March 21, 2012

A Bad Trip Down Memory Lane

Blue Sunshine (1978)

Okay, a show of hands-- who's old enough to remember the 16mm films they showed in junior high health class that tried to scare you straight? I remember several of them: one about drinking and driving featured what seemed like endless footage of particularly gruesome car wrecks; another with Sonny and Cher demonstrating the evils of marijuana was both silly and entertaining (for all the wrong reasons) -- the effects of the evil old weed were so over the top, that it had even us naive, midwestern 13-year-olds guffawing in disbelief and derision. The one that particularly sticks in my memory was a dire warning about the horrendous side effects of LSD, including chromosomal damage. Much of the film consisted of stills of babies with horrific birth defects supposedly born to reckless LSD takers. Of course, that chromosomal damage stuff has since been pretty much debunked. In retrospect, I imagine the filmmakers, in their zeal to turn kids away from the dark side, weren't all that scrupulous about the true cause of the birth defects they showed for shock effect -- such is propaganda.

Not that LSD is harmless-- not by a long shot. Like so many man-made things, it can be used and abused. Years before Timothy Leary experimented with psychedelic drugs at Harvard, the CIA became interested in LSD (among other drugs) for bolstering its "special" interrogation techniques. In the fifties, the national security establishment tested their special techniques on unwilling and/or unwitting participants. In one deplorable instance, prisoners at a federal prison in Kentucky were kept high on LSD for 77 consecutive days. In another, an army civilian employee, Frank Olson, was slipped LSD without his knowledge. He jumped out of a New York hotel window to his death. (Tim Weiner, Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, Anchor Books, 2008.) On the flip side, researchers in Switzerland have recently used LSD to alleviate anxiety in the terminally ill, with promising results.

Blue Sunshine poster
I don't know if Blue Sunshine was ever screened in an educational setting to scare kids off illicit drugs, but I'd say it's easily as effective as a bogus Sonny and Cher anti-drug dog-and-pony show, and much, much scarier (although, probably not as scary as Cher in Burlesque). While the film can be seen as a straight anti-drug cautionary tale, there are other, subtler things going on in the background that take the viewer on a trip (bad pun intended) down unexpected side roads.

Blue Sunshine starts off with an effectively eerie title sequence. As the credits roll, a full blue moon ascends to the strains of Charles Gross' haunting original music. Cleverly and efficiently, we're introduced to three characters through the title sequence: a pill-popping surgeon, an attractive divorcee, and a harried cop with family problems. Each is relatively young, in their mid-thirties, and each one seems to be having a bad time of it, near the edge of a physical or nervous breakdown, or both. They all seem to have one thing in common-- bad, bad headaches that cause them to stare wildly off into space. As each little character drama plays out, the ominous blue moon descends each time and more credits unfold to the weird, haunting strains of the theme music.

Cut to a house party, where a group of thirty-somethings are letting down their frizzy, 70's-style hair. One guy is imitating the Japanese movie monster Rodan (Rodan? Really?) Another is doing a poor Sinatra imitation. Our protagonist, Jerry Zipkin (Zalman King), is hanging back in his cheesy holiday sweater, enjoying the company of his cute blonde girlfriend Alicia (Deborah Winters). Just when we think we're going to get a break from the simmering tension of the title sequence, the Sinatra imitator (Richard Crystal) pretends to plant a big wet kiss on one of the party girls. Her boyfriend playfully grabs at the man's collar in mock disapproval, and suddenly the faux crooner's wig comes off in his hand. Everyone's stunned as the man stands stock still, a few long strands of hair dangling from his otherwise cue-bald head. Cut to an extreme close-up of the man's now wild eyes darting back and forth. He runs out the front door.

Still from Blue Sunshine: Jerry Zipkin visits a gruesome murder scene
Jerry Zipkin reacts in horror to the murder and
mayhem caused by "Blue Sunshine"
The house party turns into a search party as the man's friends pile into a car to go looking for him. Jerry volunteers to search around the premises. Three women stay behind at the house -- big mistake. In one of the most gut-wrenching scenes that I can recall from that time period, the bald man suddenly returns to the house, and in a maniacal fit, proceeds to stuff the three screaming women into the roaring fireplace. Jerry, hearing their screams, returns to find the gruesome handiwork. Still in a state of shock, he's ambushed by the maniac. The man seems to have superhuman strength, and Jerry runs for his life. The struggling pair end up on a nearby road, where in desperation, Jerry shoves the maniac in front of a truck. To the truckers, it looks like Jerry's the maniac. Jerry takes off in a panic with one of the drivers in pursuit. Back at the house, the confused trucker confronts Jerry, shooting him in the arm. Jerry escapes in a car, with the trucker firing off a couple more rounds as he speeds away.

Whew! I remember being deeply impressed when I first saw this scene in the early '80s. Compared to the gothic Universal and costumed Hammer horrors that I was used to, this terror erupting from the most mundane of settings -- a cocktail party -- was a revelation.  From this wild beginning, Blue Sunshine diverges into several intertwined story lines: 1.) Jerry attempts to figure out what's going on and clear his name while the cops try in vain to catch him; and 2.) we see the bills coming due, so to speak, for a number of otherwise solid citizens who partook of too much bad acid ten years previously. Writer-director Jeff Lieberman very cleverly picks a cross section of America -- a photographer, a cop, a doctor, a young divorced woman, and an ex-football player / Congressional campaign manager -- as both victims and perpetrators of the excesses of the late '60s. It's as if the whole country, and not just a few individuals, was experiencing the mother of all bad flashbacks.

One of the film's flaws (easily forgiven), is the ease with which mass-murder suspect Jerry flits around L.A. with the help of his girlfriend, breaking into houses and knocking on doors in pursuit of the truth. For all the effort the cops put into the chase, you'd think he was wanted for overdue parking fines instead of murder. This gives Jerry a chance to piece together the full, horrific story. First he investigates an eerily similar set of murders involving a bald cop who suddenly loses it and chops up his family. Then he traces an old psychedelic portrait labeled "Blue Sunshine" to the charismatic Ed Flemming (Mark Goddard of Lost in Space fame), who just happens to be running for Congress. As Jerry figures out the common connections -- time: 1967; place: Stanford; illicit drug of choice: "Blue Sunshine" LSD -- Jerry just happens to witness a couple of more instances of Blue Sunshine's slow-acting chromosomal damage. The victims all suffer from debilitating headaches, bad dreams, hair falling out by the fistful, and, worst of all, homicidal psychotic breaks.

Campaign worker Wayne Mulligan has an adverse reaction to disco music
Is this man suffering from bad acid, or bad disco music... or both?
Lieberman sets up a number of masterful suspense sequences worthy of Hitchcock himself. One involves a red herring of sorts. Without going into too much detail, it involves a character who seems to fit all the criteria for a Blue Sunshine-induced psychotic break, and the fun and suspense comes from watching Jerry desperately trying to decide if the person is ready to explode, and if he should intervene or not. Another involves a slow elevator that might mean the difference between life and death. Lieberman's also not above a little tongue-in-cheek social criticism. Jerry's girlfriend manages to save him from another LSD-fueled maniac with the ultimate weapon-- disco music turned up to full volume.

Other touches elevate Blue Sunshine out of the realm of a simple cautionary anti-drug horror tale and into art house territory. In one scene that seems to serve no dramatic purpose, Jerry is mistaken for a dealer by a pathetic, desperate junkie, while a mute, creepy bald man (not a Blue Sunshine maniac) appears out of nowhere with an idiot grin on his face. At the film's climax, mute, bald department store mannequins look on as Jerry struggles with another victim of the LSD plague. On one level, the baldness (not to mention the madness) seems to be Fate's ultimate revenge on a generation that celebrated excess in so many things, including hair. On another, it's symptomatic of a more widespread malaise-- this empty, materialistic late 20th century (now early 21st) lifestyle that has us feeling less in control than ever, and (literally and figuratively) tearing our hair out.

Jeff Lieberman is a true low-budget auteur. He wrote and directed a handful of quirky horror films in the '70s and '80s (and managed to write and direct again in the 2000's with Satan's Little Helper). Of these, Squirm (1976; about a town infested with man-eating worms) and Blue Sunshine have earned the biggest cult reputations. (In a DVD extra interview, Lieberman said he was most pleased with Just Before Dawn, 1981, about a group of campers who encounter a machete-wielding maniac in the woods. Lieberman also noted that he made far more money writing Hollywood screenplays that were never produced than he did with the cult favorites he made himself.)

Sadly, Zalman King died just a little over a month ago; he was only 70. Some reviewers (especially IMDb users) have been pretty harsh in their assessment of King's performance. They complain that he's all over the map-- stone-faced one moment and having a conniption fit the next. I think they miss the point. King's Jerry Zipkin fits right into the film's what-the-hell-is-going-to-happen-next? atmosphere. Not only are we worried about the Stanford class of '67 and when and how they're going to flip out, we're worried about Zipkin and what he's going to do-- in the back of our minds, we're not so sure he didn't partake of the bad acid himself. In the early '80s King gave up acting to produce and direct-- primarily soft-core erotic movies and TV shows like Two Moon Junction (1988), Wild Orchid (1989) and the Red Shoe Diaries (1992 - 2006).

Fortunately, Blue Sunshine is the closest most of us will ever get to experiencing a bad LSD trip. The celluloid trip is quite fun. Back in 2003, Synapse Films came out with a special 2-disc set with the film, a CD of the eerie soundtrack and interesting extras including Lieberman reminiscing over roads taken and not taken in his film career. It's also available to stream from both and Netflix.

Did you ever hear the words "Blue Sunshine"?

March 11, 2012

"He's dead, Jim!": DeForest Kelley's Film Noir Debut

Fear in the Night (1947)

If you've followed this blog any, it probably comes as no surprise that I'm something of an oddball. I've had a soft spot for the underdog all my life. In a Curly kind of world, I'm a Shemp fan. My favorite character from the original Star Trek series is not the hard charging Captain Kirk or the aloof, logical Spock, but rather the skeptical, irascible Doc Leonard "Bones" McCoy. And of course, I love old B movies that manage to overcome all the odds against them -- low budgets, no name actors, tight shooting schedules -- and still entertain in surprising ways.

So imagine my delight when several years ago I discovered (courtesy of Alpha Video) an obscure little B movie gem that combined several of my favorite things: film noir, Deforest Kelley, and a screenplay inspired by the great Cornell Woolrich (for more on Woolrich, see my review of The Chase, 1946).  The only thing it lacked was a cameo appearance by Shemp Howard, but then, comic relief would have ruined the dark atmosphere of the film.

Fear in the Night is classic, textbook noir in its theme of an ordinary Joe (in this case Vince) suddenly being caught up in forces beyond his control, committing crimes in spite of himself, and then having every avenue of escape cut off by circumstances and the grim, relentless arm of the law. A dark feeling of dread slowly builds and then envelops the protagonist, keeping him in its grip almost to the very end. Where it parts company with classic noir is the absence of the deadly dame, the femme fatale who lures the unsuspecting man to his doom like a flame beckoning a moth. (Actually, a scheming female does figure into the story, but she appears in only in one short scene, has no lines, and is more backdrop than anything else.)

Fear opens with an hallucinogenic dream sequence as Vince Greyson (DeForest Kelley) describes in voice over suddenly finding himself in a strange mirrored room in a strange house, interrupting what looks like a burglary as he confronts a man and a woman breaking into a closet safe. He struggles with the man, and ends up stabbing him with an awl that he pulls out of the woman's hand. After the woman disappears, Vince hides the man's body in another closet.

The next morning, it all seems like a bad dream, until Vince discovers blood on his wrist and a button and mysterious key in his pocket. With doubt clawing at his mind, Vince takes his concerns to his brother-in-law and homicide detective Cliff Herlihy (Paul Kelly). Cliff at first dismisses Vince's concerns out of hand. Then, out on a family picnic designed to cheer up the morose Vince, a bad thunderstorm drives the group into the car. Not knowing the area well and with the windshield wipers out of commission, Cliff declares that they need to find a place to stop pronto. Almost in a trance, Vince directs Cliff to nearby country house, even though supposedly he's never been out that way before.

This hard-boiled dame makes a brief
appearance in the dream sequence.
There's no one home, but Vince also somehow knows where a key to the front door is hidden. As the women (Lil Herlihy played by Ann Doran and Vince's girl Betty, played by Kay Scott) dry themselves off, the men go exploring the house. Coincidence of coincidences, Vince seems to know his way around, and ends up with the now suspicious Cliff in the mysterious mirrored room of his nightmare. There is a hole in a closet safe, as if someone were trying to blowtorch it open, and there's dried blood in another closet, the one where Vince stuffed the body in his "dream…" With the evidence mounting against Vince, Cliff believes he's been conned, and launches into this brother-in-law with some of the most colorful, hard-boiled language to ever grace a B crime drama (see the clip below):
"If you weren't Lil's brother, I'd push your lyin' face out through the back of your head!"
It's a good thing that Vince is Cliff's brother-in-law, because the detective delays throwing his posterior in jail just long enough to start sorting out what really happened. When Vince attempts suicide back at his hotel apartment, Cliff backs off and begins to believe that the quivering man just might be telling the truth after all. (This bit of logic didn't quite work for me-- wouldn't a hard-bitten cop be just as likely to see a suicide attempt as an admission of guilt?) Upon further questioning, Vince recalls the unusual behavior of a neighbor shortly before the "nightmare" happened. An older man, a neighbor, had knocked on Vince's door, claiming that the power in his adjoining apartment was out. He had a candle in his hand, and was waving it slowly in front of Vince's eyes, speaking slowly and strangely…

Uh-oh! Vince seems to be slipping into another trance!
Fear in the Night packs a lot of noirish punch. Its 72 minutes fly by with disturbing nightmares, ghostly faces floating in and out of the protagonist's tortured mind, dream houses, strange mirrored rooms, rough language, suicide attempts, and malicious hypnotic suggestions. With a small cast, the film is carried by the two male leads. This was DeForest Kelley's first feature-length role of any substance, and he does a very creditable job as an ordinary working stiff who slowly stumbles into the realization that he's killed a man. (After this role, DeForest jumped feet first into TV, where he alternated between westerns and detective shows before landing his storied role on Star Trek.)

But the real star is Paul Kelly. At the point where Kelly's character thinks he's being conned by Vince, his words come shooting out like firecrackers. Kelly's cop is so vehement, DeForest looks like he's actually afraid that he'll be throttled. According to Karen Burroughs Hannsberry, author of Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir (McFarland, 2003), Paul Kelly's life could have been the subject of a film noir potboiler. In 1927, after having worked for years in silent movies and the theater, Kelly got into a fistfight with musical comedy star Ray Raymond over Kelly's supposed dalliances with Raymond's wife, actress Dorothy Mackaye. The morning after the confrontation, Raymond died of a brain hemorrhage. Both Kelly and Mackaye were convicted, he for manslaughter and she for conspiracy. Incredibly, after Kelly got out of prison, he resumed his acting career and married Mackaye, adopting the daughter she'd had by Raymond. Fate stepped in again when Mackaye was later killed in a car accident. In spite of his sordid past, Kelly was almost universally respected and admired by his show business colleagues.

Almost 10 years after the release of Fear in the Night, writer-director Maxwell Shane would re-make it as Nightmare (1956), with Edward G. Robinson in the Paul Kelly role and Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956) as the tortured young man. In spite of Robinson's presence, this one is more difficult to find on DVD or online.

In these hard times when it seems like we're all clueless noir protagonists caught up in forces beyond our control, films like Fear in the Night help to remind us that the darkness has always been around, but the sun always rises, and occasionally it brings with it happy endings. Check out the Alpha Video DVD edition, or download it at the Internet Archive.

Hard-bitten homicide cop Cliff Herlihy (Paul Kelly) has some choice words for his quivering brother-in-law Vince (DeForest Kelley):