Today on Killtoberfest 2, it’s a pair of not really very good, not really very horror movies, both only partly redeemed by their endings. Well, they can’t all be winners. At least not when they’re from the late 1970s, apparently.
First, the 1977 based-on-a-bestseller cautionary tale about the dangers of being a slut, Looking for Mr. Goodbar.
1977 is the year Diane Keaton won an Oscar for her performance in Annie Hall, but arguably she turns in better work here, in Looking for Mr. Goodbar. Her character, Theresa, is a schoolteacher for deaf children who spends her nights in seedy New York bars, looking to get picked up by men so she can engage them in sex and a kind of mutual disrespect. The film is episodic, tracing Theresa’s slow descent over the course of a year into a depressing, hopeless cycle of casual sex with violent men. It’s based, as I said, on a bestselling novel of the same name (by Judith Rossner, 1975); the novel is apparently more extreme (reviewing the film, Ebert mostly complained that the movie left the Theresa of the novel’s masochism and thrillseeking on the cutting room floor). The book is, in turn, loosely based on the life and murder of Roseann Quinn, a case which became something of a media sensation, with people considering Quinn’s habits and death as emblematic of a generation of young people run amok.
Richard Brooks, perhaps best known for another true crime movie, In Cold Blood, wrote and directed this film in a way that declines overt comment on the narrative. But in offering up this particular story, both he and Rossner make an implicit judgement about the social and sexual habits of Quinn and women like her. On the one hand, it’s a very offensive film–I was particularly put off by Tom Berenger’s character, a stereotyped, violently self-denying gay man. Again, without comment, but simply through juxtaposition, the movie makes unspoken points about the salaciousness of Theresa’s double life (at one point she has a nightmare about what the public response would be if she became known as both a teacher and a drug-using slut), suggests ham-handed Freudian reasons for her behavior (an early love affair with a teacher, a shameful polio scar, a repressed religious upbringing, an abusive father), and, in its conclusion, offers not a shred of hope or mourning for Theresa. In the end there is only horror at the place to which all her human need has brought her.
Does the film still have value? It’s overlong, and its values antiquated. Yet Keaton is phenomenal in a layered performance where Theresa wields a slightly goofy, sarcastic Annie Hall-style persona as a weapon against the uneducated, unworthy-of-respect men she seeks out night after night. Her two main lovers are William Atherton, the safe, educated civil servant who declares his love and seems slightly unhinged by her unwillingness to reciprocate, and a very young Richard Gere, the sexy, unpredictable stud who reacts with a violent possessiveness when she tries to push him away, too. One gets the sense that Theresa lives by one of Alvy Singer’s jokes: “I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.” She allows herself to be picked up by men she could never possibly have a real relationship with, seeks to manipulate, control, or insult them, and then kicks them out of her apartment. She seems to believe that she can do this over and over again without ever having to worry about what they feel, or want, or will do in response–that, because she looks down on them (and they her), she remains separate from them, untouchable. That this turns out not to be the case is her tragedy.
Looking for Mr. Goodbar is not a nice film, and it does not have happy things to say about men or women. It’s bizarre to think of it as popular entertainment. Ultimately, beyond the film’s craft and the skill of its cast, if it has any value at all, it’s as a time capsule. You can watch and journey back to a grittier, grimmer New York City; and back, too, to a time when the nation looked at a young woman’s life and behavior and judged her harshly for fulfilling needs it didn’t understand. Well. New York has gotten better, anyway.
Strangely, this movie is almost totally unavailable; it’s not even on DVD, and no trailer exists online. Here’s a clip, instead:
From the depressing to the absurd: Brian De Palma’s The Fury (1978).
Watching this movie, I started wondering why so few movies really use psychic phenomena as story elements–what at one point were called “weird talents,” like telekinesis and ESP. After 1981’s Scanners, those ideas seem to drop out of vogue, as both science fiction and horror moved on to other stories. Yet the concepts hold some fascination for me, particularly within the (pseudo)scientific trappings of the ’70s. It seems to me that the notion of learning one has strange and terrible powers, unasked for and ill understood, carries with it a great deal of pathos that a movie could use to good effect. This is not that movie.
What this is is two movies, both of them essentially broken. In one of them, an aging but still badass Kirk Douglas sneaks or shoots his way through the ranks of the secret organization that kidnapped his son and tried to have him killed. In the other, a young girl with psychic abilities so powerful they make the people she touches bleed tries to find a boy whose own abilities may help her control hers. These two stories are in the same movie because the boy and Douglas’ son are one and the same; but in terms of tone, affect, and interest, the two narratives couldn’t be further apart. And they work fitfully at best.
On a scene by scene basis, Douglas’ story is legitimately entertaining, with lots of fun spy antics (particularly a foggy car chase/fight/thing set in an empty construction site). But the movie never gives you enough information about his character or his goals to make you care what happens to him. Meanwhile, the reverse is true of the psychic storyline, where I cared about the girl (and really liked the creepy effects work with her powers) but found each individual scene brain-meltingly boring. (Here, the problem is that we have too much information about exactly how sinister is the school for the “gifted” she’s at, and it takes her too long into the film to catch up to us.)
The movie only really comes alive at the end, when their story lines come together (in a well-directed bit of slow-motion violence) and we meet the most interesting character in the piece, Douglas’ son. It’s only then that the movie really embraces the horrific side of its psychic elements, and the result is wonderfully eerie and dark. But the real joy is The Fury‘s epilogue, which I suggest you watch here because it’s awesome. No set-up or explanations necessary, just enjoy one of the all-time great movie deaths.
Overall, The Fury is less than the sum of its parts. But some of its parts are actually pretty good. It’s a set-piece movie, with a decent number of big, exciting scenes aided by De Palma’s energetic direction, a nice score by John Williams, and the performances by Kirk Douglas and John Cassavetes (as the villain). It’s just too bad it doesn’t hold together.
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