Our current Movie of the Month, 1987’s Hello Again, is a fluffy romantic comedy about an undead but unflappable Shelley Long, one that sidesteps all of the possible morbidity of its zom-com premise in favor of A Modern Woman Making Her Own Way feel-goodery. Even after she’s resurrected from the dead, Long’s status as a medical phenomenon has less impact on the film’s tone & plot than her nature as a hopeless klutz among big-city sophisticates does. It’s a dynamic that allows her to go absurdly broad in fits of Mr. Bean-style physical comedy, often to the point where you forget there’s any supernatural shenanigans afoot in the first place. The film is less about her being undead than it is about her being adorably ungraceful.
What most surprised me about this fairly anonymous studio comedy is that there’s some shockingly substantial talent behind the camera. Director Frank Perry began his career as a New Hollywood troublemaker, filming excruciatingly dark, uncomfortable comedies about The Human Condition. Whereas Hello Again actively avoids the inherent darkness of its subject, earlier Perry films seemed to revel in the discomfort of their premises. So, I used this month’s Movie of the Month selection as an excuse to dig a little further into Perry’s back catalog to see just how dark those earlier films could get and if they had tangible connection to the mainstream studio comedies he was cranking out by the 1980s. Here are a few recommended titles if you enjoyed our Movie of the Month but want to see the darker side of its director.
The Swimmer (1968)
The most bizarre aspect of Hello Again is how matter-of-fact it plays the absurdity of Shelley Long’s return from the grave. She’s not a decaying corpse; she doesn’t have magical powers; she’s just there. That underplayed absurdism is something Perry had done before to much more sinister effect when he was still a New Hollywood buttonpusher (along with his then-wife Eleanor Perry, who wrote the majority of his early screenplays). In The Swimmer, Perry cast Burt Lancaster as an aging suburban playboy who, on a whim, decides to “swim home” by visiting a string of friends’ backyard pools across his wealthy neighborhood. It’s a boldly vapid premise that’s somehow molded into a low-key mindmelter of 1960s moral rot through an eerie, matter-of-fact sense of surrealism.
Like Hello Again, The Swimmer is more of a quirky character piece than it is concerned with the internal logic of its supernatural plot. Instead of only traveling by the “continuous” “river” of swimming pools he initially envisions over his morning cocktail, Lancaster spends a lot of runtime galloping alongside horses, leisurely walking through forests, and crossing highway traffic barefoot. He does often emerge from one borrowed swimming pool to the next, though, and along the way we dig deeper into the ugliness of his himbo playboy lifestyle. He starts the film as a masterful charmer, seducing the world (or at least the world’s wives and mistresses) with an infectious swinging-60s bravado. By the time he swims his last pool, we recognize him as a miserable piece of shit who doesn’t deserve to kiss the feet of the infinite wonderful women of his past who we meet along the way. The overall result is sinisterly ludicrous beefcake melodrama, presented in lurid Technicolor. Sirk could never, but Perry did.
Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970)
Although it’s ostensibly a back-from-the-dead zom-com, the dramatic core of Hello Again is much less about the supernatural circumstances of Shelley Long’s second chance at life than it is about her transformation from a dowdy housewife to a fully realized, fully satisfied person. And it turns out one of Frank Perry’s earliest professional triumphs is a much darker prototype of that same basic story. Diary of a Mad Housewife is a woman-on-the-verge black comedy about an absurdly horrid marriage that drives a put-upon housewife to a steamy, but equally toxic affair. Her husband constantly negs her in an abusive way; her side-piece boyfriend also negs her, but in a kinky way. She emerges from the other end completely miserable, but at least finally having done something for herself.
Most of the humor in Diary of a Mad Housewife is wrung from just how obnoxiously awful the husband character is to his “beloved.” From the second she wakes up, he floods her with a constant stream of complaints about her body, her clothes, her hair, and her behavior. It’s basically an early draft of Mink Stole’s ranting complaints at the start of Desperate Living – hilariously unpleasant & cruel in its never-ending barrage. Like in Hello Again, the titular mad housewife (Carrie Snodgress) struggles to rub elbows with elite sophisticates at the stuffy society parties her husband wants to attend (not to mention the housekeeping struggle of throwing those large-scale parties to being with). This earlier draft of that tension is just much darker than anything Hello Again offers, including a stubborn refusal to offer its put-upon protagonist a happy ending. Other highlights include a hunky-hipster Frank Langella, the world’s most rotten children, and a chaotic pre-fame cameo from “The Alice Cooper Band”.
Mommie Dearest (1981)
Maybe Diary of a Mad Housewife‘s proto-Desperate Living opening was not happenstance at all. The film very well may have been a direct influence on John Waters’s filmmaking style, as evidenced by Waters’s fawning commentary track on Perry’s most iconic film: the Joan Crawford biopic Mommie Dearest. I’ve owned my Mommie Dearest DVD for at least a decade, have watched it lots, and somehow didn’t notice until this month that it includes a full commentary track from Waters. He does a great job of quipping throughout it MST3k style while also genuinely attempting to revamp its reputation as a “so good it’s great” melodrama. More to the point, he recalls early in the runtime that a critic once attempted to insult him by saying he’s not “the underground Russ Meyer,” he’s “the underground Frank Perry.” Of course, Waters took that insult as a compliment, as well he should have. Frank Perry’s great.
I highly recommend watching Mommie Dearest with the commentary track flipped on, especially if you’re already seen it and want to spend some quality time with one of history’s greatest talkers. Waters has some great quips about how Perry frames Crawford as “a female female-impersonator role” & a Strait-Jacket style horror villain, but I mostly just appreciated the way he tries to reclaim the film as a genuine crowd-pleaser. Waters absolutely nails it when he explains, “There’s no better kind of movie than this kind of movie if you’re home on a Saturday afternoon with a slight hangover.” I’d also put Hello Again in that exact same category, even if its own campy humor is much more measured & straightforward.