Archive for October 11, 2012

A Dozen Diabolical Dogs – #3: Mr. Blonde

Michael Madsen as Mister Blonde in "Reservoir Dogs" (1992)

Yep, it’s time for another blurring of the edges. While the eponymous gangsters in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992) are never referred to as such in the film, they have the same pack mentality as their canine cousins. From the opening scenes to its bullet-riddled finale, writer-director Tarantino’s caper gone awry is a study in male bonding and vicious rivalry.

Vying for the position of alpha dog is Vic Vega (Michael Madsen) a.k.a. Mister Blonde. Vic is a career criminal whose loyalty to the Cabot Crime Family goes largely unquestioned. Fresh off a four year prison stretch in which he said not a word about the Cabots, the diamond heist would be Vega’s first “real job” back in the free world. Something must have happened to Vic in prison, however, a psychotic break perhaps, because the moment the heist goes pear-shaped, he begins executing hostages with ruthless efficiency, an act that disturbs his fellow criminals and becomes a point of no return for all.

“It’s amusing… to me… to torture a cop. You can say anything you want, ’cause I’ve heard it all before. All you can do is pray for a quick death… which… you ain’t gonna get.”
— Mr. Blonde

The most infamous Mister Blonde scene is the torture of Marvin Nash (Kirk Baltz), a cop taken hostage to effect Blonde’s escape from the robbery gone wrong. Baltz had a handful of screen credits prior to Dogs and appeared in the Tarantino-written Natural Born Killers in a minor role. He has done some work in DC Comics-related projects, including an appearance in The Flash television series, a recurring role on the original Human Target television series starring Rick Springfield, and the distinction of being the only person to play a live-action version of Batman villain Clayface on the sadly short-lived television series Birds of Prey.

Mr. Brown (Richard Conte) tortures Lt. Diamond (Cornel Wilde) in "The Big Combo" (1955)

Mr. Brown (Richard Conte) tortures Lt. Diamond
(Cornel Wilde) in “The Big Combo” (1955)

An ad-lib by Kirk Baltz during the torture scene reportedly stopped Michael Madsen in his cowboy booted tracks. Filmed only a year or two after the birth of his oldest son, Christian, the sputtering plea “I’ve got a little kid at home,” hit particularly close to home.

But Madsen wasn’t the only person put off by the intensity of the scene. During a screening in Barcelona, fifteen people walked out, including iconic horror director Wes Craven and special effects legend Rick Baker. Baker would later tell Tarantino that the heightened realism of the violence unnerved him and that Quentin should take it as a compliment.

“You ever listen to K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the Seventies? It’s my personal favorite.” — Mr. Blonde

Michael Madsen as Mister Blonde in "Reservoir Dogs" (1992)

Michael Madsen as Mister Blonde in “Reservoir Dogs”

With Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino began his trend of using diegetic (source) music effectively and often ironically. In this specific example, Mister Blonde turns on the radio and tunes in K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the Seventies. As deadpan DJ Steven Wright explains “Joe Egan and Gerry Rafferty were a duo known as Stealers Wheel when they recorded this Dylanesque pop bubblegum favorite from April of 1974 that reached up to number five as K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the Seventies continues.”

Released on their self-titled debut album in 1972, “Stuck in the Middle with You” was initially intended to be a parody of Bob Dylan’s distinctive style. The “clowns to the left” and “jokers to the right” mentioned in the lyrics refer to a meeting Egan and Rafferty had with record company executives and producers at a restaurant in which they were mere bystanders to the negotations. A series of line-up changes, financial woes for their songwriter/producers, and tension between Egan and Rafferty resulted in Stealers Wheel disintegrating before the 1975 release of their third album. At least, by all reports, it didn’t end in a Mexican stand-off.

With this scene, Tarantino changed the way people would perceive the otherwise innocuous song forever. Madsen would return to the Tarantinoverse in Kill Bill (2003-2004) as Budd (Sidewinder), the sole male member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. Only Michael Madsen provided his voice and likeness for the lackluster 2006 video game based on Reservoir Dogs, a dubious distinction.

If you have the stomach, check out the original infamous scene below, and let me know if this little doggie’s bite lives up to his bark. Cheers!

Totally NSFW due to language and unbridled cruelty.

“Was that as good for you as it was for me?” — Mr. Blonde

We may no longer be in the literal “Dog Days of Summer”, but we’re still going to “let the dogs out” two more times as we count down “A Dozen Diabolical Dogs”. I hope you’ll join us.

A Dozen Diabolical Dogs – #4: Dickie

Cinzia Monreale and Dickie from "The Beyond" (1981)

Dickie is a service animal, a guide dog for Emily, the mysterious blind woman who lives in the big old mansion by the crossroads.
Or does she?

There is a house in New Orleans
They call the Seven Gates Hotel
And it’s been the ruin of many a poor soul
And God I know I’m one

Director Lucio Fulci is perhaps best known for Zombi 2, his unofficial sequel to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. The Beyond (1981) superficially appears to be yet another entry into the zombie apocalypse genre, but it is actually much more supernatural and metaphysical than any mere tale of shambling undead. The premise is more akin to something like that same year’s The Evil Dead or the Silent Hill videogames.

Instead of creating his own mythology, however, Fulci draws upon the Lovecraft circle of writers and the infamous Cthulhu Mythos. The literary MacGuffin here is not the oft-abused Necronomicon of Lovecraft, but The Book of Eibon, created by his contemporary pen pal, Clark Ashton Smith. The film’s sepia-toned opening flashback sequence is set in 1927, the heyday of Lovecraftian horror. The Book of Eibon is seen here in the possession of an artist named Schweick (Antoine Saint-John).

“Woe be unto him who opens one of the seven gateways to Hell, because through that gateway, evil will invade the world.” — The Book of Eibon according to Lucio Fulci…

In a scene straight out of Lovecraft’s own short story “The Call of Cthulhu”, Schweick is attacked by a torch-bearing bayou lynch mob who think him a warlock and blame him for their ill fortune. Sadly, it seems more apparent that Schweick is guarding one of the seven doors to Hell and has indeed been to the other side and back. During this period, Emily (Cinzia Monreale, billed as “Sarah Keller”) appears to serve as an apprentice of sorts, still retains her sight, and somehow escapes the wrath of the angry mob, perhaps into The Beyond itself…

The Fabio Frizzi soundtrack helps bridge the gap from past to present and might be a little 1980s synth-heavy and dated, but it has a haunting charm all its own.

Movie poster for the rerelease of Lucio Fulci's "The Beyond" (1981)

Movie poster for the Rolling Thunder rerelease of Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond

In 1981, we are introduced to our protagonist, Liza Merrill (Catriona “Katherine” MacColl). Liza has just inherited the Seven Gates Hotel in “The Big Easy”. The restoration efforts aren’t going well, and the accidents and bodies don’t take long to pile up, especially once “Joe the Plumber” (Tonino Pulci) starts tearing down basement walls in a city notoriously known for being under sea level.

Fulci uses the Symbol of Jupiter as a recurring Elder Sign, having it displayed prominently on the basement walls of the hotel, in the Book of Eibon, and even carved into Schweick’s own flesh. While it may serve as a charm against evil, there are other clues that actions to undermine the guardianship of Schweick and Emily are underway. Liza finds a creepy servant rummaging around her room “looking for keys”. In another bit of obvious symbolism, Liza encounters Emily and her dog Dickie on a bridge, where Emily begins to warn her about the dangers lurking under the hotel.

As the story unfolds, Dr. John McCabe (David Warbeck) begins his own investigations into the deaths and the mystery surrounding the hotel. There are numerous clues that Emily isn’t all that she appears, and things begin spiraling out of control, blurring the boundaries between the lands of the living and the dead.

If the end of this scene is to be believed, the human ear is a soft tortellini stuffed with blood. Tasty.

Totally NSFW due to utterly excessive gore.

Lucio Fulci may have set out to create a metaphysical chiller, but his investors saw the dollar signs attached to the zombie craze and had other plans, forcing him to shoehorn in a zombie apocalypse that doesn’t gel well with the rest of the film. It feels like the bastard offspring of John Carpenter’s The Fog, In the Mouth of Madness, and Prince of Darkness, though it’s obvious both Carpenter and Fulci were influenced by Lovecraft and similar material. The end result feels more like an ode to eye trauma than a deep philosophical discussion of the nature of life and death.

Fulci’s departure from conventional zombie tropes and his desires to pay homage to French surrealist playwright Antonin Armaud have obviously confused many gorehounds, leading to a number of strange theories and misconceptions. I’ve seen a synopsis that refers to Schweick’s attackers throwing lava at him. Where a New Orleans lynch mob would acquire lava is anyone’s guess, but it is clearly quicklime or lye, both readily available to rural working class folk of 1927. The film has plenty of clever touches to draw conclusions from, but I’ve seen some “explanations” that involve creating entire backstories and sets of rules for Schweick, Emily, and the hotel that don’t bear any resemblance to the material actually in the film.

Laura De Marchi should have minded this sign in Lucio Fulci's "The Beyond" (1981)

Laura De Marchi should have minded this sign in
Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond (1981)

There is also an annoying trend of playing apologist for the film’s obvious flaws. While The Beyond contains more than its fair share of creative imagery and does a decent job capturing the mood of doom and dread prevalent in Lovecraft and his peers, Fulci makes a couple of creative choices that don’t really lend themselves to easy explanations.

After a foreshadowing scene in which a doctor doesn’t notice that his brainwave gadget (looks like an oscilloscope) is registering brainwaves on corpses, our protagonist clearly can’t get a grasp on the fact that every time he shoots one of the living dead in the skull, it stops attacking him. He goes through a frustrating routine of headshot-body-body-body-body-headshot without taking any time to aim at the shambling horde. There’s also a glimpse of him trying to reload by dropping a shell down the barrel, but by that point, the stupid train has already left the station.

Attempts by fans to explain this behavior as “nightmarish” and “surreal” are obfuscating the issue. Nightmarish would be guns that don’t work, zombies that aren’t locked into a stumbling shamble, shifting and unreliable perceptions, or living dead that simply don’t die from headshots. Fulci’s surrealist vision isn’t the explanation for a hospital sign that reads “Do Not Entry”. Occam’s razor slices straight to laziness.

“And you will face the sea of darkness and all therein that may be explored.” — The Book of Eibon

Okay, so some real life intrusions and a frustrating WordPress update have resulted in an unplanned one month hiatus. We may no longer be in the literal “Dog Days of Summer”, but we’re still going to “let the dogs out” three more times as we count down “A Dozen Diabolical Dogs”. I hope you’ll join us.