I Saw a Film!
The first thing you notice in this era piece (early fifties, just after the war), is the strange moaning and groaning soundtrack. Human misery is already being implied, a horror movie is our expectation. This film is a revisit. I saw this thing in the cinema when it came out and almost wholly missed all the details as I was expecting, not a horror movie, but a dark thriller about our protagonist hunting a killer. Right up to the point of De Niro revealing his true nature through the goofy name choice, I was still thinking it was just a ruse to discombobulate Roarke’s unfortunate private investigator, who comically fears chickens.
The second thing you notice is how ridiculously baby-faced everyone is. This is just us all growing older. But when I was a young man watching this, these folks seemed like adults, now, looking back over the intervening decades, Roarke (who was, for my money, best in The Wrestler-doing a variation of Jake the Snake Roberts) looks like a he should be playing guitar for a moody post-punk rock band, fronting Echo and the Bunnymen or something (Never Stop!).
As the film revs up and our protagonist is sent spiraling to 1950s Nawlins to locate the whereabouts of a failed singer called Johnny Favorite the weirdness sets in, but it’s at this point a little like watching an extra violent season of Murder She Wrote. Heck we even have Lisa Bonet (I remember the Cosby uproar this film caused) an 80s TV regular, front and center (and she’s a little beauty, of course, possibly the only real beauty in the film- There’s also a sequence with Charlotte Rampling but she comes across as more menacing, not gentle). I watched this wholly expecting a kind of Scooby Doo switcheroo ending, as the film felt to me like the misfortunes that kept striking our investigator were too intentionally meant to be setting him up for a bad fall. I scratched my head as I tried to understand if it were the racist cops, or a family affair trying to keep their own boy from ending up in prison — But I was weened on these kinds of stories where the killer is some protected monster child living under a bed . . . you know the deal.
Well, stop trying to figure it out, because there’s nothing to figure out, it’s a horror film, and the solution is a supernatural one. Which, of course, removes all responsibility to logic. Readjust your glasses. Is this a good horror film? How I missed all the bloody interludes with strange Catholics, and bowls filling with rainwater and blood, like a wartime hospital, all of this suggesting something creepy, but never quite fulfilling a reason. I discarded the imagery in favor of clues. Most of the horror comes from the hopelessness of the scenery and the moaning soundtrack. We used to inhabit a quietly dissociative mental-breakdown ward of a world. Regular folk got by on very little love and beauty. This bit is well handled, we feel like we’re in the racist post war heat of a dirty city.
At one point, De Niro, dapper and dark, asks Micky if he’s an atheist. Yup, he says, I’m from Brooklyn. Most of the dialog follows this sort of loutish, jokey, rough, everyman fashion. It reveals little, and always leads to a mayhem. It’s a bit like reading the story Perfume. By the time you’re watching Bonet’s sequence having sex with Micky, you know she’s a gonner. But the people you hate are the fat racist cops, not the fellow trying to understand the murders.
This is running free on Prime (USA) and is a film that doesn’t quite fit thriller or horror, and as such it’s rather unique. The ending 34 years ago made me groan. Now it makes me chuckle.