Thursday, October 14, 2010

BURIAL GROUND: THE NIGHTS OF TERROR

(1981; d- Andrea Bianchi)
There are bad dreams, intimating the unsettling, digging well into the shadowed recesses of guilt, denial and secret fears long suppressed. And then there are nightmares… the blackest regions of the subconscious mind, the only place where we race not only for our lives, but for our sanity - and generally the only place where our instincts to survive are given to regular practice. We do not choose our nightmares, they choose us -- and take us to the only places capable of really, truly horrifying us.
I dream of the dead… of hollowed eyes and hungry, grasping hands, willful only that I succumb to death’s ultimate mystery. They’ve occupied my nightmares for many years and in various guises, though one recurring element seems determined to haunt me until the very end. I find myself, alone, near a cabin in the remotest woods at dusk, following something like a path, cognitive only of the encroaching dead -- and my own private hell. When I’d first seen BURIAL GROUND, I was quite young and susceptible and one component in particular took up somnolent refuge in my mind‘s eye -- the half-mummified, maggot and worm infested walking corpses. They’ve since become the permanent residents of that dark, lonely place in the woods.
Filmed near Rome on a shoestring by Andrea Bianchi (STRIP NUDE FOR YOUR KILLER, WHAT THE PEEPER SAW), BURIAL GROUND was a shoddy, depraved attempt to both outdo in voracity and cash in on the success of Lucio Fulci’s ZOMBIE (1979). Though it shamelessly attempts to replicate one of the most infamous gore scenes from ZOMBIE, it has become a much beloved cult hit on it’s own rather uncanny set of terms. It is at once cheap and lurid and unintentionally hilarious, yet it’s also a cryptic, ghastly shocker that strikes more and more like a nightmare with each viewing. Laying an atmosphere full of crudely surreal psychological rudiments - from it’s wobbly, drunken hand-held photography to the grim, warbling cacophony of it’s interminably strange electronic score (counterbalanced by sleazy Euro-jazz early on) - a very peculiar table is set.
Beginning at the secluded country estate of a professor who has somehow resurrected the dead (“I’m the only one who knows the secret…”), we witness his descent into a crypt where he is the first to meet and succumb to their inscrutable hunger. “No, stand back! I‘m your friend!” This first scene should serve as fair warning to anyone adverse to gut-munching disembowelments (of which there are several). So with little in the way of explanations, we’re just to understand (before the credits even roll) that the dead walk and they won’t halt to eat you, even if you otherwise claim to be an old chum.
When the professor’s weekend guests arrive, they’re joyous for their lush accommodations and immediately seeking quarters for which to bed down. Though many European horror films maintain a healthier than necessary libido, BURIAL GROUND just seethes with preternatural longings of the flesh. Three couples arrive, with one (um…) child, and we’re to bear witness to every blessed one of them grope and paw one another into frenzied delirium. In the absence of their austere, forbidding host, this is now a place for lovers.
Or so it would seem, if you’d already forgotten the professor’s rather grisly demise. As little to nothing is afforded to character development, the lustful commingle-lers might otherwise be arbitrarily designated a, b, c, d, e and f… I’ll attempt to provide names when necessary. And then there’s the young boy, Michael (Peter Bark, the adult “person of short stature” who portrays the rather unusual lad)… His odd fascination, disgust and jealousy with the lascivious attention provided his mother, Evelyn (Mariangela Giordano), by her wholly unappealing boyfriend, George (Roberto Caporali), instructs much of the narrative’s focal point early on, a bewildering plot device that becomes much, much stranger as the story progresses.
Seconds after their afternoon arrival, they’re ushered in by a couple of servants and presto -- it’s night and they’re all in their respective bedrooms, readying themselves for lovemaking. As these things often go, there is a healthy dose of playful banter preceding the act… James (Simone Mattioli), the squinty playboy with the X-rated mustache, exudes rare Machiavellian √©lan as he tells his mistress, Leslie (Antonella Antinori), “You look just like a little whore. But I like that in a girl.” To say these scenes feel sleazy might be a bit of an understatement. I mean, I like having my heartstrings tugged as much as the next guy, but, you know, wash your hands before you start fondling them in that manner.
Just as things approach their, um... culmination, the creaky door to Evelyn’s room flings open, a slowly creeping shadow revealing itself to be Michael, who is indignant as his nude mother springs off her jilted lover. Michael’s lingering captivation with his mother’s breathtaking form will give pause to most, begging the question, “What is this crap? What the hell did we get ourselves into?!”
The following morning, we find the group gathered briefly at breakfast, then pairing off to explore the grounds - and each other - with Mark (Gianluigi Chirizzi) and Janet (the lovely, vibrant Karin Well) opting for an impromptu modeling session in the gardens. “You’re turning into a great little model.” “Then I deserve a raise in pay.” “You’re getting a raise from me, alright, but it has nothing to do with money.”
Inside the house, the light bulbs begin flickering, then inexplicably explode one by one, repeatedly startling the maid and butler - another in a long line of chuckle-worthy moments. Outside, Mark and Janet’s fiery, torrid embrace is broken by a particularly nasty looking corpse, scaring Mark back into his corduroys.
Meanwhile, George and Evelyn are perusing some ancient relics in a storage building nearby when young Michael makes a rather strange observation... “Mama… this cloth. It smells of death.” “It’s nothing but an old rag, Michael. You get the silliest ideas in that nutty head of yours.” Seconds later, the dead shamble into the room, breaking for George and his appallingly ill-fitting red shirt like bulls to a matador. The extremely gruesome nature of the ensuing carnage is liable to have you either scrambling for the remote or cheering for more.
Off in the gardens somewhere, James and his meticulous porn-stache chew on Leslie’s lower lip until they are set upon by several over-ripe ghouls. Leslie- “Oh! What are they?!” James- “Monsters… Monsters!”
While also given to chase, Janet and Mark’s plight is exacerbated when she unwittingly hops into a massive, gaping bear trap. Though one can’t be too sure it was intended so, her dubbed-over cries of agony sound conspicuously orgasmic, further embellished by Mark’s feeble, prolonged attempts to free her ankle as the ravening dead close in.
After several futile bids to open the trap, Mark grabs a pitchfork to fend them off, then essentially hands it over to the first ghoul he confronts. As heroes go, Mark, like the rest of the men in BURIAL GROUND, proves woefully inadequate.
With the help of James and Leslie, Janet’s leg is freed and the group make their way back to the house. Now comes the obvious question. Why don’t they just hop in their cars and hightail it the hell out of there? Well, duh… because the dead have stationed several guards near the cars, that’s why.
As darkness falls, the living dead prove themselves particularly cunning adversaries, especially when one of them hides behind a potted plant as the maid peeks out from a window upstairs. With pinpoint accuracy, the eyeless ghoul tosses a crude dart into her hand, lodging it into the wooden window frame as another raises a scythe over her head to complete the awful deed.
The situation grows ever more dire when the dead begin collecting tools for which to break down the heavy doors of the sprawling villa. When that initially fails, one of them takes to scaling the walls… As Leslie heads off to find bandages for Janet’s badly bruised ankle, she’s ambushed by the cat-like fiend, setting up a far lesser imitation of Lucio Fulci’s infamous eye-gore scene from ZOMBIE.
After several of them break in, wreaking all manner of havoc, the weary guests begin to come apart at the seams. Perhaps feeling the need to amp up the strange, BURIAL GROUND takes a wild left turn as Michael and his mother comfort one another on a couch. “Mama, I can’t stand it anymore. Please let me stay close to you, Mama.” “Yes, dear… please forgive me for ever taking you to this horrible place.” “Of course, Mama.” After kissing her on both cheeks, then several times on the mouth, confusion settles in. What is he doing to his mother?
Whoa… wait a second. Where is that hand going?
Are they moaning? And why is she stroking his hair, clearly encouraging him?
“Oh, Mama. I love you so much.” “I used to feel near you. I used to touch you. When I was a baby, you always used to hold me to your breast.” Too late, she begins to realize what’s happening…
And his fiendish little hand digs deeper yet, earning him a vicious slap.
“What’s wrong? I’m your son!”  Uh… just pinch yourself, check your bearings and keep repeating, “It’s only a movie, It’s only a movie”.
If you’re confused or the least bit traumatized reading this, imagine my reaction when I first saw this at the age of twelve… with my mother, brother and step-family (two brothers, a sister and their father). The next time it was my turn to pick at the video store, my step-father had taken a good, long look at my choice. I think he wanted to be sure I hadn’t wound up with another one of those “eye-talian jobs”, as he so thoughtfully put it.
BURIAL GROUND had bombarded and corrupted my adolescent psyche with thoughts undreamed of, with fears unworldly… and desires unfathomable. Um, just kidding.  I hope you can take some comfort in the knowledge that I only like my mom "as a friend". (shudders)
Though I wish I could promise that director Andrea Bianchi had halted this inexplicable Freudian entanglement right then and there, I cannot. Poor pretty Evelyn, whose only crime was lookin’ good, is not out of the woods yet. And neither are the rest of them, for the dead in BURIAL GROUND march to their own drummer -- weaving a nightmare so dreadful, so apocalyptic, it becomes almost biblically cryptic in it’s hopelessness.

Friday, October 1, 2010

JOE MANTELL 1915 - 2010

Though I doubt much has been written about the life and career of Joe Mantell, he was one hell of an actor and will be fondly remembered. The obituary notices yesterday were brief and to the point, each crediting him, in tandem, with perhaps the most famous line from CHINATOWN, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” Well, to some, Joe Mantell should be remembered for much more than this.

Though while also being nominated for a Best Supporting Oscar for his fine portrayal of Ernest Borgnine’s best pal in MARTY (1955), as well as playing Jack Nicholson’s partner and photographer in CHINATOWN (1974), Joe Mantell was infinitely more than just another second banana. His characters were nearly always gritty, streetwise malcontents, but in them he breathed bursting life and heart and a vulnerability that made you recognize him and care about him. I almost always felt like I knew guys like Joe growing up - and know guys like him now. He disappeared in those roles. He made them real people - the kind that wore their hearts on their sleeves, the kind whose pain and anxiety were palpable.
My own connection or interest in Joe Mantell is a rather peculiar one. As one of the world’s biggest fans of THE TWILIGHT ZONE (1959-1964), I’ve seen every episode and some more than others. And there is one episode I’ve seen too many times to count - often in my darkest hours - and that is “Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room”, starring Joe Mantell.
The episode, in which a small time crook, Jackie Rhoades (Mantell), is ordered to murder an elderly barkeep and wrestles with his conscience and his “other self” (all set in a dirty, rundown hotel room), attests both Mantell’s ability to handle a wide array of emotion as well as play two very separate versions of the same man. His performance is an absolute tour de force, a brilliant testament to the range of an actor who was otherwise typecast through much of his career.
The story begins as Jackie receives a phone call from George (William D. Gordon), the man whose grim shadow looms large over Jackie’s squalid reality, whose ruthless bidding keeps Jackie moving ever closer to the brink of doom. George, hinting at an assignment he’s in mind for Jackie that night, hangs up on him mid-sentence, showing no respect. All Jackie can do is chew his nails and sweat it out, distressing over these prospects until George arrives. Scripted by Rod Serling, his opening narration says it best:

"This is Mr. Jackie Rhoades, age thirty-four, and where some men leave a mark of their lives as a record of their fragmentary existence on Earth, this man leaves a blotch, a dirty, discolored blemish to document a cheap and undistinguished sojourn amongst his betters. What you are about to watch in this room is a strange mortal combat between a man and himself, for in just a moment, Mr. Jackie Rhoades, whose life has been given over to fighting adversaries, will find his most formidable opponent in a cheap hotel room that is, in reality, the outskirts of the Twilight Zone.”
George arrives, mocking Jackie’s nervous, meek disposition, then proclaims, “Tonight, I’m gonna let you be a man, I’m gonna let you show some muscle for a change. Tonight, Jackie, you’re gettin’ up in the world.” With these words, he tosses a pistol on Jackie’s bed, explaining there’s an old man who owns a bar in the neighborhood who refuses to pay “protection” - and tomorrow morning the police will find him sprawled out dead over his bar. When Jackie refuses, claiming he doesn’t have the guts for this kind of thing, George lays into him, explaining he’s nickel and dime and everybody knows it… “and that’s why you’re gonna get away with it.” The rationale being nobody will suspect such a weasel, such a weakling. “And if I find out you welched on me, that you chickened out… you’re dead.”
So the struggle begins, with Jackie pacing the room, lamenting and agonizing his position and challenging himself in the dresser mirror. It’s a truly gut-wrenching spectacle - one that is handled with exceptional depth by Joe Mantell. Then, all the sudden, his mirror image addresses him. “Hello, Jackie.” “Come back here! You’re not running out on me this time.” “Jackie. I’m part of you. Don’t you even remember me? A long time ago, you could’ve gone one way or the other. You went your way. Cheap, weak, scared, half-vulture and all mouse.” Jackie begins gnawing his fingernails again. “I’m cracking up… I’m talking to myself.”
“That’s just who you are talking to. Part of yourself. The part that you never let out.” Jackie’s other side, self assured and indignant over their predicament, goes over his history, exactly where he went wrong at a young age and why. He laments the loss of his good nature, the squandering of an earlier love, the abandonment of his self-respect and free will. He is the antithesis of the Jackie we first met. “You got nothing. You are nothing. You gotta let me take over… before it’s too late!” These are two very distinct, nuanced characters, the likes of which a lesser actor could never pull off.
When George returns, enraged, he finds Jackie lying face down on the bed. “Get up little man. I’m gonna take your skin off foot by foot.” “What have you got to say for yourself, crumb?” A very different Jackie Rhoades rises from the bed, calmly. “What have I got to say for myself?” “I resign.”

Without pawing through every detail that follows, Jackie is now “John” and has taken his first steps into his new life, one in which he can hold his head high, in which he has the same chance as any man at a decent and fulfilling future.
While I’d rather not reflect on my “darkest hours” I’d mentioned earlier, this episode had an unlikely transformational effect on my life as it kept reminding me I could be more, that it wasn’t too late to change things, that a man can take back that which was forsaken too long ago to remember - his dignity.

Rest in peace, Joe.  You will not be forgotten.