I have been informed there was some sort of early morning Saturday event held as part of QT Quattro. I can offer no firsthand account of the event, since my ass was aSLEEP.
For me, the night started with dinner at Threadgill’s before heading to the Alamo Drafthouse, where I claimed what seems to have become my spot for the festival. The place was packed by the time Rebecca Campbell of the Austin Film Society finally took the stage to plug the corporate sponsors for the event (broadjumpomnihotelbenihana, as any good audience member can recite by now) and talk just a bit about the Austin Film Society. She was quick, though, and gave the crowd what they wanted, Quentin Tarantino.
I’m getting used to his style of introduction by now, and he never disappoints. He owns these films because of his unbridled love for them, and when he tries to introduce a film in a succinct, concise manner, he inevitably fails in glorious fashion. He gets off-track. He spouts random anecdotes and resume quirks. He just opens his mouth and lets it happen, and that’s so much more entertaining than any dry treatise on film theory every could.
He started off tonight by musing about the marathons, of which there have now been five. Last year there were two of them, one each Saturday ("One too many," QT observed), but there’s typically just one. This year, he decided to split the theme so that Japanese Monster Movies and Italian Horror Films would share the evening. "Two great tastes that taste great together," he joked as he explained his reasoning. He said that he chose Japanese Monster Movies just because he’s really into them right now. He believes that they’re totally different projected than they are on TV, something that is true of all films to some extent. I’d agree with him here, though. These movies are about giant monsters. How big can anything look on a TV screen? Godzilla is supposed to stand above us, roar down at us, and on this particular night... he did.
He also touched on something I’ve never noticed, except on a subliminal level. These films create an entire alternate universe, one that resembles ours closely, but that has slightly different rules, slightly different history. In this alternate universe, Japan won the space race. They rule the planet in benevolence. America is definitely along for the ride, but as a junior partner that still turns to Japan when things get tough. Any important meeting at, say, the United Nations is attended by a French guy, an African guy, an American guy, and about 20 Japanese guys. And the UN is in Tokyo. If aliens come down to Earth, they’re always Japanese. It’s the exact same thing that American filmmakers do all the time, but it’s fascinating to see what it reveals about each culture when they do it. He talked about how interesting it is that they would see their ideal world this way, putting themselves in the position of ruling with love and peace, the protectors of the world, rulers of a beautiful, wide open future in space. There’s something really lovely about the dream, the longing for it.
Then he brought up the thing that has always fascinated me most about the films, the nuclear perspective. As the only culture that has actually had nuclear weapons utilized against them, Japan bears some very deep scars that inform pretty much every piece of art produced there since. It’s not always overt, but it’s there. Godzilla is, of course, awakened by a nuclear incident, and in the original film, Godzilla is a force of random horrible destruction unleashed upon Tokyo. It’s strange... a film like DIE HARD 2 is criticized for killing a jumbo jet full of passengers, but in the GODZILLA films, there are hundreds of thousands killed, millions even. Eventually, though, that changed as Godzilla became the protector of Japan. QT said he was fascinated by the idea that if something so powerful existed, at what point would we start praying to it? After all, your continued future depends on it, depends on its goodwill. It is all-powerful, and it frequently answers the requests (or prayers, if you will) of children. He went further, theorizing about a film about life under Godzilla, told from the point of view of a normal family, with Dad a stockbroker, mom a homemaker, and kids in school, all just going about their normal ups and downs with Godzilla being just part of the texture of the world, a tail glimpsed in passing.
QT then talked a bit about the man who is without a doubt the major artistic force behind the kaiju, Ishira Honda. The story QT told blew my mind, because it’s something I’ve never heard before. Evidently, it’s something that’s only recently started to come to light. I knew Honda had served as Akira Kurosawa’s assistant director on a number of films, but QT says it went much further than that. Since KAGEMUSHA, Honda was evidently co-directing Kurosawa’s films with him. In fact, on RAN, it was Honda who directed the exterior battle scenes, while Kurosawa directed all the interior work. In DREAMS, it turns out that one of the stories was even drawn from Honda’s own experience as a soldier in WWII. I was shocked by this because of how much I identify those things as Kurosawa’s. Time frequently forces us to reassess artists, and this story is definitely one of those cases I’ll be reading more about.
QT spoke a bit about his enthusiasm for the model work in the films and how it’s not seen as cheesy overseas. Instead, it’s accepted that there’s a stylization to the special effects. "Man, I don’t know about you guys, but I am CGI’d out," QT said, shaking his head, and he got a pretty healthy response from the crowd. He reminded everyone that he didn’t bring these movies because he thinks they suck and they should be laughed at. I think his intro already more than proved the sincerity of his love for the films, and he spoke quite eloquently of the charms that the movies possess. He told us to really listen to the dialogue in the first film of the evening and to pay attention to the professor who goes over to the aliens, saying it was a particularly noteworthy bit of work. To make his final point about meeting the films halfway, QT related the reaction of the kids who attended that morning’s screening of DESTROY ALL MONSTERS. There was one little girl sitting directly in front of him who would vigorously pump her arms in the air every time Godzilla appeared, and QT talked about how all the adults in the room were won over by the genuine affection of the children, how they managed to see the film the way the kids saw it. "So get ready... find your child eyes... and let’s watch THE MYSTERIANS!"
He was about to walk offstage when he paused and grinned sheepishly. "Oh, yeah. There’s one minor print problem," he said. "It’s a good print, 35mm... but I don’t have the last reel." There was a loud "ooooh" from the crowd, but QT waved them quiet again and continued. He says there is a replacement reel from a 16mm scope print. The truth is, though, that the film pretty much wraps up before that last reel. You know how everything’s going to wrap up, and the whole thing is dramatically complete. Despite that, he promised that the last reel would show up at some point during the festival. Maybe not during the marathon, but at some point.
Finally the lights went down and the trailers began. GAMERA THE INVINCIBLE (spelled GAMMERA here), KING KONG VS GODZILLA, Toho’s KING KONG ESCAPES (featuring the Evil Dr. Hu, the giant Kong Of Steel, and the Serpent of Mongo Island), and INFRAMAN all rolled past in one big glorious blur of color and crazy costumes. Then the screen opened out to the full scope ratio for the MGM logo, followed by the title THE MYSTERIANS.
I’ve never actually seen this film before, a surprise considering how many hours of Toho double features I saw as a kid. It’s actually got a pretty good setup, full of mysterious fires and disappearing villages. A giant samurai/bug/duck looking robot goes on a big 15 minute rampage, getting things off to a lovely start. There’s one really effective moment of silence, just after the robot is taken out by the intentional demolition of a bridge, that gives the characters a moment to sit and reflect on the destruction, on the sheer scale of what’s happened, that actually sold me on the reality of this world. There’s just the sound of a stream and these great sad closeups on the people at the scene. This ain’t no Bergman film, though. Things get hopping again in a matter of moments as the Mysterians’ dome appears in the spot where the rampage started.
They broadcast an invitation to the gathered military to send in five very specific people to talk to them face-to-face. I told Harry that he’s not really famous until he’s one of the five people who the Mysterians want to meet first, ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY articles aside. The requested scientists go into the dome, where they’re greeted by aliens who dress like some bizarre cross between Freemasons and Power Rangers. All the Mysterians want is three kilometers of land (which they already actually occupy) and the right to intermarry with Earth women. The humans respond, of course, with a big "Hell, no," and we’re off and running with a giant war. Many model tanks are melted as the Mysterians basically kick Earth’s ass. I love the cutaway shots to the Mysterians watching all the mayhem on TV in their ship. It reminds me of the stuff in MARS ATTACKS! when the Martians were just lounging around in their little red spangly underwear. The Mysterians do everything but pop popcorn as they whip up on us. Of course, we’re pretty resourceful, a "virus with shoes," as Bill Hicks called us, and we end up screwing up their plan with a bigger better gun. Yay, Earth!!
Everyone was totally rowdy by the time QT took the stage to introduce the first Italian horror film of the night. After a slight lozenge mishap, he brought up the issue of Lucio Fulci snobs, fans who dismiss THE PSYCHIC because it’s not like his later, gorier work. QT basically dissed them as intolerable weenies, explaining that Fulci had an earlier phase of his career, where he shot giallo films. Dario Argento did the same thing. Giallo was the rage in the mid-‘70s, murder mysteries that were heavy on suspense and plot twists. They’re basically Italian pulp fiction. Even the name "giallo" means yellow, referring to the cheap paper the novellas were typically printed on. This is when QT talked about how he’s always entertained the idea of remaking THE PSYCHIC, and how he’s even gone so far as discussing the matter with Bridget Fonda, a huge giallo fan in her own right.
This time, we saw trailers for Bava’s BLACK SABBATH, PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES, THE WILD WILD PLANET (with The Insane Master, my kind of guy), and AUTOPSY ("She is the girl who knows more about love than death. He is the man who teaches her about both!!"), as well as WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH and CASTLE OF BLOOD.
As far as THE PSYCHIC itself is concerned, I’m not going to tell you much. This is one of those films I’ve seen on the video store shelf about a thousand times, and I’ve always just passed it by because I thought it was some schlocky bit of nonsense. My loss. Find this, pick it up, and enjoy the plot wound like a precision watch. Hell, even if you just rent it to watch Jennifer O’Neill storm through in fabulous outfits, you can’t go too wrong. This reminds me a lot of what I love most about Brian De Palma when he’s at his best... confident suspense directed with real flair and style. Probably the single best thing about the film is the editing. Jennifer O’Neill plays a woman plagued by psychic visions, and the way Fulci uses quick flashes then pays them off later is masterful. I’ll be honest... I prefer this to any of the hardcore gore films by Fulci that I’ve seen. It’s a better story, better told.
QT introduced MOTHRA by setting it in context as a story of female empowerment. He pointed out that Mothra is a female, that she’s always good, that she kicked Godzilla’s ass over and over, and that even when she destroys Tokyo, she’s got her reasons, "as women always do." I haven’t seen the first MOTHRA since childhood, and I forgot that it’s more of a fairy tale than a straightforward monster movie. There’s very basic good and bad represented in the film. On a jungle expedition, several Japanese men find two tiny women. Despite the reservations of most of the group, two guys capture the women, determined to exploit them. The little women, known in most of the films as "The Peanuts," look the way Shonen Knife always sounds to me. I remember being mad in love with them as a kid, and I can easily remember why when seeing the film again now. The bad guy is eminently hissable, doing some great eyebrow acting. For most of the film, Mothra is more like Wormra, appearing in larval state. When she does appear in her full splendor though, looking to reclaim the Peanuts and take them home, there’s some major damage done and everyone gets what they deserve. What more could you ask?
When QT reappeared after the break, he could barely contain his excitement. He was enormously proud of the next print, 16mm scope, that he was going to show, saying it looked as good as an IB Technicolor print. He started talking about the context of this film in Argento’s overall body of work, saying it was the first film in a trilogy called The 3 Mothers Trilogy about three gateways to Hell. The first was SUSPIRIA, set in Germany. The second was INFERNO, set in New York, and there’s been no third film as of yet. QT was talking about Jessica Harper and Joan Bennett, but I was already lost in my own thoughts. I’ve only seen SUSPIRIA once before this, and it was years ago on laserdisc. It really wasn’t the best viewing possible, and I’ve always meant to get back to the movie, hoping to give it a shot in the proper environment. I was so eager to see it that I could barely sit still through the trailers for THE BLOOD DRINKERS (with the crazy Dr. Marco), THE FLESH EATERS, THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE SPACE MONSTER, and CURSE OF THE VOODOO.
How do you describe SUSPIRIA to someone who hasn’t seen it? I’m not sure I’d call it a horror film in the traditional sense. It’s a nightmare, definitely, but it doesn’t move like the standard horror film. I can honestly say now, having seen it in a theater with the volume cranked about three points past painful, I have never seen SUSPIRIA before. From the opening frames, Dario Argento establishes himself as the deranged conductor of this particular symphony. His score, co-written and performed by Goblin, is insane. It’s an assault, and it’s as important to the experience as anything you see onscreen. Like John Carpenter, Argento actually seems to shoot to some private music that only becomes clear when the film is finished. These things are so intrinsically tied to one another that I can’t imagine them separate.
This movie is everything that THE CELL wasn’t. It’s all-consuming. It’s visually lush, unfolding with the logic of a dream. There’s no way to summarize the plot, per se, since that’s not what this is about. It’s about letting the whole thing wash over you like opera, taking it in and reacting to the totality of Argento’s crazed vision. It helps that Jessica Harper’s is the first face we see. I love her in her early films. This, PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, MY FAVORITE YEAR... she managed to be tough and vulnerable and funny and sexy, and she really didn’t look like anyone else. That great face of hers is the central image of the film. We have to be drawn into those eyes and follow her into this fever dream of hers. And make no mistake... this whole movie is a dream. From the moment she steps out of the airport, fresh from New York, the world is strange, surreal. She has trouble hailing a cab. Once she does and she’s en route to her new school, The Celebrated Dance Academy of Freeburg, it’s like she’s underwater. When she gets there, she runs into a girl who is leaving, who appears to be yelling back into the school as she stands in the open doorway. Harper tries getting in, but she’s turned away by a panicked voice, told to leave. As the cab takes her back to town, Harper notices that same girl crashing through the woods, alone, hysterical. It’s silent, though, and she only catches glimpses, lit by the storm. Argento takes us on a detour here, following the other girl to what she believes is safety. When she is attacked, it’s brutal and shocking, and we never get a good look at who attacks her. It’s just glowing eyes and deformed hands. It’s genuinely hard to watch, and that score just throttles you the whole time.
The first real exposition of the film finally kicks in the next day, as Suzy Banion, Harper’s character, goes back to the academy and checks in. She meets a rogue’s gallery of ominous types who run the school. There’s the stern headmistress, the giant manly dance instructor, the mutant handyman, and the other students. Among the others, we meet Sarah and Olga. Olga’s a big brute of a girl who looks like she’d throw you around for kicks, and she ends up taking Harper in at her off-campus apartment, something that seems to infuriate the headmistress. Suzy spends her first night talking about her memories from the previous evening. Word of the girl’s death has reached the students, and Suzy’s curious to see if she can shed any light on what happened. She just remembers bits and pieces, though. Within a day, circumstances conspire to move Suzy back into the school, and most of the rest of the film takes place there, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere that just keeps getting more pronounced as things wear on.
As Suzy gets used to the school, tries to fit into the regimen, she is bombarded by odd, hallucinatory moments. There’s one in a hallway involving a small hand mirror that just killed me. I am stealing it. Don’t know when, and I don’t know for what, but I’m stealing it. It’s that good. There’s a disgusting, skin-crawling sequence involving maggots raining from the ceiling of the dorm rooms. Argento offers us a practical explanation at the end of the sequence, but that’s just because he doesn’t want to tip his hand too early. No explanation is needed. There’s something deeply primal about Harper brushing her hair as tiny objects fall into it from above. She doesn’t even notice at first. He draws the moment out as long as he can, the score silent here, with only natural sound to underscore the building tension. By the time she finally figures out what’s going on and finds the maggots in her brush, in her hair, on her clothes, there’s no easy way off the hook. It’s revolting, and it works.
The girls are all forced into a makeshift dormitory for the evening, and this might be my favorite unsettling set piece of the film, mainly because of how hard it is to put your finger on what’s wrong with the scene. Everything is curtains and sheets, hung to give the girls some privacy, but lit so that there’s always the hint of activity just outside the range of vision. There’s no overt scare in the sequence... just an odd shadow and an unnatural snore. It’s enough, though. By this point, Suzy’s friend Sarah is going crazy. She reveals that it was her who sent Suzy away that first night, that she was friends with the murdered girl, and that there’s something wrong with the school, something the murdered girl uncovered. At the same time, Suzy’s being drugged nightly, always struggling with sleep, which I think is key to the reading of this film. It’s not afraid to digress the way a dream does. Things don’t necessarily add up, but they happen with such clarity, such intensity, that it all seems to be of a piece. Daniel, the blind pianist from the school, is killed in a sequence so audacious, so demented, that I wish I had a rewind in the theater, just to watch the way Argento lays it all out for us.
From that point on, the film seems to simply become images layered one after another, all of them adding pieces to the overall puzzle, but none of them playing out in any conventional way. When the two girls are swimming and talking, we see it from some eerie omniscent POV, not hearing them, just seeing them suspended in the water for a long moment. When Sarah tries to talk to a drugged Suzy late one night and asks, "Do you know anything about witches?", there’s a very particular use of echo that made the hair on my arm stand on end. When Sarah is finally chased down and killed, it’s the single most iconic moment in the film, and it’s magnificent. She’s running from shadows, the score pounding down like a sheet of rain. There’s two images in particular that I can’t shake. One is a straight razor jammed between a door and the frame, trying desperately to work a lock loose. The other is Sarah lying in a bed of razor wire, struggling futilely to free herself, only managing to make it worse. When death comes for her, it’s a release, and it’s one of the most horrible images I’ve seen in a film.
Hey... was that... was that Udo Kier?!
Sorry. Just surprised me to see him look so young and hear him talking about the "ah-kult." He apparently plays Dr. Exposition who then hands the hysterical Harper off to Professor Backstory in one of the few sequences that sort of derailed the film a bit for me. No one calls time out during a nightmare to work it all out for you. No one gives you a cheat sheet so you can figure out what all the imagery means. This detour kills some of the momentum, but Argento gets things revved back up almost immediately, and it’s a quick ride from there to the grand finale of the film. Suzy finally puts together everything she’s learned, leading her down a secret passageway into a dark Oz, a wicked Wonderland where whispers wrap around her and the walls are covered in sacred words. She literally steps into the secret at the heart of the film, a place in which Suzy learns the truth about her school, in which we meet one of Argento’s 3 Mothers, and in which the Celebrated Academy and its portal to Hell are destroyed, leaving Harper to stagger out of the building, escaping back into the same driving rain that opened the film, the rain cleansing her as a single title appears: "You have been watching SUSPIRIA."
Bliss. Pure insane bliss.
I wasn’t sure how anything was going to play after the assault of SUSPIRIA, but QT managed to set the mood perfectly with his intro for the next film, setting it into its proper place in the Godzilla mythos. Toho had already made quite a few movies with the various monsters, and they thought they were at the end of the cycle. That was the impetus to put all the monsters into one film and just kick out the jams with one wild, insane, over-the-top ode to all things kaiju. He talked about how he loves this particular model work, and how the fights between the monsters are brutal. He dubbed the final one a "police whipping" before bailing from the stage, making way for a trailer ring that all shared one word in the title. We saw THE MANSON MASSACRE, MEAT CLEAVER MASSACRE (starring Christopher Lee in what looked like HP Lovecraft’s DEATH WISH, as produced by Hammer), NORTHVILLE CEMETARY MASSACRE, the one and only TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, baby, THE SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE and CHILDREN OF THE CORN. Er, I mean CHILDREN OF THE CORN MASSACRE. Ahem. Just go with it.
I have a real weakness for movies that were set in the future for when they were made, but which have already passed for us now. DESTROY ALL MONSTERS is set in that old SF favorite, 1999. We’ve got daily lunar shuttles that fly back and forth to our established moonbase. Right away, I lovelovelovelove the models in the film. Things get even cooler when we make our way to Monsterland, an island where Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, and a dozen other monsters have all been imprisoned. How can anyone not love this world? The monsters all stand around doing wrestling poses at each other all day while scientists monitor them. I could go into the story details, but this is a case where none of that really matters. It all works, and there’s even some inventive fun to be had in the script, but this is about the monsters and mass destruction. There’s a lot of threads that set of echoes for any genre nut, but they’re all films that DESTROY ALL MONSTERS predates. There’s a little ALIENS, a little LIFEFORCE, a little X-FILES. And this thing is damn wild for a G rating. There’s people getting shot, mass carnage, a suicide, a fairly bloody autopsy, and a woman who gets her earrings ripped out to graphic effect. There’s plenty of strange, surreal little touches along the way. I found myself unreasonably entertained by the sight of two groups of men wearing suits on the beach. It looked like a shootout between the Beatles and the Kinks back in the day.
By the time that first big monster fight rolls around, you’re ready to cheer, and they give you plenty to get excited about. Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra, and some big crazy snake thing all attack Tokyo and level the place. There’s one great shot at the end of the scene, a sunset pan across the aftermath of the rampage, that’s actually kind of beautiful. I love that this film never stops trying to please. There’s SO MANY models, and the story keeps working, with some genuine mystery still maintained after an hour of running time. I don’t know about anyone else in the theater, but I suspect that many of them, like myself, found their child eyes and had a blast.
QT spoke for about ten seconds total before we dove into the next trailer ring, seeing AT THE EARTH’S CORE (the Peter Cushing version with Caroline "Sweaty Tits" Munro), THE PEOPLE THAT TIME FORGOT, and THE CREATURES THAT THE WORLD FORGOT.
GODZILLA VS THE SMOG MONSTER starts with a crazy opening sequence set against artfully shot garbage clogging Tokyo Bay, all edited to the maniacal theme song, "Save The Earth." If you’re not singing along out loud with this song by the third time it shows up in the movie, there’s something wrong with you. I like the touch that when we first meet the main kid in the film, he’s playing with Godzilla toys. There’s that alternate universe QT was talking about. The kid’s a fan of giant monsters until he witnesses Ghidrah, the smog monster of the title, burn his scientist father badly. There’s a lot of trauma in these movies. As much as I enjoy watching them, I’d hate to be one of the poor saps living them.
When Godzilla makes his first appearance, he’s in the kid’s dream, using his breath to burn garbage. Subtle, eh? The first fight between the monsters is nasty, and Godzilla pretty much gets stomped. The action is intercut with a hippie freak-out environmental demonstration. It all goes sort of FEAR & LOATHING VS THE SMOG MONSTER for a few minutes there, and the random animated sequences that are stylized (to say the least) must have confused longtime fans of the series. It’s all incredibly dated and heavy-handed, so it’s nice that there’s so little of it. I’m disturbed by some of the film. I’m disturbed by the hottie with the bigger sideburns than the male lead. I’m disturbed by the multitude of nasty poo closeups. I’m deeply disturbed by the main boy’s shorts. Can’t they afford pants in Japan? None of that matters, though, because of that last fight. Man, it’s like watching Royce Gracie work some poor bastard over. It goes on and on, and it looks like it must hurt incredibly. Godzilla’s a trooper, though, and when he finally puts Ghidrah down, it ain’t pretty. He shreds the giant shitbag, and I’m not saying that to be funny, either. Ghidrah appears to be a giant bag of shit with eyes, and Godzilla starts flinging poo ‘till there’s nothing left. I don’t know what to make of the scene where Godzilla flies using his breath to propel himself backwards. It’s a decision that other directors, thankfully, have not repeated. All my gentle jabs aside, this left me smiling and singing along with the final reprise of "Save The Earth."
Our last feature of the evening was officially "Recommended by the Young America Horror Club!" It said so right at the start. Let me tell you something... The Young America Horror Club has some explaining to do. THE VAMPIRE’S COFFIN is a one-hour b&w Mexican vampire film, a sequel to an earlier movie that stars German Robles, who is evidently the Mexican Christopher Lee. I can now say I have seen him in a movie. That’s about all I can say.
It was after ten in the morning when we emerged from the Alamo, and the sleep fatigue was adding up already in waves as we hurried home to squeeze in a bit of sleep before meeting up for the Heist Thriller Night Triple Bill. But more on that later...