DVDanger: Of Flesh, Blood and Boners
"The Final Member" gets phallic, plus "Dracula" and "Ravenous" bite
By Richard Whittaker,
8:00AM, Tue. Jun. 17, 2014
If films teach us one thing, it's that the human body is a frail thing, and that the greatest myth we teach ourselves is that we are eternally inviolate.
That makes any quest for immortality a fool's errand. But what if at least a little bit of you can go on, at least after the rest has passed to dust? In most religions, that piece is the soul. In The Final Member (Drafthouse/Cinedigm), it's the penis.
This curious, whimsical and assidiously non-exploitative documentary debuted at Fantastic Fest, and charts the quest by Sigurður Hjartarson to complete his collection for the Icelandic Phallological Museum. Hjartarson (or Siggi to his friends) has spent the last four decades collecting examples of every mammalian penis, from the smallest mouse to the biggest whale. But the one artefact he lacks is human junk.
The search quickly becomes a tug (phrasing!) of war between two differingly odd gentlemen engaging in an intercontinental clash of nerves and neuroses. Pall Arason is an Icelandic national treasure, an adventurer and rugged outdoorsman in a nation of hunters and hikers: A serial womanizer, he wants to retain a little piece of his libido for the after life. Then there's Tom Mitchell – who dubs his penis Elmo and has it tattooed with the stars and stripes – who seems like a crazy American with a peculiar obsession. Both want to be the first man to make the ultimate donation to the collection (Mitchell so much so that he promises to deliver pre-mortem, just in case the aging Arason doesn't shuffle off this mortal coil fast enough.)
But this is Siggi's story, as much as his donors. Behind the quirk and recoil of a phallogically-obsessed topic, he's a serious man, a former high school teacher with an academic's approach to the subject. As his old friend and doctor explains, he found a subject that people don't talk about, and he feels obligated to remove the taboo. His concerns are not what people think (there's a sense that he went though that argument years ago) but purely how to complete this collection. And that's this collection, not -his- collection. His concerns are those of a seasoned curator, like how to display, how to collect, and if there's shrinkage (it is Iceland, after all.)
There's some interesting digressions into the sociological handling of penises, including an ancient Icelandic story that casts our modern phobias about sexuality in a highly unflattering light. That old folk tale talks about humility and physical obligation, and that's what The Final Member is really about. While his donors bluff and bluster about how they will or won't have their contribution displayed, Siggi contends with his own mortality, his legacy, and his own commitment to finish the collection. As he strolls around the museum, pointing out the massive girth of a sperm whale member, or the dual penises of an American possum, he finds beauty and fascination.
Canadian co-directors Jonah Bekhor and Zach Math are never exploitative: Instead, they follow Siggi's lead and never blanche at the site of all that cock. Their previous directorial contribution was one minute short Egg Love (although Bekhor has produced several docs, including SXSW 2013 astronomical obsession Lunarcy!) Their victory here is in looking past the bush, to find the hopes and fears of the old men behind the organ.
While The Final Member is a documentary, mostly it is left to horror to describe how we dispose of our corporeal frame: Or, in the case of vampires, what happens when we won't stay dead. There are two great underrated, even borderline forgotten adaptations of Bram Stoker's vampiric masterwork Dracula: John Badham's 1979 adaptation, with Frank Langella recreating that part of the count as he played it in his Tony-nominated Broadway production; and this new release, 1973's TV adaptation Dan Curtis' Dracula (MPI) Yup, the guy that created the kitschy nonsense that was Dark Shadows also directed one of the most earnest and malevolent incarnations of the Carpathian killer.
It's Jack Palance under the cape, and in some ways this may be his finest hour. There are hints of Bela Lugosi's part-defining depiction, but Palance brings something new to the role: A world-weary desperation, an ancient pain that can never be appeased. Moreover, he is never afraid to bring out the fierce brutality of the count, After all, he is a monster, a predator of unstoppable brute force and appetites. There's a certain curl to his lip when he reveals his canines, a restrained muscularity when he stands, bolt upright. It also helps that he has eyes, like the saying goes, like two pissholes in the snow. In one of the scant extras included here, Palance admits that he never watched the film, because his method approach meant he found himself sinking alarmingly deep into the part.
The other ace in the hole was a script by the mighty Richard Matheson. The author of such peerless gothic tales as Roger Corman's The Pit and the Pendulum, The Devil Rides Out and, of course, the oft-adapted I am Legend, his story fills some obvious plot holes (can anyone really explain why the count leaves Carpathia?) and is responsible for a pivotal change in the vampire mythos. Inexplicably moving the action forward a whole four years from 1893 to 1897, Matheson is both wonderfully loyal to Stoker's original, but also adds some new bite in plot points that have seemingly become part of the standard. While others were playing with the erotic implications of blood suckers, it's Matheson's script that makes Dracula a love-lorn romantic lead (yup, almost two decades before Francis Ford Coppola played the same card in his own film.) However, unlike his cinematic successors, he makes Lucy Westenra (horror regular Fiona Lewis) into the object of Dracula's dark affection. It's become common place to make Harker's fiancee, the anodyne Mina (Penelope Horner), into his sinister paramour (thus creating an obvious love triangle), but Matheson eschews that, instead innovating the themes of reincarnation and love across the centuries with the wilder-spirited Lucy.
That change also means that, when she meets her inevitable second act demise, Dracula's actions become those of monstrous revenge. Palance's count is not a bat: He's a wolf, and he strikes back against his prey with the fury of an alpha male who has lost his mate to an overly-bold deer. Matheson makes it explicit that this is the great warrior king Vlad Tepes (Stoker's unstated inspiration), and that blood cruelty and calculated vengeance are the foundations on which his throne sits. That's why Palance is so perfect for this version of the count: He feels like a barbarian war lord hiding in modern garb, challenged by gnats. "You play your wits against mine," he hisses to Van Helsing (legendary character actor Nigel Davenport.) "Me, who commanded armies hundreds of years before you were born." It's chilling and strong, comparable only Christopher Lee's take for Hammer, and when he meets his inevitable demise, it's the unavoidable tragedy of putting down a rabid predator.
And while many may mock Curtios for the risible but heartfelt Dark Shadows, that was a show with the world's first negative budget. He was a powerhouse TV producer, like the seminal miniseries adaptation of The Winds of War, but he also created two of the greatest slashes of TV horror: 1975's Trilogy of Terror and the X-Files-inspiring The Night Stalker. He'd already worked with Palance on a 1968 version of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. While he could never go too far on the explicit horror (this was for network broadcast, after all), he perfects an air of quiet malice and overwhelming dread, overblowing all the sumptuous reds of the English homes and casting nightmare shadows on the granite walls of Castle Dracula.
A more unexpected source of period horror was Antonia Bird. A veteran of gritty UK soap operas like Eastenders and Casualty, her early feature career flicked between UK intellectual art house (Catholic angster Priest and superior gangster flick Face) and US studio misfires (1995 lovers-on-the-run snoozer Mad Love .) Her fourth feature, historical oddity Ravenous, sits somewhere between the two. It is another spin on the infamous Donner Party incident, where a westward-bound wagon train found itself stuck in the snow of the Sierra Nevada across the winter of 1846. Just one explorer survived, and that was Alferd Packer, who only made it because of a decision to feast on a diet of long pig. Yup, man meat. Human flesh. Cannibalism.
In the script by Ted Griffin (Ocean's Eleven, Best Laid Plans, and series creator of the late, lamented Terriers), Packer becomes F.W. Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle), a Scottish settler who turns up, rambling and incoherent, at a remote US fort in the Nevadas. That's where Captain John Boyd Guy Pearce) has been exiled after one of his superiors sees through his flawed story of valor in conflict. Why else would he be dispatched to what can only be described as the scenic end of Lucifer's frozen asshole?
Of course, when Colqhoun starts telling a story of a lost party and desperation and the smell of cooking flesh, the camp commandant sends the quickly recovering Scot and a contingent of his skeleton detachment to recover the bodies. Or rather, the scraps that are left of them. Bad plan, as Boyd has always suspected. They're soon to contend with the myth of the Wendigo - the troubled flesh-consuming spirits of Native American mythology. No, you probably shouldn't ask why a figure of the Eastern Algonquian nation is current in 1840s California. After all, the rest of the camp ignores it, and the suggestion of the supernatural. All save Boyd, who is a little overly-ready to believe the story. Like he already has some prescient pre-knowledge
When Ravenous was released theatrically in 1999, there was still a bit of a post-Dances With Wolves glow around the post-Civil War Western, and Johnny Depp's 1995 metaphysical mountain escapade Dead Man proved that there was still fresh new terrain to be explored. However, Bird's creation disappeared without trace. In some ways, its most immediate problems are not of her doing: Abysmal 80s sitcom credits, and a hybrid score, awkwardly cross-fertilizing Michael Nyman's standard issue operatics and Damon Albarn's brief hurdy-gurdy obsession, fit poorly with her subtly off-kilter vision of febrile delusion and the claustrophobia of isolation.
Why don't they work? Because they're too on the bloody nose about her satirical intent. Strip them away, and she creates something that slyly balances Boyd (whose most insane beliefs turn out to be right) against Colqhoun, who understands that people are unwilling to accept the most abhorrent truths. Moreover, the rest of the camp is the best assemblage of lunatics and wash-outs the military has ever seen: David Arquette as the peyote-guzzling Pvt. Cleaves, Jeremy Davies as twitching and simpering as the religiously-devoted Pvt. Toffler (a clear spoof of his own role in the previous year's Saving Private Ryan), and a blustering but sympathetic turn from the now-disgraced Jeffrey Jones as the world-weary Col. Hart.
But the best part of the entire cast (even as Carlyle switchbacks deliciously from frothing lunacy to gimlet-eyed deceit) is Neal McDonough as the straight-backed martinet Pvt. Reich. His near-albino features, offset by those legendary sharp blue eyes, always gives him an air of menace and charm. I admit, I missed his performance when I first saw this film, and only realized how damn fine an actor he is in the single season of the under-rated Boomtown. But in the handful of scenes in which Bird lets him cut loose (plus an inexplicably cut scene with a wondrously psychotic character beat) he's a natural born warrior embracing the lunacy.
Ultimately, the same topic of isolated cannibalistic tendencies and Native American lore was handled with both more spirit and more tragedy in 2004's Ginger Snaps Back: The Beginning, the prequel to the glorious Ginger Snaps werewolf series. Even as the weakest of the franchise, it's still a blast of cold Northern air, and Scream! Factory are releasing the first film in the trilogy, 2000's Ginger Snaps, later this year. Fingers crossed they'll be putting the rest of the franchise out, because then Ravenous, with its almost completely male cast, will have an interesting partner for a bleak double bill.
The Final Member (Drafthouse Films/Cinedigm) is released today. Ravenous (Scream! Factory) and Dan Curtis' Dracula (MPI) are out on DVD and Blu-ray now.