‘Imitation of Life’ (1934/1959)

Imitation (2)Imitation of Life
Written by William Hurlbut

Directed by John M. Stahl
USA, 1934

Written by Eleanore Griffin and Allan Scott
Directed by Douglas Sirk
USA, 1959

The debate about the necessity and worth of continual remakes rages on every year. Will the new version be as good as the original? Or even better? Should it have even been made to begin with? While we do seem to hear more about this recently, the concept of a remark is, of course, nothing new. Examples go back to the very dawn of cinema. What makes a remake particularly worthwhile, however, is when the films involved are dissimilar in certain aspects yet notably congruent in other areas: just enough to keep the basic premise or theme consistent, but varied enough to keep it up to date and original in one way or another. If both versions have their merits, a considerate comparison and contrast can be a fascinating critical opportunity and enjoyable entertainment.

This is where the newly released Imitation of Life (1934/1959) two-disc set from Universal Studios comes in. The two versions of this film (both based on the 1933 novel by Fannie Hurst) have their own respective strengths and weaknesses, with each encapsulating perfectly their years of production and each showcasing the talents of those involved with their creation. Both films are presented in gorgeously remastered form, with each film containing a commentary track by a noted scholar. There is also Lasting Legacy—An Imitation of Life, a documentary exploring the shared history of the two movies and the insightful social statements they each made.

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The 1934 version, though credited to writer William Hurlbut, had eight others contributing uncredited to its screenplay, including the great Preston Sturges. It stars Claudette Colbert holding court as Beatrice Pullman, a recently widowed mother of one who is desperately trying to take care of her precocious young daughter, Jessie, and her late husband’s maple syrup business. When Delilah Johnson (Louise Beavers) mistakenly shows up at Beatrice’s door in search of a housekeeping job, she sees that though Beatrice didn’t ask for help, she clearly needs it. Delilah offers to work for no more than room and board for herself and her own young daughter, Peola. This begins a strong and lasting relationship between the white businesswoman and the African-American maid.

It turns out Delilah make great pancakes, and since Beatrice has the syrup, the two go into business together. Beatrice enlists Delilah to not only be her partner, but to literally be the face of the business, with her dotty smile adorning the image of their new pancake enterprise, which is spurred on by customer Elmer Smith (the perpetually cranky Ned Sparks, a stalwart 1930s actor), who offers up two simple words of advice: “box it.” That they do and success follows.

While the film to this point seems to be primarily concerned with the financial gain of these unlikely associates, quite sharply at about the 30-minute mark, the picture’s social consciousness kicks in. When Jessie innocently calls the lighter skinned Peola “black,” the latter girl begins to cry and emotionally express her desire not to be identified with the race. In a further scene that is repeated in the later version of Imitation of Life, Peola is embarrassed when her mother visits her class to drop off some wet weather clothing. As Peola has been passing herself off as white, the teacher argues that she doesn’t have a “colored” child in her class. In many ways, this is the final straw for Peola, and it initiates a more determined quest to distance herself from her race and her mother.

Ten years down the road, Beatrice and Delilah have made a tidy sum and the girls are grown. Yet with enough money to presumably go her own way, Delilah remains naively loyal to Beatrice, even as they cruise along so-called easy street. In the meantime, two distinct narratives develop, one concerning Beatrice and her business and romantic interests and one concerning Peola and her continued racial anxiety.

Beatrice is the epitome of a 1930’s strong, independent woman. She is motivated and ambitious, perky and competent. She confidently drives a hard bargain when first renting the shop room and she makes no excuse for her enterprising ways, even if they conflict with her potential love life. “I’m a working woman,” she states one evening, refusing to stay up any later for a suitor. “There’s tomorrow morning, you know.” That suitor is Stephen Archer (Warren William), an ichthyologist (!)—a scientist devoted to the study of fish. As the relationship between Beatrice and Stephen develops, his reticence toward his new girlfriend has a good deal to do with the fear of just such a capable businesswoman and her own individuality.

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While undoubtedly dated, with black stereotypes that sit uncomfortably today, that this film would even attempt to confront the racial issues that it does should be admired. And that it explicitly calls attention to the unfair treatment of African-Americans in a variety of venues—and proceeds to condemn such prejudice—makes the film truly special. This was, after all, 15 years before Elia Kazan’s daring Pinky, which took on similar issues. It is surprisingly brash for its time, so much so that apparently the censorship office didn’t give their official approval until shooting was well underway.

Even with its commendable intentions though, it’s difficult to watch the demeaning submissive nature of the Beatrice/Delilah relationship. Scenes such as when Delilah rubs Beatrice’s feet (which she does not once but twice through the course of the film), and the stereotypical dialogue and dialect (“Does we get to stay?”) are appalling even if historically accurate. Many times, Delilah is also insultingly dim-witted, though she does get a few amusing lines of dialogue, as when the 240-pound maid quips, “I don’t eat like I look,” and when she acknowledges the quality of music being played by some jazz musicians, noting that they, “play good for white boys.”

The more profound racial dilemma is that of Peola (played at age 19 by the groundbreaking Fredi Washington), as she struggles to accept her identity well into adulthood. She and her mother speak of race along the lines of blame or fault, a tragic way to somehow reconcile their unjust treatment because of their natural skin color. Perhaps more than when she denies her race, Peola’s most heartbreaking renunciation is when she refuses to acknowledge her own mother, to her face.

An additional drama that plays a part in later sequences involves a love triangle between mother and daughter and Stephen. This subplot is rather shocking in itself, especially in its subtle reveal, but it is casually—and surprisingly—brushed aside.


Directing Imitation of Life was John Stahl, whose largely unassuming style here is crisp and clear and is essentially at the service of trying to contain Claudette Colbert, who is extraordinary. For her part, Colbert was having a banner year, with this film, Cleopatra, Four Frightened People, and It Happened One Night, for which she won an Academy Award.

This version of Imitation of Life successfully balances the role of a woman in an increasingly modern society with the conflicts concerning racial disharmony; its racial element is as socially profound as its sharp analysis of the struggles of a mother, lover, and professional.

Screenwriters Eleanore Griffin and Allan Scott were behind bringing Imitation of Life back to the big screen in the late 1950s, but it’s director Douglas Sirk who is responsible for bringing the story to life. This version of the story starts in 1947 Coney Island. This time, Lana Turner is Lora Meredith, the white female lead. She is again a distraught mother, having lost track of her daughter, Susie. When she finds her, the girl has already met and befriended Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore, in an Oscar-nominated performance) and her daughter, Sarah Jane. The issue of Sarah Jane’s lighter skin is immediately broached when Lora asks Annie how long she has taken care of the girl, assuming the black woman is the white-looking girl’s caretaker. “All my life,” she responds, before explaining the paternal influence on the girl’s color. After exchanging some pleasantries, Annie offers to help around Lora’s house. Apparently homeless, she is, in fact, desperate to do so. This begins a bond between the two women that is essentially the same as the 1934 film.

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One key difference between the two movies is that now Lora is an aspiring actress, rather than a business woman, and she is confronted by multiple men of unreliable repute. Her initial love interest is with Steve Archer (John Gavin), a budding photographer. He, too, is an idealistic dreamer: “Don’t you believe in chasing rainbows?” he asks Lora. But there is also Allen Loomis (Robert Alda), a sleazy theatrical agent, equally ambitious and with his own shady motivations. His sordid suggestions question Lora’s moral character, but she remains steadfast and stands up for herself despite his offerings of career advancement; again, as in the earlier version of the film, her independence and strong will is a key character emphasis. The third relationship is between Lora and renowned writer David Edwards (Dan O’Herlihy), who becomes integral to Lora’s path to stardom, which, also like in the 1934 film, takes about 10 years to reach its peak. Through it all, Steve is the comparably more decent companion, but even he is domineering, something that comes up against the career-minded Lora.

As far as the racial themes in this version, the daughter (Susan Kohner—not a black actress—as the grown-up Sarah Jane) again has corresponding issues with her identity, and there is again the uncomfortable depiction of Annie’s servitude (more feet rubbing). But there is, in general, a less demeaning presentation of Annie, though there is still no denying the troublesome notion of such blind obedience.

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Kohner, who also received an Academy Award nomination, is by far the acting highlight here. Hers is the most complex, interesting, and attractive character. She also carries the more engaging storyline, the full extent of its combustible nature seen in an explosive confrontation with her boyfriend, which results in outrageous verbal and physical abuse. In the greatest contrast to Kohner is Sandra Dee as the 16-year-old Susie, a simple minded, boy-crazy ditz. The degree of separation in terms of maturity is extreme, for while Dee never seems to really age (at least not mentally), Kohner conveys a range of emotional reactions, especially in her distain toward her mother, as well as an unexpected sexuality, as when Annie discovers her daughter seductively dancing in a nightclub.

Though certainly present in the sequences that focus on Sarah Jane, the social commentary here is rather less pronounced, for two possible reasons. First, the melodrama—either in the narrative of Lora and her troubles or Susie and her silly concerns—borders on sheer frivolity, yet it seems to be a primary focal point. Then there is the context of the year the film was made, when the racial issues, though still an obvious problem, were not so rare on screen. As important as the subjects of racism and racial identity were and still are, by 1959, prior films had at least attempted to tackle the topic.


It’s only briefly suggested, but new to this version is a neglectful mother dynamic that arises toward the end, when it’s made clear just how little Lora has been there for Susie. Though Sirk’s take on the tale runs a little long and could have easily been trimmed down to the 111-minute length of the original version, this subplot could have been interestingly developed.

Stylistically, while Sirk keeps the Eastmancolor palette relatively restrained for the early portions of the film, with the more fashionable surroundings and clothing that result from Lora’s success comes the director’s trademark hyper stylization, which looks frequently, and not surprisingly, fantastic. Sirk does what he does best in the more decorative post-1958 sequences. In the end, this version of Imitation of Life is far more romantic than the earlier one, but not nearly as funny. And in classically Sirk fashion (this was his final film in Hollywood), emotions run high and run often.

Taken together, the two versions of Imitation of Life are equally worthwhile for their historical significance, their aesthetic divergences, and their narrative variations. It’s a great cinematic case study in adaptation and modernization. What might be most striking, though, is to look at these films in 2015 and scrutinize their presentation of racial unrest. Having both been made so long ago, it would be nice to see the issues related to prejudice and say, “Well, how awful. Can you imagine a time where people were so racist?” It seems so obvious that the racism in these two films is tremendously unjust, and it was obvious to audiences at the time. Yet here we are, decades later, and has so much changed? Or has the progress just been an imitation?


Media Matters: David Cronenberg’s ‘Videodrome’

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It’s not uncommon for a science fiction film to prophesy the future, in terms of technology, the social state of humanity, or even certain global scenarios. It is, however, relatively rare for a film to have as its basic premise particular subject matter that, while relevant in its year of production, grows increasingly pertinent and frighteningly accurate as years go on. This is the case with Videodrome, David Cronenberg’s extraordinary 1983 film starring James Woods as Max Renn, a sleazy television programmer who has grown sensorially flaccid by the stale material he peddles on air.

The shows that run on his Civic TV Channel 83 just aren’t cutting it. Max is not content with straight porn, not even niche markets that cater to particular fetishes. Samurai Dreams, which we see a few seconds of, is just too soft. Yes, as Max puts it, “Oriental sex is a natural,” but is it tacky enough? After all, “Too much class is bad for sex.” Viewing these films with his associates, all of them paralyzed in their detached bottom line stress on commodity, Max seeks out something new, something different, something that will “break through” … “something tough.”

Meanwhile, Harlan (Peter Dvorsky), a partner of Max’s, trolls the high seas of pirate satellite transmissions. He happily shows Max a program he recently stumbled upon: “Videodrome.” Initially thought to be from somewhere exotic (like Malaysia), “Videodrome” turns out to be more regionally based (Pittsburgh). Max is transfixed and enlists a producer friend, Masha (Lynne Gorman), to track down the makers of the show. When she returns, she quickly and vehemently warns Max to stay away from the series, as well as those behind it.

Of course, he doesn’t, and the duration of Videodrome follows his pursuit and his ultimate destruction, all at the hands of this twisted, dangerous, and mind-altering program. This being a David Cronenberg film, there is much going on throughout the picture, at various narrative and stylistic levels, with his trademark incorporation of pitch black humor, a sense of paranoia, and absolutely stunning special effects. But what is perhaps most interesting, and what gives Videodrome its keen futuristic forecast, derives from its themes of media manipulation, saturation, and dependency.

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What constitutes “Videodrome” is nothing more than nudity, torture, and murder: no plot, no characters. It is, according to Max, in his best promotional salesman’s pitch, what’s next. It’s something viewers can’t get anywhere else, though Masha cautions him that it may very well not be for public consumption at all.

Seeing Videodrome today, in particular those figures who in the show within the movie perform the torture and murder, one can’t help but think of the hooded figures of ISIS, and their own shockingly graphic videos of beheadings, burnings, and mass executions. Similarly, twenty-four hour news cycles keep viewers abreast of the situation—always “breaking news”—with round-the-clock footage of riots, protests, and standoffs. Like with Max and the others who have poured over the “Videodrome” content, part of the draw is the safety and the perverse thrill, or at least acceptance, of a voyeuristic violence: it’s OK to watch as long as we’re only just watching.

As rare and bizarre and “Videodrome” is in fictional 1983, today, in the real 2015, when even the underground has gone viral, the Internet has made it possible for anyone to see almost anything, and accessible quality technology has made it possible for anyone to make almost anything. If the era of the film was an over stimulated time, as radio show host Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry) contends, where are we now? Max’s blind passion toward the potential of something he has never seen, something that affects the viewer on a profound level, mirrors today’s more implicit insatiable quest for provocative content: more and more and more, more extreme, more violence, more sex—more.

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Early on in the film, Max is a guest on the Rena King show, along with Nicki and the mysterious Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley), who is joining the panel by a presumed satellite transmission. Rena (Lally Cadeau) poses questions concerning “television and social responsibility.” She asks Max if the shows he puts on the air “contribute to a social climate of violence and sexual malaise.” Max argues that it’s a harmless outlet, but when Professor O’Blivion is asked about erotic and violent TV shows leading to desensitization, his response is to make the parallel between real life and the media, and where the overlaps falls. O’Blivion stresses the importance and potency of media (in this case television) and its impact on the general populace. “The battle for the mind of North America will be fought in the video arena: the ‘Videodrome,'” he states. “The television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye. Therefore, the television screen is part of the physical structure of the brain. Therefore, whatever appears on the television screen emerges as raw experience for those who watch it. Therefore, television is reality, and reality is less than television.” Part of Max’s skepticism when he first sees “Videodrome” comes from this validity, whether the show is real or fake. But if the effect is the same, does it matter?

As a relationship develops between Max and Nicki, he discovers complicity on her part far beyond his profit-driven interests. Not knowing if “Videodrome” is genuine or not (and not really caring), Nicki wants to audition and be a “contestant.” Her words suggesting that the program is in some way a game or mere entertainment goes a long way to stress her unorthodox drives that in some ways seem to alarm even Max. It’s also a curious foreshadowing of today’s reality TV, where interested parties go through the rigors of the varying trial processes all in order to land a coveted spot on a show where they will then be subjected to humiliation, disgusting challenges, physical agony, and maybe even a Kardashian.

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To draw a further contemporary parallel, like today’s TV talking heads, O’Blivion seems to exist only in his given media, as a (pre)recorded personality. He sits behind his remote, televised pulpit and espouses his proclamations and condemnations. He has his legion of followers and a legacy maintained by disconnected reproductions, catchphrases and recurring points of easily profitable concern, and his own sense of self-propagation. Rush, Bill, I’m looking at you.

Another connection between Videodrome and our modern world comes with the reveal that Spectacular Optical is not only the manufacturer of “Videodrome,” but is also behind “inexpensive glasses for the Third World and missile guidance systems for NATO.” That a company could clandestinely produce the good and the bad, the helpful and the deadly, the personal and the governmental, is an astute commentary on the blurred lines between wartime politics and capitalistic, corporate production. Without getting too politically contentious here, think of Halliburton and its alleged and actual role in the Middle East and the various conflicts that were born from the region. In the end, it’s all about following the profit and playing into—while also manipulating or ignoring—the “optics” of the arrangement.

In the Sci-Fi realm of Videodrome, and within the design of Cronenberg’s fertile imagination, the technologies at the heart of the film are so much more than mere devices. Tapes and television sets become breathing beings, creatures with a life of their own: their own will, their own desires. There are moments when the physical presence of the formats mesh with those of the consumer, in a way that—and this may be a stretch—isn’t far off from our own body/world boundary breakdown with Google Glasses, Apple Watches, Bluetooth accessibility, and even the assorted digital devices that oftentimes appear to be obsessively melded with one’s palm. In Videodrome, these absorptive mediums are literally so, and what they convey produces subliminal and occasionally downright terrifying psychological/physiological outcomes.

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But ultimately, the film’s narrative emphasis, if not its thematic one, is primarily on the effects of said imagery. It’s not necessarily its format or technology (those could be easily adaptable and updated), but its social construction and impact. Max’s steady exposure to “Videodrome” leads to a complete mental and physical transformation. The debate about violence in the media and the subsequent effect on the viewer is manifest to the extreme here. At various points, Max has videotapes forcefully trust into his body, but later, he reaches into his stomach and when he pulls his hand out he is holding a gun: in goes the media, out comes the weapon. And with that, he embodies a curious cyclical example of media informing behavior, which in turn counters the media itself. With his revolutionary pronouncement, “Death to ‘Videodrome!’ Long live the new flesh!'” he seeks to abolish the very form that gave birth to his newfound capabilities. It’s a final statement that, again, mirrors a similar contradictory relationship today. Certain forms of media may manipulate us, harm us, and even distort our conception of the world and our selves, but their significance and, at this point, their almost necessity, is profound.


‘Odd Man Out’


Directed by Carol Reed and presented by the legendary J. Arthur Rank, both of whom were at the height of their careers with still more great films to come, Odd Man Out is one of the pinnacle achievements in post-war British cinema. And with James Mason in the lead, a major British star at the time, the film had everything going for it: superb direction, a solid screenplay, terrific performances, and stunning cinematography by Robert Krasker. The final result was named best film of the year by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts and was chosen as one of the ten best films of 1947 by the National Board of Review. Certainly, Odd Man Out was widely seen and well regarded in its time. But now, with a newly released Criterion Blu-ray of the picture, it’s hard to think of a more glorious presentation.

Reed opens Odd Man Out with an overhead helicopter shot traveling atop the Belfast cityscape, slowing cutting downward to the streets and buildings below. This choice of an introductory vantage point is significant, for as a film, Odd Man Out is most fascinating as it hones in on individual dramas—one in particular but many on the periphery—in a time and place of wider turmoil and strife. While there are undeniably the sociopolitical motivations behind the film and its storyline, for the most part, particularly as the picture progresses, the driving ideology goes out the window. Far more than the politics that serve as the instigation for Mason’s Johnny McQueen character and his cohorts, the film is primarily concerned with average folks in extraordinary, uneasy circumstances.

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At the start, Johnny, a recently escaped convict, is smooth, soft-spoken, and confident. He is the leader of an ambiguous and ambitious Irish “organization” in need of funding. It is decided that said funds are to come from a mill, which Johnny and his crew plan to rob. While Johnny seems cool and collected, if not wholly enthused, others have their doubts about his competency (perhaps he should sit this one out, they propose, having just fled from prison after all), but they are nevertheless assured. In these opening sequences, where the men lay out their strategy for the heist, what stands out in a strange and prominent way is that though they are planning an obviously criminal act, these men aren’t like criminals. All of the performers—Robert Newton, with Mason, the most famous among them—are so comfortable and relatable that their down-to-earth personalities never once seem malicious. A lot of this also has to do with Reed’s direction, which, especially in these early scenes, captures the workaday environment of this Irish town, and how this desperate action seems to be born from blue-collar necessity.

With the other women who move about the circle of accomplices, Kathleen Sullivan (Kathleen Ryan), Johnny’s love interest, never really questions the actions of the men. By nearly all accounts, what they plan to do has to be done. But she does cast doubt on the ultimate aim of the their mission. “Will you ever be free?” she asks Johnny. Not just from prison, her question suggests, but from the dogma that drives his actions. Indeed, even if and when he and the others rob the mill and attain the money, what then? Where do they go from there? Toward what will those funds go? And how far will it take them?

Giving credence to the other men and their doubts, and concurrently setting up the suspense of the theft, Reed conveys Johnny’s mental unease and physical distress via a brief sequence on the way to the mill. Through quick cutting, erratic camera movement, oblique angles, and a simulation of his blurred vision, Johnny’s anxiety is visually apparent. It’s an effective way of punctuating the narrative with expressive imagery, and later, Reed and Krasker will similarly utilize sharp contrasts of black and white with deep focus photography to do the same. In general, Reed does for this Irish town what he and Krasker would do for the streets of Vienna in The Third Man two years later. Their representation of the city places equal focus on the weather-beaten setting as well as the faces that populate it.

Sure enough, the concerns of the other men and Johnny’s own evident reticence prove fatally prophetic. Johnny is shot during the escape and subsequently shoots and kills a cashier. Though Johnny is rescued as they speed away, he slips (or is let go, depending on who recalls the story; those who escape safely are quick to pass the blame). He falls from the car and is left behind. He manages to run off, but is now left wounded, alone, hunted, and hallucinating.

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Once the drama of the heist itself becomes secondary, the film becomes an almost allegorical character study of the citizenry, with attention shifting to the diverse lives of those in the town. Throughout the film, Reed and writers F.L. Green and R.C. Sherriff highlight the alliance between like-minded individuals, with many encountered by Johnny in particular having a bond united by similar views on their shared social condition. Others, however, and there are just as many who sympathize with Johnny as those who don’t, have their own selfish motivations. Some are quick to care for the injured convict, no matter what he did, but some are equally quick to sell him out for their own personal gains. Some are caring, some are conniving, some are ambivalent to the whole ordeal and are content to just live and let live. But in all cases, the point is that people will do what they do, and despite initial appearances and actions, one shouldn’t judge too harshly. There is often more to these people than we first see. Just as in the opening we are surprised to hear these decent men talk of robbery as they pack their guns, through other portions of the film, we are similarly surprised to see the goodness that arises from apparent scoundrels and the cruelty from those who appear to be upright. Though a minor character, Grannie (Kitty Kirwan) identifies this dichotomy and stresses a need for objectivity and an avoidance of blanket judgment, thus verbalizing a key theme of the film. When she comments on the decency of even one of the questioning policemen, she gives those around her, as well as the audience, something to consider. A different inspector later hammers the point home in his own way: “In my profession, there is neither good nor bad. There is innocence and guilt. That’s all.”

See, for example, Lukey’s (Newton) apparently crass obsession with painting Johnny as he nears death. It’s not so much that he is an unfeeling bastard (though it is some of that), but it’s that he is after something profound, something that applies to everyone, another example of how Reed and company present with subtle accuracy the ties that bind all in this community, and beyond. In painting Johnny in this condition, Lukey is seeking to capture the “truth about us all…he’s doomed.” By this point, Johnny has come to be more than a single man; his plight and current state represent that which faces so many others: entrapment, helplessness, sorrow, confusion, angst.

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The famous images of Johnny staring down into the bubbles of his spilled drink make for an evocative sequence. In a desperate state, he sees and hears many of those whom he has encountered in the course of the evening, and he and we become aware of just how interconnected they all are. Each of these individuals, in one way or another, played a part in sealing his fate, and in doing so, their own characters were markedly transformed.
Odd Man Out is broken into three distinct visual segments, each signaled by a change in the weather. The earlier portions of the film—overcast and still—are only minimally decorative, shot in bland grays that scale back to give room for the narrative. But when night falls and rain pours, the city comes alive with atmospheric glistening streets and deep shadows, lending the film a touch of the noirish thriller. As the night goes on and temperatures drop, the rain is replaced by snowfall, and for a time, the film itself slows down for several sequences of somber reflection, as characters are given a chance to question their own values and their own morality. Most intensely moving is the steadfastly loyal Kathleen. Her love toward Johnny is clear from the beginning, but it’s only at the film’s tragic conclusion that we see the full extent of her devotion. Against the bars of a fence as the police close in, Johnny is finally trapped, imprisoned after all. But what happens next proves to be the most surprising and heartbreaking scene of the entire film.

With a motley crew of rag-tag Irish rebels and delinquents, alongside some purely innocent and honest folk, Odd Man Out is an emotional film illustrated by Carol Reed’s first-rate direction. Without ever making a case for its inherent politics, the film presents people, just plain people, caught up in one exceptional night that may or may not have any lasting consequences, but will, in any case, be one remembered by those who played a part in it. In a way, this is true of the film itself. Though still lauded by many, it isn’t typically among those hallmarks of world cinema now held up with the utmost esteem in the pantheon of film history. But for those who have seen it, it’s not easily forgotten.

It’s my body and I’ll ‘Fly’ if I want to: Cronenberg’s scientific cautionary tale

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As diverse as his career has been, there is arguably one key feature that best defines a David Cronenberg film. There are, of course, exceptions (in some cases, great exceptions: A History of Violence [2005]), but from Rabid (1977) to A Dangerous Method (2011), the relationship between science and the human body and mind has been a prevalent and powerfully expressive theme in much of the great Canadian filmmaker’s work. Of his films that deal with the repercussions of this relationship, and their unique, often disturbing manifestations, The Fly (1986) may be his finest achievement.

In this horror/sci-fi classic, Jeff Goldblum plays Seth Brundle, a brilliant if socially awkward and rather eccentric scientific mind. His newest invention, a teleportation device that can move inanimate objects from one pod to another, seems innocuous enough, in theory anyway. And at least as he tells it, he seems to have genuinely developed the machine with the best of intentions, touting the mobility benefits of the world-changing technology. Somewhat intoxicated, and more than a little smitten, he is eager to show off his creation to journalist Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis). Brundle lets his guard down and divulges more than he wishes he had about the contraption. Though he is initially angered by the compromising situation, he and Veronica reach a stalemate and, more than that, begin a romantic relationship. With all going well on that front, Brundle is further enthused when he discovers how to transport a living being—in this case, a chimp who unfortunately had his brother become the initial, and eventually mangled, guinea pig.

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When Veronica suddenly leaves one evening (in reality to stop her editor and former lover from running a story about Brundle’s work), Brundle assumes she is still involved with the sleazy ex. In a drunken stupor, he transports himself from pod to pod, and though that in itself is successful, a fly inadvertently landed inside the starting container and subsequently has its genetic makeup merged with Brundle’s, the result being a single being the scientist later dryly dubs “Brundlefly.” Through the duration of the film, Brundle’s body and, to varying degrees, his mental state, begin to go through progressively more disturbing and destructive alterations.

As he begins to lose his humanity and identity, so too does his external being start to increasingly dissipate. While Brundle’s personality is undeniably altered, becoming hostile and aggressive though never without fully escaping a sense of his true self, it’s his physical transformation that is most prominent and most drastically disastrous. At first, the manipulations prove to be favorable, with increased strength and stamina, but the ostensible positives are short lived and he is soon falling apart—literally so, as chunks of his flesh, fingernails, and teeth detach from his body with darkly comic ease and regularity. As his body begins to deteriorate and evolve, with each new passing ability comes a horrific abandonment of his human form, often shown in graphic detail by Cronenberg via some truly extraordinary make-up and special effects. The pain of these changes, and the extent to which each passing phase takes him further and further from being human, is agonizing to behold.

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One could read easily into The Fly a cautionary tale about taking science too far. Certainly, it paints a vivid picture of what can happen when science is used to alter mankind in unnatural ways. But that Brundle’s modification happens in this film is, in the grand scheme of things, largely incidental. His physical transformation is accidental, and that such a thing could have happened was never part of the plan. If anything, the warning comes as Brundle begins to take for granted the physical perks that are initially produced by the genetic merging. He enjoys the newfound sexual vigor and his superhuman strength, and he playfully revels in the fly-related abilities—crawling on walls and hanging from ceilings—but with each new and exciting endowment comes those unavoidable, though perfectly natural (for a fly) shortcomings: bodily contortions, gruesome digestion, and structural disfigurement. The good and the bad balance out for a time, but eventually, the corruptive and fatal metamorphosis begins to outweigh any superficial benefits.


In depicting the changes that sweep over Brundle, Cronenberg ventures into his trademark body horror, with an oftentimes gruesomely detailed and prolonged depiction of the corporeal alterations. Undeniably apropos given this film’s emphasis on the transformation of one being into another, it similarly returns to a bodily emphasis that the director has explored in a number of venues. Brundle voices the vivid power and potential of flesh and blood— in terms of cinematic presentation and natural function—as he chides Veronica for not wanting to “dive into the plasma pool.” Seeing what is obviously happening to Brundle, she refuses to likewise teleport, which he takes as a personal affront and cowardice. “You’re afraid to be destroyed and recreated, aren’t you?” he angrily asks her. “I’ll bet you think that you woke me up about the flesh, don’t you? But you only know society’s straight line about the flesh. You can’t penetrate beyond society’s sick, gray, fear of the flesh.” More than just the ramblings of a madman, these comments get to the heart of The Fly’s own repulsive imagery. To see this film with an audience, one truly gets a sense of how collectively repulsive Brundle’s transformation is. As body parts mutate and orifices open to oozy fluids, it is indeed a ghastly sight. But it’s not only because how extraordinary the transformation is (from man into fly), and in that sense how out of the realm of reality it is, but it’s also how relatable the disfigurement actually is. We may not be able to wrap our heads around the reality of turning into an insect, but we can definitely emphasize with teeth falling out, fingernails falling off, and pores of puss bursting on our faces.

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This is why David Cronenberg’s particular brand of body horror works so well, and it’s also a primary reason why The Fly is so memorable. Through a brilliance of creative conception and technical execution, the effects created and rendered on screen are utterly disgusting, yet are also wholly believable. What is more, if standing back and seen from the vantage point of “it’s only a movie,” one also marvels at the design and construction. Cronenberg’s body horror, and The Fly may indeed be the best case in point, rides a fine line between aesthetic admiration and psychological and physiological identification. We may never see a Brundlefly, but thanks to David Cronenberg, we can easily appreciate what it takes to make one—both in the fictional story of The Fly and in the film’s actual production.


‘The Beyond’


While he may not have the name recognition of George Romero or Wes Craven, Lucio Fulci has had a singular impact on the horror genre. And though his work doesn’t lend itself to the sort of pop culture familiarity that unites these and other more mainstream horror directors, what he did best within the genre, he did as well as any other filmmaker. His was a down and dirty horror: grisly, textured, elaborate, graphic. And arguably his finest achievement, certainly one that perfectly showcases his style and skill, is The Beyond (1981), out now on an extensive 3-disc collectors edition Blu-ray.

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The Beyond begins in 1927 Louisiana, where the basic premise of portentous evil lurking near seven doors to hell is established. Upon one of those gateways sits an old gothic hotel, which in the present day, Liza Merril (Catriona MacColl) inherits from her recently deceased uncle. As the film gets underway, the hotel is undergoing some much-needed repair. A house painter, stricken by a vision of haunting eyes piercing through the darkness, falls to his death. Thus initiates the ominous and gradual—and gradually more outrageous—terror.

Upon hearing tales of the hotel’s past, Liza is initially doubtful, carelessly dismissing the series of tragic incidents that appear to be related to said gateways, and ignoring dire warnings about the site. She examines a sacred text that connects the seven portals to hell with the hotel, but only does so with a passive curiosity. She also brushes off the eccentric, malicious, and quite possibly evil incarnate servants, Martha and Arthur (Veronica Lazar and Gianpaolo Saccarola)—”they came with the hotel,” she casually notes.

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Eventually, she discovers more about the mysterious occurrences and their menacing origins and starts to believe in the prospect of malevolence unleashed upon the earth, just as the threat escalates and expands, not as in a zombie-inflicted virus, but in a dispersing atmosphere of danger enveloping the region (and beyond?). A doctor she befriends (David Warbeck) remains skeptical, but by the time his opinion starts to sway, the film’s narrative grows increasingly secondary, disappearing behind Massimo Lentini’s production design, Germano Natali’s special effects, and the make-up creations by Giannetto De Rossi and Maurizio Trani, all of which, of course, are born from the terrifying imagination of Lucio Fulci.

When honing in on the maimings and the gruesome bits of brutality, Fulci films in lingering detail, shooting straight on and cutting away only to substitute real body parts for fake ones, but never to curb the violence or cheat the audience. He denies no potential chance for corporeal mutilation and is seldom hesitant to show it in extreme close-up. It’s a most potent stylistic choice in terms of shock value, but it’s also a way to tout the exceptionally well-crafted carnage. This film might have Fulci’s most fluid gore, with gushing goop ever flowing, but it also contains several other squirm-inducing sequences of less liquefied death: flesh tearing spiders, a carnivorous dog, and eye gouging galore. Marveling in the practical construction of the bloody effects may distance one from the narrative, as the focus goes to technique rather than plot or character identification, but such a diversion in no way diminishes the effectiveness and the thrill of the film. Quite the opposite.

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The Beyond is more than blood and guts though. It also has some of Fulci’s most atmospheric settings, such as the morgue with its sterile whiteness and its carefully placed corpses, and the historic buildings with their ornate interiors beautifully lit and arranged. Toward the end, when the dead finally rise, the hotel is shown from the outside, coming alive with stilted silhouetted figures in the widows. Location shooting around New Orleans, which itself has a natural ambiance in real life, undoubtedly lends the film an additional authentic sense of peculiarity. Fulci’s penchant for graphic gore might get the notoriety, but one can’t deny his capacity for equally stunning visuals that rely more on aesthetic beauty than stomach churning bloodshed.

Fulci was firing on all cylinders when The Beyond was released. After several lesser known features within diverse genres, Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972) gave the director a degree of international attention within the Giallo form. This attention was further surpassed by Zombi 2 (1979), an extraordinary work sold as an alleged sequel to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), followed by the outstanding City of the Living Dead (1980), the first in a trilogy of sorts that would include The Beyond and The House by the Cemetery (1981). Into the 1980s, financial constraints, shifts in genre interest, and physical illness relegated Fulci to the margins of horror, where he was sadly joined by fellow countryman Dario Argento and even the pioneering Romero.

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Nevertheless, these directors and their best movies are special chapters in the story of the horror film, and it’s nice to see a film like The Beyond receive such a stellar home video release. The new Blu-ray from Grindhouse releasing contains a great looking transfer of the uncensored director’s cut, a commentary track featuring MacColl and Warbeck, interviews with Fulci and many others involved with the film, the long thought lost German pre-credit sequence in color, liner notes by genre experts, and even the original soundtrack album by Fabio Frizzi. It’s an excellent treatment of an excellent film.