Sunday, March 08, 2015

Family Values Go To The Movies by Paul F. Etcheverry

A good friend of this blog coined the phrase "you are not your family" - and truer words were never spoken.

As fate would have it, the favorite cable TV channel of Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog, oddly, both during the 31 Days Of Oscar retrospective and also since it ended, has been running an inordinate number of films spotlighting unusual and not-so-unusual dysfunctional family dynamics.

Turner Classic Movies has recently run Sir Alfred Hitchcock's mega-diabolical Strangers On A Train and Psycho, John Frankenheimer's 1957 father-son drama The Young Stranger, the documentary Grey Gardens (possibly due to the recent passing of Albert Maysles), as well as Quentin Tarantino favorite Jack Hill's very grim fairy tale Spider Baby, all within a few days.

The Young Stranger, the filmmaking debut of talented director John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, Seconds) is a bit of a sleeper. The versatile character actor James MacArthur (1937-2010), subsequently the co-star of the long-running TV series Hawaii Five-O, brought acting chops and big time showbiz pedigree as the son of Charles McArthur and stage legend Helen Hayes, to the mix.

It deals with the complete breakdown in communication between a son and father in a wealthy family. In a process that occurs only with work, difficulty, intelligence, persistence and keen awareness in real life but can happen within two hours of reel life, The Young Stranger resolves the polarization in a way that actually is credible.

As expected, there is no resolution and no hope for the dysfunctional family in the Hitchcock films. In addition, the characters are much more cartoonish in the two thrillers than those in The Young Stranger. The mother of the psycho-killer in Strangers is utterly clueless and played by Marion Lorne, later to portray batty Aunt Clara on TV's Bewitched.

The film by Albert and David Maysles, on the one hand, is an extremely skillfully crafted and brilliant documentary but, on the other hand, at least for this viewer, at times lands squarely in the TMI (Too Much Information) department and can be considered a forerunner of godawful "reality television" which - along with reverse mortgages, cable TV "news" and credit default swaps - tops the "Scourges Of Western Civilization" lists.

Grey Gardens, about the frighteningly isolated existence of Jackie Kennedy Onassis cousins "Big Edie" and "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale in a dilapidated East Hampton mansion is, however, increasingly timely, as untold thousands of individuals struggle to care for elderly parents. The Maysles' savvy, unsparing cameras record many painful and sad moments, especially those in which Big Edie is really, really nasty to Little Edie; no doubt, most of us would, in a heartbeat, send the filmmakers on a Slow Boat To China (which, incidentally, is NOT one of the songs the Bouvier Beales sing with spirit and complete tone deafness during the film).

Little Edie had her problems in life, but was not without charm. We also have a hunch that the writers of The Simpsons opted to have the maiden name of intrepid, long suffering matriarch Marge (and, yes, her chain-smoking sisters) be Bouvier because of Grey Gardens.

And then there's not Maude, but Spider Baby, or The Maddest Story Ever Told, Cannibal Orgy or The Liver Eaters, a tale of "family values" gone spectacularly, unthinkably awry, directed and written by grindhouse auteur Jack Hill (Coffy, Foxy Brown, The Big Bird Cage, Switchblade Sisters). It's based on H. P. Lovecraft's terrifying story The Lurking Fear and cinematically somewhat along the lines of What Ever Happened To Baby Jane meets Psycho, with just a dash of Tennessee Williams style Southern fried decadence. Premise: three orphans, the products of many generations of in-breeding, are afflicted with a horrific disease that rapidly transforms one into a pre-human, primitive and insanely violent life form.

Hill's vivid and gallows humor-drenched piece of American Gothic stars prolific television actress Jill Banner, Carol Ohmart from William Castle's House On Haunted Hill and ultra-menacing movie heavy (and accomplished drummer) Sid Haig.

Is Spider Baby exploitative and cheap? Yes! Are there totally gratuitous sequences of women in lingerie? Uh huh. Could there be egregious mistakes (booms in the shot, etc.) throughout? Indeed. Implications of things too horrific and disgusting to contemplate? Yes. Packed with political incorrectness (appalling even for a Z-movie made more than 50 years ago)? All of the above.

We know what we're in for when the horror flick opens with an unfortunate postman played by veteran character actor and legendary "blue" standup comic Mantan Moreland getting treated like a Swift's Butterball holiday turkey (ouch - that's gotta hurt). Given the circumstances, we can forgive Mr. Chaney's character's difficulties with his deranged and psychotic charges, especially in imparting such lessons as "don't yell kill kill kill" and "don't eat the visitors".

Why does any ghastly movie appeal to a blogger who considers current ultra-violent films totally unwatchable and associates the phrase "horror movie" with 1930's Universal Pictures directed by James Whale? Because, due to Hill's imaginative cinematography and demented vision, Spider Baby succeeds as a piece of genuine gothic horror. The twisted tale is very skillfully shot, lit, framed and edited. Disagree strongly with those who consider this (and, for that matter, Martin Scorsese's unrelentingly gruesome mafia flick Good Fellas) a "comedy", but there is dark humor, especially the soundtrack that uses "The Itsy Bitsy Spider", throughout.

What also elevates this from the usual B-horror movie schlock fare is a performance by Lon Chaney, Jr. that is surprisingly poignant, heartfelt and affecting. His character loves those three kids, in spite of the fact that they are, due to no fault of their own, criminally insane. Jack Hill's direction successfully brings out the warmth and empathy Chaney hinted at in his Universal films (Man Made Monster in particular) and also demonstrated in such 1960's B-horror chestnuts as Witchcraft. Mr. Chaney, who couldn't have had an easy go in life as the son of arguably the silent cinema's single greatest actor, also sings the title song - and no, it's not (please forgive the author) "people. . . people who eat people. . . are the LUCKIEST people" - with conviction.

Mostly thanks to Hill's creative use of black-and-white cinematography, editing, pacing and music, Spider Baby is as frightening and horribly humorous as an EC The Haunt Of Fear, Tales Of The Crypt or The Vault Of Horror comic. Unquestionably, if the unspeakable actions of the Merrye family had been presented in graphic detail, Your Correspondent would be the first who could not watch the film. . . at all. . . not one second, not one frame.

Shot in 1964 and shelved for several years after the film's real estate agent backers went belly up, Spider Baby is also to some degree a prototype for the "sick sick sick" black comedy The Undertaker & His Pals and such later grisly (but popular) horror flicks as the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes. Most of us would rather try our luck with Stormin' Norman Bates AND "That Crazy Bruno" Anthony rather than the merry and mucho murderous Merrye clan.

Also a feather in the Jack Hill film's demented cap: the invoking of Moe Howard Theory - Moe behaves like an obnoxious jerk, then IMMEDIATELY gets brained by a Jules White trademark very large metal object - in the part of the storyline when greedy slimebag relatives and their sleazy lawyer arrive to brazenly steal the Merrye estate. The miscreants, of course, get theirs - and how. Funny, whenever Moe Howard Theory was used, even in the absolute worst 1950's Three Stooges short, it meant an automatic laugh.

What prompted this blog post - casting about movie genres from 1950's Hollywood drama to Hitchcock thriller to mid-1970's documentary to B-horror - in the first place? The realization that Chaney's character, the chauffeur/caretaker responsible for three stark raving mad, homicidally violent children in Spider Baby, and the evil psycho-killer played by Robert Walker in Strangers On A Train were both named Bruno.

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