Thursday, July 27, 2006

The 4D Man (1959)

For some reason I got the urge to watch this film again the other night. I've had the DVD for years now and before that I had taped it off cable TV. I think I've watched THE 4D MAN 5 or 6 times even though I don't think its the greatest movie in the world. Its good- but not that good. I think what draws me back again and again are elements that grab me in any movie from the period.

First, being a sucker for 50's science fiction the idea at the center of the story is very interesting. Its a pulp SF idea handled in an intelligent fashion.

Second, the cast is top notch turning in performances better than the story deserves.

And third, although riddled with nonsensical pseudo science silliness the story is involving and effective.

The film follows two brothers with different approaches to scientific research. Scott Nelson (Robert Lansing) is a hard working scientist struggling to perfect a new alloy he hopes will prove impenetrable to all force. He works for a large scientific concern in which the owner has first (and last) claim to all the credit for any projects done under his roof. Tony (James Congdon) is the younger and more impulsive sibling. He's had a hard time keeping a job as he spends most of his spare time working on his own pet theory. Tony believes that it is possible to cause two solid objects to occupy the same space at the same time merging their atomic structures. He once was able to make this near impossibility happen but has never been able to replicate the experiment. After the loss of another job Tony appeals to Scott eventually showing his one piece of evidence- a pencil he merged with a solid slab of metal. Tony thinks that the one time success had more to do with his mind than with electronics equipment. He's sure that in some way he 'willed' the two objects to merge! Scott is skeptical but one late night while fooling with the experiment on his own he too succeeds- but it's his right hand that passes through a solid piece of metal. Stunned, he shows Tony but they quickly realize that Scott can will himself through things now without help!

Asking that they keep things quiet for a while, Scott wants find a way to keep this discovery away from his employer. Tired of doing all the work for none of the public credit he's determined to introduce this astounding breakthrough himself. Of course, at this point complications ensue with a fellow scientist stealing Tony's notes and Scott becoming aware that each time he phases through something it seems to age him. Also thrown into the mix is the romantic triangle between the fetching Miss Lee Meriweather playing a research assistant and the two brothers. I know this element sounds like the melodramatic sludge it is but the actors do a very good job with the material adding depth to the clichéd love sub-plot. The actors really sell this movie on every level and without the fine performances it wouldn't be half as good.

As much as I enjoy THE 4D MAN the film does have one glaring flaw that irks me. It sports one of the most inappropriate scores of all time! On its own the film's music is not bad but the percussion heavy jazz riffs only fit the scene they're accompanying about 10% of the time. During the rest of the movie its like accidentally intercepting a radio broadcast at the drive-in. It's annoying and I'd love to have the power to re-score the picture.

I really like this film but I'm under no illusions about how many others out there will feel the love. It helps if you're a Sci-Fi geek with a taste for old style 'what if' scenarios I guess. I know I'll feel that familiar urge in about a year and be glad this gem somehow got released on DVD.

Monday, July 24, 2006


The recent release on Region 1 DVD of DELLAMORTE, DELLAMORE under its less attractive US title of CEMETARY MAN made me dig out my old essay on the film and its symbolic content. Originally printed in one of the last issues of European Trash Cinema here it is in slightly altered form for 2006. Enjoy!

Oh! And Spoiler alert for those yet to see the film!

Michele Soavi's DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE is one of the best and most inventive horror films of the 1990's. In its beauty and violence, we can see its relationship to the work of Fulci, Romero, and of course Argento, but I think there is an even more fruitful way of examining this movie. Its surface story is a simple zombie tale spiked with humor and tragic romance and is thoroughly enjoyable on this level alone. However, this film is rife with symbolism of a complexity and depth that I have rarely seen in a horror movie. Every character and every scene has a symbolic part to play in an examination of (as the title says) Death and Love. Each time I watch the movie I see more and more, but instead of a scene by scene look at the film, I'll present a broad overview.

I noticed that the symbols come in sets of three. For instance, Francesco, Gnaghi, and Franco are all elements of the same person; Francesco falls in love with three different women; and romantic love is divided into three levels. The movie can be seen as an examination of Francesco's life with what we see as the afterlife. Francesco, because he is the center of the story, is how he lived his life. Gnaghi is the representation of the baser side of man that we grow out of, and Franco is the responsible man he could have grown into. The scenes that show these relationships are many. For instance, although Gnaghi speaks only in grants, Francesco replies in full sentences implying that he hears more than we do. Franco is Francesco's only friend and takes credit for his murders- murders he can logically have had no knowledge of. Also, Franco seems to most often call when Francesco is in the shower or in some other contemplative mood. Each character is a facet of life and how we live it or death and how we accept it.

The set of three that I find most intriguing is the three women that Dellamorte falls in love with. The fact that they are all played by the same woman made me curious and a little thought reveals what they represent. They symbolize the three classical ways that men view women throughout life--mother, virgin, and whore.

Francesco is not alive until the first woman enters his life. He decides that he must have her and this is his birth which is symbolized by him climbing out of the freshly thug grave. The widow is the mother figure-she is the first woman we love. (As for why the husband is dead, might there be some hint in the euphemistic term for the orgasm as "the little death.") This obviously plays off the Freudian Oedipal complex-the desire to love the mother and replace the father. The desire for the father's place and the fear of his discovery of that desire is exactly how the scene plays out. The film tells us the return of this man is not right because, until now the dead had come back only after 7 days, but the husband/father returns in direct response to the son (Dellamorte) physically loving the mother. This causes the mother's death but it is by the son's hand, not the husband's. This could symbolize the pain of childbirth and the agony of letting go of the grown child. (How sharper than a serpents tooth...) Also, later, it is the mother who wounds Francesco as a parallel to how our mothers forever influence the way we view women. The pain may not kill you, but it does color your perspective on love.

The second woman is representative of the way men view their first love-as a virgin. She is literally a virgin because of her phobia about sexual penetration and they fall instantly in love with each other because in this world "Who else is there?" Francesco responds to her the way we all do to first love, by doing anything to keep and make her happy. For Dellamorte, this means having his penis removed or made nonfunctionable. Any man willing to emasculate himself must truly be in love! But while he is recovering from this sacrifice, the woman is stolen from him in the standard cliched manner. She falls in love with someone who is beneath her and who treats her horribly. This other person takes her virginity and her love. As a parallel to teenage heartbreak, this makes perfect sense.

The third woman is the whore, representing the bitter way men see women after rejection and heartbreak. We should suspect this as she is very sexual from her first moment on screen. She says she loves him and wants him to stay with her. But sadly, he learns of her true nature from someone else and his response is as strong as the betrayal. His disgust with the whore is the final death of love within him. He is now bitter and wholly incapable of loving again. "This time I'm really through with love." Francesco's murder of the whore is not so much the killing of another person as it is killing the love within himself. Defeated in his quest for love three times, he can never trust again and therefore never love again.

Since Gnaghi and Franco are part of Francesco, their relationship with love is very interesting. Gnaghi represents puppy love, almost more enamored with the idea of love than with the object of his love. Gnaghi's love is complete with just the head of his beloved to cherish. Sexuality is unnecessary and (from his reactions to Francesco's love making in the film) disgusting. Exactly the response expected from the adolescent version of Dellamorte. With Francesco as the maturing man searching for love in the middle, we come to Franco as the representative of adult responsibility at the end. He is married with a family and a steady solid job-the perfect example of standard social mores. But Francesco tells Franco in a phone conversation that eventually his wife will leave him, his daughter will grow up to hate him and then he will be free. This view of love as fleeting, brief, and as solid as sand is the real cause of Dellamorte's misery. When the core reason for happiness is fated to always desert us, how can a thinking individual be truly happy? For Gnaghi/ Francesco/Franco, all three levels of love (childish/adolescent/mature) fail and serve only to point the way to the grave.

Another set of three that begs for analysis is the three people that Francesco kills in Franco's hospital room. Coming as they do after Dellamorte's swearing off of love, I feel that they represent his rejection of the higher authorities that promise happiness. First to die is the symbol of religious morality, the nun. Killing her is a rejection of the false hope of redemption held out by the church as the reward for a "good" life. Next is the doctor as a symbol of society. Killing him is a refusal to go along with the multitude of evils that society expects from us to keep the status quo. Then the nurse comes in and asks what has happened. Francesco says that they killed each other and that it was a settling of scores suggesting that perhaps society and morality are destined to destroy one another. The nurse is humanity and horrified at the rejection of the two accepted pillars of sane life. Francesco's killing of her is his repudiation of all authority and the world itself. His next move is obvious- escape. But if this is the after life, there is no escape and that is what he discovers.

I would like to stress that this is merely one way of looking at the film. After a theatrical viewing of the movie with three friends, I was swamped with other possible interpretations of the same events. One friend in fact made it a personal quest to come up with as many different readings of it as he could, as fast as he could. Some of them were amazing and some were goofy as hell, but when was the last time a horror film caused this kind of discussion? There's plenty to see in DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE and this just scratches the surface.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Dario Argento's JENIFER

I’ve been an aficionado of horror films for about 25 years so while I’m not a jaded viewer by any means I have seen quite a bit of cinema that pushes the outer boundaries. These days it’s a rare thing for a film to cause me to squirm so much that I find I must look away. The Dario Argento directed Master’s of Horror episode JENIFER managed to make me hit the stop button and take a break before finishing. Strangely it was not a horrific image of violence or a bloody act that made me so uncomfortable. It was that bugaboo of our Puritan background- sex. Or more accurately- my view of sex and relationships between men and women.

The story centers on a plain-clothes police detective named Frank Spivey (Steven Weber). He sees a homeless man about to kill a young woman with a meat clever and is forced to kill him to save the victim. This girl, called Jenifer because of a note found on the dead man, turns out to be a mystery. She has an incredibly beautiful body but a hideously malformed face with large black eyes. No background information about her is ever divulged so she remains a blank slate. She cannot speak, able only to communicate with whines or moans seeming like an animal that has been mistreated and therefore shrinks from contact. The cop is haunted by the girl and when his estranged wife tries to sexually comfort him that night his mind goes to his initial view of Jenifer bent over a metal drum about to be killed. Becoming aroused, he shifts his wife into a similar position and enters her roughly from behind, hurting her and ending the sex. The next day when he discovers Jenifer has no one to claim her he takes her out of the court mandated asylum hoping to find her a home. The first night Frank makes her a bed on his living room couch but when his wife insists she must go he can find no place that will house her. Throughout all this the only sounds that Jenifer makes are those small whimpers and moans that put me in mind of a frightened puppy. She cowers against her protector and appears to only barely understand her plight. She twice holds the cop’s hand up to her face and licks it in a disturbingly animal like gesture.
By this time Frank has submitted to Jenifer’s physical attraction and obvious desire for his touch having intense sex with her. Unable to push the girl away he ends up a tragic, broken man. As the story progresses we see Frank lose his family, job and self-respect all because of his obsessive lust for this strange girl-creature.

I won’t ruin the film by going further into detail but the element of this tale that got to me in a in a very uncomfortable fashion was the very clear misogynistic undercurrent of the story. As the story moves forward I began to see a very nasty commentary on sexual attraction and relationships all centered on a negative view of women. A very negative view! The film seems to me to be a malicious version of the male view of the predatory and co-dependant aspects of the female temperament. This is a very adolescent view of the female and the film is careful to push this aspect through some subtle and not so subtle moments. There is an effort to give Frank and Jenifer’s relationship the structure of a teenage tryst with the wife standing in as the disapproving parent, their first sex act in a parked car, the us against the world mindset adopted by Frank and the third act running away from adult responsibility that causes the inevitable turn from love to hatred. The not so subtle ones are vicious starting with the fact that we learn of Jenifer’s terrible nutritional needs it’s only females that suffer under her teeth. Only after jealously rears its head does her violence touch a male and then only to hurt another woman. Truly, this is a metaphor that carries much weight in the human psyche and my creeping realization of what I was seeing stunned me.

The misogynistic view here is very unpleasant and is easily the movie’s most unsettling element. The viewpoint presented is so cruel, such a product of inexperience and tunnel vision that it should be laughable when recognized. But that's not the reaction I had. I felt a sense of identification with the idea of a woman as an ambition sucking succubus, draining life from everything she touches. I saw clearly the vestiges of my own past feelings of this type and was deeply ashamed of them and myself. Because I realized that in a dark corner of my heart I still hold this supremely hateful and damning opinion of a certain type of woman. I’ve been in relationships that seem to bring only pain, cutting you off from the things you love about life until you doubt the need to go on. It’s these memories that JENIFER touched in me that made me cringe away from the screen. Not the gore, or the make up effects or even the sight of the creature’s malformed face. Just the recognition of a universal , ugly male prejudice about sex & women that we’d all be better off without. I thought I’d suppressed this nasty side of my feelings about the fairer sex but obviously I have more growing up to do. I just hope I’m capable of it as now I reach middle age. The ladies in my life deserve something more from me than the childish view on display in this disturbing ‘Masters of Horror’ episode.