North American Pie: “A Fan’s Notes”

AFansNotesGRIPING ABOUT HOLLYWOOD’S TREATMENT of one’s favorite book has been unbecoming for many years. Even now, I can still recall an older relative criticizing, upon film’s release, Francis Ford Coppola’s version of “The Godfather,” of which I knew nothing, with the trenchant observation, “They went from the wedding straight to the dirty stuff.” Even at age 6, I got the sense she was full of shit.

I have never read Mario Puzo’s book — sold as a film even before completion — but have by now read many books that later were made into the movies and have found watching each one a fascinating experience, from “All the King’s Men” (twice!) to “L.A. Confidential.” Yet never had I made a real effort to find and watch “A Fan’s Notes.”

This is partly because it just didn’t seem available, especially after I initially fell thrall to Fred Exley’s “fictional memoir” as a confused undergraduate in the 1980s, when VHS was still battling Beta. It also was due in part to the fact that “A Fan’s Notes” was more an internal monologue than a story, the prototypical unfilmable novel, and a third reading finally revealed that the book’s episodic attempts at fiction — a brief marriage and the escapades with the enigmatic Mr. Blue — were clumsy, the very problem that torpedoed Exley’s other two not-very-good books.

In short, I knew it wouldn’t be any good; and furthermore suspected I wouldn’t enjoy watching it be not very good.

Yet I now have watched the 1972 film adaptation of “A Fan’s Notes” twice since finding it streaming on the Warner Archive Roku channel (and online at instant.warnerarchive.com). It is, as they say in the Maltin guide, a real curio — an unambitious attempt to mine the depths of an ambitious book; an episodic attempt to catch the ironic iconoclasm of the literary zeitgeist a la “Little Big Man” or “Catch-22.” Perhaps the fatal flaw of “A Fan’s Notes” is to use the book’s final image, of Exley jogging on a two-lane, doggedly getting back in shape for the fight of his life, as a whimsical wraparound. Here, Exley has decided to sit in the middle of the road and tell his story to a biker. It’s really awful.

“A Fan’s Notes” is not a failure because it fails to capture Exley’s lugubrious rage. It occasionally does. The problem is, in the movie, the rage comes from nowhere. Exley’s depression came from a real place: a visceral aversion to the American lie that left him hospitalized in a state of social inertia. The movie spends next to no time establishing the source of this horror. A brief interlude at Bunny Sue’s childhood home is left to suffice, and is the one point at which the movie starts to make dramatic sense.

But Bunny Sue’s parents, the ne plus ultra of U.S. consumerist vacuity, live in a split-level that appears to be at the edge of the Yukon rather than the suburban satellite of an American metropolis feasting on children’s dreams and angels’ tears. “A Fan’s Notes,” a very American book, has become a very North American movie. It reminds one, in fact, of “Barney’s Version,” the Paul Giamatti film of what appears to be the Canadian “Fan’s Notes,” a closely guarded you-have-to-read-this book about a self-absorbed, autodidact alcoholic fuck-up. That is a better movie by far, but I admit to not having read the book.

Jerry Orbach is miscast but isn’t bad; he in fact becomes Movie Exley. But, again, Movie Exley is more a wise-ass know-it-all than a man crushed by dreams and expectations. Fred Exley wanted to fit in and couldn’t; one never gets the sense that Movie Exley ever really tried. A game Burgess Meredith injects some vigor into the proceedings in a few scenes as Mr. Blue, but it doesn’t fit. And while the fantasy scenes that attempt to get into the protagonist’s head quote some good prose from Book Exley, they are nonetheless ham-fisted. Only the moments between Exley and his wife, Patience — played with tragic stoicism by Patricia Collins — have any real tenderness.

Those with a Roku can get Warner Archive free for a month, and cancel before being billed, though it has some good hard-to-find-streaming stuff for $10 a month. I also found, as I prepared to write this, “A Fan’s Notes” in its entirety on YouTube, and this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QKqwrMkfAB8

A Short History of Violence: “Blue Ruin”

CINEMA’S GREATEST FLAW AS POLEMIC is its tendency to romanticize that which it intends to criticize, which probably is why most polemic movies aren’t very good. Perhaps the best example is Michael Winner’s notorious “Death Wish,” which was torpedoed as any sort of statement about vigilantism the moment Charles Bronson was miscast as its protagonist. The racism didn’t help, either, but that’s almost beside the point. Even Peckinpah’s magnum opus, “The Wild Bunch,” works not as an indictment of violence, but as an illustration of its futility in civilized society. And in any case, Peckinpah’s graphic violence became the movie’s calling card and inadvertently paved the way for, say, “Cobra.” When he got it right — “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” and “Cross of Iron” — movie-goers weren’t particularly interested.

In that light, “Blue Ruin” is a revelation, a narrative of murder and consequences, and more to the point, vengeance. Its central “twist” is the decision to start with what would be the denouement of a shitty movie and follow the natural consequences. Here is a revenge movie in which the revenge is never truly thought out, let alone planned. The revenge is the catalyst, not the conclusion. The characters, and audience, are forced to deal with the consequences. They aren’t pleasant. In “Blue Ruin,” revenge is neither sweet nor served cold; it’s hot and sweaty and impulsive.

The protagonist is a homeless man named Dwight Evans whose entire life already is the result of revenge, and in that sense the plot was set in motion by someone else — in this case, as in so many others, his father. This is revealed as the plot plays out, and there is a plot. The narrative is smart and engaging — the ending revolves around a clever trap set by the increasingly effective Dwight — and the dialog sticks with you, as when Dwight’s sister tells him, “If you were crazy, I’d feel sorry for you. But you’re not crazy; you’re weak.” Ouch.

The movie revolves around an often silent performance by Macon Blair, whose general anonymity helps, but this is what they call a “breakout performance.” Writer-director Jeremy Saulnier, whose career started as a DP, has a keen and eye and ear for detail. The character of Dwight’s friend Ben, as written by Saulnier and played by Devin Ratray, is a fascinating brush with both the outside world and insular state of affairs in rural Virginia. The punchline joins a rare cinematic club (“Smile,” “Wake In Fright”) of perfect endings.

“Blue Ruin” is streaming on Netflix. Watch it while you can.

Why You Should Watch “Kill List”

IN 30 YEARS, SOME FETED AUTEUR will spark a revival for Ben Wheatley’s off-Hollywood danse macabre “Kill List,” a piece of “White Light/White Heat” cinema currently making the rounds on streaming devices two years after it was released to wildly disparate reviews. Too grim and too odd for the majority of what newspapers would call “movie-goers,” it no doubt already has sown its seeds in the heads of dozens of aspiring filmmakers.

I spend a good part of my life looking for movies like “Kill List,” and it took two years and a Halloween hay ride through “best horror movies you’ve never seen” Google searches to discover its existence. Unfortunately, the very first list — which correctly made it the top horror movie of the new millennium — gave away the secret at its core by name-checking one movie. And although I was ultimately surprised by the denouement, I essentially knew what was happening.

“Kill List” is in many ways that movie’s direct inverse.

Yet it didn’t spoil the movie, nor did it stop me from thinking about for days afterward, because “Kill List” is not a stunt; it’s part allegory, part agitprop and all horror movie. The best piece I’ve yet read on “Kill List” compares it to “Mulholland Drive,” although in some ways it’s about as far as one can get from Lynch’s dreamy jigsaw. It also features the kind of Saviniesque in-camera FX one doesn’t see much anymore and a pair of remarkable performances by Neil Maskell and Michael Smiley at its center.

If this sounds as if it might be in your wheelhouse, watch it. It’s streaming on Netflix. But don’t read anything else about it until you’re done.

(Way, Way, Waaaay) Down Under: “Wake in Fright”

THE TRULY GREAT HORROR MOVIE is the one scarier the second time one sees it, of which there are few. For instance, “Psycho,” “Don’t Look Now” and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” all contain scenes more unsettling in the context of the entire movie, and therefore reach their potential only on a repeat viewing.

A second look at Ted Ketchoff’s recently rediscovered and deservedly feted “Wake In Fright” (1971) reveals one of these rare cinematic moments, although it doesn’t qualify as a horror movie, really, unless you’re of the cineastes who consider “Come and See” a horror film.

“Wake in Fright” chronicles the steep, quick descent of a callow school teacher (Gary Bond) serving a bonded stretch in Australia’s Outback circa 1970. Our hero, waylaid on the way to Sydney for the holidays, finds himself stranded in Bundanyabba, a Bush town the locals proudly call “The Yabba,” just large and self-sufficient enough to be a horrible, horrible place.

Our moment comes during a kangaroo hunt that is, frankly, difficult to watch. By this point, feckless hero John Grant — played with an utterly realistic sense of bewildered acceptance by Bond — has lost all his money and fallen in with an odd crew after being invited home by a middle-aged man in a short-sleeved shirt, hat and tie named Al. What Al does for a living is never broached; probably middle management at the local mine, whence come two strapping jackaroos who have stopped over with beer and rifles (one played with reckless abandon by a young Jack Thompson).

The fourth is Doc Tyden, a medical doctor who five years ago was John Grant. As absorbed by Donald Pleasence, Tyden is the Yabba’s John Milton. “All the little devils are so proud of Hell,” he tells Grant when they meet on the teacher’s first night in town.

When Grant, still smug at this point, asks Tyden what he does, the good doctor says, “I drink.”

Two days into his bender, Grant finds himself in a Ford Fairlane with his new friends, rifle in hand. They have shamed the teacher into shooting a kangaroo, and now are baiting him to end its misery by slitting its throat. If that sounds awful, rest assured it is somehow worse. Nearly unwatchable, it is nevertheless too integral to skip, and the film is substantial enough to hold its weight.

In the hot, sweaty heart of the film, Bond slinks off toward the wounded animal, followed by a spotlight used to spook prey. The young miners hoot and holler, but Pleasence, bottle in hand, watches in the way one might watch insects overwhelm a helpless rival — fascinated yet sick to his stomach. Here is our moment. Pleasence manages to comprise victory, repugnance and regret on his ostensibly blank face.

Bond, in a distressingly rare film role, returns with tears in his eyes, dragging his unseen catch behind him. The school teacher finally has slaughtered his wounded pretense and is brutally reborn; in the next shot, he lies in the backseat of the truck, drinking from a liquor bottle the way a baby sucks on a bottle of milk.

Later, Bond hops out of the back of a hooded truck, happy to have escaped the Yabba, only to discover he is right back where he started. The revelation — a static shot of a hopelessly ugly and out-of-place town hall — is a remarkable piece of pure cinema.

This dissonance between nature and civilization, the colonial and the aboriginal, has always seemed the primary thread of Australian cinema, whether it’s Richard Chamberlin trying to stave off Armageddon in Peter Weir’s “The Last Wave” or the custodian who insists upon watering the abandoned school’s lawn in Nicholas Roeg’s “Walkabout.”

“Wake in Fright,” in fact, seems to me the flip side of “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” Weir’s distaff version — made a couple of years later — of being swallowed whole by the Cosmos. In that film, a gauzy reverie against the crisp, bright colors of “Wake in Fright,” the Victorian school girl is never found; the final genius of “Wake in Fright” is the fact that Grant does return, and his final line is one of the greatest, and most trenchant, punch lines in all of cinema.

This is streaming on Netflix, and has been for months. Watch it before it disappears. Lost for nearly 40 years, “Wake in Fright” was saved from the furnace by its editor, Anthony Buckley, restored and screened at the 2009 Toronto Film Festival. Its disappearance can probably be traced to the fact that Australians hated it, an understandable reaction in 1971.

It has since been embraced as a seminal piece of Australian cinema. True, and yet that somehow sells it short.

Theater of Dull Pain: “You’re Next”

Near the end of “You’re Next,” a home invasion/slasher hybrid that won its share of admirers upon theatrical release in 2013, a young man is dispatched with the business end of a blender. Outside of the conspicuous use of a Dwight Twilley song, it is the high point of a surprisingly dull and sharply disappointing entry in retro-chic horror.

Directed by and co-starring people who have directed and co-starred in better movies, “You’re Next” is that worst of failures, the kind that throws all its resources at one goal — in this case, scaring the audience — and misses wide.

There is no subtext, no character development; no novel plot twist, no attempt to toy with the template. It’s vaguely self-aware but to no purpose, neither “Scream” nor “The House of the Devil.” The most surprising thing about “You’re Next” is that despite contributions from Adam Wingard, Larry Fessenden, Barbara Crampton, Ti West and Joe Swanberg, there is nothing surprising about it, a difficult deficit to overcome for a genre that trades in surprises at the most basic level.

The movie has its share of old school, Tom Savini savagery — a knife to the eye, sledge hammer in the skull, that wonderful blender — but not one effective jolt. Making a killer-in-the-house movie without one decent scare is almost some sort of arch achievement. Yet here we are at film’s end, astonished by how gently we’ve been treated.

Director Wingard helmed and starred in an effectively unsettling, claustrophobic entry in the portmanteau “VHS2,” a story about a man who receives a cornea implant that shows him more than anyone wants to see. But here, his framing is a tease. Characters are placed in deliciously precarious positions — in front of broken windows, staring too long at the dark; trapped in a dark basement — but Wingard never delivers the one money shot that would sweep the viewer’s leg for the rest of the movie.

Even the use of masks on the amoral invaders is botched; first by making them animals, portraying neither emotion nor malice; second by allowing the perpetrators to remove them to reveal dullards who might as well be wearing the red uniform of a USS Enterprise engineer. Oddly enough, they put the masks back on when it’s time to kill, which makes sense as neither plot device nor aesthetic; even if it had been frightening, that horse has left the barn.

The final indignity comes at film’s end when a sledgehammer, portentously rigged to brain the next person to open the front door, finally falls with an impact neither dramatic nor gory. It is, instead, a joke, triggering a bloody title card that signals the film’s end and reminds us that the “you’re next” gag was abandoned an hour ago.

That we know who the final girl is within 10 minutes, and figure out what’s going on soon thereafter, would be entirely acceptable if there were one or two scenes worth remembering — other than that blender, anyway. That was cool; but it wasn’t scary.

Here Comes the Nice: The Unfortunate Case of “Here Comes the Devil”

One had high hopes for “Here Comes the Devil,” a low-budget Mexican horror film that came with a terrific trailer featuring recommendations from usually reliable sources such as Fangoria and fearnet.com. But mostly it was that trailer, a breathless red band version that promised unmitigated, hard-R scares reminiscent of ’70s-vintage Tobe Hooper or Wes Craven.

Alas!

While “Here Comes the Devil” flirts with the kind of taboo-breaking that can kick the legs out from under a viewer — sex hasn’t been this unappealing since “The Tin Drum” — it never quite gets over the hump; which would be all well and good if the movie were in any way, shape or form scary. It just isn’t. Ever.

This, of course, is a fatal flaw for a horror film, many of which have survived the vagaries of time by simply having one or two good, solid scare scenes. Spanish writer-director Adrian Garcia Bogliano can frame a composition but can neither choreograph a scare nor coax the actors to credibly repeat his dialog.

He has succeeded in making a facsimile of a grindhouse horror picture, but comparisons to the consistently overrated but at least legitimately bats Mario Bava are exaggerated. Maybe Lucio Fulci on Xanax. I must admit, however, to not seeing anything else Bogliano has done, and “Here Comes the Devil” has not convinced me to go looking.

Those excited by the trailer can watch “Here Comes the Devil” on Netflix, where it just been added for streaming. Those who do will likely agree: It makes one hell of a trailer.

THE CALL OF NOSTALGIA: “The Stone Tape,” “The Exorcism” and “Whistle and I’ll Come to You.”

The BBC is notorious for having wiped many of its best-remembered television shows, a fact that no doubt contributes to them being so well-remembered. My son, for instance, all of 13, is angry that the tapes of some early and apparently brilliant “Doctor Who” episodes were re-purposed for lesser content. In his mind, they remain high points of British television, science fiction and Western Culture, despite the fact that he has never seen them. So it was with great excitement that I discovered last week that three episodes purported to be, to one degree or another, the best horror ever produced for British television are, in fact, available to stream — a 1968 dramatization of M.R. James’ “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad;” a Nigel Kneale teleplay called “The Stone Tape” (1972) and one of three surviving episodes of the short-lived series “Dead of Night” (1972) called “The Exorcism.”

I learned of these shows from a terrific new viewer’s guide by Kim Newman and James Marriott called “Horror!” In it, “The Stone Tape” — apparently made as part of the “Dead of Night” series before it was canceled — is regarded with great reverence. That I found it streaming on Amazon.com for a $1.99 was a great surprise.

Starring Jane Asher and Michael Bryant, “The Stone Tape” is about a team of slumming scientists gathered at an abandoned country estate to find a better medium than magnetic tape with which the world can record their Pink Floyd records before the Japanese do. And wouldn’t you know, they find it, though it’s not a medium that can really be monetized. The conceit will be familiar to fans of Kneale’s “Quatermass” shows and movies, which combined straight horror with science fiction as well or better than Lovecraft. Asher, looking 10 years older than she did in “Deep End,” made only two years earlier, is attractively neurotic, and her back story with Bryant’s lead researcher is expertly and effectively vague. The denouement manages the rare feat of being essentially what the viewer expects while still adding an unexpected, and morbid, layer to the cake. If it fails to inspire the chills promised by those who saw it as children — no doubt hiding behind the sofa, unbeknownst to their parents — that is an experience that can’t be recreated in an adult.

More than one blog/web site has deemed “The Exorcism” the single scariest television show, period. I found a nice, crisp version streaming on YouTube, complete with the show’s nicely creepy opening. But this one was a bummer, a one-act, stage-bound agitprop with four unappealing characters trying to figure out why they’re stuck in a remodeled cottage on Christmas Eve. The wine is blood! The windows won’t break! The turkey is bad! Overwritten and overacted, it only comes to life during an astonishing monologue by Anna Cropper, whose mistress of the house becomes possessed and relates a tale of unbearable sadness that kicks the drama into overdrive just as the show is winding down. That it ends on with an easy “twist” is a major disappointment.

Better by far is “Whistle and I’ll Come to You,” which in fact might be the scariest thing made for television. I also found a remarkably clean version of this on YouTube, and it creeped me out more the second time I watched it — a rare feat. Horror is hard, and capturing the unique dread-and-frisson of James nearly impossible. But director Jonathan Miller, shooting on black and white film, finds a singular tone of somber dread that gradually unfolds into in-your-face terror. He is aided immensely by Michael Hardern, who plays James’ typical academic protagonist as a raging bore, and one of the great sound designs of all time, credited to Ron Hooper and John Ramsay. The soundtrack made me jump twice, not with that percussive scare chord made necessary by M. Night Shyamalan, but with otherworldly, guttural growls and the sickening ruffling of clean bedding. Miller shoots much of the action in reflection, and uses what appears to be a flexible mirror to create a funhouse wobble to Hardern’s world that I’ve never seen used anywhere else. The climax, its terrifying in-camera effects shot in stomach-drop slow motion, is worthy of nearly 40 minutes of dreadful crescendo. This is the real winner here, an absolute must-see.