Underrated Films: Gift
In 1990 Jane’s Addiction were a huge alternative rock band recently signed to a major label, a combination which invariably leads to two things: epic drug use and unfettered artistic indulgence. Both are rife in Gift, the circuitous tale of a rock-star whose girlfriend dies of an overdose, co-directed by and co-starring the band’s singer Perry Farrell and his then-girlfriend Casey Niccoli who play fictionalised versions of their ridiculously photogenic selves in bohemian downtown LA. On finding Niccoli’s body, we follow Farrell through flashbacks of their relationship. But Gift isn’t so much a feature film as a string of set pieces which slip in and out of the narrative, effectively a music video writ large. It is, to say the least, a strange mix. There are disastrously overcooked comedy scenes featuring the band’s stock S&M-loving yuppie manager alongside absorbing cinéma vérité observations a roomful of candid rehab patients; there’s the standard muso-doc fare with the band recording their second studio album Ritual de lo Habitual and performing lead single ‘Stop!’ live at the Hollywood Palladium alongside what constitute Gift's plot: close-up heroin use, full-frontal nudity and necrophilia.
Given the subject matter it’s perhaps not entirely surprising to learn that Gift had trouble reaching its audience. The film languished in the Warner Brothers’ editing suite for three years before sneaking out in a US-only direct-to-VHS release, by which time the band had dissolved and the film’s starring couple had gone through an acrimonious break-up amid disagreements over who was the more creatively responsible for the film.
Needless to say, this is the sort of enterprise which should only really work if you’re a dedicated fan of the band, but Gift’s waywardness along with cinematographer Eric Edwards’ eye for a shot (elsewhere Edwards has worked with Larry Clarke and Gus Van Sant), bestow on the film a lo-fi stylishness and a likeable indie poignancy, something which doesn’t necessarily require a knowledge or even an appreciation of Jane’s Addiction (one of my favourite scenes can be found here). As a document on the early 90’s alt-Hollywood landscape Gift is something of a one-off, providing a fictive eye on how the fun-loving, hedonistic days of party-rock excess would inevitably give way to the introspection, self-loathing and self-destruction of the grunge scene.
But whose film was it? A couple of years ago Farrell was invited to attend a 25-year anniversary screening. According to reports, when asked about the filmmaking process behind Gift, he seemed entirely indifferent to the picture, claiming not to have seen it since its original screening and instead talked at length about his incredible sex life and ongoing drug use. Indeed, he seemed uninterested in cinema as a whole, saying he only watches films on long-haul tour flights. He even went out of his way to badmouth his former co-star, claiming he’d known their Mexican wedding – which forms the heart of the film – would be void in the States, something of which Niccoli was ignorant.
Niccoli herself drifted into obscurity, taking up regular fulltime work, becoming a mother and leaving her drug-rock days behind her. But she continued to quietly champion the film. And, it should be noted, has form: she has directed music videos, including one for Jane’s Addiction’s ‘Been Caught Stealing’ which beat REM's 'Losing My Religion' at the 1991 MTV Awards.
I think I know whose film I’d prefer Gift to be.
Underrated Films: Halloween
I'm never really sure precisely what I think of John Carpenter. One of the few directors to be possessed of both a flair for genuinely nightmarish imagery and, when the mood takes him, the rare ability to direct intelligent yet wildly entertaining popcorn capers, Carpenter has made a handful of films for which I and great many other people hold in deep affection – Assault on Precinct 13, Prince of Darkness, In the Mouth of Madness, each a well-constructed jaunt through an entirely sui generis terrain of outlandishness and menace – and one, The Thing, which skirts close to perfection and remains (alongside David Cronenberg’s 1986 The Fly) the gold standard of the horror remake. So it is with no small degree of trepidation, when enthusing with similarly-minded film fans, that I’m required to broach the subject of Halloween – the director’s hugely influential 1978 masked killer pic – and mumblingly reveal that, actually, I slightly prefer Rob Zombie’s maligned 2007 remake.
I wrote a reappraisal of Rob Zombie's maligned 2007 of Halloween for The Quietus. You can see the original post here.
The third in a loose trilogy of films from the great Lindsay Anderson which set out to satirise Britain’s dominant institutions – education in If…. (1968), the justice system in O Lucky Man! (1973) – Britannia Hospital’s focal target, as the title implies, would appear to be the NHS. In truth however, Anderson and scriptwriter David Sherwin are very much in scattergun mode here: the plot, such as it is, incorporates workers, unions and protestors, all of whom wander into their crosshairs as much as the establishment, the bureaucrats and the media.
Malcolm McDowell reprises his role of Mick Travis from the previous two films, here an investigative reporter, probing rumours of illicit medical research taking place at the titular hospital. Simultaneously, a new wing of the hospital due to be opened by the Queen Mother has attracted a horde of demonstrators, protesting the VIP treatment of an African dictator who, it’s reported, is also a cannibal. Soon HRH shows up with an entourage which includes a dwarf and a man in drag, the experiments of Professor Millar (Graham Crowden in all his barking, megalomanic glory) begin to go awry, and a reanimated headless corpse is on the loose.
If this sounds like there’s an awful lot going on, that’s because there is. A good deal of the absurdity at play in Britannia Hospital is down to the fact that the film is crowded not just with a Boschian roster of characters and overlapping storylines but also with endless styles and registers, carrying echoes of Fellini and Resnais one moment, a dated Carry On knock-off and a rickety 1970’s Dr Who adventure the next.
Accordingly, Britannia Hospital was panned on release and swiftly forgotten, presumably having failed to live up to the other two ‘Mick Travis’ films, both of which owe their success to the spiky turns from their magnetic star. McDowell’s character is here just one among many, but Britannia Hospital’s chief pleasure is how its comprehensively gloomy (yet entirely bonkers) assessment of British society relies on a formidable comic talent, with reliably elegant performances from Leonard Rossiter, Joan Plowright, Fulton Mackay and Arthur Lowe amongst a great many others from the 70’s sitcom stable. The film’s real knockout moment however is its final scene, one which remains as affecting as it is prescient, with Crowden unveiling to a packed auditorium The Genesis Project the unconscionable fruits of his research and a nightmarish glimpse into a future which now seems uncannily close to our present.
Here, like In the Mouth of Madness, is another film which perhaps doesn’t quite qualify as ‘underrated’ as such. But still, although it has developed something of a lofty film-buff appreciation (I'm not sure 'fondness' is quite the right word), The Postman Always Rings Twice, Bob Rafelson’s grubby 1981 remake of the much loved 1946 noir touchstone, remains a hard sell.
Set amid the torrid rustlands of Depression-era California, Jack Nicholson plays Frank, a drifter who stops at a backwater diner run by the miserable Cora (Jessica Lange) and Nick, her ebullient but controlling older husband (a scenery-chomping John Colicos). Almost immediately Frank and Cora embark on a charged, physical affair which swiftly escalates into a scheme to murder Nick.
Postman is one of those films which is far from perfect but it’s a challenge to find fault with any single aspect of what’s onscreen. As well as beguiling performances from Lange and Nicholson, there is a spare script by David Mamet (his first for the screen), and stifling photography from Ingmar Bergman favourite Sven Nykvist. The film serves as an interesting companion piece to Five Easy Pieces, perhaps the best of Rafelson’s six collaborations with Nicholson, the actor’s first starring role and another examination of the emotional and existential dynamics of blue-collar down-and-outs.
The initial response to Postman was underwhelming. Roger Ebert found the explicitness and sheer abundance of sexual encounters between the two central characters overbearing, draining them of any nuanced interiority, their motives reduced to little beyond the animal. With a degree of hindsight, however, this is precisely what gives Postman its edge, the protagonists’ nihilistic primal urges, played out amid an atmosphere of stifling desperation, as compelling as they are repellent.
Hollywood in the 1980’s and early 90's would come to be littered with erotic thrillers, but few are possessed of the grime, squalour and authenticity which assails the viewer here.
For all the Lovecraftian schlock and rubber monster japery that follows, it’s this self-narrating component which distinguishes In the Mouth of Madness, at times pulling the film into Dennis Potter country. ‘Cane’s writing me,’ Styles tells Trent during a botched getaway. ‘He wants me to kiss you. It’s good for the book.’ This combination of B-movie fun and dizzying meta-fiction makes the film something of a companion piece to Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, another mid-90's tale of lowbrow storytelling intruding onto the everyday. I’d hazard it’s also one of the reasons why the film, although critically panned in the U.S. on its original release (‘a really bad movie’ was how The Washington Post summed it up), was relatively well received in Europe with Cahiers du Cinéma even going so far as to list it as one of 1995’s best films.
I was recently asked by The Quietus to pick a film which I thought underrated and write a short piece about it. You can read the full feature here.
[Minor errata: as you can see, I chose John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness. In hindsight, I’m not sure Mouth is all that underrated per se. It has had its vocal fans, including a number of professional critics, and – as often seems to be the case with once-maligned horror films – has attained a strong cult standing. In other words, it’s a film which has its audience. Prince of Darkness (1987) – a quieter, smaller-budget affair, lost between the action-fantasy bluster of Big Trouble in Little China (1986) and They Live (1988) – would perhaps be a more deserving candidate from Carpenter’s back-catalogue for the title of Most Underrated.]
Most of those interviewed are visited by a pair of shadowlike forms who surround their beds; more than one describe these shadow-men as being accompanied by their ‘leader’ who wears a wide-brimmed hat. Perhaps most frightening of all are the hints that there is some contagion at play in sleep paralysis. Chris C., an otherwise affable New Yorker whose nightmares are the most malevolent, describes how he awoke one night to find a black figure with red glowing eyes towering over his bed telling him, ‘You know who I am… You’re going to die.’ He’s awoken for real by his girlfriend screaming. She too had been experiencing an incident of hallucinatory paralysis: a black cat had been crouched on her chest, whispering to her partner in a language she couldn’t understand, its eyes too glowing red.
I reviewed Rodney Ascher's terrifying new documentary about the nightmares experienced by sufferers of sleep paralysis, The Nightmare, for the Quietus. You can read the review here.