Taxi Driver

True confession: I’ve never seen Taxi Driver. Thus, you may be surprised to learn that my first thought on watching this movie was holy shit, it’s Rorschach! That’s right, Alan Moore based one of the characters of his ultra-bleak, ultra-nihilistic graphic novel Watchmen on Travis Bickle. Actually, I’m being kind here – Rorschach is a blatant rip-off of Travis Bickle. Later this semester we will be reading Mr. Moore’s Killing Joke, a graphic novel which has somehow become a classic in certain quarters.

Oh well, onto Taxi Driver. It is obvious from the start of this movie that taxi driver Travis Bickle has problems. His first problem is that he’s pissed off; his second problem is that he can’t connect with anyone, especially women; his third problem is that he has no social skills. Separately none of these problems are insurmountable; combined, they are fucking fatal.

Travis Bickle is a stalker. I am not necessarily talking about women here, although Bickle has a weird, fidgety energy that makes people – especially women – nervous. No, Bickle stalks both men and women. He stalks and attempts to kill Senator Palantine, which parallels Arthur Bremer’s attempted assassination of George Wallace in 1972. Years ago I had to read Mr. Bremer’s diaries for a school assignment, and I believe that the character of Travis Bickle is partly based on Mr. Bremer.

Bickle tries to connect with campaign worker Betsy but they are worlds apart, education, social class, income level. It’s so cute when people say that things like that don’t matter! Also: Bickle has no social skills. When they meet at the diner she doesn’t get his jokes and instead of laughing it off he gets pissed off. He later takes her to a pornographic movie on their first date. Back in the 70’s couples actually went to X-rated movies, but it’s not something you did on a first date. It’s an honest – on revision I eliminated the word stupid – mistake on his part.

I don’t think Bickle’s mental wires are crossed. He knows he has problems. One of my favorite scenes in Taxi Driver is when he talks to Wizard, a salt of the earth type who is really an idiot in disguise. Look at it in this context: everyone wants their life to mean something. Bickle’s life means nothing. It’s sad. Taxi Driver is like his disastrous date with Betsy, ad infinitum – he’s trying but he keeps fucking up. Maybe it’s just his nature.

Digression: boy oh boy, that scene in the convenience store is totally mental.

Taxi Driver is a very grim movie, but there are a few funny parts. Bickle has an off-the-wall sense of humor that gets more unhinged as the movie progresses. Meet Henry Krinkle of Fair-Lawn, NJ! He doesn’t even try to get the zip code right.

The music was one of the few negative points of Taxi Driver for me. It reminded me of 1970’s sitcoms and Stacy Keach’s Mike Hammer TV show. The cinematography is amazing. Let me repeat: the cinematography is amazing. Look, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is playing! This movie brings back the New York City of my childhood, when 42nd Street was full of porn stores, the subways were filthy and New York City wasn’t some sort of glorified Disneyland. Nowadays, walking down 42ndStreet, past the Panera’s and the M&Ms Store, thinking – you used to be dangerous.

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The Legend of Boggy Creek

The Legend of Boggy Creek bills itself as a documentary of the Fouke Monster, a bigfoot-type creature that supposedly stalks the woods of Fouke, Arkansas. The footage of this ‘documentary’ is grainy. We don’t see much of the monster, and the glimpses we do catch look like a man wearing a gorilla suit, but never mind that. There really is such a place as Fouke, Arkansas so maybe there is a monster!

Many residents of Fouke are willing to go on camera and tell us they’ve seen the Creature, pointing out where they saw it on their potato fields or telling the tale of how it killed their hogs.  It’s not clear if the monster is supposed to be Bigfoot, Sasquatch, a Skunk Ape or something else. The movie’s narrator just calls it The Fouke Monster or The Creature and leaves it at that.

Not content with interviews, the movie gives us reenactments of towns folks’ encounters with the Creature. Many of these witnesses are women, alone in their cabins while their menfolk are out and about. The Monster seems to spend a lot of time hanging around the cabins of these women scaring kittens to death, peering through windows and trying to get inside.

The narrator tells us that perhaps the Creature is lonely. Don’t be fooled by such double-speak. The Fouke Monster wants sex. Lest you think it only stalks co-eds, it also takes a shine to one of the menfolk, who has to bust through a door to escape its amorous designs! This is one of the best scenes of the film; unfortunately, it takes place at the end so you have to watch the rest of the movie.

The Legend of Boggy Creek stars the townsfolk who saw the Creature in real life. Apparently the town of Fouke, Arkansas is overrun by Crabtrees, because that’s mostly who are in the credits. This movie even has a song about the one and only Travis Crabtree.

I have a confession to make – even after watching this movie, I’m still a skeptic. One of the tales that has the ring of truth is the story of the guy the Fouke Monster takes a liking to. If I was him, I’d make up a story that was less humiliating. I can see the headlines now: Fouke Monster Attacks Man Taking A Shit.

Please note that The Legend of Boggy Creek isn’t as exciting as I’ve made it sound. At one point, I was watching this movie to help me fall asleep at night. If you are a cryptozoology fan or a Bigfoot hunter, it is of course a must-see movie. Please note that this is one of the films in Joe Bob’s Last Drive In Movie Marathon; Joe Bob’s commentary will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about this movie, plus a bit more!

Blood Feast

I have seen many stupid movies in my life. Being a dedicated horror fan means that a certain amount of stupidity is unavoidable. I’ve seen movies with titles such as Rabid Grannies, Satan’s Princess and The Toxic Avenger, but before this week I’d never seen a Herschell Gordon Lewis film.

Herschell Gordon Lewis was a pioneer in the horror movie industry. Possessor of both an M.A. and a PhD (in different fields!), he was an advertising executive who wrote books about junk mail. In the early 60’s he also started making his own movies. His horror movies are amateurishly made affairs featuring awful acting and bad writing. They’re also full of blood and over-the-top gore, which back in the early 60’s was a new thing.

Blood Feast is Herschell Gordon Lewis’ first horror movie – his earlier efforts seem to be mostly nudist camp films. But as we know and Mr. Lewis discovered, red-blooded Americans crave violence far more than sex. Blood Feast was a hit at drive-ins across our great nation!

This movie stars Mal Arnold as Fuad Ramses, exotic caterer, who wants to make an Egyptian feast worthy of the gods. This involves using various sharp implements to harvest body parts from young, nubile women. Yeah, about those young, nubile women – for a guy who cut his teeth directing movies about naked couples playing volleyball, Lewis’ films are hideously unsexy. He makes up for it with some truly over-the-top gore, including a tongue ripping out scene that grossed even me out.

The acting in Blood Feast is awful, but I want to give a special shout-out to Mal Arnold, who sports a bad Bela Lugosi accent and walks around with a limp. All that said, I enjoyed this movie. Blood Feast has a sly sense of humor which I truly didn’t expect. It’s  campy as hell, a ‘good’ bad movie, and I liked it more than anything Ed Wood – our country’s other celebrated ‘bad’ director – has ever made.

Don’t Look Up

I found Don’t Look Up on Shudder Streaming, which apparently is slightly different from the Shudder you get on Amazon. If you want to see the latest movies Shudder has purchased, subscribe to them directly. Anyway, Don’t Look Up was directed by Hideo Nakato, who directed Ringu (good) and Dark Water (excellent!). This movie shares plot elements and character archetypes with these later films. Apparently they did an English language remake, but I don’t know whether it was any good.

The plot: Toshio is directing a period drama about a pair of sisters. When watching footage of one of their just filmed scenes, he sees superimposed footage of an old TV show. This is the same show that scared the crap out of Toshio as a kid. Note: I think they see the footage because the studio reused old film, but I might not have understood the explanation correctly. Anyway, a strange woman in white lurks in the periphery of that footage.

Lurking on the periphery is a good way to describe what goes on in Don’t Look Up. The woman in white starts hanging around the set; she seems to enjoy the turrets. Things take a tragic turn when there’s an accident with one of the actresses, and a spooky turn when Toshio learns that the TV show he saw as a kid was never aired because another actress suffered the selfsame accident.

Don’t Look Up is an entertaining ghost story. Toshio and one of his actresses apparently have a mutual thing for each other (at least that’s how I understood it), but neither ever says anything. The movie doesn’t explain itself and the ending was not at all what I expected, but I mean both of these things in a good way.

Don’t Look Up is worth checking out, especially if you like J-horror!

Helter Skelter

I attended The Forum my freshman year of college. The Forum used to be called EST, short for Erhard Seminars Training – other people called it a cult. My father attended a number of sessions back in the 1970’s when he was younger, and he once told me it turned his life around. I went for two weekends – I think it was two weekends – in the Fall. I was having a tough time adjusting, and my dad thought it might help, so I went.

I would not call what went on those weekends brainwashing, but it was interesting. My first encounter with Eastern mysticism coupled with Western marketing techniques. Did it change my life? No, not really. There was no brainwashing involved (a few of my friends will tell you otherwise!), but if I took a bunch of LSD and had mind-blowing sex, who knows?

Anyway, that’s my fun personal anecdote of the week. This is my second read of Helter Skelter, which I enjoyed very much – every true crime fan should read this – but I don’t have much to say about the book. Partly that’s because I don’t find Charlie Manson all that interesting – he’s been mythologized, which is a shame. He picked up a few techniques from pimping and Scientology – as a folk-song expert says about his music, somewhere along the line Manson has picked up a pretty good…beat– to start up his own cult, dedicated to Charlie Manson.

Why would he have his followers commit such horrific crimes? Here’s a few reasons, just off the top of my head. Because he thought it was funny. Because he was a control freak and wanted to see how far he could push his followers. Because he was evil. Because he really was trying to set off a race war. Or maybe he was just pissed off at the world and figured he could get away with it. Who cares? Fuck him.

Here’s an update on the current status of the surviving members of the Manson family: https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-lists/manson-family-where-are-they-now-100696/ “These children that came at you with knives”, as Charlie once called his followers, are now senior citizens begging forgiveness. That’s a quote from filmmaker John Water’s essay about his friendship with former Manson girl Leslie Van Houten (which can be found in his book of essays, Role Models). Huffington Post excerpted the essay. The first part is here: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-waters/leslie-van-houten-a-frien_b_246953.html Here’s the index to the rest of the essay (which comes in five parts): https://www.huffingtonpost.com/topic/leslie-van-houten

I like the Waters essay because it talks about issues such as evil and forgiveness and personal responsibility, and because Mr. Waters is very blunt about his obsession with the Manson family. Ms. Van Houten was just denied parole by the current governor of California and will probably die in jail. ‘Clem’ Grogan – the man who exposed himself to schoolkids and helped kill and chop up ranch-hand Donald ‘Shorty’ Shea – was released from prison in 1985.

Please note that I am not saying these people (I’m not talking about Charlie Manson, who should never have been released and who died in prison) should be forgiven (if they killed a member of my family, I wouldn’t forgive them) or paroled, although I think at this point (2018) the danger to society argument is mostly bullshit. Just be honest and say that the crux of the argument against parole is that they haven’t been punished enough, and that’s a good enough argument for most people right there.

Interestingly, since the crux of Mr. Bugliosi’s argument is that the Family members on trial were brainwashed by evil mastermind Manson, the man ultimately responsible for the murders, it’s clear that none of Manson’s co-defendants had very good legal representation. Bugliosi’s argument should have been made by the defense lawyers of all the Family members not named Charlie Manson. According to Bugliosi, Manson directed their legal defense, and they willingly chose to go down with the ship.

Is this relevant? In our current legal system, it sure is: if Mr. Syed, the subject of the podcast SERIAL, had decent legal representation at his original trial he probably would have been out of jail years ago. Why do you think the producers of SERIAL chose him as the subject of their first season? Because of his soulful eyes? If you look at Mr. Syed’s case a certain way, it doesn’t matter if he was guilty or not. He was victimized by the legal system.

Disclaimer #2: I am not saying that I believe this argument. The reason I’m stating it here is that people should be aware that Helter Skelter is very much a book about the strengths and weaknesses of our legal system – who gets punished, who eventually walks free. If the members of the Manson family had decent legal representation (i.e., anyone not named Charlie Manson), I’m willing to bet some of them would have been out of jail years ago. A few of them might not even have gone to jail at all. Disclaimer #3: I am definitely not saying the last sentence would be a good thing.

Anyway….what struck me most upon reread of Helter Skelter is how candid Mr. Bugliosi is. He openly states that the prosecution didn’t have much of a case. But the thing that really amazed me  is how frank Bugliosi is about the apathy and incompetence of the LAPD in regards to the Manson case. I believe he left his job before Helter Skelter was published. I doubt he would have been so blunt if he was still in the DA’s office. To put it crudely, you don’t crap where you eat – or where you work.

Mr. Bugliosi also realizes that details make or break a story. So we get details. Helter Skelter contains a mind-numbing litany of names and details. I don’t recall half of them, but that’s okay. Mr. Bugliosi uses them to bolster his story. I call Helter Skelter a story because Mr. Bugliosi fashions a coherent narrative from an incoherent mess, and you’ve got to admire him for his tenacity and grit. It’s for this reason that Helter Skelter is the best true crime book I’ve ever read, bar none.

Rereading this review, I’m not sure how coherent I’ve been, so I may edit for clarity in the next few days.

Daughters of Darkness

The seventies were a golden age for lesbian vampire movies, a tidal wave that crested with 1983’s The Hunger. Jean Rollin is of course the gold standard for this subgenre of cinema, but he wasn’t the only practitioner. Take Daughters of Darkness, which I must admit that I’d never even heard of before Joe Bob’s Last Drive-In Movie Marathon.

The plot: newlyweds Stefan and Valerie vacation in Ostend, Belgium, a gloomy port city. Ostend appears to be totally empty except for Stefan, Valerie and the hotel’s porter. Soon enough the Countess Bathory and her secretary show up, trailed by an Inspector Clouseau type cop.

Valerie and Stefan met only a few days ago and now they’re married; if you think that’s weird, just wait. You ain’t seen nothing yet. Valerie is afraid Stefan’s mother will hate her, except Stefan’s mother is out of the picture. Stefan does have an older male lover, which is fine, except he’s lying to his bride about it. Stefan is also turned on by sadistic murder and likes to beat Valerie with his belt. This is why you should spend at least a week getting to know a person before marrying him/her!

The Countess and her secretary, Ilona, are almost normal compared to Stefan and Valerie. They travel by night, leaving a trail of nubile dead virgins in their wake. The Countess takes a shine to our newlyweds much to the dismay of Ilona, who expresses her displeasure by showing up nude at Valerie’s window.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, here. Suffice it to say there are lots of cocktails, witty repartee, the color red and sex. Daughters of Darkness does have a plot, although it crawls along at a slug’s pace. Unlike Mr. Rollin’s movies, which are Eurotrash and are in awful taste, this is an arthouse flick. Don’t get me wrong, Daughters of Darkness is in awful taste also, except its HIGHBROW awful taste.

My biggest problem with Daughters of Darkness is that the filmmakers don’t care about vampires or vampire lore. There’s a shower scene that I didn’t understand. Ilona either doesn’t like showers or she doesn’t like running water, which would make more sense, but it’s never explained which. I will say that Daughters of Darkness is a good-looking movie that held my interest, but there are better offerings out there. If you want to see a lesbian vampire movie, watch a Jean Rollin flick or The Hunger.

Tourist Trap

I saw Tourist Trap on Joe Bob’s Last Drive-In, a twenty-four hour movie marathon that I highly recommend. Tourist Trap is a weird movie that borrows its look from Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but without that movie’s fabled grit.

No, Tourist Trap has a bizarre vibe all its own. It stars Chuck Connors and Tanya Roberts along with a group of attractive roadkill – er, I mean youths. Seeing Tanya Roberts before she became famous is a real eye opener, sort of like watching Jennifer Aniston in Leprechaun, the best movie you’ll ever see about a homicidal leprechaun.

The plot: six young people get stranded at a roadside wax museum run by friendly weirdo Chuck Connors. Unfortunately, Chuck’s crazy telekinetic brother isn’t as friendly and the attractive youths get picked off one by one. I will say that the killer wears some pretty freaky masks. Our youthful revelers dress in cut-offs and t-shirts, but the final girl wears a white dress paired with a white sunbonnet and looks like she’s going to church. The subtext, it burns my eyes!

Tourist Trap gets an A-plus for its creative use of mannequins. Chuck’s house used to be a roadside wax museum, and Chuck’s wacky brother uses his telekinetic powers to animate those mannequins – at points, he goes way beyond animating the mannequins. He thinks the final girl looks like his dead wife, even though she looks nothing like her, but he’s crazy so we should cut him some slack.

Tourist Trap sure isn’t boring. I don’t know if it deserves the title of a cult classic, but it doesn’t deserve to be forgotten. It’s well-made and it has a bizarre vibe that I liked. If possible, watch Tourist Trap on Joe Bob’s Drive-In, as his commentary will add to your movie-going experience!

Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People

Damn, I fell behind early this year. Okay, the next movie on the chopping block is Matango: The Attack of the Mushroom People. This film was directed by Ishiro Hondo, who also directed the original Godzilla (along with a number of sequels), so I was inclined to like this movie. A confession: I saw Matango years ago but don’t remember anything about it, so it’s the same as seeing it for the first time!

The plot: seven revelers set sail in their party boat on a Three-Hour Tour and get shipwrecked on an island. Here the similarities to Gilligan’s Island end, alas; it’s a shame there was never a crossover between these two franchises. I would have paid good money to see that.

Anyway, there is fresh water on the island, but not much food – turtle eggs, seaweed, sea birds. Mushrooms grow everywhere, but they can’t eat them because reasons. One by one, members of our merry band do eat the mushrooms. Instead of dying, they transform into fungi themselves! Or do they? Perhaps there is another level to Matango, something having to do with how easily civilization can slip away. Or maybe this is just a weird movie about mushroom people. I dunno; you tell me.

Our seven castaways don’t splinter as a group because they didn’t really like each other in the first place, which I found to be realistic. The film does a good job of giving most of the characters actual personalities. People quickly show their true colors, and those colors aren’t pretty. It came as no surprise to me that the writer is the first to go crazy and eat the mushrooms.

I wouldn’t call Matango psychedelic as we only catch glimpses of the walking fungi until the end. Most of this movie is unrelentingly grim and depressing as our band of not-so-merry castaways lose their grip on reason and slide into madness. Parts of Matango have an apocalyptic feel; the single survivor (not a spoiler!) is in an asylum in Tokyo, where he has a view of the lights of the city, and I got the impression that one of the movie’s messages was that this too could easily slip away…

Misery

I might have trouble squeezing five hundred words out of Misery. It’s a fine novel, but when I do these reviews I always look for an interesting angle, maybe a funny story or anecdote, and nothing comes to mind here…

Okay, just thought of something.

Rereading Misery reminded me of seeing the movie Coraline. I had the day off from work because it was President’s Day, so I went to a matinee. I forgot that all the schools were off, also, and thus watched the movie with a theatre full of scared kids. The kids were scared because Coraline isn’t a kids’ movie. It’s a horror movie disguised as a kid’s movie.

The other thing that struck me about Coraline is that the main character, Coraline, wasn’t a nice kid. After watching the movie, I realized there’s no way a nice kid would have survived The Other Mother.

The selfsame thing struck me upon rereading Misery. Paul Sheldon isn’t a nice man. In fact, Paul Sheldon is a prick. King doesn’t make a big deal out of the fact that Paul Sheldon has no friends and can’t maintain a relationship with a woman, but it’s there. Paul Sheldon thinks he’s smarter than everyone else. It’s even hinted that Paul Sheldon might be a tad misogynistic.

Be that as it may, a nice guy wouldn’t survive what Annie Wilkes puts Paul Sheldon through; also, if I’m being honest, the fact that Paul Sheldon is not a nice guy made me sort of enjoy what Annie Wilkes put him through, at least at the beginning. I started feeling sorry for Paul when Annie chopped his foot off, but parts of that scene still made me laugh. Pre-op shot? Did she just say pre-op shot?

Speaking of laughter…Misery is a lot funnier than I remember. This book is a blast. I laughed a lot reading this novel. Annie is funny as hell and Paul is a dour prick. Annie says things like cock-a-doodie and brat and she spends four hundred pages emasculating Paul, hooking Paul on drugs, chopping off Paul’s body parts and making Paul resurrect Misery, the character he hates and she loves so much she named her pig after her.  The fact that Annie scrawls out all the f-words on Paul’s shitty manuscript and then makes him burn it was hysterical. Serves you right for not making a copy, dumbass!

Hey: did you notice that Misery is like a play in that most of the action takes place in a single room?

I thought King did a good job making Annie’s craziness seem realistic. Linking her moods to the weather is a great touch. I will say that the birthday cake thumb scene was a bridge too far for me. His editor should have made him cut that out, because that scene moves into gore-gore land and is dangerously close to self-parody.

One of the most brilliant things King does in Misery is flip the genders. This isn’t true to real life, but Misery is a horror novel, and 95% of King’s contemporaries wouldn’t have been able to come up with such a simple idea and then execute it in such a seemingly effortless way. That’s why Stephen King is Stephen King – he makes it look easy!

Unseen

Unseen is a documentary about Cleveland serial killer Anthony Sowell, who murdered eleven women. This movie reminded me of another documentary called Tales of the Grim Sleeper. The subject matter of these documentaries is eerily similar, drugs, prostitution, poverty, mass murder and the apathy of the authorities.

Unseen consists of interviews, mostly with the women who encountered Mr. Sowell. Many of these women were prostitutes struggling with drug addiction at the time. There is also news and police footage. There are no interviews of law enforcement authorities in Unseen, and after watching this documentary it’s not hard to figure out why.

Mr. Sowell was not careful about covering his tracks. An awful smell permeated the streets near his home, which residents thought came from the local sausage shop. When police entered his house, they found four decaying bodies. A few of Mr. Sowell’s victims escaped, and he let a few of them go. One tried to press charges and was unsuccessful, even though Mr. Sowell was a known sex offender who spent fifteen years in jail. Another jumped out of a second-floor window to get away from him; authorities thought he was her husband because he rode in the ambulance to the hospital with her. According to the documentary, none of the disappearances of his eleven victims was ever investigated.

Unseen is the type of movie that makes you think the world is a piece of shit. The guy who owns the convenience store next to Mr. Sowell’s house says on camera that Mr. Sowell was doing the world a favor. We see police footage. The investigators are eating potato chips while interviewing Mr. Sowell.