April 23, 2021

Rest in Peace, Monte Hellman 1929-2021

In memory of Monte Hellman, a great poet of the narrative cinema, we present below two crucial essays by Bill Krohn, two hard looks at Hellman's unsung films Iguana (1988) and Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out! (1989) -- a swashbuckler and a slasher. 

As a prologue and way of traveling back in time in Hellman's filmography, I'm also inserting below a 2017 email from Bill Krohn to me; it was his response to my lament that, seven years after the release of Road to Nowhere, "the cycle has come around, even among cinephiles: Monte is forgotten once again." Bill reversed my defensive into an offense move, emphasizing what had been achieved recently and was in the works with Hellman, and assures: "He's been forgotten as often as he's been discovered." 

Bill and Monte were friends and had a working relationship -- filmmaker to critic, critic to filmmaker -- that stretched back over 40 years, on a crossroads of Roger Corman and Alain Resnais, and right up to the era of headaches over DCP conversions (Bill could always say: "I have a guy..." and in the case of Road to Nowhere, Bill's guy "saved our lives many times," Hellman said). Hellman's work was of course produced by Corman in many ways (detailed by Bill in his texts), and Bill's first interview with Corman in 1977 helped define his role at the Cahiers du cinéma, to bring news and ideas of each, Hollywood and the Cahiers, to both. And to know the outsiders.
Hellman's films and their metaphors, it seems to me, brought out the best in Bill as a writer and theorist, and at the very moment of the films' release. That Iguana and Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out! were the latest films of a friend was not what propelled Bill alone, but that these films demanded it. Seen today, they seem like large objects in the filmography. And, 30 years after their publication, these texts remain the most serious and complex, but also handy, without a single word wasted, on these Hellman films ignored for no good reason. They remind: don't ignore the slightest gesture, on the screen or in an act of production. 

There was no one like Hellman.  And this "no one like" is increasingly difficult to find in cinema. 



"Monte Hellman and Iguana" was written in 1988 and originally published that year in the long-defuct Los Angeles cinephile newspaper Modern Times; it also appears in Bill Krohn's recent book of selected criticism Letters From Hollywood in a slightly different version. 

"The Summer of Sequels: Hellman and the Others" appears here in English for the first time. It was written in 1989 and published in French as "Hollywood à l'heure du déjà vu" in Cahiers du cinéma, no. 423 (September '89; the notorious Batman cover that for some signaled a decline and sell-out of the magazine: judge for yourself based on Bill's psychoanalysis of the very idea of Hollywood sequels here, and the minute attention paid to a pissed-upon Hellman movie).  Thanks to Brad Stevens and Adrian Martin for helping save Bill's original typescript from oblivion. 



From: Bill Krohn                           Mar 29, 2017, 11:49 AM 

ROAD TO NOWHERE was dumped on by Cahiers du cinéma, I think. Nobody got it, because it was such a huge leap forward. I wrote about it in The Economist, where my review, uncharacteristically, was run exactly as written, but the summit of his recognition in English-speaking territories was the two-disc Criterion set of THE SHOOTING and RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND, with audio commentary recorded on a Sony soundstage by Blake Lucas, Monte (in the middle) and me as the films were shown to us on a big screen. Something about the set-up unlocked Monte's tongue, and he was downright voluble in explaining what he had done and why. 

He had a fall recently, but when last we e-mailed he was still planning to make the second film in his Shannyn Sossamon diptych before retiring to Mexico. Originally called GHOST OF A CHANCE, it's now called LOVE OR DIE: murdered lovers who meet in the afterlife are given a chance to return to Earth and avoid death. Shannyn, who's very athletic, is going to spend the movie in one set -- evading a madman with a knife. The ROAD and GHOST are both scripts by Variety critic Steve Gaydos. Variety's eminence grise, Peter Bart, appears in ROAD, which is a Hollywood story. 

And let's not forget STANLEY'S GIRLFRIEND, the short made as part of the four-part anthology film TRAPPED ASHES, about the real reason Stanley Kubrick emigrated to England -- to escape his beautiful girlfriend, who has turned out to be a vampire. 

As in SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT 3: BETTER WATCH OUT!, he has been enjoying getting away from Ye Olde Natural Light and using constructed, lit sets -- the interiors on SNDN3:BWO! look like Christmas trees*. He's restlessly experimental and ever busy (cf. infra). ROAD was shot on practical locations using a digital camera, which he discovered could be made to look like 35mm, but the film-with-the-film structure was so elaborate that it flew right by everyone. 

Forgotten by young cinephiles? I'm not surprised. He's been forgotten as often as he has been discovered, and the last period, with no TWO-LANE BLACKTOPS, is not exactly fodder for the young: 

2013 Venice 70: Future Reloaded (segment: "Vive L'Amour") 
2010 Road to Nowhere 
2007 Make it Three Yards: A Conversation with James Taylor
2007 Somewhere Near Salinas: A Conversation with Kris Kristofferson
2006 Trapped Ashes (segment: "Stanley's Girlfriend") 
1989 Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out! 
1988 Iguana 


Monte Hellman and Iguana 

Monte Hellman’s Iguana (1988) tells the story of Oberlus (Everett McGill), a harpooner on a nineteenth-century whaling ship who flees to an uninhabited island in the Galapagos chain to escape persecution at the hands of his shipmates because of his monstrous appearance.  Oberlus, who has been deformed from birth, has been afflicted with a face that appears to be half-human, half-lizard.  Recaptured and tortured by his chief persecutor, Captain Gamboa (Fabio Testi), he escapes again and declares war on all mankind.  He captures and enslaves four sailors stranded on the island who become his subjects in a kingdom built on force and terror, and he also captures a woman, an aristocratic Spanish libertine named Carmen (Maru Valdivielso), with whom he has a sadomasochistic love affair that becomes the emotional core of the film. 

The Melville Connection

But the stability of Oberlus’s kingdom is menaced by two events:  Carmen’s father decides to lead a mission to the island to find his daughter, and Gamboa’s ship returns to the harbor.  Stealing aboard in the middle of the night, Oberlus captures Gamboa and burns the ship, and when Gamboa attempts to escape in his turn, Oberlus kills him in a savage duel.  As the rescue party closes in on his hiding place, Oberlus prepares to lead his surviving subjects off the island in a small boat, at the very moment Carmen is about to give birth to a child.  The film ends with an extraordinary gesture by Oberlus which reaffirms his status as a man resolved to live outside any laws but his own.  The last shot recalls the ending of Fritz Lang’s Moonfleet (1955). 

When Iguana opened it had been ten years since we had heard from Monte Hellman.  His last film, China 9, Liberty 37 (1978), was a western full of strange and wonderful surprises, and with Iguana he brought back to life again an imaginaire of sailing ships, pirates, smugglers, and South Sea desert islands previously embodied in the films of Lang, De Mille, Jacques Tourneur, Allan Dwan, and Raoul Walsh, who would have been right at home with this story of a proletarian hero-villain in love with a beautiful aristocrat. 


But like China 9, whose story resembles a folk ballad about loving and killing more than a Hollywood western, Iguana renews the mythology of the sea adventure by a return to its literary roots: not the novel Hellman adapted, a best-seller by the Spanish writer Alberto-Vasquez Figueroa, but Figueroa’s unacknowledged source, which was Herman Melville. 

For while the film’s hero is based on a real nineteenth-century figure, Patrick Watkins, it was Melville who gave Watkins the name Oberlus when he told his sordid story in “Hood Island and the Hermit Oberlus,” the ninth sketch in the series of sketches of life in the Galapagos called The Encantadas or Enchanted Islands.  Hellman learned of the Melville story only once the film was finished. Nevertheless, it is the spirit of Melville, caught in the pages of Figueroa’s sensational novel, that informs Iguana from the first shot of the tattoo on Oberlus’s forearm.  In the blue-filtered night scene when we first see him praying to the gods of Haiti, Oberlus’s face recalls the tattooed face of the heathen harpooner Queequeg in Moby-Dick, although it’s Ahab he comes to resemble in his tyrannical conduct and his self-annihilating quest for revenge.  This tragic interpretation of the character also originated with Melville, who saw the failed ambitions of the misanthropic Oberlus as a mirror of his own condition, after the twin disasters of Moby-Dick and Pierre. 

And Monte Hellman? I have no wish to add to the overly dark portrait that his admirers have painted of him.  It suffices to quote what Hellman himself said in Serge Le Peron’s brief interview for our March 1982 “Made in USA” issue of Cahiers du cinéma, “Le solitaire de Laurel Canyon”:  concerning the state of Hollywood ("Vous êtes venu enquêter dans un desert" / “You have come to investigate a desert”) and his own situation (“Je n’ai aucun ami dans le cinéma américain “I haven’t got a single friend in American cinema”).  To measure the terrible force of those words one thing must be understood:  they were spoken by the most gifted American filmmaker of his generation after Cassavetes, whom he resembles in his solitude. 

A Laconic Cinema

Hellman first made a name for himself in 1965 with two westerns, The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind, made back-to-back, each on a six-week schedule -- early masterpieces that were preceded by apprentice work:  a war movie and a thriller, Back Door to Hell and Flight to Fury (both 1964), made back-to-back in the Philippines on a similar schedule, and two horror films produced by exploitation maestro Roger Corman, Beast from Haunted Cave (1959) and The Terror (1963), the latter of which Corman co-directed and signed.  Then in 1971 came Two-Lane Blacktop, a road picture about car freaks that benefited from more press attention than all of Hellman’s other work combined, thanks to a studio promotional campaign and the work of a smart press attache.  Esquire Magazine actually published the script while the movie was being made, announcing on its cover that Two-Lane Blacktop was going to be “the most important film of the Seventies,” but when it flopped despite good reviews the same magazine gave itself a “Dubious Achievement Award” for jumping the gun.  Between Two-Lane and Iguana came two films:  Cockfighter (1974), a picaresque tale about the South produced by Corman, and China 9, Liberty 37, a western produced by an Italian company and filmed in Spain in 1978.  A detail worth noting:  Hellman made five films with Jack Nicholson before he became a star and four with Warren Oates, to whose memory Iguana is dedicated. 

Two articles in the Cahiers du cinema by Sebastien Roulet on the early westerns and by Pascal Bonitzer on Two-Lane Blacktop convey the excitement these films provoked among European cinephiles when they first appeared.  (The two westerns were released theatrically in France and sold to TV in the US.)  From one film to the next, whatever the subject or genre, a style and a vision were being elaborated within the great tradition of American cinema (Hellman is still a lover of Howard Hawks) -- a style and vision that were nonetheless radically new:  characters without psychologies who came from nowhere; wanderers without fixed destinations; American landscapes seen as if for the first time, nameless and mythic; a decoupage that respected real time and made its slow unfolding, unpunctuated by climaxes, undistorted by “psychological” montage, the true subject of the film; an anti-melodramatic dramaturgy that substituted the encounter -- uncertain, shifting, always a little humorous -- for the duel that had been the master rhetorical figure of classical American cinema; open endings like the famous ending of Two-Lane, when the film burns in the projector gate.  Hellman’s is an existential cinema in many ways like that of Wim Wenders (Wenders minus a certain thematic heaviness that is indissociably linked to his name), but Wenders didn’t make his first short until 1967, and his first feature until 1970.  And Wenders didn’t make westerns. 

One trait characterizes the Hellman hero from the beginning:  his reluctance to speak.  Willet (Oates) in The Shooting, unlike his young friend Coley (Will Hutchens), knows when to keep his mouth shut, while Wes (Nicholson) in Whirlwind is more than once annoyed at the need of his older friend Vern (Cameron Mitchell) to pass the time with pointless conversation.  Wes and Willet survive, and their companions perish.  We know in advance that the heroes of Two-Lane (James Taylor and Dennis Wilson) will win their cross-country race with the blabbermouth GTO (Oates), because they are laconic in the extreme; when they do talk, it’s only to discuss technical matters pertaining to their car.  (Hellman himself is the kind of filmmaker who is most at ease when he is talking about technical matters.  Before he showed me Iguana, he regaled me with an elaborate demonstration of his new videotape recorder, and after the screening we talked at some length about his obsession with direct sound and his respect for the abilities of his post-production supervisor Cesare D’Amico, who enabled him to use dialogue recorded in close proximity to crashing waves.)  Even the unheroic Marty (Richard Sinatra) in Beast from Haunted Cave, the only member of the gang of bank robbers making their getaway on skis who ever sees the Beast that is pursuing them (a giant spider), refuses to tell the others what he has seen, on the improbable pretext that they “wouldn’t believe him” if he did -- and just as improbably, when the Beast attacks the group at the end, Marty survives. 

In the early films this trait is first of all the sign of the hero’s difference, which it was tempting to interpret as a state of spiritual election until Hellman made Cockfighter, a film that radicalized the trait and finally made its significance clear.  The hero of that film, a professional cockfighter named Frank (Oates), is completely mute by choice -- a choice based, logically in view of the rest of Hellman’s oeuvre, on the fear that talking brings bad luck.  Before the beginning of the film Frank lost his chance to win the coveted “Cockfighter of the Year” award because, on the eve of the contest, he bragged too much about his chances and was forced into a premature test of his champion cock’s mettle, during which the cock was killed.  Now Frank has vowed silence until he wins the award.  The hero’s silence, however, can’t be read as a sign of election, because it is broken by intermittent voiceover thoughts that undercut any spiritual interpretation (but not the magical one:  Frank does indeed go on to become “Cockfighter of the Year”).  Instead, as we savor Warren Oates’s brilliant performance, we discover a whole language of gestures that Frank deploys to communicate with others, ranging from mimed proverbs (literally “burying the hatchet” to signify the end of a match) to the shocking symbol that concludes the film, when he twists off the head of his champion cock and forces the woman he loves to take it in her hand -- a hieroglyphic language which, in a film that uses the resources of cinema this cannily, it is impossible not to read as “cinema” (= “writing with images”).  In retrospect, the silence of Hellman’s heroes is revealed to be an aesthetic choice:  the refusal of overt or overly facile messages.  

An anecdote:  when a mutilated version of Cockfighter opened in Los Angeles, it played the bottom half of double bills with another Corman production, Jackson County Jail (1976), whose director, Michael Miller, had used every cliche of movies about the South to tell a heavy-handedly “feminist” tale of rape and revenge, ending with a shootout under the American flag, and that film actually got a better review from the New York Times than Cockfighter.  When I asked Roger Corman why he thought that was, he replied that the film’s commercial failure may have resulted from the fact that “Monte made a quieter film than I had anticipated.”  The adjective has always struck me as absolutely accurate, but the refusal to be governed by the ready-made connotations (implicit significations) of one’s material does not at all imply a refusal to “write.”  On the contrary, it takes a kind of mastery rarely found today to stem, select, and channel the stream of connotations automatically unleashed by a subject as loaded as cockfighting in the state of Georgia into an optimistic film about America where little surrealisms (a bathtub full of dead cocks, a robber of cockfighters wearing a Nixon mask) can just pop up without the ponderous sociological significance they would have in a Jonathan Demme film, and where a theme like racism can appear with approximately the emphasis it would receive in real life (one pretty bad Polish joke). 



All this serves to emphasize the paradoxical quality of the double gesture that defines the hero of Iguana: 

On the one hand, Oberlus, illiterate at the beginning of the film, forces one of his subjects, an educated sailor who is keeping a diary, to teach him to read and write.  All that we see of Oberlus’s skill, however, is two scenes where he refers in passing to Don Quixote and The Odyssey and one shot of him alone on a rock holding a spyglass -- another symbol of his newly-won power -- and writing.  Pointedly associated with the act of seeing, Oberlus’s writing, like Frank’s language of gestures, is a metaphor for cinema.

And indeed in Iguana Hellman deploys, more overtly than in his previous films, a whole system of “writing” that begins with the literal mark of difference on the hero’s face (like Lang in The Big Heat [1953], where Gloria Grahame’s character has one side of her face burned with scalding coffee, and Preminger in Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon [1970], where Liza Minnelli plays a character whose face has been scarred by acid, Hellman is inspired by filming a face that is divided between beauty and monstrousness, humanity and bestiality) and extends to every variety of difference and repetition:  the parallel montage of scenes at the beginning that establish Oberlus and Carmen -- who wishes to freely gratify her sexual desires like a man -- as twin monsters in the eyes of society; the use of music to underline the similarity of the opening and closing credit sequences, and the terrible circularity of Oberlus’s voyage (all the voyages in Hellman’s films are circular); the presence of reflections in mirrors and water in the scenes where Carmen manipulates the men in her life, and rhymes like the scar on Carmen’s father’s cheek (“A little Freud for the critics,” says Hellman drily), or the red cover on the bed in the scene where we see her with her husband, which reappears mysteriously on the bed in Oberlus’s cave.  Like Hellman’s previous films, but in a much more overt and self-consciously symbolic way, the film is “written” from the first shot to the last:  Iguana is Monte Hellman’s first art film. 

On the other hand, Oberlus speaks, quite a bit.  In fact, from the moment he declares, “From now on, I will make my own gods and devils,” the main instrument by which he constructs his new world is speech.  He enacts laws and enunciates the basis of his power to do so; he compares and contrasts his actions to those of “real kings”; he calls his subjects his “children” (“A little Freud for the critics . . .”); he explains to Carmen, in the crudest terms, the nature of her own masochistic enjoyment; he argues that he and she are both “monsters” but also explains the difference between them; he defines his own nature by talking about himself simultaneously in the first and the third persons; he engages in a refined moral calculus with Gamboa; he predicts his own last action, and explains his reasons before performing it.  Everything the film shows (“writes,” connotes), Oberlus says, and always in the same harsh, even, bitterly rational voice. 

Which considerably subverts a fundamental law of the filmmaker’s chosen “genre.”  One example:  art-house audiences may enjoy reading the heroine’s masochistic pleasure in her face during the scene of the rape, but when the rapist takes the time to explain to her (like a true Sadean libertine), “You liked being my slave and getting screwed in the ass.  You’ll have trouble finding someone else like me,” their own pleasure is blocked, or worse:  turned to derision.  Combined with a new self-consciousness about the act of writing, this massive return of denotation creates a singular form, as if the voiceover from a militant film of the early Seventies had been added to, say, Louis Malle’s Au revoir les enfants (1987). A form that deviates only in appearance from the rigorous logic with which Hellman has elaborated his oeuvre until now, except that, from Cockfighter to Iguana, the nature of the hero’s sacrifice has changed:  from a gift of love (to the woman, but also the spectator) to an act of self-mutilation (drowning his own newborn child) that condemns Carmen to the lucidity she had thought to escape (“My child will save me,” she had said).  A new way to “wring the neck of eloquence (Mallarme)”; a new way to make the spectator experience pleasures he has never known before, while imposing on him a lucidity that he has never really desired. 


Born Monte Himmelbaum on July 12, 1932, in New York City , Hellman attended Los Angeles High School after his family moved to LA, then worked as an editor's apprentice at ABC TV before attending Stanford University on a scholarship from ABC.  He worked as an editor on Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels (1966), Bob Rafelson's Head (1968), Sam Peckinpah's The Killer Elite (1975) and Jonathan Demme's Fighting Mad (1976), and he shot extra scenes for Mark Robson’s Avalanche Express when Robson died before finishing the film.  When Corman sold Ski Troop Attack (1960), Last Woman on Earth (1960) and Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961) to television, Hellman shot extra footage to pad the running time of the films, and when American television bought Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964), he shot a prologue with a Clint Eastwood lookalike, filmed from behind, being let out of jail and deputized to clean up a bad town, thereby making all the gun-downs by Eastwood in the film legal.  Legend has it that Corman lent Hellman $500 to produce and direct a stage production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot at a neighborhood theater in LA and lost every cent of his investment.

The Sebastian Roulet article, “Cinq points de rupture,” is in Cahiers du Cinéma No. 205 (October 1968): 57-58.  

Pascal Bonitzer’s article on Two-Lane Blacktop, which elaborates the theory of the duel, and Hellman’s subversion of it, is in Cahiers du Cinéma No. 266-7 (May 1976): 68-69.  

My discussion with Roger Corman is in Cahiers du Cinéma No. 296 (January 1979): 29-33.

Hellman did subsequently venture an interpretation of Iguana, which he sees as the first film of a trilogy based on the myth of Persephone that continued in Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out! and Stanley’s Girlfriend

"Le solitaire de Laurel Canyon" was done by Cahiers editors who came over in 1982 to do a special issue about American cinema. It ended up being two issue, March and April 1982.

Bill Krohn




Deja vu!

In Monte Hellman's latest film, Better Watch Out!, a cop (Robert Culp) chasing a deranged killer asks the scientist (Richard Beymer) who unleashed the killer: "What do you call it when you have deja vu twice?" No reply from the stuffy scientist. "Stupid!" says the cop in answer to his own question, and breaks into prolonged, maniacal laughter. This joke has a history: The book Baseball Humor credits it to Billy Martin, the long-time manager of the New York Yankees. But the excessive length of Culp's laugh -- and everything in Culp's performance is excessive -- invites the viewer, unaccustomed to such pleasures, to think: Why is this man laughing? The answer I hit on, which pleased Hellman, is that he is laughing about the film he is in, whose full title is Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out!. And with good reason. 

For Monte Hellman's new film is a sequel -- the second sequel, in fact -- to one of the most despised examples of the most despised genre in contemporary Hollywood: Silent Night, Deadly Night (Charles Seiler, 1984) is a slasher film which was actually picketed when it was first released in theaters because it is about a homicidal maniac in a Santa Claus costume. In the first sequel, the Santa slasher idea was prudently dropped: Instead, a little boy named Ricky who was traumatized by the events of Silent Night, Deadly Night I grows up to be a slasher himself and has the top of his head blown off by the police in the last scene. But in Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out!, Ricky, equipped by thoughtful doctors with a pump that keeps blood circulating in his brain (plainly visible through a transparent skull), is revived from a coma and takes off in pursuit of the blind girl whose attempts to contact him telepathically, as part of a parapsychological experiment being conducted by Beymer, have awakened him to kill again. 

In this context, Culp's little joke is a pointed reminder to Beymer that when disaster strikes a third time, we have only our own stupidity to blame -- a remark that could apply as well to people who make sequels, which invariably hit an all-time low when the Roman numeral three is affixed to the title. (This rule was emphatically confirmed six years ago when the producers of Jaws, Friday the 13th and The Amityville Horror all simultaneously came up with the idea of doing "number three" in 3-D). Of course, you couldn't prove it by the boxoffice figures for this summer, when it seemed that each new sequel that opened was going to break the opening-weekend record set by the sequel that opened just before it, until Batman came along and rewrote the book on opening-weekend records, probably for all time. But the esthetic consequences of this strategy, which were on view during the first weeks of summer, were dreadful: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, a lifeless "romp" that actually made me yearn for the gory excesses of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom; Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, whose quest for Kubrickian sublimity was hopelessly hamstrung by William Shatner's Sam Woodian mise en scène; Ghostbusters II, the pits. 

There's no denying that the strategy still works: Even the Star Trek film, which appalled all but the most devoted "Trekkies," has made about $50 million, while Indiana Jones III has pulled in $180 million to date, and Ghostbusters II racked up $104 million before word got around that everyone in the film but Rick Moranis was 
walking in his sleep. Audiences, like children, never seem to tire of the Same: After publicly apologizing for betraying the spirit of the first Indiana Jones in the sequel, Lucas and Spielberg won favor with critics and audiences alike by making The Last Crusade an exact copy of Raiders of the Lost Ark, while Ivan Reitman and his collaborators actually counted on audiences finding their imaginative exhaustion funny (a walking Statue of Liberty in place of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, etc.), like an old stand-up comic who gets laughs out of the fact that he hasn't thought of a new joke in years. 

But there are also signs that the filmmakers were thinking about the implications of all this: The makers of Ghostbusters seem to be defending themselves against the well-publicized charges of greed hurled at them by former Columbia head David Puttnam, when they covertly satirize Puttnam, the man who almost kept the "long-awaited" sequel from happening, via the character of the politician with the piercing blue eyes who has gotten a court injunction to prevent Murray and Company from busting ghosts -- until all hell breaks loose and the inhabitants of New York City, who are portrayed unambiguously as an audience, are once again able to revel in their heroes' exploits. And I'm sure Spielberg and Lucas knew what they were doing when they cast Sean Connery, the original James Bond, as Indiana Jones' father -- a reflection on the origins of the character and the series alike which bears fruit in the Prologue, starring River Phoenix as the youthful Indiana, before degenerating into a series of witless exchanges hinging on Connery's irritating habit of calling Harrison Ford "Junior." 

A film about repetition

And yet, the history of Hollywood is rich in examples they might have followed had they wished to deepen these reflections. Many of our greatest filmmakers confined themselves to creating variations on the rigidly repetitive rules of one particular genre (Budd Boetticher's westerns with Randolph Scott are a particularly flagrant example), and the very idea of an "auteur" is predicated on the notion of repetition: Raoul Walsh, who must have produced every possible variation on the myth that underlies each of his films, spent much of the late Forties and Fifties remaking his pre-war masterpieces (One Sunday Afternoon = Strawberry BlondeColorado Territory = High Sierra, etc. . .), while Howard Hawks capped the enigma that was his career by making the same western (Rio Bravo) three times, ending with Rio Lobo, a film whose credit sequence evokes the idea of variation as a mathematical game with close-ups of the vibrating strings of a guitar which is playing the film's theme-song. 

But for a coherent contemporary approach to the problem, we have to turn back to Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out!, where America's best filmmaker, after undertaking one notably successful youthful experiment with repetition and variation (the two westerns with Jack Nicholson and Millie Perkins) and putting his personal stamp on a number of classical genres, returns to the genre he started with, the low-budget horror film, and makes a sequel that raises serious questions about what it means to make a sequel. Certainly for Hellman fans, the most "personal" moments in this strange little film will be the scenes between Culp's profane cop and Beymer's polysyllabic scientist, wandering around in their car in the darkness on the edges of the story, discussing criminology, philosophy, psychology, parapsychology and cellular telephones while Ricky is busy at his bloody work somewhere down the road. But what is the subject to which their meandering dialogue keeps returning? Beymer, who thinks he was right to awaken Ricky from his coma, wants the sequel to be made, while Culp, who would prefer that he hadn't, does not. Deja vu two times, he says, is stupid -- to which Beymer will obliquely reply: "We're all guilty, of being stupid, irrational, doomed, and badly designed. Only science can restore our innocence. Ricky isn't a killer. He's a way to stop people from killing, like snake venom is a cure for snakebite." But if we're all stupid, it's because we're all caught up in the endless cycle of deja vu, because all films, for a long time now, are sequels, or remakes, when they aren't simply parodies, of films that have already been made. 

Like Ruiz's Treasure Island, which is about characters consciously reenacting Stevenson's story once a year as a game, SNDN3:BWO! is a film about repetition. One indication of the filmmaker's intentions: As Ricky is killing them off one by one, the other characters are watching scenes from The Terror (1963), the second horror film Hellman made for Roger Corman, on TV -- a significant choice, for apart from the obvious joke about cannibalizing one's own work, The Terror is the funniest example I know of Hollywood's habit of feeding on its own flesh. The story is well known: With two days left on Boris Karloff's contract for The Raven, Corman improvised part of a new film with him on the Raven sets, which he eventually turned over to Hellman to finish, signing it himself and releasing it as The Terror; then when Karloff sued for part of the profits, Corman made a deal for him to act in another film incorporating outtakes from The Terror, which became Peter Bogdanovich's first film, Targets. (As my cousin Margot said, "It's like when you make a souffle and you have some egg-whites left over, so you decide to make a cake...") By incorporating fragments of The Terror in yet another film (which also uses clips from SNDN1), Hellman has therefore added a third chapter ("What do you call it when you have deja vu twice?") to a Hollywood legend whose end is not yet in sight. 

For in the last analysis, the film shows Beymer, who hopes to stop the cycle of repetition by understanding Ricky, to be as wrong as Culp: Ricky is just a psychotic killer, and when Beymer sympathetically stretches his hand out to him, he is killed like the obsessed scientist in Howard Hawks' The Thing. His dying words to the detective -- "Don't be stupid!" -- are an admission of his failure: The cycle of repetition can't be stopped. As other doctors put the still breathing body of Ricky in the ambulance while Culp watches helplessly, one of them says, "If we hurry, we can still save this one!" But Beymer's speech about science can be interpreted differently: The only way to restore our innocence -- the innocence of seeing for the first time --is through the practice of homeopathy: i.e. more of the  Same. By accepting repetition, by returning to the origin of the evil and making yet another slasher film, the most carbon-copied genre in Hollywood history (we are in the summer of Friday the 13th, Part 8), perhaps the filmmaker can teach us to see again. 

Le Même et l'Autre

In point of fact, the idea of using The Terror came to Hellman late in the game; the script merely specifies that the characters are all watching a movie starring Boris Karloff, signifying that, for Hellman, taking the slasher genre and "making it new" means going back beyond Halloween and Friday the 13th to the real origin of the genre, which for him is James Whale's Frankenstein. (Curiously, Roger Corman seems to have had the same thought: As I write he is in Italy putting the finishing touches on Roger Corman's Frankenstein Unbound, his first film as a director in almost twenty years.) It is from Frankenstein, of course, that Hellman got his mad scientist, destroyed by the creature he made, but more important, by modeling SNDN3:BWO! on the film which set the pattern for the classical horror film, he was able to portray differently the central figure of the modern horror film, which is the prototype for the cinema of sequels: the slasher. 

For the corollary of the American cinema's obsession with the Same has always been the figure of the Other, which can still be seen in Star Trek V in its Hawksian form (the Klingons: enemies today, friends tomorrow), but which modern Hollywood films prefer to treat as an absolute (Nazis in Indiana Jones III, demons from hell in Ghostbusters II). In its purest form, this obsession produces the shark in Jaws, the film which started the vogue for sequels, and his low-budget descendant, the slasher, who makes possible a serial cinema predicated on the acts of a serial killer. And it is precisely in the slasher film, beginning with John Carpenter's subjective travelling shots from the point of view of the Shape in Halloween, that a crucial fact about this configuration has become clear enough for even a Hollywood producer to understand: Since the slasher embodies the repressed desires of the audience, they identify as much with him as they do with his victims, who represent normality -- witness the enormous popularity, even with young children, of Freddy Kruger, the child-molester with steel claws who is the raison d'etre of the Nightmare on Elm Street series, the fifth episode of which opened last week. All that matters is that the dichotomy be maintained, so that the spectator can have the pleasure of alternately identifying with the slasher and his victim, until the slasher is ritually dispatched, to return in the sequel. 

That is where Hellman, by going back to Whale's great film, renews the genre: Not by making Ricky sympathetic -- if anything, he is less psychological, more of a cypher even than Karloff's Monster -- but first of all, paradoxically, by keeping him at a distance. Except for one very short travelling shot, too short to function as anything but an index of menace, we are never put in the position of the omnipotent eye, prowling in search of prey; when we see things from Ricky's point of view, it is within the framework of the classical shot-reverse shot, which signifies, on the contrary, the equality and co-presence of Ricky and his victims. By the same token, Hellman avoids all the cliches of the genre -- close-ups of the slasher's eyes, looming low-angle shots -- which would have transformed Ricky into a creature of another species: more or less than human, or both at once, but in any case, absolutely distinct from the other characters in the film. Instead, Ricky has the right to be framed like the other characters, or even to appear with them in the same frame. Monstrous as he is, he is simply another character, caught up in the same suspenseful situation they are -- except that he's the one with the knife. This distance, with its corollary of freedom, is the position Hellman has always accorded to the spectator of his films; by according it to him in extremis in a genre built on the most primitive forms of identification, he has made the first contemplative slasher film. 


The real hero of SNDN3:BWO! is Laura, the blind psychic who enters into telepathic contact with the still-comatose Ricky in the opening scenes of the film and is pursued by him until she dispatches him in a darkened cellar at the end, and as in Iguana, which tells the story of a sadomasochistic love affair between a woman and a monster, this female character represents the audience. When we first see her, she is being subjected to the manipulations of the inquiring scientist, who forces her to identify alternately with the victim (the dream that begins the film, in which Laura is menaced by a killer Santa, then by Ricky) and with the slasher (the flashbacks to SNDN1, from the point of view of Ricky as a child). This opening is like a miniature version of a slasher film, from which Laura flees, provoking Beymer to observe that she is rejecting her own psychic powers -- an idea that is later taken up by the ghost of Laura's murdered grandmother, who tells her to use her powers to save herself. 

But this hackneyed idea, which was the basis of the script that Hellman was given and completely rewrote, is discarded in the film's closing scenes: Trapped in the darkened cellar with Ricky, Laura does not use her psychic powers; instead she calls seductively for him to come and take her, and when he falls on her and embraces her, she thrusts a sharpened stick through his heart. For the other archetype Hellman had in mind in making this film was the same one which underlies Iguana: In an interview with Diane Sherry in the current issue of Modern Times, he half-jokingly describes SNDN3:BWO! as "the second film in my 'Beauty and the Beast' trilogy" -- referring not to Cocteau's film, but to the fairy-tale, which he interprets as the myth of any person's first encounter with and eventual acceptance of sexuality. ("I think all these horror films," he told me in a phone conversation, "are about sex.") If Laura rejects the pseudo-power promised to the spectator of a slasher film -- the power to identify in hypnotic alternation with the slasher and his victim -- she does so because, like Carmen in Iguana, she will ultimately claim her real power by the simple expedient of accepting her desire, with the result that, in the brief shot where she embraces Ricky, the dichotomy which founds the genre is broken down in a promiscuous mingling of bodies, indistinguishable in the darkness. And if the stake through the heart seems to work now, where just a minute before a blast from a double-barreled shotgun wielded by Laura's unfortunate brother failed, it's because Ricky is also a descendant of Dracula, feeding on the unacknowledged desire of the woman who brought him to life. Once that desire has been reclaimed, he can finally die. 

Or so it seems. SNDN3:BWO! begins with a shot of Laura reclining on a hospital bed; hearing Ricky's voice calling her name, she turns and looks at the camera. This shot has no reverse shot, because Laura is blind. But at the end, as Culp is driving her away from the scene of the carnage in a state of shock, she looks off-screen with the same blind stare and says, as if to no one: "Merry Christmas," summoning up Ricky in reverse shot: Wearing a tux and holding up a glass of champagne, he replies "...and a Happy New Year!" One year ends, another begins: The promise of a sequel. But also of a new beginning: Until now, Ricky's vocabulary has been limited to Laura's name, but with this first exchange of words, we have left the realm of the Imaginary -- with its hall of mirrors where le Même and l'Autre, the Same and the Other, can only repeat themselves to infinity -- and entered the realm of the Symbolic. 

Ça continue...

More banally, it looks as if Monte Hellman, by taking it seriously, has signed the death warrant of this particular genre: Already, according to a story in today's Hollywood Reporter, the latest sequels to Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street are performing so miserably that the death knell for the slasher film may have sounded, and with it the whole cinema of repetition that has set the tone for this depressing summer, which also saw Karate Kid III and The Living Daylights bite the dust, with cumulative grosses of $36 million and $40 million, respectively. Even the grosses of Ghostbusters II are viewed in some quarters as disappointing, relative to the expectations aroused by its predecessor's cumulative gross of $220 million. Of course, there will be certainly be a Lethal Weapon III, not to mention Predator II, Die Hard II and Alien III. Two sequels to Back to the Future are being shot back-to-back as I write -- one set in the future and the other in the Old West. Buoyed by the success of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, the Disney Studios have reportedly registered the titles Honey, I Made the Kids Invisible and Honey, I Sent the Kids to the Moon, and the producers of Batman have announced plans for two sequels with or without Tim Burton and Michael Keaton, who are getting set to start Beetlejuice II

But perhaps we will see more interesting results coming out of the next batch of sequels, modeled on Coppola's Godfather films rather than on Jaws, which Desmond Rochester describes in an article in the new American Film: sequels to some of the key films of the Seventies, made for the most part by participants who will be revisiting, with the wisdom of middle age, the triumphs of their youth. The most promising of these projects are Francis Coppola's Godfather III, to be filmed in Rome with most of the original cast, and Peter Bogdanovich's Texasville, the sequel to The Last Picture Show which started filming yesterday in Archer City, Texas, with Cybill Shepherd, Timothy Bottoms and Jeff Bridges; but it will also be good to see Two Jakes, Robert Towne's sequel to Chinatown, finally up on the screen, with Jack Nicholson directing. Even The Exorcist: 1990, with William Peter Blatty directing from his own script, sounds like an attempt on the part of the man who wrote the first blockbuster of the Seventies to revisit with conscious purpose a milestone on the path that has brought us to our present impasse. And for those of us who know the importance of the theme of replication to the director of Piranha and Hollywood Boulevard (which also, if memory serves, used footage from The Terror), the news that Joe Dante is filming Gremlins II is reason for guarded optimism. 

Bill Krohn 

The "Ye Olde Natural Lighting" versus "constructed, lit sets" line in Bill's email refers to a dialectic of light and design in Hellman's films, as he worked with Catalan cinematographer Josep M. Civet, from Iguana to Road to Nowhere that became an entire essay, "Monte Hellman Today", included in Bill's recent book Letters from Hollywood.