Man Bites Dog: strong satire on Western cultures’ obsession with sadistic violence

Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, Benoît Poelvoorde, “C’est arrive près de chez vous” (“It could happen in your neighbourhood”)  aka “Man Bites Dog” (1992)

Made by four Belgian film students, this mock documentary on the daily routines of a professional killer remains a powerful criticism of Western cultures’ obsession with sadistic violence. Although it often looks aimless and appears to be a series of skits, it’s actually well constructed with a definite narrative and an overall mood that’s at first light-hearted, jokey and comic with Spinal Tap moments but becomes darker and sinister towards the end. Shot on grainy black-and-white, the film has the air of a fly-on-the-wall independent documentary as a film crew zealously follows Ben (BenoÎt Poelvoorde) as he goes about his daily or monthly routine of robbing and/or killing postmen, pensioners, security guards, taxi drivers and various others he meets.

Chatty and friendly, Ben introduces the film-makers and viewers to his family (Poelvoorde’s real-life relatives), girlfriend Valérie and his boxing trainer throughout the film. He expounds or rants at length on a variety of topics. Among other things, viewers learn from Ben that there is an art to weighting dead people with ballast so when they are dropped into rivers they don’t float and that people’s lives can be improved or blighted by the decisions governments make on urban renewal and aesthetic details of architecture and interior design. He fancies himself a gourmet and treats the film crew to a sumptuous lunch of mussels and wine. Viewers see him playing a musical duet on the piano with Valerie on flute and sparring with his trainer at the grotty sports club. He is interested in art, literature and film culture and spouts poetry (self-composed and crappy) about pigeons and the change of seasons. Altogether a thoroughly cultured and intellectual if pretentious being is our Ben; but how does he finance his activities? – on the first day of every month, he kills postmen to steal pension cheques and visits the homes of the people they’re addressed to, kills them and looks under the beds and cupboards for more money. To keep limber as it were, he robs and kills other people in hilarious sequences that reveal his ignorance and prejudices towards others as well as his education and culture.

As the film carries on, the film-makers – and with them, the audience – become deeply involved and implicated in Ben’s crimes as witnesses and participants. The change is subtle and gradual: Ben begins to finance the making of the documentary and directs parts of it himself; the film-makers help him chase a boy and participate in a gang rape / murder of a woman. Ben orders them also to re-bury bodies in a quarry he uses to dump his victims when the water dries up. Viewers, initially charmed by Ben’s warmth and generosity, now see his arrogant and more psychopathic side, lacking in true empathy and compassion for others. Sure enough his pride and smugness get the better of him, he makes some slip-ups and he ends up being chased by a never-seen criminal gang and the police who jail him. On his release, Ben discovers the criminal gang has killed his family and girlfriend, and his life and those of the film-makers are in grave danger.

Viewers stand as much indicted as the film crew itself as observers and accomplices, however passive, in Ben’s trail of mayhem and chaos. The handheld camera style and use of frequent close-ups create intimacy and draw viewers in as voyeurs. When Ben and his crew meet another film crew following a criminal in an abandoned building he uses as his hide-out, we find ourselves rooting for Ben as the film crews prepare for a stand-off. Uncomfortable questions about the sensationalisation / trivialisation of violence by mass media in our society, the ways in which reality TV shows encourage people to behave in extreme ways, celebrity worship and the numbing effect continuous exposure to violence and trauma must have on viewers’ mental states arise. The relationship between a film crew and the subject that is the focus of its film is also questioned – how objective can a documentary be when its subject and the film crew are friends? – and the Spinal Tap sequence of two sound-men dying one after the other, each leaving behind a pregnant girlfriend called Marie-Paule, while funny, also makes for uncomfortable viewing. At what point does a film or any other venture become so important that people’s lives become secondary to it? The project takes on a life of its own and Ben exploits the film-makers’ friendship and hero-worship of him into making the film a never-ending diary celebrating his banal exploits to feed his ego. For all his supposed sophistication as an aesthete, Ben lacks the self-reflective insight, the depth of feeling and emotion, and empathy needed to be a true aesthete and a talented poet.

The film does become repetitive and the meeting of the film crews in the hide-out surely alerts viewers that ideas are starting to run out. After this point, the film seems to lose direction although in fact unseen criminals associated with the other crook followed by his own film crew are now trailing Ben and his crew. At the same time Ben’s crimes become more serious and brutal and viewers should consider the possibility that if he didn’t have a film crew following him around, Ben would confine himself to cutting queues for nursing homes and denying thousands of dogs in Belgium the pleasure of chasing posties. Ben mugs for the camera and some scenes where he is drunk could have been edited or cut altogether. On the technical side the film-makers do a good job of knitting all the various skits into a seamless, smoothly flowing whole and the skits have the appearance of naturally following on from one another even if they actually didn’t. How much of the film was improvised, how much was scripted and how much just happened to be there at the time of filming – especially the hospital scene with Ben being in the same room as an elderly patient engaging a nurse in verbal jousting over his toilet habits – is hard to tell.

At once compelling yet repellent, looking unfocussed as it progresses but with a definite goal in mind, this film still has a lot of power to shock and intrigue audiences. The nature of violence in Western societies, our fascination with it and how that fascination is pushed and manipulated for profit by media organisations and others, how that affects our psyches and might determine our attitudes and behaviour in situations where diplomacy rather than violence is called for, and the attitude that people are only worthwhile when they have cash or can be exploited (Ben only kills people if they have money) – these issues continue to make “Man Bites Dog” more relevant than it was when first released. Education and culture prove not be civilising influences on a mind lacking in self-examination and compassion for other people and the central character of Ben turns out to be as hollow and cold as the society being satirised.

Cargo (dir. Ivan Engler): too much cargo taken on board in the plot and characters wreck a visually fine film

Ivan Engler, “Cargo” (2009)

Debut full-length directorial feature for Ivan Engler, “Cargo” is a bloodless effort set in the distant future when the Earth has become uninhabitable due to global ecological collapse and mysterious plagues. Everyone still surviving lives on space stations around the planet. A lucky few are selected in a lottery to go to other planets terra-formed for human habitation and one of these people is Arianne Portmann who goes with her family to the planet Rhea. Her sister Dr Laura Portmann (Anna-Katharina Schwabroh) needs to save up money to go to Rhea herself so she takes a job as ship doctor on an old cargo transporter going to distant space station #42. The trip there and back to Earth will take 8 years, much of it spent in cryo-sleep.

The main crew consists of five members, each of whom together with Portmann, will take turns monitoring conditions onboard for about 8 months while the others are in cryo-sleep. Due to ecoterrorism on the space stations led by a group called the Machine Strikers, the transporter must take on a space marshal called Decker (Martin Rapold). Initially the trip to #42 is uneventful but when it’s Portmann’s turn to wake up and keep watch, strange things that go bump in deep space start occur in the ship’s holding bay and she has to wake up the captain (Pierre Semmler) who investigates the odd incidents with her. The captain mysteriously falls to his death while investigating so Portmann must do an autopsy to determine the immediate causes. She finds his artificial eye and on seeing its last recorded images, discovers through them the true nature of the materials being transported to #42; they are not construction materials as she and the rest of the crew were told, they are organic. After further detective work by herself and Decker, who has long been suspicious of the nature of the cargo, the materials turn out to be humans in deep cryo-sleep.

So begins a mystery thriller that’s part noir, part “Alien” movie series and part “The Matrix” at least; there may be other science fiction / space exploration films referenced here as well. The visual scenes are stunning, especially those of the ship sailing into a black void and those in which Portmann and Decker venture out into space to find her sister’s cryo-sleep pod so that Portmann can meet her and make a broadcast back to the space stations orbiting Earth. Apart from breath-taking scenes of highly detailed space vehicles and stations, Decker and Portmann travelling from the main part of the transporter to find the container that holds Arianne’s pod, and interior scenes of the transporter that emphasise its moody, sinister labyrinthine passages – as if viewers hadn’t already seen similar passages in the ships featured in the “Alien” series of movies – the acting tends to be so low-key and expressionless as to suggest that while in cryo-sleep, the nutritive glop that surrounds sleeping humans drains them of their red blood cells. Actors rarely raise their voices or  look even mildly upset, even in scenes where they have to fight or bid a tearful farewell to someone about to commit suicide. A stab at a romance between Decker and Portmann is laughably unconvincing; the scene in which they embrace and start throwing off their clothes goes upside-down slowly and soundlessly and just when they’re about to have fun, a sliding metal door glides down to hide them in the nick of time to preserve their privacy from us voyeurs. Whatever happened to good healthy clean Germanic revelry in bare-skin nature?

The plot suffers as well from familiar sci-fi cliche: viewers will be glad to know a human or two get blown into the Great Alien Skeleton Garbage Patch revolving around a distant star not in the movie. At one point in the film I wondered if the plot was borrowing heavily from an old Doctor Who adventure “The Ark in Space” in which humans kept in deep sleep were being attacked by an alien insect species who used the humans as incubators for its larvae. After all, Portmann does find a young girl in one of the cryo-sleep pods who has something unusual inserted into her spine. Could it be a larva? – fortunately it’s something inorganic and harmless. At least if there was a mysterious plague or a few nasty cockroaches grown to giant size in those containers, there would be plenty of suspense and action as Decker and Portmann would have to choose between blowing up the ship and its cargo (and explaining matters 57 years later to an irate Board of Directors who have to write the multi-billion euro assets off) and whooshing the giant macrophages or silicon-shielded arthropods out through the airlocks in the absence of highly toxic super-powered pesticides and off to … well, you know where. Instead the suspense wavers from one level of low-key uncertainty to another as characters change the ship’s co-ordinates to travel to Rhea instead of #42.

It’s a pity that the plot is a pastiche of older, better sci-fi movie and TV show scenarios and the characters themselves are one-dimensional versions of the characters in Ridley Scott’s “Alien” movie (and the young girl found in cryo-sleep is a reference to Newt of “Aliens”) as the film’s themes of alienation, isolation, the need to connect with others and corporate exploitation and manipulation of people’s dreams and hopes are powerful and relevant to us all. Portmann discovers the true nature of Rhea which destroys her dream of ever being reunited with Arianne and her children. Anyone else would be completely devastated and would want to rage at the cynical managers and spin doctors who have duped people like Arianne and treated them as garbage for profit. Portmann simply soldiers on with barely a tear running down her face. As for Decker, the other significant character who should have a complex personality and conflicting motives, there again is little fleshing-out of the security guard who’s really an ecoterrorist in disguise; why he falls in love with Portmann and sacrifices himself for her is a puzzle.

Can’t imagine that Hollywood would want to remake this film but if its film studios are prepared to stoop this low, they’ll have their hands full reworking the script to something much more original and to include a proper sewage disposal treatment plant somewhere in space every time something gets flushed out the airlocks.

 

Eraserhead: fascinating and hilarious dark horror film about social and religious pressures on struggling families

David Lynch, “Eraserhead” (1977)

Five years in the making from 1971 to 1976, “Eraserhead” was David Lynch’s full-length directing debut feature. Based on his experiences in Philadelphia in the late 1960’s, its themes revolve around fears and anxieties of being a parent and the death of innocence that parenthood implies; the film also focusses on an individual’s alienation in industrial society and the decay and stagnation that can exist in families in such a context. There is reference to mental illness which often can be a result or a symptom of alienation.  With such themes it’s no wonder that “Eraserhead” is such a dark film and yet there’s a lot of absurdist humour which may derive from surrealist art influences.

The plot is straightforward: Henry Spencer (Jack Nance), a printer by trade and on “vacation”, is hustled into a shotgun marriage by girlfriend Mary (Charlotte Stewart) and her parents when she gives birth to a premature mutant baby. The new family take up residence in Henry’s apartment but the baby’s constant whining drives Mary home to her parents (some viewers may follow suit) and Henry is left to care for the infant. Alone in his cramped surroundings which include a double bed, an old radiator, piles of dirt and dead worm-infested plants, Henry drifts into fantasies about a girl with hamster cheeks (Laurel Near) living in his radiator and the beautiful girl (Judith Anna Roberts) who lives next door. His fantasies send him into a dark dream about his head being chopped off and ending up as raw material for a pencil-making factory. After waking up, Henry still finds himself stuck in his room with the baby.

All very mundane but that’s beside the point – what makes the mundane so mesmerising to watch is the dream-like quality of the narrative and the nature of its context. Henry lives in a town that’s seen better and more prosperous days; factories still exist and machines within still grind on but they are on the slow road to decay and deterioration. They produce less and less and their output probably isn’t needed – they work just for the sake of working. In like manner, Mary’s family still holds to the nuclear-family ideal: her mother demands to know if Henry and Mary have slept together. Other members of the family either pine for the “good ol’ days” or have lost track of time. Henry still dresses for work and makes attempts to leave his apartment sometimes but the baby’s needs subvert any notions of returning to work and Henry gets no calls from his employer about being late or taking time off so viewers can assume his “vacation” is permanent. Henry’s fear of not being wanted may be mirrored in his dream of the pencil factory: all his knowledge, skill and memories, everything that makes him what he is and no-one else, are swept away in the pencil shavings that the factory owner swipes off his table and which billow away into nothingness.

There is a wider story too of the struggle between forces of good and darkness, represented by the Man in the Planet (Jack Fisk) working his levers and the Radiator Girl who beguiles Henry and tempts him to join her. The Man in the Planet may well be responsible for the strange events that befall Henry: perhaps he is testing Henry in some way. Is there a message about religion as well? Certainly Henry and Mary try to do the “right thing” by getting married and trying to bring up a sick baby. They fail but get no support from Mary’s relatives or society generally. The  baby’s severe deformities – it has no skin or skeleton to cover and protect its internal organs under the bandages – remind Henry of its sinful conception and his responsibilities as a father. Social pressures and rigid expectations, the lack of help and Henry’s own social and physical isolation combine to test his sanity and behaviour towards the baby.

The first half of the film rolls by at leisure to introduce viewers into Henry’s insular world and its inhabitants, and how they think and behave. After Mary abandons Henry and the baby and Henry’s dream sequence begins, the action does bog down: the scene where Henry and the beautiful girl kiss and have sex is drawn-out and isn’t necessary to the plot. (Things that happen in dreams rarely are necessary to the plot but the rest of Henry’s fantasies are important as illustrations of the movie’s themes.) For a first-time feature film the technical effects are good – the animated sperm worms which represent temptation to sin and Henry’s guilt are fascinating to watch – and well-mastered, particularly in the scene where Henry Junior froths up and his head goes swollen, really swollen, and the electricity in the apartment starts freaking out. The scene alternates among shots of a giant head popping up in odd places around Henry’s apartment and shots of electrical sparking and burns. At this point in the film good and evil are fighting each other – the Man in the Planet suffers burns while furiously working his levers – and the baby, itself the scene of the battle, swallows up the screen and everything is killed off. A scorched, lifeless planetoid floats in space and Henry finds himself in another realm altogether.

The film’s expressionist sets, dreary at times but also quaint, are part of its charm along with the music-hall appearance of the radiator’s internal workings. The Man in the Planet and his working environment suggest the kind of work railway station workers did before computers made moving rail tracks on sleepers through and around stations easier. This in itself hints that traditional religious beliefs which force Henry and others like him into hasty marriages to preserve social respectability are also stagnant and in decay. The soundtrack, a mixture of industrial-factory ambience and old-fashioned pipe-organ melodies, is eccentric but fits the style of the movie.

A personal and self-indulgent project “Eraserhead” may be but it’s fascinating and often hilarious to watch despite its supposed darkness. At the same time, traditional religion, social expectations, a changed and degraded economic environment and how these affect families may strike a serious chord with viewers who themselves may be experiencing similar pressures.

Blue Velvet: satirising American suburbia as cartoony more important than plot, characters and issues of exploitation

David Lynch, “Blue Velvet” (1986)

A beautiful film to watch with noirish elements and a lot of symbolism yet oddly not very suspenseful or satisfying. “Blue Velvet” is set in some vague representation of 20th century small-town America with a mix of white picket fences surrounding wannabe Cape-Cod houses with manicured green lawns and lush gardens. A middle-aged man watering his patch suddenly suffers a stroke and keels over. The camera tracks down close and low and fixes its gaze on a horde of ravenous beetles tearing at a carcass deep in the garden’s undergrowth amid a soundtrack of roaring chainsaws. The message is clear: no matter how gleamingly clean and tidy a community looks, its core is bound to turn out grimy and seething with corruption. The early scene is a metaphorical introduction to the community of Lumberton, a showcase of Tidy-town suburban Americana, and it’s here that college student Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) returns on hearing that his father is in hospital. He visits Dad and is relieved to see he’s recovering so he goes home, cutting across a field. He discovers in the field a severed ear and brings it to the attention of a police detective (George Dickerson) whose daughter Sandy (Laura Dern) he meets for the first time. Sandy already knows of the Case of the Severed Ear – the police seem unable to solve it – and tells Jeff that a night-club singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) may have a connection to the ear. Egged on by Sandy and keen to investigate and solve the case himself, Jeff poses as a pest exterminator to enter Dorothy’s apartment and steals the singer’s spare key; he uses this key later to enter the apartment again late at night while it’s vacant but Dorothy comes back early and catches him. She attempts to seduce him but then a strange man, Frank (Dennis Hopper), enters the apartment so Jeff is quickly stashed into Dorothy’s wardrobe. Through slats in the wardrobe doors, Jeff watches Frank, an apparent drug addict and local criminal, abuse and rape Dorothy. Perhaps at this point Jeff realises amateur sleuthing is going to be more difficult than a diet of crime mystery novels and thriller movies has led him to believe.

Quite why Jeff believes he can succeed where the police have failed isn’t explained; maybe he’s studying forensic science and psychology at college and wants to put his knowledge to work. His involvement however takes him into the town’s underworld of violence, trafficking of illegal substances, kidnapping, blackmail and exploitation of women dominated by Frank’s gang, the local brothel owner (Dean Stockwell) and a police officer Jeff calls the Yellow Man; but the real underworld may be in his own psyche as uncovered by Dorothy when she attempts to seduce him a second time and begs him to beat her. Jeff resists at first but goaded by Dorothy, he ends up slapping her. From this point on Jeff is torn between two women, Sandy and Dorothy, who are polar opposites in many ways, and must choose one or the other if he is to fight Frank and a corrupt police force to solve the Severed Ear case .

An overarching meta-theme of polarities is evident everywhere in this film: good paired with evil; perfection paired with decay, corruption and rot; innocence paired with its loss and the psychological burden that fills the vacancy left; the good girl paired with the bad woman; love and romance paired with oppression and exploitation leading to violence. There’s a suggestion that if one of the pair exists, the other also exists. In trying to do good, Jeff also has to confront his dark side; he can keep it in check but this demands vigilance. Sandy presents as the “good woman” – loving, caring, forgiving, supportive – but perhaps also bland and sexually unadventurous; Dorothy the “bad woman” awakens Jeff’s sexuality and makes him aware of his own potential for violence and corruption. The acting reflects the love triangle as presented: MaLachlan and Dern are understated to the extent of appearing wooden though there are occasions in the film when they both break down and cry and it’s then you realise they’re not bad actors, they’re just following director’s orders. Rossellini puts in a credible performance though she seems awkward in her role: as a night-club singer, she’s a better model and reporter (Rossellini’s former occupations before she took up acting) and her early encounter with Jeff looks clumsy. Perhaps this is due to her character being a disturbed and frightened woman forced to submit to degradation in order to save her husband and son. The film never explains why Frank is holding the family hostage.

A plot filled with holes, loose ends and discontinuities (like severe knife-cuts to the face healing in less than 24 hours without leaving scars) eventually leads to a definitive resolution and a happy and idealised coda which jars with the ideas and themes presented. The forces of evil are held at bay, temporarily perhaps. Dorothy appears healthy and happy with her son; in real life, without therapy and support, she’d just find another Frank and the vicious cycle of exploitation and degradation will start again. Jeff might be sadder and wiser but keeps his feelings and thoughts in check as Sandy drags him from resting in the garden into the kitchen to look at a robin with a beetle in its beak. Has Jeff become sloth-like and domesticated? Might he not welcome the occasional secret tryst with Dorothy behind Sandy’s back? Lumberton appears as squeaky-clean as ever but would Jeff be satisfied living a life with Sandy, having tasted something of the world Dorothy has revealed to him?

The film’s style is low-key in keeping with MacLachlan and Dern’s underplayed characters who dominate the film. The early half of “Blue Velvet” tends to be quiet with not much background music, lending the plot an air of oppressiveness. Most of the action takes place at night when the town is asleep and the underworld awakes; the film emphasises dark colours, greys, shadows, hints of things unseen but lurking in the background. Dorothy’s apartment may have pink walls but the colour looks muted, even dark, and the red curtain by the open window is always moving. Maybe it’s fidgety. Maybe it’s a metaphorical invitation to sexual activity. Maybe the whole apartment represents a womb. Scenes in the apartment involve voyeurism, a tableau of two dead men and one scene where all the action happens in the bathroom right at the back of the set viewed in the left-hand corner of the screen while nothing happens in the foreground. Throughout the movie shots of industrial decay and close-ups of machines or objects are inserted into the action for no apparent reason other than to remind the audience that death and decay are ever present behind life and perfection. Perfection itself is presented in clear and bright though saccharine colours and imagery which suggests a view of Lumberton and its prevailing culture as perhaps childish and dumbed-down; the other more likely possibility is that Lumberton denies that corruption exists within its boundaries at all.

For all the foregoing, the film is remote and lacks suspense. The plot degenerates into a predictable series of highs and lows culminating in a stand-off between Jeff and Frank over Dorothy which astute viewers can see coming from a mile away. In spite of the film’s forays into voyeurism, the deliberate and subdued woodenness of Jeff and Sandy’s characters make viewer identification with them difficult and their odd behaviour at certain points in the movie – kissing each other just after a murder right in front of them? – might leave not a few viewers cold. The happy ending is unrealistic for characterrs like Jeff and Dorothy: you simply can’t imagine them, after all they have gone through, settling into tranquillity unless they undergo brain transplants. The symbolism present and the importance of close-ups of machines and various objects to the plot may easily pass over audiences’ heads.

It seems that Lynch is more interested in sending up small-town suburbia and exposing what rot and corruption may exist behind it – as if other directors before had never thought to do anything the same or similar – than in crafting credible characters to demonstrate the corruption, how it affects their psyches and behaviours towards others, and call attention to how exploitation and abuse of others plus their consequences occur in the absence of love and empathy. This does an injustice to Rossellini and Hopper in particular who were willing to play highly disturbed characters whose actions and experiences could have affected the actors deeply. Indeed Lynch didn’t even have to invent an underworld for Lumberton to find a dark side – the cartoony Tidy-town character of Lumberton itself is a symptom of social and cultural decay – but then I guess there’d be no “Blue Velvet”.

Symbol (dir. Hatoshi Matsumoto): polished and slick slapstick comedy on nature of the universe

Hatoshi Matsumoto, “Symbol” (2009)

A slapstick comedy about interrelationships and the impact one person can have on events around the world, “Symbol” is the second full-length feature by Hatoshi Matsumoto who is best known in Japan as one-half of a long-running comedy act. The plot splits into two parallel stories that occur on opposite sides of the world, Japan and Mexico. In a small rural part of Mexico, a middle-aged man resignedly prepares for a tag-team wrestling match where he stars as Escargotman; his aged father and small son worry about his physical condition (chubby and pot-bellied) and his attitude in his pre-match routines (no hyping himself up or doing warm-up and limbering exercises). At the same time an unnamed man (Matsumoto himself – let’s call him M) wakes up in a large white-walled room with no furniture or windows in an unknown location in Japan. Images of cherubic male angels appear briefly and fade away, leaving behind only their genitalia on the walls and floor.

Throughout the film the action jumps back and forth between these two scenarios: the man in the room, pressing on the tiny penises, discovers that with each press a hole in a wall (not necessarily the same wall where the pressed penis is located) opens up and spits out an object he can use. Eventually the man works out that he can plan his escape from the room but the plan demands considerable lateral thinking as to how to open a hole up in a wall that leads to a locked door, get the key to that door and the right numbers to unlock the combination lock on the same door. Escargotman meanwhile prays at the family shrine, has his sister (a nun) drive him to the match venue, puts on his costume and mask and goes out to the ring. He waits on the side ropes while his partner gets beaten almost to a pulp by two more pumped-up wrestlers and then goes into the ring himself. In the audience Escargotman’s father and son anxiously sit and wonder if their hero will also get thrashed.

On their own each story isn’t remarkable in itself and viewers mightn’t feel much sympathy for Escargotman and the very real probability that Tequila Joe and his partner will humiliate him absolutely in front of his home crowd. As Escargotman hardly talks and shows little emotion, and on top of that his story shares screen-time with Matsumoto’s protagonist, there’s little tension building up to the wrestling match. M is essentially a comic-strip character in kidult pyjamas and kooky mop-top hairstyle who occasionally has something interesting to say but spends most of his time wordlessly trying out strategies that, comic strip-style, spring up in his head; the strategies work but only after much trial and error and temper tantrums for comic effect. It’s only when M finally escapes from the white room littered with objects and enters a second room where adult angels come and go and leave behind their genitals for our hero to press that the action becomes more interesting; every time he presses a penis, Escargotman lands a punch on his opponents. At this point the two stories become one and viewers start to realise that M isn’t just any ordinary man and the rooms he enters aren’t just any ordinary rooms on our particular plane of existence; each room represents a higher or deeper level of being and in each our man acquires more influence and power over the affairs of Earth. The tale of Escargotman becomes one of many on Earth that M can change. Naturally he insists on continuing to the next room beyond which the punchline awaits him.

The plot falls flat partly because Escargotman and his family are presented as flat though eccentric individuals and the wrestling match could be one of many in several parts of Mexico. For a quirky comedy the Mexican scenes have few quirks to them and become just stereotyped foreign exotic locations with stereotyped characters: Dad trying to make a living, Mum doing housework and nagging people all the time, Grandpa and Junior bonding together and anxious for Dad to prove himself a hero all over again and Aunty utters endless strings of expletive at her rundown truck. Although M helps Escargotman in his match, the influence is one-way only and this insinuates that Escargotman is a mere puppet. The implication behind that, though meant to be comic, is sad. Do Escargotman and his family exist merely for cheap laughs? (I guess so – don’t Third World nations and people exist to be pushed around?) This kind of philosophical black comedy has probably been done to death before and “Symbol” has nothing new to say on the matter.

In spite of the film’s polished presentation which includes a sharp, bright style of filming, computer animation and special effects that look real, and a steady pace driven by M’s desire for escape and meaning, “Symbol” ends up delivering a message that’s clever and slick but not profound. The movie’s worth is mainly in how it manipulates viewer expectations about the plot, its main character, the nature of his prison and how the Escargotman sub-plot ties into the main plot. You laugh at yourself for thinking that because you’re watching a movie, everything there has to make sense or connect with everything else in some way for a clear plot; but expected connections never materialise and unexpected ones do. As M goes from one maze to the next, viewers quickly realise he’s undertaking the metaphorical equivalent of human spiritual and intellectual evolution but whether he realises the importance of the journey himself – it looks as though enlightenment comes to him only during his swimming journey in which, sperm-like, he advances to “the light at the end of the tunnel” – is another matter entirely. Any thoughts he has about his journey, what he learns from it, and what awaits him at the end – and what he plans to do – are never revealed. The punchline could be more effective if M had broken the “fourth wall”, having done so a few times through the film already; he could just raise his finger and look quizzically at the audience before the camera cuts abruptly to the end credits.

“Symbol” is on a par with films like “Inception” and “eXisteNZ” which position the universe as similar to a videogame with various levels that require more skill and expertise in playing the game. The structure of the film into three parts “Education” where M teaches himself the strategies to leave the room, “Implementation” and “Future” suggests as much. Viewed this way, there’s no need for “Symbol” to say anything profound other than that a search for meaning in life is meaningless in itself and the universe may be one big cosmic joke. Films of this nature often seem superficial perhaps because if the universe is seen as a cosmic videogame, then there’s the inference that players enter the “game” on the understanding that they can’t change the “rules” of the game and free will only extends as far as the rules and parameters of the game permit. You as the player are no different than hamsters running on wheels in their cages, no matter how elaborate the wheels are or how far they go.

Secret Agent (dir. Alfred Hitchcock): morality of espionage is questioned in an ordinary film lacking suspense

Alfred Hitchcock, “Secret Agent” (1936)

The surprising thing about this film is that lead actor John Gielgud plays such a wooden and unappealing “hero” here after a distinguished background of Shakespearean heroes on stage. But that’s one of Hitchcock’s hallmarks: getting actors into roles opposed to what they usually played at the time. This also applies to another actor featured in this film: Peter Lorre, better known for playing movie villains, plays (or perhaps overplays) a comic and eccentric assassin known only as the General. Other Hitchcock motifs in “Secret Agent” include a MacGuffin figure in the form of a character, Caypor (Percy Marmont), who is also an innocent / wronged man (two motifs in one), a spiral staircase (wow, another two motifs in one), a cool blonde bombshell in the form of Elsa (Madeleine Carroll), a love triangle, grand locations in Switzerland and significant plot developments that take place on a train travelling through central Europe. With these and a story promising lots of suspense and a murder or two, “Secret Agent” should be a great Hitchcock film, right? Unfortunately for once, the Manager of Suspense doesn’t manage with all his weapons at hand, an excellent cast and a script based on two stories by noted British writer W Somerset Maugham to deliver to his high standareds. “Secret Agent” provides well-paced entertainment but the suspense is just not there.

The main problem with “Secret Agent” is its uneven character development. Gielgud’s would-be hero Ashenden, a former writer who fakes his death so he can carry out a mission to assassinate a mysterious German spy, gets almost nothing to do apart from dithering and wringing his hands about the morality of his work.  Peter Lorre’s General who’s supposedly his sidekick does the work hunting down and killing enemy spies – he’s a professional assassin after all. Maybe Ashenden himself is the MacGuffin figure to provide cover for the General, the real hero spy. Ashenden meets Elsa as the spy assigned to be his pretend wife; she’s all gung-ho about being a spy while Ashenden takes on the assignment rather reluctantly. As the mission progresses and the General disposes of the wrong man, Elsa realises the true danger involved and wants out of the mission. At this point she’s in love with Ashenden who, on discovering Caypor’s innocence, determines to find the real spy. Surprise, surprise, the real spy is a rival for Elsa’s affections: Robert Marvin (Robert Young) who completes the love triangle that encompasses Ashenden and Elsa.

While Gielgud’s acting is very understated here, the same can’t be said of Madeleine Carroll and Peter Lorre who all but eat up the screen between them. Lorre displays great comic talent and timing, particularly in the chocolate factory scene where he notices a piece of paper sticking out of a chocolate box on a mass assembly line and doggedly follows the note, even going up a fragile spiral staircase. He over-acts with rolling eyes and exaggerated expressions and he delivers his lines (which include comic one-liners) awkwardly but his cartoony, stereotyped foreigner presentation is a foil to Gielgud’s dour style. Viewers might get the impression Hitchcock was feeding Lorre lines for pure comic effect – someone should have told him when to stop. Carroll is shown off to great effect by hat brims, close-ups and camera angles that emphasise the sculpted structure of her face and her glossy blonde curls but in spite of (or because of) her character’s efforts at agonising about her mission and feeling torn between Ashenden and Marvin, Carroll makes less impression as a feisty femme than she did in her previous effort for Hitchcock (“The 39 Steps”). It falls to Robert Young to provide much needed charm, glamour and requisite menace as the German spy posing as an American playboy.

The DVD copy I saw didn’t mention digital remastering and the quality of the film stock used in the transition to DVD was poor.  Some of Hitchcock’s skill in setting up scenes was lost to me.  Some scenes looked dark or flat and I missed tiny nuances in people’s acting and facial expressions. There are some stand-out scenes worth mentioning though: an early one takes place in a church where Ashenden and the General attempt to meet a fellow spy; organ music in the background is stuck on one sinister chord that gets louder and louder and increases the tension of the scene until the two men discover the man they’re after – lying dead across an organ! Another scene is Caypor’s death scene which actually takes place off-screen in a clever way, Ashenden, voyeur-like, witnessing the murder through a long-range telescope.  Unfortunately Hitchcock ruins the scene by featuring a telepathic dog in another scene and cutting between the prophetic pooch and Ashenden watching the dog’s master being killed. The film’s opening scene of a funeral, done entirely without  dialogue, is a great introduction that harks back to Hitchcock’s former days as a director of silent movies.

On the other hand, the British air raid on the train and its derailment are too much a deus ex machina ploy to resolve the problem of the three British spies escaping Marvin and a whole unit of German soldiers. Miraculously the four main characters survive the crash while the soldiers around them are killed! After the climax in which Marvin and the General confront each other, the movie hurriedly relieves Ashenden and Elsa of their onerous duties as spies and they are free to live their lives together without moral anguish. There’s little suspense in this important part of the plot and viewers may ponder what exactly Ashenden has done in the aftermath of the crash scene that gets him a medal. Is he taking the credit for what the General actually does? Now who’s the morally upright person here?

The lesson of the film is that espionage is an unattractive business in which people must swallow their moral scruples and only those who are a bit psychotic, like the General, or who are sociopathic, like Marvin, can be successful spies. Yet it’s a necessary if distateful way of avoiding or winning wars as shown in the montage of news headlines right at the end of the film. Deception is a necessary part of the spy game as Elsa learns, almost at the cost of her life; it’s also part of the love triangle she’s caught up in – does Ashenden truly have feelings for her? and does Marvin really love her as well? Is there no better way for people to transact normal affairs of daily life or affairs of global importance without resorting to deception and subterfuge that compromise their morals?

This is one of several British films Hitchcock made in the thirties that he could have remade at a later date. It can be argued that he did (sort of) remake it in “North by Northwest” which also carries much of Hitchcock / Carroll’s other collaboration “The 39 Steps”. Viewed chronologically, several of Hitchcock’s films appear as variations of one meta-movie that must have been continuously scrolling in his head throughout his life; films that he kept on refining but never capturing completely the film in his head. “Secret Agent” is just one such movie – and a fairly average one at that. While the bulk of the story is credible enough, leaving aside the train crash that mysteriously spares some people and not others, there’s very little tension and suspense in the film, particularly in the love triangle, and a lot of that is due to a lack of chemistry between Gielgud’s underdone spy and Carroll’s more frivolous character.

Aelita, Queen of Mars: a multi-plot story with a moral about living in fantasy versus living in reality

Yakov Protazanov, “Aelita, Queen of Mars” (1924)

This silent Soviet film from the mid-1920’s can be seen in nine parts on Youtube.com thanks to contributor Ishexan. Most current interest in the movie focusses on its sci-fi sub-plot of a trip that three Earthmen make to Mars where they are promptly embroiled in Martian politics and one of them, a revolutionary called Gusev (Nikolai Batalov), inspires the oppressed Martian workers to rebel against their despotic king and replace him with his daughter who is equally tyrannical. This sub-plot is part of a broad melodrama about an engineer called Los (Nikolai Tsereteli) who fluctuates between an erotic fantasy life revolving around an exotic aristocrat woman who worships him from afar and his real life in which his wife Natasha (Valentina Kuindzhi), neglected by him, has an affair with a rich foreigner, Ehrlich (Pavel Pol).

Los’s fantasy about the woman Aelita (Yulia Solntseva) begins when he and his colleague Spiridonov (Tsereteli again) receive mysterious radio transmissions from afar which can’t be translated into Russian and someone in their department jokingly suggests the messages might be from Mars. Mars is a place where rich folks like Aelita and her dad King Tuskub (Konstantin Eggert) can spy on the affairs of other planets on a special TV made of geometric shapes and squiggly wires powered by Martian planetary energy harnessed by Gor (Yuri Zavadsky), the planet’s chief scientist and guardian of radiant energy. Poor Martian folks on the other hand must labour in the labyrinthine dungeons of Mars and there’s a rotating roster in which one-third of the workforce goes to sleep in deep freeze chambers when the available work dwindles. Good thing the capitalists on Earth never heard of that idea! Most of the movie’s running time flits from Los’s work ,which among other things involves volunteer work on an engineering project in the Soviet Far East and in his spare time constructing a spaceship capable of flying to Mars with Spiridonov, to Natasha working at a refugee centre, then an orphanage, and flirting with Ehrlich, to other sub-plots which include Gusev’s on-again/off-again relationship with his wife and an investigation of Natasha’s shotgun murder by the comically inept detective Kravtsov (Igor Ilyinsky). There is also a sub-plot that focusses on one man’s attempt to cheat on the food-rationing system used in Moscow which calls audiences’ attention to the economic and social plight of ordinary people in Russia at the time the film was made.

All this means that “Aelita …” can be a bewildering experience for first-time viewers unfamiliar with the immediate post-1917 situation in the Soviet Union before Joseph Stalin came to power in the mid-1920’s. Repeating viewings and a foreknowledge of the film’s plot and themes will be necessary for some viewers to understand and tease out the various sub-plots. Several sub-plots are Los’s daydreams which the film deliberately doesn’t separate from what happens to the engineer in real life so the narrative, and in particular the ending, can be very confusing to watch. A pro-Communist / anti-capitalist message is present in the movie but director Protazanov’s treatment of it is very ambiguous: Gusev has second thoughts about allowing Aelita to assume leadership of the Martian proletariat and his fears are well-founded. This particular moment in the film serves perhaps as a warning of what could happen to the Soviet government, that it might fall into a similar autocratic style of government as the previous Tsarist government: a prophetic message indeed.

Los realises his fantasy about Aelita comes to nothing but chaos, which might make viewers wonder whether it really is a fantasy that he has or something that actually happened to him. Fantasy women who hero-worship you don’t usually try to co-opt you into their own nefarious schemes, do they? He decides that his goal in life is to be with Natasha, who miraculously is alive despite having been shot at close range multiple times earlier in the film, and work with her for the reconstruction of their country. Natasha for her part is willing to return to Los and give up Ehrlich. The film’s message is that inner psychological rebirth is as important as political, social and economic rebirth if people are to co-operate and fulfill the goals of socialist revolution. Fantasising about flying to Mars as a way of escaping humdrum reality and the work involved in maintaining a marriage (and by extension, maintaining a community, especially a new revolutionary community) certainly won’t help to bring about equality and prosperity for everyone.

The film’s production values are very impressive: in particular the Martian sets, influenced by the Russian avantgarde art movement Constructivism with its emphasis on abstract geometric shapes and figures, look very futuristic and in some scenes are monumental. The make-up and costume design for the actors playing the Martians are similarly abstract and angular though the headgear looks comic. The style of acting varies in keeping with the plot and themes: generally the Earthlings move and act in a natural way while the Martians, lacking human emotion, have a stilted and robotic style of behaving. Aelita especially seems a child-like and petulant aritstocrat compared to proletarian Natasha who is portrayed as a warm and caring, if rather flighty, young woman. The editing helps here too, cutting from Aelita at her leisure watching Los on her TV or lounging about to Natasha cooking stew and scrubbing wet clothes. Hmm, what does it say about Los and his attitude towards women and social class that Aelita is a naive fantasy ideal that turns dangerous and has to be killed off while the neglected Natasha is ready to offer him love and support if only he would pay more attention to her and their marriage?

Ultimately for most people the main value of “Aelita …” will be in its sets and design but for students of propaganda and Soviet history, the film has a great deal to say about the difference between fantasy and reality. The lesson is aimed as much at idealists and would-be revolutionaries as for those still wedded to capitalist ways of thinking.

Frostbiten: comedy/horror vampire story lacking in teeth

Anders Banke, “Frostbiten” (2006)

‘Tis a Swedish vampire movie that begins with a shot of the night sky against which light snow is seen falling softly but all other resemblance to that other Swedish vampire movie about two children in a dreary Stockholm apartment block ends there. Action switches instead to an abandoned farmhouse in Ukraine, 1944, where four Swedish soldiers, fighting as members in a unit in the Wehrmacht, take refuge after narrowly surviving a shoot-out. What they find there in the farmhouse proves far more deadly than several divisions of the Red Army and just one man, Gerhard Beckert (Per Löfberg) barely escapes – or does he really?

Cut to 60 years later and Beckert (now Carl-Åke Eriksson) is a geneticist in a hospital in a city in northern Sweden; he is working on a vaccine for a mysterious virus and his guinea pig is a young woman who has been comatose for a year. Into this environment arrives Dr Annika Wallén (Petra Nielsen) who’s been keen to work with Beckert for a long time. Her daughter Saga (Grete Havneskold) tries to adjust to her new high school and social set which is dominated by Goth girl Vega (Emma T Aberg). Vega invites Saga to attend a party which will include among its guests various medical students taught by Beckert among others; students like Sebastian (Jonas Karlstrom) who, seeing the red pills Beckert feeds the comatose patient, swipes them for the party. Those viewers well-versed in vampire film lore will know straightaway what those little red balls will do to Sebastian and the other party-goers (save Saga) and during the evening when the party is in full swing with people getting drunk and high on all kinds of recreational designer drugs, behold, kids start clawing and necking one another, mayhem and trashing of furniture and the party venue follow, and the neighbours frantically phone the police to complain about the kids’ monkey antics. While the police have their hands full dealing with real-live teenage / young adult ghouls and party-pooper Saga tries to fend off Vega’s sudden interest in her (or in necking her rather), mum Annika discovers Beckert’s secret and the real aims of his experiment and tries valiantly to stop him from going further with it.

Intended as a spoof and homage to schlocky comedy /horror vampire movies of the past (demonstrated in the way one part of the plot “scrolls” to another plot strand), the movie is basically about a stock mad-scientist character trying to keep his life-work of perfecting vampires as Ubermensch replacements for real humans under wraps, continually refining his experiment until he believes it ready to be unleashed in its full glory, only for other people to thwart his personal ambitions and unwittingly release the vampire plague into the outside world. Along the way, characters and situations are milked for laughs as well as suspense, and an ingenious use for garden gnomes is discovered, and once Beckert is out of the way and the police find themselves outnumbered by kids who can resist capsicum spray and tasers, the comedy /horror story has run out of steam and the movie has the good grace to get off the screen pronto.

The special effects used are very good and the sub-polar background with the long dark winter night and need for people to gather in groups provides the right environment for a vampire plague to take place. Pity that a Christmas theme is not used here for extra laughs and horror! The acting is just enough to maintain some credibility and there’s not too much over-acting though the camera lingers a little too long over howling Sebastian and blood-lusting Vega once they are fully undead. The best scenes for suspense, mood and substance are the early wartime scenes in which the soldiers first encounter the dormant vampire enemy. Unfortunately after the special effects and cinematography, there mustn’t have been much money left over to hire a decent script-writer as the story lacks a climax and stops in mid-flight. Viewers are left wondering what will happen to Annika and Saga and whether they will ever see each other again after the end credits start rolling. The sub-polar environment and its night that lasts months are nothing more than a background over which the plot chugs along until it loses blood and bite.

Corruption, authoritarianism, oppression of women and intolerance are a hidden presence in “Häxan: Witchcraft through the Ages”

Benjamin Christensen, “Häxan: Witchcraft through the Ages” (1922)

Intended as a study on how superstition and lack of knowledge about mental illness could have led to the witch-hunt craze and persecutions in Europe during the period from the 1500’s to the mid-1700’s, this Danish / Swedish co-production is a remarkable silent film that mixes a documentary style with fictional enactments of mediaeval beliefs about witches and how a persecution of someone accused of witchcraft might have proceeded and led to more people being accused and charged of being witches. All the way through “Häxan …” is a very detailed, earnest approach that assumes its audience knows little about witches but is intelligent enough to absorb and understand the information presented here. Although the film deals with a topic that might be assumed to interest only historians studying European culture of the time mentioned above, aspects of the witch-hunt are sure to resonate with modern audiences: in particular, the use of torture to extract confessions, usually false, from people accused of witchcraft who would then implicate other people around them, often as a way of avenging themselves, might strike people as disturbingly similar to the methods used by the US and its allies to prosecute its wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and other parts of the world.

The film splits into four parts, all of them highly informative if perhaps heavy-handed with an attention level bordering on obsessive and fetishistic. The first part deals with ancient and mediaeval cosmologies and how these gave rise to beliefs in Heaven, Hell and the existence of Satan and devils. This can be dry and didactic with little pointers on the screen demonstrating the obvious on animated diagrams, reproductions of naive drawings and Christensen’s own reconstructions, and this might well be the point at which most people will tune out. Leaving of course those with an interest in the history of witch-hunts to stick out the rest of the movie where the real rewards lie. The second part consists of a series of fictional vignettes, some very comical and slapstick, of witches concocting love potions, riding brooms to celebrate their sabbat or dreaming of meeting the Devil. The special effects and animation used look primitive to modern eyes but are very effective in making coins come alive or creating the impression of an army of witches in flight.

A mini-movie in which a beggar woman is accused of having bewitched a printer and causing him to die by the women in his family constitutes the third part which makes up the bulk of “Häxan …”. Much of this drama involves the woman being forced under torture by monks to confess her “crime”. The most sinister aspects of this section illustrate how readily other innocent people can be dragged into a witch-hunt panic: in one scene, a monk has sexual fantasies about the printer’s wife so the woman ends up charged with having bewitched him. The film concludes by showing parallels between the witch-hunts of the past and modern practices in dealing with mental illness and phenomena such as mass hysteria and challenges us as viewers to consider whether we are just as prone as people were in the past to fall prey to prejudices and beliefs about the nature of certain mental phenomena like somnambulism and hallucinations that led to so many people being persecuted and killed as witches.

In spite of its broad range, the film flows fairly well from one part to the next which attests to Christensen’s concept and careful construction of it as a self-sufficient whole. The actual joins can be clumsy (especially between the last two parts) but all four parts connect through common themes in the subject areas of witchcraft and demonology and of the social attitudes towards witches and other outsiders. Production values look rudimentary and in some scenes the lighting is poor or the props and sets look the same in spite of the changed context. All the acting was done by amateurs and Christensen himself plays the part of the Devil so viewers shouldn’t expect much out of the cast used; it’s enough to say the actors look and act naturally in a period of film history where professional acting could be exaggerated and look hammy. Close-ups of actors’ faces invite sympathy from viewers; when the same filming method is also applied to various torture implements and how they are applied, the effect on viewers might be unsettling. That iron collar with the spikes pointing inwards certainly doesn’t look comfortable!

Depictions of the Devil and celebrations of the witches’ sabbat are lurid and there’s always the possibility the scenes were played up as much to titillate audiences in a po-faced way as to educate them. Some nudity is shown and witches are shown kissing the Devil’s bum and eating food obtained from corpses. What’s missing from these scenes and others which would have enriched the documentary and made it more relevant to the general public then and now is some historical context: the actions as portrayed visually and as described in the intertitles are a satire on Christian ritual and the practice of Holy Communion or Mass, and might suggest that, in many parts of Europe during the height of the witch-hunting craze, Christianity or its public face at least was resisted by many people for various reasons. After all, contrary to popular belief, the European witch-hunts didn’t actually take place during “mediaeval times”: they actually took place in a period that overlaps with the spread of the Renaissance in Europe outside Italy, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the rise of nation states like England, Spain, France, Sweden, Russia and the Netherlands and their empires in other parts of the world, and the beginnings of the Age of Enlightenment. The implication is that intolerance and authoritarian behaviour in Roman Catholic and Protestant Christianity increased with the rise of learning and alternative opinions that might have threatened the power of the clergy.

A sub-text of women suffering oppression within male-dominated structures and institutions in society, the results of which manifest in peculiar behaviour that might be interpreted as witchcraft practice, is present in “Häxan …” though whether Christensen was aware of this sub-text is another thing. Possibly he was but this was a touchy topic that was outside the scope of his research. At the time, psychology was still a new science and Sigmund Freud was still developing his theories of psychoanalysis. Certainly the fourth part of the film in which nuns are afflicted with a contagious dancing hysteria and young troubled women are diagnosed by male physicians as having hysteria suggests very strongly that incidents of mental illness in individuals and groups might have a cultural or social origin.  Had Christensen made his film at a later date, most likely he would have tried to incorporate some psychological theory and study to strengthen his argument about mental illness being a basis for suspicion of witchcraft and he might even address the question of why more women than men were persecuted as witches. There are also several scenes in the film showing monks and abbots denying their faults by placing the blame for them on women so there is an issue of corruption within the established Christian churches that Christensen could have addressed openly but most likely dared not.

The film can be slow in parts and the drama of the beggar woman and her accusers gets cut off just as it becomes really interesting. The visuals are perhaps the best part of the film and the last section that posits mental illness as a possible explanation for behaviour that got women in trouble as witches is interesting though limited in its scope. Christensen as a tubby Devil is laughable – WTF was he thinking when he took on that role? was he trying to make the Devil into something comic? – and scenes of the witches celebrating sabbat bring into question his aims in making the documentary: did Christensen just intend “Häxan …” as a documentary or could he have been striving for something else beyond? The film as is suggests that the art and creativity of movie-making could have gone far beyond both strictly fact-based documentary and the visual story-telling typical of most feature films that are taken for granted today: “Häxan …” is at once fact and fiction, and is more than the sum of two parts.

Assassin of Youth: “educational” soap opera that titillates with flashes of sordid behaviour

Elmer Clifton, “Assassin of Youth” (1937)

It’s a laughable anti-marijuana screed but “Assassin of Youth” at least has a comic drama going for it. A reporter, Art Brighton (Arthur Gardiner), goes undercover in a small US town to investigate a gang of marijuana dealers intent on corrupting the teenagers there. In particular these fiendish fellas are in cahoots with a local woman Linda Clayton (Fay McKenzie) who wants to discredit her cousin Joan Barry (Luana Walters) so that the girl can’t claim her inheritance of money from her grandmother’s will, subject to a morals clause, and the cash will go to Linda and her husband instead. The way Linda will discredit Joan is to feed her with marijuana through smoking and cakes, encouraging the lass to misbehave at wild parties and get involved with strange folks of dubious moral reputation. Joan falls for every ploy and scheme Linda can dream up, sullying her reputation as a good girl until there’s more mud clinging to her than little sister Margery who at least attempts to murder another girl at a party. Brighton conceives a daring plan that will get Joan off the hook and incriminate Linda and the no-good drug dealers she’s getting the grass from but the police interfere, Joan ends up in the slammer, Brighton himself is whisked back to the office by his employer and the reading of the will happens to take place the next day. Can Brighton get back to town in time to stop Joan from being deprived of her inheritance and the money going to her undeserving cousin?

Essentially a soap opera, the film is slow for much of its running time: one after the other, there are several parties where the kids do little more scandalous than get Joan bathing nude in a lake (while Linda is burning her clothes), smoke pot, dance a lot and keel over from the effects of the drug. There’s a diversion into a film screened by Brighton’s employer for the reporter’s benefit in which a narrator bangs on about the history of marijuana, its early uses and its current evil effects on young vulnerable people. Action perks up when Brighton hatches his bold plan and gets Joan to co-operate. Plenty of comedy is provided by local milkbar owner, “Pop” Brady (Earle Dwire), who hires Brighton in his undercover disguise and who exposes the local gossip Henrietta (Fern Emmett) as having been less than snow-white virginal herself as a teenager and the judge (Henry Roquemore) as the man who might have deflowered her all those years ago, at the court hearing. The acting is competent enough for the film’s requirements; McKenzie as the glamour-puss blonde schemer and Dwire, who creates havoc in the court-room to delay the hearing so that Brighton can get there in time, are the most memorable actors. Production values are quite bad with some scenes hard to make out due to poor lighting conditions at the time, and the quality of the film stock used and the way it has aged do not help either.

Modern audiences will get a chuckle out of the shock-horror tactics used by Clifton to hammer home the anti-marijuana message. All kinds of evil, deviant behaviour like skinny-dipping in a lake at nights, trying to knife a girl smooching with your boyfriend, and falling into a coma and being at death’s door are detailed to the extent that any real side-effects cannabis might have become invisible. The snooty pedant in me sniffs that the kids’ behaviour is due to being in a group free from adult restraint in environments where small-town customs and traditions no longer matter.  It seems very likely that audiences in the 1930’s didn’t take this film seriously and simply watched it for the melodrama with its promise of nude bathing, youngsters imbibing alcohol, female violence and a teenage girl sleeping with a strange man in a hotel room. In those days of strict censorship and alcohol prohibition in the US, film-makers there wanting to titillate audiences with racy stories that would get past the censors made so-called “educational” films about the dangers of drugs or sexual intercourse outside marriage and this may well have been Clifton’s intention.

Worth watching at least for the attitudes and social mores of the period in relation to drug addiction and teenage freedom and sexuality, and how American society, in particular small-town society, might have dealt with issues affecting adolescents. Some aspects of American youth culture and fashion may interest the social historian in some viewers. Apart from this, don’t expect  much in the way of fine acting, cinematography or direction – just sit back and enjoy the fluff.