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Mad Science

The second I heard about the “Camp & Cult Blogathon” being hosted by Stacia at She Blogged By Night, I knew what I wanted to write about. Because Maniac (1934), aka Sex Maniac, is perhaps the weirdest movie I’ve ever seen. Watching it is like entering a trance. Directed by Dwain Esper, the exploitation filmmaker behind titles like Marihuana and Sex Madness, Maniac is no mere movie; it’s a cri de coeur against structure and restraint. Not one of its 50 frenzied minutes is anything less than outrageously loony.

The plot? It is labyrinthine, and thinking too hard about it leaves me woozy. Roughly: vaudevillian Don Maxwell, moonlighting as a lab assistant, kills a hubris-addled scientist and assumes his identity. Police investigate; corpses walk; the actor grows increasingly paranoid. Peripheral characters deliver halting monologues. One jaw-dropping, Poe-pilfering set piece follows another. And finally, with only a few minutes left, Esper and screenwriter Hildegarde Stadie (his wife) introduce an out-of-nowhere subplot featuring Don’s estranged showgirl wife, an inheritance left by his rich uncle, etc., etc. THE END.

About a dozen horror movies’ worth of plot is squeezed into Maniac, all of it told at breakneck speed and maximum volume. Dialogue isn’t spoken so much as hyperventilated. No one seems to have an inside voice—like Horace Carpenter, who plays the mad Dr. Meirschultz by howling every single one of his lines, and who literally beats his chest when Don disappoints him. “Coward!” he sobs. “Oh you fool!” Histrionic is the default here, with each performance more mannered and exaggerated than the last.

Well, except for the INLAND EMPIRE-esque chorus girls who turn up at the end, lounging around a hotel room and cracking wise. They behave just like actresses in a conventional 1930s B-movie. Although their conversations are a little strange: one girl describes homelessness as “sinking your weary bones into the soft recesses of some park bench”; another jokes about the Greek philosopher Diogenes; and a third girl mocks a sucker in a newspaper article by laughing, “His head must be a jelly bean instead of what they thought it was!” Evocative, puzzling, both? Maniac positively bulges with writing like this.

Or like this:

Stealing through my body… creeping through my veins… pouring in my blood! Ohhh, darts of fire in my brain! Stabbing me. Agony! I can’t stand it, this torture, this torment! I can’t stand it! I won’t! I wo— [incoherent ape noises]

These lines are screamed by Buckley, a patient of Meirschultz who thinks he’s a killer orangutan, after he’s injected with “super adrenaline.” And this hysterical, stream-of-consciousness rant is only one of Maniac’s many grotesque spectacles. To wit:

  • Immediately after Buckley’s rant, a once-dead woman appears from behind a screen. Buckley abducts her, runs off into the wilderness, and exposes her breasts.
  • Don decides that a black cat named Satan has “the gleam” in his eye. He catches it, then gouges out and eats one of its eyes onscreen. (This, after Satan knocks Meirschultz’s artificial heart onto the floor and nibbles on it.)
  • A jocular neighbor explains the workings of the cat-and-rat farm in his backyard: “The rats eat the cats, the cats eat the rats, and I get the skins!”
  • More breasts are exposed.
  • Don manipulates his and Buckley’s respective wives into fighting each other with syringes. Meanwhile, a frog hops around the basement.
  • Jailed, Don moans that he “only wanted to amuse, to entertain,” but has now “spent [his] whole life perfecting an act that no one wanted.”

The causal connective tissue between these incidents is minimal. At times, their chronology feels totally arbitrary, as if the whole movie was a loose, nightmarish clip reel. This impression is magnified by the “educational” title cards that occasionally break up the flow of the film, dry lectures on mental illness with headings like “DEMENTIA PRAECOX” or “MANIC-DEPRESSIVE PSYCHOSES.” In keeping with exploitation film formula, these are meant to excuse Maniac’s excesses. See? they say. This [prurient, horrifying] movie’s performing a public service!

However, since the information in the title cards is now 100% outdated and had only the most tenuous link to the rest of the movie in the first place, they instead come across as a proto-Godardian distancing device, existing only to further disrupt an already fragmented narrative. You read that right: Maniac is surprisingly avant-garde, though it’s unclear how much of the film’s demented style is a function of low budgets, tight schedules, and bad actors vs. Esper and Stadie intentionally crafting a Dada-horror fever dream. One image in particular, of Don and Meirschultz massaging a dead woman’s limbs in a cavernous morgue, even struck me as something right out of Jean Cocteau. (Or, by the same token, Ed Wood.)

This isn’t to say that Maniac is sophisticated or poetic. On the contrary, it’s crude trash. But trash can be experimental too. In all its gory, convoluted melodrama, Maniac is exactly as powerful as it is risible. Every unanswered question—Why do they talk like that? Why did he do that? Where did she come from?—and every one-of-a-kind act of violence sticks like a burr in your brain. Every non sequitur, bizarre inflection, and over-the-top cackle helps explain why Maniac makes such a deserving cult object, even if doesn’t have much in the way of an actual cult. This is exploitation cinema at its most transgressive.

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Dreams I Have Had About Pregnancy

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Brain Teasers

By Andreas

The first hour of Fiend Without a Face (1958) just sucks. It’s the usual Cold War atomic paranoia stuff—an American military base on Canadian soil, experiments with nuclear-powered radar, a series of unexplained murders—told in the most pedestrian manner possible. Marshall Thompson plays the movie’s typical Army Guy, and he’s just terrible; he delivers every line with the exact same I’m-the-Army-Guy tone of voice. He falls for a pretty Canadian woman, and wouldn’t you know, she work for a Vaguely Mad Scientist! Could the Scientist be somehow linked to the murders? Will the Army Guy discover this link and investigate? Well, duh. Yeah, it’s on track to become the most generic, forgettable ’50s B-movie of them all…

But then, a miracle: the climax strikes, and the entire movie changes. An influx of radioactive energy (or something to that effect) reveals the invisible monsters to be a flock of slimy, creepy-crawly killer brains. Holy fuck, right? All of a sudden, Fiend Without a Face stops being a formulaic Cold War sci-fi movie and turns into a grotesque orgy of bloodshed and stop-motion. The brains slither, lunge into the air, and latch onto characters’ necks, only to be dispatched with a bullet or an ax. It’s fuckin’ awesome!

I think the creative team behind Fiend Without a Face knew that the flying killer brains were their movie’s only hook, too. I think they banked on it, and that’s why they allowed the rest of the film to be almost self-parodically tedious. In those last 15 minutes, they do nothing but exploit their truly impressive special effects. Seriously: the plot grinds to a halt so that characters, under siege in a cabin, can stare out the window at a forest swarming with gooey, disembodied brains. It practically becomes an avant-garde nature film—“Behold,” you can imagine David Attenborough saying, “the fiends without a face, clinging majestically to the Canadian pines!”

And yeah, Army Guy blows up the nuclear reactor, makes the brains all melt into viscous puddles, and then kisses the pretty Canadian woman as the words “THE END” roll onscreen. But somewhere in their fictional minds, these characters must realize that we (the audience) do not give a shit about them. That we only came here for the killer brain action. That they’re only human placeholders driving along a story that’s fundamentally about killer brains. I feel kinda bad for them: Fiend Without a Face is cruelly lopsided, stringing its audience along with the promise that, yes, the climax will feature flying killer brains. Army Guy, the putative star, doesn’t factor into the movie’s appeal at all.

But the killer brains. They’re alluring, certainly more so than lead actress Kim Parker. They also anticipate trends in horror cinema 20-30 years in the future: the way their blood spurts reminds me of Eraserhead’s man-made chickens; their moist texture calls to mind Naked Lunch’s Mugwumps; and when they melt, it heralds the splatter-happy zombie movies of Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson. They’re terrifying, radioactive little crystal balls.

I really cannot overemphasize how effective the stop-motion is here. Looking back from 2011, the brains still give me the creeps. Maybe the rest of the movie was made exceptionally boring as part of a Sirkian trick to make the brains seem even more impressive when they finally arrived? I can’t say. But I do know that thanks to that miraculously sui generis climax, Fiend Without a Face is a film I’ve treasured since childhood, and it’s one I’ll never forget.

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Om Nom Blood Feast!

I don’t have too much to say about Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Blood Feast (1963). It’s not a very deep movie. The plot is as rudimentary as could be, following an Egyptian caterer named Fuad Ramses (Mal Arnold) who stalks, abducts, and murders women in the Miami area as he prepares the titular feast, in honor of his goddess Ishtar. (Never mind that Ishtar wasn’t an Egyptian goddess, and no such bloody ritual existed.) An incompetent detective slowly, slowly hunts him down; meanwhile, the detective’s girlfriend’s mother engages Ramses to cater the girlfriend’s birthday party. Eventually the party happens, then the detective corners Ramses, who is crushed in a garbage truck. The end.

The only real reason we’re still talking about Blood Feast over forty years later is that it’s a fucking gory movie. Whenever possible, we’re treated to close-ups of the victims’ entrails, severed limbs, and wounds, all gushing copious amounts of bright blood. Thus, Wikipedia dubs it “the first ‘splatter film’,” and to an extent they’re right. Blood Feast signaled a pivotal moment in horror history, as the Production Code’s decline and the rise of independent production made over-the-top gore a very real aesthetic option. Unfortunately, despite its historic significance, it’s also barely watchable.

In fact, Blood Feast is so poorly made that if it had a little less excessive gore, I suspect it would’ve received the MST3K treatment. Every single cast member delivers their lines in a stilted, uncertain manner, with the exception of Arnold, who hams it up so much he might as well have an apple in his mouth. The camerawork is equally miserable; I’m being charitable when I say this movie reminds me of early John Waters, or the Kuchar Bros. It has that naïve quality to it, as if Lewis had seen one or two Hollywood movies and was trying carefully, but futilely, to imitate them, although the film also has a few moments of clear, intentional humor, especially as Ramses tries to get the detective’s giggling, inane girlfriend to sacrifice herself. (If you can’t tell, the film also has an unsurprising undercurrent of misogyny.)

So there is plenty of so-bad-it’s-good enjoyment to be had from Blood Feast. The bad acting, awkward dialogue, organ-and-drums soundtrack, and oversimplified color scheme (Lewis has a Godard-like obsession with primary colors), when added to the sanguine set-pieces, yield a mildly silly good time. The film occasionally teeters over in unbearably bad territory, though, during a few monologues that drone on for several minutes (in a 67-minute movie); if you can persevere through those, then Blood Feast is worth a gander. Ultimately, its historical significance is its greatest asset. Even more than Psycho, it marks the transitional period between ’50s monster movies and ’70s slashers. Ramses is the perfect segue from Vincent Price’s vengeful mass murderers and the Creature from the Black Lagoon to Black Christmas‘s Bobby and Michael Myers. Now remember the magic words: “Oh Ishtar, take me unto yourself!”

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Inside: Women, Pregnancy and the Penetrable Female Body

Yesterday, I received the third issue of Ax Wound Zine, a homegrown feminist horror zine, in the mail. One of the articles, Mother Blood: A Look Inside by M. Brianna Stallings, discussed some of the themes of a 2007 French horror film, À l’intérieu or Inside. The article piqued my interest so much that I found and watched the film. (Warning: spoilers ahead). The film’s plot concerns itself with Sarah, a young pregnant woman who’s husband is killed in a car crash in the first scene of the film. She and her unborn child survive but Sarah is left despondent and isolates herself from everyone, her mother, her employer and even her cat. On the night before her induced birth (Christmas Eve), she is assaulted by a menacing woman. What at first seems like a frightening but ultimately harmless altercation explodes into a brutal, bloody and violent night of unrelenting horror. I was absolutely enthralled by the film; I found it terrifying and evocative on multiple levels and haven’t been able to get it out of my head since I watched it. After watching it, as I read the IMDb page for the film, I made the mistake of reading some of the comment threads about the movie. Several people talked about how stupid and pointless the movie was and how it, “like most all horror movies”, was merely a vehicle for gore and violence. And some of the defense for the film wasn’t much better; it consisted mostly of ‘horror isn’t supposed to have a point! That’s why it’s enjoyable!”.

Now let me take this chance to discuss my own views on horror as a genre. I love horror. Absolutely love it. I would even go so far as to say it’s my favorite genre of film. It’s very difficult to discuss the hows and whys of what horror is and can be and what it does as a genre, just like with any other genre of film; any branch of film is going to be so multi-faceted and rich with subgenres that it takes awhile to wade through it all. But one of my favorite aspects of the horror genre is the way it explores themes of sex, gender, societal views on men and women and sexuality, etc. And in regards to these specific comments about the film being pointless: I’ve been reading Carol Clover’s Men Women and Chainsaws and if there’s one thing (among many) I’ve taken away from it so far is that even the most low-brow, unconscious of  films can be analyzed. Because we as a people do not create art in a vacuum; our art is always in some way influenced by the environment and society that we live in. Whether or not a piece of art chooses to recognize that and make some kind of comment on it is really here nor there; the influences inherent to any given society are still recognizable within a piece of work. And, furthermore, just because one person doesn’t recognize something in or read into a piece of art the same way another person does, doesn’t mean that those factors don’t exist within the film. For example: just because hundreds of people don’t think or recognize that privilege and white guilt plays a huge part in the narrative of Avatar doesn’t mean that those ideas are still not inherent to the narrative and easily recognizable to other people.

Getting back on track: Inside is about as far from a pointless film as you can get. Pregnancy and the fears and anxieties surrounding it have been fodder for horror and SciFi for a very long time. The very idea of an entity that is itself a separate being existing within another body or host is an unsettling premise and one that hasn’t escaped the horror genre. Inside plays with these ideas of anxiety before the attacker even shows up via a very graphic dream sequence in which Sarah projectile vomits a milky looking substance (breast milk perhaps?) all over the floor before the fetus expels itself upwards and out of her mouth. This idea of the body rejecting all things to do with the pregnancy-the milk that nurtures baby, the baby itself-is a reflection of very real anxieties experienced by pregnant women: what if something happens to the baby? What if my body doesn’t take care of it right? What if something goes wrong? What if my body can’t house this life properly?

Beyond just themes of the horrors of pregnancy, Inside also explores relationships between women in three ways: the interactions between Sarah and her mother, Sarah and the attacker and Sarah and a female police officer. Sarah’s depression over the death of her husband has caused her to push away her mother, whom she refers to by name and is increasingly frustrated and curt with. Sarah refuses the offer of Christmas dinner with her mother, insisting more than once that she’s “…full. [She’s] really full.” The choice of words very clearly has multiple meanings other than her not being hungry: Sarah is literally and figuratively full. Physically, she is very heavy with child (the implication being that she may be overdue, hence the impending induction); her belly protrudes far out from her small frame and she is often seen walking with her hand bracing her back.  Emotionally, she is full to the brim with anxieties and depression as a result of her husband’s death. And yet, despite all of this burden, she continually refuses help from her mother. She doesn’t even want her mother to drive her to or be present at the birth of the child.

After Sarah’s first encounter with the film’s unnamed antagonist, during which she tries to harass Sarah into letting her in by calling out her lie about her husband sleeping  and thereby revealing that she knows just a bit too much about Sarah, the police arrive. A female officer makes the immediate assumption that Sarah is being harassed by the father of her child and then later gently insists that perhaps Sarah is mistaken in thinking the assailant is a woman. The ideas inherent in the officer’s immediate assumptions are 1. that pregnant women are more likely to be harassed by the men who have impregnated them (which isn’t a completely unfounded idea) and 2. that women in general are not of such a brutal nature to harass one another violently. These assumptions are completely undermined by the narrative but betray persistent ideas about pregnant women (as very vulnerable and oftentimes hysterical, unreliable sources of information) and women in general. And it’s very interesting that the ideas are put forth by a woman who is cast in a profession that is traditionally coded masculine; it may possibly represent a barrier that is sometimes constructed between women who are, in some way, coded differently from one another in terms of gender (in this case pregnancy is coded feminine whereas the rough and tough life of a cop is coded masculine).

But the real meat of the film lies in the relationship between Sarah and her assailant. It is initially unclear why this woman is hassling Sarah, insisting that she let her in. Our sense of safety is shaken as we see her, lurking in the background unbeknownst to the vulnerable Sarah. Tension builds as the woman walks about the house as Sarah sleeps, searching for the proper tools to set her work in motion. The weapon she chooses, a pair of shears, is used persistently throughout the film as is a knitting needle (in Stallings article, she noted that these are feminine crafting tools being put to use in sinister, deadly ways). As I watched the unnamed woman poise her weapon against Sarah’s distended tummy and actually penetrate the flesh I began to think about the purpose of pregnant women in horror and the female body as a completely penetrable object.

The presence of a pregnant woman in a horror movie immediately creates a sense of tension or dread; the character is clearly pregnant for a reason, even if it’s not a driving plot element as in this film. I recently watched Cheap, a very low-budget exploitation film directed by Brad Jones (aka The Cinema Snob). One of the peripheral characters is heavily pregnant and the instant she walks on-screen, if you’re aware of the film’s premise, you know that something bad is going to happen to this character otherwise the screenwriter wouldn’t have made her pregnant. And something bad does happen to her and it’s all the more unpleasant because of her pregnancy. In this sense, pregnant characters create a state of fear; we are afraid for these characters much the way we’re afraid for a small child or an animal because in the context of horror films they are more vulnerable than a full-grown, able-bodied person.

A pregnant woman in a horror film has already demonstrated in the most literal sense that she is penetrable. She has, in most cases, had sex with a man and it has resulted in a life inside her body. Beyond that, a pregnant woman is extremely vulnerable to external penetrative forces that threaten the life of her and her unborn child. Sarah is an extreme example of this: she is one day shy of giving birth and every brutal act in this movie is all the more gutting because the viewer knows this. We know that the child inside her is experiencing the physical repercussions of the violence (and not just because of the intermittent CGI shots of the child being physically distressed in utero) and it fosters a sense of constant tension. Even as Sarah sits in the increasingly bloodier bathroom, which she does for over half of the movie (more penetrability; she locks herself inside and her attacker continually tries to penetrate the door), she is experiencing non-stop emotional and mental terror that threatens the well-being of her unborn child.

The relationship between Sarah and her attacker is the most developed of the film. Her assailant shifts back and forth from quiet threat to raving madwoman to maternal caregiver (in the darkest senses possible). She is simultaneously maternal and murderous towards Sarah while fetishizing her pregnancy. Her obsession with Sarah’s child, the driving force behind her madness, exemplifies the darkest side of maternal instincts. We learn that Sarah and her assailant have more in common than is initially thought (spoilerspoilerspoilerspoiler) when it is revealed that this woman was in the other car involved in the accident that killed Sarah’s husband and that the crash resulted in her miscarriage. Both women lost something in this accident and neither are to blame but both react in different ways. Where Sarah sinks into isolation and depression, the other woman descends into madness, deciding that she will take from Sarah what she believes Sarah has taken from her. “Will you kill me again, Sarah?” she asks as Sarah is about to deliver the killing blow, giving her pause, “You’ve already killed me once.” This sense of distorted kinship, of dark intimacy unsettles the viewer by forcing us to sympathize with our mad killer. She is older than Sarah, clearly in at least her mid-forties; it’s not outside the realm of reality to believe that the child she lost was her last chance to conceive. And for someone who may already be mentally unstable, that kind of deep, traumatizing loss could push them to horrific limits.

In terms of thematic elements, this film is not lacking. To claim that this is a ‘pointless gore flick’ betrays a complete ignorance of the fundamental elements of the story itself. This is one of the most visceral films I’ve ever seen. It is unrelenting and potentially traumatizing or triggering. There is much bloodshed; while watching I lost track of where all this blood came from and found myself several times shocked by the amount of blood-spray on the walls and floor and covering the characters. But the gore itself is not, in my opinion, just pointless blood. Pregnancy, and more specifically birth, is bloody. It is gory. It is visceral and tender and red and unbearable to watch at times. Inside is a haunting story, that is loaded with ideas and themes of the horror of pregnancy, of living in a penetrable female body, and the sometimes dark and twisted kinship between women. In the world of the horror film, the female body is one of the most vulnerable places to live in; you are open to penetration of all kinds. I recommend this film to fans of the genre or to anyone curious enough to seek it out but, as I said, it is a very emotional film to watch. If seeing the delicacy of pregnancy continually brutalized is something that could potentially upset or trigger you, take caution. But the film was a satisfying cinematic experience for me. It is a layered and purposeful film that evokes critical thought about motherhood, pregnancy and the female body.

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