Basel Owies, making his feature film debut, delivers a fine mystery-thriller in "The Barber." Scott Glenn — taking a lead role for the first time in what seems like a long while — plays the title role, that of Francis Allen Visser, a man accused of being a serial killer who raped young women and then buried them alive. The case was dropped because the detective who obsessed over bringing the murderer to justice falsified evidence in his determination to have Visser convicted. In despair, he committed suicide with his young son in the next room. Now using the name Eugene Van Wingerdt, the accused has relocated to a small town, opened a barber shop and is to all appearances a model citizen whose best friend if the chief of police (Stephen Tobolowsky). A young man – whom we quickly realize is the detective's son – comes to town also traveling under an assumed name: John McCormack (Chris Coy). He accosts Eugene and insists that the older man teach him how to be a serial killer – or rather how to get away with it. Eugene initially protests that he was falsely accused but eventually agrees and begins giving lessons. But does John truly want to learn from the master or is he trying to accomplish what his father couldn't? And is Eugene really a killer or is he just feeding John things he learned from books? Maz Enscoe's screenplay is stuffed with twists and Owies paces the revelations just right for an engrossing film.
The director is especially fortunate in having Glenn to play "The Barber." The plot has a few holes (what of such who's-playing-who exercises does not?) and some of the revelations are just what you'd expect. Yet the script cleverly keeps you in "but what if?" territory so you're never completely certain and Glenn is brilliant in his performance – possibly a cold-blooded psychotic killer with an apt pupil yet also the church-going solid citizen who despises profanity and roasts a mean turkey – so you're never sure what the truth might be until the finale. Coy, Kristen Hager (as John's significant other who's doing some snooping about on her own) and Max Arciniega (as one of Eugene's employees) are quite good and Tobolowsky provides his usual solid work but this is Glenn's show all the way. Even if the film was not as good as it is – and while it doesn't quite reach greatness it is very good indeed – I'd recommend it on the basis of Glenn's work alone. Additionally it signals the arrival of a directorial talent worth watching. "The Barber" may be uneven and too talky for its own good when it should be racing to a climax but with better scripts Owies may well become a notable figure in film.
2015 / Arc Entertainment / 90m / $20.99 [R]
Back in the 1960s, there were three directors who gained a reputation for specializing in horror films. In Hollywood, there was Roger Corman turning the various works of Edgar Allan Poe into starring vehicles for Vincent Price, in Britain Terence Fisher was reinvestigating classic Gothic characters such as Frankenstein and Dracula. In Italy, Mario Bava was essentially inventing the genre in a country that had almost no history of making scary movies. He started out as a cinematographer and special effects specialist and in that capacity worked on two of his country's earliest explorations into the fantastic: "I Vampiri" and "Caltiki the Immortal Monster." Photography and devising thrifty but convincing special effects remained his chief interest and it has been said that as a director Bava selected projects based more on their photographic challenges than on the qualities of the scripts. This would explain a filmography that encompasses "Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs," "Hercules in the Haunted World" and "Planet of the Vampires" as well as Gothic horrors and giallos (a genre he pretty much created). In Bava's defense a casual attitude to narrative coherence is something of a trademark of Italian cinema – his apologists have put forth the notion that his films are dreamlike though only "Kill, Baby, Kill" (aka "Operation Paura") strikes me as deliberately surreal.
The first film for which Bava can take full credit is also probably the best he ever made. "Black Sunday" has Asa (Barbara Steele), executed as a witch, resurrected two centuries later when travelers explore her tomb, thinking it an abandoned ruin. But Asa's descendents, including Katya (also Steele) still live in the castle nearby and Asa has determined to take Katya's place once she is fully reconstituted. The plot gets a little confused with Asa described as a witch at some times and a vampire at others; this reportedly is because Bava kept rethinking the script during shooting. But a mood of eerie poetry is so successfully evoked that lapses in logic are irrelevant and maybe even part of what allows the film to cast its spell. When trapdoors unaccountably yawn open and swallow characters we're in a territory somewhere between Jean Cocteau and Louis Fueillade. Bava creates unforgettable images, beginning with the prologue in which Asa and her cohort Javuto are condemned and Asa has a spike-lined mask hammered onto her face. Her reconstitution occurs in increments with her glowing eyeballs floating up into vacant eyesockets at one point. While these images are macabre the film is beautifully photographed in black and white chiaroscuro. The tone and the look recall "White Zombie" (the two would make a fascinating double feature) in creating the world of a dark and disturbing fairy tale. This disc is of the U.S. version, redubbed, rescored and trimmed of a few minutes of explicit gore (tame by today's standards). Kino has also released the more complete Italian version with subtitles.
1960 / Kino Classics / 83m / $19.95 BR [NR]
GREAT FIGURES OF THE BIBLE
In case the participation of Eli Wiesel doesn't tip you off the great figures here are all from what is also known as the Old Testament. In other words, this is an examination from a Hebraic perspective and won't necessarily be as cut and dried as what issues forth from most pulpits on a Sunday morn. Wiesel discusses Eve from a feminist as well as a Talmudic perspective and even asks why wasn't Adam with her, as a good husband should be, when the serpent tempted her. He notes that Cain may well not have known the blow he struck Abel would be mortal. Neither he nor his brother or parents had any knowledge or experience of death after all. He also ponders what it must have been like to be the parents of a child that has murdered his brother and what bravery they showed by deciding to have yet another child. (He doesn't ruminate on how the humanity came to populate the earth from a family that begat no daughters.) He sees in the story of Abraham and Isaac not only God challenging Abraham but Abraham challenging God because when an angel orders him not to sacrifice his son he demands that the Lord — who gave him the order in the first place — show up in person to stay the execution.
It's a shame that the presentation is not as interesting as what Wiesel has to offer. He is seen in long takes from the same camera set-up throughout each installment. In the first episode (likely the pilot) he isn't even facing the camera but looking well off to one side so there isn't even the illusion of eye contact (sound is also a problem in this one – it rather sounds as though there is a fountain splashing away nearby). I was reminded of that cable show where the nun sits and talks. There is a narrator in play at times so there is at least some variety of voices and there are montages of great works of art (none of them identified but ironically most of them painted by people who would have professed Christianity – and a great many of them ironically commissioned by the Vatican). There is also a reliance on footage of scenery that does nothing but pad the running time. The music accompanying it may be lovely but when minutes tick by with nothing happening but shots of bulrushes waving in the breeze (for instance) things get a tad lackluster; in fact the first episode opens with just such a sequence that seems endless. And while I have admiration for Wiesel and his accomplishments, I have to say he's not the most charismatic talking head ever plonked down before a camera. The ideas and interpretations presented are fascinating but this is less than compelling viewing.
1998 / Sisu Home Entertainment / 150m / $24.95 [NR]
THE TOXIC AVENGER, PART II
CLASS OF NUKE EM HIGH 2
If you have gotten however far you are into your life without gaining any knowledge of the Troma film company, I envy you. I also firmly advise you to keep things that way. The company was founded in the mid-1970s to produce extremely low-budget films that riffed on tropes from older science fiction and horror films. Many of the films contain social commentary (toxic waste is a particular target) but the humor is anything but sophisticated. Calling it sophomoric would be too kind. Some of the gags are based on outrageous violence: a baby tossed through the air and crushed by a car in one film. Such concepts as senior citizens cursing (take my word for it: we do it all the time), extremely obese people, dwarves and transvestites are just automatically a laugh riot. Homophobia, racism and misogyny are not in short supply. Add in the abundant female nudity and it's clear that the target audience is drunken frat boys. Their films are claimed to be transgressive but they're just plain trashy, crudely made and poorly acted. (To give the company its due it also financed "My Dinner with Andre" and the truly transgressive – and positively brilliant – "Father's Day.")
"The Toxic Avenger, Part II" continues the adventures of Toxie (Ron Fazio and John Altamura), formerly a nebbish tossed out a window by bullies and into a vat of toxic waste. He lives with his blind girlfriend (Phoebe Legere giving an excruciatingly bad performance) is a trash dump. Supposedly he has rid Tromaville, NJ, of all crime (yet barrels of bubbling chemical waste seem to be everywhere) so the evil head of Apocalypse, Inc., wants to eliminate him. That involves luring him to Japan on a bogus quest for his long absent father. Directors Michael Herz and Lloyd Kaufman (also Troma's founders) drag everything out unnecessarily whether it be violence (Toxie ripping a miscreant's head off has to go back and forth between a shot of him holding the noggin and a reaction shot of the bad guy before the payoff finally comes) or supposed comic bits. No gag is so lame it can't be dwelled on and bludgeoned home. Fifteen minutes of unnecessary footage shaved from this production would improve it – though it would still be a crappy movie with some of the worst acting ever committed to celluloid.
"Class of Nuke Em High 2" is marginally better primarily because it's shorter and it lacks the usual Kaufman introduction (Lloyd, I'm begging you, please stop). It also, significantly, isn't directed by Herz and Kaufman. Only marginally a sequel the setting is shifted to a junior college that has been built inside a nuclear reactor. Roger Smith (pro wrestler Brick Bronsky) is the ace reporter for the campus newspaper, which the publisher sees as another World Weekly News (she refuses to print anything that isn't entirely fictional). He becomes involved in an experiment involving the science prof's attempt to create sub-humanoids and falls in love with one of them (Leesa Rowland). The plot – or what passes for one – is totally gonzo and actually amusing at times, although there's still the abundance of bad jokes and gratuitous female nudity. Much of what works is due to Bronsky who has an appealing screen presence and is surprisingly good. It doesn't hurt that the film actually looks decent from a technical standpoint as well. If you must check out some Troma product (and I have no doubt my warnings will simply be an enticement for some) you could do worse than this title.
1989, 1991 / Troma Entertainment / 103m, 95m / $$24.95 each BR+DVD combo, BR [NR]
WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS IN THE DREAMACHINE
Director Jon-Aes Nihil has assembled footage he made of the strangest of the Beat writers (if his hallucinogenic prose and poetry van properly be classified with that group) into something called "William S. Burroughs in the Dreamachine." It purports to be a documentary – but of what is very much open to question. The first section has black and white film and color stills of Burroughs interacting with the crowd on the occasion of an exhibition of his artwork at LACMA in 1996. He signs autographs and holds a baby (yes! – and you have to wonder what kind of parent wants a photo of his child being cradled by Burroughs). Leonardo diCaprio is in the crowd to have Burroughs sign something or other and his few seconds of footage allows for his name to be listed on the DVD case along with Alan Ginsberg. Ginsberg has somewhat more footage but nothing either says can properly be heard. This is simply a jumble of random footage and it goes on for a long time, possibly half the length of the film. Supposedly culled from unedited footage it shows nary a sign of having been edited. Courtesy of Kenneth Anger there is a short segment detailing Burroughs' last public appearance at a NOVA convention held in the writer's home town of Lawrence, KS in 1996; he makes brief remarks.
At least you can hear what he says, which is more than can be said of the footage of him in his home only a few months before his death and thus the last film ever made of him. Burroughs comments on war, drug laws and the highway numbered 666 (until outraged fundamentalist Christians got it redesignated). Most of what's said is indecipherable muttering and what little can be heard isn't exactly what you'd call profound. Burroughs frequently grabs for a nearby magazine and leafs through it as though searching for some pertinent passage that he never locates and sometimes leans forward and stares into the Dreamachine that would seem, from the title of this production to be a focal point. If you think you're going to learn much about it you'll be disappointed; a better source of information is the Canadian feature "FLicKeR." Apparently if you look at the contraption with your eyes closed you enter a hypnagogic state and have interesting visions. Burroughs felt it helped his writing process flow more freely (but then consider the man's writing). Interspersed are segments of writer/composer David Woodard reading from his Burroughs-influenced work. He frequently stumbles through it (was at no point a second take considered?). Your guess is as good as mine as to what it all means (if anything) but "William S. Burroughs in the Dreamachine" strikes me as being of more interest to Burroughs fanatics than anyone else. Even they may find it an hour plus of not much of anything.
1996-2014 / Cult Epics / 70m / $29.95 [NR]