Friday, July 29, 2011

Dream No Evil

Very simply put John Hayes' DREAM NO EVIL (1971) is the tale of a Grace, orphaned young girl with a daddy complex, turned evangelical circus performer, turned bat-shit crazy murderess in a dream world completely severed from reality.

Before the credits role, eight-year old Grace is having nightmares on her threadbare cot in the orphanage. She's screaming for her daddy to come and rescue her, but her pleas are dissuaded by the nuns, who tell her she has no daddy. Not unlike little Ricky's lot in SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT have I felt so forlorn. It's a deeply saddening scene and you feel for the little girl with her troubled delusions of rescue.

Fast forward ten or so years and Grace is now working as an acrobat of sorts in Jesse Bundy's (her soon-to-be brother-in-law) touring ministry. Her fiance, Patrick, has left the ministry for a medical career. Jesse desires Grace but wheels in his feelings because of her chaste relationship with Patrick. That doesn't stop him from making her don a skimpy outfit for her routines and muse about her figure constantly under his breathe.

Seems like a good life, huh? Doctor fiance, preaching the bible in a skimpy bathing suit. But Grace is still plagued the need to find her father. When her Roadshow visits a town she once lived in, he runs into resident pimp/undertaker (Marc Lawrence, director of the splendid PIGS!) and while trying to enlist Grace into his harem of old floozies, he mentions he has her daddy on ice in the basement! It's there where Grace seemingly sees her father rise from the slab, dispatch with the undertaker via scalpel to the back, and they retreat happily ever after, Southern Gothic ala Flannery Conner to a decrepit farm in the country.

However, as a very superfluous and annoying narration tells us, Grace is completely cut off from reality. All those scenes of her father drinking whiskey and playing the accordion? Never happened. The idyllic ranch where the two reside? Molding and deteriorating. What about when she invites Jesse over to meet her dear old dad? Murdered. The old sheriff who comes to investigate Jesse's disappearance? Sickled to death by the barn. But then, oh narration, who is doing the murdering? Why, Grace of course.

What could have been a magical exercise in the descent into madness tale of a young girl pining for a family is instead stripped of all it's magic by the annoying and intelligence insulting narrator. Case in point. Grace is sitting in a GONE WITH THE WIND style bedroom in a flowing gown. A quick cut and a booming narration let us know the reality of the situation is really a dingy and run-down room, with Grace in a filthy smock. It the voice-over hadn't ruined it for me, I might have been shocked to hear it was Grace's split from reality causing all this trouble.

Still, DREAM NO EVIL is a poignant little film. It's not surreal in its unrepentant representation of reality. Grace is deeply immersed in her dream life, hence the title. There's some fun ghost story elements at play as well. When the sheriff searches for the hotel where the undertaker/pimp works, it doesn't exist. It turns out the illusion has dominated the film long before we are supposed to realize it. Except for the fucking narration going and spoiling all the fun.

Other writers more astute that I, have provided correlations between director Hayes' childhood and Grace's onscreen one and have suggested a possible identifying with Grace on Hayes' part. Themes of abandonment, exasperation with religion, insanity abound and those who knew Hayes, he was a commercial filmmaker with no interest in art. So, if he does identify with Grace, this is a good example of stripping away some of that self-disillusionment. And probably why the whole thing is so damn straightforward, when it could have been much trippier. But that isn't a fault. Sometimes when I'm watching this wacky stuff from the seventies, all that psychedelic camera work to represent madness can get old. I get it, I get it, the fucking person is crazy. Enough with the weird angles and the gels.

I can't wait to see what else Hayes' work holds, because I am a budding fan. I couldn't help but wonder what he could have done with a better budget, because this is a deeply creative work. GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE is his next piece I've got lined up and I'm sure I won't be disappointed. He also worked with Rue Mclanahan quite a bit back during her early career, so that could prove interesting as well. This title is alternately known as THE FAITH HEALER and NOW I LAY ME DOWN TO DIE. I think I like DREAM NO EVIL best, as it points to Grace's candy coated vision of reality with her dead father.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Scream Bloody Murder (Claw of Terror)

You know it's gonna be good when the opening scene is of young Matthew on bulldozer deliberately driving over his father. In a twist of fate, Matthew falls off the machine and gets his hand mangled in the treads. It's all weird camera angles and crazy wide angles that make this Oedipal opening all the more bizarre and wonderful.

Cut to ten years later and Matthew has just returned home unannounced from the nuthouse, crushed hand replaced with a creepy metal claw (you know, the kind you'd find on your car door handle after a night of making out in a secluded area). Mom's been recently remarried and Matthew quickly dispatches this interloper with an axe. Mom's pretty miffed at this action, and in a struggle with her son, she falls and bashes her head in on a rock. Matthew takes to the road and accepts a ride from a cute young couple, only to kill them as well, because he imagines them as his mom and stepfather.

He ends up in Venice Beach were he befriends a prostitute, Vera, on the steps of her cottage as she's painting an abstract. (Vera is subsequently played by the same woman playing Matthew's mom.) Matthew resolves to save Vera from her life, but he needs a home in which to do so, so he drives out to the wealthy part of town, knocks on the door of the first mansion he sees, meat cleavers the maid, strangles the old lady upstairs, and butchers the family dog! Voila. The perfect place to woo Vera.

But once he's lured Vera back to the mansion (which is now occupied by Muhammad Ali and was used in the last ROCKY movie as Sylvester's pad), she's not all that intent on staying. But like it or not, she's going to stay and Matthew ties her up to a bed post. What ensues are some thwarted attempts at escape and Matthew's deep, deep descent into utter madness.

This could be seen as just another unsympathetic momma's boy on a killing spree flick, but there's enough here to transcend this film into exploitation gold. I've been thinking about it constantly since I first stumbled upon it in an bought of insomnia. How has this movie not been on my radar until now? It's gorey as hell, the killings are brutal and plentiful, Matthew is crazed in the way I like my killer's crazed, the performances are over-the-top, there's a good amount of silly deadpan, Oedipal references abound, there's a total ickiness towards sex, Angus Scrimm is the doctor that figures out something with Matthew's story ain't right (with more dialogue here than he ever uttered in the PHANTASM flicks), and there's an overall hallucinatory and claustrophobic feel throughout that just gets under my skin.

Coupled with a goofy made for TV movie score and blood caked ghoul women hallucinations that become all the more frequent as Matthew gets crazier, this movie rules! Where else are you going to get gems like this, 'Look at this - a steak. Well who else ever bought you a steak before? Nobody, that's who!' And when Vera asks what Matthew sees in one of her abstract messes of a painting, he responds, 'He's been punished by the sun, he's been punished for chopping up the man that took his mother away from him.' Vera replies, 'I didn't know I was such a good artist.'

It's stuff like this that takes the mostly downbeat mood and elevates it to hilarity. There's plenty of humor, especially in Matthew's delivery and performance, that just make you laugh, even though enough blood is spilled and bodies are dispatched nastily enough. It's shockingly done, but hey, this is fucking exploitation movie from 1972! Director Marc Ray nailed it, with a tiny budget and gorilla filmmaking techniques. He went on to direct one more movie, THE SEVERED ARM (what is it with the cutting off of appendages?), and retired from the movie business to become a shrink. Fred Holbert, the kid that played Matthew, was never heard from again and prostitute/mother Vera (Leigh Mitchell) never went on to do anything else again either. Shame, really, as Holbert's performance really does elevate this.

You can watch this instantly on Netflix as CLAW OF TERROR and I recommend you do so right away. Search for the BLOOD-O-RAMA collection. Do it now. Just look at that one sheet. It's reason enough.