Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Patreon Post: Self-Made Awful Objects

By Gemma Files, for Patreon

Every once in a while—most 'specially when you're a former film critic with a library full of DVDs and BluRays to program from, I guess—a thematic mash-up double feature suggests itself that's odd enough on the face of it, you really just have to make it so. So by “you” I obviously mean me, for which I apologize. The double feature in question, meanwhile, turns out to be roughly four hours of Evil Nazi Magneto Movies separated by ten years of film history: Blood Creek (2008, dir. Joel Schumacher, starring New Hotness Flavour cinematic Magneto Michael Fassbender), followed by Apt Pupil (1998, dir. Bryan Singer, adapted from the novella of the same name by Stephen King and starring Old-School Original Flavour cinematic Magneto himself, Sir Ian McKellen).

Though Schumacher rightly takes a lot of shit from genre fans, primarily for the sin of having single-handedly busting the Batman movie franchise back down to jokey Adam West TV show level before Christopher Nolan finally reinvented it, I actually have to say that Blood Creek is a real keeper, at least from my POV. It's got an amazing amount of the things I like most, all stuck together in one freakish package: Thule Society Nazi black magic shenanigans, Hellboy-esque Lovecraftian undertones, starting things in the middle, on the run, without too much explanation. Plus, the monster of choice (Ahnenerbe researcher Richard Wirth, once a rising star in SS director Heinrich Himmler's secret crypto-archaeology project, who uses the power of a Viking runestone buried in the foundations of a German immigrant family's West Virginia horse-farm to make himself into less a vampire per se than some sort of zombie necromancer, a draugr or afturgangr, a seidr-practicing revenant) is actually played by a genuine actor, for once—Fassbender, then late of Inglourious Basterds, who starts off all handsome and charming, tricks his hapless hosts into selling their souls for $150 in World War II-era dollars, then eventually degenerates into a char-skinned Aryan Blood Whisperer who spends most of his time either imprisoned in the basement until sunset or bringing random animals and humans back to life to use as weapons against his enemies, all while wearing a fetching vest made from his ancestors' bones over his flapping black leather duster.

Our story begins in 1938, with Wirth descending on the Wollners, fascinating their daughter Liese (played as a child by Andreea Perminov, as an adult by Emma Booth) by showing her how to resurrect her dead pets, then exacting a literal blood-price for his services. After this handy flashback, we fast-forward to the present, which sees rural paramedic Evan Marshall (Henry Cavill) treating meth addicts and patching up accident victims all day before returning to look after his bitter old veteran father at night, who still blames him for “losing” his older brother Victor (Dominic Purcell) during an ill-fated camping trip that took place right after Victor's return from Iraq. One night, Evan wakes to find a no longer missing Victor leaning over his bed, sporting wild eyes, matted hair and a long, dirty beard; he claims to have been captured and imprisoned by a family of “crazy people” who tortured him every evening, then staked him out and allowed something grotesque to feed on his blood—the Wollners, obviously. Traumatized to the point of insanity by these experiences, Victor demands that Evan must come along with him as back-up while he exacts his revenge on his tormentors...and though Evan knows in his heart this is a bad idea, he feels guilty enough about leaving Victor behind that he can't quite refuse his big bro's apparently deranged request.

So back they go to the farm, where they invade the Wollners' homestead, shoot Liese's brother Karl, tie Liese and her parents to chairs and make an inventory of the place. Evan checks the stable Victor claims he was kept in and discovers they've already replaced him with another wounded vagrant (Shea Whigham), chained up like a judas goat waiting for Wirth to come drink from the wounds on his back; the farmhouse's windows and doors have all been haphazardly marked with the rune dagaz (“day” or “fire”), which the bits of knowledge Liese managed to pick up from Wirth before turning on him indicate will keep him out as long as they remain intact. Evan also finds photographic evidence that she's been “seventeen longer than [Evan's] been alive”—first Wirth's victim, then his Renfield, then his keeper. Kept from aging by Wirth's proximity, the Wollners remain tied to their farm both in an effort to make sure he doesn't leave and because they're well aware they'd age and die almost immediately if they went any further away than it takes to barter for food and parts at the next farm. Besides which, as Liese points out, Wirth isn't quite finished his transformation yet; tonight is an eclipse of the moon, the first in 600 years, during which he can supposedly open his “third eye” (with a chisel!) and become permanently un-defeatable. 

(This last part is contextually weird in the extreme, a Lovecraftian or possibly Tibetan touch; the Ahnenerbe were notoriously interested in Bulwer-Lytton's “Vril” theory and its potential crossover with Tibetan Buddhist thought, believing as they did that the Tibetans were a fragment of an earlier pure Aryan race which had supposedly conquered most of Asia. Hard to think that a gloriously unrepentant “B” movie like Blood Creek can really be folding in legitimate Nazi apocrypha like that, though, except sidelong.)

Sidebar: I'd love to have seen Liese as a main rather than a supporting character, rebellious yet fatalistic in that prototypically German way as she is, a very old woman in a very young woman's smooth skin, albino-blonde to the point of being slightly rabbit-eyed but always thinking, always reacting, determined above all to both frustrate Wirth's plans and never become his “property” again. The real struggle has always been between the two of them, even though they barely seem to talk anymore—Wirth kills the Wollner horses and then brings them back so he can send them crashing through the front door like battering rams and kick out the rune-inscribed windows, brings back Karl and his father so they can finish Liese off before she can fill Evan and Victor in on the situation, kills poor Shea Whigham for a snack and then basically forgets all about him, leaving him to stumble into the house in turn, begging Evan to lock him away before he can hurt anybody. He struts around wearing Fassbender's trademark spiky grin, peeling away first his filth-stiff head-bandages, then the leathery yellow scab of a face he has left underneath to reveal a fresh, creepily pore-less expanse of moonburnt white skin, scarred all over with protective runes of his own.

The sole time Wirth seems to get genuinely pissed off is when Liese throws the ancient evil texts she stole from him out the window and gets Evan to set them on fire, especially once he realizes she actually did it to create a diversion so Victor can sneak into the barn and steal Wirth's precious bone-jacket. Then they manage to pulverize one of the bones, grind the resultant paste into Evan's wounds and tempt Wirth to drink “his own” blood, which weakens him enough that Victor can garotte/partially decapitate him with a length of barbed wire. After that, Liese dies and we find out that not only did Himmler apparently sent eight more Nazi agents to investigate other potential runestone finds, if you connect the places they must have ended up in on on a map, they form a swastika. The clear implication at the end is that Evan—who's shown cutting dagaz permanently into his own chest—will become a Nazi vampire-hunter, while the still shell-shocked Victor, who leaves a party celebrating his return to stand in the Wollner farm's ashes staring at that same damn runestone sticking up out of the burnt-black ground, might be thinking about using it to make himself into a Nazi vampire.

Does any of this mean I think Blood Creek ranks as some sort of masterpiece? Oh, hell no; much like Warlock, Tales From the Crypt: Demon Knight and Outpost in their turn, it's just an unpretentious straight-to-“video” thrill-ride with a cool thesis and compact execution, not to mention a great cast. But it's weirdly satisfying nonetheless, not to mention genuinely creepy; though we see relatively little of him except in action, Fassbender manages to project the impression that Wirth is both a true believer and a self-made awful object, my favourite kind, practicing a forgotten form of magic that he barely seems to understand and piling curse after curse on top of himself in the vain hope he'll somehow be able to win a war that's been over since 1945. Watching him roll around in horse manure while scuffling with Superman-to-be and that other guy from Prison Break is hella fun, though, especially when you posit the whole cast of Vikings giving him the side-eye at the same time for messing with shit only the gods have ever gotten away with—ergi's a bitch, draugr-man! Now lie down and stay down, you genocidal asshat.

Apt Pupil, on the other hand, has a genuine whiff of the Oscar-worthy about it...Hitchcockian in structure from inception on, a weirdly intimate power-struggle between straight-A high school student Todd Bowen (Brad Renfro), the seemingly squeaky-clean young American with an attraction towards what King calls “the gooshy stuff” but Singer paraphrases as “everything...they don't want us to know” about the Holocaust, and the literal predator next door: former SS Sturmbahnfuhrer/Patin concentration camp commander Kurt Dussander (McKellen), an uncaught war criminal who escaped justice after the fall of Berlin only to end up permanently masquerading as old Mr Denker from down the block, eccentric neighbourhood misanthrope, who's never seen without a cigarette in one hand and a glass of straight vodka in the other.

Todd wants all the details his teachers wouldn't give him, gory and otherwise—what it's like to be given a legal license to kill and torment, how it feels to have that much power over other people, to be able to do whatever you want so long as it eventually leads to the men, women and children you've been told to get rid of disappearing without a trace. And these are all things Dussander's obviously tried not to think about for a very long time—not because he didn't enjoy doing them or wouldn't like to revisit those memories, but because allowing himself to remember who he was threatens the already-shaky illusion of the person he needs to be in order to not eventually find himself on a plane to Israel. But it's too late, right from the start; Todd's done his homework, as ever—printed Dussander's mailbox, matched those prints with his outstanding Wanted sheet. The old monster is trapped by a monster-to-be.

So Todd “helps” poor old Mr Denker after school every day, and Dussander pays him for the privilege with anecdotes about the gas chambers and the mass graves, stories so fascinating yet horrifying that they gradually infect every part of the rest of Todd's life. His grades fall off, the one thing he knows his parents won't stand for; his friendships and team sports participation suffer, as does his dating. “Maybe you don't even like girls!” one suggests, laughing, as they share a joint in her Dad's car, so he tries to re-seize the upper hand by buying an SS uniform through the mail and making Dussander wear it, drilling him like a life-size action figure, only to get freaked out by how “real” he suddenly looks. Dussander, in turn, begins to have his own re-awakened cravings for total power, total control—he tries to stuff a stray cat into his oven, then notices a homeless man (Elias Koteas) rooting through the trash cans in his backyard, staring up at him as he stands in front of the mirror with “his” uniform on. The next step should be obvious.

Throughout the film, there's more than a whiff of sadomasochistic homoeroticism about Todd and Dussander's back-and-forth “relationship,” with Todd initially the dominant, masculine voyeur and Dussander the symbolically passive, feminized object of his gaze—a reading not only suggested but seemingly cemented by Singer and McKellen's shared status as proudly out gay men. (Interestingly, Schumacher is also gay, though most people don't seem to register that fact, even when noting the odd campiness of Batman and Robin's nippled suits of armor.) McKellen was not the original casting choice for Dussander, since a version of Apt Pupil directed by Alan Bridges starring Rick Schroeder as Todd and Nicol Williams as Dussander was partially shot in 1987, only to be discarded after Williams died partway through principal photography; he was, however, Singer's only choice for the role once Singer was able to jump-start his own production—it was the first time they worked together, and thus led directly to McKellen being cast as Erik Lehnsherr in Singer's 2000 X-Men. This reading would also appear to be confirmed by an exchange that occurs after Dussander has forced the redistribution of power between he and Todd, making Todd equally complicit and guilty in Dussander's crimes by tricking him into completing a murder Dussander begins: “Fuck you,” Todd snarls, to which Dussander replies, with sly McKellen charm: “But my dear boy, don't you see? We are fucking each other.”

Given the overtness of this subtext, I should probably mention the scandal that attended Apt Pupil's filming. A shower scene in which Todd imagines his fellow showering students as Jewish gas chamber prisoners was filmed at Eliot Middle School in Altadena, California, and two weeks later a 14-year-old extra filed a lawsuit alleging that Singer forced him and other extras to strip naked for the scene. Two other boys, 16 and 17 years old, later supported the 14-year-old's claim. The boys claimed trauma from the experience, seeking charges against the filmmakers that included negligence, infliction of emotional distress and invasion of privacy. Allegations were made that the boys were filmed for sexual gratification, as national tabloid programs stirred the controversy, but the Los Angeles District Attorney's office eventually determined that there was no cause to file criminal charges, stating there was “no indication of lewd or abnormal sexual intent.” A civil case was later dismissed due to insufficient evidence, and the scene was filmed again with adult actors so the film could finish on time.

According to media theorist Rob Cover, the lawsuit reflected current cultural concerns about nudity on film being connected to sexual or erotic forms of gazing. Writing in the journal Body & Society, Cover stated: “The ways in which the accusation that the director and other crew members identified as gay is seen to collapse gay identity into gay sexual behaviour, but the wholesale collapse of nudity into sexuality.” Singer has since been consistently accused of being part of a Hollywood “gay mafia” who supposedly extort sexual favours from underaged or barely-legal actors, and has had two civil cases launched against him for sexual assault of a minor, most recently in 2014, right before the release of X-Men: Days of Future Past. Both suits were later withdrawn by the complainants.

Do elements of Bryan Singer as potential abuser come across in Apt Pupil? The relationship between Todd and Dussander can certainly be seen as one of mutual grooming, at the very least. Todd is afraid of his own kinship with Dussander, of his own capacities, so he wants to isolate them outside himself and control them through the control he exerts over Dussander; Dussander tops from below by turning this back on Todd, regaining his own lost power by showing Todd that being able to recognize what's inside Dussander will never extract the possibility of that same “gooshy stuff” being inside Todd, of it having always been inside him. Maybe Dussander alleviates his guilt by pretending everyone else is equally guilty; maybe he's weirdly proud of being the one monster who can do this awful stuff, get away with it and enjoy having both done it and having gotten away with it. McKellen, brilliantly, plays all these “maybes” simultaneously.

Of course, Singer's also Jewish and he also grew up in the same Southern California suburban milieu as Todd, two things which probably contributed to him wanting to do the film in the first place; he says himself that he patterned Todd's school and home after his own. And while Brad Renfro plays Todd beautifully, that wasn't ever the same sort of place he came from—on some level, he really was that kid in The Client, a trailer-park hustler/victim caught up in indie Hollywood's sub-glamour, and on some level he stayed that all his life. On some level, he died of it.

At any rate—back in Apt Pupil, things fall apart, and with startling swiftness; though Dussander manages to pull Todd's academic fat out of the fire by impersonating Todd's grandfather, thus persuading super-nice guidance counsellor Mr French (David Schwimmer) to allow Todd time to get his grades up to par, Dussander's “slip” back into his old murder-habit brings on a heart attack that lands him in hopital—right next to a Patin concentration camp survivor. He wakes the next morning to discover a black American FBI agent named Richler (Joe Morton) and Nazi hunter Dr Isaac Weiskopf (Jan Triska) by his bedside, happily informing him that he's going to be investigated, then deported; his house is searched and the homeless man's body found, even as Todd manages to look exactly as surprised as his parents expect him to be by the revelation of who that nice old man he volunteers with used to be.

The grand finale comes with two juxtaposed sequences, cut between for maximum ironic effect. During the first, Dussander manages to distract his suicide watch long enough to be able to kill himself by inhaling carbon monoxide, in karmically just imitation of his former victims—we close on a shot of McKellen's contorted face, eyes slightly crossed in death, as the jaunty Marlene Dietrich tune “Das Ist Berlin” plays over the film's credits. This “study in cruelty” Singer undertook would seem to be over—but then there's the parallel pay-out to Mr French's realization that Todd's “grandfather” must, in fact, have been Dussander in not particularly effective disguise. French shows up at Todd's house just after Todd's graduation ceremony, planning to confront him about what happened, only to have his righteous disgust promptly turned back on him by an apt pupil who remembers every lesson he ever learned at the master's feet; Todd retreats behind his bright and hollow facade, promising French that if he tries to suggest Todd knew who Dussander was all along, Todd will accuse French of making inappropriate sexual advances towards him and imply that he's a pedophile. “You have no idea what I'm capable of,” Todd says, his blue eyes just as dead as Dussander's, bouncing his basketball.

Like Madame la Marquise de Merteuil in Dangerous Liaisons, Todd appears to have found a perfect way to get what he wants and then, if someone wants to tell his secrets, make sure “he finds he can't; that's the whole story.” And unlike the King novella, Apt Pupil the film doesn't end with even an implication that Todd might self-destruct later on—Singer's point is that he's learned far too well for that, hiding behind the all-American goy mask he was born in without a shred of guilt. Sure, Richler and Weiskopf suspect him, but what can they prove, really? We'll all just have to wait and see what comes next—Wall Street or baseball success, Congress, the White House, more mass graves. Good or bad, anything's possible when you're not afraid of anything anymore, even yourself.

So there you go. As Sonya Taaffe notes, both films are stories of a conscious descent into monstrosity, one pulpily supernatural, the other atrociously real...not to mention that both monsters trace their provenance back to a war that's supposedly long over, a brand of evil supposedly far too deeply-stained to ever seem attractive again. But unfortunately, fascism's ill lure—that clear link between pleasure in violence and its most fatal, Othering exercise—never really does seem to go out of style; we still end with Victor staring at the runestone, with Todd accepting that his future will be powered by him becoming Dussander's living legacy, a one-man reborn Reich in the making. King was sure no one like Todd could outlive his own “maker,” but for all his faults, Singer knows damn well—from several angles—how not only how things like these really can happen here too, but that they almost inevitably will. Thus Apt Pupil seems about as horribly prescient in hindsight as Blood Creek remains ridiculous, from where we are right now.


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