The Eyes of Virginia Ducci: The Psychic (1977) and Laura Mars (1978)

When The Psychic was released in the U.S. in 1979, there were immediate accusations of plagiarism, citing elements that the film supposedly stole from 1978’s Eyes of Laura Mars, directed by Irvin Kershner and based on the first mainstream Hollywood screenplay by up-and-comer John Carpenter, whose Halloween debuted later that year. What most audiences didn’t realize was that The Psychic actually came first, having been released in Italy in 1977. One can hardly blame them for this mistake, however, given the notable plot points that both films share.

Faye Dunaway stars as the title character, a controversial fashion photographer whose violent, erotic, and violently eroticized work over the past two years has caught the attention of Lieutenant John Neville, a detective in pursuit of a serial killer; some of Laura’s tableaux are virtually identical to unpublished crime scene photos, which raises suspicions. Further heightening the issue at hand is that the night before the release of a book of her photos, Laura experiences a psychic vision of the murder of one of her friends from the point of view of the killer; at the launch, she learns from Neville that said friend has really been killed.

Laura, like Virginia in The Psychic, is aided in her endeavors by a chaste male companion, her friend and agent Donald Phelps (a pre-Deep Space Nine Rene Auberjonois); unlike Luca, however, Donald is explicitly coded gay both in his profession and his affinity for effeminate bathrobes. But who could be the killer? Is it Donald, or perhaps Tommy Ludlow (Brad Dourif), Laura’s driver with a criminal past? Could it be Laura’s ex-husband Michael (Raúl Juliá), an unrepentant drunk and serial abuser, who does nothing to hide his jealousy over Laura’s successful artistic career in comparison to his failures as a writer? Or someone else altogether?

Above and beyond the nominal connections that arise from having a woman experience psychic visions of death, Eyes of Laura Mars is also notable in that it is often considered to be the first (and perhaps only) successful attempt at making a giallo film in the U.S. All the trappings are there: the bleakness of the city, the untrustworthy associates of the lead, the brutality of the violence and the P.O.V. shots of the killer. Like many Dario Argento protagonists, Laura is an artist who happens to get caught up in a killing spree outside of her control, and like many of his antagonists, the killer (once unmasked) has a tragic and traumatic backstory that is used as self-justification for homicidal violence. There are even elements of Argento’s work that are pre-saged here; the sudden reappearance of Laura’s ex-husband as a mysterious figure and suspect is like the reappearance of the lead’s wife in Tenebrae, which came out four years later; Brad Dourif appears as a red herring, just as he did in 1993’s Trauma; even the overt campiness of Auberjonois’s character recalls the appearance of Carlo’s lover in Profondo rosso (although that film appeared a few years before Laura Mars or The Psychic).

All in all, however, The Psychic is by far the better film. Although Faye Dunaway’s magnetic performance outpaces Jennifer O’Neill’s, and there’s a vitality to other performances, like Dourif’s and Auberjonois’s, that Fulci’s film lacks, Eyes of Laura Mars simply fails to hold interest all the way to the end. On a sequence-by-sequence basis, Mars is simply too uneven, varying broadly from the impressive and delightful scene of Laura’s Times Square photo shoot to the banal, vaseline-lensed blossoming love story between Dunaway and Jones. It has a strong start, what with Laura attending her book party and being harassed by a reporter about whether she feels her work is exploitative and damaging to women, and there are more scenes that stand out for their cinematic eloquence than in The Psychic, but I rarely felt like Laura was in any real danger. Both she and Virginia are forced into an observational role relative to their psychic visions, but Virginia never stops seeking the truth, while Laura drags her feet. She’s simply not the psychic detective we deserve.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the Lucio Fulci giallo picture The Psychic, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Double Feature Disaster: Spontaneous Combustion (1990) & Society (1992)

EPSON MFP image

When I first set out to track down a copy of Society, I turned to my old pal, the Vulcan Video catalog search, which showed that there was a copy at the location nearest me. When I went to locate it, however, it was nowhere to be found on the shelf, and the kind woman working the counter that day noted that their copy had actually been sold several years back and that the catalog listing was an oversight (an unusual lapse for the fine folk of Vulcan). We did eventually track down a copy of the film in their stacks, one of those early double-sided DVDs with Society on one side and Spontaneous Combustion on the reverse. I was pretty pleased by this, because a double feature usually means an easy instant follow up article (just add water).

I was wrong. I was so, so wrong. There’s nothing easy about Spontaneous Combustion.

The film stars America’s non-darling Brad Dourif as Sam, the adult son of a husband-and- wife team who were given an experimental anti-radiation injection during a propagandistic Cold War exercise. Following his birth, both parents spontaneously combust after contact with their new infant, leaving him to be raised by the mysterious Lew Orlander (William Prince), a wealthy industrialist who acts as the face of the original experiment when his company takes over from the government.

Some reviews identify Sam as a would-be actor, apparently based on his first scene in the film, in which he recites some lines of Shakespeare on stage with a student, but I think he’s supposed to be a teacher, as is his love interest Lisa (Cynthia Bain). One can hardly blame the audience for being unclear as to who Sam is, what his motivations are, or for failing to follow the so-called plot of the film. From what I can understand, Sam was once married to Rachel (Dey Young), Orlander’s granddaughter, who was always pushing Sam to visit Dr. Marsh (Jon Cypher), who is secretly in Orlander’s employ. Since their divorce, Sam has struck up a relationship with fellow anti-nuclear activist Lisa, but this relationship is also the result of Orlander’s manipulations, and the supposed homeopathic medication she has been sharing with him is actually from Dr. Marsh. These treatments are provided in order to encourage the growth of Sam’s supernatural power to start fires.

All of this seems pretty straightforward, but there’s also the mysterious reappearance of Sam’s childhood toy that sends him off searching for the truth of his origins, Sam’s budding powers and the ensuing accidental deaths thereof (including a couple of police officers and John Landis in a cameo as a radio . . .  technician, maybe?), a radio evangelist/medium who seems to be speaking to Sam directly for reasons that are utterly unclear, the sudden reappearance of a woman (Melinda Dillon) involved in the original experiment and her just-as- sudden murder, the murder of another woman who was investigating the soon-to- be-activated nuclear plant nearby, Lisa’s own pyrogenetic powers, and an inordinate number of conversations held on neon telephones.

combustion-espontanea-spontaneous-combustion-tobe-hooper-eeuu_-1990_avi_002513600

The composition and plotting of this movie are bafflingly inelegant, and even two viewings left me unable to accurately gauge just what in the hell was happening at any given time. This was a frustrating viewing experience, both times, and not in the sense that some deeply philosophical films are hard to parse. Instead, Spontaneous Combustion feels like a unauthorized, non-union sequel to Firestarter that was hastily edited together by someone trying to recreate the experience of watching that film with a 104° fever. It’s a movie that actively tries to discourage you from watching it even as the story (such as it is) unfolds, challenging the viewer to a test of wills.

Despite the incohesiveness of the overall plot, I was able to discern two similarities that would reasonably connect this film to Society and, to the inebriated mind of some marketing exec, warrant putting the two films on a single disc. First, the actor playing Sam’s father, Brian Bremer, also portrayed Petrie, Billy’s rival for student body president, in Society. More thematically, both Billy Whitney and Sam are the children of working class people raised by wealthy elites for their own nefarious purposes. It’s a bit of a stretch, but there it is.

Even if you find yourself with a copy of this double DVD in your pursuit of watching Society, don’t flip that disc. It’s not worth it.

For more on February’s Movie of the Month, the satirical class politics body horror Society, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Trauma (1993)

EPSON MFP image

three star

Well, here we are, folks. I wrote in my review of Opera that many considered that film to be Dario Argento’s last good movie, although I had also read that Trauma had its fans as well. I was pleasantly surprised by the director’s “Black Cat” segment of Two Evil Eyes, so I was looking forward to Trauma with some reservations but an open mind. On the whole, this 1993 film (released just a year after the director’s cameo in Innocent Blood) has a lot of meritorious elements in its favor and is a decent movie, but throughout the run time I kept thinking to myself, “Oh, so this is where we’re going now.” Although the giallo elements work, for the most part, the movie’s most memorably quality is blandness, although how much of that is intentional or not is unclear.

The film follows Aura (Asia Argento, in one of her earliest film roles and her first time being directed by her father), a sixteen year old girl who has escaped from a psychiatric hospital where she was undergoing treatment for anorexia. She meets David (Christopher Rydell), a TV news graphic artist and former heroin addict, and he befriends her after assuming that her IV feeding tube scars are track marks. Aura is soon recaptured by social services, however, and returned to the home of her parents, renowned mystics who are hosting a séance. Aura’s mother Adriana (Piper Laurie) claims that a spirit named Nicholas has hijacked the ceremony and is claiming that the serial decapitator The Headhunter is present. Aura watches from an upstairs window as her mother and father flee into the rainy night and runs after them, only to discover that The Headhunter has killed them both. She finds David and asks for his help, placing a strain on his relationship with news anchor Grace (Laura Johnson), who eventually calls the hospital and reports Aura so that she is forced to return there. Meanwhile, David’s investigation leads him to learn that (spoilers through the end of this paragraph) The Headhunter’s victims were all medical professionals in attendance on the night that Adriana was giving birth to her second child, a son to be named Nicholas; the doctor (Brad Dourif in what amounts to an extended cameo) insisted on pushing ahead with inducing labor despite inclement weather and intermittent power outages, and when he is startled by a lightning strike with a scalpel in his hand, he accidentally decapitated the baby. The nurses present convince him to use ECT on Adriana to erase her memory of the event, and her husband is complicit in their cover up. Of course, as in so many of Dario Argento’s movies, this repressed memory eventually resurfaces and the murderer seeks out vengeance.

In an interview on the DVD of La Terza madre, Asia Argento discussed the fact that working as a director had given her new insights as an actress, and it shows in the difference between her presence here and there. She is the weak performative link in this movie, but the film’s flaws are not restricted solely to her amateur abilities. Piper Laurie goes over the top here, as she often does, but Adriana Petrescu lacks the grounding that made Margaret White function so well as a sinister mother figure. Brad Dourif’s barely present on screen (and kudos to the editor of the film’s trailer for excising any reference to him, although the fact that his name appears at the top of the DVD box ruins that reveal), and his appearance ends with one of the worst uses of chroma-key effects I’ve seen in my life. That sequence stands out as particularly terrible, especially given how effective the rest of the movie’s decapitated heads, created by effects genius Tom Savini, are. It’s also strange to me that no one in the film seems to have a problem with the adult David’s romantic and ultimately sexual relationship with teenaged Aura is, other than Grace, whose issues are painted as being the result of jealousy rather than concern for the fact that a sixteen year old may be being taken advantage of by a much older beau. The film’s score also leaves much to be desired, especially in the sequences in which the young boy who lives next door to the killer’s home (Cory Garvin) sneaks into the murder house while chasing a butterfly; they feel more like unused tracks from Dennis the Menace than something created with the intent of increasing tension. The killer’s weapon of choice, a kind of bladed garrote, is a neat invention, but there’s too much tonal inconsistency present throughout, and the homages to Argento’s earlier work (especially Profondo rosso) only serve to demonstrate how much this film pales in comparison. I’m also unclear as to why Argento chose to shoot this picture in what he called “featureless Minnesota,” given that it adds to the overall banality of the film’s cinematography, especially given his masterful use of classic architecture and depth of field in his earlier work.

Having said that, this is not a bad movie, just an unmemorable one. For an Argento completist, it’s a movie that I would recommend over Inferno or Four Flies on Grey Velvet, and the mystery, despite being at times incoherent, works well in spite of its implausibility and absurdity. There are some great visual flourishes as well, especially in Aura’s hallucinatory sequence and in the discovery of the creepy nursery filled with gauzy screens. There’s a laudable attempt to trace the relationships between media, family, and psychological disorders here; it’s misguided and dated in its discussion, but I appreciate that there was an attempt to address this issue, even if the conceptualizations of the root cause of eating disorders is somewhat facile. The scenes set in the mental hospital are also effectively unnerving, even if that trope smacks of ableism when viewed through a modern lens. More than anything, I can tell that this is a movie that suggests a sharp downturn in the director’s work from here on out, even if it is decent within itself.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond