Body Double (1984)

What if Vertigo wasn’t about vertigo, but was instead about claustrophobia? It feels like this is the catalyzing question that went through Brian De Palma’s mind when he first came up with the idea for 1984’s Body Double, a risque homage to one of the Master of Suspense’s greatest works (there’s also a little bit of Rear Window thrown in there just for good measure). In place of Jimmy Stewart’s Detective “Scottie” Ferguson, we instead meet Jake Scully (Craig Wasson) on one of the worst days of his life: after freezing up in claustrophobic terror on the set of the low-rent vampire flick in which he’s starring, Scully is sent home early, where he finds his girlfriend in the throes of passion with another man – she doesn’t even have the decency to stop. After running into friend-of-a-friend Sam Bouchard (Gregg Henry) a couple of different times at auditions and being rescued by him from an apparently emotionally abusive acting exercise in which he revisits the memory of being trapped behind a freezer during hide-and-seek as a child, Jake takes Sam up on the offer to house sit for him while he is out of town performing in a play. Sam takes Jake back to the home in question, the famous Chemosphere (aka Troy McClure’s house) and shows him the amenities: a fully stocked bar, rotating bed, and a telescope perfectly placed to watch the nightly erotic dance of a beautiful neighbor.

On his second night of housesitting, Jake witnesses a creepy-looking older man also watching the woman; the following day, he realizes that the other man is following her, so he pursues them both to a mall, where he overhears the neighbor planning to meet someone at a seaside hotel. He pursues her there, too, where the creep also lurks before snatching her purse. Jake chases him down, but is unable to follow him more than a few feet into a tunnel before his claustrophobia renders him immobile. The woman introduces herself as Gloria (Deborah Shelton), and the two share a passionate kiss after she confesses that she is unhappy in her marriage. Unfortunately, Jake’s new (and creepy) romance is over before it can truly begin, as he sees the villainous peeper burgling her home and arrives too late to save Gloria. The police are suspicious, but there are other witnesses, and though they are all rightfully disgusted by Jake’s voyeurism, he is released. Jake finds himself in a slump, until he sees porn star Holly Body (Melanie Griffith) performing a very familiar dance on late night television. So begins a journey of mistaken identity and duplicitous disguises that traces a path across LA, from reservoirs to the seedy (but also maybe kind of fun?) underbelly of the porn industry.

There are a lot of scenes in Body Double that draw on the visuals from Vertigo, and which highlight the Hitchcockian influence on this sleazy thriller. When Jake enters the tunnel and is paralyzed by his claustrophobia, the visual distortion that communicates his distress echoes the iconic top-down shot of Jimmy Stewart attempting to climb stairs. There’s also a shot of the famous tower at Fisherman’s Wharf, which calls to mind distant shots of the tower that becomes the site of the older film’s climactic showdown. Jake’s voyeurism reminds one of Jimmy Stewart’s other most famous role in a Hitchcock film; Rear Window presents Jeff’s peeping as largely harmless and ultimately beneficial to the resolution of a murder investigation. Body Double follows some of those same story beats, it doesn’t shy away from the fact that in the real world, such surveillance is deviant and creepy, happy ending or no. And then, of course, there’s the inclusion of Melanie Griffith, daughter of Tippi Hedren, star of The Birds (and Marnie, but let’s not talk about that). It’s admirably clever that De Palma, like John Carpenter before him when he cast Psycho star Vivien Leigh’s daughter Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween, creates a rhetorical space in which he identifies himself as one of the next filmmaking generation’s Hitchcock successors by using the daughter of one of Hitchcock’s actresses. And that’s leaving aside the fact that Griffith is fantastic in this role, bringing vivaciousness and an unusual brand of smarts to what could otherwise have been a very of-the-era “dumb blonde” role. While Wasson’s Jake is an interesting character study, a seemingly ordinary man who easily falls into depravity, Griffith’s Holly is a porn star with a sense of humor and who won’t put up with any creeps giving her a hard time. She also knows her limits and is up front about them from the beginning: “I do not do animal acts. I do not do S&M or any variations of that particular bent, no water sports either. I will not shave my pussy, no fistfucking and absolutely no coming on my face. I get $2000 a day and I do not work without a contract.” In contrast, Jake is a man who’s never thought about what his limits are, but he finds that with very little prompting, he’s perfectly willing to perv on a strange woman long distance, stalk her around a mall, and follow her to a presumable hotel tryst. And, of course, steal underwear out of a trash can (it makes more sense in context, but only just).

The presumption that the audience will sympathize with Jake (which you do, to an extent; when this film was introduced as part of this summer’s Unhitched series, Wasson’s character was referred to as a “nebbishly inept weirdo”) is something that really dates this movie, but there’s another element that I don’t think De Palma could have predicted. I won’t name the actor to avoid spoiling it for you, but there’s a latex mask reveal (possibly foreshadowing De Palma’s eventual fate as the director of the first Mission Impossible film) in this movie that is completely undercut by the fact that the mask that the killer wears pretty much looks like the actor underneath does now, nearly 35 years later. The villain is also consistently referred to as “The Indian,” which is . . . not great. It’s a product of its time, a sleazy De Palma take on a Hitchcock classic, and as such it’s an oddity that I can’t recommend more highly. It’s definitely not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it for months. There’s a new 4k restoration making the rounds, and it’s well worth the price of admission. And, as Halloween approaches, if you generally like your scares a little more cerebral than slashy but still want to feel a little bit dirty, Body Double could be your new go-to.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Fury (1978)

When watching The Fury, one gets the distinct feeling that it’s an adaptation of a Stephen King novel that King never wrote. This is perhaps unfair to novelist John Farris, given the width and breadth of his large body of work, which predates King’s. Then again, if you take a look at his Wikipedia page, The Fury is his only novel that actually has its own page; prolific though he may be, one must wonder whether or not his prose has much staying power. There are certain trappings that make The Fury feel like a King work, not the least of which is having Brian De Palma at the helm, just two years after he directed the first King adaptation with 1976’s Carrie (and a year before the second, Tobe Hooper’s made-for-TV Salem’s Lot). The film also features mysterious agents working for an unnamed government agency that is similar to the role played by The Shop in King’s works, Firestarter most notable among them; the paternal relationship that forms one of the movie’s emotional cores likewise echoes, or rather presages, that of Charlie and her father in that novel.

Of course, Firestarter was published in 1980, two years after the release of The Fury (and four years after its publication date), so take from that what you will. Did King rip off The Fury? Is the superficial similarity due simply to the fact that De Palma’s Carrie influenced the perception of King in the public sphere? Perhaps the similar theses of Firestarter and The Fury were simply born out of similar anti-authority distrust and anti-government paranoia that sprang up in the wake of Nixon’s 1974 impeachment and the spilling of government secrets that accompanied his fall. (Any similarities between the phrase “Firestarter and The Fury” and the title of a certain questionable-but-plausible book about another polarizing and demagogic American “leader” are unintentional, if interesting.)

The Fury opens with Peter Sandza (Kirk Douglas, in his sixties and still obviously capable of beating the tar out of a man a third his age) and his teenage son Robin (Andrew Stevens) preparing to return to the U.S. after spending most of Robin’s life in exotic locales as part of Peter’s work with the aforementioned, unnamed agency; Peter is retiring. Robin is hesitant, not just because he barely remembers the states, but also because he has his doubts about the special institute where he will be enrolled upon his return, a kind of school for psychics. Peter is confident, however, that Robin will succeed in any environment. Their idyllic last days are interrupted by a seaborne attack from sheikhs with machine guns, and Robin is spirited away by Peter’s former partner, Ben Childress (John Cassavetes), while Peter is seemingly killed. He has survived, however, and sees Childress paying off the apparent attackers for their false flag operation; Peter shoots Childress, maiming him, but Robin is already gone.

A year later, Chicago teenager Gillian Bellaver (Amy Irving) is noticed by one of Sandza’s old compatriots, who calls the older man to tip him off that he’s discovered another psychic, one who might be able to help him find Robin. This informant is killed immediately; Childress has been keeping tabs on him, and uses the phone call to track down Peter, who must flee from his hotel in his underpants. He makes contact with Hester (Carrier Snodgress), an old flame and his secret informant within the aforementioned psychic institute run by Jim McKeever (Charles Dunning), which has already recruited Gillian. Working together, can Hester and Peter rescue Gillian from Childress’s clutches? Can Gillian help them find and rescue Robin? And after a year of being honed and trained to be Childress’s psychic weapon, can Robin truly be saved, even if he can be found and freed?

I’ve lost count of the number of reviews I’ve written here where I note my love of seventies and eighties conspiracy thrillers. I’ve always been fascinated by the way that certain social events have a far-reaching and undeniable effect on the media of that time. The seventies were fertile ground for the genre, given the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, Nixon’s actions that led to his impeachment, and the resultant collapse of the American public’s faith in its leadership. This was the fertile well that gave us Three Days of the Condor, All the President’s Men, and The Parallax View, as well as countless others. It’s no surprise that conspiracy thrillers with a supernatural (or at least a  parapsychological or science fiction) twist would emerge as well: The Fury, of course, as well as the aforementioned Firestarter, but also Scanners (psychics created as the result of careless prescriptions with untested drugs, à la the tragedy of Thalidomide babies), Capricorn One (a faked space mission, the cover-up of which endangers the lives of the astronauts involved and the journalists who discover the truth), and others.

I would wager that, in spite of the similarities between The Fury and Firestarter, the latter does not plagiarize the former; they were both simply born out of similar sentiments and sweeping social (and sociological) anxieties. It’s also possible that future Class of 1999 director Mark L. Lester, when filming Firestarter for its 1984 release, took inspiration from the films that came before it. The novel on which the film was based mentioned that the use of psychic powers caused “tiny cerebral hemorrhages,” which simply doesn’t translate well to the screen. Lester instead invoked the image of the psychic nosebleed, a common trope now (see its use in many works as shorthand for strenuous psychic activity, most recently in Netflix’s Stranger Things); in fact, many people believe that this was the first use of this visual, but in fact it goes back at least as far as Scanners three years previously, and a bleeding nose is involved with psychic phenomena in The Fury, although in this film it is the result of a psychic attack, not a symptom. It’s a fascinating amalgamation of convergent ideas coming to bear in a short amount of time, and perhaps homage, but not evidence of intellectual theft.

With regards to The Fury itself as a film, this is a classic that deserves to be seen. The film features a great soundtrack by John Williams, fresh off of his Oscar win for Star Wars. There’re also some truly dynamite effects used to demonstrate the use of psychic power, the most effective being a shot of Gillian being fully transported into a vision of Robin inside the institute as she stands frozen on the stairs, the past playing out in a rear projection as the camera swims around her. It’s truly stunning, especially for 1978 and on a budget of a mere 5 or 7 million dollars (different sources conflict each other on this matter). One of the film’s greatest overall strengths is the way that De Palma invests time in the daily lives of the people who are tangentially affected or in some way attached to the agency and its pursuit of Gillian and brainwashing of Robin. We spend a few minutes with the family whose home Peter invades in his initial flight from Childress’s men, and we get to know a lot about their interpersonal relationships in a brief span of screentime. There’s even friendly banter between agents on surveillance duty about coffee and chocolate; these are small moments, but they paint the world of the film in vivid hues, giving us a lived-in sense of time and place where other, lesser filmmakers wouldn’t have bothered.

Getting back to the topic of anti-government paranoia in mass media, perhaps we will soon see a resurgence of films in this rhetorical space, given the current political climate. We are already seeing a revisitation of the Pentagon Papers with the release of The Post, and even 2016’s Zootopia got in on the action. Until this movement takes full flight, we can take comfort in the arms of films past that reflect the anxieties of our present. After all, if we survived it before, we can survive it again.

As of January 2018, we are still here, and The Fury is streaming on Netflix. Good night, and good luck.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Episode #36 of The Swampflix Podcast: Disney Ride Movies & Ghoulies II (1988)

Welcome to Episode #36 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our thirty-sixth episode, we enjoy what’s left of the summer with a trip to cinematic amusement parks. Brandon makes Britnee watch the carnival ride-set Gremlins knockoff Ghoulies II (1988) for the first time. Also, Brandon & Britnee discuss Disney movies that were adapted from their corresponding theme park rides (as opposed to the other way around). Enjoy!

-Brandon Ledet & Britnee Lombas

A Latecomer’s Journey through the Mission: Impossible Franchise

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A few months ago I was so blown away by the ridiculous spectacle of the trailers for Furious 7  that I doubled back & watched all seven Fast & Furious movies for the first time ever just to see what it was all about. What I found was a franchise that I had rightly ignored as a teen for being a mindlessly excessive reflection of what has to be one of the trashiest eras of pop culture to date: that nasty little transition from the late 90s to the early 00s. Over the years, though, I’ve developed an affinity for mindless excess & hopelessly dated trash cinema, so 2015 proved to be the perfect time to watch the Fast & Furious movies from front to end. As expected, they started as a disconnected mess of car porn & Corona soaked machismo, but by the fifth film in the series, something intangible clicked & the movies suddenly pulled their shit together, forming a cohesive action universe built on the tenets of “family”, rapper-of-the-minute cameos, and hot, nasty speed.

I can’t say I was equally blown away by the trailers for the latest Mission: Impossible film, Rogue Nation, as I was by Furious 7‘s more over-the-top flourishes, but there was a similar feeling of being left out there. Rogue Nation was to be the fifth installment of a franchise that’s been around for nearly two decades. Despite the ubiquitousness of the image of Tom Cruise suspended from a ceiling in a white room in 1996, I couldn’t remember ever seeing a single scene from the Mission: Impossible films. The Rogue Nation ads suggested a similar trajectory for the franchise as the Fast & Furious films. It seemed like something along the way had finally clicked for the series, like it now had its own mythology & core philosophy, which is a feeling I’ve never gotten before from the outside looking in. My mission, should I choose to accept it (that’ll be the last time I make that awful joke, I promise) was to come to know & understand the series from the beginning, to figure out exactly what’s going on in its corny super spy mind, the same way I became part of Vin Diesel’s “family”. It turns out that  the story of the Mission: Impossible series is the story of five wildly different directors adopting five wildly different plans of attack on a franchise that didn’t really come into its own until at least three films in.  It’s also, to an even greater extent, the story of Tom Cruise’s fluctuating hair length.

Listed below, in chronological order, are all five feature films in the Mission: Impossible franchise as seen through my fresh, previously uninitiated eyes. Each entry is accompanied by brief re-caps of its faults & charms, but also has its own individual full-length review, which you can find by clicking on the links in the titles themselves. If you are also looking to get initiated into the Mission: Impossible world yourself, but wanted to skip the franchise’s classy-trashy beginnings, I highly recommend starting with the third installment & only doubling back to the first two films if your curiosity is piqued by the heights of the most recent three.

Mission: Impossible (1996)
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What I found at the beginning of the Mission: Impossible saga was unexpectedly classy. This was a retro action movie starring (a pre-Scientology-fueled couch-jumper) Tom Cruise when he still defined what it meant to be Movie Star Handsome. This was 1996, a beautifully naive stretch of the decade before we let rap rock ruin America. This was a dumb action movie with a classic score by Danny Freakin’ Elfman, for God’s sake. These days it’s difficult not to meet news of an old TV show getting a big screen adaptation with a pained groan, but back in its day Mission: Impossible was kind to its source material (despite fans of the original series grousing at its initial release), obviously holding immense respect for the era it came from, while still updating it with a certain amount of mid-90s badassery. Mission: Impossible is essentially a mere three ridiculous action sequences & some much less exciting connective tissue, but there’s plenty of camp value to be found at the very least in its super spy gadgetry. For instance, despite the obviously technically proficient world of international super spies detailed here, they’re all fighting over possession of a floppy disk, a very era-specific MacGuffin that really takes me back. Besides this goofery, there’s also a truly ludicrous scene where a helicopter chases a train into a tunnel, there’s a lot of mileage squeezed out of the high tech masks that allow characters to rip off their faces & become other people, and the infamous Tom Cruise hanging from the rafters sequence features a lot more puke than people typically mention. All of this and Ving Rhames. I cannot stress how much Ving Rhames’ mere presence brings to the table, camp wise.

In the director’s chair: Movie of the Month veteran Brian De Palma, who can be credited for elevating this film above the typical 90s action flick through his ludicrously excessive camera work & lack of visual restraint.
A note on Tom Cruise’s hair: Short, conservative, handsome. This may not seem important yet, but I swear it will be soon enough.

Mission: Impossible 2 (2000)

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It turns out that the rap rock garbage fire I was expecting from the first film was actually alive & well in the the second installment of the series, Mission: Impossible 2. M:I-2 ditches the Brian De Palma sense of 60s chic for a laughably bad excess of X-treme 90s bad taste. Almost everything pleasant about the first Mission: Impossible film is absent in the second. De Palma’s over-the-top abuse of camera trickery is replaced by straight-faced action movie blandness accompanied by non-sarcastic record scratches. Any enjoyment derived from the removal of faces in the first film is ruined here by an unrestrained overuse of the gimmick. The Danny Elfman score from the first film was supplanted by (I’m not kidding, here) a goddamn Limp Bizkit cover of the series’ original theme. Even Tom Cruise’s wardrobe was downgraded. He traded in his tux for a leather jacket that he shows off on his super cool motor bike while shooting his gun with wild abandon. God, I hate this movie. Pretty much the only element of the first film that comes through unscathed is Ving Rhames, who remains a delight in every scene he’s afforded.

In the director’s chair: John Woo, who takes such a strong grip on the franchise’s throat that it feels a lot more likely that this is a spiritual sequel to his Nic Cage trashterpiece Face/Off than it having anything to do with Brian De Palma’s film at all.
A note on Tom Cruise’s hair:  Along with Cruise’s douchier wardrobe, he also adopts a much less respectable hair length that allows his greasy locks to flow in the wind as he slides around on his motorbike & jams to Limp Bizkit. Blech.

Mission: Impossible 3 (2006)

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It’s difficult to imagine a better corrective for John Woo’s rap rock shit show than the third installment that followed it a whopping six years later. Mission: Impossible 3 opens with a beyond terrifying Phillip Seymour Hoffman moving Tom Cruise’s super spy hero Ethan Hunt to tears while torturing him for information. This moment of intense vulnerability is a far cry from the second film, which was more or less a chance for Cruise to pose as a late 90s badass so X-treme that even his sunglasses exploded. In Mission: Impossible 3, Ethan Hunt becomes a real person for the first time. He’s not Tom Cruise dressed up like a handsome super spy like in the first film or a irredeemable hard rock douchebag like in the second. He’s a vulnerable human being locking horns with a nightmare-inducing Hoffman, who knows how to exploit his weaknesses to get what he wants. Like when the fifth Fast & Furious film discovered its heart in Vin Diesel’s longwinded ramblings about “family”, Mission: Impossible 3 finally pushes the series into a sense of cohesion by reducing its protagonist from an action movie god to a regular dude with a dangerous job. It’s clear how much Mission: Impossible 3 is trying to return to its roots & find itself as early as the opening credits, which bring back the original arrangement of the movie’s theme (as opposed to the Limp Bizkit abomination). What ups the ante here, though, is a one-for-the-record-books performance from Hoffman that elevates the material just as much as Werner Herzog did for that other super soldier Cruise flick Jack Reacher. Hoffman is pure terror here & the movie knows how to put that element to great use. There’s even a scene where, thanks to face-ripping-offing technology, two Phillip Seymour Hoffmans engage in a fist fight in a bathroom. Two Hoffmans! I wasn’t even expecting one, so that was a genuine treat. Bonus points: this film features the most Ving Rhames content of any Mission: Impossible film to date.

In the director’s chair: JJ Abrams, who had only worked in television before rescuing this troubled project from developmental Hell (at one point David Fincher was attached to direct!?). Abrams not only pulled this series’ shit together against the odds, but he also found a way to make the film’s escapist, popcorn movie action clash effectively with its more disturbing elements, specifically Hoffman’s personification of terror.
A note on Tom Cruise’s hair: Much like the movie as a whole, Cruise’s hairdo ditches the embarrassing crudeness of the second film & returns to the handsome tastefulness of the first. I’m telling you; this hair stuff is important.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)

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Mission: Impossible (1996)

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A few months ago I was so blown away by the ridiculous spectacle of the trailers for Furious 7  that I doubled back & watched all seven Fast & Furious movies for the first time ever just to see what it was all about. What I found was a franchise that I had rightly ignored as a teen for being a mindlessly excessive reflection of what has to be one of the trashiest eras of pop culture to date: that nasty little transition from the late 90s to the early 00s. Over the years, though, I’ve developed an affinity for mindless excess & hopelessly dated trash cinema, so 2015 proved to be the perfect time to watch the Fast & Furious movies from front to end. As expected, they started as a disconnected mess of car porn & Corona soaked machismo, but by the fifth film in the series, something intangible clicked & the movies suddenly pulled their shit together, forming a cohesive action universe built on the tenets of “family”, rapper-of-the-minute cameos, and hot, nasty speed.

I can’t say I was equally blown away by the trailers for the newest Mission: Impossible film, Rogue Nation, as I was by Furious 7‘s more over-the-top flourishes, but there was a similar feeling of being left out there. Rogue Nation will be the fifth installment of a franchise that’s been around for nearly two decades. Despite the ubiquitousness of the image of Tom Cruise suspended from a ceiling in a white room in 1996, I can’t remember ever seeing a single scene from the Mission: Impossible films. The Rogue Nation ads suggested a similar trajectory for the franchise as the Fast & Furious films. It seemed like something along the way had finally clicked for the series, like it now had its own mythology & core philosophy, which is a feeling I’ve never gotten before from the outside looking in. My mission, should I choose to accept it (that’ll be the last time I make that awful joke, I promise) is to come to know & understand the series form the beginning, to figure out exactly what’s going on in its corny super spy mind, the same way I became part of Vin Diesel’s “family”.

What I found at the beginning of the Mission: Impossible saga was unexpectedly classy. This was a retro action movie starring (a pre-Scientology-fueled couch-jumper) Tom Cruise when he still defined what it meant to be Movie Star Handsome. This was 1996, a beautifully naive stretch of the decade before we let rap rock ruin America. This was a unnecessarily intricate mood piece espionage film helmed by (former Movie of the Month) director Brian De Palma, arguably the king of unnecessarily intricate mood pieces. This was a dumb action movie with a classic score by Danny Freakin’ Elfman, for God’s sake. In other words, why did I wait so long to watch this? I wasn’t absolutely floored by what basically amounted to a love letter to the same 60s super spy media that the incredibly funny Spy spoofed earlier this year, but I was at the very least pleasantly surprised by how well-executed it was. These days it’s difficult not to meet news of an old TV show getting a big screen adaptation with a pained groan, but back ,in its day Mission: Impossible was kind to its source material (despite fans of the original series grousing at its initial release), obviously holding immense respect for the era it came from, while still updating it with a certain amount of mid-90s badassery.

A lot, if not all, of the film’s success could be attributed to Brian De Palma. The needlessly complicated camera work he throws into this film elevates the material immeasurably. Within the first major sequence alone the eye is overwhelmed by an onslaught of tracking shots, Dutch angles, first person POV, ridiculous Old Hollywood noir lighting, etc. De Palma is known for his tendency towards excess and Mission: Impossible definitely has him operating at his least inhibited, displaying the same lack of good taste & visual restraint that he brought to the ridiculous Nic Cage thriller Snake Eyes. It’s a genuine treat. There’s some other cool, big ideas at work here, like the way the movie poses espionage as a form of theater (at one point a character lays out a secret plan as “Here’s the plot . . .”), but it’s really De Palma’s overreaching visual style that makes the movie special.

That being said, a 60’s sense of class & an overenthusiastic De Palma can’t save the movie from its own action movie trashiness entirely. Mission: Impossible is essentially a mere three ridiculous action sequences & some much less exciting connective tissue and there’s plenty of camp value to be found at the very least in its super spy gadgetry. For instance, despite the obviously technically proficient world of international super spies detailed here, they’re all fighting over possession of a floppy disk, a very era-specific MacGuffin that really takes me back. Besides this goofery, there’s also a truly ludicrous scene where a helicopter chases a train into a tunnel, there’s a lot of mileage squeezed out of the high tech masks that allow characters to rip off their faces & become other people, and the infamous Tom Cruise hanging from the rafters sequence features a lot more puke than people typically mention. All of this and Ving Rhames. I cannot stress how much Ving Rhames’ mere presence brings to the table, camp wise.

I didn’t know exactly what to expect with Mission: Impossible, but I was pleasantly surprised. I honestly think it’s super cool that a franchise that Tom Cruise pays for & stars in himself has such a classy, but (intentionally) campy beginning. As far as super star vanity projects go, you could do much worse than a cheesy Brian De Palma action flick starring Ving Rhames & an exploding helicopter. It’ll be interesting to see where the series goes from here, but for now I’m really liking what I’m seeing.

-Brandon Ledet

The Disparate Ground Covered by John Lithgow’s Collaborations with Brian De Palma

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I made a lot of noise last week about the disparate halves of actor John Travolta’s choices in roles, noting that the two sides of his career can be conveniently summed up by his turns in the political thrillers Swordfish & Blow Out. Another actor from June’s Movie of the Month, 1981’s political thriller Blow Out, John Lithgow has made a similar career out of splitting his time between expertly nuanced roles like his turn in Kinsey & over-the-top villains in less respectable crowd favorites like Footloose, Cliffhanger, and Ricochet. The difference between Lithgow & Travolta is that Travolta’s acting can waver from high art to low trash depending on the film, but Lithgow is nothing if not consistent. No matter what film he’s starring in, Lithgow gives the production an incredible sense of levity, seemingly committing himself wholeheartedly in an equal, measured approach to the task at hand.

In his two collaborations with director Brian De Palma, Blow Out & Raising Cain, Lithgow was given plenty of space to display his unwavering enthusiasm for his craft. In Blow Out, Lithgow excels as a violent, sociopathic assassin that dominates the film’s central threat. In Raising Cain, De Palma asks Lithgow to run wild, playing several different characters each more eccentric than the last. A psychological thriller about a child psychologist gone completely off the rails, Raising Cain is far from the tight, controlled political thriller offered in Blow Out. Lithgow commits to both films equally, though, bringing the same cold intensity he used to elevate Blow Out to flesh out the sketchy at best Raising Cain, a ludicrous thriller that asks a whole lot of him, all of which he gives selflessly.

If you’re looking to see how a little, tastefully-applied Lithgow can go a long away, Blow Out is certainly the movie for you. If you want to see how that same element can be used for over-the-top, tawdry camp, Raising Cain is the better option. Due to Lithgow’s consistent acting style, his presence is more of a tool than a variable. In his two collaborations with Lithgow, De Palma has used the actor for very disparate effects that both exemplifies the types of roles Lithgow is typically used for & the range of quality & tone De Palma reaches for in his films. As a double feature, Raising Cain & Blow Out reveal a lot about the nature of the director & the actor both and raises questions about exactly why they haven’t worked together more often.

For more on June’s Movie of the Month, 1981’s Blow Out, visit our Swampchat , this look at Berberian Sound Studio’s sound-obsessed roots in the film, and last week’s comparison of the movie with John Travolta’s other political thriller, Swordfish.

-Brandon Ledet

Travolta’s Glorious Heights & Hopelessly Trashy Depths in Blow Out (1981) & Swordfish (2001)

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John Travolta has had a very strange career, alternating from working with acclaimed outsider directors like Quentin Tarantino in Pulp Fiction & Brian De Palma in Blow Out to working on huge piles of hot garbage like Battlefield Earth & The Devil’s Rain. Strange as it is, this dichotomy isn’t entirely unique & can more or less be summed up as The Nic Cage Career Model. Travolta’s talents & natural charisma are immense, but often confusingly wasted on the trashiest of trash cinema. Travolta himself even solidified the Cage connection by essentially playing Cage at his hammiest in the ludicrously over-the-top action thriller Face/Off.

Perhaps the best way to experience the full range of Travolta’s full range of immense talent & laughable awfulness is in a double feature of June’s Movie of the Month, the 1981 political thriller Blow Out & Swordfish, a hopelessly trashy political thriller that arrived thirty years later & much worse for wear. Besides Travolta’s role & the political thriller genre connection, Swordfish & Blow Out both attempt meta-commentary about the nature of film itself. Blow Out accomplishes this slyly through depictions of a film of a car accident being reconstructed step by step, sound first. Swordfish, on the other hand, clumsily announces that it’s talking about movies by allowing Travolta’s central villain to deconstruct the intricacies of Dog Day Afternoon in the very first scene. Inviting viewers to conjure up memories of a much better film doesn’t do Swordfish any favors. Neither does watching Travolta’s performance in context of Blow Out.

In Blow Out, Travolta plays a befuddled everyman sound technician who’s in over his head when he gets dragged into a world of political intrigue. In Swordfish, he’s an evil Derek Zoolander-type with a terrible haircut who’s main business is political intrigue. The interesting thing about watching Blow Out  & Swordfish back to back is that they not only exemplify the heights & depths of Travolta’s talents & hamming, but they also validate & demonize those two dueling halves of his career. In Blow Out, we’re treated to Good Travolta, who just wants to tell the world the truth about a car accident because he feels like they have a right to know. In Swordfish, the much less savory Bad Travolta robs banks & forces hackers to operate at gunpoint while receiving oral sex just to see what they’re made of.

Blow Out is a perfectly constructed political thriller from the director of classics like Scarface & Carrie. Swordfish is a disgustingly crass fusion of The Matrix & Pulp Fiction sensibilities, laden with some of the worst CGI I’ve ever seen in a film, and directed by the dude who gave the world the Nic Cage Gone in Sixty Seconds remake. In tandem, both films share very little common ground, but do a competent job of capturing the totality of John Travolta’s varied career as an actor. As per usual, Good (Travolta) triumphs over Evil (Travolta) here and Blow Out is an objectively much better film, but to truly appreciate Travolta’s career as an actor in its totality you do have to roll around in the trash every now & then and he is hilariously dedicated to the cause in the grotesquely idiotic Swordfish.

For more on June’s Movie of the Month, 1981’s Blow Out, visit our Swampchat & last week’s look at Berberian Sound Studio’s sound-obsessed roots in the film.

Berberian Sound Studio’s (2013) Sound-Obsessed Roots in Blow Out (1981)

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During our Swampchat discussion of June’s Movie of the Month, the Brian De Palma political thriller Blow Out, I pointed out that “Blow Out is in some ways a movie about making movies, but more specifically it’s a movie about how essential sound is to film. It boils the medium down to one of its more intangible elements. In that way it’s much more unique than a lot of other movies about movies, arriving more than three decades before the film it most closely resembles in this approach (that I can recall, anyway), Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio.” The entire time I was watching Blow Out I was aching to revisit Peter Strickland’s oddly engaging Berberian Sound Studio to see how the two films compare. It turns out that while Blow Out distills the process of making movies into a single element, recording sound, Berberian Sound Studio breaks it down even further until there is nothing left. De Palma used sound recording as an anchoring element for a story that had great impact outside the world of film-making, a world tainted by serial murders & political intrigue. Strickland’s film, on the other hand, rarely allowed the audience to leave the recording booth & gets lost in its own sound-obsession.

Although they are working within separate genres with their own respective aims & are separated by three decades of film-making, it’s not at all difficult to draw a connection between the two works. First of all, they’re connected by their basic movie-within-a-movie structure. In Blow Out, Travolta’s sound technician protagonist is working on a cheap slasher film for which he cannot find an actress with the perfect scream to match a brutal shower stabbing. When asked if he ever works on good films, Travolta responds “No, just bad ones.” The befuddled sound technician in Berberian (expertly played by character actor Tobey Jones), on the other hand, is hired for an Itallian giallo film called The Equestrian Vortex that also gradually proves itself to be a tawdry, violent horror film (although the director insists they’re making art). We’ve explored the giallo lineage of slasher films before in our discussions of former Movie of the Month Blood & Black Lace, but the connection is rarely as clear as it is in the comparison here. While Travolta is looking for a single scream to accompany his cheap slasher movie (when he’s not investigating assassinations in his free time), Berberian Sound Studio depicts countless micro-searches for the exact same thing. The exact sound of a neck being sliced or a witch’s hair being yanked from the scalp or even the standard damsel’s death rattle are all meticulously sought after here. Berberian depicts a wizardly crew of demented Gallaghers smashing melons, pulling turnip roots, and tormenting actresses to capture the perfect sounds for what amounts to a slightly artier version of the trash that Travolta’s is mindlessly cranking out in Blow Out.

However, as stated, the films do have disparate aims for their respective sound obsessions. Blow Out uses sound as a doorway to a world outside the recording booth. It’s a dangerous world, but it’s an exterior one where big, important things are happening. Berberian Sound Studio, in contrast, becomes psychedelically insular. It not only gets lost in the recording booth, but also in the idea of sound itself. There’s so much horror & dissociation in the sound techniques employed in the film that it reaches an otherworldly state of mind that mimics the broken psyche of Bergman’s Persona just as much as anything it echoes from De Palma’s film. When you watch Berberian on Netflix with the closed captions enabled, the screen is filled with ludicrously long lists of sound descriptions desperately trying to keep up with every aural element in play. Early in the film a character ominously warns/promises, “A new world of sound awaits you. A world that requires all your magic powers.” It’s doubtful that the protagonist or most of the audience took him as literally as he meant it, but Berberian really is a lot more interested in the magic of sound than the more technically-minded Blow Out.

If I had to boil down the difference between the two films, I’d simply point out that Travolta’s protagonist spends most of his run time trying to piece together a crime scene & to capture a maniac killer, while Jones’ character is trying to get reimbursed for an airline ticket & to hold onto his basic sanity. De Palma’s approach weaponized sound to strengthen his political thriller’s arsenal. For Strickland, sound wasn’t a powerful tool; it was the entire point. The movies do share an impressive amount  of overlap, though, especially in Blow Out’s early, growling winds & in both film’s audiophile obsession with analog equipment. It’s difficult to imagine either film could be set in 2015 without being changed drastically. It’s doubtful that either film would mean much of anything once digital equipment removed a lot of the incidental sound from recording booths. The clacking & whirring of film projectors and tape recorders are essentially the two films’ lifeblood. Even the sound of the instruments that capture & display images are essential to cinema in these two films’ worldview. That’s the kind of synesthesia we’re working with here: there’s a sound even to the imagery. Blow Out just happens to use this attention to sound to open a door, while Berberian chooses to lock itself in the dark & swallow the key. They’re both overwhelmingly successful in their respective endeavors.

For more on June’s Movie of the Month, 1981’s Blow Out, visit last week’s Swampchat on the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Blow Out (1981)

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Every month one of us makes the other two watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month James made Britnee & Brandon watch Blow Out (1981).

James: Brian De Palma’s political thriller Blow Out is our May Movie of the Month and I’m pretty stoked to revisit this hidden gem from one of my all-time favorite directors. Based on the 1966 film Blow Up about a fashion photographer who accidentally films a murder, Blow Out tweaks that premise, focusing on Jack Terry, a sound engineer for B horror movies, who gets entangled in a conspiracy after capturing the audio of a fatal car crash that kills a presidential candidate.

Putting his stylistic chops on full display, De Palma doesn’t pull any punches. Split screens, long tracking shots, dizzying angles; Hitchcock would be proud. It’s mind boggling that even with a star studded cast (including John Travolta, Nancy Allen, John Lithgow, and Dennis Franz) and gushing reviews from critics, Blow Out was a box office flop when it premiered in 1981. That’s a shame because everyone gives great performances, especially Lithgow as a cold blooded psychopath (what else) and Travolta as the sound engineer always looking for “the perfect scream”. Thankfully, Blow Out has gained popularity through the years and earned a reputation as a quintessential De Palma. I think it’s his best film.

What really blew me away re-watching Blow Out was how strongly the film holds up as a homage to the medium of film itself. It is a movie about making movies. As Jack puts together the audio and video of the fatal wreck, we are viewing the process of film making itself, the melding of sight and sound.

Brandon, do you feel like I do about Blow Out being a “movie about making movies”? Do you think this is why De Palma chose to focus on a movie sound engineer instead of a fashion photographer?

Brandon: I did find that approach interesting here, because normally films will interact with their own medium by showing members of a theater audience. This is even true in horror films, such as the monsters-break-the-fourth-wall classics Demons & The Ring or the throwaway gag in Gremlins where an entire theatrical audience is made of unruly, cackling monsters. There’s a little bit of audience-acknowledgement in the opening minutes of Blow Out, which features a few men in a screening room enjoying a hilariously tawdry, violent slasher movie. It adds whole other layer of specificity that the men are actually working on the film they’re watching, specifically on its sound effects. As James just noted, it’s not interacting with film as a medium from a consumer’s point of view, but rather from an active participant’s. Of course, the movie maker’s perspective isn’t entirely unique either, but the sound engineer angle has a very precise specificity to it, since most films about filmmakers would approach the story from the perspective of a writer or a director. It gets even more specific from there, given that these are men that only make cheap slasher flicks. At one point a character asks Jack if he works on “big” movies and he responds, “No. Just bad ones.”

That specificity turns out to be a very important distinction, especially the sound engineer detail. As James points out, Travolta’s protagonist, Jack, spends most of Blow Out’s run time attempting to construct a film version of a car crash he witnessed. Although film is a mostly visual medium, it’s Jack’s work with sound that dominates this process. He obsesses over the audio recording of the crash that he captured, using it as a cornerstone in his reconstruction of the crime scene. Yes, Blow Out is in some ways a movie about making movies, but more specifically it’s a movie about how essential sound is to film. It boils the medium down to one of its more intangible elements. In that way it’s much more unique than a lot of other movies about movies, arriving more than three decades before the film it most closely resembles in this approach (that I can recall, anyway), Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio.

Britnee, how do you think De Palma’s focus on sound in Blow Out shaped the film as a final product? Did its sound obsession have a big effect on you as a viewer, as opposed to how you normally watch movies?

Britnee: De Palma’s focus on sound really makes Blow Out a standout film and turns what could’ve been a run-of-the-mill thriller into a milestone in cinema. Of course, there are many other elements that make this film unique, but I think its obsession with sound is really what differentiated it from others. I have watched quite a few movies in my lifetime, but I’ve never come across or heard of a film that offers a behind-the-scenes look at the importance of sound in movies. Prior to viewing Blow Out, I never gave much thought to any of the sounds that occur during a movie, and now that I’ve seen the film, it’s all that I think about. In the final scene of Blow Out, Jack uses the screams from Sally’s murder for the bad movie he’s working on (his “perfect scream”), and I found this to be very unsettling. When I now hear a scream in a movie, I can’t help but think of the possibility of it being from an actual murder. What if there are psychotic sound technicians that go around killing people for authentic screams? It’s just something to think about.

The film’s camerawork is definitely something that stood out to me as well. Many of the angles were creative and voyeuristic with similarities to those in Blood and Black Lace, but there were a few that were way over the top, almost to the point of being ridiculous. The one that stands out the most to me is the merry-go-round shot that occurs in the scene where Jack is searching through his studio like a mad man looking for the missing tape. The camera must have spun around 100 times without stopping. It was like being on a Tilt-A-Whirl but not in a good way. Other than his theme park inspired camerashots, there were many others that were very innovative and enjoyable.

James, what are your feelings about De Palma’s imaginative cinematography? Were some of the shots a little absurd? Were they necessary for the film’s success?

James: A self-professed De Palma devotee, I love his unique approach to cinematography but I can understand how some viewers might scratch their heads at his more show-offy, “I went to film school” shots in Blow Out. Like the long tracking shot at the beginning of his1998 film Snake Eyes, many of these grandiose shots aren’t necessary, definitely a little absurd, but totally awesome. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have ejoyed Blow Out nearly as much if it didn’t included close up of owls and dizzying trips around Jack’s office. It reminds me of previous Movie of the Month directors like Mario Bava and Ken Russell who seem to take a similar delight in playing with their audience’s perspective

On a different note, I have to bring up the ending to Blow Out. As I addressed in my first question, Blow Out did not perform well in the bow office, and I wonder if the film’s bleak ending was the reason. With Jon Lithgow in full on psychopath mode and the Fourth of July festivities in full swing, we assume that that Jack will reach the girl in time but De Palma pulls the rug out from under us and the backrop of patriotism and freedom takes on a more ominous tone. Is this punishment for Jack’s participation in exploitation films? Is it a statement on American politics?

Brandon, what are your thoughts on Blow Out‘s ending? Why do you think De Palma chose to end the film in such an unconventional, bleak manner?

Brandon: I think the movie’s pessimistic conclusion is best understood in the context of De Palma’s status as one of the voices of New Hollywood. New Hollywood was already at least a decade old by Blow Out’s release, often cited as beginning with the release of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde in 1967, but De Palma’s aesthetic & tone was very much rooted in the movement. In addition to other genre-defining traits, notable New Hollywood films like Easy Rider, Chinatown, The French Connection, and Harold & Maude had a tendency to subvert audience’s expectations by concluding on bleak & unresolved notes. I suppose the idea was that this approach was more realistic & honest because conflicts in “real” life don’t always end on the definitive & upbeat terms that often accompanied more escapist Old Hollywood fare.

I think De Palma goes even a step further than some of his peers in this case by falsely promising a grandiose, happy conclusion. When Travolta’s protagonist Jack first rushes to save the day, he disruptively drives directly into a Liberty Day parade in a grand gesture that normally would end with him victorious & Lithgow’s antagonist in jail. Instead, he crashes & burns. Literally. The “happy ending” subversion in Blow Out is so deliberate & well-teased that it plays like a hilarious prank before it takes an even darker turn. Despite the violence & grim political intrigue of the film’s story, De Palma still found a way to let his darkly playful sense of humor shine through.

Britnee, were there any other ways you found Blow Out oddly humorous outside the slasher-movie & hero-saves-the-day fake-outs that began & closed the film? What made you laugh in-between those moments?

Britnee: There was a whole lot to laugh at between the opening and closing of the film. While Blow Out was a serious thriller, there were a good bit of ridiculous moments and scenes that got a few chuckles out of me. Particularly, the scene when Jack first meets Sally in the hospital. Sally basically has a concussion after being in a fatal car crash, but Jack is so set on dragging her out of her hospital bed and getting her to a bar. He does succeed with getting her out of the hospital while she’s still in need of medical attention, but ends up having a hard time getting her to the bar for a couple of drinks (go figure). As Brandon mentioned previously, De Palma does have a dark sense of humor, and this is a pretty good example of it. Also, I’m just now realizing that the lovers in Blow Out, Jack and Sally, just so happen to share the same name as the famous couple from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. Interesting.

Most of the other comical occurrences in the film were minor, but still pretty damn hilarious. Jack’s over-the-top dramatic facial expressions, Sally’s quirky dialogue, and Manny Karp’s dirty wife-beater really stick out in my mind as little things that were humorous in the film.

Lagniappe

Brandon: One thing I think that has gotten somewhat lost in the mix here is the performance by Nancy Allen as Sally. Known to most as “That Lady from Robocop” and known to Blow Out director Brian De Palma at the time of filming Blow Out as “My Wife” (feel free to read that in the Borat vernacular if you need to), is an actress who doesn’t necessarily get a chance to shine often. She’s extremely charming here as the love-interest-who-isn’t-quite-what-she-seems noir archetype, recalling performances like Dotty in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure & the secretary from Twin Peaks. It’s not entirely surprising that Allen’s performance is overwhelmed by the likes of John Travolta, John Lithgow, and the impressively sleazy Dennis Franz, but I do feel like deserves more recognition for bringing a certain heart, authenticity, and (as Britnee mentioned) humor to a film that may have felt like a (exceedingly technically proficient) cold cinematic exercise without her.

Britnee: Blow Out is such an unrecognized treasure. What I liked the most about this movie were the many twists and turns that occurred from beginning to end. After the first half-hour or so, I thought that I had the film figured out; an average Joe solves a murder and gets the girl in the end. It turns out that I’m a terrible guesser.

James: Blow Out is essential De Palma and arguably his masterwork. With its mix of intrigue, nail biting suspense, and dark humor, the film transcends genres and feels as fresh as it must have in 1981. Showcasing De Palma’s formidable skill behind the camera, Blow Out is also a great homage to the process of film making from a modern master.

Upcoming Movie of the Months:
July: Britnee presents Highway to Hell (1991)
August: Brandon presents Babe: Pig in the City (1998)

-The Swampflix Crew