Rock's Cheapo Theatre of the Damned

→ in

Through the Looking Glass (Middleton, 1976)

Sometimes you get stupid ideas. Sometimes those stupid ideas are borne out of your immediate circumstances. Sometimes you see a certain film is leaving the Criterion Channel at the end of the month and you think, "Hey, wouldn't it be a great idea if I made a double feature out of this?" and think of ending the outgoing year with Jan Svankmajer's Alice and kicking off the new year with Jonas Middleton's Through the Looking Glass. Sometimes those ideas are also borne out of ignorance. Sometimes you just read the title and assume that Through the Looking Glass is a pornographic version of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, so of course it would make for a great, off beat double feature. Sometimes that ignorance is deliberate. Sometimes you look at the high Letterboxd ratings but avoid reading the actual reviews for fear of spoiling too much about the movie, blissfully unaware that your assumptions about the movie are wildly off base. Sometimes the cosmos conspires to persuade you out of this course of action, yet you move on undeterred. Sometimes a late night blowup at work (on New Year's ****ing Eve, of all nights) threatens to foil your plans to get through a number of movies before they leave the Criterion Channel. Sometimes you just end up letting that last movie of 2021 spill over a little bit and just watch the other movie the following morning (it's a double feature in spirit, dammit). Sometimes you realize how ill advised this all was, but chalk it up to the costs of adventurous movie watching. At this point I'd like to take my hood off, Vince-McMahon-style and reveal that all of this happened to me.

As you can guess from above, Through the Looking Glass is not exactly a porno Alice in Wonderland. It is instead a dark fantasy about incest and sexual abuse. The film follows a wealthy woman who, growing detached from her day-to-day existence, repeatedly retreats to the attic of her mansion to relive her incestuous relationship with her dead father. She does this with the help of a mirror, and the movie cleverly realizes this dynamic by cutting between her and her reflection as she converses with her father and masturbates. (When we do get glimpses of the father, they're timed to be as jarring as possible.) This isn't the Taboo series, where incest is supposed to be fun and great and solve of all your problems. The movie knows this is upsetting, and frames the heroine to enhance her sense of mental isolation and trauma, surrounding her with shadow, while accompanying the proceedings with tense music. The situation takes an even more disturbing turn when her father reveals that he has plans for her teenage daughter, and the movie culminates with a trip to hell, presented as a wasteland bathed in red lighting where she's threatened by all manner of freaks caught up in uniformly unpleasant sexual activity (a man jacking off into his own mouth, another man thrusting into a hole in the ground, two women bathing in what looks like bodily waste, and the rest in an orgiastic frenzy while a woman in a cage looks on). This isn't the hell scene in Nightdreams, which is supposed to be kind of hot. This is a legitimately bruising, unpleasant sequence.

When you have subject matter like sexual abuse and assault in a porno, it poses a certain challenge to viewers, in that this is supposed to be upsetting material, but the genre is also intended to titillate. I respect the movie for doing away with genre demands, as the way it presents this content makes it difficult to fathom anyone finding this arousing. The movie owns up to the unpleasantness of the subject matter and plays it up fully for that effect. This is considered a classic of the Golden Age, and it's the kind of movie that could only have been made in an era when explicit sexual content was paired with serious artistic ambition. I'm glad it exists, but at the same time, I can't say I enjoyed it sitting through it very much. If I can say some nice things about the movie, it's that it's realized with a great deal of artistry and visual imagination (one scene gets a memorable jolt out of vaginoscopy footage), even if that is greatly hampered by the crappy video transfer I watched this on. This was shot by the great porn (and future mainstream) cinematographer Joao Fernandes, whose talent you can see at 100% on the Vinegar Syndrome release of Memories Within Miss Aggie. It's a credit to his abilities that the visual style comes through even in the less than ideal state I watched this movie. (Also, I'm not sure if this was the movie or the transfer, but the stereo audio became unsynchronized between left and right, leading to a slight echo effect. Probably not intentional, but it did add to the waking dream atmosphere.) The ominous, eerie music by Harry Manfredini is also integral to the movie's effect, sounding like a cross between Ennio Morricone's giallo soundtracks and John Williams' theme for Jaws. And in terms of casting, Catharine Burgess may or may not be a great actress, but she has the delicate features and sense of trepidation (one might call it a "deer in the headlights" expression) that make her an effective lead for this story, while Jamie Gillis, in makeup that resembles (at least in this crappy transfer) Dolph Lundgren's in the 1989 Punisher, is appropriately demonic as the father (or is he?).

Very well made. Watch at your own risk. Happy new year, folks.

Apparently there's an actual hardcore porn Alice in Wonderland, which sounds like a much easier viewing. Maybe I should have watched that instead, haha.

Super Fly (Parks, 1972)

Two of my other favourite blaxploitation movies, Black Caesar and The Mack, pose a certain challenge to the audience. Their heroes are so cool, so charismatic, that it's a shock when the movie confronts you with their capacity for cruelty. What does it say about us as viewers that we're rooting for them? There's a certain queasy fascination at the centre of these pictures that makes them all the more thrilling. Gordon Parks, Jr.'s Super Fly doesn't quite confront us in the same way. Certainly Ron O'Neal is no slouch in the cool and charismatic department, but what's really shocking here is the movie's ambivalence to his profession as a drug dealer. He wants to get out of the business not because drugs are harming the community, but because it's wearing him out to play this part in the system. Indeed, the central tension here is between the glamourous lifestyle that drug dealing affords him and the agency it robs of him, and the movie is upfront about the limited opportunities black men have to get ahead in America. The film's most famous sequence, a still photograph montage by the director's father Gordon Parks, Sr. (the legendary photographer who had helmed Shaft the previous year), pushes this dynamic most succinctly, framing the hero's activities as part of a supply chain that reaches across all of society.

With blaxploitation, there's a certain tension between onscreen representation and negative stereotypes when it comes to black characters. Super Fly was not free from criticism (even from its own star, who took issue in particular with the cocaine montage) and almost seems to invite it, with almost all of its characters being mired in this criminal ecosystem. (I will add that the movie was also notable for representation behind the camera, having been made with a mostly non-white crew.) But it's also notable for the way it reorients our perspective from the racial dynamics of mainstream American cinema. The black characters here are our points of identification, our "default", so to speak, the ones we see as well fleshed out human beings and complex interpersonal dynamics (in one scene, we see the hero approached by members of the Nation of Islam, who attack him with a slur that in prior scenes he'd used as a term of affection), while the white characters are the ones who are othered (the hero's white girlfriend is the obvious status symbol, the cops are immediately suspect). The movie's goal is not what I think can be glibly termed as "reverse racism", but rather to bring us into the world of its hero and help us understand the context in which his actions might make sense, even if they're not ones we'd agree with in the real world. A lesser movie would lecture us on why dealing drugs is bad. This one invites us to consider why one would take it up.

The "one last job" plot has been done to death in crime movies, but in 1972 this was perhaps not the cliche it's since become, and the movie's lack of apology for the hero's motivations gives it an undeniable charge. Of course, it helps when the hero is played by Ron O'Neal, seen here with a luxurious coiffure and in all manner of stylish attire, a look that provides a striking contrast with the gritty surroundings. Has anyone looked as dashing running through the back alleys of Harlem as O'Neal in his turtleneck and black safari suit? On a formal level, this is not the most stylish movie, but it makes up for that with the style offered by its protagonist and the soundtrack. Much of the visual style comes from the camera enrapt as it follows O'Neal navigating his environment, like a shark in a nature documentary. Has ever a movie been so infatuated with its star? And of course, there's the Curtis Mayfield soundtrack, more famous than the movie itself, which offers a level of poetic reflection on the proceedings. It's not exaggerating to call this one of the best soundtracks of all time.

And of course, if like me you've listened to that soundtrack more often than you've watched the movie, you'll know that one of the songs alerts us to the fate of a character named Freddie. Once that character appears onscreen, with a presence that reminds one of a teddy bear and is hilariously ill fitting for the grimness of the proceedings, the countdown starts, so to speak. Parks Jr. repeatedly deploys instrumental sections from that track, most likely because it's a great bit of scoring, but the effect (perhaps unintentionally) is that of taunting the viewer. Each time the song comes on the soundtrack, we ask ourselves nervously, will Freddie finally meet his fate?

Cape Fear (Thompson, 1962)

I assume I'm not the only one who saw Martin Scorsese's Cape Fear remake before J. Lee Thompson's original, and approaching them in this order helped bring their differences into focus. (I also assume I'm not the only one who saw the Simpsons parody before either. Certainly it made the theatre scene in Scorsese's version hard to watch with a straight face, although given Robert De Niro's glee in that scene, I assume the effect was somewhat intentional.) The most obvious difference between this and the Scorsese remake is the portrayal of the hero. In the Scorsese version, the hero is compromised from the beginning, having hidden away evidence to help put the monstrous villain behind bars. In this, the hero starts off righteously, having only stopped the villain's crime and testified against him. The casting of the stars is key to each film's dynamic. In the Scorsese version, the hero is played by Nick Nolte, whose default mode is sweaty, uncomfortable, maybe a bit hungover. (Exhibit A: 48 Hrs.) This is a guy we can buy as not entirely above board, making him a more conventional noir protagonist. Here, the hero is played by Gregory Peck, who is more readily believable as a stoic, righteous type, having played one for Thompson a year earlier in The Guns of Navarone, a movie that I am completely unable to be partial about as it's a childhood favourite. (Of course, Peck could play real bastards too, as seen in Duel in the Sun.) In that sense, the movie plays a bit more like a nightmare pitched directly at the audience: what would YOU do if this violent sociopath terrorized your family?

The casting of Peck is also crucial because of his offscreen liberal politics, and the movie plays like a direct challenge to liberal notions of criminal justice. The villain is sure to stay clear of obvious (or provable) criminal wrongdoing, leaving the hero unable to defend himself in any meaningful way. The fact that he readily urges the police to strongarm the villain (in ways that now register more clearly as police overreach) compromises him, even before he resorts to more obviously unlawful methods. Peck even has a line about his rights as a taxpayer in what might have seemed like a throwaway bit of dialogue but now might read a little like a preemptive jab at Johnson's Great Society and liberal ideas of big government. With all this in mind, it makes a good amount of sense that Thompson went on to direct a Death Wish movie, where lawlessness is answered with righteous lawlessness. You want something done about all this crime? Pick up a gun and do it yourself.

Scorsese's version has the benefit of loosening censorship and greater acceptability of onscreen sex and violence, but watching this I was struck by how sleazy the movie gets. In addition to the danger the villain poses to the hero, he's undeniably a sexual threat, which the movie bluntly demonstrates with the brutal rape of a drifter. (Because in 1962 such things could not be shown onscreen, the film has a dramatic shot of shutters snapping to a close.) Even for a movie in this era, there's little ambiguity about what he plans to do with the hero's wife and daughter, and the climax offers us the deeply uncomfortable images of him shirtless and glistening as he advances on them both at different times. That being said, the movie is unexpectedly sensitive about the trauma of sexual assault victims and their difficulties with the legal system. Part of the cruelty of the villain's scheme is based on the hero's reluctance to subject his daughter to court proceedings should she be sexually assaulted. I was not expecting a nearly sixty-year old movie to be this astute about this matter.

And of course, much of this would be a moot point if the movie were not effective as a thriller. It's a very good one, with sweltering, disreputable Southern atmosphere and a terrifying Robert Mitchum as the villain (his burly physique and threatening masculinity a nice contrast with the genteel Peck), and a climax in a swamp that drowns you in bold expressionist shadows.

Good film.
I prefer this version over Scorsese’s remake.
I think I do too, although I think Scorsese's version has the superior supporting cast (perhaps unfair, as he could get cameos from Peck and Mitchum).

The trick is not minding
I think I do too, although I think Scorsese's version has the superior supporting cast (perhaps unfair, as he could get cameos from Peck and Mitchum).
Also, Guns of Navarone is also decent, nice to see a shout out to it.
And to bringing this full circle, The Simpsons parody was also my first introduction to Cape Fear.

Showdown (Pachard, 1985)

Folks, I did it. I finally watched a movie with Nina Hartley. From back in the day. All the way through. Okay, this is sounding skeevier and skeevier the more qualifiers I add so I'll stop. But for someone most people of my generation think of as old, given that she's staked out a career over the last few decades playing foxy older ladies who are DTF (and I have a certain amount of respect for her ability to last this long in the business), it is a bit jarring to see her this young. The non-porn equivalent would be seeing Danny Glover in his twenties. (I'm sure there are pictures, but given that his film debut was in Escape From Alcatraz when he was in his thirties, it's more fun to pretend he came out of the womb all wrinkly and grey.) But in this movie, Hartley does not play an aging cop who considers themselves too old for the "****" that defines the action-packed proceedings.

Rather, she plays a prostitute in the employ of Sharon Mitchell's madam who runs a brothel in the middle of the desert. Why in the desert, you ask? Well, it turns out she has trouble with a lawman (played by director Henri Pachard, looking like a more heavyset John Leslie) and is unable to go into town. Business is slow until Mitchell rescues a group of friends (Mike Horner, Jamie Gillis, Herschel Savage) whose car breaks down, and they find themselves repurposing their situation into the dude ranch retreat they intended to go on. There's horseback riding, a buncha other western **** (I didn't take good notes), and because they're in a brothel and this is a porno, lots of ****ing and sucking. The closest this gets to serious drama is a romantic subplot about one of the prostitutes (Gina Carrera) and the lawman's deputy (Joey Silvera), the latter of whom has been eating nothing but grits since the former left him, giving him a great big stomach ache. (One of the more tender moments in the film is punctuated by him yelling "I hate grits!" in the distance.)

There isn't a lot to this, but I had a reasonably good time. The low dramatic stakes allows for a nice hangout atmosphere, and if you've seen enough movies with these performers, you start to savour what they bring to each role. The highlight here is Horner as an overly prissy type who wears a blazer and a tie in the desert heat (who seems terribly offended when he realizes he's in a brothel, but warms up to the situation once he can actually go riding), but the biggest laugh comes from Gillis as a he negotiates with an uncooperative horse. "Could have been playing golf, lying by a pool somewhere. No, we gotta come out to the ****ing desert and I gotta do my favourite Tom Mix imitation." And if you're watching it for those reasons, I must report that Shanna McCullough makes good on the promise of Marianne's Hammocks in a tricky scene with Gillis, but must dock some points for a scene with Horner, Hartley and Carrera that constitutes a threesome the same way it's technically a group project when your team member does **** all for the whole year but shows up to the presentation.

There is at least one pretty nice shot that feels attentive to the demands of a real western, but for the most part this feels like a game of dress-up and play-acting, and not in a bad way, at least if you like these performers. I recently ordered a pair of cowboy boots which unfortunately got lost in the mail and I had to go through a somewhat annoying process to sort things out. The refund thankfully came through, but as I am currently cowboy-boot-bereft, please send me a care emoji in this trying time. What I'm saying is, I derived vicarious enjoyment from watching the cast dress up in western wear and hang around a ranch, and that I was not immune to the charms of McCullough's winning smile or Hartley's deep blue eyes, particularly when framed underneath a cowboy hat.

Probably gonna have at least one Danny Glover mention per page at this point.

Also, a Danny Glover mention in a review of a porno that was released by Vinegar Syndrome does feel like this thread's greatest hits.

They Live (Carpenter, 1988)

Those who have had the misfortune of interacting with me on the internet for at least a few years know that one of my more questionable movie opinions pertains to the famous fight scene in They Live. Namely, that I think it kind of sucks. More specifically, that it's shapeless, repetitive, and goes on for far too long and well past the point of whatever the punchline is supposed to be. And with some regularity, I would trot this one out, like someone who's bad at holding their liquor when they've had a few too many drinks and wants to let you know what they really think, only in this case it's about They Live or The Passion of Joan of Arc or Juliette Binoche (don't ask). And no matter how much others would spar with me or try to get me to look at it the right away, I would refuse to relent, not entirely unlike Keith David's character. Well, that's what I used to think, and I can sheepishly report with this latest rewatch that I know think the fight scene is great, and I laughed all the way through. Yes, yes, everybody else was right, the length is the point, but I think there's a certain understated pinball quality to the way Carpenter shoots and cuts the scene, finding a certain dynamism and maybe even grace to what in lesser hands would be merely a shambling, ungainly brawl. Nobody's right all the time.

As for the rest of the movie, I was right the whole time, as it held up splendidly. For a movie that's established in the pop culture lexicon in an almost memefied state, it is nice to be reacquainted with how steadily it escalates. If one were to graph this movie, you could depict it with a straight line rising at a forty-five degree angle. In the opening the hero starts off with nothing, slowly picks up clues that all is not right with the world, slides into the resistance and by the end is ready to overthrow the system. You could even liken it to video games (a medium that Carpenter is a great fan of), particularly with the Grand Theft Auto style killing spree the hero goes on, only to lose a life so to speak and end up having to recruit a friendly who joins him for the final mission. Imagine if Lance Vance was actually helpful and didn't need his ass saved every time, and you get Keith David.

In that sense, the movie resists being read as an endorsement of conspiracy-minded thinking (and Carpenter has condemned the embracing of the film by hate groups who misread the film as a racist metaphor), in that none of those chowderheads would be as capable or cool as Roddy Piper, despite whatever delusions they might have about themselves. The casting of Piper is key to the movie's success, in that he not only comes off credibly as working class, but has a certain physicality and reactive quality that help him serve as an effective audience vantage point and sell the sense of escalation. He has some of the same effect as a young Sylvester Stallone, who at this time had begun to resemble a live action cartoon, and this movie serves as a nice left-wing counterpoint to the jingoism of the Rambo sequels and other action movies of the era, with a bit of '50s sci-fi paranoia sprinkled in for good measure.

But of course, merely having politics does not by itself a good movie make, and what I think makes this one great is the way Carpenter marries this material to a muscular visual style. You can see how he paints the shantytown and its destruction with an almost apocalyptic quality, and the sinister contrasts he draws between this setting and the skyscrapers that tower over it, or the ominous images of the subtly militaristic police presence, all of which primes you for the leap into paranoid fantasy. We can already feel that the world of this movie is dystopic, how surprising is it that it's run by evil aliens surveilling us with little flying saucers? And the forcefulness of the images makes the action that much more cathartic. Sure, in real life, it's easy to feel powerless in the face of great economic inequality, but in Carpenter's world, we can do something about it.

Taking Care of Business (Hiller, 1990)

I won't claim to be an expert in Jim Belushi's career, but judging by his work in Thief and Salvador, I think there's enough evidence that he has real talent as a dramatic actor. Particularly in the latter, he holds his own against James Woods at the height of his motormouthed, scumbag powers, which is no easy feat. Someone less charitable than myself might say that Taking Care of Business provides more evidence to his abilities as a dramatic actor, at least in relative terms, in that it proves that he's should stick to drama rather than starring in comedies like this one. I would not be so unkind myself, but I must acknowledge that the movie insists that he's a lovable scamp without really selling us on that fact.

When we first meet him, he's a universally beloved inmate at his minimum security prison. Now, I have thankfully never spent time in prison, but none of the harsh realities of prison life depicted by grittier movies are to be seen here. In fact, love for Jim Belushi is so strong that the inmates seem to drop the usual racial divides and come together in his support, even when he runs his mouth and inspires the warden to cut off their TV privileges. You see, he had a good reason. He won two tickets to go see the Cubs play the Angels at the World Series, and the warden won't let him out of prison a few days before his sentence ends so he can go in person. These guys love Belushi so much that they pretend to go on strike so he can sneak out for the game, instead of, I dunno, shanking him. (For the record, I am not endorsing violence against Jim Belushi, merely hypothesizing a more realistic outcome.) A recent episode of the No Such Thing as a Bad Movie podcast mentioned an anecdote that Belushi used to relieve himself in bottles on the set of According to Jim. Was his character also doing this in the reality of this movie? Even though each cell had its own toilet? Is that why the other inmates were so happy to help him escape?

Alas, Belushi's freedom is not without complications, and soon he ends up adopting the identity of Charles Grodin, an overworked businessman who comes to town to seal an important advertising account with a Japanese food company run by Mako. These complications are felt entirely by Grodin, who ends up destitute, mugged, thrown in the garbage, arrested at least once, having his wife leave him and losing his job. Belushi's experience is largely complication-free, as he gets to crash at his boss's mansion, hang out in country clubs, wear expensive suits, dine at fancy restaurants and get it on with the boss' daughter. I watched this the same day as both versions of Freaky Friday (my not terribly exciting opinion is that the original is a bit more enjoyable, as the duo of Harris and Foster is perhaps a bit stronger on average than Curtis and Lohan, although both films are fairly diverting), and in those movies, there is an acknowledgement that both sides have their distinct challenges. Belushi here faces no struggles, even in the minor embarrassments one might face when placed into an unfamiliar social milieu. Also, he gets to speak his mind, which impresses Mako but demeans Mako's female subordinate. That's a theme that runs through this movie, where we have to listen to Belushi make objectifying comments about women with some regularity (he makes a dinner toast to "big t_ts" and inadvertently proposes a marketing slogan for a baked goods business when admiring a tennis player's "buns"), while the female characters are uniformly devoid of agency, and one even suffers the horrific fate of finding herself attracted to Belushi.

All that being said, I'm basically the target audience for this movie, in I did some internal hooting and hollering anytime "Takin' Care of Business" came on the soundtrack in any of its iterations, so I did more or less enjoy this. (The music is credited to Stewart Copeland of the Police, who seems vastly overqualified to compose a score that mostly consists of one of the riffs from the song playing at varying speeds.) The "working overtime" lyric from the song is one that both myself and Grodin's character can really to all too easily, making him a much better audience surrogate for myself than Belushi. Grodin went on Carson to claim that "Taking Care of Business is probably the most entertaining picture I've done since Heaven Can Wait." Now, those in the know understand that the comment was part of an in-joke where Grodin would regularly go on either Carson or Letterman and pretend to be some combination of wounded and antagonistic ("I have certain things to say and you have certain things to say"), but the character is another in the tradition of great neurotics played by Grodin, with lots of classic facial contortions, teeth gnashing and walking of the tightrope between politeness and apoplexy.

In that sense, we can understand the appeal of Belushi in the lead, whose presence is like a bull in a china shop, laying waste to the manufactured challenges of Grodin's socioeconomic stratus and liberating the latter from his problems. The movie is directed by Arthur Hiller, who directed one of the great buddy comedies with The In-Laws, where a neurotic played by Alan Arkin is slowly pulled into the perfectly reasoned insanity of Peter Falk's worldview, and there's a certain perverse logic to the way both men find themselves in the lunacy of the final moments. Hiller doesn't quite pull off the same arc here, as both leads are kept apart for too long, Belushi lacks Falk's magnetism entirely and Grodin's self-actualization basically concludes with at least twenty minutes to go, but the movie does get its biggest laugh in that closing stretch with a hilariously unconvincing use of a stunt double.

Jim Belushi is also good in Twin Peaks: The Return.

I also have fond memories of his movie Real Men....but I was like 12....whether I had better taste then or now is up for debate.

Oh dear, looks like that's on Tubi...

I did like him in Red Heat, but he had Arnie as a foil.