Archive for September 6th, 2020

by Sam Juliano

Labor Day 2020 and still we have COVID-19 with us, in some regions in a very big way.  Fairview schools are opening on Tuesday, September 8th (tomorrow) but only with teachers.  Students will remain home until further notice as districts statewide and nationwide are taking precautions.  We are also in Election Day mania and I have found myself too often embroiled with online political rows.  Though we only have eight weeks left this will surely be the longest eight weeks one can imagine.  Wishing everyone the best moving forward.  Jamie Uhler has joyously announced his annual Halloween Horror Fest and we have four of his stupendous capsule reviews posted on this MMD.  So thrilled to have this staple back again for the fifth or sixth year running!  I am followed the capsules with a few more of my recent Night Gallery segment reviews on FB.

Phase IV (S. Bass… 1974) 

The first viewing of the season was a rewatch, but the first complete one for this film, as all the previous ones had been scattershot, incomplete, or in parts, rendering Saul Bass’ only film, 1974’s Phase IV to near incomprehension. Seen in whole in one sitting, it becomes something of a highly curious, nearly great film. His graphic design background served him well for a whole slew of now iconic title sequences (mostly for Hitchcock, but he did a beaut for Scorsese too) and assistant director work (all those really cool split screens and intense croppings in the start of Frankenheimer’s interesting failure Grand Prix from 1966), but for just one film, he got to call all the shots. His background solves the first, and main, problem of the script: how to tell a monster movie where killer ants take over before the widespread advent of enhanced realistic computer effects. He has wildlife photographer Ken Middleham grab a telephoto super zoom lens and shoot all the ant sequences in horrifying close up, rendering them full screen and out of scale, adding a surreal, ominous quality as they slowly outsmart and take over the scientific compound run by our two scientist protagonists. One gets bitten and goes slowly crazy, seeing their only chance of survival in killing the queen all the others are working in service of, while the other attempts to understand their clearly brooding and growing super intelligence. The film ends mysteriously and abruptly, without the reveal of what the next step in the evolution—Phase V—would be. It only adds to the chic, ’70’s quality of it all and while the wild, arty montage was shot for this purpose it was ditched by the financiers before release. It’s quite shameful—I was able to watch it on youtube (it’s also been finally included on recent Apple 4K releases), and I must say, it adds a nightmarish cacophony of hellish blood red imagery and droning synth operatic score, showing humans living as ants under their rule in pyramid like colonies. With it, it’d be one of the era’s great cult treasures, but it’s more or less that now, but here’s to hoping most revisit it and see the correct ending. What a way to start!

The Alchemist Cookbook (J. Potrykus… 2016) 

What can I say, a single screening of Joel Potrykus’ indie-breakthrough Buzzard from a few years ago made a life long fan in me. It’s such a gloriously subversive comedy that I sat giggling at the sheer exactness of his critique of modern work life. As companies cut themselves more and more from the humans they employ their capital largely becomes a set of buzzards picking over the bones of whatever they can grab to survive. Of course, the brilliance is in the double entendre; any system that operates this way is itself a buzzard-like leech on society, itself lurching year to year cravingly trying to survive in the face of all common sense. Given the insane nature of how Potrykus renders his film, I eagerly await all his new features, pushing them on friends and strangers alike in ecstatic recommendation. Since Buzzard, I loved Relaxer, a Tarkovsky-like seance for the incel, gamer set, a nightmarish video-game playing marathon for existence, all set in an ever darkening, socially alienated world. But, again, because it’s rendered with the sharpness of a stand-up comic (itself the topic of his debut, Ape), you gleefully watch it flicker past your eyeballs. In between these two, he managed The Alchemist Cookbook, something of a spiritual Horror statement on the topic of depression. Surprisingly for me given my fandom of the earlier works, it largely forgoes humor, instead posing deep questions on what it is we’re watching here, the tale of a schizophrenic, Sean, who has taken to living isolated out in the woods, only occasionally being brought food and supplies from friend Cortez. Once Sean realizes he has only one pill left, and that Cortez has forgotten to bring more, his already tenuous mental state further erodes. Soon, he’s using his alchemy experiments to summon night demons and kill forest animals, but we’re left wondering if it’s all a lark from a (highly) unreliable narrator. A shifting time signature in the films plotting further complicates things as we’re left wondering if Cortez is Sean, them each representing physical embodiments of a mind split neatly in two. Once we learn that Cortez faces trouble back home and must live in the woods alongside Sean, the time loop exposition seems to close fully onto itself as Sean increasingly looks for ways out of his hellish, depressive mindset. Amazingly both the Horror and jet-black humor spill forth in the films last reel, again revealing Potrykus to be one of the most interesting modern American directors. It’s his most low-key film yet, but in some ways its opaque ideas offering the sense that this is a director with many, many more tricks up his sleeve.  

10 to Midnight (J. L. Thompson… 1983)


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