A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness

As I get older I learn to appreciate John Carpenter as the old wizard he is. He works magic, waves his hand and the ordinary becames ineffable, uncanny, there and not there. Vampires would be useless in almost anyone else's hands, but he composes it perfectly. Starman, The Fog and Christine as well as, of course, The Thing grow in my heart everytime I think about them. Over at RogerEbert.com you'll find my essay on The Ward, which I think best illustrates the quandary of analytical cinema going. What do you want from your movies? I want experiences like John Carpenter fashions in The Ward. 

An Actor in Search of a Movie

The slasher film reached both its apex and its nadir in the mid-80s. The good and the bad mingled freely, all you needed were some teens willing to disrobe and a POV cam with a big knife to send them back into the waiting arms of Him-on-high, who'd all the while been judging their escapades. Virgins live so long as they aren't too anxious to get quit of their virtue. To be sure, it was a loosening of the censor's cassocks during the Reagan years that led to the creation of so many of the things. Good or bad hardly mattered. More and more kids were getting cameras and making slasher films on the cheap, the last decade where extra-textual lichen like camp value and/or nostalgia could flourish. Before then Americans could hardly get away with slaughtering denuding coeds, so the slasher as we know it sat in the shadows waiting for mom and dad to leave. How long, you ask? The 70s had its fair share of proto-slashers before Halloween kicked off the wave with lean, grimacing gusto. Charles B. Pierce’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown had a huge masked man with an usual Modus Operandi, Bob Clark’s Black Christmas had the POV cam and Mario Bava’s Twitch of the Death Nerve had an isolated wooded setting, the weird gory murders and a whole yacht-load of red herrings. Bava had already done away with a fleet of conniving models in the beautifully lurid Blood and Black Lace in 1963, the same year Arch Hall Jr., known to fans of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 as the Cabbage-patch Elvis, became the first teen idol to ditch his reputation in a hurry by killing some poor stranded squares in the sickly entertaining The Sadist. In other words our impulse to watch the not-quite-innocent get punished by freaks of morality goes back a long, long way. We may never know who had the idea first, but I'm willing to bet that if pressed you wouldn't have said Andrew L. Stone.

To many Stone is the last man under Andrew Sarris' "Lightly Likable" directors category after Henry Hathaway, Delmer Daves and Mervyn LeRoy. If you've seen a Stone film, likely as not you had no idea you were watching the work of one of the most committed auteurs the American cinema ever produced. He loved making potboilers, his compositions were wide-open-bordering-on-obvious, he relied to a ridiculous amount on voice over, asked his leads to play against type, and he always wrote his own scripts. His wife Virginia edited everything he directed and shared producing duties with him, which may explain why he rarely did grand romance right, preferring instead to drop in on married couples for a few hours. His most famous film is probably Julie starring Doris Day, with the 1960 disaster film The Last Voyage in second, the film that gave Irwin Allen his disaster movie formula on a primary coloured platter. Stone directed an un-credited remake of The Great Escape called The Password Is Courage featuring Dirk Bogarde as a breezily truculent man of action, one of the weirder things ever asked of the actor. Seeing Bogarde smile without something twisted motivating him just seems wrong. Stone worked with Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, Adolphe Menjou, Pola Negri, Joseph Cotten and John Cassavetes and in 1958 he accidentally made the first American slasher film. 

Stone's major problem was that he was between eras. He loved crime melodramas and big machines often clumsily stood in for his character's frazzled moral compass, but he just couldn't bring himself to frame like he was aiming for suspense. Even if he had those ubiquitous voiceover tracks would have killed the suspense anyway but I digress. Andrew Stone was as impervious to change as any of his heroes. He delighted in depicting idyllic American lives almost as much as he loved blowing them up. Find a job, get a good education, settle down, take a wife, have a child, now fight for your life. He got that the country was a disturbing place behind the white picket fence, he merely lacked the faculties to say anything new on the subject. His camera often feels like a drugged spectator unable to do anything but stare at the kidnapping plots and menacing killers he dreamt up. This method works in The Last Voyage as it gazes in awe at the mammoth fires raging below deck. Luxury liner captain George Sanders can do little else but look at them while his mate gives him the rundown on the damage. Stone doesn't commit to the fire as a threat, merely as an object. Similarly he lets Woody Strode run around shirtless trying to put out the fire and his professionalism allows him to blend in with his surroundings. Strode's just a muscular crewman, ego completely vanished, only those moviestar cheekbones betraying him. Stone's awed view of the action works shockingly well, but it can't hold a candle to his 1958 film The Decks Ran Red. Stone's object this time was Broderick Crawford, one of America's most underrated actors. 

The Decks Ran Red really oughtn't to work. To use Stone’s device, the film is a rickety old tub being towed by one dynamic performance. James Mason flees a rocky marriage in California to work on a ship in New Zealand after the corpse of the last captain washes ashore. He struts around the boat setting things right and everything from his weird stab at a regal Southern accent to his gait says "by the book." It also communicates how a man, and an actor, can be hopelessly lost at sea. But Mason was still in the stage of his career where he committed utterly to his surroundings, which means he's on one side of the film's reality, along with Dororthy Dandridge, unfortunately given nothing to do but fall out of her clothes, much to Mason’s chagrin. In another dimension entirely sits Crawford, a greasy Miura bull whose indifference to his appearance extends to his own skin as he appears to be trying to melt out of it. Crawford has to exude a certain dirty indifference to authority to make it clear he's Mason's inverse and biggest threat. But did he have to commit so completely to playing the worst man in the world? He and fellow crew member Stuart Whitman, a lascivious cartoon eel with the face of a young Dick Miller, have hatched a plan to kill everyone on board and sell the ship for scrap rather than earn their wages as seamen. Critic Bosley Crowther lamented that the film was too unbelievable . How anyone could find Crawford incapable of murdering dozens of people for no good reason was simply not paying attention to what was right in front of them. The fact that his scheme sounds like nonsense is what makes it so terrifying. The truly chilling thing is that Crawford and Whitman aren't motivated by much more than greed and stubbornness. It might not work as plot, per se, but it works like gangbusters as cinema, especially when you look at the motivation behind any of the hundreds of mass murders committed in any given year. “Why would anyone want to do a thing like that?” asks Mason. Why indeed?

Crawford was one of a handful of unheralded screen presences who set the table for method acting. He was a rotund, burly man with a million dollar smile who used his weight to his advantage. At his best it wasn’t so much that it didn’t seem like he was trying, it was like a film happened around him. In Andre De Toth’s excellent Last of the Comanches he ties his belt tightly around his gut, hinting at a man who could at any moment let his responsibilities get away from him and do what's easy rather than what's right. It's a wonderful performance that exudes quiet dignity, his stiff upper lip just concealing his insecurity. In Federico Fellini's Il Bidone his weight gives him a tragic edge that Anthony Quinn and Marcello Mastroiani never quite achieved, despite giving flashier performances for the ringmaster. In The Decks Ran Red he went out of his way to look like a pile of oily rags come to life. If in 2008 Alfredo Castro and Steven Seagal had switched bodies before the filming of Tony Manero, the effect would be close to the level of repulsion that seeps out of Crawford's face every moment he’s in front of us. Lee Marvin took a lot from Crawford over the years, his  performances here and The Fastest Gun Alive contain the DNA for most of Marvin's best-known performances. Coleman Francis, another MST3K favourite and the writer, director and star of the Bay of Pigs invasion thriller Night Train to Mundo Fine (or Red Zone Cuba), seems to have modeled his performance in that little nightmare on Crawford here. A cantankerous murderer in a sweat-stained jumpsuit trying to make a buck. Francis goes out his way to illustrate that he’s capable of any crime in the name of staying free. He strains for danger while Crawford just stands there talking a little too much. He doesn’t try to seem unhinged. The script has him kill a dozen people, so why stress the point?

We meet Crawford in the bowels of the ship recruiting a third member of his mutiny. When the young man expresses incredulity at Crawford and Whitman's plan to get him rich in a hurry, the big man responds with the ease of a man ordering coffee: "well, like killin' the whole crew." There's only the faintest hint that he knows what he's saying is absolutely insane. He's trying to make it sound nonchalant to impress upon his charge that the scheme is as safe as houses. Just one of a million ideas he's got. His eagerness to speak just makes him all the more frightening. He talks too much and too fast, justifying everything to himself as he goes. It’s like he’s improvising a mile a minute to keep his mind occupied so he never thinks about himself too seriously. His nicotine-yellow extemporizing has the confidence of Robert Preston in The Music Man and the robust rhythm of Fela Kuti’s tenor saxophone, his lips rippling like pond water disturbed by a skipping stone, his cheeks moist sheets flapping in the wind. His expressions are ripped up by tics and his face darts back and forth like a dog following a tennis ball. His best trick is that little smile he gets whenever someone asks him the right question. He’s got the lies ready and he’s been saving up a little charisma to sell them. “Look, maybe we got no romance in our souls,” he says unnecessarily before he and Whitman commence their massacre, looking almost embarrassed to have to give any shred of a rationale for his behavior. It’s the world that’s at fault for being so slow and upright and not giving him what he deserves. 

Stone’s movies are largely by-the-numbers; the heroes win and the villains go to jail. We in the audience keep expecting Mason to figure out what Crawford’s up to and stop him. And then a mutiny fails, Crawford loses patience and goes for his rifle. “From here on in we got nothin’ to lose” he says to Whitman, and the film follows suit. They smash the radio, head below deck and Crawford starts picking people off. Stone could never have made a horror film on purpose. He directed like a boyscout, afraid of Dutch tilts, fast edits or subjective camera. Ever the watchdog, he can do little else but gawk as Crawford wriggles through the ship like a tapeworm and starts killing people in cold blood. Any other director would have punctuated the shooting with music, spaced them out over a few scenes, given the victims a little dignity, a close-up and some meaningful last words to shepherd the movie back to safety. Like Strode in The Last Voyage, these are just men, and Crawford and Whitman just kill them with only the faintest signs of knowing how monstrous they are. This could be because Stone had absolutely no idea how completely unnerving it was to just watch murder instead of stylizing it. There are no shadows, no cuts for emphasis, no underscore, no sense of who was killed, just the dull roar of machinery and the sound of gunfire followed by the percussive thud of bodies falling against the hard metal floor. Stone may as well have been making a documentary; Man Bites Dog with no sense of guile and none of the comforts of irony. 

The only time I’ve ever seen a performance that so transcends not just the film that houses it, but cinematic reality entirely was when someone finally built a film around Melanie Lynskey. In Hello I Must Be Going, she’s 3D Imax Technicolor in an academy ratio black-and-white world. Every second she’s on screen it’s like you’ve turned your head from the film to the woman who’s suddenly appeared next to you. She’s an effervescent, quavering mass of conflicted humanity begging you to take her seriously before she collapses. The film hasn’t been made that can handle a starring performance from Melanie Lynskey going full on. We’d implode from having given her all of our sympathy and having none left for our friends and family. Directors patently don’t know what to do with someone whose resplendent earnestness can cause heart palpitations. Just as no one after Andrew L. Stone made the mistake of turning a camera on Broderick Crawford and assuring him he didn’t need to earn audience sympathy. He’s as unlovable as Lynskey is lovable, and if he never got entire films devoted to him playing the most frightening men alive, it was because there was no such thing as a Slasher movie at the time (if he’d gone back to Europe, he could have teamed up with Robert Siodmak, who’d just completed Nachts, Wenn Der Teufel Kam, the great early serial killer movie). Crawford overflows with Freddy Kruger’s callousness in The Decks Ran Red, not to mention the skulking menace and imposing frame of Jason Voorhees, the thoughtlessness, size and relentlessness of the phantom killers in The Town That Dreaded Sundown, Humongous and Just Before Dawn. Perhaps more to the point, he has the sting of the real about him. Jeremy Renner’s Jeffrey Dahmer, James Wood’s Greg Powell and Michael Rooker’s Henry Lee Lucas, not to mention the unseen Zodiac killer from David Fincher’s telling, all seem to have sprouted from the seeds of evil Crawford planted here. All because Stone had no idea what to do with his actor or the towering performance he gave. His character wasn’t playing by the rules, so Crawford went ahead and did the same. There may never be anything like it again, for which the part of our brains that generate nightmares weeps.