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Monday, July 28, 2014

Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)

Story by John Sayles & Anne Dyer
Screenplay by John Sayles
Directed by Jimmy T. Murakami

Richard Thomas:  Shad
Robert Vaughn:  Gelt
John Saxon:  Sador
Sybil Danning:  St. Exmin
George Peppard:  Cowboy

Back before the studios took over making B movies and threw hundred-million-dollar budgets at grindhouse ideas, there was room for the little guy to steal a little thunder and some box office money from larger prestige pictures. Sometimes it was an homage to a film that a director or screenwriter wanted to pay tribute to (Body Double is a Hitchcock-style "wrong guy" thriller on steroids, Viagra and cocaine); sometimes it was a bare-faced ripoff (Great White got yanked from American theaters when Universal sued its makers for copying the plot note-for-note and courts sided with the big studio; at least the people who made Grizzly, Alligator, Deadly Eyes, and The Car made sure to use a bear, a mutated sewer alligator, a swarm of giant rats and a devil car as the monsters in their Jaws ripoffs).

If I had to choose, I'd say that Spielberg's game-changing killer shark movie might be the most ripped-off plotline in the last half-century of motion picture production (although Halloween might be the champion; either way, whichever one of those two movies didn't get the gold medal for Most Ripoffs it had to have gotten the silver). All the parts are there for an intimate story of a man summoning up his courage to fight a seemingly unstoppable monster--throw in a greedy official, a scene where someone tries to cover up the existence of the killer whatever-it-is, and a plot point where a smaller killer whatever-it-is gets captured or killed by the heroes (setting up a false sense of confidence and a second-string character getting their ticket punched) and you've got the story beats for whatever Jaws ripoff you're constructing. Leave one out, double up on another, or change the order of the scenes and you can set your killer animal film apart from the pack, at least a little bit. And if audiences are fooled into thinking they haven't seen all the pieces of your movie before you can ride a bigger movie's coat tails far enough to make a significant profit.

And Jaws wasn't the only out-of-nowhere movie of the late 70s that got moviemakers to hastily write up plans for a similar project. In 1977 George Lucas made his own massively successful science-fiction film out of pieces taken from Flash Gordon serials, Kurosawa samurai dramas (most specifically The Hidden Fortress), the "Lensmen" pulp science fiction stories about intergalactic peacekeepers with mystic powers, Joseph Campbell's universal hero myth and The Dam Busters' story of a low-altitude raid to destroy a Nazi dam with a single well-placed torpedo bomb (if your movie makes over a hundred million at the box office, it's officially an homage to its various sources, not a ripoff). Oh, and while I'm talking about the origins of various recognizable things in Star Wars, there's a beeping robot whose head looks a hell of a lot like a communications satellite that someone named a cult movie blog after.

Anyway, the massive runaway success of the Star Wars franchise made imitation a foregone conclusion. My favorite joke about moviemaking is that everyone wants to be the second one to do something original, and at the end of the seventies that meant big spaceships, laser swords, comic-relief robots and usually someone in an alien costume that spoke in howls or grunts. What makes the movies worthwhile is what the filmmakers do with their inspirations. Star Crash had Caroline Munro in a series of revealing spacesuits and a cheap re-enactment of Ray Harryhausen's Talos scene from Jason and the Argonauts; Hawk the Slayer puts the ragtag-rebels-against-an-evil-empire plot in a Tolkien ripoff fantasy world. And today's movie aims as high as a small-budgeted drive-in movie can aim; it's a simultaneous homage to Star Wars and The Magnificent Seven (itself a credited remake of the Kurosawa masterpiece The Seven Samurai); it also wound up in theaters the same year as the official sequel to Lucas' film in an attempt to stay firmly planted on those coat tails I mentioned earlier.

Stop me if you've heard this one:  An agrarian community incapable of defending itself from outside attack is overrun by pillagers bent on taking their harvest away. In order to defend themselves, a peasant from the community goes out into the wider world to locate mercenaries that can to the community's fighting for them. A disparate group of combatants come together and defend the farmers with their lethal skills; at a high cost, the bandits are killed and the agricultural community can live in peace again, the pacifists determined to remember the high cost paid by their mercenary defenders. (I can remember blowing a friend's mind when I pointed out that A Bug's Life has this exact same plot, though I don't recall such a high mortality rate among the Magnificent Insecta in that retelling of the story.)

All right, stop me if you've heard this one as well:  A gigantic mobile space platform has a weapon capable of destroying an entire planet. The leader of the evil forces threatens destruction on an innocent galaxy, smashing all resistance. A young farm boy, guided by an aged mentor figure, learns his own capabilities for war as he becomes part of a ragtag group of starship pilots that make a suicidally brave run on the planet-killing battle station, destroying it at the last moment and freeing the galaxy from tyranny--or at least this particular source of tyranny.

See what I mean? At this point in his production career, even Corman's ripoffs were aiming high. And this was the most expensive movie he'd produced, since he knew that you have to spend a little bit of cash on production values if you're making an epic. In keeping with his reputation as Hollywood's greatest talent scout, Corman also had a secret weapon--a young James Cameron used this film as his foot in the door to moviemaking; he was hired to build model spaceships and wound up more or less singlehandedly building all the spaceship sets and effects sequences (some of the other model makers on this movie have gone on to work for Cameron on his massive-budget spectacles; more Corman alumni working in A pictures).

On the planet Akir (its inhabitants are called the Akira, and I'm embarrassed to say I didn't notice that was a reference to Kurosawa the first three times I saw this movie), the peaceful farmers who till the only fertile soil on the globe get a hell of a shock when their manned weather-monitoring satellite is vaporized by a gigantic warship and a huge blue hologram of John Saxon's head gives them an ultimatum:  Join his planetary empire (he needs food for his troops, and Akir has crops) or he'll use a stellar converter to turn Akir into a dwarf sun--which would kill every living thing on the planet, down to and including bacteria. Sador, the tyrant, says he'll give them a week to think it over and laser-blasts a few Akira from orbit to show that they don't have a chance. He takes his gigantic spaceship and leaves for another planet that he's gonna go bully.

On Akir, a desperate plan is hatched. They have one spaceship, owned by the only Akira to have ever fought in a war--an old man named Zed who is too old and blind to pilot it any more. Shad, a farmboy turning into a farm man, says the AI that runs the ship's systems trusts him and that he's flown it before. He can go out into the universe and find warriors capable of putting up resistance against Sador's fleet and save Akir (and every other planet in Sador's nascent empire, while he's at it). The debate about what to do is guided by references to "the Varda", a collection of pacifist and Eastern-sounding philosophical commands. They eventually decide that capitulation is unacceptable and Shad will go find violent lifeforms to fight for them, hoping that when the present crisis has been resolved, their planet hasn't been turned into plasma and the mercenaries can be persuaded to leave (or, if they're going to stay, not to turn their violent natures on the Akira).

Shad has a brief talk with "Nell", the computer that controls Zed's ship, and they come to terms with the fact that Shad's young and inexperienced. He seems resolute when he mentions that if they don't make it, nobody else is going to either. At least he knows how high the stakes are, even if he's never done anything remotely like this before. We get one of those "the ship takes off for the first time as the soundtrack swells" moments, and the highly mockable design of Shad's borrowed spacecraft shows up for the first time, but not the last.

Inevitable joke:  You could call it the mother ship.

Sador left a patrol ship parked in orbit around Akir, and the dull-witted brutes piloting it decide to destroy Nell as a precaution--they don't have any orders, but on the other hand they don't want any of the Akira escaping the planet before Sador comes back. It turns out that being raised a lifelong pacifist makes for a terrible fighter pilot; Shad can't bring himself to shoot down the attacking ship. Luckily for him, he's a much better pilot than gunner so he avoids getting shot down himself. Also, it turns out that Sador's A team isn't the one that gets stuck on planetary guard duty. Nell flies off as Sador's goons decide not to pursue--they'd rather explain to their overlord that they lost the ship but obeyed orders to stay at Akir than go after Shad and risk a painful disciplinary lesson if they get found out.

Shad's first stop is a space station run by Doctor Hephaestus; it's a forbidding mass of spheres and tubes that's eerily silent and unresponsive as Shad pilots Nell into a docking bay. Zed knew Hephaestus back in his younger days and says he's a genius weapons designer. That's a good thing to have on your side when fighting a space tyrant, all right.

The station is crewed by robots, one of which is being repaired (and used as a tape deck) by Hephaestus' daughter Nanelia. A misunderstanding with a travel car and the fact that Nanelia didn't know there was another living creature on the station almost gets Shad disassembled, but thankfully Nanelia notices he's a living form before any of the welding tools get called into play. It turns out that she's the only living person on the station (which is one reason she assumed Shad was a busted robot), and that Hephaestus has about as many factory-original parts left as RoboCop did (he's immobilized in some kind of life-support cage full of Gilliam-esque tubing).

The aged Hephaestus isn't willing to supply weapons to the resistance on Akir, believing in his old age that might makes right. The Varda teach the Akira otherwise, and they don't hassle anyone. Hephaestus thinks they're up shit creek, then. He's also planning to set Shad up with his daughter so they can repopulate the station themselves. It turns out that he didn't ask Shad about this ahead of time, or Nanelia, either (which is even less forgivable). This leads to the universe's most awkward first date (although Shad isn't a jerk or anything; it's just that Nanelia has never lived anywhere else but the station and Shad has a lot of other things on his mind). Also, let me just say I love that the sound effect used on this space station whenever the doors open or close is someone breathing through a SCUBA respirator, which is also what got used for Darth Vader's life-support mechanism. It's a cheeky salute from the filmmakers to one of their inspirations. Shad bails on the "get kept forever as Nanelia's husband" plan; she follows him a moment after. They didn't get any weapons, but she's got an analytical computer that might help with the planning of Akir's defense.

Meanwhile, Sador's got the response from another planet that he gave the "surrender or die" ultimatum to--they powdered his diplomatic officer and returned him in a Crown Royal bag. Sador takes this pretty badly, all things considered, and decides to incinerate the entire planet, erasing it and its civilization from the cosmos completely. Maybe the diplomatic officer owed him money.

Shad and Nell come across a spaceship that's the equivalent of a long-haul cargo semi (complete with a fucking Confederate flag bumper sticker on the cab!); it's Cowboy the cowboy from an obscure planet called Earth. He's broadcasting an SOS because he's got four space-pirate skyjackers on his tail. Shad makes pretty short work of the reavers once he gets over his aversion to shooting them in the back--ethics in a dogfight will get you killed pretty quickly. And the movie addresses the trauma that Shad feels at taking life; he isn't instantly turned into a Charles Bronson character because he won a space dogfight. Cowboy doesn't think picking a fight with Sador is a winning proposition, or even a survivable one. But he was ferrying a load of weapons to the planet that decided not to submit to him, and now that it's a mass of incandescent gas instead of a ball of rock with living forms on it, he's got a load of weapons that Akir can have free gratis that are already paid for, and which he doesn't have the fuel to haul anywhere else. He says he'll take charge of the ground defenses and train the Akira in using the beam rifles, but his ship is a cargo hauler, not a Spitfire.

Time for another "meanwhile"; Nanelia's ship gets attacked by a space-cloud creature, which gets destroyed by a conveniently arriving ship. The pilot of the rescue ship is a lizardman named Cayman (get it?), who plans to sell Nanelia to the highest bidder, either as a slave or to be cooked and eaten. It turns out that Cayman is the last of his species (who pissed Sador off one way or another), and is willing to sign on to defend Akir if it means getting a decent shot at the genocidal maniac that wiped out his species. He also has a pair of "Kelvin", bald mute creatures that communicate through giving off heat, in his crew. Looks like the motley band of ragtag rebels is getting a few aliens to go along with the human and human-looking members.

And hey, Shad gets tractor-beamed into a ship run by The Nestor, a race of three-eyed telepathic hiveminded clones. It turns out that they're looking for new experiences (if The Nestor isn't stimulated, its hive mind could literally be bored to death) and joining up on an attack on Sador's flagship would certainly be interesting, no matter what else it is. They also take a quick peek inside Shad's head without him noticing; they know he's not a violent person even if he tries to front as one.

The next place Shade winds up on is a tiny planetoid with a storm-wracked atmosphere, the home to uber-mercenary Gelt. Gelt, as it turns out, is one of the deadliest space-fighters in the universe. He's fought for or against every species there is and always came out on top. He's been paid hundreds of millions of currency units for his talents, and is so despised as a killer that there isn't a single planet he can spend any of that money on without someone shanking him. He's been in exile on Angry Blue Clouds World for years, and winds up joining Shad's team for the simple promise of a place to live where he doesn't have to be afraid of retaliation. The supreme killer volunteers for life on a planet of pacifists. Full points to John Sayles for that part of the plot, and full points to Robert Vaughn for revisiting his star-making turn in The Magnificent Seven for a quarter-century-later ripoff funded by Roger Corman. He's a real trouper, giving the movie a full-tilt performance. After all, mercenaries do a job for pay. And so do actors.

On the way back to Akir after securing Gelt's services, a fast and incredibly maneuverable ship engages Shad and Nell in a dogfight; they lose but the mystery ship hits them with the laser-blast equivalent of a blank round, showing that they would have lost if it was for real. Then Shad gets a call from the quick fighter; it's Saint Exmin of the Valkyrie race (and yet another significant name for a new character--we get it, John, we get it). Exmin is the hotshot kid character, the gunfighter who wants to prove that they're as good as anyone else. Shad tells her to get lost, possibly because the picture-phone in his ship didn't show the absoludicrous outfit that Sybil Danning wears in this scene.

The clones, Cowboy, Gelt and Shad head to the Lambda zone to rendezvous with the rest of their forces (and there's a neat little bit of business here--Shad asks Gelt over a private comline if he wants his name announced to the others in their makeshift fleet; he's a polite guy, and trying to respect the wishes of the fighter that wants obscurity and safety more than anything else). They meet up with Cayman, Nanelia and St. Exmin (who follows them to Akir, ignoring the kiss-off that she got from Shad earlier). It's neat to see all the different model ships flying along in formation--there's thought that went into the construction of each ship, planning that lets the audience know about the various characters. The Valkyrie's ship looks rather like a dragonfly and darts around; Nestor's got a slow glowing flying saucer and Gelt's ship is designed so he can run all the systems himself; he only trusts himself with his life, whether or not he's temporarily on a team.

Gelt makes very short work of the patrol ship that Sador's forces parked in orbit and the seven ships land on Akir in order to start working on Planetary Defense 101. The Akira are hiding when the mercenaries show up, and Zed the outsider is fittingly enough the first one to welcome them to the planet. Everyone else makes an appearance, and one of the Akira apologizes for making such a bad first impression on their rescuers. And, yes, this is one of the obligatory scenes if you're gonna be telling this story again. It's vital that the fighters have their feelings hurt by the people they're planning to defend, and vital that the people who need help swallow their pride and get over their trepidation in order to welcome the mercenaries to their village / planet / ant colony.

Nanelia sets up the computer she took from Hephaestus station and shows everyone the weak point on Sador's ship--like all the fighting craft, it needs to drop its shields in order to set off its weapons. When Sador is warming up the stellar converter it will be possible--but far from easy--to get a small craft up close and take out the flagship of his armada. But Sador only ever uses the stellar converter after all attacking ships have been destroyed, so the five combat-capable ships will have to destroy his entire fleet by themselves so that he has no choice but to use the planet-killing weapon in retaliation.

Cowboy multitasks (planning the ground defense on Akir as well as mixing drinks from his scotch-and-soda dispenser belt) and Nanelia tries to put the moves on Shad (interrupting a couple times to talk about other species' mating rituals while Shad tries to get his smoove on). Later that night Cowboy serenades everyone with a harmonica and they cook hot dogs on the radiant heat provided by the Kelvin (I am not making this up). Sybil Danning shows off another, even crazier outfit than her previous one. It's the moment of calm before the storm. We also get a moment where two Akira children talk to Gelt about whether or not he's a bad man. ("How do you feel?" "I don't."), and then the perimeter alarm goes off and it's go time.

The big space battle commences, and this is where the film's budget and rushed production schedule really becomes apparent. The ships all look neat and there's stuff blowing up and lasers going FREEM! and everything, but there's just about no geography established in the shots. We know there's the flagship, the planet, Sador's fighters and the ragtag rebels, but mostly it's just shots of those things going towards the camera by themselves, not in the same space as other craft and there's not really any way to tell how the battle is going with a series of closeups of spaceship models and stone-faced reaction shots from an actor or two. Especially considering the huge battle scenes at the end of The Empire Strikes Back (remember, it was released the same year as this movie), this one tends to disappoint. And that's really too bad, because even with the inexpensive sets and props, there was a lot of charm to be found in the script and performances.

There's not a heck of a lot I can say about the big end fight; the rebels get whittled down piece by piece in the sky, while the ground assault on Akir gets foiled when Sador's forces use a "sonic tank" against the rebels, but the Kelvin--who cannot perceive sound--heat it with their own bodily emanations till it breaks. Cayman makes a suicide run on Sador's flagship and damages it at the cost of his own life. Gelt is eventually shot down (and buried with honor, with an offering of food--Shad makes sure he gets his meal and a place to rest at last). Saint Exmin manages a beautiful death in battle, and a damaged Nell sets her own self-destruct and parks next to the stellar converter, destroying Sador's ship and empire as her final act.

And back on Akir, Shad has grown through his experiences in the wider universe. I'm guessing that he'll be boss of the settlement on his planet, and that he'll actually do a really good job now that he's seen a little bit of the wider verse out there and knows the value of the forms out there. It's the science-fictional equivalent of "and they all lived happily ever after", perhaps, but with Sador gone from the universe they've got a better chance at actually achieving that ending now.

What makes the Roger Corman-produced ripoffs so much more entertaining than the current B avatars like the inevitable Asylum Pictures mockbusters? Well, in a nutshell, Corman gave a damn. I'm not saying that the distribution channels in 1960, 1980 and 2010 are all the same (those would be, roughly, the eras of the drive-in, the VCR and Netflix) but even when there wasn't any money or time, Corman's proteges tried to make sure that every penny they could pry from his grip got spent to make an entertaining movie. Battle Beyond the Stars can't really compete with the A list space adventures in the Star Wars or Star Trek franchises, but you can tell they were trying. The name actor in this flick is someone who had a decades-long career in film and television, and is almost reprising his role from The Magnificent Seven to boot. That's quite a higher mark than getting a former sitcom actor or 80s pop singer to take on the Sharknado or Transmorphers. They did the best they could with what they had, rather than just filling up time between commercial breaks with a crappy movie that people will watch out of ironic non-enjoyment.

I miss the good old days when you could see something like this in an actual theater.

This review is part of the "Sincerest Form of Fraudulence" roundtable that my fellow celluloid zeroes are taking a shot at. We're not the B Masters' Cabal, but...well, they do review roundabouts all the time and we thought we'd do our own little homage to their group efforts. Or, since our reputations are hopefully grimy enough, we could perhaps be comfortable calling a ripoff a ripoff. Just this once.

The Terrible Claw Reviews gets in a scrap with the Corman-produced Carnosaur 2.

Cinemasochist Apocalypse...I can't think of a pun that won't make Bryan want to punch me. He's reviewing Inseminoid.

Tomb of Anubis gets into gear with Death Racers.

Micro-Brewed Reviews will plug in to Cyberjack.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

WarGames (1983)

Written by Lawrence Lasker & Walter F. Parkes
Directed by John Badham

Matthew Broderick:  David Lightman
Ally Sheedy:  Jennifer Mack
Dabney Coleman:  Dr. John McKittrick
John Wood:  Dr. Stephen Falken
Barry Corbin:  General Beringer
With Maury Chaykin and Eddie Deezen as Jim Sting and Malvin, a pair of hackers

I can't believe this movie is thirty-one years old. I remember catching it in the theater and having my shaky and incomplete understanding of global politics irretrievably changed. In fact, I still feel the same way now that I did when I was eight years old and watching the dominoes fall in the story. I've just read more about the US military's nuclear program since then, and learned that I've got more reasons to feel the way I did. It's nice to know I was right all along.

The film starts with an absolutely riveting sequence--two Air Force officers (one of them a shockingly young Michael Madsen) start their 24-hour-long session in a missile command bunker. They've only been on duty a minute or two when a launch order comes through. The pair go through the various steps that it takes to authenticate the orders, arm the missiles, set the targets for the nuclear weapons and go within five seconds of launching the missiles when the older officer refuses to turn the key. It turns out that he's unwilling to use an atomic weapon without being absolutely certain that World War III has broken out and there's no communication with the world outside his bunker. The younger officer draws his sidearm and commands the older one to turn his key or get shot; it's a moment of homicidal insanity made possible by a series of logical steps followed by two obedient soldiers. It's Dr. Strangelove played straight and it's utterly horrifying to consider an obedient airman threatening to murder a superior officer for not preparing to incinerate twenty million civilians without warning. And then, without resolving the scene, we get the opening credits (in a blocky computer font that probably looked really advanced in 1983) over footage of the NORAD command center that oversees the American nuclear weapons facilities.

And in the facility? A couple of extremely high-ranking Air Force officers and McKittrick, the civilian overseeing the command bunker; they're being hassled by a Presidential envoy who wants to know why the officers from the pre-credits sequence didn't launch the missiles when the time came to turn their keys. It turns out that it was a drill (although the two officers with their fingers on the button didn't know that), and that two out of nine launch drills end with the missile commanders refusing to launch. Since the only point to America having those nuclear weapons is the total extermination of life on Earth once a nuclear war starts, it makes sense (for a given value of "sense") that the officers would need to turn their keys every single time. (McKittrick has a particularly horrible turn of phrase when he says some of the officers "just aren't up to" the responsibility of killing everyone in the Soviet bloc).

McKittrick believes that no plan and no amount of training and drilling can ever overcome the randomness inherent in the human mind, and that by making a system with no human input it would be possible to launch the missiles ten times out of ten; it's ghastly, but he's got a point. If the geopolitical situation ever deteriorated to the point where nuclear war was actually happening, then those missiles need to be launched. They serve no purpose whatsoever if they're dormant in a silo when the balloon goes up. And the best guess from everyone involved is that there would be a six minute gap between a Soviet submarine launch and the first detonation on American soil. Much of the system is already automated (and McKittrick and the Air Force personnel both expect that the pre-existing nuclear battle plans will be carried out rather than having to improvise something on the fly). McKittrick wants to automate the launches completely and avoid the human element when carrying out a nuclear attack--not because someone might set off a nuke in a fit of pique, but because they might not. His plan is to use a supercomputer called W.O.P.R. (War Operation Plan Response); it's going to run continual simulations of nuclear combat between America and the USSR, using a primitive artificial intelligence to learn from each iteration of World War III simulations and plan more effective plans bit by bit. Other than the lights that are supposed to suggest eyes and a mouth on one of the computer's readouts, W.O.P.R. looks totally boss and is one of the better pieces of science-fiction production design that you're going to see out of the eighties. Just try not to look at the goofy computer clown face when it's in shot.

McKittrick's a pretty persuasive talker, and the Presidential advisor says he'll recommend computerized control of the American nuclear arsenal, a great idea that could never possibly go wrong.

The rest of the movie tells the story of how that idea goes wrong.

A bright but bored high school student in Seattle, David Lightman, is blowing off school to play Galaga. He didn't think Tony Stark would notice, but he did. (Also, kudos to Matthew Broderick for doing his own video game playing; at least in 1983, he was pretty damn good at Galaga.) The soundtrack is playing the kind of song you wind up with when Buckner and Garcia wanted too much money for "Pac Man Fever"; David flees the soundtrack and goes to school just in time to find out he got an F on a biology test. He sasses the teacher (who, to be fair, is coming across as kind of an asshole) and gets booted out of class to discuss his attitude problem with a student counselor. While he's waiting to get lectured, he takes a peek at the probably-not-as-secure-as-the-school-administrators-think-it-is password list for the central grade computer and notes the one that's currently in use.

After his attitude adjustment session, David gets a moped ride home from one of his classmates, Jennifer Mack (who indirectly got him in trouble in Biology by finding his mockery of the teacher incredibly amusing). They talk about flunking the test and Jennifer says she'll see him in summer school. He says he won't have to make up the class, and offers to show her how he'll be avoiding it. It turns out that he's got a massive desktop PC (with a futuristic-for-the-time 8" floppy drive and a modem structured like a telephone cradle). He demonstrates his mad skills (which mostly consist of knowing a hell of a lot more about manipulating the school's computer system than they would assume any high school student would) and gives himself a C in the course. He offers to change Jennifer's grade as well, but she demands that he switches the C back to an F, preferring makeup classes to the possibility of getting caught changing the grades.

Later, David sees an ad promising all kinds of wonderful games from a company in California called Protovision; he sets his kitbashed system up to dial every number in Sunnyvale in order to find another modem line. He assumes that there will only be one modem line in Sunnyvale and at the other end of that line is the mainframe at Protovision; if he's smart enough he can figure out how to play the new Christmas releases a couple of months early. Jennifer tracks him down at the Galaga machine and asks if he can alter her biology grade; they're back at the Light house shortly thereafter and David says he already gave her an A in the course because he figured she'd want him to do that. There's some nice getting-to-know-someone chemistry in this scene, and it's a rough parallel to the Air Force discussions about keeping humans out of the decision loop at NORAD. There's a brief almost-argument between Jennifer and David over whether or not he should have changed her grade without telling her (even though she wants him to do it now), and then she's angry when he says at first that she got a D so at least she's passing the class. There's a lot of ethical issues around "I'm mad at you for giving me a lower grade than I wanted when you were illegally breaking into the school's computer system" that I'm not even remotely qualified to unpack. But it is a very human discussion to have.

David shows off his ability to play around in other systems while combing through the half-dozen modem numbers he dug up through the laborious modem-dialing program (while trying to impress Jennifer he's able to make a ticket reservation for a Pan Am flight to Paris, but not to actually create the ticket out of digital thin air). An unidentified system has a list of simulation games on it ranging from checkers to something called "Global Thermonuclear War". David thinks he's hit the jackpot and that he'll be able to goof around on Protovision's system playing things early and free. Which is terrible news, because he's actually called up a line connected to W.O.P.R. and what he assumes are a list of amusements are actually modules inside the wargaming machine meant to simulate various aspects of armed conflict on a nationwide level. And something called "Falken's Maze", which I assume David assumes is full of orcs and kobolds.

The teens stop by a computer science lab at some kind of university building (I think), to talk to Jim and Malvin, a pair of original issue hackers that hopefully will give him advice on how to log into the mainframe he's found and play some computer games. Jim's a teddy-bear shaped former hippie and Malvin is played by Eddie Deezen at his Deeziest. They may be dorks (scratch "may" for Malvin), but they're incredibly smart and have an encylopedic knowledge of computer network security. They tell David (and the audience) about a back door password; a simple password that a network designer adds in and keeps private so that he can always get back in if he has to or wants to. In 1983, that was nowhere near common knowledge, so good on the screenwriters for getting this information across entertainingly. Also, Ally Sheedy has a couple of great reaction shots listening to the nerdfest. Malvin even knows enough about his field to recognize "Falken's Maze". It's not a dungeon crawl; it's a reference to creating artificial intelligence and teaching a computer to learn from past "experiences".

The Falken that the program refers to is Dr. Stephen Falken; he's a strategic theorist and super-genius computer programmer with an interest in Cold War political posturing (an article written by Falken that David looks up on microfilm is about bluffing with WMDs and credits John McKittrick as a cowriter). David spends several days or possibly even weeks trying every word he can think of related to Falken's work and interests and fails to guess the back door password every time. It turns out he's been blowing off school to do this for an entire week, which is actually pretty accurate for a socially maladjusted serial-obsessive nerd with his hooks stuck in a new interest. Jennifer stops by the Lightman house to see if he's sick (nope--just not going to school) and while looking through the pile of research she gives David the final clue he needs to guess the password--Falken's wife and son died in a car accident, and it turns out his son's name--Joshua--is the password he installed to get back into the W.O.P.R. system if he wanted to or had to. And now David, a bright kid who doesn't necessarily think things through, has figured out how to talk to a military supercomputer that created to do nothing but consider the most effective ways to exterminate the human race all day.

David's elated that he's able to converse with the primitive AI, and even happier when it asks him if he wants to play a game. To the extent that a bundle of code can, the W.O.P.R. appears to have missed Falken--who he thinks David is, for having logged in with Falken's old backdoor password--and might even appreciate the novelty of playing something other than war simulations. Unfortunately for the machine, David only has eyes for Global Thermonuclear War. He and Jennifer have a great deal of fun selecting targets for a nuclear strike, because it's all just a game and there won't be any actual consequences. They even select Seattle as the second target, incinerating their own backyard because why not?

Back at NORAD, the big board lights up with launch warnings and everyone at the facility springs into action (and the much older Tim is glad to hear that the first protocol when there's a launch notice is to check for malfunctioning software or hardware; nice to see that atomic warfare isn't the default response at NORAD). The next reponses include getting bombers and missiles ready to attack the Soviet bloc, though, and everyone goes about their business efficiently to start setting that up. Among the "hey, that guy" character actors on the NORAD set:  the hotel manager from Ghostbusters and the office boss from Herman's Head. Everyone at the command center is baffled when the inbound missiles vanish from their displays. One of the techies on the computer staff runs in to tell everyone that it's some sort of unpredictable mishap, and that an outside person fed a training simulation into W.O.P.R., which misinterpreted the war game as an actual attack. General Beringer is less than amused by this turn of events. In the manner of phone traces in movies throughout all of cinema history, the NORAD equipment didn't have enough time to complete the trace but they do know whoever it was that got in touch with W.O.P.R. is in or near Seattle.

The next day, the evening news has a report about a computer malfunction that made NORAD briefly think America was under nuclear attack; Jennifer calls David up to collectively freak out about what they did while playing what they thought was just some kind of advanced computer game (and actually was, now that I think about it, but not one made by Introvision to separate nerds of the 80s from their dollars). Jennifer consoles David by pointing out that NORAD would have already found him if they were going to and the young hacker goes into evidence-destroying mode. He figures everything's going to be all right until his phone rings and it's W.O.P.R. wanting to continue the game with Falken; David tries to tell the computer he isn't the professor but is completely ignored. He hangs up on the machine but it just keeps calling back, so David unplugs the phone and tries to keep his heart rate under 200 or so.

Whether or not he accomplishes that after making it impossible for W.O.P.R. to call him that night, it sure as hell doesn't work the next day when the FBI arrests him outside a convenience store and he gets bundled into a nondescript van and transferred to NORAD headquarters for extensive questioning. As he's being ferried to the command center, McKittrick, Beringer and a bunch of government officials are debating whether or not a high schooler could have accidentally gotten in touch with their supercomputer while looking for a toy company. It certainly doesn't look good that he used a password so obscure that the current programming team didn't even know it was in the system, and he fits the psychological profile of someone that the Soviets could easily recruit to work against America (although I'm willing to bet that the official FBI profile would be broad enough to include everyone but the profilers, one way or another).

McKittrick decides to talk to David man-to-terrified-and-out-of-his-depth-teenager to determine what the hell is going on with the security breach and instantly refuses to believe that the AI (which David calls "Joshua", since it's Falken's creation) could have called anyone. And there's some damning circumstantial evidence from David's earlier hacking that makes it look like he was planning to escape to Paris with an accomplice. And like all good authority figures in movies, McKittrick already has his mind made up about David's situation and isn't willing to listen to the rather unbelievable truth when David tries to tell it to him.

Things escalate from here--the Soviets' response to the American response to the fictitous alert means that both superpowers are edgy and don't want to back down until the other one does, and that means that McKittrick gets called back to his duties on the command center floor; when he's alone in the room David logs back on to the system (using the "Joshua" backdoor login) and finds that W.O.P.R. is planning to run the "game" in real time, with an estimate of 72 million Americans dead in the first wave of missile attacks. There's a ticking timer on the game and McKittrick's secretary calls in a goon squad when she sees David on the terminal in her boss's office. Nobody's particularly willing to listen to David in terrified nonsensical ranting mode and he gets locked up to cool his heels until he can be shipped off to Denver and charged with espionage.

David figures out how to pick the electronic lock on the infirmary (which shows the audience that he's actually really clever, and would certainly convince the FBI and NORAD staff that he's a highly trained and dangerous espionage agent) and manages to avoid detection long enough to get out of the facility with the tour group that's been a mild headache for all the officials during this sequence. Bonus points to the movie for showing more than a little "social engineering"--hackers and phone preakers used people's expectations as levers to manipulate them and do what they wanted to do all the time and it's cool to see David getting out of situations because he knows how to tell people what they want to hear rather than just punch someone out and run away.

David makes a coinless call from a pay phone and asks Jennifer to buy him a plane ticket so he can get out of Colorado and to Oregon in an effort to find Falken (who is not nearly as dead as the Department of Defense wanted anyone to believe) and get him to convince W.O.P.R. to stop playing its "game" before there are real consequences that nobody will be able to take back. They find Falken (who is goofing around with a pteranodon-shaped glider on his land), who greets them with "You're on my land and I didn't invite you", and then a series of commands that sound like something out of an Infocom game that tell them how to leave his property. David uses the magic word "Joshua" and Falken freezes in his tracks.

Back at NORAD command, General Berlinger is trying to make sense of the information in front of him on the display board; sending out fighter jets to get a look at the Soviet bombers on the radar screen means that he has to trust either his eyes (looking at the display in the underground bunker) or his ears (when the fighter pilots tell him they can't find anything on their radar screens and can see for forty miles in every direction and can't see any Soviet aircraft). Tension remains high but the people in charge are at least aware that things aren't exactly what they seem to be.

Falken tries to console Jennifer and David by telling them that extinction is just part of the cycle of life (showing some boss stop-motion dinosaur movie footage on his home projector) and that humanity had its chance. Nature will start over with some other animal and life will continue even if the human race manages to destroy itself. The teens take this extraordinarily badly and don't feel any better when Falken informs them that his house is three miles from a primary nuclear target, chosen so that he'll be "spared the horror of survival" in the event of World War III. David and Jennifer leave his house and try looking for a boat in order to get off the island Falken lives on. They don't find one ("What kind of an asshole lives on an island and doesn't own a boat?") and commiserate about the existential horror of knowing that everything they love will be going up in a nuclear fireball tomorrow morning.

Their conversation and kiss is interrupted by a helicopter arriving--they think it's the military but it turns out to be Falken's personal whirlybird. He takes them to NORAD just in time to get sealed up inside; the simulation has proceeded to the point where the "Soviet" missiles are on their way towards targets in America and the facility is at DefCon 1. Falken tries to run Beringer--who has been a belligerent asshole towards all the civilians he's talked to for the entire movie--through basic game theory so he understands that the Soviets aren't going to launch an attack that would result in retaliatory devastation out of nowhere. Beringer listens to reason and refuses to launch, even though the screens at the command center are telling him that the country has been utterly devastated. A conference call with the officers in charge of three Air Force bases that were the first to be "hit" confirms that none of the data on the huge display screens is accurate. Everyone in the bunker cheers and rejoices, having been as close as possible to the end of everything and seeing that it didn't happen.

Until W.O.P.R. takes control of the American launch systems for the end of the "game", preparing to play out the simulation with real weapons--and it's not letting any of the NORAD personnel log on to the system to stop the launches. The last ten minutes of the film are as armrest-clutching riveting as the beginning of the film, with Falken having to figure out a way to teach "Joshua" how to give up on a game. Which is something he'd never been able to get the machine intelligence to do before; he was able to program it to understand wins and losses and even stalemates, but never futility. If the machine doesn't learn that some games aren't worth playing before it cracks the launch code, it's all over for humanity. McKittrick has indeed designed a system that will prevent human beings from stopping a nuclear missile launch, but it turns out that the ability for a person to say "no" when confronted with mass murder on a literally unthinkable scale is vitally important and if Joshua doesn't learn that there's no way to win "Global Thermonuclear War" in the next couple of minutes, he's going to learn it for the first and final time when the missiles go up.

If I'd really understood the geopolitical situation in 1983 when I saw this movie, I would have been a gibbering, semi-catatonic wreck after seeing the film. Looking at the systems put in place to end human life on Earth turns you into a Lovecraft protagonist (Charles Stross wrote the bleak masterpiece "A Colder War" after realizing how much growing up in the UK during the Reagan-Thatcher years made him realize that he was at the mercy of powers he could never bargain with or understand, capable of exterminating his life in an instant without realizing or caring).

The missiles existed in order to never be used, except that if they were ever used, they'd need to be launched, so only a dispassionate system could be trusted to actually kill all of humanity if it ever came to that. But both sides (supposedly) knew this, and built more missiles in order to keep from blinking when staring into the abyss and planning more and better ways to wipe out their political rivals at the cost of their own existence. Because once you have a gun pointed at your enemy's head and they have one pointed at yours, the riskiest move imaginable is to point the gun somewhere else.

Another thing to remember, when watching this film:  No enemy force ever used a nuclear weapon against America, but every test to make the missiles more accurate, more powerful, and capable of killing more people was the USA bombing itself. What's the point of being proud of avoiding a Soviet attack if you've used nuclear weapons on your own soil, exposed your own troops to fallout, and given cancer to tens of thousands of unlucky people living downwind of your tests? For decades, this is what American leaders did to American people. This is the "victory" from the Cold War--that our enemies never irradiated us, but the people we put in charge did, over and over and over again.

"The only winning move is not to play", indeed.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Telstar: The Joe Meek Story (2008)

Written by Nick Moran and James Hicks
Directed by Nick Moran

Con O'Neill:  Joe Meek
Tom Burke:  Geoff Goddard
Pam Ferris:  Mrs. Violet Shenton
JJ Feild:  Heinz Burt
With an unrecognizable Kevin Spacey as Major Banks
Featuring John Leyton, Clem Cattini, Chas Hodges, Patrick Pink, Carl Barat, Justin Hawkins, Jess Conrad and Jake Arnott in a series of cameos

On July 10, 1962, the first active communications satellite was successfully launched; Telstar I ushered in a new age of instantaneous electronic communications between continents and was the first American victory in the space race; finally, the capitalists did something other than play catchup to the USSR. It was the great-great-great-grandfather, technologically, of the internet and if it weren't for Telstar you'd have to do something more fulfilling and enlightening than read cult movie reviews on the internet.

What a horrible world that would be.

The satellite inspired Robert George "Joe" Meek, the first independent record producer in England, to write a song that nobody in the world thought would be a hit (I've heard interviews with the band members who recorded the track, saying they hoped they wouldn't be credited on the single because they thought it would end their careers before they began). It was an instrumental played on the clavioline, a synthesizer so primitive that it couldn't play chords--just single notes. The start and fadeout of the song featured all kinds of insanely complicated science-fictional noises--and incidentally, nobody's ever been able to replicate those sounds. Lots of people have tried. None have succeeded.

The song, "Telstar", sold five million copies. It was the first 45 from a British group to hit #1 in the United States, so it was also the opening shot of the British Invasion. Like the Beatles? The Stones? The Who? You know about them, at least tangentially, because of Joe Meek. Things didn't end well for the pioneer; during an amphetamine-fueled psychotic break he shot his landlady and then committed suicide. He died penniless due to a spurious lawsuit filed against him to try and claim the royalties to "Telstar". Also, if anyone out there in my readership knows Jean LeDrut, tell him he's an asshole.

And more than four decades after Meek's death, the curly-haired guy from Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels co-wrote and directed a movie about him. Speaking as someone who's had "Telstar" stuck in his head for sixteen years and counting, owns every Joe Meek CD released in the English-speaking world and who has a degree in film studies, I'm probably the person most predisposed to hate the movie for any inaccuracies in the story, for condensing a several-year career into 99 minutes of film, or for reflecting badly on one of my cultural heroes, or maybe just for not quite living up to the promise of the material (Moran was a first-time director, after all, and how often to they make a masterpiece the first time out?).

It's damned close to being a masterpiece.

The film starts with a scene that makes perfect sense to an audience that doesn't know anything about Joe Meek; a young boy is goofing around in a shed with a soldering iron and a bunch of 1930s-vintage electronic equipment. A hand-cranked record player scratches along repetitively, the needle dragging through the runout groove at the end of an old 78. His mother calls him in to the house, and he yells that he'll be along "In a minute!"; the shout, echoing through the speaker tube of the old gramophone and gets impressed onto the record. The hair on my arms stood up when I realized the movie started with the first Joe Meek recording.

And why is that so important? Because if you like pop and rock music, Joe Meek is the most important man you've never heard of. Among other things, he was the first record producer to put a microphone on individual instruments to get a cleaner tone (rather than the "stick a mike in the middle of the room and have everyone play at it" scheme used from the 1890s till then). Think about that--it was actually a radical act to try and make the songs sound clearer. And, if the legends are true, messing around with the balance boards and doing other seriously unconventional things like putting a microphone inside a drum for a cleaner sound got Meek fired from every record label in London. Why did the next place hire him? Because even at the dawn of his career, he was that good (the Meek-engineered "Bad Penny Blues" by Humphrey Lyttleton was the first jazz single to crack the top 20 in the UK; even the performer credited Joe Meek with the record's success rather than saying he wrote a hit). All right. Digression over.

Based on that first 30 second sequence, I decided to trust the director and not preemptively hate on his film. It won me over in less than half a minute, featuring none of the actors that would be in the rest of the movie. Quite an achievement for anyone, now that I think about it. The scene Moran presented was one that was mentioned on an excerpt from an audio-tape diary that Meek kept when he was in London producing records (I heard it because it's on the out-of-print box set Portrait of a Genius:  The RGM Sound; of course I bought a copy the day it was released).

The scene fades to the present, with a family photo being tossed onto a fire. And now I know this film won't have a happy ending, because I know exactly what that scene fragment is promising. And even if you weren't a huge Meek obsessive like me, you'd be able to tell from the grey, washed-out cinematography that it's not good times ahead for whoever that little kid is going to grow up to become even if the fact that he's sitting alone in a room burning mementos while dressed in black head-to-toe didn't clue you in.

And then the titles! Lots of shots of pre-Beatles London, the swinging big city of electric lights and fashionable young men and women taking control of pop culture. Boss haircuts! Clothing that's a splash of color (or, perhaps more properly, "colour") in a sea of staid middle-aged people wearing sober dark suits! And--last but not least--numerous clips of people working the controls on sound boards and pressing records at plastics plant. This is the rare musical biopic that remembers those discs have to be manufactured, by the producer and by the pressing plant. I don't believe Ray or Walk the Line or The Doors or The Buddy Holly Story or This is Elvis or La Bamba spent any time watching the singles get stamped out on pressing machines. There's a tendency in rock and pop biopics to present the star as a creative force in a vacuum and I do appreciate that this one corrects that tendency, at least a little.

The film starts with an outsider's view; a young man in a suit, tie and scarf looking in at a television set in a shop window that's showing a promo for "Harper's West One", an evening drama / soap opera about the staff of a department store in London. The ad promises a special appearance by John Leyton, star of "Biggles" (an adventure show about a fighter ace in the first World War); the young man walks away from the appliance store and next door to a handbag and luggage shop at 304 Holloway Road. A brief and inconclusive conversation with Mrs. Violet Shenton follows, and he gets sent to an upstairs flat crowded with musicians and a somewhat belligerent older man who addresses him as "Anton Hollywood" and tries to shove him out the door. The younger man haltingly explains that he's actually named Geoff Goddard and they're recording his song that day. The "Anton Hollywood" business is explained thusly--he was going to be a piano-playing pop star under that pseudonym, but it turns out that he made little grunting noises while he was playing the piano and Meek summarily dismissed the idea of him ever being a star. The older man also mentions that he knows nothing at all about music, but he owns a plastics factory and likes the idea of selling a couple pence' worth of vinyl for a quid. He namechecks skiffle legend Lonnie Donegan as the catalyst for starting up a record label, although he does call him "Lenny". And thinking of "Joe Meek got fired from record companies a lot", watch for the Coen Brothers-style intrusive flashback during a Lonnie Donegan session that shows one of the reasons Meek got sacked.

Meek moves down the upper stairs like a force of nature, explaining why the backup singers are in the bathroom ("Once I've done my magic and added some reverb, it'll sound like a cathedral. Oh, do you need to go?" Geoff:  "No, it'd be embarrasing.") The financier (later revealed to be named Major Banks, because sometimes real people have names like Steve Ditko created them) thinks that backup singers and an orchestra is wastefully extravagant. Meek counters that this single is their first chance for a hit and it can't sound cheap, and besides, it's just two violinists and a guy on a borrowed cello--hardly a full orchestra. Not that he could pack any more string musicians into the closet they're playing in. The movie takes a little while making things clear, but Joe Meek built a full functional record studio in his flat (or lived in the tiny space available in the studio, if you look at it that way). Everything's cluttered with recording equipment or promotional posters and there's barely room to turn around anywhere. It may be cramped but Geoff Goddard likes the energy there, and he's only set foot in the place ten minutes ago.

Things only get more chaotic with the arrival of the promised John Leyton as well as the Outlaws, Joe's studio band (Clem Cattini, by the way, holds a world record for playing on more #1 hits than any other drummer; the real-life Clem has a cameo as the driver dropping John Leyton off for the recording session. One assumes his opinion of the neighborhood that RGM Studios is located in hasn't changed since 1961.) Everyone's rushing about trying to get set up, with the band griping about having to carry all their gear up three flights of stairs. The drummer has the worst time of it, of course, and the sudden rainstorm outside means that the Outlaws' stage costumes are getting soaked and the dye is running. There's a neat running gag here, as well; every time someone asks why the band doesn't have anything to protect themselves from the weather more and more people inform the person asking the question that cowboys didn't have umbrellas.

At the same time, there's a strangely intimate scene between Meek and Goddard where the songwriter asks the producer if it's true about an occult ritual that Meek performed that predicted Buddy Holly's death (he got the month and day right and the year off by one--he tried to warn Buddy Holly to watch out for February 3 but it didn't help). Knowing what I know about Joe Meek (he was gay, at a time when it was illegal to be gay in Britain, and terrified that he'd be outed and embarrass his family) there's a certain amount of subtext to the scene, when Goddard says he's heard something weird about the other man. Watching them bond over a shared interest in spiritualism and seances gives the opening of the film a brief respite from the frantic activity when setting up the recording session. They're also filmed in a triangle--both men facing each other with a framed picture of Buddy Holly on the wall between them. Which is extremely fitting; both men were enormous fans of the late rock legend, with Meek eventually holding seances in order to get songwriting advice from beyond the grave.

Leyton gets waylaid by Mrs. Shenton and has a cup of tea before joining the band. He gives a little monologue about how people only expect to see him in a bomber jacket because of his television work, but he spent years at drama school and could play all kinds of parts. Ironically, the only other acting job Leyton held that most people would have heard about also has him in an RAF jacket; he was the tunnel king that wasn't Charles Bronson in The Great Escape. While he's chatting with the landlady Meek goes from good-humored to furious as the band gets silly about working with Leyton and spitting out dialogue from Biggles. Meek runs off to put a suit jacket on before meeting the famous actor; the guitarist tries to sass the amateur singer and learns that improv and drama school make it possible to mock someone right back. There's also a great line about what exactly a microphone is for in this sequence and a pretty good sight gag at Leyton's expense (he's too short for the mike in the main studio).

Once everyone's in position to record the song we get the movie's first listen at what a Joe Meek track really sounds like (though the quite good "Theme from The Traitors" plays over the opening titles, it's not one of the Big Massive Tracks that I'd say typify the Joe Meek sound). There was an artistic choice here, and it's one I completely agree with. Instead of having the band record the track and then getting the post-production playback, the viewer (and listener) just gets to hear "Johnny Remember Me", the first #1 single off Meek's independent record label. The actors all do a very fine job miming and lip-synching, and there's a couple of flash-forwards--one to Meek and Goddard at a psychic circle asking the spirit of Buddy Holly if the record will be a hit, and one of the band on stage with John Leyton performing once it's topped the charts. There's also a montage of music newsletter front pages crediting Goddard and Holly for the song's success (any publicity is good publicity, right?) and celebrity news saying that John Leyton's gone from TV to pop music to film. During this sequence we also see that Goddard appears to be more than a little smitten with the producer (he's looking at Meek rather than at the camera for their silver record award ceremony).

And then it's back to the present day, with a haunted-looking Joe Meek breaking his record award in half and throwing it into the rubbish tin full of burning papers and photos. Just in case you forgot where this was all going.

That's only the first twenty minutes, by the way. An astounding amount of world-building and character introduction along with a whirlwind of sound and fury, flashbacks, montages, and all kinds of tricks that make the movie look considerably more cinematic than you'd expect from a filmed play set almost entirely in Meek's home / recording studio.

Next up Goddard and Meek are noodling around on the studio piano, trying to come up with a song that can be associated with the Tornados (the new name for the Outlaws); they're the backing band for vocalist Billy Fury while he's touring. Joe wants to write an instrumental that they'll play on their own before the singer joins them for the rest of the show (and Nick Moran shows he's a superfan here, working in the fact that Meek stuck metal drawing pins in the piano hammers to get a more sparkly sound). Meek unpacks and plugs in a clavioline, which was the height of high technology in 1961, but looks roughly the same as one of those massive 1980s cell phones that look like a grey housebrick with a rubber antenna in retrospect. Geoff assures him that a song will eventually come to them and admires the keyboard for its aloof, alien and alienating sound.

During this brainstorming session, Fury's manager calls Joe up to tell him that they're perfectly willing to use a talented band to play behind Fury on stage, but that they don't feel the need to let Meek write or produce any music for Billy Fury. Meek takes it incredibly personally (it doesn't help that the manager takes a shot at the low-budget setup at 304 Holloway Road). A serious mood swing is imminent when a gangling bassist named Heinz Burt shows up for an audition; Meek falls in love essentially at first sight. He gives Heinz money to run to the drugstore for over-the-counter amphetamines ("diet pills" in the parlance of the times) and then promises to give him an audition.

The film skips ahead to July of 1962, when Meek and Heinz, now living together in the flat, are watching a news report on the Telstar satellite. I grinned like a fool when I saw that the side-of-the-screen graphic for my blog was taken from that news clip, incidentally. Meek watches the rest of the news report by himself, fascinated with the visions of the future unspooling in front of him on the telly. We see a shooting star through the window as he wakes up from a fitful sleep (the third one in the movie--one streaked through the sky when Geoff Goddard had the idea for "Johnny Remember Me" and another was in the prologue where a boy yells into a gramophone and destiny comes into his life).

The next thing to happen in the movie really did happen. I've heard the demo tape. Joe Meek plugs a mike into a reel-to-reel recorder and sings something that is just barely recognizable as "Telstar"--or music, for that matter--into the mike, which he then played for his band and for Geoff Goddard as an attempt to tell them what the music inside his head sounded like. By any aesthetic standard you'd care to use, it's appalling.
(Alan Caddy, who would play as a session musician for decades, is quoted in the film as saying "I can't possibly play guitar to this."; he's right.) There's a touch of artistic license as the recording session overpowers the signal on Violet Shenton's radio, causing some broom-handle-against-the-ceiling interference, but eventually the rhythm guitar and drum parts are laid down. We do get another example of Joe Meek's volcanic temper here, with Caddy listing all the other bands he's done sessions for that don't act like the things he's seeing.

Major Banks comes back into the story, complaining about the sheer number of expensive master-quality tapes he has to buy for RGM Sound ("What does he need all these tapes for?" "Dunno...recording?"). There's more tension in the air between Banks and Meek; the financier actually makes a lot of really good points about the cash flow from record sales and the need to grow slowly when starting a new business and Meek isn't having any of it. If he hadn't had that #1 single I can't imagine that Banks would want anything to do with him after the rudeness displayed in this meeting. Meek's also quite a jerk to his full-time assistant, Patrick Pink (although he does also say how nice it is that he can trust the man with money, which apparently wasn't the case for everyone that Meek had a business relationship with).

Also, a moment to congratulate the movie for not sugarcoating what a raging asshole Joe Meek could be to everyone around him. The closest comparison I'm comfortable with is Ed Wood; having read Nightmare of Ecstasy, the biography of the late director compiled via interviews with his actors, friends and creditors, I can authoritatively say the movie gets everything wrong in an attempt to keep the story light and funny. The tone of the Tim Burton movie is spectacular, incidentally, but the screenplay is completely inaccurate. The tone and the script in Telstar are almost always dead on by way of contrast. And of course, this movie was never even released in American theaters and failed to make much of an impact in Britain--so maybe a little bit of sugar coating would have helped its box office reception.

And of course right after I talk about the accuracy of the script, Joe goes down to his business office to take a phone call from Brian Epstein and turn down the Beatles. Which he actually did, along with more than a dozen other labels and producers (though the movie puts "Beatles" on the demo tape label instead of "Quarrymen", which I'm reasonably sure the Liverpool quartet were using for a name at that point in their careers). The tape gets chucked in a rubbish tin as punctuation to a conversation where Clem Cattini vents his spleen about the way the musicians have been treated recently; Banks says that the musicians should trust their producer / manager's judgment seconds prior to the shot of the demo tape getting tossed.

Clem and Alan leave the session; Geoff Goddard arrives and the film launches into a montage that brought me to literal tears the first time I saw it. Over the entirety of "Telstar", the film shows the namesake satellite orbiting the Earth, the Tornados in performance, fragments of news reports in 1962 (including a press conference from JFK where he mentions that he's being broadcast via the satellite at that very moment) and the band's stratospheric rise to the top of the pop charts in both the UK and America. The record sells two million copies in England alone, and cements Meek's reputation as a musical miracle worker, at least for the time being. Also, the real Patrick Pink shows up as the stagehand who gives Meek a telegram in this sequence. Also, I'm very glad that the movie gives Geoff Goddard credit for composing a substantial part of the melody of "Telstar". He was a partner in the creative endeavors, and I'm glad that the movie doesn't ignore his abilities in the interest of building Meek up (check out the dick move when Meek wins the Ivor Novello award for music innovation; he shoves Goddard back down into his chair before going up to make a speech and thank his mother--this scene shows him at his best and worst simultaneously).

Here's the montage, incidentally. You really can't tell that the movie didn't have much money to spend, can you? Although I'm pretty sure that's Kevin Spacey as the unnamed disc jockey pointing out that the Tornados are the first British band to top the charts in the States; maybe he had a free five minutes and they had a tape deck handy to get that line recorded. And with that magnificently laid out montage, for three and a half minutes Joe Meek is on top of the world. I think watching Billy Fury yell at his manager about missing out on a record-setting single might have been more satisfying to Meek than selling two million records.

Of course, when you're on top of the world the only place you can go is down.

And again, to the filmmakers' credit, they don't sugarcoat the downward spiral at all. A series of disastrous business decisions and a meritless lawsuit either use up or freeze all the money that Meek should have made off of the "Telstar" single. His drug use eats away at his personality, which was never all that sunny to begin with. He becomes paranoid, thinking that people are spying on him, monitoring his thoughts and trying to steal his production techniques.

The last thing he was worried about was true, incidentally--it's more than a little inside baseball, but the percussion track to Meek's last #1 hit, the Honeycombs' "Have I the Right", was actually the band stamping on the wooden stairs in the apartment (in a rare lapse, the movie declines to show this and instead has a dozen people all beating drums in unison. I think it was too tough to fit a camera and all the actors in the stairway on the set, but I have no actual information about this). Take a listen to the Dave Clark Five's "Bits and Pieces"--which is a fantastic track, by the way. But it's got a drum track as well as a stamping-feet track, and if the rumors can be believed one of Meek's assistants was the one who produced that song for the DC5. But even if they are watching you and stealing your ideas, you can still be paranoid. And Meek definitely was.

During this same time, the Tornados are on a lengthy tour and Meek is trying to get another hit single (one of his commercially unsustainable ideas was an uptempo song about Jack the Ripper recorded by an R&B enthusiast calling himself Screaming Lord Sutch). Although it was and is a spectacular example of the Joe Meek sound, I think it was somewhere between naive and delusional to expect mainstream audiences to want to hear that on the radio in 1963.

Meek's repeated attempts to make Heinz--perhaps a less talented bassist than Sid Vicious--a star failed to bear fruit, although the tribute track "Just Like Eddie" is a typically excellent Joe Meek production. But you can only catch lightning in a jar so many times, and Heinz wasn't ever the kind of talent that could have had any more hits. Unfortunately in an attempt to seduce the bassist, Meek kept plying him with gifts, including a sports car and a boat ("Even Elvis Presley doesn't have a boat!") and with the hits decreasing in frequency and the royalties to "Telstar" frozen, the money was rapidly gone.

During this time, Meek's mental issues got worse and worse; among other things, he pulled a shotgun on Mitch Mitchell (who would later play drums for the Jimi Hendrix Experience) and offering him two options:  Play his part properly or get his fucking head blown off. At the same time he poisoned his working relationships with Major Banks and Geoff Goddard, losing critical financial and artistic support just when he needed them the most. On top of that, the Beatles were rewriting the rules for pop and rock music and leaving the shiny-suit bands like the Tornados far behind in the cultural landscape. Bands were recording albums instead of singles and Meek, for all his production wizardry, was spectacularly ill-suited for a system where the bands called the shots on how the records were supposed to sound.

Clem Cattini wound up playing drums for a new combo called the Kinks, incidentally. It's definitely too bad that they never recorded anything for Meek, but on the other hand someone was going to get thrown out a window if Ray Davies and Joe Meek had creative differences during a recording session.

During this same period, Meek was arrested for "importuning", the police code for homosexual activity, and was blackmailed by people who made it their business to know who had their collar felt for illegal gayness. Since Meek was terrified that exposure would wreck his music career and humiliate his family, he paid the blackmailers rather than risk ruination.

During this timespan there's an almost unwatchably painful scene where Heinz leaves Joe for the last time and he tries to pull himself together enough to mix a song; it's the staircase-stomping track referenced above, his last #1 hit on the English charts, and it has a chorus that sounds like he's having his heart torn out while working on the mix:

Come right back, I just can't bear it
I've got some love and I long to share it

The song is a joyously noisy chaos of guitar and thudding percussion; if I played it for you and said it was actually the Clash you might have been convinced. But the lyrics, written on their own, look like a suicide note.

And that leads up to where the story ends. Penniless and having a psychotic break thanks to years of amphetamine abuse, a sweat-soaked and exhausted Meek winds up waving a shotgun around in his filthy, dimly lit bedroom and babbling about how everything's gone wrong. He doesn't even realize how little sense he's making as he questions Mrs. Shenton about who a mystery man is that he's seen around the handbag store; it turns out to be a real estate agent because the Shentons are planning to retire and sell off the shop as well as the flat that Meek has been living in.

And that finally penetrates the haze of drugs and fear; it wasn't Phil Spector or George Martin trying to plant bugs in his flat in order to figure out his production gimmicks, it was just economic reality working around the edges of Meek's life while he barely noticed it. And during this discussion, the shotgun goes off, fatally wounding Violet Shenton.

Everyone who knows what actually happened in that room at 304 Holloway Road died there that day. I prefer to think, as the movie presents, that it was a horrible and preventable accident. Meek was a killer, but I hope he wasn't a murderer. And when he realized what he'd done, Joe Meek took the still-warm gun in his hands, turned the muzzle around and ended his own life on February 3, 1967. It was eight years to the day after the plane crash that killed Richie Valens, the Big Bopper and Meek's beloved inspiration Buddy Holly.

The film stands as a tribute to the most famous person in pop music that you've never heard of. Con O'Neill gives a performance that, fittingly enough, seems to blur the line between portrayal and possession. The supporting cast is uniformly excellent. The sets and props have the air of total authenticity and the script gives everyone a perfect foundation to build their work. Everyone involved should be proud of themselves. It doesn't matter what the final score is at the box office. This one's unquestionably gold. I'm proud to say I'm in the cult for Telstar, and delighted beyond my ability to express that the movie lived up to and surpassed my expectations.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

God Told Me To (1976)

Written and directed by Larry Cohen

Tony LoBianco:  Peter J. Nicholas
Deborah Raffin:  Casey Forster
Sandy Dennis:  Martha Nicholas
Richard Lynch:  Bernard Phillips

You can count on one thing pretty reliably here in the second decade of the 21st century. When someone gets caught on tape saying something idiotic and bigoted they'll complain that America has become too "politically correct" to allow the full freedom of expression, and that we're on a slippery slope towards total fascism and Thought Police. They're wrong, of course; there's nothing in the Constitution that says Donald Sterling gets to own a basketball team until the day he dies. Free expression is guaranteed, but actions also have consequences and sometimes those consequences include other people using their right to free expression to respond to whatever moronic word salad someone dribbled out into a live microphone. And if you're, say, an employee of a television network instead of the owner of a television network, you don't have the final say over whether or not you keep a job after saying God needs to punish America for gay marriage in an interview. (And, parenthetically, if you're a media personality you can't claim ignorance of what a camera and a tape recorder do without looking like a complete moron. Not that it tends to stop these guys when their pathologies are manifested.)

So--you wanna talk politically incorrect art? Today's movie starts with a shooting spree committed by a polite, smiling, kinda nebbishy young man in New York City and he says God told him to murder all those people. That's about par for the course in America; we do have a lot of psychotics and we do have a lot of guns and bullets. What makes this movie--which is in the public domain, and therefore nobody has to be paid off to get remake rights--completely uncommercial is that the killer is right.

Minor-key organ chords and Latin vocals? Yup, it's a horror movie. It's a religious horror movie from the 70s, which probably gives you some expectations of something like The Omen or any of its ripoffs. The titles also identify this one as a New World picture, so you can expect 70s-era executive producer Roger Corman making sure his money is spent wisely and that the movie has its exploitation bona fides taken care of but still giving a damn about the finished product. But it's written and directed by Larry Cohen, and that's the best news of all. At this point in his career he was able to make his budgets look twice as big as they were through careful planning, a symbiotic love-hate relationship with dirty old New York City, and a fifty-pound economy bag of True Grit on the bottom rack of his metaphorical shopping cart.

We first get to see the noontime rush hour in New York City; traffic fills the streets (check out the gigantic mid-70s land yachts and taxi cabs!) and pedestrians are milling everywhere in the City That Never Sleeps But Could Certainly Go For Some Lunch Right About Now. It's quite similar to other sequences in Cohen's later Q, The Winged Serpent, down to the handheld cameras and live sound that give the viewer a more immersive view of the events as they unfold.

And unfold they promptly do--about fifty seconds into the establishing shots, a shot rings out and a bicylist collapses to the ground (and whoever did that stunt has just as much True Grit as the director--falling to the pavement in a tangle of limbs without padding or a helmet looks like it would hurt like hell; he holds perfectly still when he's on the ground, too). Several more people are shot down, and the impersonal horror of a sniper spree is shown in visceral detail. A crowd of human beings fills the frame; a shot rings out and one of them collapses to the ground. Also, given Cohen's penchant for guerilla filmmaking, it seems plausible to me that some of the people rushing up to help the "victims" didn't know a movie was being filmed. Kudos to the man who shields a child's body with his own, by the way. When death is raining down from above, not everyone would have the moral strength to try and protect someone rather than just flee.

This sequence is intercut with the police press conference in the aftermath of the massacre. The cop giving the statement to the press says that fifteen people were killed. The traffic gridlock delayed police arrival and kept ambulances away from the victims--he doesn't mention anyone wounded, only killed. This would seem to suggest an extremely skilled assailant, but it doesn't really look like that's the case. One of those lone-wolf cop-on-the-edge types shows up on the roof underneath the water tank that the sniper's using as his perch. And let's give Tony LoBianco's character some kudos:  It takes a lot of nerve to take off your gun and go approach a maniac that's already shot a dozen people. It might take even more to wear that hideous tablecloth-wide maroon and burnt gold paisley tie out in public.

There's the requisite appearance of the Stupid Chief yelling at our protagonist to stop putting himself at risk; when he gets to the top of the water-tower later the policeman gives his name as Peter Nicholas, namechecking an apostle and a saint. The shooter is Harold Gorman, namechecking guys named "Harold" and the jerkoff lieutenant from Aliens a decade early. There's another time-dislocated sequence cut into the main film here, with Gorman's mother giving a blackly funny interview where she says she can't understand why her son is such a great shot with a rifle, among other things.

Nicholas puts himself in almost incalculable danger climbing up to the roof of the water tank and standing in front of Harold, but might also be saving the shooter's life (that police helicopter sneaking into the frame has to have someone with a rifle in it). While talking with the shooter, we get a little bit of the lieutenant's background--an orphan, born and raised in New York City, with one year of college under his belt before he joined the police force. Gorman gives a chilling two-sentence bio of himself in return:  "I'll be twenty-two the second of July. I'll never be twenty-two, will I?" A little bit more conversation follows, with Gorman seeming to be a shy young man with absolutely no concept of what he's been doing. Nicholas asks why he decided to start shooting strangers, and the young man says the title of the film. Then he stretches his arms out wide and jumps to his death from the water tower, and the temporal dislocation of the opening scenes makes sense as we cut to Lieutenant Nicholas doing the woke-up-from-a-nightmare bolt upright sit and yell move that only ever happens in films.

His girlfriend Casey is next to him in bed, wearing the shirt he had on when he confronted the sniper, so it can't have been that long ago. Or maybe he can't afford too many clothes on the salary that an honest NYPD officer makes. We get two more tidbits of information in this sequence:  first, the murder weapon was a cheap piece of junk and the sights on the rifle weren't even set up correctly. Whatever was going on in Harold Gorman's head, he was making lethal shots every time he pulled the trigger--and that seems at first blush to be completely impossible.

Second, Peter's got a wife and a girlfriend; when he tells Casey that he's going to visit Martha later, there's a discussion that comes within a hair's breadth of becoming an argument about the ease or difficulty of getting a divorce under New York state law. Apparently Peter's been telling his girlfriend that his wife won't grant him a divorce, when it's really him preventing it from taking place. Martha Nicholas' place has some truly terrifying Catholic art in it; the film is suffused with specifically Catholic imagery. And that's fine because Catholicism gives us such better horror movies than the Protestants tend to generate. Another exposition bomb gets dropped--Nicholas goes to Mass every single morning, but doesn't tell Casey (or, presumably, any of his colleagues on the force). After a halting, painful, one-sided conversation with his wife, Nicholas stops off for a quick prayer at a dimly lit church with the altar candles and stained glass window providing the only illumination in the scene (and kudos to the cinematographer for capturing so much texture, light, darkness, color and shadow in this wordless scene).

And then there is an abrupt cut to the fluorescent lights and white hallways at a hospital. Nicholas is investigating something there, or rather someone. The pudgy middle-aged patrolman guarding the hospital door says that the man in the oxygen tent was reading a magazine, then stood up, went to a supermarket, and started stabbing people. He answers Nicholas' questions about motive with the film's title and immediately dies. Looks like there might be something of an epidemic in the making...

...Back at the police station, the lieutenant's partner takes a phone call from a nattily dressed man with a goatee who warns that another massacre is in the offing (fans of reprehensible 70s decor and design will love the five different shades of puke green on the walls, floor, furniture and telephones here). The mystery caller warns Nicholas and his partner that five more people are going to die at the St. Patrick's Day parade, and that a policeman will be the killer this time. The partner scoffs about the warning while Nicholas himself asks for more information. The caller hangs up and nervously walks away from the public phone. Or maybe he just realized that a pay phone in New York City in 1975 was crawling with so many diseases that he could actually hear them fighting each other for a chance to infect his eardrum.

The parade scene is the unquestionable standout sequence in the film (and I strongly suspect it's one of the influences on The Dark Knight when the Joker tries to assassinate the mayor of Gotham City). Realizing that his shooting schedule made it possible to film the parade, Larry Cohen printed up fake press credentials and sent his camera crews out to get as much footage of the authentic parade marchers and crowds as possible. Later on he got several dozen marchers and a couple hundred extras to line a block or two for the actual shooting sequence, but the parade footage gives this cheaply made horror flick production values that epics can't touch. Full marks to Cohen for having the gall to get the footage this way.

As one would expect, there is a shooting at the parade. The killer is played by Andy Kaufman in his film debut; Larry Cohen claimed in an interview that he knew someone was going to be the first person to put Kaufman in a film and he figured he'd do it before anyone else figured out that the comic was going to be a celebrity and a legend in the field of off-putting humor. The homicidal cop gets one line in the film, by the way, and I bet everyone reading this will be able to guess what it is. Nicholas tries like hell to get to the parade in time to stop the massacre, but even with an early warning all he winds up being able to do is hear the shooter's confession.

And now Nicholas is good and involved with the case--we see him interviewing people who saw the killers before any of the massacres took place. He puts things together nice and early, so the interviews go from finding out if the killers were talking to anyone unusual to confirming that they were pretty quickly. The detective deduces that there's a long-haired hippie that is out in New York City somewhere, but he's got no idea what the guy looks like (other than long hair and bare feet). Every single witness says that they can't remember what this mystery hippie looked like, even though they had to have seen his face. Harold Gorman's mom does happen to recall the name "Bernard Philips", but even that's a dead end--there's no files on the mystery man anywhere that the NYPD can see. He was never arrested, drafted, drawn a paycheck, been on welfare or hospitalized so even though they know who to look for, there's not really any way to find him quite yet. Nicholas' superior officer is more bemused at how that's even possible than frustrated or angry. Every other possibility to find a file on the guy comes up empty so Nicholas winds up looking for him at his place of birth, in Little Italy.

There's a street carnival for Saint Gennero going on when Nicholas arrives (which gives Cohen another chance to get a few hundred extras on screen for nothing as well as more shots of religious iconography); Mrs. Phillips buzzes him into the apartment building and then charges out of the darkness with a kitchen knife to kill him at the top of the stairs. Incidentally, Brian DePalma isn't the only person capable of pinching a scene from Hitchcock, as it turns out. Although in this case the attacker knocks her victim down the stairs and then falls down the same flight, landing on her knife and fatally injuring herself. Nicholas has an understandable breakdown here, shouting "Come on! SAY IT!" as Mrs. Phillips expires while trying to deliver the post-murder explanation that the detective has already heard three times.

Down at the morgue, the pathologist tells Nicholas to get some stitches put in so his hand won't heal with a hideous yet totally metal scar; the cop says it's the first time he can ever remember being hurt in his entire life. While the audience is pondering what that could mean in a religious horror film, a second bomb gets dropped--the pathologist also mentions that Phillips' mother was still a virgin at the time of her death, which would seem to be extremely unlikely, since she gave birth to a son in 1951 via caesarean section. Some more shoe leather gets expended as Nicholas interviews the doctor who performed the procedure; he says that out of literally thousands of deliveries, that was the only time he couldn't tell what sex the child was at birth. The doctor wound up putting "male" on the birth certificate for lack of any other alternatives.

While we're still digesting that piece of news, the film jumps to Nicholas interviewing another spree killer--this one a pleasant, smiling man who was reading the sports page when the idea entered his head that he should sacrifice his wife, son and daughter to the Lord. This scene is even more frightening than the parade assault, for my money; the actor portraying the father decides to underplay everything rather than go for foaming-at-the-mouth insanity. It seems chillingly realistic, especially when he politely corrects Nicholas about the exact order that he shot his family or when he offhandedly says he shot his wife "twice, I think". And, of course, God told him to. And he agreed, just as Abraham did (although this guy actually winds up going through with the deal). "He's given us everything and He asks for so little" is how he sums up his decision to butcher his entire family, saying that they're in Heaven now and happy because he killed them. (Again--can you fucking imagine someone trying to make this movie today? Never happen.)

Another visit to an old cop fixing motorcycles in the police station basement points Nicholas to another cop who found Mrs. Phillips back in 1951 after something terrible had happened to her--she wound up running down the side of a road in a torrential rainstorm, stark naked and babbling about something that probably was not as well-known before The X-Files: a medical-experiment style alien abduction (Larry Cohen made sure to put in the Corman-required nudity in his film, but it's about the farthest thing from titillating you can get in this sequence; the repurposed footage from Space: 1999 being used in an alien-insemination scene in an exploitation movie probably got someone in the TV production studio's licensing department yelled at ). And here's something completely impossible to go along with the abduction scene:  The woman was snagged from a beach in Cape Cod and picked up in a car in Jersey Sound about twenty minutes later; there's nothing on Earth that could have moved her that far in that short a time. The most realistic thing about this whole sequence is the way the relatively good Samaritan driver flat-out refuses to believe the woman's story. Sadly, it's probably also realistic that he takes a stab at a couple of smutty jokes about being probed by the aliens during the kidnapping. Nicholas, back in the present, keeps putting the pieces together and winds up getting the not-so-gentle suggestion from his boss that he's due some vacation time and should spend it in another time zone after talking about alien abductions, religiously-motivated homicides, faceless hippies and other things that even the NYPD doesn't openly consider (and this is apparently a motif that Larry Cohen likes working with; the homicide detective in Q, The Winged Serpent was told he was cruising for a psych evaluation if he submitted a report saying that a monster god had been prayed back into existence and was snagging its own sacrifices up off the tops of skyscrapers).

Stymied by the brass in the police department, Nicholas leaks the information that all the spree killers were acting under divine authority, or at least thought they were. He decides to tell the science editor at what is probably supposed to be the New York Times what's what, and he's the only one that's willing to print the story (it's implied that Nicholas has talked to multiple other editors at the paper, and they've all refused to run the story). The science editor deals in facts, and the fact is all the killers said God told them to do it. Whether or not that's true is up for debate, but that they said it is not. Lieutenant Nicholas also refers to stories run by this editor earlier about God being an ancient astronaut. It doesn't help that the dialogue here is as clunky as it gets in this movie, but hearing someone say that phrase out loud just provokes laughter if you don't know what he's talking about. So I must digress for a moment and tell my younger readers (or the ones who are my age but don't read stupid things from previous decades for fun) what the heck they're going on about. Erich von Daniken is a Swiss author who wrote a surprise best-seller in 1968 that claimed old art from ancient civilizations really showed aliens from other worlds who came down from the stars and taught them astronomy and architecture. Tellingly, he went on about the pyramids in Egypt and ruins in South America when claiming that stupid primitives needed extraterrestrial help to make impressive monuments but never said that stuff built by pre-modern white people was the result of alien contact. If you believe von Daniken,  ancient brown-skinned people were so dumb that a civilization that conquered light speed was needed in order to show them how to stack rocks in a big pile. Anyway, that book and its multiple sequels were massive best-sellers and helped usher in the golden age of bullshit presented with a straight face that the 1970s should be known for, rather than just heroin, disco, wide ties and cars that thought they were yachts.

The science editor, an open atheist, says he'll print the stories because they are the truth and because if God really is walking around New York City, it's possible that acknowledging the killings will bring them to an end. Or, possibly, the people running the churches in the city will have to placate an angry deity rather than just running bingo rackets and not paying property taxes. In most movies this would be front page news; in this one, it's the bottom of the page in the second section. Which is probably much more likely to be what would happen. The next thing we see is Nicholas' girlfriend being grilled about the detective's history; we learn that he took a police job in order to put his step-brothers through college when illness incapacitated his foster father. Casey (and the audience) learn that Nicholas hasn't spent a night with his wife in four solid years. The questioning starts to sound like the police (including Nicholas' partner) are fishing for reasons to kick him off the force or sue him, and Casey leaves in a huff. She also calls the proceedings an "inquisition", which is loaded language that fits perfectly with the Catholic themes in the movie.

So the tiny news story becomes a much, much bigger news story and there are protests in the streets that turn into brawls between groups of people who think the end is nigh and those who are afraid it might actually be too late to stop the end of the world. And some people learn to use the killings as a smoke screen for their own crimes, such as the drug lord that has been bribing Nicholas' partner into looking the other way in his investigations--but not often enough to keep things profitable in the smack trade. It turns out that it's a lot cheaper and easier to stab the crooked cop in the back and write GOD on the wall in his blood than to keep paying him off; Nicholas knows it's not a real God-inspired murder because the killer left the scene of the crime rather than confessing it to the world (it's also possible that he knows it wasn't a Bernard Phillips-linked killing because he's heard the confessions from all four of the people who did them).

Next up we see fourteen men in a wood-paneled conference room that has as many shades of brown as the police station had of avocado. They're Phillips' disciples, and the man talking to the others about how impressive Phillips' talents are also says the mystery man knows one of them has betrayed him to the police. And hey, what do you know, that guy with the goatee who made the St. Patrick's Day phone call to warn Nicholas is in the room. Phillips is aware of Nicholas, and views him as a threat. However, he isn't taking the steps that one might expect in dealing with the policeman. He wants Nicholas brought in to the group of fourteen, and without anyone hurting him. A driver picks up Nicholas and takes him to talk to one of the cabal of businessmen, who tries to give him a recruitment speech. About ninety seconds into the meeting the businessman has a massive heart attack, and Nicholas isn't able to save him.

The next contact with the group comes when the goateed man tries and fails to shove Nicholas in front of a subway train. The man is apologetic about his failed murder attempt ("I'm really not very good at it"), but I don't think he's talking to Nicholas when he says that. The cop uses the would-be killer to bring him to Bernard Phillips. After the most ominous elevator ride since the end credits of Angel Heart, Nicholas stays in the basement of an apartment building to talk to Phillips, and the failed assassin is compelled to lean his head out into the hallway while the elevator's going up, with predictably fatal results. The low budget kind of lets this confrontation down; Phillips' radiance overwhelms the film stock and looks tawdry and more than a little goofy. But during this sequence, Nicholas finally realizes that he's the one person that Phillips can't kill, because he's got the same kind of alien-divine power in him--although he didn't consciously know it until the moment they met. Phillips escapes while Nicholas is overwhelmed and disoriented.

The next step for the detective is to try and track down his own birth mother and try to learn where he came from (this goes disastrously--not just for the traumatized woman who has to relive the worst day of her life but for Nicholas, who has had an open wound in his soul related to his childhood as an orphan that never got treated). We also learn here that Nicholas is ten years older than Phillips; apparently whatever the aliens did to his mother didn't have as strong a result as the experiments performed on the villain's mother. The reunion features another flashback (with more non-titillating nudity, and surprisingly explicit for an R rated film) and ends in tears for both mother and child. Nicholas is frightened of whatever's happening next; he's lived his entire life not knowing what he truly is and terrified that he won't be up to the challenge of facing down Bernard Phillips.

Nicholas flees the nursing home where his mother was living and winds up at his wife's home, where his girlfriend has come looking for him. We learn that Martha had multiple miscarriages, and that Nicholas never seemed truly sad that he wasn't able to have children. The scene between Martha and Casey is interrupted by Nicholas' arrival, and we get to see Tony LoBianco underplay a little bit as he realizes that he loves both women but he's never seen them in the same room together. And, as his wife mentions, it makes saying goodbye easier. Nicholas tries to make amends (thankfully, the movie doesn't let him off the hook so easily) before he goes off to confront his enemy, and tells his wife and mistress that he doesn't have a choice in what he's going to do.

But before Lieutenant Nicholas can test his newly realized abilities against someone who's had weeks of practice, he's got to make sure they exist. And that means that fifteen minutes before the end of the film, we suddenly get a three minute blaxploitation sequence where Zero, the drug dealer who disguised the murder of Nicholas' partner earlier in the film, holds court at an underground pool hall and hassles a junkie for not having enough money. Nicholas walks through the door and accuses Zero of the murder; the next scene gets amazing mileage out of a lighting effect on Nicholas' eyes, some strings on the soundtrack and Tony LoBianco underplaying his part, standing immovably as Zero tries to stab him...and misses, over and over, from inches away. The cop mind-controls Zero into stabbing two of his lackeys to death and then cutting his own throat; apparently Nicholas is feeling pretty Old Testament that night.

For all its subversions of religious themes, the movie does have some love in its heart for a Christ figure; after his final confrontation with Bernard Phillips (which features both a horrible revelation of what caused his wife's failed pregnancies as well as a jaw-dropping Cronenbergian body horror reference to the spear wound in the risen Christ's side), Nicholas realizes that power corrupts and that he can't trust himself with the abilities he has. And after killing the antagonist, he realizes that four little words to the press at his perp walk guarantees that he'll never get out of the mental institution that he's assured he will be sent to.

I absolutely can't believe this one ever got made. Larry Cohen was the perfect choice for it, though--his obvious love for the people and the places in New York City means that there's more thought and characterization that you normally get in a grindhouse horror movie, and I'm always predisposed to enjoy a horror procedural. The actors all look like actual people--not a movie-handsome matinee idol or pinup queen in the bunch. The street scenes all look lived in, and the various social strata of the characters gets sketched vividly through Cohen's viewfinder. When was the last time you saw an apartment in a movie in New York City that wasn't the size of a barn? When did you see a hot-off-the-presses newspaper scene where the plot-relevant story was in a sidebar? For all its budgetary limitations, this film grounds itself in the real, so that its lapses into unreality and fantasy pack an ever harder punch.

I consider every religious story to be a horror story; if there really was a deity watching over the Earth it would have to be a monster. And to willingly worship a monster makes you a lesser monster, in my eyes (what was I saying earlier about politically incorrect statments? I'm betting that's one of them). It seems that Larry Cohen shares this opinion, or at least he did when he was making horror pictures in New York City in the 70s and 80s. If you're a skeptic, you owe it to yourself to check this one out and see what happens when the superevolved aliens from beyond time and space decide to give America a taste of that old time religion.