Monday, May 5, 2008

Bob Clark And First Wave Independent Cinema, We Hardly Knew Ye

I've recently been put in a position where I have had to take sides about independent filmmaking. There's been a rash of it recently that's got people all abuzz. Mumblecore, I believe is the term they're going by (the latin classifcation, if you will). The Puffy Chair, Funny Ha Ha, Hannah Takes the Stairs, the list goes on. The players are Andrew Bujalski, The Duplass brothers (one of whom looks exactly like Jim Halpert from the Office), Joe Swanberg, Aaron Katz, and others. They're filled with tumultuous relationships, painful everyday life stuff, and a lot of awkward sexual behavior (Swanberg masturbates, Bujalski gets naked, Duplass and his girlfriend have to play out their relationship, in bed, onscreen). Personally, what little of these films I've seen bore me to fucking tears. I respect the hell out of these guys because they're making movies they want to make, they have total control and as far as I know they haven't had to pander to suits to get funding. Anyway, as I'm sure everyone knows (or at least I HOPE everyone knows) this is in no way a new phenomenon. First of all, there's been a dime-horror festival for the last ten years that shows no sign of stopping, so, there's that to consider. Then we have the films of Jim Jarmusch, Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarentino, John Sayles, Sam Raimi, and Allison Anders that long ago set the vanguard for the slacker film. Not to mention that nine times out of ten their movies were interesting. And before that there was John Cassavettes (and Allen Baron, and Orson Welles, but circumstances prevent their inclusion in the one-man vangaurd), who invented the American independent film as we know it. There was independent horror between Cassavettes and Sam Raimi that no one's really spoken of. Herk Harvey, Irvin Yeoworth, Paul Morrissey, Jack Woods, and the subject of today's double feature, Bob Clark, all made horror films for peanuts in the 60s and 70s. There was also Harold P. Warren, the fertilizer salesman who made Manos: The Hands of Fate on a bet. Bill Rebane may as well be included because when he wasn't paying for his films himself, they were produced by companies that went bankrupt after the films wrapped. He was also probably the only man making films in Wisconsin at the time. But those guys' films were absolutely dreadful and Clark made decent films most of the time. Clark started making shoe-string scare films with his partner and friend Alan Ormsby. Once he made a name for himself Clark graduated onto bigger things, including the seminal proto-slasher Black Christmas, and then ran over to the other end of the spectrum to make the seminal actual-holiday film Christmas Story. Tragically, Clark passed away last year having a painfully small resume to his name, but he made invaluable contributions to American film. Clark also has the distinction of being the person who gave make-up genius Tom Savini his start (indirectly). Of course, you might not guess that Clark had a brain in his head from his debut feature.

Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things
by Bob Clark
Our story begins with a grave digger on a cemetery island off of Miami, being assaulted by what looks like two zombies and then one of them buries the other in a coffin. A while later a Jewish theatre troupe lands their sail boat on the island with a box of costumes. They're led by suppurating douche bag Alan (Alan Ormsby, looking like he just climbed out of a Renaissance Festival). Their intent is to resurrect a corpse for some amateur theatrical stunt. Don't ask me. After they dig up the guy in the corpse paint from the prologue and the initial shock wears off, they dig up the body they hope to resurrect and can't wake him up. Then what happens? Well, we're treated to an hours worth of bickering, swearing, name-calling, complaining, pestering a dead body, and whatever else these insufferable jackasses thought to do with their screen time. It isn't until...11 minutes? 9 minutes before the closing credits that we actually see the zombies? When they show up, the thinning of the bodies is interesting because it shows that these pasty creeps didn't really think about their plan too much before deciding to piss off a corpse. The footage of the zombies coming out of the ground was also a film first, far as I know. The scenes of them breaking out of their resting places in the misty night is pretty spooky and would be copies again and again (by everyone from Lucio Fulci to the Simpsons).
This film isn't great. It isn't even good. But it has the undeniable spirit of the independent film director. Ormsby and Clark did not know how to balance talk and play back then, but when it was time to munch guts they stopped fucking around. They do that revenger's zombie thing of giving the villain his due pretty excellently. (It's tough to know whether the scene in Let Sleeping Corpses Lie came first or not, but I can definitely tell you that they couldn't possibly have influenced each other. The Let Sleeping Corpses Lie screenplay had been kicking around for three years or so before Jorge Grau said yes to directing it. But of course there's no way that a penniless filmmaker in Miami had any knowledge of the plans of a hackneyed Italian production company). We also have the ending scene which Fulci basically lifted wholesale for his Zombie in 1979. The scene features the zombies high-jacking the boat Ormsby and Co. road in on and heading to the big city. This scene looks pretty silly, but it's a nice metaphor for Clark's career. He was leaving the tiny island and heading for the big city (or at the very least the suburbs).

by Bob Clark
Clark had a bigger budget this time around and he had real live actors too. John Marley of Cassavettes' Faces and The Godfather plays the father of a returning Vietnam veteran, Andy. Everyone's real happy to see the boy, cept, of course that he's supposed to have been killed in action; they got the letter weeks ago. They would also feel a lot better if he weren't acting so strange; he's ignoring his girlfriend, shrugging off the neighborhood kids, and strangling the neighborhood dogs. His dad gets the local doctor to check in on the young man. The MD concurs that something's definitely screwed wrong up in the young boy's head, and shell shock can't possibly explain his unreasonable switch between violence and passivity. Andy seems all too aware that the doctor is close to uncovering whatever secrets he's been keeping and so pays him a visit in the middle of the night. A syringe is involved. Well, Andy's mom and sister want to try one last ditch effort to dig the old, lovable Andy out of his crazy new body. What they don't realize is that his skin is peeling off because he needs blood. Yeah, how do you like that?

This film is actually pretty excellent. The handling of the zombie lore is pretty original and the creature design is legitimately spooky. Also competent: the acting. John Marley, Richard Backus, Anya Ormsby, and Lynn Carlin all make good showings of themselves as the conflict Brooks family. When Andy starts to disintegrate, equally believable is Mom's attachment to her son, Dad's initial reluctance, and Sis' total freakout. The film has a decent story (I understand that the story is borrowed from some hundred-year-old folk tale or other, but it's Vietnamization works as well as any. Certainly better than it was in Pumpkinhead 2) and Clark does some pretty excellent things with it. The scene where we confront decaying Andy in the dark kitchen has some menace. The effects are also just as good, if not better, as it was in Let Sleeping Corpses Lie. It was here that young war photographer Tom Savini got his first glimpse of the workings of the world of film make-up. Fitting that it should be a post-Romero zombie film; as he would hit his stride on his Dawn of the Dead.

Deathdream is a solid film, one of emotional maturity, well-thought out scenes and dialogue, and naturalistic performances. That's right, all this for less than a million dollars by a second-time filmmaker in the 70s. The new guys, the mumblers are being hailed as these cathartic, solid, movie kings who know something the rest of us don't; they aren't the first and they won't be the last, but they might be the dullest (ed. Having since seen Joe Swanberg's Nights & Weekends, I recant this statement in full because that film is just amazing. Much love to Aaron Katz, as well, while we're on the subject. But The Puffy Chair is still fucking awful. I yield to few in my hatred for it). When I've covered all of the Zombie films out there, I may come back and do Clark's Black Christmas, which is definitely one of my favorite films. Clark had a head on his shoulders and had too few opportunities to use it.

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