My friends at Plastic Brain Press have published a new edition of their zine, Lincolnshire Strange Delights, available to pre-order here. I’ve managed to smuggle a piece in about the Boston born poet Elizabeth Jennings, who was an amazing writer who needs more celebrating, and there’s lots more stuff in there – here’s what they say, ‘Behold, Lincolnshire Strange Delights, a zine exploring and celebrating the eccentric, the esoteric and unbelievable in the peculiar county of Lincolnshire! From the Wolds to The Stump, from the ghastly to the ghostly, LSD is here for your yellow-bellied entertainment!’ Check it out.
It was my delight to be able to chat with Spy Movie Navigator about Timothy Dalton’s Bond, and He Disagreed with Something that Ate Him. Head on here https://spymovienavigator.com/podcast/dalton-as-bond-with-film-prof-author-dr-cary-edwards/ to have a listen!
D-Tox, also known as Eye See You or The Outpost, is one of those movies that’s nearly there. Watching it one can’t help but feel for the wasted potential – a great cast, a fun if hokey premise, a solid director (of I Know What You Did Last Summer fame) – that it never quite makes it is perhaps reflective of a disordered production, rather than the talents involved. Certainly the film feels like the swingeing cuts of a studio editor have been applied throughout, alongside re-shoots and soundtrack tinkering (the studio delayed release from 1999 for such things after early tests played poorly). Given a limited release it passed mostly unnoticed onto VHS/DVD, and now finds a new home on Netflix perhaps to finally find an audience. Sylvester Stallone plays FBI agent Jake Malloy, opening the film in pursuit of a cop-killer, who turns to alcohol in the wake of a personal trauma. After a suicide attempt he’s taken by his partner (Charles S. Dutton) to an isolated rehab center for cops, just as the snow storms start creeping in, and bodies start piling up.
Perhaps the film’s biggest crime was to come during Stallone’s wilderness years. From James Mangold’s excellent Copland in 1997 to enjoyably nostalgic slugfest Rocky Balboa in 2006 Stallone couldn’t buy a hit (excluding a voice-role in Antz) with mediocre fillers like Driven and the Get Carter remake failing to capitalize on the excellent performance he gave in Mangold’s stripped down cop thriller. Copland felt like a new start for Stallone, or perhaps a return to earlier days when he was compared to Brando (really). But it proved a dead-end, with Stallone unable to cast-off the action hero mantle, or forge into new areas. D-Tox suffers from this – at first Stallone is game at pushing into new territories, as a traumatized alcoholic cop (wife fridged earlier by the cop targeting serial killer), and when he arrives as Kris Kristofferson’s isolated rehab centre, he plays the suicidal Malloy well. But by the end (spoilers!) we’re back to good-old muscle man Sly, finding closure by impaling the killer on a set of spikes in an OTT display of his superior macho-ness.
In between we get to meet an excellent, although mostly wasted, supporting cast. Alongside the aforementioned Kristofferso and Dutton, are Polly Walker, Jeffrey Wright, Tom Beringer, Robert Patrick and Sean Patrick Flanery. Apparently Stephen Lang is also in it, but he was so covered by thick specs and a beanie, plus the low-light levels, that I didn’t notice. This cast should be the film’s strength, but we barely get to know any of them before they start getting bumped off. Poor Flanery barely has a line before he’s found, the victim of ‘suicide’. Of course the killer of Stallone’s wife has followed him to rehab, but it’s difficult to care for most of the victims as we’ve barely met them.
Stuck somewhere between Se7en, The Thing, with a dusting of The Shining, and something more in the vein of a traditional Stallone cop thriller, D-Tox never really takes off. It’s a film of wasted potential, not terrible per se, just not as good as it could have been. The direction and performances are fine, there’s some enjoyably gruesome stuff early on, and the premise is fun (if a little illogical at times). That the film never quite coheres may reflect it’s problematic production, and a studio’s lack of faith in Stallone – the curse of the star image is the box it puts them in. Audiences demand something new from their stars, as long as it doesn’t upset the apple cart too much. Stallone, on his uppers by the late 1990s was clearly trying, but audiences weren’t buying. By 2006 Stallone had worked out that nostalgia was in, so he got back in the gym and gave audiences what they wanted, and by 2015 had an Oscar nom for Creed. With the announcement of Demolition Man 2 he’s dipping back into the well again, despite being 73. Much as I love the potential to discover the secret of the three sea shells, I’m a little saddened that he’s reliving past glories again. There’s a very good actor in Sly, when he lets him out.
How do you follow up The Wicker Man (1973)? It’s a problem that runs through the length of writer/director Robin Hardy’s belated follow-up – a film that only exists because of it’s beloved predecessor, and which is also haunted by it in such a way that the latter film fails to find a personality of it’s own. It is not a bad film per se, rather one that struggles to find it’s own identity, standing in the shadow of a horror great as it does.
The set-up is quite neat, a born-again Christian couple leave the revivalist meetings of Texas to bring the gospel to the lapsed in Scotland only to discover that some are a little more lapsed than others. The central couple of Beth and Steve, played by Brittania Niccol and Henry Garret, are likeable enough in an “awe-shucks” sort of away – just naive and sweet enough for us to buy into their proselyting journey and silver-ring chastity, and Graham McTavish gives a good performance as Sir Lachlan Morrison (who may, or may not, be a descendant of Lord Summerisle), but the film lacks the overt weirdness of the original film – both in the flow of events and the film making style. Hardy directs in a rather restrained manner, a much smoother and more conservative style than in 1973 and the film suffers for it. For the most part The Wicker Man is not so much scary, as odd – creeping into your mind with its mish-mash of pagan beliefs and ideas, until it’s horrifying end. The follow-up however is rather banal, tossing in the odd reference to ancient water goddess Sulis (from Bath) and naming a power station after Irish deity Nuada (like the first film, there’s little discipline in which traditions are drawn from), but other than a local psychic and his pet raven the film is rather tame, until the final third at least. But even this is undermined by the inevitability of the finale which, modeled on the first film, surprises only in method if not in result. A burning wicker sculpture is even thrown in for no reason I could discern, other than as a reminder of the first film.
It’s greatest issue overall is a lack of narrative drive, given in the first film by Sargeant Howie’s desperate search for Rowan Morrison (another relation?), meaning it all rather meanders towards the denouement, and of course it lacks the shear shock of the original’s ending. There’s also a tonal insecurity, with the film shifting into comedy at times, particularly around Clive Russel’s butler, and some undeveloped ideas and characters that could perhaps have gone somewhere, such as the pollution subplot, or Honeysuckle Week’s rather underused character of Lolly. Christopher Lee appears, briefly, as a further tie to the first film but I can’t help thinking that it really lacks the influence of Anthony Shaffer who co-wrote the original and was a dab-hand at mystery. All in all, not an unpleasant 90 odd minutes, but one that will, unlike the original, pass fairly quickly from memory.
My paper, IDENTITY AND FOLK HORROR IN JULIAN RICHARDS’ DARKLANDS, has been published on Revenant the Journal of Critical and Creative Studies of the Supernatural – check it out here http://www.revenantjournal.com/contents/identity-and-folk-horror-in-julian-richards-darklands/
NB: thanks to Simon Brew of Film Stories magazine for forwarding the link to watch a preview copy of this doc.
I first saw The Exorcist in a cinema during a Halloween showing in 1998 the same year Mark Kermode’s documentary first appeared. The film was still unavailable for home viewing back then, a status conferred during the 1980s when the Video Nasty moral panic was in full swing, and by 98 it had gained its full status as the ultimate horror film, one that had people running from cinemas back in 1973 when first released. It was with much excitement and trepidation that I approached the screening that night. I’d love to say that my experience mirrored those seen in 1973, but sadly the packed crowd in Theatr Gwynedd struggled to take the film seriously (myself included). When Regan vomited, we laughed.
For many years the appeal of the film eluded me until I started teaching a module on Shocking Cinema. I decided to revisit it, analysing it in detail and discussing with learners the original hysterical reactions the film provoked. This was, after all, a film condemned as evil by Billy Graham and one that pushed moral campaigners like Mary Whitehouse to fervent levels of apoplexy. There must have been something about it; when it was shown in Birmingham a Christian group went so far as to distribute leaflets to film-goers with a helpline for discussing the film’s issues.
Time has certainly withered it’s shock value but I have come to appreciate it, particularly as a drama about faith with Father Karras, played with great sensitivity by Jason Miller, at it’s centre. The more I see the film the more I admire its pacing, design, use of sound and imagery. It may not scare me, but I can enjoy it. I am, in my own odd way, a fan of The Exorcist.
Kermode, on the other hand, has long shared his love for the film, a love born from watching its trailer as a terrified 11 year old. The Fear of God is his tribute, a making of documentary that’s done the rounds since 1998 but has never been widely seen in its full form (except at film festivals) until now, released on the BBC iplayer this Halloween. It’s a thorough and entertaining look back at the film’s production and a shockingly young Kermode pops up now and then to link the various elements from writer William Peter Blatty’s inspiration to the scenes of audience emerging terrified from cinemas. Mostly the documentary lets the cast and crew speak for themselves, their talking heads intercut with behind the scenes footage and some alternate takes (some of which have been subsequently included in re-releases of The Exorcist on DVD).
There’s some great information included, although much has lost it’s novelty since 1998 as the internet has allowed such facts to be dispersed to hungry fans more easily. Some good fun can be had at the thought of alternative history versions threatened during production – imagine the film starring Jane Fonda and Paul Newman – and the sections on practical effects and sound mixing remind us of how ground-breaking the film was. Today we’re saturated with supernatural horror and exorcism films; it’s fun to step back to a time when such things were pushing the envelope, all on a major studio’s dime. The film was one hell of a risk for Warner Bros, but one that paid off handsomely.
All the principal cast appear and recount their experiences, including their views of the fabled “curse” that supposedly dogged the set. Most buy in, only the dry witted Max von Sydow dismissing such ideas (in part due to his Swedish Protestant upbringing, where the devil was a figure of fun). In some ways it’s quite surprising to see how deeply some of them accept the idea that evil is somehow present in the film – it’s certainly marked Friedkin who’s since gone on to make the documentary The Devil and Father Amorth about a real Vatican exorcist.
As these documentaries go The Fear of God is exemplary and to discuss in too much detail would render it moot – so go watch it. Before you do though I would like to discuss one aspect of Kermode’s film I found more disturbing than The Exorcist itself, and that’s director William Friedkin.
Friedkin’s star was on the rise in 1973, having brought multiple Oscar winner The French Connection to the screen in 1971. His background in documentary gives both The French Connection and The Exorcist a grounding in reality which was new to their genres and the latter film represents a high point in his career (some of his later films, such as Sorcerer and Cruising are important, although none would come close to the impact of The Exorcist) and he stands as a director of note during the New Hollywood period. But some disclosures during the documentary give me pause and ask questions not just of Friedkin but of the auteur led approach to cinema prevalent during the 70s. Although mostly recounted with smiles, stories of Friedkin firing guns on set to shock actors, slapping another in the face and having his star Ellen Burstyn yanked across a set for one effect (causing her injury) suggest a level of control and recklessness that borders on abuse. It reminds of Kubrick’s direction of Shelley Duvall on The Shining or Maria Schneider’s treatment on the set of Last Tango in Paris. The Exorcist is often read as a treatise on male power – the Catholic Church as a symbol of male authority fighting with the devil over a young girl’s body – but in it’s production we find a real example of this power in action. When Friedkin nods to his special effects guy to pull Burstyn at full force, against her wishes, her safety is ditched for the shot, her consent never asked for. She may laugh about it now, as she does here, but behind the smile there is clear anger. It’s little wonder she calls Friedkin a “maniac”. Some will argue that it was worth it for the film, that we’re too sensitive now, etc. Maybe. But if you hire a priest to be in a film don’t be surprised when he struggles to get into the emotionality of a scene. One answer would be to slap him. Another would be to hire an actor instead. These are little glimpses into a version of the film’s production that’s less glowingly recounted, more problematic and it’s a bit of a shame we don’t get to know more – but this is a documentary as act of love for a film, not an exploration of its director.
46 years after it’s first release, and 21 years since I first saw it, The Exorcist still doesn’t scare me, but I think working with William Friedkin would.
Full disclosure: Cobra is not a good or interesting film in any of the traditional ways. It lacks narrative coherence, the story is bare to non-existent, and the performances are largely one-note. It is, however, a film that allows us to explore how the audience can be employed in the creation of meaning. In fact I’d go as far to suggest that the audience really makes the film themselves due to it being thoroughly disjointed. In effect, the spectator becomes the main agent of meaning culling from their own understanding of genre, narrative and various intertexts in an act of creative spectatorship. In this Cobra emerges as a key action text of the 1980s, telling us just how tuned into the genre action fans were.
To say that Cobra was critically unloved on its release would be something of an understatement. Nina Darnton, in The New York Times, suggested that the film was “disturbing for the violence it portrays” and showed “contempt for the most basic American values embodied in the concept of fair trial”. Sheila Benson, in the Los Angeles Times, cited the films “pretentious emptiness, its dumbness, it’s two-faced morality”. David Denby went even further titling his New York Magazine review “Poison”, and comparing Cobra to Dirty Harry (Don Siegel, 1971), citing the former’s lack of “the peculiar sad gravity that Clint Eastwood gave him.” None of this seemed to harm Cobra’s box office, with it gaining $49 million in the US alone (ww.boxofficemojo.com), and totalling $160 million worldwide (Fisher, 2016), helping to continue Stallone’s profitable run at the box-office (although it did show a significant drop from the less explicitly violent Rocky and Rambo films).
Revisiting the film now, one wonders why the reviewers were so worried as it’s such a disjointed and unbelievable film that its clearly addresses its audience in a self-conscious post-modern and shallow manner, to the point where it becomes sort of sub-Brechtian in its emptiness (although politically it’s about as far from Brecht as you can get in its continual celebration, and destruction, of consumer products). The critical comparisons to Dirty Harry are revealing as it’s in this that Cobra starts to come alive as a film, drawing much of it’s meaning from the earlier film series (it’s also notable that Dirty Harry was decried in similar ways on release). The opening of the film directly imitates the second Dirty Harry film, Magnum Force (Ted Post, 1973), both culminating in the hero’s gun firing out of the screen at the audience (immediately breaking the fourth wall and puncturing any claims to an immersive experience). The conflict between Cobretti (Stallone) and his superiors is lifted almost directly from the Dirty Harry films, but is subverted somewhat by the casting of Andrew Robinson who played the Scorpio Killer in Dirty Harry.
Here, as Detective Monte, he continually challenges Cobretti – suggesting that the audience, upon recognition of Robinson’s distinctive face and voice should conclude that if that psycho thinks Cobretti is too violent, he must be heavier than Harry Callahan. Casting Reni Santini as Cobretti’s partner is a direct call-back to the almost identical role he played in Dirty Harry, both characters even being called Gonzales (the only discernible difference in the performances is a hat). The film sutures together the plots of the Dirty Harry films (excluding The Dead Pool, released in 1988) – the psychotic killer of Dirty Harry (now The Night Stalker), the fascist group from Magnum Force merges with the terrorist group of The Enforcer (James Fargo, 1976), with elements of the romantic relationship in Sudden Impact (the character of the turncoat cop Stalk in Cobra also looks very similar to unpleasant butch-lesbian stereotype Ray in Sudden Impact (Clint Eastwood, 1983)). At this point the film is directly drawing from these films in a very knowing manner, clearly assuming that the audience knows the other texts – this knowledge functions as a series of narrative and characterisation short cuts. Exposition is barely required as the audience is already aware of how this narrative will play out – the opening action scene, in a grocery store, imitates similar Dirty Harry scenes, without requiring any sense of location or time – it is enough that a crime has occurred. Ritualistically we expect Cobretti to arrive and solve the problem, which he duly does, so no suspense or tension is created or necessary. It becomes a scene entirely designed to showcase how much dirtier Cobretti is than Harry (Cobretti wears his mirrored shades all the way through the scene; he pauses to sip from a Coors; his killer also has a bomb; he has his own catchphrase “You’re the disease, I’m the cure.”) Thus, the film works on a ritualistic and generic level, playing out exactly as expected in some ways, despite some particularly curious directional choices we’ll come to.
On an intertextual level it’s also worth discussing how the films’ studio backing primes the audience for the content. As both a product of The Cannon Group and Warner Brothers (as distributor) the studio logos that start the film suggest an uneasy nexus point between one studio known for cheap exploitation/action pictures and another with a rich history but also, during the 1980s, a skewing towards action films (Warner’s would in 1988, after all, give the world the dubious gift of Steven Seagal). Of course, the Warner link pulls straight back to Dirty Harry, whereas the Cannon group evokes the world of Charles Bronson and Chuck Norris and ultra-violent fayre like The Exterminator II (Mark Buntzman, 1984). Given the strength of the growing home-video market Cannon had become well-known, if not infamous, to audiences but the Warner Bros. logo gives the film a sheen of quality (original trailers trade on the Warner logo more than the Cannon connection). It’s also one of the first 80s action films to be set at Christmas, beating Lethal Weapon and Die Hard to the punch. Not that the Christmas setting has much purpose, other than occasional pans over nativity scenes or Christmas trees incongruous to the sunny LA setting, perhaps left over from the previous years Cannon action ‘epic’ Invasion USA (Joseph Zito, 1985).
The opening narration sets the tone for the film, but also a premise from which the subsequent action is contextualised to make sense;
In America, there’s a burglary every 11 seconds, an armed robbery every 65 seconds, a violent crime every 25 seconds, a murder every 24 minutes and 250 rapes a day.
With this, delivered in Stallone’s familiar drawl, the justification of all the violence that subsequently occurs is drawn (ironically Cobretti kills way more people than The Night Stalker manages). It’s worth noting that during 1986 there was an upswing in homicide (Wilkerson, 1987) but also that Cobra draws no attention to causes – the film exists in a Manichean universe in which archetypes, far removed from reality, battle each other.
After the voice-over opening and before the grocery store action sequence the first of several montages plays out which are directed in an almost surreal manner, bearing more comparison to the work of Eisenstein in the juxtaposition of images than in a typical Stallone/Rocky training sequence. These contextless disconnected images of men clashing axes together, tattoos, graffiti and a motorbike are intercut rapidly giving the audience all the introduction to the films far-right group they’ll ever get or need (their politics almost subliminally suggested through their skull and axe logo). But of course, the audience needs no more introduction, it’s enough that these people exist to be opposed. A second montage, in which both Cobretti and The Night Stalker search for murder witness Ingrid (Brigitte Nielsen), set to Robert Tepper’s Angel of the City, cuts between protagonist and antagonist and Ingrid during a bizarre fashion shoot in which she drapes herself around various robotic creations – it introduces some almost avant-garde imagery into proceedings for no discernible purpose. Ingrid’s career, as a model, indicates her purpose in the film – beautiful object, nothing more.
From here the film proceeds much as one would expect, and yet lacks many of the elements of character and dialogue any competently made Hollywood movie would have. Much of this relates to the disputed direction of the film, with some claiming that Stallone directed the film himself (when he wasn’t busy off set consummating his recent marriage to Nielsen). He certainly wrote the film (as much as it has a script) ditching any part of the novel Fair Game by Paula Gosling on which it is nominally based. It also has a troubled post-production with numerous cuts being made to secure an R-rating and to increase showings, removing around 30 minutes of material. Although this editing creates numerous continuity errors it plays into the audience’s ownership of the narrative, making them work to film in the gaps and the cuts remove the superfluous elements that the audience knows anyway.
And then there’s the hero, Stallone’s Marion Cobretti first-named, one assumes, in tribute to John Wayne (at one-point Stallone spins his semi-automatic Colt, with cobra picture on the grip, round his finger despite the fact this would, in all likelihood, result in him shooting himself). Even by Stallone’s standards his performance is low key, a sleepy re-tread of previous performances marked only by his continued wearing of gloves and innovative way of eating pizza (watch it, it’s very odd).
Cobra exists purely as a series of attitudes, instead of a performance per se. The romance, between Cobra and key witness Ingrid), is particularly pallid but is part of where the film extends out from film and into Stallone’s real life – the fact that they were married in real life creates the sense that they’re a couple, so small details such as chemistry or interplay are moot. Similarly, the serial killing, far-right leaning, villain is played by Brian Thompson who bears a resemblance to Stallone’s great box-office rival Arnold Schwarzenegger (who himself was, for a time, dogged by rumours of far-right leanings and an admiration for Hitler (Left, 2003)). Again, the lack of characterisation is subverted through the casting, reaching into Stallone’s own life and rivalries as a short-cut.
Scratch away at Cobra and one finds various palimpsests – the Dirty Harry films, Stallone’s own life and career, the Cannon imprint – and these are essential for understanding the film’s popularity. On its own it’s an incoherent piece, but as an intertextual construction it starts to make a certain amount of sense. It is Stallone’s life and career up to that point culminating on screen, taking aim at one of his direct progenitors while jabbing at the current competition. It remains, in most respects, quite a bad film but it’s one that highlights how the audience can be engaged beyond the text itself to create narrative and meaning – it’s a film that operates in the audience’s understanding of narrative and archetypes, allowing such niceties as character and plot development to be dismissed.
Darnton, Nina (1986) Film: Sylvester Stallone as Policeman, in Cobra. The New York Times. May 24.
Benson, Sheila (1986) Move Review: The ‘Cobra’ That Saves L.a. Los Angeles Times. May 24.
Denby, David (1986) Poison. New York Magazine. June 9.
http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=cobra.htm [accessed 13/0618]
Fisher, Kieran (2016) Cobra at 30: saluting a Stallone action treat. [online] http://www.denofgeek.com/uk/moviescobra/40861/cobra-at-30-saluting-a-stallone-80s-action-treat [accessed 13/06/18]
Wilkerson, Isabel (1987) URBAN HOMICIDE RATES IN U.S. UP SHARPLY IN 1986. The New York Times [online] https://www.nytimes.com/1987/01/15/us/urban-homicide-rates-in-us-up-sharply-in-1986.html [accessed 15/06/18]
Left, Sarah (2003) Arnie Denies Admiring Hitler. The Guardian. 3 October. [online]. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2003/oct/03/usa.sarahleft [accessed 14/06/18]
A fun interview with Don at the OO Files