Monday, October 5, 2009

Stylin' Vampires and Exploding Bad Guys (or, Brian DePalma part 1)

Blood is our life...

Darkness, our feeding ground

And sunlight, our eternal damnation


Welcome to Halloween Movie # 28 and #27.

Horror and suspense movies used to have style. I know I'm sounding really old writing that, but it's true.

Great directors knew the genre allowed them to play with outrageous and truly visual storytelling. In a fantasy or horror world, limits are far and few.

I've had countless screenwriting teachers tell me you have to hit certain points in a drama or a comedy; you must have rising action, you must have a reversal in the middle which is the exact opposite from the end of the second act reversal...on and on they'd go, but when it came to horror and suspense structure, they would always say, "But on these films, all bets are off."

Director Katheryn Bigelow knew this. It's why she chose to direct the dreamy, violent and stylized Near Dark in 1987. She knew she could do whatever she wanted visually and get away with it. As as result, she made a fantastic horror movie with a ballsy visual style that is both intoxicating and terrifying.


She made a movie about vampires and she did it out of her love for making a movie about vampires.

It's one hell of a great action movie. Everyone knows she can direct a killer action sequence (Point Break anyone? Hurt Locker? The underrated Blue Steel?), but in Near Dark she also expertly handled the metaphors of blood and sexuality inherent in all vampire tales with a visual ease.

Today's horror and supernatural films have no visual style. Take a look the current spat of vampire movies, TV and books. Sure, True Blood has a great pace and the sexual energy is great; sure the Twilight series is romantic and angst ridden and is keeping gay men and women up at night wondering if the story's heroine will reject or love the Hot, Bad Vampire for, like, totally all time; sure The Vampire Diaries has another young, forbidden love story at the center with a bloody, ancient feud between two brothers...but what all of these works don't have is visual audacity.

I wish someone would have the balls to make a vampire movie with visual audacity.

Kathryn Bigelow took a tired genre which never, ever dies and infused it with a violent, bloody and downright frightening visual style right out of a horror dream AND she made it with a very down-to-earth, almost masculine love story in the center, all set to the fluid music of Tangerine Dream.

As with all of the movies on my Halloween countdown I refuse to give you the plot. It ruins a movie (like most trailers - why bother to see the movie? The producers nowadays are so desperate to get you to go they tell the entire story in the preview!)...

All you need to know is a guy who wasn't a vampire turns into a vampire and falls in love with a girl who may or may not be a vampire and they kill people. What do you want? It's a VAMPIRE MOVIE.

Before anyone knew him from Heroes, Adrian Pasdar was the lead in Near Dark and was very good. He carries the movie nicely and makes you believe he's a quiet guy from the Midwest who wants more out of life. Jenny Wright is pensive and porn hot as his love interest and does a good job playing the good girl gone very, very bad but with a heart of gold.

Katheryn Bigelow was either married to or dating James Cameron when she made Near Dark so she had access to his amazing set of actors. All of them are perfect for their parts which is part of the reason the movie works as well as it does. It was right around the mid to late 80's Cameron was doing his best work (sorry, but Titanic is not his best work) and it shows. All of the actors in Near Dark were in Cameron directed or produced movies.

Lance Henriksen is great as the leader of the vampire, as is his wife, the incredibly undervalued Jenette Goldestein. They had great chemistry and were both BADASS.

And for ONCE a vampire movie dealt with the carnal sexual desires of a young vampire who was changed into vampire when he was young but has grown up as a man on the's disgusting, unnerving and very, very good.

But the real star of the show is Bill Paxton. Oh My God. I'm not sure what the hell Paxton was snorting and/or drinking during the making of Near Dark but he is the truly horrific vision of a cackling demon let loose on the world. This is the Bill Paxton of the 80's that made everyone take notice. He doesn't just play the part of a bloodthirsty vampire, he BITES into it and bathes in it's pulsing blood.And look at some of these characters names:
  • Caleb Colton
  • Jesse Hooker
  • Diamondback
  • Homer
  • Severen
Good, good stuff folks. Which is odd since screenwriter Eric Red, outside of Blue Steel and Near Dark, hasn't really written a lot of great, produced movies (Body Parts anyone?). He did make a werewolf movie called Bad Moon which was, well, bad.

The story takes some surprising twists and very violent turns while always keeping one eye on the human aspect of the story. It's got all you'd want in a vampire movie and God the visual style...beautiful.

I refuse to give it away, but how the vampires die in this movie has yet to be matched in any American made vampire movie. There is a texture and style to the special effects I haven't seen (well, maybe with Peter Jackson). It's as good as good gets.

You want a violent, thrilling, sad, sexual, rock and roll of a vampire movie? Watch Near Dark. Top notch director at the top of her game making a MOVIE with a visual style like no other vampire MOVIE out there.

We need more MOVIES that love being MOVIES.

And speaking of visual orgasms...
Spring of 1978.

My movie ritual at 14 was as follows: open up the Sunday Seattle Times. Ignore every section except Arts and Entertainment. Uncap the red marker beside me. Hold the red marker in my hand, poised and ready.

Flip through the pages. Circle every movie to see which are opening on Friday. Make note of theaters near the house so I can see them via the bus - but not the R-rated movies. Those require me to shamelessly work over my father, mother or sister.

But it was on one particular Sunday when I opened up the paper that I stopped and gasped.

There on the page, in full-page color and glory, was the ad for the new Brian DePalma film, The Fury. I felt my stomach turn into knots. I had seen the ads on TV. I knew this was the same director as Carrie. I knew it would be very R-rated. I knew it was the ultimate forbidden fruit to see as a teenager. Everyone would be asked for their ID.

I had to see it.

After much convincing, I got my sister, Joy, to take me. Now my sister was my mom. I don't mean that in a weird way, but my mom was a psychological mess and my sister sorta took over the role of my mom a bit. Without her I'd probably be on some sort of anti-depressant.

My sister was everything to me (she still is). We were meant to be related. I'd do anything for her and vice versa. But she and I are different. She's always been the more sensible and conservative one and I'm a tad bit 'louder'. We balance each other out.

I remember holding the ad for the movie up to her and she was like, "No way. I'm not taking you to that. It looks disgusting." I pleaded and cried as only little brothers can do. She finally relented, but I knew she didn't think it was the right thing to do.

Four days before the movie I developed abdominal cramps. Three days before I stopped eating. Two days before I counted the minutes until we were to go. A day before I curtailed all fluids so I wouldn't have to pee during.

The day of I was so excited I had to remind myself to breath.

I told you I was a weird kid.

We entered the theater where The Fury had opened. It was in a parking lot of a strip mall again (if you've read any of my other movie posts you see all the theaters of my youth were in parking lots of malls. I was raised 100% suburban). It was a rinky-dink two screen theater and it was sold out.

We sat down. The lights dimmed. My heart fluttered in my chest and I felt my bowels loosen.

The screen darkened and over a black screen the deep, dark strings of John Williams score soared and these worlds materialized on the screen:

116 minutes later, the big finale came. After it had ended and the final image turned to slamming black credits, my sister turned to me and said in a voice filled with disgust and annoyance, "That was SO not necessary."

Of course, she was referring to the grisly final image I refuse to divulge here, but for me, I was left with a feeling of disappointment when the movie ended. It didn't live up to the hype. I was expecting a major motion picture event and I felt stiffed.

It was how I felt in 1978 seeing it for the first time in the theater, and from the critical reaction and box office dollars, it is how other people felt as well.

Here is the original trailer:

Since then, I've seen the movie many times. I now love the baroque style of the moviemaking and marvel at the construction of the suspense sequences. It's a brooding, melancholy horror and suspense movie told on a giant, grand scale. It's a sweeping, ridiculous story of mental powers and old time revenge.

The script was adapted from a flimsy novel, The Fury, by horror novelist John Farrar. I read the original book and it's sequel and both are fairly silly. The only reason DePalma agreed to make this was because it allowed him to tell a story purely in visual terms.

John Cassavettes was clearly slumming in the picture. Amy Irving was the perfect strong heroine and Andrew Stevens is hunky scenery. Like Taxi Driver, it was made in the 70's and the racial subtext is fairly blatant.

Look at Taxi Driver and how much of the film is geared towards violence to blacks. Or in The Fury - I won't even bother to mention the Middle Eastern murder scene. It's barbaric.

Janet Maslin was one of the greatest champions of DePalma's work when no one else was. I think the reason she was was because he was different, he was pushing the envelope and making work with was thrilling and odd.

Next week I'm dedicating an entire post to DePalma and the Hitchcock connection no one talks about anymore. DePalma (like Hitchcock) is/was an inspired and infuriating filmmaker. But what he had was a visual signature, a visual style lacking in today's market.

Love it or leave it, The Fury is a super Halloween film with one of the best scores John William's ever did. Much of the film simply does not hang together today, but there are four set pieces in the film which defy description. While set pieces alone do not make a movie, when they are this good they rise above a cohesive whole and become something onto themselves.

The Fury, like all of DePalma's movies, isn't so much about what takes place on the screen but about how we, the viewer, experience the movie. That was the trick to Hitchock and DePalma and it's also, partially, Polanski's as well.

And while my loving sister may not have liked the finale, I still think it is one of the best whoppers of all time...especially the last 5 seconds where 'you know what' thumps on the ground and then rises into the air, all in time to the final chord of William's demonic symphonic beat.


Not only have DePalma and Hitchcock gone out of style, but movie scores have all but wasted away. Tangerine Dream, a collection of German composers who formed as a group in the late 60's, recorded some of weirdest and intriguing movie scores of the day. Like DePalma and Bigelow, they had a VOICE, a SOUND. Imagine the opening shot of Risky Business without that layered, rhythmic electronic beat...imagine Legend without the soaring synthesized flute and stands of zinging music (which, ironically, was originally scored by Jerry Goldsmith, another modern master of film music)...imagine Michael Mann and Thief and his 80's style of languid filmmaking without the help of Tangerine Dream. Their music set the tone for films in a way no other music could. They were able to tap into our collective dreams with their moody and spiraling and seductive electronic sounds.

And I know John Williams did
Star Wars and Indian Jones - yes, they are great scores, I agree, but they don't hold a candle to Schindler's List or Minority Report or The Fury or Empire of the Sun. The man is a great composer but the moment he dips his toe into the darker parts of the psyche, he comes alive. Take a look at the darker Spielberg work he's worked on or the darker themed music he's scored. It is in there you'll find the beating heart of an artist searching for answers. Williams is a great composer when he creates sweeping, heroic symphonies, but when he dives into the dark human heart he rises to staggering emotional heights.


  1. I thought I was the only person who loved this. Its all about the couple of violent outbursts (its a little like wading through a dumb musical just to get to the big production numbers). Those final 3 minutes...I dont think I ever recovered.

  2. So glad to see some respect for the underrated Blue Steel, for which I feel a protective love. Tangerine Dream: Don't know how often you watched MST3K, but anytime the score featured cheesy synthesizers, one of them would say, in that 70's/80's film trailer voice: "Soundtrack by Tangerine Dream..." Oh, and Eric Red: He also wrote one of my other favorite 80's horror films, The Hitcher. But then things went horribly, horribly wrong for Eric Red...

  3. Hey Dazzling U...yea, it's true, right? I think DePalma battled that his entire life...trying to make a movie that was good as a cohesive whole and not just fun filled blood-busy set pieces. I have a big old DePalma posting coming up I think you'll love...

    Thanks for the comment!

  4. Dear God, Jason. My mouth hung open reading that! What a great link! I had no idea...and how ironic for poor Mr. Red. Wow...amazed. Thanks for the link! And for reading, old high school film buddy!!