance gifted him, but immediately unleashes on the next gang members to attack: they’re no friend to him or Wells. It took Seijun Suzuki to make a film called Pistol Opera, but Carpenter made it first, as he turns the central sequence of gunplay, as Bishop, Leigh, Wells, and Wilson battle off their persecutors, into a mischievous piece of near-musical sonic orchestration, the tempo of gunfire speeding up and gaining rhythm.
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Zimmer made only a handful of films before she quit acting, supposedly ill-at-ease in her performances, despite Carpenter’s encouragement. It was a real loss, as her excellence here as the ever-so-cool yet subtly sensitive Leigh readily matches Stoker’s poise and Joston’s squirrely charisma, the water light of extreme world-weariness and fried emotional reflexes in her eyes even as she boots bad guys in the bollocks and swaps charged glances with Wilson as she lights his cigarette. Leigh and Wilson seem magnetically attracted from first glance, a cosmic joke played on them both. Leigh’s coup comes as she talks the antsy Wells out of a planned dash for freedom, taunting him with the certainty of his death as he holds a gun on her, only to realise his gun’s not actually loaded. Julie is already dead, killed without anyone to notice during the furious battle. Wells has a plan – “It’s called ‘Save-Ass’” Soon after Leigh talks him out of it it’s proposed someone try to sneak out of the building via a drainpipe linked to the basement, get to a parked car, and race off to the nearest phone box. “What’s the difference between this and what I was gonna do ten minutes ago?” Wells demands. He and Wilson go head to head in a loaded game of potato to see who’ll be it. Wells expects to lose. He does. Out he goes, and manages to escape the drain and hotwire the car without flaw. He races up the road and halts before the phone box. But one of the gang members has been waiting on the back seat for such a ploy; he sits up and shoots Wells through the head.
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Wells and Julie are the designated victims of course, the ones just little less stoic, a little lacking in sangfroid, although their frailty is of course perfectly human. Part of the specific power of Assault on Precinct 13 lies in the way it meets all criteria for a hard-charging pulp movie but retains a sense of mortality and its meaning for all its characters (save the gang members, but fuck those guys anyway), from Kathy to Julie to Wells, as Bishop and his pick-up posse fight nominally to protect Lawson. There’s real power in the repeated gesture of jackets being draped over the dead Kathy and Julie, pathetic victims of forces brewed on a great scale. Early in the film Kathy proposes to her father they ask directions from a cop because her teacher told her the police are there to help, only to be told by her father that her teacher’s “never taken any big steps outside the sixth grade.” The film’s opening evokes ruthless brutality in the name of state security, but by the end it’s allowed a tacit faith in the ideal of the civic guardian, so long as that guardian is an actual representative of the community he’s policing. Bishop is post-Blaxploitation hero, a man seeking to redefine institutions according to his identity rather than the other way round, whilst still contending with all the compromise, frustration, and occasional terror that comes with such a struggle. Leigh is the Hawksian one-of-the-boys ladies dragged out into the glare of the Women’s Lib sun, hardy, self-sufficient, mature, able to take care of herself as much as anyone in this situation can. By contrast the gang members engage in an act of nihilistic intent, a death-dream invocation.
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Meantime Carpenter records the bristling, protoplasmic mass of the new social landscape in his widescreen frames within the tight, rectilinear assurances of the station architecture, and his own frames, characters huddling together, breaking apart, forming and reforming their alliances. Present straits aren’t so different from the schoolyard, confirmed during Wilson and Wells’ potato bout. Childhood tends to haunt the characters, from Bishop’s recollections of being scared straight to Wilson’s opposite experience of preordained fate: everyone’s the product of something that puts them on a path, and Carpenter’s ultimate, humanist idea is that everyone retains an aspect of the heroic in them, despite the opinion of Bishop’s commander that “there aren’t any heroes anymore,” often suppressed and sometimes honed by circumstance. Assault on Precinct 13 is a way station in Carpenter’s slyly evolving variety of social mindfulness in genre cinema, coming just after Dark Star, which sent up the Domino Theory and the idea of the nuclear deterrent, the Domino Theory, and the technocratic subservience of modern life in general, and long before Escape from L.A. ’s (1997) raw disgust and final push-the-button nihilism. It would be easy to dismiss Street Thunder as a conveniently literalised version of urban angst, except that Carpenter pointedly removes sectarian meaning from their looming vision by making them multiracial, the warlords each designated by specific, cliché modes of dress – the white warlord and his black singlet, the Chicano with his Che-like garb – and their weapons of choice. Urban warfare is a blend of state-of-the-art weaponry and down-and-dirty tribal warfare, cars becoming rolling barricades.
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Two cops spend the night circling around the precinct in disorientation, sent out to chase down the peals of gunfire reported by houses near the station but cannot find. Telephone men have vanished. A black hole might as well have opened in this corner of the city. There’s a great if casual joke in the plight of the cops who can’t find anything wrong in the middle of a warzone, one that Carpenter would parse again in his work, like in The Fog (1981) where the need to keep the news going out is an urgent theme in the midst of a corrupt and oblivious community, and They Live (1988) where the act of actually penetrating a web of distraction to perceive truth is turned into an overtly political act, and the difficulty of piecing together coherent narrative in the face of crisis in Ghosts of Mars. The evocation of paranoid isolation would prove a Carpenter specialty in his early films, where he’d turn his straitened budgets and productions to his advantage in creating precisely described pockets of reality. The absurdist approach to this in Dark Star, where his shaggy astronauts were forced to wander the universe, gave way here to a tighter, less meditative but no less anxious sense of characters dangling on the end of life’s long rope.
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One of my favourite moments in the film comes when Lawson tries to alert the police in a phone booth out in some wasteground after gunning down the white warlord, only to see his fellows marching out of the dark: the confrontation seems to be taking place at the end of the universe, the last survivors of humankind battling for the one bloc of light left. One indelible aspect of the film’s texture is Carpenter’s electronic music score, performed on a bank of early synthesisers with the film’s art director Tommy Lee Wallace, who would become one of Carpenter’s regular collaborators (another, Debra Hill, helped out as an uncredited editor). Carpenter took a lot of licence from Lalo Schifrin’s score for Dirty Harry, but he finished up creating something original enough that it had a deep impact not just on Carpenter’s own film style, but on the emerging forms of electronic music and hip hop. Electronic drones declare the presence and attack of the gang members, thudding drum beats with a woozy groove sustain suspense, synthesiser strains wail in the dark like police sirens and make a repetitive cracking sound like a burst tyre flapping against asphalt. Plaintive declarations from an electric piano evoke Bishop’s survey of his old neighbourhood at sunset and recurs as characters survey the dead and face the fallout of a night of carnage.
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Carpenter finally lands his most definite nod to Hawks as he appropriates Rio Bravo’s famous blood-in-the-glass scene: the two cops pull over in frustration only to hear what might be rain on the roof, only for one to get out and realise the rain is actually dripping blood, trickling down from the dead body of a murdered telephone repairman, hanging with arms splayed a grotesque wind chime. Meanwhile Bishop, Wilson, and Leigh have their backs to the wall, literally. They retreat into the station’s basement for their last hope of standing off a mass charge along with their catatonic charge Lawson. Bishop banks all on his marksmanship, planning a Viking funeral for the gang members by igniting some acetylene tanks whilst the trio shelter behind a broken sign that reads, hilariously, SUPPOR YOUR LOC POLIC. The traditional last gallant ending for siege dramas is raised as Leigh suggests she keep the last two bullets in her gun for herself and Wilson; “Save ‘em for the first two assholes who come through that vent,” Wilson instructs. “There are two things a man should never run from,” he comments, the first being a wounded man and the unspoken second acknowledged only in the long gaze held between him and Leigh.
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The final charge of the gang members sees Bishop rising to the status of classic American hero, Hawkeye, the deadly shot and frontier tamer, uniting two hitherto barely related varieties of American iconography. “Can’t argue with a confident man,” Wilson notes repeatedly and with increasing sarcasm as his shots go wild, but at last one hits and the hallway explodes in boiling flame. The cavalry arrive at last, a squadron of police cars screeching to a halt outside, cops pouring into the desolated station and coming across the three combatants still ready to fight on with any weapon at hand, only for the smoke to slowly clear and reveal nominal allies rather than more foes, our heroes slowly easing out of their defensive postures. Carpenter gives them their moments to walk out of the movie like from a stage, Leigh alone and integral, needing no theatrics of injury despite being battle-wounded. She’s followed by Wilson and Bishop together: “You’re pretty fancy Wilson,” the cop grants. “I have my moments,” Wilson replies, and out they march That’s Carpenter’s notion of Elysium – cop and criminal, black guy and white, grinning at each-other and walking out of hell. He’d stick them both back in there for The Thing and They Live. The urban Nibelungenlied is over, but every myth is told and retold, each time a little differently.

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1990s, Blaxploitation, Crime/Detective, War

Dead Presidents (1995)

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Directors/Coscreenwriters: Albert and Allen Hughes

By Roderick Heath

In the 1990s, following the lead of Spike Lee, a small wave of black filmmaking talents, including Carl Franklin, John Singleton, Kasi Lemmons, Bill Duke, Mario Van Peebles, and the Hughes Brothers, edged their way into Hollywood. Their careers have proven for the most part patchy and their works uneven, but all managed a few strong and significant movies to the extent that the period now looks like something of a renaissance nobody noticed that endured through dogged appreciation and fandom on video. Although many of these filmmakers would resist being pigeonholed to a great extent, all of them to an equal extent tried at times to describe realms of black experience that hadn’t been studied much in the movies. If a film like Van Peebles’ Panther (1995) wasn’t really very good, at least it was a desperately needed study of a vital moment in modern American life. Some of these directors leaned towards the ragged glories of genre film, particularly Duke’s loping, waggish crime flicks and Franklin’s cool and well-honed entries in the same genre, and Singleton’s punchy melodramas like Higher Learning (1995) and Rosewood (1997) that recalled Warner Bros. issue dramas of the ’30s. The Detroit-born brothers Albert and Allen Hughes made their name with 1993’s Menace II Society, a film some preferred to Singleton’s more widely lauded Boyz N the Hood (1992), and its follow-up three years later, Dead Presidents. The brothers’ career has moved in fits and starts since, with only their sadly defanged adaptation of Alan Moore’s From Hell (2000) and the biblical scifi parable The Book of Eli (2011), whilst Allen went solo in making the initially compelling but overplotted political corruption drama Broken City (2013). Dead Presidents, however, still stands as one of the best, most interesting and coherent films from this period for the scope of its ambitions and the visceral portrayal of things often left out of other takes on its chosen era and milieu.
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Dead Presidents’ title conflates street argot for cash and a sense of history in flux and revision. The opening title sequence concentrates on images of cash burning, all those patrician faces and elegant scripts ablaze and drifting on the wind. The film encompasses a common narrative portrayed or alluded to in a lot of ’70s blaxploitation films, and the Hughes reference that mode of filmmaking throughout at a time when it wasn’t yet cool to reference: indeed, Dead Presidents is not just an homage to the blaxploitation creed, but an update of it, looking to the sociopolitical reality of the moment rather than merely its tropes. The scope of the narrative can be described as The Deer Hunter (1978) meets The Killing (1956), although for a real likeness of a narrative that encompasses the experience of a complete epoch, you have to look back even farther to the likes of Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties (1939). The focus is on a returned black Vietnam War veteran confronted by a changed social scene at home—an idea that recalls not just blaxploitation films like Jack Starrett’s Slaughter (1972) and Fred Williamson’s Mean Johnny Barrows (1976), but also Marvin Gaye’s classic statement album What’s Going On.
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The Hugheses start off in a key of funny-melancholy portrait of youth before going off to war: black teens Anthony Curtis (Larenz Tate) and Skip (Chris Tucker), and their Latino pal Jose (Freddy Rodriguez), have just finished high school and are looking at a leap in adulthood with different ambitions. Gabby, cynical Skip wants to be a pimp, whilst Anthony is being steered toward college like his older brother (Isaiah Washington). But Anthony chafes in the embrace of his relatively middle-class family and craves action, the kind of military action his father (James Pickens Jr.) and his employer, Kirby (Keith David), once saw. Kirby, who runs a pool hall and operates a low-grade numbers operation on the side, clearly favours Anthony like a surrogate son. Kirby employs him as a runner and lets him hang around the pool hall even though he’s underage.
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The film’s first third has a loose, nostalgic feel and a quality reminiscent of many a coming-of-age tale, laced with the grittiness of a very urban life demanding quick learning skills and a witty gift for adaptation and a tone often verging on black comedy, like Philip Kaufman’s The Wanderers (1979). Anthony loses his virginity with his girlfriend Juanita Benson (Rose Jackson) in a sequence of wry, bawdy honesty, and defies his parents as he announces his intention to join the Marines. Juanita lives with her nurse mother (Alvaleta Guess) and her plucky, flirty younger sister Delilah (N’Bushe Wright), who has put up with the sounds of the teens’ lovemaking when their mother’s on the night shift. Anthony’s education also includes a scary encounter with Cowboy (Terrence Howard), one of the sharpies who hangs around Kirby’s pool joint, who mocks Anthony for his age but then accepts Kirby’s suggestion they go head-to-head for a game. Anthony wins the game, but Cowboy refuses to pay the whole stake; when Anthony complains, Cowboy assaults him and cuts his face with a knife before Kirby and a pal can intervene. Kirby enlists Anthony as a driver when he goes to shake down a guy who owes him money, and standover violence takes on a slapstick edge: Kirby tosses his mark out a window whilst the man’s wife waves a gun at him. Kirby snatches the gun and knocks her out, whilst her husband tries to trip up Kirby by grabbing his leg, only to have Kirby’s prosthetic leg come off in his hands. Kirby finishes up rolling on the ground with the gun stuck up his quarry’s nose, and later stows his false leg on the dashboard and groans that he ought to go back and kill the guy because he made him lose his pack of cigarettes.
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The brothers pull off a few terrific stylistic pirouettes through these early scenes. A tracking shot through an apartment where all the young graduates party, glimpsed in vignettes of passion, dancing, drinking, smoking, vomiting—all the follies and pleasures of young adulthood—is aestheticized to an extreme in hues of red and blue. There’s a strong Scorsesean influence here, but also an identifiable quality as a survey blending panorama and enlarged human detail of black artists like Archibald Motley. Later, trying to flee the Bensons’ house before being caught by their mother, Anthony makes a dash through neighbouring yards, leaping over fences and dodging barking dogs, filmed on the fly by the Hughes’ dashing camera, and then suddenly cutting to Anthony again on the run, but this time through the jungle in Vietnam surrounded by fellow soldiers in the midst of battle. This touch recalls the great smash cut that separates the homeland and ’Nam sequences in The Deer Hunter, but given a clever, kinetic makeover, and jarringly describes the distance between the comedy of Anthony’s arrival into manhood and the cruel reality of surviving the version of it his aspirations have plunged him into.
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Vietnam movies had all but expended their moment of cultural status by 1995, but the Hughes actually managed to bring something new to the well-worn clichés of the subgenre here by pure dint of both their grittiness and their impassive approach to it. Far from the delirious atavism of Apocalypse Now (1979) or the operatic moralism of Platoon (1986), the Hughes war zone is a place of ferocious, devolving violence that its characters merely treat as a shitstorm to be survived, in whatever fashion they deem fit. With Jose drafted into the Army, Skip joined up with Anthony, and now the two watch each other’s backs in a rough-and-ready force recon outfit, skippered by Lieutenant Dugan (Jaimz Woolvett), and including Cleon (Bokeem Woodbine), the son of a minister who’s turned himself into a rampaging devil for the duration of the war, and the ill-fated D’Ambrosio (Michael Imperioli).
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The visions of the war zone, including Cleon hacking off the head of a VC and keeping it as a steadily decomposing good luck charm and D’Ambrosio’s capture by the VC, who disembowel him, castrate him, and jam his penis in his mouth, but still manage to leave him alive, contemplate the most terrible aspects of the war with a kind of reportorial immediacy that eschews excess or self-congratulatory zest. Anthony and Skip lean on each other for sanity and support, but the unit has its own embracing camaraderie built around their status as the dudes who brave the hairiest situations under Dugan’s wily direction. Cleon only gets rid of his totem at the insistence of Dugan and the rest of the unit when its stink gets too much, but warns them all that they’ve just thrown away their luck. Anthony passes another, awful hurdle in his education as he obeys D’Ambrosio’s begging to kill him by injecting him with a morphine overdose. Later, the unit is ambushed in a firefight. Skip freezes up and is badly injured, whilst Dugan is killed trying to grab him, forcing Anthony and Cleon to save Skip and fight a rear-guard action before they escape.
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A year later, Anthony returns to a home that looks familiar, but soon finds the magnetic pole has shifted. Skip is now an addict living on benefits and suffering from the after-effects of Agent Orange. Cowboy is now a friendly neighbourhood drug dealer. Jose, who was drafted and served in demolitions, lost a hand during the war. Delilah has become a leading figure in a Black Panther-like revolutionary group called the Nat Turner Cadre: she greets Anthony’s arrival with “Welcome to the Revolution,” which, by the way she kisses him, includes the sexual as well as the political kind. But Anthony already has a role mapped out for him as father and provider, because Juanita gave birth to his daughter whilst he was away. He lands a steady job as assistant to a kindly old Jewish butcher, Saul (Seymour Cassel), who strikes up a rapport with Anthony over his name’s ironic similarity to actor Tony Curtis, who, as Saul points out, was another young American busy hiding his roots. But when Saul retires, Anthony finds himself jobless and quickly running out of options. Rubbing his increasingly raw nerves even sorer, Anthony learns that during his absence, Juanita was a part-time girlfriend to a gangster, Cutty (Clifton Powell), who displays outright contempt for Anthony and continues to slip cash to Juanita. When Anthony insists he stop, Cutty sucker-punches him and jams a gun in his face, taunting him in the same way Cowboy once did, except with an even scarier weapon. As Anthony’s feelings of entrapment and castration escalate, he soon begins to think seriously about a robbery plan Jose has proposed, targeting a federal shipment of worn-out currency destined to be burnt.
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The Hugheses confirm allegiances with several visual and thematic references to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), although whereas that film was concerned with an individual veteran completely adrift in his society who sees himself strangely plugged into its moral fate, here the Hughes concentrate on Anthony as an avatar of a common experience who maintains connections with other similarly damaged people but is dogged by his inability or refusal to become radicalised. Delilah offers Anthony the chance to find a place amongst the Cadre and the nascent possibility of black brotherhood. But Anthony insists on maintaining an allegiance to ideals of manhood and country that prove illusory, one setting him up to try to live a life that the other can’t or won’t give him. Twisting the usual screen portraits of ’Nam vets as nobly pained or bugfuck crazy, the Hughes brothers offer this motley crew of vets simply as guys trying to endure whatever landscape they’re placed in, facing constantly shrinking options that fit the ways they’ve been trained to survive. The narrative’s inspiration came from a book, Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans, compiled by Wallace Terry, and specifically, the experiences of Haywood T. Kirkland and his recollections of people he knew. Indeed, in spite of its moments of melodrama and conflation, Dead Presidents maintains a feeling throughout of memoir, something the brothers underline with gruesome piquancy in their war sequences and episodic structuring—the various passages of time are denoted through fades to black and back again and titles giving time and place—and their refusal of any kind of catharsis at the very end.
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The Hugheses capture the atmosphere inscribed in Gil Scott-Heron’s “Winter in America” whilst remembering the time when it seemed the revolution might or might not be televised. Dead Presidents’ willingness to study both the milieu of black radicalism and its context in the Vietnam era, and to ponder the relationship between crime and such extremism, is certainly one of its important aspects. Rather than actually present Anthony with an alternative politicised path, Delilah readily signs up with his intended criminal enterprise, lending the operation the faint lustre of a revolutionary act even as it devolves, once again, into mere disastrous bloodletting. Perhaps it’s as good a mission of social anarchy as any other, as well as a play for riches and a focus for violent impulses. Delilah is perhaps the most original character in the film, the character who marks both the disorientating social shift Anthony is faced with once he comes back from the war even as the link between Delilah’s sassy, tomboyish disdain as a kid and her hard, radicalised intent is also signalled: she’s the one who greets him when we first see him go to the Benson house, and the first again when he comes back from war. Her status as the one real militant amidst all these clapped-out soldiers in the narrative suggests an element of dilettante posing found in much of the radical movement, although she proves her willingness to actually use deadly force. Delilah’s downfall is her unreciprocated crush on Anthony, an emotional attachment that, like Anthony’s to Juanita and his other loved ones, dooms him to a course of action that seems inevitable. When Anthony and his cadre actually embark on their robbery mission, they do so pointedly done up in dramatic, visually striking whiteface make-up that evokes Baron Samedi of voodoo lore, the embodiment of the perverse dichotomy of the slave society, the dualistic mix of black and white, owner and owned, command and slavery, eternity and death.
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Similarly surreal in his mix of impulses is Cleon, who, since his return from war, has followed in his father’s footsteps and become a preacher, the head-hacking shaman he was in the bush seemingly cast off like a second skin. Nonetheless, Anthony and company approach him to join in their operation: Cleon, to their surprise, readily signs up with vague altruistic hopes for the cash he can net, although he worries Skip might freeze up again and go useless in a tight situation. The robbery, when it comes, is a ferocious sequence of pummelling Peckinpah-esque violence where nothing goes right, except for shedding blood. This climax is particularly good not just in the concussive, gory intensity of the action, but also in the Hughes’ sense of character as fate, which finds precise expression here: Delilah springing out of a dumpster with .45s in each hand blasting away cops with an expression that blends warrior rage and anguish just before getting iced herself; Cleon proving the one who’s unreliable when he can’t shoot down a fellow black veteran turned cop, forcing Skip to shoot the poor guy in the head; Anthony, stung by loss and releasing his rage on the coppers who insist on fighting back, eventually reduced to beating one with his gun when he runs out of bullets; Joe howling with laughter after his explosive device made to blow open the armoured car instead turns the vehicle into a giant ball of fire. There’s a touch of absurdism to this last moment, reminiscent, perhaps deliberately, of The Italian Job (1969), capping a robbery staged by people more used to violence than they are to planning and executing such a difficult mission. The Hughes present horror and comedy as two sides of the same coin, the result of things spinning far out of anyone’s control, and chaos, as on the battlefield, grips everyone in a ruthless logic.
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Dead Presidents finally falls a few rungs short of real greatness, if for relatively subtle reasons. The Hugheses display more discipline here than Spike Lee often has, but lack his and Scorsese’s gift for turning anxiety into an aesthetic key, and the result doesn’t quite annex the realms of truly savage urban warfare in the way a precursor like Across 110th Street (1973) manages. Casting is a bit of a problem, with the supporting players generally more convincing than the leads. Tate is a very likeable actor, and he’s fairly good here, but often seems too lightweight and boyish to inhabit a figure as prematurely grave and seething as Anthony after he returns home, whilst Jackson never quite feels convincing when trying to put across Juanita’s blend of ardour and anger, which means scenes depicting the disintegration of Anthony and Juanita’s relationship don’t blaze with a sufficient sense of mad and inchoate emotion. David is as sourly marvellous as always. The sight of young Howard blazing with mean charisma and punkish swagger in his scenes as Cowboy tantalises with what the film might have been if he had played Anthony, whilst Wright shows real poise and potency in her scenes: in some alternative universe she might have become a real star. Tucker did start on his way towards becoming something of a star, and here his gift for zippy verbal comedy is tethered effectively to his portrayal, as Skip’s confidence in his breezy humour before war and his jittery attempts to maintain it after depict concisely how ruined he is.
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In spite of its flaws, Dead Presidents stands as a fascinating, intermittently powerful journey that treads into territory I wish more filmmakers would take up. The disaster of the robbery sets the scene for the steady collapse and defeat of the crew, who manage, in spite of Joe turning the van into a fireball, to get away with a decent haul. But Joe is quickly chased down by police and killed when he shoots the driver of a cop car dead, but the vehicle slams into him. A crumbling Cleon brings down the heat when he starts handing out his cut of the loot to random beggars and people in the street, and squeals when he’s inevitably arrested. The police crash into Skip’s apartment only to find him dead from an overdose, his fish-eyed corpse lying grotesquely before his TV, which broadcasts a jaunty Soul Train performance. Dead Presidents was criticised upon release for its ending, as Anthony is sentenced to a long prison term by a white judge (a cameo by Martin Sheen), a fellow veteran who rejects the idea that the man in the docks deserves clemency for his service and brands him a disgrace instead. Anthony goes berserk in court and is shipped off to prison. This conclusion does have a peculiarly offhand quality, although I suspect that effect is deliberate, as the Hughes brothers fade to black as they have after each episode, only this time there are no more consequential chapters in Anthony’s life. Anthony isn’t granted the kind of glory a shootout like Raoul Walsh’s allowed to his antiheroic gangsters, or the sort of tragic stature filmmakers sometimes choose to extend to the likes of Bonnie & Clyde (1967) or Blow’s (2001) George Jung. He is instead doomed, like another modern Prometheus, to be gnawed at by the decimation of his community and the ambiguity of his own lot, the question of whether he really was a man without choices or the agent of his own destruction. Shit happens, and it just happened to Anthony Curtis.

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1980s, Action-Adventure, Blaxploitation, Horror/Eerie, Political

The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

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Director: Wes Craven

By Roderick Heath

Wes Craven’s career making horror films lasted over forty years, but he remained devilishly hard to contain or categorise. A former philosophy student and English professor, he often exhibited great conceptual intelligence in his work, utilising highbrow ideas like metatextuality and nested realities well before they became fashionable, as well as pursuing a definite satirical interest in confronting the violent and perverse impulses lurking under the surface of the modern world. But he also gleefully delivered the down-and-dirty pleasures of his chosen genre, and as he developed from the relatively straightforward rawness of his infamous debut, Last House on the Left (1972), he began to revel in a stylised, madcap, virtually slapstick version of horror. There was a strong dash of Looney Tunes to his horror – the villains reminiscent of Wile E. Coyote or Yosemite Sam in their braggart ferocity, the heroes fighting back with their Acme kit-like improvised methods. His sixth feature film, A Nightmare in Elm Street (1984), was the kind of hit every low-budget, ghettoised filmmaker dreams of, one that made mountains of lucre and impacted upon the genre significantly. And yet the director himself was forced to sell the rights to the film before its release, and could only stand and watch as his brainchild became a pop cultural phenomenon. Craven’s career would remain skittish, even after he finally found a degree of stature and mainstream success with the Scream series. In the phase following Elm Street, Craven did some of his best, most distinctive and vigorous work, but little of it was well-received at the time, including the would-be new franchise creator, Shocker (1989), the freakish, scabrous parable The People Under the Stairs (1991), and the ingeniously self-referential Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1993).

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The Serpent and the Rainbow might have seemed at first glance a play for relative respectability. Craven took on a script by Richard Maxwell and Adam Rodman, adapted a memoir by researcher Wade Davis, recounting his investigations into tetrodotoxin, a chemical derived from puffer fish venom and used by Haitian voodoo practitioners in zombie creation rituals, with the hope of adapting it for medical use. Respectability seems the last thing on Craven’s mind when the viewer is confronted by the resulting film, however. Long before Charlie Kaufman made a joke out of trying to turn dry reportage into a popular genre movie in Adaptation. (2002), Craven beat him to the reality, creating one of his strangest, most defiantly individual films, as well as one of his best – ridiculous, weird, and riotously entertaining. The Serpent and the Rainbow arrived as a near-freeform assault on familiar narrative niceties, shifting through familiar modes at breakneck speed. It’s a travelogue, anthropological study, political thriller, surrealist fugue, blood-and-thunder horror yarn, and action blockbuster all at once. It looks back to Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur’s great I Walked With a Zombie (1943) in trying to seriously and even realistically encompass voodoo as a socio-religious tradition, with an aspect of a specific, very ‘80s brand of fashionable ethnographic study and Third World consciousness-raiser a la The Emerald Forest (1984) or Under Fire (1983). But it also shifts into utterly whacko B-movie shtick and haunted house ride-like showmanship when it feels like it.

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Davis becomes Dennis Alan, played by Bill Pullman, a dashing young Harvard-trained ethnobotanist (!) who arrives deep in the Amazon forest hoping to find commercially exploitable herbal remedies amongst tribal shamans. One shaman (Evencio Mosquera Slaco) feeds him a hallucinogenic concoction as he thinks Dennis needs to perceive things beyond, because there’s some immensely evil force looming over him. Dennis, in his altered state, encounters a jaguar that terrifies him at first but proves to actually be his protective spirit animal. But the shaman is replaced in the fugue by a fearsomely leering sorcerer (Zakes Mokae), who torments Dennis with visions of being dragged down into the earth by dead and buried men. When he awakens from this grotesque trip, Dennis heads to his helicopter in relief but finds the pilot dead, killed by some malediction. Dennis is forced instead to hike out of the jungle, seemingly guided to safety by the jaguar spirit. When he gets back to the US, Dennis is hired by his mentor, Earl Schoonbacher (Michael Gough), who now works for pharmaceutical company boss Andrew Cassedy (Paul Guilfoyle): Schoonbacher and Cassedy want him to go to Haiti, to investigate a seemingly authentic case of somebody having been made into a zombie. The first scenes of the film have already shown this, as the evil magician of Dennis’s dream, actually Captain Dargent Peytraud (Zakes Mokae), oversaw the burial of the man pronounced dead but, Craven reveals, weeping in his coffin. The Captain works for the Tonton Macoute, the secret police force that did the dirty work for the government of ‘Papa Doc’ and ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier.

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The unfortunate victim, Christophe Durand (Conrad Roberts), has since been disinterred and briefly sheltered for a time by psychiatrist Marielle Duchamp (the ever-excellent Cathy Tyson), whose report attracted outside attention. Dennis meets up with Marielle but Christophe has long since left the run-down, grimy asylum Marielle tries to administrate: eventually they track him to where he now lives, the cemetery where he was buried, lurking in the shadows as a distraught and disorientated shell of his former self. Christophe was a schoolteacher who was fighting the Duvalier dictatorship, and Peytraud targeted him for destruction. Dennis tries to get on with his job, approaching braggart gambler and alchemist Louis Mozart (Brent Jennings) to make some of the supposed zombiefying concoction he’s famous for, and Louis happily agrees for a few hundred dollars. Louis tries to cheat Dennis by giving him a batch of the bogus blend he sells to tourists, but Dennis spots the gag and forces Louis to put up the real thing. Louis eventually agrees but insists Dennis join him the long and complex preparation process for this mysterious concoction. Trouble is, the longer he spends in Haiti, the more deeply Dennis becomes involved with both the local culture and its marvels, and also the evil of the Duvalier regime, as represented by Peytraud, who uses both torture and voodoo to torment and terrorise anyone who attracts his sadistic interests.

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Standing on the side of the just is Marielle’s friend, fellow resistance member, and voodoo priest Lucien Celine (Paul Winfield), who tries to use white magic to protect Dennis and Marielle as they tread on territory Peytraud jealously defends. In many ways Craven’s sense of style could hardly have been more different to the elegance and suggestiveness of the classic Universal and Val Lewton horror films: his camerawork, quite often utilising hand-held and steadicam shots that roam about his characters and vivid lensing effects that mimic the presence of unseen forces assailing them, is vigorous in a manner that suggests Werner Herzog’s work on Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972) on crack, the special effects unrestrained, and the manifestations of primal and supernatural terror visualised with gusto. And yet in other ways, particularly in Craven’s obsession with dreams and visions as the bridging point between the concrete and the fantastic, The Serpent and the Rainbow maintains links with an older, more ethereal brand of horror; reality and dream, worldly power and magic are in such a constant flux that they become inseparable. A richly visualised, otherworldly elegance pervades parts of the film, particularly a magical sequence in which Marielle takes Dennis on a trek along with thousands of worshippers on a religious festival. Streams of worshippers flow through the jungle to a rock pool high in the mountains where they carry a statue of the Virgin Mary, camping at night along the way in forests bedecked with jewels and totems and guttering candles, and Dennis and Marielle make love in a cave with a sense of ritualistic fervour, capping a movement of deliriously sensual textures.

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In the midst of this movement, Craven offers an interlude when Dennis has another of his prophetic visions, seeing himself visited in the night in the forest by Christophe carrying the corpse of a voodoo priestess in a white grave dress, which then disgorges a snake for a tongue that bites Dennis on the face. Such are the breakneck shifts of mood and effect in this film, which come so often as to become their own, weird form of lucidity in creating a world where just about anything can and does happen. Dennis is constantly assailed with similarly strange and often spectacular dreams hallucinations and Craven uses these to give a more pyrotechnic brand of horror. Dennis’ early vision of being dragged down into the earth sees corpses thrusting rotting fingers at him before plunging into a black abyss, as if the dread sins of the past buried however deep are about to claim Dennis. Later, when he’s retreated from the villains to a small beachfront cabin, he sees a burning boat drifting to the shore, carrying the voodoo priestess, before the cabin closes up, shrinks down, and becomes a coffin, blood filling it up like a bathtub. The idea that villain Peytraud fights his battles on both a physical level and on the spiritual lets Craven go to town in portraying the totality of this form of warfare. Peytraud also represents for Craven one of several attempts to create another Freddy Krueger, a trickster villain who respects no usual limitations of physical law and logic to attack his enemies. Mokae was a South African actor who first found repute working with playwright Athol Fugard, and his later acting career was usually split between politically oriented dramas and horror films. Here he had a chance to combine those two, and he’s an unrestrained hoot in the role, with his rolling, bugging eyes and gold tooth flashing matched by rasping voice of cruel relish, as if someone recast Robert Newton’s Long John Silver as a Blaxploitation villain.

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Most of Craven’s films had a powerful undercurrent sense of absurdist black comedy, and oftentimes entirely explicit. That streak is certainly present here, particularly apparent in just how much abuse Dennis receives throughout the film. It gets to the point where this all starts to feel like a lampoon on both the usual travails of venturesome heroes in pulp tales – young Pullman’s square-jawed, all-American visage needs only a pith helmet to complete the picture – and also of white western anxiety in the face of dangers beyond the safe limits of home, like Midnight Express (1978) gone troppo. In one sequence Craven reaches an apogee of discomfort in mainstream cinema whilst somehow avoiding depicting any actual gore. Peytraud seeks to terrify and punish Dennis by having him arrested, strapped to a chair naked in the secret police’s favourite torture chamber, and hammering a nail through his scrotum. Before striking his relished blow, Peytraud matches any Bond villain as he responds to Dennis’ desperate question “What do you want?” with, “I want to hear you scream!” This moment ranks with the “Squeal, piggy!” scene in Deliverance (1972) in literalising a protagonist’s emasculation by forces beyond his control. There is a disparity at the heart The Serpent and the Rainbow between the thesis Davis was arguing, that the apparent manifestations of the supernatural were actually the work of a complex, puzzling but actually rational work of nascent chemistry, and Craven’s casual demolition of that concept by embracing ooky-kooky magic. Voodoo as a religion and cultural phenomenon has been a constant source of interest for storytellers interested in the fantastic, but very few investigate it with much depth or seriousness as a genuine cultural phenomenon.

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Whilst The Serpent and the Rainbow throws out any pretences to being seen as a strict tract on the subject, it does find Craven with an anthropological bent, truly fascinated by the sights, sounds, and lifestyle of Haiti, considering it as a fully-fledged society present amidst but also cordoned off from familiar definitions of modernity. The eruptions of irrationality in the storyline literalise this schism and also lets Craven show his own sensibility, associating political tyranny with forces of evil. There’s an appealing casualness to the interracial romance of Dennis and Marielle that looks forward to Craven’s embrace of black heroism in The People Under the Stairs and fusion of horror with Blaxploitation lampooning on Vampire in Brooklyn (1994). The pilgrimage scene is a highpoint of this bent, amidst an immersive sense of place (although the production was forced to leave Haiti mid-shoot and was finished in other locations including the Dominican Republic), as is a brief but fascinating depiction of Lucien performing a wedding. The Duvalier government and the Tonton Macoute really did use the paraphernalia of voodoo as part of their arsenal of repression, although ironically Wade Davis himself had little trouble from them. Marielle, a modern rationalist by profession, is also famed for her performances when possessed by spirits, and Dennis witnesses this transformation with bewilderment: “There is no conflict between my science and my faith,” as she states.

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Craven’s pointed sense of humour makes itself apparent when a tourist-friendly display of local performers for a hotel crowd is portrayed as a festival of the strange with a male performer getting female guests to shove spikes through his cheeks, another chewing on glass, until finally Peytraud, who looks on, announces himself by mesmerically compelling one of the performers to attack Dennis. This scene is mirrored later in a vignette that counts amongst the most Cravenish of Craven moments, when Dennis returns to the States with the zombiefying powder and is treated to a swanky dinner by Cassedy and his wife Deborah (Dey Young) in their mansion as reward. Deborah, possessed by Peytraud in spite of the many miles and supposed barriers between these places, suddenly turns strange and sneering, begins chewing on a glass, and then launches herself across the dinner table in an attempt to stab Dennis, forcing her husband and Schoonbacher to drag her off. This makes for a disturbing/hilarious image of posh, lily-white insularity turned into funhouse for chaos and vengeful lunacy. There are seeds here for Craven’s later, equally wild and loopy The People Under the Stairs, which would turn the mirror back on Reaganite America and accuse it of being essentially the same thing. Craven didn’t help write the script here, which points to why some of Craven’s favourite themes are channelled in slightly different directions to his usual work, particularly his recurring motif of good and bad families and their avatars who, in the course of the tale, become increasingly blurred: Krug and his cohort and the bourgeois parents of Last House on the Left, the holidaying family and the mutants of The Hills Have Eyes (1977), the suburbanites and their resurging tormentor/victim in Elm Street.

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Here the oppositions are more political and national. The corollary to that theme, of the “normal”, “good” people becoming increasingly warlike and competent in facing their enemies, is more clearly present here too but it takes a long time before Dennis, reduced to a worm before the boot of Peytraud’s intent, finally turns. Peytraud frames Dennis for the murder of Christophe’s sister and uses it to ensure he’ll have him executed if he ever returns to the country, before sticking him on the next plane out. However Mozart sneaks aboard the plane and gives Dennis the batch of zombiefying powder for free, asking only that Dennis let people know about his talents. But Mozart is captured and executed by Peytraud, and after the incident at the Cassedys’ house Dennis feels compelled to return to Haiti as he senses Marielle will be in danger too. Lucien arranges to have Dennis brought to safety by some of his men disguised as cops, pre-empting the Tonton Macoute, so Peytraud has Marielle kidnapped, uses a hex to kill Lucien, and has an operative treat Dennis to a dose of the zombie powder. Dennis desperately begs bewildered people not to bury him as he folds him and seems to drop dead. In his paralysed state, Dennis is forced to experience his own burial.

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This sequence sees Craven paying tribute to the famous dream of death and burial in Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932), shooting much of it subjectively from the view of the frozen Dennis as he passes under the eyes of friends and doctors, and his mocking enemy Peytraud. Just before he’s put into the ground, the Captain drops a tarantula into the coffin to keep him company, giving Craven a chance to stage a most iconically phobic horror image, the monstrous black arachnid crawling over Dennis’s stony face. Dennis is saved by Christophe, who knows very well what’s happened and digs Dennis out of his grave. The clash of aesthetic attitudes apparent in the texture of Craven’s filmmaking, and the ruthless way the original three-hour cut was pared down into a very peculiar 97 minutes, makes The Serpent and the Rainbow an experience that would probably seem to many perturbingly hectic. But it also finally exemplifies something rare about its maker and gives it force that refuses taming. The finale sees all hell break loose in both senses of the term, as the Duvalier government collapses, leading to scenes of explosive rage and rejoicing on the streets, through which threads the smaller but vital drama of Dennis taking on Peytraud for control of the nation’s spiritual as well as physical fate.

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Here Craven goes all-out with a riotous assault of inspired, crazy images – the torture chair coming to life and chasing Dennis about the room, Dennis being assaulted by Lucien’s shade, his bashing his way through a door only to find gravity inverting as if he’s in The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and dangling from the doorframe, and a nod to Lewton and Mark Robson’s Bedlam (1946) as Dennis enters a hall of prison cells from which prisoners’ arms reach, unnaturally long, trying to grasp him. Craven connects Peytraud’s relish of holding the captured souls of his victims, including Lucien, with the political oppression, as Peytraud uses his control over the apparatus of terror to turn victims of that oppression into weapons. Except, naturally, this proves a double-edged sword, as Dennis and Marielle smash the pots containing the souls, letting loose the magical wrath of the repressed on their tormentor, spirits massing to drive Peytraud into a fire and burn him alive, whilst Lucien’s released shade passes on his powers to Dennis.

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Peytraud is defeated in the real world but there’s one fight left on the spiritual plane. Dennis, invested with Lucien’s magic and utilising the fierceness of his jaguar spirit, is able to overpower Peytraud here too, whereupon he hoists Peytraud by his own petard, psychically tethering him to the torture chair and punctured through the balls before being shunted off to hell, complete with reversal of the “I want to hear you scream!” line. The spirits of the dead arise in rainbow colours whilst the populace celebrates and Dennis and Marielle limp away, bloodied but triumphant. This climax goes so far over the top it all but hits orbit, and I dare say the film as a whole is a litmus test, either sweeping you up in its mad thrust or leaving you totally cold. But it’s also uproarious and casually flings brilliantly staged filmmaking at the audience, a perfect encapsulation of Craven’s delight in his art. Horror film will miss him.

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1970s, Blaxploitation, Horror/Eerie

Ganja & Hess (1973)

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Director/Screenwriter: Bill Gunn

By Roderick Heath

In the early 1970s, films about black protagonists erupted in popularity, in mostly urban tales laced with gritty realism and high-powered action, bracketed ever since under the memorably pithy name of blaxploitation. Some enterprising producers went a step further and set out to blend one popular, cheap cinematic brand with another—horror movies. Strange generic crossbreeds, some with infamous titles that evoke cinematic trash-fetish at its purist, like Blacula (1972), Blackenstein (1973), Sugar Hill (1974), and Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde (1976), traipsed onto drive-in and grindhouse theatre screens. These films triangulated commercial impulse, cheerful camp appeal, and, sometimes, clever and socially mindful attempts to upend familiar tropes and remix the symbolic values of horror tales.
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When he was approached to make cash in on Blacula’s success, Bill Gunn cringed at the proposition. Gunn was gaining repute at the time as an artist, writer, and stage director: his play Johnnas, first performed in 1968, had just been adapted into an Emmy-winning TV film in 1972, and he had worked on the screenplays of Hal Ashby’s The Landlord and Jan Kadar’s adaptation of Bernard Malamud’s The Angel Levine (both 1970). Gunn’s entry into horror cinema annals echoed Val Lewton’s 30 years earlier, as he set out to make a mercenary assignment in a disreputable genre serve his personal vision. Gunn realised he could use the motif of vampirism to create a metaphor for drug addiction, and then, in the act of creating it, found dimensions far broader and more original. The result, even amidst the proliferation of strange and original low-budget works both in genre cinema and arthouse fare in the early ’70s, was hailed as one of the most exciting, and showcased at the Cannes Film Festival. But Gunn’s work proved far too uncommercial, even in a truncated version released under the title Blood Couple, to satisfy its producers and the audience they were targeting. For a long time Ganja & Hess remained a legendary obscurity.
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Ganja & Hess’s revival owes much to Spike Lee’s remake, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014), an act that can easily be likened to Werner Herzog’s remake of Nosferatu (1979) as a labour of cultural tribute and postmodern ventriloquism. Gunn’s work crucially anticipates much of Lee’s aesthetic, as Lee has often tried to accomplish what Gunn does in pushing beyond the dictates of familiar Hollywood forms to create something like a cultural artefact: this movie works on the level of essayistic enquiry and museum curation as well as narrative. The great ferment of the black American cultural scene at the time too rarely found expression on cinema screens at the time. The unalloyed statement of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) helped create the blaxploitation gerne, but Gunn’s work creates a bridging point between the genre and the arrival of more determinedly artistic filmmakers like Charles Burnett and Lee. Ganja & Hess has a Godardian streak, as it privileges musical, painterly, and literary embellishments within its form whilst remaining, above all, powerfully filmic, pausing to listen to characters reading or giving account, offering frames replete with compositions inspired by the static methods of visual art, and crowding the soundtrack with spirituals, blues songs, and tribal chants overlapping and soaking into the psychic patina the film leaves in the mind. Many films from that time played about with cinematic structure and flow to create weird and artistically yearning effects, and Gunn’s work, though sometimes weakly paced and uncertainly assembled (exacerbated by the partially restored, but still choppy state of the remnant film), creates a cumulatively disorientating effect as he begins with a reasonably straightforward story that steadily spirals into an increasingly dreamlike, near-symbolic state of representation and happening.
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Ganja & Hess is narrated at the outset by Luther Williams (Sam Waymon), a church preacher who moonlights as a chauffeur for Dr. Hess Green (Duane Jones). Hess is an anthropologist and college professor, and Williams describes him in retrospect as “an addict…he’s not a criminal—he’s a victim.” Hess is at the height of worldly success, a wealthy, respected intellectual with a ready command of a panoply of cultural references and ensconced in a balloon of privilege. Gunn announces his intention to play about with the clichés of both horror cinema and black identity in this way, depicting Hess’s devolution into carnal bloodsucker as an investigation into that identity. Most ambitious vampire sagas look for primal urges underlying civilised mores, a pattern Gunn follows whilst taking it a logical step further in terms of his theme.
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Hess is researching a long-vanished African nation called Myrthia, and his new assistant, George Meda (played by Gunn himself), has recently returned from Africa with relics of the Myrthians, including a ceremonial dagger. The decline of Myrthia, according to mythology, was thanks to the spread of a mysterious blood disease that turned its citizens into parasitic wraiths, and the dagger plays a part in that transformation, as a victim must be stabbed three times with it, invoking the Holy Trinity despite the ritual’s pagan roots, before being reborn. Meda, like Hess, is an erudite scholar, but uneasy and disturbed by recent experiences to the point where after a night of boozy conversation, Hess finds him sitting in a tree with a noose tied and dangling, ready for suicide. Hess talks him down. The following day, Meda writes a poetic missive and reads it outloud to himself, and then attacks Hess, stabbing him with the Myrthian dagger. Meda then bathes and shoots himself through the chest. Hess arises from the dead and desperately guzzles up the blood leaking from Meda’s corpse: he has been resurrected as a Myrthian vampire.
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At first, Hess maintains his upright academic veneer, attending fancy garden parties and conversing easily in French with his son Enrico (Enrico Fales) who’s off at boarding school. He subsists on supplies of blood he steals from the hospital, downing glasses of it in his house, whilst Meda’s body turns stiff and grey in the wine cellar. Hess soon starts cruising for sex and blood on the town, driven by an intensifying hunger that Gunn inscribes on the soundtrack through weird, maddening sound effects and the lapping refrains of a tribal chant, the call of ancient blood tormenting Hess during the day. Hess begins preying on prostitutes and other women he picks up. On one occasion, he picks up a hooker in a bar (Candece Tarpley), and her pimp (Tommy Lane) tries to ambush and knife him in an attempted robbery. Hess, not hurt, battles the man. The prostitute hysterically fires off a gun, accidentally killing the pimp, and Hess drags her into the bathroom and kills her to drink her blood.
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Hess’s new life pattern is shaken up when he gets a phone call from Meda’s wife Ganja (Marilyn Clark), who’s been searching fruitlessly for her husband around the world and has now returned to the States broke. When Hess responds to her aggressive queries with “I have had a very difficult morning,” she retorts, “I have had a very difficult fucking six months!” Ganja breezes into Hess’s life, a volcanic personality with an honest, me-first attitude, and she shares an instant arc of attraction with him that threatens to combust sexually and emotionally in spite of what is, to Ganja, Meda’s ambiguous fate. Ganja sets up in Hess’s house and happily bosses around his manservant Archie (Leonard Jackson). Ganja’s happy patronisation of Archie has a satirical note, in observing the readiness of some black folk to readily adopt the hierarchism of white society imposed on them. But the inevitable moment when Ganja heads down into the wine cellar draws nearer.
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The almost negligible surface narrative isn’t what makes Gunn’s achievement fascinating. The bluntest interpretation of Ganja & Hess is that it’s a parable about rediscovering the fecundity of African cultural roots and black male virility, with Hess as a denatured and assimilated being flung back into raw and primal realities. This is undoubtedly accurate, though Gunn’s themes and his way of communicating them are more complex and ambiguous than this may sound; Ganja & Hess works most profoundly on the level of meditation, iridescent with the shifting tides of its ideas and aesthetics. Gunn created distinctive characters in the eponymous couple, giving Jones and Clark, two excellent, but underutilised actors, clear space to construct vivid individuals even as Gunn’s covert narrative suggests anti-individualism, a sense of communal identity, as the only recourse for their quandaries.
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Jones, who, like Gunn had roots in the burgeoning black theatre scene of the 1960s, had crucially found his place in film history playing the lead in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), and returned here in an equally radical and ambitious low-budget horror film, anchoring the film with a performance that captures a difficult person: Hess is by turns brilliant, righteous, cool, imperious, pathetic, anguished, childlike, and quite often detached in the face of his problems. One of the film’s strongest vignettes focuses on Clark’s Ganja as she narrates a tale from her childhood, a moment of pungent disillusionment by her mother over an imagined sexual transgression that set her on the path of self-liberation and self-protection. She retains an aspirational fire that eludes Hess, who seems at first like the ideal modern man, but is revealed as tortured and limited by that very sophistication.
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As in many vampirism tales, transformation proves double-edged: like the habit of drug use as a means of fleeing reality or society, the effect is isolating and cumulatively deadening. Hess is ultimately as castrated by his addiction as he is liberated, at least until he strikes upon the idea of making Ganja like himself. When Hess forces himself to retreat from sex with Ganja as the blood lust comes upon him and hides in the attic to down a glass of blood, Gunn shoots it like an act of guilty masturbation, until Ganja tracks him down, drawn to his body like planetary gravity, and makes love to him.
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Gunn signals the schismatic and apprehensive nature of Hess’s interior world early in the film when he sleeps, clutching the Myrthian dagger in his hand, and dreams of divergent experiences of being inducted: in one, he and Meda are greeted by a masked white man in evening dress and led through a cavernous mansion, with an interesting note of anticipation of Eyes Wide Shut (1999), and in the other, he glimpses the ancient queen of Myrthia (played by Mabel King, whose singing is heard throughout the film) leading tribal initiates through long grass somewhere in the veldt. An essay Meda writes and reads is a manifesto, poetry, and epitaph all at once, a stab at expressing the fraught mindset of a conscientious black man at the fringe of a new age at once hopeful and hazardous. Gunn uses the metaphorical power of the underlying unease created in Meda by his unholy contraction in his exchanges with Hess to underline a less metaphorical sense of their unease as avatars of multiple identities often caricatured as antipathetic— African-American men, artists, thinkers, potential political leaders—and as renegades within those identities, a psychic map of a shared mindset. Meda’s suicidal fixation seems like some lost, romantic revolutionary from a classic Russian novel, whilst his writing recalls James Baldwin. The scene where Hess tries to talk him down is played as dark comedy: Gunn shoots the whole sequence in one shot framed so it sarcastically cuts off Meda’s head, and when Meda contemplates drowning himself instead, Hess notes with pungent cynicism that if a dead body is found anywhere in his neighbourhood, the cops will come straight to his house.
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With surprising richness and originality for a first-time filmmaker with a literary and theatrical background, Gunn evokes different cultural dimensions through his film’s form. Luther’s early voiceover suggests a cinema verite account of an addict’s life, with documentary-style footage of Luther leading his flock in prayer, and spacy, washed-out footage of Luther in his chauffeuring guise driving Hess about while he is in the throes of his private suffering, before the timeframe shifts and we see Hess as he was before his addiction. Gunn here grazes the edges of the later craze for “found footage” horror with its glaze of false authenticity as a swift means of both baiting the audience into accepting events it might not otherwise and suggesting dimensions of understanding created by the foregrounding of technique. But Gunn soon moves through cinematic modes, from deadpan realism to outright surrealism. Hess’s adventures on the town as he hunts for blood suggest an ironic assault on the precepts of blaxploitation, as Hess bestrides nightlife looking quite the cool mofo, but preying on, rather than helping out, the black demimonde: Shaft has become Jaws.
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Meanwhile, Gunn litters his film with baroque compositions until it feels like the limits of his frames might bust open, often crowding those frames with signifiers and nature and fecund beauty whilst evoking different art styles, from still lifes to the tangled geometrics of art nouveau. He zeroes in on decaying statues and works of art, a panoply of cultural inheritance, mostly Old World European, including icons by Andrei Rublev, intimating Hess’s obsession with mortality and the sustenance of the spirit, even as Gunn scrutinises the thorny relationship between traditional black identity and the Christian church, whose power Hess eventually turns to. Hess’s home is a zone of cultural inheritance, both European and African-American, replete with photos of Sonny Rollins, African statuary, and jazz singers constantly snaking out of his sound system, as well as Victoriana bric-a-brac and neoclassical art. Gunn may well have been playing a joke on the concept of the vampire’s haunted castle, usually tied to the monster’s immortality in signifying the pernicious power of ancient creeds in the modern world, but here suggesting a different brand of troubled, persisting inheritance. Gunn also emphasises the decay of all these artefacts, whilst contemplating the raw and cyclical potency of the living form during sex and acts of violence, death, and resurrection. One of Gunn’s recurring motifs is acts of immersion and bathing, starting with Meda almost ritualistically washing before fatally shooting himself, and circling back to this in the finale when a dead man leaps out of Hess’s swimming pool and runs towards the camera, stark naked, manhood flying like a battle flag.
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As the film travels more deeply into the sense of folie-a-deux between the titular lovers, the narrative increasingly breaks down, entering a welter of randomly strange, but vividly illustrative vignettes, like Ganja biting into a rose and finding it floods her mouth with blood and a stone face weeping tears of blood. Ganja’s response to finding her husband’s frigid corpse in the wine cellar leads to a fraught confrontation, but also a peculiar confession from her that amounts to an admission she’s done concerning herself with any problem that doesn’t affect her own fate, and obeying that logic Ganja quietly forgets the all-but-literal skeleton in the closet to get on with life with Hess. The couple marries in front of their polyglot group of friends before Hess initiates the half-willing, ultimately terrified Ganja into sharing his condition, stabbing her and resurrecting her.
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It’s a plunge into an ugly state of being at first, and Ganja writhes in bed during her transformation and finds herself feeling cold constantly. When she asks Hess if he feels the same way, he answers that he does, but he’s gotten used to it. Uniting in undead passion, however, fails to cure the anguish that possesses Hess, particularly as it reduces him after a fashion to a cuckold. The couple invites a young man (Richard Harrow) over for dinner, and then Ganja seduces him with the intent of making him her first living victim. Gunn shoots their sexual encounter as a mad flux of images in an erotic-sanguinary frenzy, leaving the young man’s body caked in gleaming blood and Ganja, who had been greedily lapping blood from his dripping wounds moments before, aghast at her own behaviour. Hess helps her wrap the body in plastic and dump it in a field, where Ganja hysterically cries that he’s still alive as Hess drags her away..
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It’s tempting to detach Ganja & Hess, with its arty filmmaking, lack of suspense, and overtly symbolic approach to loaded subjects, from horror cinema altogether and regard it as closer in nature to the spacy, interiorised state of mind communicated in many “art” movie works of the period like Zabriskie Point (1970) or The Last Movie (1971). But it fits in with some other horror works of its time with surprising alacrity. As well as tweaking the basic themes of the well-established vampire film for its own purposes, the visual texture is as dense and tangled, if less well-organised, as the same year’s more celebrated Don’t Look Now. Jones’ connection with Romero strengthens the similarity with Romero’s own early work, like Season of the Witch (1971), with its similar focus on shifting sociological mores visualised as a mix of bland modernity and underlying estrangement. Gunn shares a mesmeric fascination with blurred time and psychic dislocation, a tactile sense of nostalgia and association in objects, and a vision of a physical world through which humans move lost and ephemeral, with John Hancock’s Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1972). But it’s Gunn’s fixation with the body itself as a vessel of fascination, discontent, and political meaning that feels most vital and prognosticative. Gunn most immediately anticipated David Cronenberg’s feature debut Shivers (1975), which, like Ganja & Hess, interrogates the basic metaphor and travels through zones of weird revulsion before arriving at a perverse heroism in the prospect of emancipation from the sickness of civilisation brought about via biological reassignment. Claire Denis, whose debts to Cronenberg are readily apparent, may also have been remembering Gunn’s film with Trouble Every Day (2001), which posits itself essentially as the tale of Ganja and Meda if they hadn’t been separated.
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The last act of Ganja & Hess depicts Hess’s attempt to release himself by turning to religion after reading a passage in a book that explains Myrthian sufferers found release in the shadow of the cross. He attends a sermon given by Luther and then builds a shrine in his house where he sits gazing at a crucifix, beset by visions of running through open fields as if liberated, before he finally dies. Gunn portrays this fate ambiguously, as if pondering whether Hess has found release in sanctification or has annihilated himself trying to cling to a creed that brings only self-destructive. Throughout Ganja & Hess, Gunn suggests a version of the Christ tale absorbed and retranslated, invoking Catholic rituals and the African-American Christian tradition but searching for the primal mythic force and meaning behind it all, a tale of blood, suffering, and rebirth. Either way, Hess finds escape but abandons Ganja, beset with his condition and left alone and bereft—except that Gunn leaves off with the image of the young man Ganja killed earlier springing out of Hess’s pool and running toward the house, caught in a freeze-frame leaping over Archie’s corpse. Ganja smiles enigmatically at the camera. She has her new partner, one perhaps better fitted for her anyway, and the overwhelming impression of this astonishing final flourish is one of survival—black survival, perhaps, but certainly the power as well as fragility of the life spirit. Ganja & Hess has longeurs, and Gunn’s effects are often uneven, perhaps an inevitability when he’s experimenting as extensively as he was here, but the ultimate effect of Ganja & Hess is rare and powerful. Sadly, the film’s lack of commercial impact meant Gunn never got to develop his talent in film, and both he and Jones would die tragically young within a year of each other in the late 1980s. At least they left behind a worthy totem for their talents.

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