Tuesday, November 26, 2013


Another lost review brought to light. This time, it's for Crash, the 1996 film directed by David Cronenberg (not the 2004 film of the same name.)

James and Catherine Ballard are involved in what could charitably be called an “open” marriage. Each of them have multiple affairs and share the details of these affairs freely with eachother. At the film’s beginning, the viewer gathers that both are growing dissatisfied with this situation. And then James Ballard gets in an automobile accident.

While recovering in the hospital, James is approached by members of a secret society of car crash fetishists. Dr. Helen Remington is the other survivor of James’ accident, who sees the accident as a natural extension of her fetish for having sex in cars. Vaughan is the de facto leader of the group, orchestrating re-creations of famous car crashes (such as James Dean and Jayne Mansfield) and spouting increasingly strange theories (such as re-interpreting the Kennedy assassination as a traffic accident). Gabriella is a sort of fetishized car crash victim, dressed in black lace and fishnet stockings beneath her steel leg braces and form-fitting back brace.

The sexualization of automobile accidents is presented as a mixture of sadism, masochism, exhibitionism, voyeurism and the end result of a thousand advertising campaigns that equate cars with sexual prowess. None of the characters come across as spiritually or emotionally mature and the car crashes seem to fill an emptiness that exists in each of them. The viewer is not particularly moved to care about any of the individual characters in Crash; but simply watches to see how much further each of them will go. It is an extremely graphic and tragic story that we watch simply because we can’t help but be curious ... much like a car crash.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013


While I was going through my Killer-Works files in search of previously posted reviews, I found seven additional reviews that never got posted on the website. Over the next few weeks, I'll be posting these lost reviews of disturbing cinema here. We'll start with 1932's Freaks.

In 1932, MGM wanted to capitalize on the horror trend begun by Universal Studios and produce some scary movies of their own. They approached no less a person than Tod Browning (director of Dracula, the film that essentially started the whole thing) to direct a horror film for them. The story goes that, after reading the script, producer Irving Thalberg said, “Well, I wanted something horrible, and that's what I got." Freaks is a subversive film, even by today’s standards; so you can imagine the reaction of audiences, critics and media watchdog organizations back in 1932. The film was shelved by the studio and banned outright in some countries until the 1960s, when the cultural tone had shifted and the word “freak” became a badge of pride.

Based on the short story, “Spurs” (which is surprisingly more disturbing than the film), the film is set amidst the strange subculture of freaks working for a carnival. One of the midgets, Hans (Harry Earles, who would later play a member of the Lollipop Guild in The Wizard of Oz), is enamored with Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), a statuesque trapeze artist who finds him repulsive, but plays at loving him in order to get his money. Her plot to marry and then poison Hans is uncovered and both she and her strongman lover suffer the terrible and surreal wrath of Hans’ fellow sideshow performers.

Seeking to make his film as realistic as possible, Browning chose to cast actual sideshow performers. The conjoined twins, human torsos, pinheads and bearded ladies are all authentic. The viewer is left to wonder if Browning wanted to give work to performers who normally would never have been cast in a feature film or if it was instead a calculated act of exploitation. Throughout the film, the freaks are portrayed as sympathetic characters. Even the gruesome revenge scene doesn’t make them unsympathetic, given the circumstances. But the fact remains that, in our seemingly more “sensitive” culture, such a casting decision could never be made and these individuals would be left in the dark shadows of society, under the pretense of preserving their dignity.

The plot is a bit hackneyed and most of the freaks are not (to be brutally honest) very good actors; but Freaks has a place in cinematic history. Even after all these years, you can’t help but stare in wonder at people who are, in the most important ways, no different from yourself.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Killer-Works Memories: Johnny Got His Gun

Back in 2008, I began posting a string of film reviews for Killer-Works. The web site has recently shut down, so I've been slowly re-posting the reviews here. This week, I'm re-posting the last review of mine to appear on the site, for Johnny Got His Gun. The review was originally published on November 9, 2009.

The story opens with a team of army doctors managing to save the life of Joe Bonham, an American World War I soldier. Unfortunately, a shell blast has left Private Bonham without legs, arms, eyes, ears or a mouth. The doctors take comfort from the knowledge that he has suffered permanent brain damage and will never be aware of his wretched condition. But the doctors are wrong: Joe Bonham is completely conscious and living a nightmare existence.

Often hailed as one of the great anti-war films, Johnny Got His Gun, written and directed by Oscar winning (and famously black-listed) Dalton Trumbo, speaks just as much to the general human condition as to the horrors of war. We watch a man, cut off from the world, try to make peace with his new internalized existence. Joe's recollections of his past grow increasingly warped by his dream imagery until finally none of it is reliable. The memory/dream scenes (shot in color) are interposed with scenes of drab reality (shot in black and white), where we see how different people react to what, by all appearances, is merely twitching human meat. Their compassion and callousness manifest in surprising ways and, by the end, the only truly evil thing that can be done to men like Joe Bonham is to ignore them. It is no small irony that this story (both the film and the original novel) is routinely suppressed during times of war. For most of us, the only exposure we've ever had to the film are in the clips used for the music video of Metallica's One some twenty years ago.

At one point, even Jesus Christ (played with more compassion by Donald Sutherland than any other film version of Christ I've ever seen) is stumped in his attempts to comfort Private Bonham. If the viewer takes solace from anything, it is that the film does not cop out with any easy answers. This is a film that understands that life can be unfair and simply expresses its condolence.

Johnny Got His Gun provides a snapshot of the life of one young man whose future is destroyed by war, yet continues to exist, refusing to simply be forgotten. It is all too easy for us to honor those who fall in battle for a single day, then promptly forget them as we are rallied for the next war. In fact, the greatest tragedy of the film is that its message is still relevant today.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Dead Boys Review by A.T. Weaver

A month back, a review of Dead Boys was posted on Ingrid Hall's website. The review was written by Julia Flowers, who writes under the pen name A.T. Weaver. It includes a favorable comparison to The Twilight Zone and a question that more than one reader has asked me.

Why is the book called Dead Boys? Simply, there is a dead boy in every story: the dead son in "Parable of the Lazy Rooster", the ghost haunting the dormitory in "Cold Comfort", the half-dead son in "Midnight Cappuccino" and, yes, the dog in "Wet Dog Perfume".

Thanks for taking the time to review my collection, Ms. Weaver.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Killer-Works Memories: Imprint

Back in 2008, I began posting a string of film reviews for Killer-Works. The web site has recently shut down, so I've been slowly re-posting the reviews here. This week, I'm re-posting my review of the Takash Miike's contribution to the Master of Horror series, Imprint. The review was originally published on March 27, 2009.

When Showtime began its (2006) Masters of Horror series, the idea was that the great horror directors of today would each be given an hour to tell a story with none of the limitations usually assigned to a feature length production. The implication was that, on a premium channel, there would be no taboo areas that these films couldn't explore. Showtime received thirteen short films. Twelve of them became the show's first season. The thirteenth film was never aired.

Takashi Miike's 13th offering crossed the lines that supposedly didn't exist. His contribution, Imprint, is only available on DVD. Even before seeing this particular film, those familiar with Miike's work will probably understand why there was a problem. The director of Audition and Visitor Q doesn't simply create films that are more violent or disgusting than those of most other directors. He creates transgressive cinema. He takes a simple story about a man searching for his lost love and transforms it into an exploration of the lies we tell (to ourselves and others) in order to hide the truth. He does this by mixing disturbing imagery with equally disturbing ideas.

A deformed prostitute tells the horrible tale of a woman desperately awaiting the return of her lost love, only to turn the story on its side to recount her own hideous upbringing, only to turn the story on its side again to reveal the truth about the man listening to all of it. With every turn of the plot, we are left to believe that we've seen the worst of it, only to watch another turn and another disturbing revelation. These revelations include scenes of torture (despite what the brothel madam says, that's going to leave a mark) and violence against both women and children. Frankly, it's difficult to imagine editing this film down to something acceptable to Showtime without simply removing many of the key plot points.

By the end of Imprint, it's difficult to tell what has actually happened, since it uses both an unreliable narrator and an unreliable listener. Sit through the credits for one final scene that comments on the entire film with a single gesture.