False Witches and Religious Hypocrisy

In 1968, Vincent Price starred in Witchfinder General, the story of a corrupt, hypocritical monster who travels the English countryside accusing innocent people of witchcraft and torturing confessions out of them. It is set in the year 1645, during the English Civil War, and Price’s Matthew Hopkins uses the country’s social breakdown to his advantage, identifying “witches” and charging the local magistrates for his services.

In a village in Suffolk, he accuses the local priest (Rupert Davies) of sorcery and orders him to be tortured. His horrified niece, Sara (Hilary Dwyer), offers herself to Hopkins in order to save her uncle’s life. But when Hopkins is called away to another village, his equally corrupt assistant, Stearne (Robert Russell), rapes her. Upon his return, Hopkins now considers her “unclean,” and the torture of the priest resumes, culminating in his death.

Sara’s fiance, Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy), is a young Roundhead who, upon returning home from the war, is horrified to discover what has happened to his beloved and her uncle. He vows to hunt down and kill both Hopkins and Stearne.

This is an amazing film in many respects. Price’s performance is absolutely grim and humorless, a revelation in this era when he’d really begun to camp it up. It’s also surprisingly sadistic for its time, earning the wrath of British critics, even though it had been heavily censored before it hit theaters.

Ironically, when American International Pictures released it in the States under the title The Conqueror Worm (to tie it in with the earlier series of Poe films, also starring Price), it was virtually uncut. It was written and directed by wünderkind Michael Reeves, who was only 23 at the time of filming.

Even while it was being condemned by British critics, it went virtually unnoticed in America upon initial release, but a few months later defenders on both continents began to speak up, and Reeves’ star began to ascend.

Reeves didn’t want Price in the film at all (Donald Pleasance was his first—and unavailable—choice). Price didn’t want to work with Reeves, considering him to be far too young and inexperienced. On-set explosions were frequent. At one point, Price famously sneered, “I’ve made 87 films. What have you done?” Reeves’ response: “I’ve made three good ones.”

In one scene, Reeves wanted Price to fire a pistol between the ears of the horse he was riding, and he wanted the pistol to be loaded with a blank so the puff of smoke could be seen. Price was aghast: “What? You want the gun to go bang between the ears of this fucking nag? How do you think he’s going to react?” Reeves persisted and—of course—Price was thrown to the ground.

Other problems plagued the production. A technician’s strike had to be negotiated. Price showed up drunk on the final day of shooting. Sometimes there weren’t enough actors, and production staff filled in. The startling climax (which I won’t reveal here) is the result of a continuity problem, but that’s a really lucky accident as far as I’m concerned.

Reeves had only directed two films prior to Witchfinder, The She Beast (also with Ogilvy and the incredible Barbara Steele) and The Sorcerers, with Boris Karloff. Even though his career was going well, Reeves suffered from clinical depression and he died of an alcohol and barbiturate overdose in 1969. The jury is still out on whether it was intentional. He was only 25 years old.

Inspired by the film’s success, Germany jumped on the bandwagon with the infamous Mark of the Devil in 1970, starring Herbert Lom, Reggie Nalder and an incredibly young and androgynous Udo Kier. Following in the footsteps of its predecessor, it raises the stakes (ha!) by amping up the sadism and nudity.

It’s set in rural Austria in the 1800s, and Keir plays the apprentice to a witchfinder (Lom), only to become disillusioned when he discovers that his employer is using his position for profit, free sex, and to keep the population terrorized. The torture scenes are pretty tame by today’s standards, including the cutting of flesh (in search of Satan’s skin), bare bums on spikes and perhaps the most famous scene—the pulling of a woman’s tongue out by the roots.

The film’s American distributor (Hallmark, which also released Last House on the Left and Don’t Open the Window) went into publicity overdrive. The ads screamed: “Positively the most horrifying film ever made!” “Likely to upset your stomach!” “Rated V for violence!” It was also the first release to provide barf bags for theaters to distribute to patrons.

Mark has its defenders, but it’s miles behind Witchfinder. The scenes of torture are contrasted with sequences of Kier and his love frolicking in the Austrian countryside, accompanied by that 1970s “doo-doo-doo” European music, and the frequent nudity gives it a sleaziness and unintentional humor that Witchfinder doesn’t possess. Plus, some of the scenes could be transferred intact into a Monty Python routine and were, in a way, if you count the persecution of Carol Cleveland in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

“She turned me into a newt!” Pause. “I got better!”

1973 brought Mark of the Devil II and more of the same, although ironically it wasn’t as brutal as the original. However, it did have a consistent theme of misogyny, which many found even more distasteful.

It took big, burly and prolific Spanish horror star/director Paul Naschy six years to do his own witch-burner, but in 1976 he starred in and directed Inquisition. As Bernard de Fossey, a corrupt inquisitor traveling the French countryside during the time of the Black Death, he does basically the same things Price and Lom did: accuse, torture, kill.

What makes Inquisition different from the earlier films is that many of the accused actually are devil worshippers. Plus, the film asks that its audience find some pity for the inquisitor.

I haven’t personally seen this film. I find Naschy’s movies to be rather slow and silly, but it sounds like De Fossey’s demise echoes that of Oliver Reed’s Grandier in Ken Russell’s The Devils—head shaved and burned at the stake. And, of course, it heaps on the nudity that is required of a Naschy film. Once again, the sadism stakes are raised to out-gross Mark, the highlight being a rather realistic nipple-removing scene.

Witch hunting movies didn’t enjoy the long-term popularity of the Exorcist clones, Naschy’s latecomer was pretty much it for the genre. Christopher Lee starred in Jess Franco’s The Bloody Judge in 1972, but he was targeting traitors to the crown instead of witches.

Food Horror Movies

My ridiculous obsession with the Food Network and its competition shows (“Chopped,” “Worst Cooks in America,” et al) has made me reflect on all the food-based horror films that have been made, and which ones were the most toothsome.

Surely the granddaddy of them all is Herschell Gordon Lewis and David Friedman’s 1963 Blood Feast, which is more deservedly famous for being the first splatter film. It made tons of money and played the drive-in circuit for years.

The plot is simple. Egyptian caterer Fuad Ramses (the hilariously strange Mal Arnold) offers to cater a young girl’s engagement party with the intention of bringing an ancient goddess back to life.

To achieve his goal, he runs around town collecting body parts from young women to “rebuild” his goddess. Legs are cut off, eyes are gouged, tongues are pulled out by the root. All the effects are crude, but the mere fact that someone had the audacity to let the blood flow to such an extent in 1963 was an accomplishment in itself. And the Coral Gables-based cosmetic company that formulated the fake blood was called Barfred Cosmetics (an amalgamation of the husband and wife owners’ first names) and would ever after be known as the manufacturers of barf-red blood.

Lewis and Friedman had already run through the dying days of the “nudie cuties” (nudist colony films in which womens’ breasts and buttocks could legally be shown) and they realized they needed to take it to the next level. They thought, “How about dismembered bodies with gushers of blood?” and the drive-in crowd went absolutely wild. The film played for years and years and made a bundle.

Blood Feast, and others in the Lewis/Friedman pantheon, greatly influenced cult filmmaker John Waters. In his book Shock Value he wrote: “I discovered [Lewis’] films at my local drive-in, and when I saw teenage couples hopping from their cars to vomit, I knew I had found a director after my own heart…” Now there’s not actually any consumption of questionable food or cannibalism in this movie, but its importance in the genre must be acknowledged. Waters himself opened his Desperate Living (1977) with a nauseating sequence showing a woman demurely cutting up a cooked rat and consuming it in small bites (offscreen, thank God).

Now let’s munch on…

Another epoch-maker and much more fitting in the queasy realm of disturbing barbecue and cannibalism is The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Tobe Hooper’s micro-budget drive-in classic. There’s a lot of implied, nausea-inducing food preparation (courtesy of the mute, scary Leatherface), but the film has the reputation of being a nonstop bloody gorefest. That’s simply not true.

What gives TCSM its power is what is suggested—viewers get just enough visceral information to upset them, and then their imaginations do the rest. That and the nauseating art direction inside the crazy family’s house (bones and feathers everywhere, chickens in cages), trigger the gag reflex much more effectively than acres of fake blood ever could. Besides, the smell of the real meat and offal on the set made the actors sicker still!

To me, the most upsetting scene occurs when the hitchhiking son (Edwin Neal) describes to the young travelers who’ve picked him up how he enjoyed working at the local slaughterhouse and using an airgun to kill the beef. His monologue is accompanied by close-ups of bovine victims rolling their eyes in terror. By the time he pulls out his knife to slice open his own palm, Hooper has achieved his goal—the audience is nauseated and on edge, and will remain so for the rest of the film.

I have a super 8mm sound print of this feature that I’m pretty sure is a pirated knock-off of a well-used drive-in print, and for my money it’s the best way to see the film. The colors are garish, almost melting off the screen, and it actually increases the anxiety level to watch it this way. It evokes those scary 1970s emotions when things were out of control—like watching authentic home movies made by insane cannibals!

Now here’s a picture that is not all about food, but it contains one singularly memorable foodie scene…Douglas Hickox‘s exquisite Theatre of Blood (1973), starring the great Vincent Price, firing on all four campy cylinders.

He plays Edward Lionheart, a hambone stage actor who fakes his own death in order to “come back” and exact his revenge on all the snobby theatrical critics who’ve ridiculed him throughout his career and denied him a Lifetime Achievement Award.

One by one, he knocks the critics off in Abominable Dr. Phibes style. Ironically, real critics of the era turned up their noses at this film because they considered it a blatant ripoff of his earlier hit. Time has been kind to Theatre of Blood, though, and it’s now possible to enjoy it on its own merits. Rated R, it’s much sicker than the PG-rated Phibes.

Anyway, the food scene. One of Lionheart’s targets is the effeminate Meredith Merridew (Robert Morley from The African Queen) who thinks he’s guesting on a TV cooking show and ends up being force-fed delicious chunks of his twin toy poodles a la “Titus Andronicus.” The close-up shots of the creamy pieces of meat being pushed down his gullet are…well…sickening.

It takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent’s fritters! Kevin Connor’s 1980 Motel Hell came so far out of left field that it took a decade or so for people to say, “Oh, yeah! It’s supposed to be funny!”

It didn’t take me that long. A knowing, insane parody of movies like Texas Chainsaw, it features erstwhile Western movie star Rory Calhoun as Farmer Vincent and Nancy Parsons (who looks like she’d be right at home in a Warhol or Waters film) as his wife.

Together, they waylay unsuspecting travelers and bury them up to their necks in their garden (slitting their vocal cords to render them mute) and keep them underground until their flesh is nice and tender…and ready to serve. I don’t know if it started the “funny cannibalism” genre, but it certainly helped it along. It’s interesting to note that at this same time the cannibal vomitorium films were making their mark in Italy…and on 42nd Street.

Human flesh consumption hit the arthouse most memorably in Peter Greenaway’s 1989 The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. I’d seen Greenaway’s earlier Draughtsman’s Contract, but I wasn’t prepared for this challenging, super-theatrical film that alternates sumptuous, color-coded restaurant tableaux with scenes of the lovers screwing amongst rotten meat. And when the gangster husband kills the wife’s (Helen Mirren) lover, she has the body cooked and forces him to eat it.

Later, Greenaway would turn Ewan McGregor into a book made of skin in the equally challenging The Pillow Book (1996).

In 1999, director Antonia Bird made Ravenous with Guy Pearce (L.A. Confidential, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert), which I thought would be a pretty grueling film about an isolated group of soldiers resorting to cannibalism. Alas, although they do refer to it after a time, it’s much more of a talkfest. It had one of those dishonest marketing campaigns that made it look like a horror film instead of an art film, which is what it was.

And in 2002, Lewis finally released Blood Feast II: All U Can Eat direct to DVD, which I haven’t seen. Waters is on board as a pedophile priest (of course!). I’m kind of scared to watch it, because I don’t want to be disappointed by another old timer who’s trying too hard to make a “camp” classic, which can only happen organically, of course. You can’t push it.

Now let’s close the circle. Food Network’s own Iron Chef Mario Batali has a role in Bitter Feast, a straight-to-DVD film that Salon’s Bob Calhoun gives props to. I haven’t seen it yet either, but I really intend to take a bite of this crudite.

James LeGros (of Drugstore Cowboy and tons of other independent films) stars as Peter Gray, a TV chef who is pissed off at snippy food blogger JT Franks (Blair Witch Project’s Joshua Leonard) who is ruining his career. Gray kidnaps Franks and holds him hostage in his remote home in the woods, presenting him with an escalating series of cooking challenges in order to stay alive. Chopped, anyone?

The contents of your mystery basket are: human brains, gullets and popcorn! You have 30 minutes to make your appetizer!

The 3D Upconversion Backlash?

UPDATE: Clash trounced How to Train Your Dragon‘s opening weekend and was surprisingly well received, which bears the question: Do you want to see an animated film you really know nothing about unless you read the book (Dragon) or a remake of a movie you loved watching on VHS/DVD as a kid (Clash)? What about the 3D? Those moviegoers (and there were a lot of them) seemed to have no problem with the upconversion. Nevertheless, here are my two cents:

Are cash-hungry distributors going to sink the 3D juggernaut prematurely? That’s what the wags have been saying. The Clash of the Titans remake has been slammed by critics not only for the quality of its filmmaking but for the quality of the 3D as well.It was shot in 2D and then upconverted to cash in on Avatar‘s success (both films star Sam Worthington).Evidently the quick, economical conversion to 3D is blatantly obvious—to the point that characters look like cardboard cut-outs set against the backgrounds, hairpieces appear to be hovering above some actors’ heads, and you can’t tell which wing is on which side of poor Pegasus.It’s also dark and blurry. Roger Ebert, who gave the film a rather favorable review, recommends saving the extra bucks and seeing it in 2D.

I’m seeing it at a screening later this month (in 2D) and will provide my thoughts on it then.I hope it’s more a campy disaster of the type we like to discuss here at WMV and not a snoozer.

When I saw Alice in Wonderland, I remember thinking that the 3D effects were surprisingly subtle. Lo and behold, it’s also an upconversion, but there’s an important difference. James Cameron and Michael Bay, two of the most prominent voices in the debate about 3D, say that a proper conversion can take six months to a year and cost between $100,000 and $150,000 per minute.

While Clash was quickly shoved through a computer, Alice was more painstakingly transformed. Since it was originally flat, it doesn’t have the varied perspectives and planes that a film made for the process does, but it’s not bad. Before I learned that it was upconverted, I kind of admired its restraint! My only complaint was that the glasses render it a bit dark. Again, since it’s a Tim Burton film, maybe it’s dark in 2D, too.

Cameron worried that the studios’ rush to upconvert their existing product to 3D in order to bump ticket prices would result in a backlash by the moviegoing public.He drew a good parallel when he said that there were about 10 bad CG movies released after Toy Story hit it big in 1995, because cynical filmmakers thought the CG was the draw, not appealing characters and an engaging story.

Certainly 3D isn’t enough to save a film. I know I’m in the minority here, but I saw How To Train Your Dragon at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood last week, and I thought it was awful. The story was cliched to the extreme and the titular dragon was a charmless black blob that acted like a cat. All the younger characters were caricatures of contemporary stars and styles while their equally stereotyped elders spoke in strange Irish/Scottish brogues. They’re all supposed to be Vikings, but not only is the generation gap enormous, they don’t even seem to be from the same culture.

Since it was made for 3D, it certainly was dimensional, but it was still a bore and didn’t justify the $17.50 ticket price.And compared to a contemporary classic like The Lion King, whose story and characters are still exciting and recognizable 16 years later, I predict Dragon is going to date pretty quickly.Remember Disney’s Hercules? It was like an animated Seinfeld episode and I don’t think anyone is clamoring for a sequel.

Cameron and Bay aside, a lot of studio people have pronounced that “3D is the future of entertainment.” But who needs all movies to be in 3D? Animation, sure; spectacles, okay. But what would a film like The Hurt Locker have gained from an added dimension? It might even have worked to its detriment, lessening the intensity because of the distraction of tanks popping out of the frame.

I guess the powers in Hollywood are too young to remember the original 3D boom and burnout of the 1950s. I wasn’t around at the time either, but I do know that it was one of the weapons the studios used against the booming popularity of television. Film of all types were quickly put in front of 3D cameras—John Wayne Westerns, jungle epics, dramas. Hitchcock even made Dial ‘M’ for Murder in 3D, but it has seldom been screened that way.

What the distributors back then didn’t count on was how quickly the novelty would wear off, mostly due to the audience’s hatred of the nausea-inducing red and blue anaglyph glasses—and the same thing could happen now. Although today’s processes are much more comfortable to view, it’s just not something that’s needed for everything.

A good movie is a good movie regardless of how many dimensions it has. I saw the original Vincent Price House of Wax (pictured here) in 3D when it was re-released in 1983, and it was great funbut it’s also fun on television in 2D, so there you have it.


The Tim Burton/Johnny Depp Collaborations

By now everyone has gotten a look at the “sneaked” photo of Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter in Tim Burton’s upcoming “Alice in Wonderland,” their seventh collaboration, and it looks like it’s going to be a wild ride.

The Disney animated feature and the various musical productions made for television throughout the years were all rather light and bright. It wasn’t until the 1988 live action-stop motion production by the Czech surrealist filmmaker Jan Svankmajer that the darkness in the story began to show through. Now, with this release, Burton is poised to do it one better.

Of course, Burton has never been afraid of challenging audiences with his unique vision. “Vincent,” a bleak, black and white stop-motion short about a boy who thinks he’s Vincent Price, got him noticed by Disney, for whom he made another short film, “Frankenweenie,” about a young boy’s efforts to restore life to his beloved dog after the pooch is hit by a car. It was deemed so dark by the studio that it wasn’t released until years later, after Burton became a top-echelon director. “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure,” his feature debut, is a rainbow-colored, crowd-pleasing delight which only provides glimpses (Large Marge, anyone?) of the strangeness yet to come. I saw it theatrically twice: once at a drive-in and once at a midnight show at the Chinese Theater in Hollywood. Both were memorable experiences.

After “Beetlejuice” and “Batman,” Burton met Depp, starting a nearly 20-year collaboration that seems to be the perfect arrangement for both of them. Burton loves to conceive the bizarre characters, and Depp loves to play them. Their first effort, “Edward Scissorhands,” goes back to “Pee Wee’s” brightly colored neighborhoods but stops to lift up a rock so we can see the creatures slithering underneath in the darkness. It also provides the wonderful Vincent Price with his final role as Edward’s creator. I’m crazy about this film. It’s a perfect blend of fantasy, social commentary and sci-fi that never makes a false move. And you get so caught up in the story that you never question how or why Edward was made—or what he’s made of! Depp’s admirable pantomime skills and expressive eyes really put this character across.

Then came the major studio production that was made for a comparative handful of people—”Ed Wood.” Beautifully shot in black and white, with Depp in fine form as the infamous cross-dressing director, this is a truly personal work as obsessive as anything John Waters has ever done…made with Disney money! Martin Landau’s superb, heartbreaking (and Academy Award-winning) performance as Bela Lugosi in his final days is a joy to watch, and I love the way the filmmakers took true episodes in Wood’s life and “happied” them up, conveying the joy Wood himself felt while making his films, never realizing that their quality was somewhat lacking. And the upbeat ending, at the preview screening of “Plan 9,” is the perfect conclusion to the story. Ed would’ve wanted it that way.

It took five years for them to work together again, and that was for 1998’s “Sleepy Hollow.” I have problems with this one. While the production values are gorgeous, evoking the technicolor fantasy world of classic Hammer horror films (intensified by a cameo from Dracula himself, Christopher Lee), they are put into the service of a rather limp and unsatisfying story. Depp’s Ichabod Crane is an unfortunately dull nebbish, and I frequently found myself bored. Verdict: despite the surprisingly high gore quotient, the screenplay was simply too normal for a Burton film!

Seven years passed, and Depp saw his star ascend with his depiction of Captain Jack Sparrow in the first of the surprise hit “Pirates of the Caribbean” films. Then, in 2005, he and Burton collaborated on two projects as if to make up for lost time. I must admit I never saw “The Corpse Bride,” so I can’t comment on it, but Depp only provided his voice, anyhow. The other release of that year, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” a remake of the 1971 Gene Wilder favorite, is a film I can sum up in three words:

I hated it.

Everything about “Charlie” seems so overproduced: the art direction, the costuming, the acting, the music… At first, Depp’s creepy child molester caricature is amusing, but the movie is so busy screaming, “Look how weird I am!” in every stinking frame, it just becomes tiring. Danny Elfman’s songs are awful, and the bizarrely-monikered actor Deep Roy (“Neverending Story”) is obnoxiousness multiplied as the Oompa-Loompas. While “Sleepy Hollow” is beautiful but boring, “Charlie” is just fingernails-on-chalkboard bad.

When I heard that Burton and Depp were taking on Stephen Sondheim’s musical version of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” I was afraid. Their last two collaborations were not successes in my opinion, and I was fearful of what might happen to this wonderful work. I never got the chance to see Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou (or George Hearn) perform it on stage, but I loved the PBS “Great Performances” teleproduction of it. And about a year before the film’s release, I saw the revival of the musical on Broadway with Patti Lupone. In this radical restaging, the actors also play instruments, doing double duty as the orchestra! It worked amazingly well.

So, I thought: What are you going to do, Mr. Burton? Are you going to provide this classic with the production it deserves or are you going to take it to oompa-loompaville? Despite my trepidation, I eagerly rushed to the theater upon its release. As the blood trickled through the sewer system and the main theme played during the opening credits, I could feel a tingle starting at the back of my neck. It was a tingle that never stopped during the entire film.

Burton made wonderful choices. Knowing that he couldn’t “camp up” the grand guignol story, he instead played up the themes of disease, revenge and blood—lots of blood. No one gets out uncorrupted—and in many instances, alive. Depp’s grim-visaged Todd manages to be both humorous and tragic at the same time, a tribute to his skill. Bonham-Carter’s Mrs. Lovett is a revelation, too, as a world-weary piemaker who doesn’t care what ingredients go into her goods and who sees Todd as her last hope for happiness in a dark and disillusioned London. And given the fact that Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter are not professional singers, their songs integrate beautifully in this context. I understand Sondheim himself approved of the film, and well he should.

So now here comes “Alice,” scheduled for release next year. My faith renewed by the success of “Sweeney Todd,” I’m looking forward to it. The cast is chock-full of great English stalwarts (and Americans Anne Hathaway and Crispin Glover) and, if Depp’s makeup and costuming are any indication, it will be a feast for the eyes as well. I hope it’s dark, and I hope it has humor, too.

But please, Mr. Burton…no oompa-loompas.