Friday, April 28, 2017

Popcorn Kernels: Cravin' Wes

As we approach the end of my long-running quest to watch every film ever directed by Wes Craven (only 4 TV movies to go!), let’s explore two interesting little scraps of his career: the final theatrical film I had yet to see, and the one porn film we’re pretty much 100% certain he directed, during his time working in New York in the sleazy 70’s.

Vampire in Brooklyn

Year: 1995
Director: Wes Craven
Cast: Eddie Murphy, Angela Bassett, Allen Payne 
Run Time: 1 hour 40 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

An ancient Caribbean vampire arrives in modern New York City to seduce a lovely cop on the mean streets of Brooklyn.

1995 found Wes Craven in a very strange place. Just a year earlier he had created his latest masterpiece, New Nightmare, to very little fanfare. As much as that film proved he still had the capacity for intelligent, engaging horror, he was still chafing against he constraints of the genre, which hadn’t afforded him a truly sizeable hit in over a decade. So when he learned that superstar funnyman Eddie Murphy wanted to work with him, he leapt at the opportunity. Unfortunately, as it often happened for Craven, he found himself in yet another behind-the-scenes straitjacket.

While Craven assumed he’d be making a comedy, Murphy insisted he wanted to make a straight horror picture. Both men wanted to break free from their typecast genre, but the star’s wishes carried more weight with the studio. Thus we get another film that feels like a tug of war between two entirely opposite sensibilities. However, unlike the equally uneven Deadly Friend, Vampire in Brooklyn pulls together into something more or less amusing, even if it makes next to no sense as it goes along (something which is patently not improved by Murphy’s Blade Runner voiceover that runs through the whole thing like a rusty monorail).

The horror elements are passable, but they’re attempting to resurrect a stately, classic gothic feel that has never made a dent on my nerves in the first place, and they’re intermittently successful. What really saves this film, and I’m a teensy bit loathe to admit it, is its admirably goofy sense of humor. While it undercuts the horror at every turn, that horror wasn’t particularly strong to begin with. Hell, the climax, which I solely horror, is an interminable slog in spite of Murphy’s surprisingly subdued performance and convincing chemistry with the devastatingly sexy Angela Bassett.

No, with Vampire in Brooklyn, the goofier it gets, the better it is. OK, there may be some indefensible scenes that have Murphy Klumping it up in various silly costumes, but the movie frequently hits a register that evokes classic Blaxploitation by way of a Sam Raimi splatter flick. This is most evident in the gleefully gross performance by Kadeem Hardison as Julius Jones, a dock-worker turned ghoulish assistant. As his body rots due to the vampire’s magic, parts of him fall off at very inopportune moments. It’s a very juvenile, Monty Python Black Knight style of body horror slapstick, but especially when he’s paying off John Witherspoon as his grouchy landlord, it’s downright hilarious. A lot of these funny scenes (especially any with the Italian mobsters infesting the town) are pitched at a very high register, but Craven embraces his camp sensibilities and thus allows it to flourish.

Vampire in Brooklyn is no masterpiece, but it’s a diverting way to spend 95 minutes. Almost any other Craven film is a more worthwhile watch, but this one certainly has its cheesy charms.

Rating: 6/10

The Fireworks Woman

Year: 1975
Director: Abe Snake
Cast: Jennifer Jordan, Helen Madigan, Erica Eaton 
Run Time: 1 hour 13 minutes
MPAA Rating: X

A young woman with the possibly supernatural power to ignite lust in those around her pursues an ex-flame who’s a priest… and her brother.

Now, just to reassure any lawyers who happen to have stumbled across this blog, it has not been conclusively proven that Wes Craven directed this pornographic film, though it is known he spent years in the New York porn industry as an editor and producer. The film is officially credited as being written and directed by Abe Snake (and co-written by Hørst Badörties, which I suspect is a pseudonym for the Swedish Chef), but any scholar of Craven could tell you instantly that his fingerprints are all over the project.

For one thing, Wes Craven literally plays a character in the movie: the mysterious Fireworks Man who may or may not be the Devil. It’s kinda hard to deny your involvement when you face is on celluloid, beard or no beard. But even if his literal face was nowhere to be seen, his spirit thrums through the entire story, which chews on a lot of the favorite themes that he would return to over and over again throughout his career: repression of desire leading to violence, the potency of dreams (especially nightmares), the oppressive and hypocritical nature of the church, and the dark side of the suburban family unit.

The entire DNA of his career, from Nightmare on Elm Street to The People Under the Stairs, to My Soul to Take, is present in a film where a woman makes love to her brother with Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” playing in the background. What a trajectory! Being a porno movie, the plot is understandably rather repetitive, but he fact that it has themes worth mentioning at all speaks to Craven’s irrepressible intelligence.

That said, I can’t understand why any self-respecting heterosexual would find the film particularly erotic. A massively uncomfortable rape scene is shoehorned in (though, true to Craven’s ever-goofy form, in the same scene a man is hit over the head with a giant fish), and most of the consensual sex is underscored by tittering, nightmarish Insidious music. It actually kinds works as a horror film, melding woozy dream imagery and penetrative sex in a beautifully eerie fantasia.

Let’s not kid ourselves that The Fireworks Woman is worth seeing by anyone but the most institutionally insane Craven fan, but speaking as one of those, it was certainly an interesting insight into a burgeoning creative mind stripped of all propriety.

Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1032

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