the great five minutes - halloween edition by Greg Bills

In  Suspiria  (1977), Jessica Harper wonders, Is that peacock thing beautiful or just tacky?

In Suspiria (1977), Jessica Harper wonders, Is that peacock thing beautiful or just tacky?

Early on, I woke up and wandered out of my bedroom to find someone watching the late show.  A wealthy family kept one of their brothers or uncles locked up in a room in the tower.  He had escaped somehow and came lumbering down the staircase, terrifying the servants, until one of the family intervened and convinced the uncle/brother to return to his hidden chamber.  The man or monster was never seen; the camera looked out from his eyes—a fish-eye lens like the peephole in our front door.  We were inside the unfortunate relative during his brief moment of freedom.  For years afterwards, I was secretly convinced that I had a brother living in a hidden room under the garage, accessed through the back of a wardrobe closet in the downstairs furnace room.  I never told my family that I knew about my monstrous brother, or made the connection with this early horror movie experience, until long after I was an adult.  Ah, the power of cinema.


Later, I seriously considered skipping trick-or-treat one year so as not to miss the premiere of Devil Dog, Hound of Hell.  Luckily, I came to my senses.  Free candy versus what would undoubtedly turn out to be a pathetically bad TV movie.  Still: Devil Dog, Hound of Hell.  The title itself is as tasty as a Tootsie Roll.


All those made-for-TV movies.  Why were they all 90 minutes and not 2 hours back then? How was this decision made?  And why did the running times change?  Perhaps it was the fault of those gargantuan miniseries.  Winds of War, anyone?  In any case, in addition to Get Christie Love and Stockard Channing in The Girl Most Likely To…, there were some works of terror that seemed very thrilling at the time.  Duel from Steven Spielberg.  And Gargoyles, which burrowed deep into my imagination.  It opens with a researcher visiting a roadside attraction/curio shop in the Desert Southwest and discovering a strange, horned, humanoid skeleton in the back room.  I had visited so many of these creepy shacks off the highway during family camper trips through Arizona and New Mexico, that the scenario seemed eminently plausible.  When the researcher flees the burning shack after the death of the crusty old man who possessed the skeleton, he takes the horned skull back to his motel room.  Surely, he could have foreseen this was a bad idea!  The movie was exactly scary enough for a seven-year-old.


The Gold Standard of 90-minute TV horror movies of the 1970s must be Trilogy of Terror.  The first two parts are difficult to recall in any detail, but the last one…the talk of the playground.  Karen Black, giving a tour-de-force performance, plays a woman who has somehow trapped herself in her own apartment with a fetish doll possessed by a demonic spirit.  Among the lessons learned: Do not try to grab a knife by the pointy end.


By the time my pubescent years rolled around, I was creating monsters and mise-en-scene for other trick-or-treaters in my parents’ front yard (Those plastic eggs full of green slime? Essential), and I had entered my Junior Cinephile Period.  More precisely, I was cultivating my Bad Cinema Fascination (and I still love them, bad movies, although my standards are higher [lower?] than they used to be when I would watch anything in search of those jewels of awful greatness).  Plan 9 From Outer Space is pretty much the epitome of this…um…genre?  And Criswell’s introduction can serve as the keynote address.  So sublimely ludicrous, this speech could have been on the bill for Dada Night at the Cabaret Voltaire.


And then I hunted down VHS treasures like Exorcist II: The Heretic.  It seems to be hard to locate in our current moment, but this film is ripe for rediscovery.  Director John Boorman after Zardoz and before Excalibur.  Richard Burton in his long, bellowing decline.  James Earl Jones in a grasshopper costume.  About as tangential to the original as a sequel could be and still get funding from a major studio.  Equal parts tedious and marvelously weird.  The climax features a plague of locusts and Linda Blair tap-dancing.  The trailer works beautifully as a disco-goth music video.


Then there was Invader from Mars, the 1953 version that I had to track down after seeing publicity stills in Starlog Magazine.  I thought it was going to be a so-bad-it’s-good, but it is actually pretty much just good.  The alarming tale of little boy who finds first his parents and then his entire world taken over by mind-controlling aliens who have hidden themselves under the sandpit at the back of the yard.  The film is understood as an hysterically anti-communist Red Scare allegory, but it resonated with me as a gay adolescent: your parents, your teachers, the whole town are your enemies. They are conformist zombies, and you are fundamentally different from them.  You cannot trust them, and you need to escape!


And now, some musical treats.


The obvious choice here is The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  The film escapes the crushing respectability of being a truly good movie by peaking way too early.  We are given “Damnit Janet,” “The Time Warp,” and then this number in quick succession.  Then the narrative meanders aimlessly, possibly redeemed by the remarkably louche and languid ending where everyone is in fishnets prancing around the pool.  If Anne Hathaway can snag an Oscar for her enlivening five minutes jolted into the corpse of Les Miserables, then Tim Curry was surely robbed. (And if you watch it below, you can practice your Italian!)


One of the concoctions Joseph Losey came up with in his expatriated career phase was a seaside English tale featuring an age-inappropriate romance, expressionist sculpture, and radioactive children.  And Oliver Reed leading a gang of what I suppose are Teddies, somewhere between Clockwork Orange and We’re the Boys in the Chorus, We Hope You Like Our Show.  The title is great: These Are The Damned (I want to write that book!).  The film opens, after some moody credits, with a sorta musical number, a perfect tune if you are a Kenneth Anger fetishist.  There are subtitles here, so karaoke everybody!


Although not strictly a musical number, the first killing from Dario Argento’s Suspiria serves to illuminate the cinematic parallels between elaborately choreographed slapstick, Hollywood production numbers, and gorefest death scenes.  Hyperviolent but detached and process-oriented, it could almost be Matthew Barney performance art, or kinetic sculpture (and possibly aesthetically misogynist: pretty girls make the best corpses).  What makes the scene thrilling is the set and lighting design (such colors! those wall treatments!) and Goblin’s rarely equalled soundtrack.


David Lynch is the master of the unlikely musical interlude (though sadly not in Dune, which would have been fun).  This scene from Blue Velvet is more potent in context, but standing alone, it still underlines the service Lynch performed by reminding us how amazing Roy Orbison is.  Happy Halloween In Your Dreams!

Have a safe holiday! ( Suspiria  1977) 

Have a safe holiday! (Suspiria 1977) 

the caves of childhood by Greg Bills

While writing my recently-completed fantasy Through the Silver, I thought a lot about the novels and stories I had read as a child, works of mystery and magic that I realized have worked their way well below any conscious observations I might have about them into the dreamsoil of my imagination.

For many of these, I can recall not only the stories and characters but also the act of reading them itself.  The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. LeGuin is the first book I remember reading from beginning to end without stopping. The afternoon light dimmed into night through the window above my bed, and I carried the paperback spread open across my palm as I fumbled down the hall to the bathroom.

Okay, the novel is not very long, but as a fourth grader, it felt like an exciting achievement to absorb an entire narrative in single arc.  I had read and enjoyed the first book in LeGuin’s Earthsea series, so I was prepared to like this one as well, but I had not realized the most of the story would be set in one of my favorite childhood fantasy locales: underground, in a cavern.  Most of the interesting stuff happened underground in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which I had read not too long before—Gollum’s cave, the home of the dwarves, Smaug’s lair, etc.—but the visceral sensation of rooms and passages under the earth is even more central to this book.

The Tombs of Atuan unfolds the story of a young girl who is forced to adopt the role of priestess to the nameless gods haunting an underground chamber and a labyrinth of tunnels beneath the convent-like community of women and eunuchs where she lives. Officially, she is the only person allowed into these caverns although other characters break this rule, including Ged, the title character from the first novel, A Wizard of Earthsea.  He is searching for a powerful artifact, and when the girl discovers him, she imprisons him for a time before events lead them to help each other to escape from their differing forms of imprisonment.

What struck me most about the novel were the ideas of darkness and secrecy, tunnels full of ancient spirits and treasure that had never seen light, and the need for the girl to learn how to negotiate the hazards with senses other than sight.  I also loved that there were maps in the front of the book: of the buildings on the surface, and of the tunnels and chambers below.

I had done quite a bit of cave map drawing myself.  These were poorly drafted sketches of pairs of squiggling lines in black pen on sheets of typing paper that probably looked to the uninitiated like obsessive diagrams of bowls of spaghetti or a very upsetting gastrointestinal tract. The names of important features would be carefully printed nearby, perhaps with a helpful arrow: amazing natural wonders like skyscraper stalagmites, waterfalls, bottomless pits; manmade features like secret hideouts and hidden rooms; and mysteries—tunnels that ended with two parallel broken lines and a final question mark [?].  Even the mapmaker could not claim to know all the cave’s secrets.

I had a particular fascination with Carlsbad Caverns.  I had pored over the issue of National Geographic that featured color photos of most of the highlights, and I had favorite movies that were filmed there, or purported to be set there.  For some reason, these movies always seemed to be on the late show, and I would stay up way way past my usual bedtime in the summer to watch them.  The 1959 Journey to the Center of the Earth with James Mason and Pat Boone.  And Gene Rodenberry’s follow-up to Star Trek, a pilot for series called Genesis II, in which a man wakes from decades of suspended animation to find that his lab within Carlsbad Caverns had been cut off by an earthquake and forgotten while civilization collapsed in a nuclear holocaust. He returns to find good-guy scientists trying to rebuild the world while tyrannical mutants stand in their way.  I didn’t remember this tidbit, but a summary I found online explains that the mutants are identifiable by their double navels, modelled below by Mariette Hartley.

Genesis II (1973)

Genesis II (1973)

Genesis II - Mariette Hartley sporting a double navel

Genesis II - Mariette Hartley sporting a double navel

I watched these shows until early in the morning, as if the night were a cave that they and I and the big console television in my parents’ house had all burrowed into.

Around the same time that I read The Tombs of Atuan, my family went down to Carlsbad Caverns in person on a long camper trip that began just south of Salt Lake City and ended a little less than 900 miles later at the southern state line of New Mexico.  I loved it all: the flight of the bats at dusk, the chambers as large as cathedrals with formations of intricate pleats and folds, the chill air, the mineral scent.  But I was most intrigued by the lunchroom, 1950s Space-Age Modern and 750 feet below the surface.

Carlsbad Caverns Lunchroom

Carlsbad Caverns Lunchroom

Looking at a vintage photograph of the cafeteria at its height, the folks gathering their box lunches seem a lot like sinners being assigned to the Eisenhower Wing of Dante’s Inferno.  There is something about the fact that this dining is taking place in subterranean splendor that gives it an imaginative charge.

Carlsbad Caverns - Box Lunch Lines

Carlsbad Caverns - Box Lunch Lines

Freudians or Jungians or readers of James Hillman’s The Dream and the Underworld have likely already made a proper psychoanalytic assessment of my childhood cave enthusiasms.  A hero’s journey into the archetypal and the unconscious.  Symbols of sexuality and exploration (all the cavern-centered books and movies I can think of have a weird libidinous pulse to them.  In the 1959 Verne movie, Pat Boone strips to a pair of cutoffs then has a naked musical interlude in a natural underground shower, and the leading lady, Arlene Dahl, loses her inhibitions and smiles, smiles, smiles as she whooshes up through the vent of a volcano!)

All I knew was that there was something down there, something hidden, in the dark and the damp, at the end of a maze or behind a bolted door, and I wanted to find out what it was.