Notes From the Underground: Seven Rides on the Cinematic Subway (part 2)

•August 26, 2008 • 1 Comment

Part 2 of a discussion of subways in cinema

The Warriors (1978)

Dystopian subway: The Warriors (1978)

The Warriors (1978)

Despite its dodgy reputation and dour advertising campaign which promised an intense and grim experience, Walter Hill’s 1978 gang thriller The Warriors offered an aleatory experience for those who’d expected a balls-to-the-wall violent shocker full of crunched body parts and brutal man-on-man bloodshed. There’s fighting to be sure, and plenty of male posturing, but Hill’s film reveals unexpected pleasures in its vision of New York City as a dystopian gang-infested hellhole; it actually makes the hellhole look sort of fun, recasting its comic book-colorful Manhattan and surrounding boroughs as the stage for a masculine rite-of-passage loosely based on Anabasis, Xenophon’s Greek legend about a small band of warriors trapped in enemy territory. From there, Hill fills the gritty landscape with outrageously stylized gangs with names like The Turnbull AC’s (skinheads in denim who travel in a large bus), the Baseball Furies (mute baseball bat-wielding thugs with faces painted like the band “KISS”), The Orphans (who wear green t-shirts and bluejeans), the Gramercy Riffs (African-American fighters schooled in Chinese martial arts), the Lizzies (an all-female gang who own guns and are paradoxically the worst shots in the world) and the Rogues, who are dressed like late-1970s headbangers with headbands and jean jackets.

The way home

The way home

The latter are responsible for the murder of Cyrus, one of the primary gang leaders who had attempted to enforce a city-wide truce amongst the gangs in order to consolidate gang control of the city. The Rogues pin the murder on The Warriors, a motley collection of street fighters from Coney Island who sport a vague Native American look (feathers and orange vests).

Unexpectedly the most pronounced emotion of The Warriors is a bittersweet nostalgia for male adolescence; far from the dark, forbidding yarn promised by its advertising campaign, Hill re-imagines Sol Yorick’s novel as a testosterone-soaked fantasia of male bonding, and the macho posturing and numerous street fights resonate on the level of a very intense game of Cowboys-and-Indians. The late-1970s New York City locations become characters in themselves and amongst the up-and-coming cast (which include a pre-Xanadu Michael Beck, an impossibly young James Remar and an early vixenish turn by Mercedes Ruehl) the biggest star is the city’s subway system.

Pockmarked with graffiti and gloriously dingy, Hill captured all the subway’s grime and glory in its pre-Guiliani era. Not just a backdrop for the film’s events, the subway system provided a arc for the film’s plot as it’s the only means of getting back to Coney Island for the film’s heroes and each subway stop offers a new chance for redemption or harrowing encounters with the city’s other gangs all of whom are gunning for the Warriors. Taking place over a single night and early morning, some of The Warriors’s most memorable moments are set on subway cars, as the destination proves rather less relevant than just surviving the hours till sunrise. Functioning alternately as sanctuaries and proving grounds for the young men traversing its tunnels, the subway stations and platforms in the film are vivid backdrops as the Warriors slowly make their way “home”.

Rite of passage

Rite of passage

The climax of the film reveals what an amorphous concept “home” is for the young heroes of the film, the empty beaches and desolate streets of late-70s Coney Island looking no more inviting than the rest of the city. There’s more vibrancy and tactile life in the subway, a dangerous but febrile network of tunnels, the agnotic life force to the violent dystopian streets of New York City.


Maniac (1980)

 

Gang bang

Gang bang: Maniac (1980)

The ghosts of Forty-Second Street porn houses haunt the milieu of William Lustig’s Maniac, and not just because Lustig cut his teeth directing and producing adult films in the mid-Seventies. The grindhouses and porno palaces of Forty-Second Street in the Seventies traded in exploitative and taboo imagery gloriously outside of the boundaries of conventional entertainment. As one of its practitioners Lustig applied many of the principles of porn to the discharge of Maniac’s narrative. Lustig’s crew and some members of the cast were gathered from the adult film industry of the time, included notables such as Gail Lawrence and the iconic Sharon Mitchell who played a small role as a nurse in the precursor to Maniac’s subway scene. The barely-there plot consists of the seedy vagaries of a New York City serial killer named Frank who lives alone in a squalid apartment filled with mannequins and the body parts of his female victims. This threadbare storyline becomes an excuse for a number of grimy, blood-soaked set pieces in which Frank pursues and dispatches the women in startlingly graphic methods (even for the late-Seventies, and even for this particular period in the “slasher” genre). The film is structured much like a porno; the murders in the film are analogously structured like pornographic sex scenes, building up from a protracted tease and pursuit, then a pointedly nasty violation of the victim and a gory release not unlike a sexual climax. The opening of bodies in the film breach taboos similar to sequences in porn, which in the words of Linda Williams in her essay Power, Pleasure, and Perversion: Sadomasochistic Film Pornography, “open the fleshly secrets of normally hidden things”. This is apparent not only in the structure of the film but the milieu: Maniac’s misbegotten Manhattan, consisting of the streets, grimy walkup apartments, dimly lit studios and of course, the subways of late-Seventies New York, form the film’s derelict soul and is the essence of grindhouse at its most ecstatically disreputable.

In the film, a nurse, getting out of work after her shift, bafflingly refuses a ride and becomes Frank Zito’s quarry after her descent into the subway platform. The pursuit of the nurse into the bowels of the subway station and and her subsequent murder isn’t the goriest scene in Maniac, but it’s a strikingly shot and constructed sequence which configures the subway as a space of jarring schisms and threatening isolation. Lustig and his cinematographer Robert Lindsay’s ever-prowling camera create an unnerving sequence employing the loneliness and attenuating solitude of the subway station and platform. There are production gaffes—the shots of other people standing about the platform are clearly a mistake (the nurse and Frank are supposed to be alone in the station), but even these add to the sense of an unequivocal sense of place; the other passengers might as well be zombies or mannequins in their faceless apathy. The gates and partitions of the subway connote imprisonment, the shots of the iron bars and dividers cut to a staccato cadence (the effectiveness of this scene is more amazing in light of the fact that it was shot surreptitiously, without city permits). This subway-set consecution is harrowing, distilling into less than five minutes the essence of Maniac’s drippy, sweaty, blood-soaked tableau of late-1970s New York City.

End of an era

End of an era

Notes From the Underground: Seven Rides On the Cinematic Subway (part 1)

•August 20, 2008 • 1 Comment
Christopher Smith's "Creep" (2004)

Christopher Smith's "Creep" (2004)

Subways are organisms. They traverse the bowels of a city and carry hundreds of souls through dark subterranean corridors, occasionally stopping in artificially-lit stations which in themselves function as microcosms of their surrounding localities. City dwellers use the subway as a transitional reticle, a utilitarian mesh which passes them from one station to another; the subway or the subway ride is a spatial experience unique to city dwellers in which they are for a time trapped underground frequently with strangers or alone. Subways are often metaphors for distinct urban experiences, often employed as signifiers of alienation, violence or claustrophobia. The occasional subway cop notwithstanding, subway peregrination is a uniquely vulnerable experience—escape routes can be limited, the tunnels are dark, fellow passengers are seemingly in their own states of disaffectedness, and the very fact of being underground often plays into the phobias and fantasies associated with urban living. No matter how modern the trappings, the subterranean corridors of the subway are often forbidding places and in fiction each subway stop brings the potential for a new narrative turn, frequently in menacing directions. In the sense, subways are often settings for some of the best horror films and thrillers, or at least provide some of the most memorable moments in non-subway-centric films.

In celebration of the “release” of Ryuhei Kitamura/Clive Barker’s film Midnight Meat Train (2008), I’m taking a look at some of the more memorable cinematic moments set on subways or subway trains. Lionsgate’s shabby treatment of Meat Train aside, Kitamura’s film is a thrilling moment for subway shocker-aficionados like myself, and in some ways it’s the distillation of some of the best elements of cinematic subway scenes from the past few decades. It’s not exactly a horror classic, but it’s still a worthy and hair-raising addition to the index of truly great subway-bound thrillers.


Death Line (aka Raw Meat) (1972)

 

Raw Meat

Raw Meat (1972)

Gary Sherman’s Death Line transposes the Sawney Bean legend to Twentieth-century London, re-imagining the cannibalistic Scotsman as a shuffling freak hiding in the caverns behind the tunnels of the city’s tube system, randomly grabbing drunks and mini-skirted wenches waiting for after-hours trains. The gore quotient’s fairly high for the era and Sherman makes the subway an eerie Gothic subterranean haunt one step removed from the old dark houses of Hammer and Amicus.

Gothic corridors

Gothic corridors

It should be a lot of fun but Death Line’s a soporific pacing and pedestrian plot degenerates into something less than a serviceable B-movie. Donald Pleasance tears it up as the inspector sent to sniff out the missing subway travelers, however the cannibal-in-the-tunnels business isn’t nearly as scary as it should be.

1970's Meat Train...

1970s Meat Train...

Almost in spite of itself Sherman’s film allows its real star, London’s seedy subway, to shine in its decrepit splendor; the crumbling tiles and sooty walls of the tube stations in the film speak of more storied tales of decrepitude and despair than the one we’re actually watching. We don’t get nearly enough of its grubby beauty in the film’s monotonous trundling, but what we do see is unnerving and ominous, the gorgeous subterranean setting offering timorous shadings of a much better movie.


Death Wish (1974)

Death Wish (1974)

Death Wish (1974)

Michael Winner’s adaptation of Brian Garfield’s novel outlines the evolution (or deterioration, depending on your perspective) of a “bleeding heart liberal” (described in these very terms in the movie) architect played by Charles Bronson from an ordinary family man to a calculating vigilante after his wife and daughter are assaulted in their Manhattan apartment one afternoon. From there the protagonist goes on a side trip to Arizona (shown here as the bosom of gun-loving America and a cradle of good old Western values) and he earns his sacrament as a righteous pistol-toting male from a wealthy gun enthusiast. Returning to New York City Bronson’s character becomes a shadowy vigilante and folk hero who effectively cleans up a city poisoned by social permissiveness and liberal social policies.

Death Wish

Isolated in a city of millions: Death Wish

By some elucidations, Death Wish was histrionically effective and jaw-droppingly simple in its social discourse; to 1974 audiences, the film was a reactionary extravaganza, an orgy of displaced rage engendered by the social turmoil of late 1960s urban life. Winner’s film was a massive hit and no wonder; on its face, the film’s distillation of society’s ills as simply and easily resolved by the barrel of a gun was catnip to a seriously freaked-out American hoi polloi which was still recovering from the tumultuous reconditeness of the post-Vietnam War era. A more hermeneutic reading of Death Wish suggests that the film’s enduring appeal might also be due to its vivid delineation of its tortured protagonist whose discomforting moral proximity to the criminals he pursues exemplifies the disturbing parallels between the civilized and the disordered, questions which still dog the American psyche today.

Not-so-great train robbery

Not-so-great train robbery

Death Wish contains a couple of brief but sublime action scenes on the subways which figure in the storyline as Bronson’s character more or less perfects his m.o.; he puts himself in harm’s way, acting like a potential victim and when the hoodlums are about to strike he deals a quick but satisfying death blow. Reactionary politics aside, Winner’s action sequences are breathtaking in their matter-of-fact alacrity and minimalist propulsion. The scene where Bronson dispatches the muggers in the subway car burnishes the trenchant image of his gun shooting the hoodlum through the newspaper, one of several visuals which elevates this film to its iconic status (alongside, of course, Dirty Harry (1972)) as a standard-bearer of vigilante narratives which is still referenced by urban revenge narratives to this day.

Bronson, recovering liberal

Charles Bronson, recovering liberal

It may or may not have influenced real-life subway vigilante Bernard Goetz, but Death Wish still wields considerable power as a vision of pre-Guiliani Manhattan, an apocalyptically violent vision of urban blight which also exudes a strange and dissolute beauty uncontaminated by the corporate homogeneity which blankets Times Square today. This lost world of graffiti-pockmarked subway cars, seedy grindhouses and unsavory streetcorners is palpable in Death Wish, an inadvertent time capsule of this era whose poetry still registers in between the gunshots and sledgehammer-crude storytelling.

Next: The Warriors (1978), Maniac (1980)

The Automat-trix

•August 12, 2008 • Leave a Comment

I love automats. Besides their amazing history automats were a distinct signifier of a specific time and place in urban existense. No matter how rough your day was, a few cents could buy you a slice of pie which was waiting for you in a small glass chamber; the automat was a compact world which distilled the persistent burdens and unspoken yearnings of city life into neat rows of mac and cheese, ham sandwiches, hot coffee and, of course, pie. Redolent of an era when big-city life was rough-and-tumble in the most colorful ways, automats suggested the intense energy and paradoxical loneliness of urban living, when a cheap meal was served in an anonymous method, with a minimal of human contact. The perfectly aligned rows of glass doors suggested small pockets of aspirations and unfulfilled expectations, and in no small degree alluded to the anonymity and ordered randomness of life in a merciless city. One of the more memorable films from Joan Crawford’s MGM years, Sadie McKee (1934) contained a remarkable scene in an automat which condensed in a few seconds the solitude and bleakness of urban life in the mid-1930’s.

The famous dolphin-headed coffee spout

The famous dolphin-head coffee spout

Crawford’s MGM career pegged her as a working-class career girl, a glamour-puss with a platinum core of proletariat righteousness. In films such as Possessed (1931), Grand Hotel (1932), Mannequin (1937) and The Shining Hour (1938), Crawford defines her persona of the plebian conqueror who doesn’t quite shake the class divisions pigeonholing her as riff-raff no matter how many Adrian gowns she might be wearing. Her sense of moral probity inevitably prevents her from succeeding in the down-and-dirty style of a Barbara Stanwcyk or Ruth Chatterton; clearly she’d rather walk away from a pile of gold than sell herself out.

Cream with that?

At this point in the film Sadie McKee’s eponymous protagonist has escaped her roots as a servant’s daughter in a big estate. Mouthing off to her moneyed employers over their callous indifference to the struggles of her ne’er-do-well boyfriend, she and her lover run off to New York City where they plan on getting hitched and starting life on the seven dollars left in his pocket. He soon abandons her for a third-rate singer and Sadie’s left alone in the cold, indifferent city which barely notices another broken heart on its pavement. When things go from bad to rock-bottom, where to go but the automat?

We don’t see Sadie’s reaction to the cigarette in the meringue, but I like to think that a pragmatic girl like her wouldn’t have any compunction about eating around the cigarette butt.

As we can see, Joan and pies go way back.


Lucky Lemon Cream Pie

I’ve had good luck with this “Lucky Lemon Pie”, which is an award-winning pie from Lorraine Parry of Kingman, Arizona and which I found through the Global Gourmet. The original recipe suggests a lard crust which is certainly good if you want to go old-school with your pie. For vegetarians like me, a good butter or shortening crust works just fine.

2 cups sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
9 tablespoons cornstarch
2-1/2 cups boiling water
3 eggs, beaten
1/4 teaspoon grated fresh lemon peel
9 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3 to 4 tablespoons butter
1/4 teaspoon lemon extract
Baked, cooled pie shell

Combine sugar, salt and cornstarch in a 2- or 3-quart saucepan. Blend well. Add boiling water and place over medium heat, stirring rapidly until mixture is smooth. Bring to a full, rolling boil to thoroughly cook the cornstarch. Remove from heat. Add a little of the hot pudding to the eggs while stirring rapidly. Return egg mixture to hot pudding and reheat, stirring constantly until smooth and bubbly.

Remove from heat, add butter, lemon juice, lemon extract and lemon peel. Stir until butter is melted. Pour filling into cooled, baked pie shell. Chill. Serve topped with whipped cream sweetened and flavored with lemon extract to taste.

A Moment and a Gunshot: the original cinematic Bad Girl

•July 25, 2008 • Leave a Comment

Her story’s been told many times and in better ways than I can manage; in short, a young dancer longs to escape her hometown of Cherryvale, Kansas, becomes a Ziegfeld girl, gets a Hollywood contract, spits in the eye of the film industry, causes a ruckus on two continents, and becomes perhaps the greatest of screen icons through a collaboration with G.W. Pabst, one of the leading directors in the New Realism style of post-Expressionistic German cinema. Louise Brooks’s signature role barely registered with its leading lady at the time of its making; more interested in the raucous nonstop party that was Weimar Berlin, she couldn’t be bothered to think too much about the film that was to define the dark side of the 1920′s flapper and which would burnish Brooks’s image as the ideogrammatic vision of early 20th-Century cinematic sexuality.

As much as Lulu tossed aside the men and women who flocked to her, Brooks was equally apathetic towards her film career and became a pariah from the industry. Indeed, she wouldn’t see Pandora’s Box until 1958, when she was in the process of turning her incisive mind to writing and researching film history. Brooks died in 1988, her legacy fortunately resurrected by champions such as James Card and Henri Langlois. With Pandora’s Box Brooks created the seminal Bad Girl, a creature who predated other memorable transgressive femmes such as Jane Greer in Out of the Past (1947), Anne Savage in Detour (1945), Diane Keaton in Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1978), and too many others to name.

Some images from Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box) (1928).

Unknown Forces: Judy Davis as Joan Lee in “Naked Lunch”

•July 18, 2008 • Leave a Comment

“A report on the murder of Joan Lee by unknown forces…”

So begins Bill Lee’s typewritten essay on the William Tell-inspired death of his wife Joan as he prepares to enter the Interzone in David Cronenberg’s 1991 adaptation of William Burrough’s novel Naked Lunch. “Unknown forces” might also describe Judy Davis’s astonishing performance as Joan Lee, a figure once removed from Burrough’s wife Joan who’d died under similar murky circumstances. Davis’s soul-extirpating work as Joan Lee permeates the first act of Naked Lunch as she conveys the essence of a character who’s truly at the abyss of self-extermination and is loving every second of it. Davis’s parched, ghostly and haunted physiognomy renders a creature as strange and poignant as the talking typewriters and mugwumps in Cronenberg’s imagining of Burrough’s strange trip to the other side.

Judy Davis returns in the second act of the story as Joan Frost, a resident of Interzone/Tangiers; sort of an evocation of Jane Bowles, Joan Frost completes Bill Lee’s act of literary and mental extirpation of the rational world. In both roles, Davis is powerfully impressionistic of the world Cronenberg creates and the film works largely because of her stylized acting, but she also humanizes the two Joans just enough to evoke the tragedy of their outcomes. The images of Joan Lee shooting up “bug powder” and reaching her “literary high” create both a palpable etching of a character trapped by addiction and a reinforcement of the film’s arc in which Bill Lee’s character reaches, through the fates of the two Joans, the literary illation of what will become Naked Lunch.

Judy Davis as Joan Lee:

A Kiss After Dying: Evgeni Bauer’s ‘After Death’

•July 18, 2008 • Leave a Comment

I recently had the please of watching Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom’s Shutter (2004), a fairly effective, dirge-like meditation on men haunted by random and not-so-random acts of negligence. I’m no expert on Thai horror, but I enjoyed the film immensely and thematically it reminded me of Evgeni Bauer’s remarkable After Death (1915), which was part of an amazing collection of Bauer’s films given to me by my friend Gib. Bauer was one of the pioneering artists in early Russian cinema, and his films reached levels of psychological complexity and visual elegance which were astounding for 1915. Expounding on themes of the living haunted by memories of the dead and characters unable to surmount the transgressions of their waking lives and paying for it with either spiritual affliction or death, After Death is the story of a young, reclusive student who becomes the romantic obsession of a moonstruck actress. He spurns her maniacal attentions and the results are, of course, tragic. I’m not able to write too much at the moment, so I’ll post a few images from the two films to give a sense of why I find them so striking…

Shutter (2004)

Shutter (2004)

After Death (1915)

After Death (1915)

Shutter (2004)

Shutter (2004)

After Death (1915)

After Death (1915)

Female on the Beach: “Suddenly, Last Summer”‘s Unsung Tough Girl, Catherine Holly

•July 14, 2008 • Leave a Comment

Tennessee Williams’s 1958 play Suddenly, Last Summer was one of his more overtly lurid creations—incestuous overtones, homosexual prostitutes, a forced lobotomy and cannibalism were some of the poison bon-bons in this genteel candy dish. Briefly, it’s the story of a young woman, Catherine Holly, who is made a candidate for a lobotomy by her wealthy and treacherous Aunt Violet Venable. Catherine was labeled mentally unstable because she claimed that the previous summer, she was witness to her cousin Sebastian’s horrific death on a trip to Spain. Sebastian’s mother, Violet, insists that the story is a lie and wants Catherine silenced through a forced lobotomy. Aunt Violet offers a considerable sum of money to a young specialist, Dr. Cukrowicz, as incentive for him to perform the procedure on Catherine. When he insists on hearing Catherine’s story, an inquest of sorts is performed at Violet’s home in her strange greenhouse full of exotic plants, and Catherine is allowed to tell her story in every gruesome detail. The truth, as it turns out, is far more gruesome and fucked-up than they imagine.

Suddenly, Last Summer's Dr.Cukrowicz and Catherine Holly

Girl in trouble: Suddenly, Last Summer's Dr.Cukrowicz and Catherine Holly

Gore Vidal‘s script for the 1959 film adaptation by Joseph L. Mankiewicz retained most of the outré elements of the play despite the censorship of the time and it was surprising how much they got away with in terms of overt references to the “something evil” that Catherine was used for in the previous summer. Just as notably, the film showcased one of Williams’s most underrated heroines, Catherine Holly. Not a grandiloquent doomed Southern belle like Blanche DuBois, or an overheated sexpot like Maggie Pollitt, Catherine’s most distinguishing traits are the dreadful secret she keeps and her incorruptible adherence to the facts of that story even in the face of radical brain surgery which could silence her forever. As a character, Catherine is another of Williams’s women whose delicacy or candor render them unfit or untenable for their families and who face harsh consequences for their transgressions. Like Laura in The Glass Menagerie, Catherine was an echo of Williams’s sister Rose, a delicate beauty whom he adored and who was diagnosed early in life with schizophrenia. She was subjected to a botched prefrontal lobotomy in 1943 and Williams was devastated by her subsequent disability and mental destitution.

Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor

Dr.Cukrowicz interviews lobotomy candidate Catherine Holly.

It’s over thirty minutes into the ornate, overheated plot before Catherine shows up, and from the get-go we sense that there’s more to this girl than the troubled pathological lunatic her elegant-but-creepy Aunt Violet makes her out to be. And what a girl: for from a simple victim, Elizabeth Taylor’s Catherine is hard-bitten and resolute, smart enough to realize what a mess she’s in but too inherently moral to lie about the things she’s seen. She’s been through hell and back in heels but carries herself with an authority surprising for someone holding a very bad set of cards; somewhere in the haze of traumatic and excessive psychiatric treatment she still holds the truth, and that’s enough to imbue Catherine with a steeliness that’s apparent in the way she drags on her cigarette or delicately steps around the insane asylum in her hot black pumps. And the way she stubs the cigarette out on the nun’s hand leaves you wondering if she’s not THAT sorry about returning some of the misery back at the wimpil-headed prison guards who work this nuthouse.

Truth or consequences

Truth or consequences

Catherine won’t shut up about the awful events of last summer and Williams stacks the deck just enough that we soon doubt Violet’s claims of her niece’s derangement. His sympathy for his heroine is obvious; Catherine’s first exchange with Dr. Cukrowicz drips with self-deprecating sarcasm, so much so that Catherine is obviously not just playing with a full deck, she’s clear-eyed enough to see exactly how the hand she’s playing makes her look crazy.

Primal scream therapy?

Primal scream therapy?

As Catherine’s story begins to coalesce into something resembling a coherence account of “last summer”, Williams brings into sharp relief the contrasts between Catherine the “lunatic” and the redoubtable Mrs. Venable; Mrs. Venable hides the truth behind heavily ornamented language and poetic visions, while Catherine the quotidian truth-teller needs few words to tell it like it is. Mrs. Venable hides monstrous truths behind propriety and social graces, while Catherine’s fidelity to memory and truth cut through those obfuscations like a surgeon’s blade. This is exactly what makes Catherine dangerous in a society of hypocrites, and also what makes her a candidate for annihilation.

No escape

No escape

Catherine Holly wasn’t one of the easier female roles Williams wrote. For much of the story she has to keep the audience guessing as to the veracity of her memories, teetering on the edge of seeming either delusional or passionately guarding an unsavory truth. The last act of the play is pretty much her show, a detailed monologue during which she describes the events of the “Summer” everyone is so curious about. Taylor’s ripe beauty serves the story well; she manages to appear both world-weary and ravishingly unsullied, her polished cinematic glamor a welcome counterpoint to the repugnant events of the story. Although Williams thought her miscast, Taylor took Catherine Holly and owned the character from her first moment on-screen. Visually, her Catherine’s prepossessing beauty and youth provide a perfect foil for the old-world decay of Violet Venable and her pervy son Sebastian; the horrific conclusion, a blood-soaked metaphor for Sebastian’s male animus run amuck, is intriguingly witnessed by a beautiful young woman, a figure at once distanced from Sebastian’s catastrophic sexual tumult and who also tries and fails to save the doomed Sebastian. Catherine the outsider is labeled insane and a liar, but by the end it’s apparent that she is the most objective observer of this house of horrors and that willingness to tell the truth is what gets her in very deep shit. Not for nothing was this device of a female witness to a sexual horror show used again in Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs (1991) or Martin Weisz’s Rohtenburg (2006), a re-imagining of the gruesome Armin Meiwes “German cannibal” case; in that film the gruesome murder and cannibalism of a gay man was told through the eyes of a young woman not connected to the gay (or cannibal) scene. This displacement of perspective creates for the audience both a symbolic paragon of innocence with whom they can empathize and some degree of narrative distance to digest the lurid goings-on in the narrative.

Witness to a blood-soaked benediction...

Witness to a blood-soaked benediction...

What truly sells this gory fairy tale is Catherine’s account of that hot day in a Spanish town, a tale so outlandish and barbarous in its outcome that in the wrong hands it would become risible. Taylor flies solo for much of this film’s third act, and it’s apparent how underrated she is as an actress. Emotional but never hysterical, Taylor’s slow-burn build to the story’s climax displays enormous control as she unburdens the truth of last summer from her character’s psyche. She makes us feel both the tragedy and catharsis of this moment, as well as finally giving her wretched Aunt Violet a good smackdown with the truth about her tormented dead son. Even before this moment, though, she’s already firmly established herself as “Suddenly, Last Summer”‘s hero; unable to drag her ill-fated cousin out of the darkness, she’s left with the awful truth, and she’s not afraid to tell it.

Catherine Holly, uncut

Catherine Holly, uncut

***** ***** *****

Inspired by a fab-sounding Spanish Meat Pie recipe, our decadent trip to the Spanish coast is slightly modified by a veggie variation as a tribute to the carnivorous goings-on at the Cabeza de Lobo…

1 lb. veggie ground round
1 tablespoon vegetable shortening or olive oil
1 cup chopped onion
1 cup fresh, barely ripe tomato, skinned and chopped
1/2 cup red or green bell pepper, peeled (see note)
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1/4 cup green olives, sliced
1/4 teaspoon red hot sauce
1/4 cup flour
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
6 frozen pie shells, thawed but unbaked or 6 single-crust pie dough rounds
1 egg
2 tablespoons water

Saute veggie ground round with oil until it’s brown and sticks to pan. Add onion, tomato, peppers, olives and garlic. Cook 3 minutes, then add red hot sauce, ground black pepper and flour. Cut out 5-inch round circles from pie crust dough.

Fill center of dough with meat mixture. Fold over and press edges down with fork, brush with beaten egg mixed with water. Bake at 425 degrees for 13 minutes or until brown.

 
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