Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

postera.k.a. The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans
company: Millennium Films
and Saturn Films
year: 2009
runtime: 122′
country: United States
director: Werner Herzog
cast: Nicolas Cage, Val Kilmer,
Eva Mendes, Feiruza Balk,
Jennifer Coolidge, Brad Dourif,
Michael Shannon, Shawn Hatosy
writer: William M. Finkelstein
cinematographer: Peter Zeitlinger
music: Mark Isham
out in limited release
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DVD | Blu-ray

Warning: This review probably contains some spoilers.

A police lieutenant is hampered by drug addiction, local gangsters, and an ever-loosening grip on reality while heading up a homicide investigation in post-Katrina New Orleans.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is, in a word, unlikely.  A reboot in name only of the 1992 cult picture Bad Lieutenant produced more than 15 years after the fact with Nicolas Cage in the starring role and Werner Herzog in the director’s chair, its very conception seems suspect, and yet it’s here all the same.  Herzog has taken the script by William M. Finkelstein (writer for N.Y.P.D. Blue and L.A. Law, amongst other television shows) and made something special, a darkly comic tale of corruption, addiction, and redemption and one of the best films of the year.

Herzog’s sense of location is as impeccable as ever, and he makes the depopulated ruins of New Orleans parishes, crumbling in the shadows of the glass towers of the city proper and festering with all manner of crime, as much a character as any other in the film.  Set only a few months after the disaster of Katrina, Herzog’s New Orleans is a place already forgotten by those on the outside – a near-apocalyptic landscape that can’t help but be the birthplace of monsters.

One such monster is newly promoted police lieutenant Terence McDonagh (Cage), a pitiable creature whose chronic pain has led him into addictions to heroin, crack, and cocaine.  McDonagh is an undeniably talented officer, seen at one point single-handedly apprehending a suspect while a SWAT team waits outside, but his tunnel vision starts to get the better of him after his promotion.  As he tells a suspect he’s arresting, “it’s amazing how much you can get done when you’ve got a simple purpose guiding you through life.”  Unfortunately for McDonagh, securing a constant supply of illicit drugs has become that simple purpose.

Things go well for a while.  McDonagh subsists off the steady stream of cocaine and prescription drugs filtering into the evidence room of his department and even finds a kindred spirit and devoted lover in high-class prostitute Frankie (Mendes).  But the life can’t last, and soon he’s betting on football games with money he doesn’t have and getting in trouble with the local mob.  The hallucinations – particularly of ambivalent iguanas on stakeouts – don’t help.  McDonagh hits rock bottom hard, forced to make an uneasy allegiance with the local gangster responsible for the homicide he’s investigating after the case falls apart due to his own negligence.

Herzog keeps the audience aware of the fact that, in spite of all the snarling, screaming, and frequent insanity, McDonagh is ultimately just a decent human being in the midst of making the worst decisions of his life.  The accident that led to his chronic pain was the result of his rescuing a suspect, left behind after the waters began to rise –  no good deed goes unpunished.  Herzog allows McDonagh to commit (and get away with) truly despicable acts on the shaky road to redemption, but always leaves ample room for forgiveness, never letting McDonagh succumb to mortal sin.  The lieutenant  even goes so far as to save the life of murderous gangster Big Fate (Alvin “Xzibit” Joiner) from his depraved partner Stevie (Kilmer).

I never thought I’d find myself praising a performance from Nicolas Cage, but here it’s deserved.  Kudos to Herzog for allowing the actor to flex his professional muscles, which have gone so underserved by recent efforts like Next, Ghost Rider, The Wicker Man, and on and on and on.  Cage lurches through the film like an old-school Universal monster, retaining that all-important note of tragedy while on his drugged-out rampage.  It’s the best performance that’s been seen from the actor in years, and a welcome respite with crap like Ghost Rider 2 (I suppose even Cage has to eat) on the way.

Herzog keeps up his well-earned reputation for experimentation and even finds room to dabble with surrealism in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.  McDonagh’s highs are amplified with operatic outbursts of handi-cam wildlife close-ups (notably of an iguana and an alligator) while another  scene has the youthful soul of an aged hit man break dancing after the man himself is killed.  The ambiguous fish-tank ending will leave many viewers scratching their heads, though it seems entirely appropriate in the context of the film.  Herzog always has had an affinity for being strange just for the sake of being strange, and that’s just fine with me.

Teaming up with Herzog once again is cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger (Encounters at the End of the World, Wheel of Time, and Invincible to name a few), and his presence is welcome here.  Frequently working with natural light alone, Zeitlinger ensures Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans’ place as one of the best photographed pictures of the year.  Composer Mark Isham (Invincible, The Black Dahlia) provides the exceptional score, its themes rich in accoustic guitar and augmented with occasional explosions of harmonica.   Here’s hoping a CD release is on the way.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is out in limited release in the States with simultaneous Blu-ray and DVD releases slated for April of next year from distributor First Look Films (this article will be updated with a disc review at that time).  This is, for my money, one of the best films I’ve seen all year – old or new.  Herzog is still a master of the craft, and his latest comes very highly recommended.

The Beyond

postera.k.a. E tu Vivrai nel Terrore – L’aldila / Seven Doors of Death
company: Fulvia Film
year: 1981
runtime: 87′
country: Italy
director: Lucio Fulci
cast: Catriona MacColl,
David Warbeck,
Cinzio Monreale, Antoine Saint-John,
Veronica Lazar, Anthony Flees,
Giovanni De Nava, Al Cliver
writers: Dardano Sachetti,
Giorgio Mariuzzo, and Lucio Fulci
cinematographer: Sergio Salvati
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Plot: Young New Yorker Liza (MacColl) inherits a rundown hotel in New Orleans and decides to re-open it.  Strange events surround the renovations, and Liza, with the help of doctor friend John (Warbeck) and a strange blind woman named Emily (Monreale), soon discovers that her inheritance is built atop one of the seven dreaded doorways to hell.

This long-time favorite has somehow escaped coverage on this site in any of its disparate forms over the years, but with a review of the astoundingly dreadful demi-Fulci opus Zombi 3 now up for mass consumption I figured it was high time to rectify that gross oversight.  The Beyond is part two of the thematically similar but narratively distant non-trilogy of supernatural horrors Fulci directed between 1980 and 1981, bookended by the Lovecraftian gore fest City of the Living Dead and the Freudian The House by the Cemetery.

Previously known for sex comedies (The Eroticist), spaghetti westerns (Four of the Apocalypse), and a spate of violent gialli (Seven Notes in Black), Fulci’s freshman horror effort was the competent if intellectually barren Zombie – a project that earned him considerable name recognition within the genre and gave new direction to his waning career.  For the next several years Fulci would be at the top of the Euro-horror food chain, allowed to persue whatever intellectual interests he wanted with his pictures provided they came packaged with the ludicrous gore setpieces he was known for.

Artist / actor / writer / philosopher Antonin Artaud and his “Theater of Cruelty” had long been an inspiration for the director, and The Beyond owes its perceived incoherence to the concept.  Believing that the imagined was as much a part of reality as the tangible, Artaud’s concept was to reveal truth, and shatter what he saw as the false reality audiences were expecting, through production and performance.  For Fulci this meant focusing on image and atmosphere to evoke strong reactions in audiences, narrative coherence be damned.  The Beyond may begin as a simple haunted house yarn, but it veers into the bizarre early and powers down the rabbit hole from there.

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The plot, very loosely detailed above, is calculated for confusion.  The basic narrative, in which Liza tries to uncover the history of the haunted house she’s inherited, is never completely derailed, only invaded from all sides by the unknown.  Like Fulci’s earlier City of the Living Dead, The Beyond presents audiences with a reality in the process of being torn apart.  Much like Lovecraft’s own, Fulci’s unknown is an intangible yet malevolent force just waiting for a chance to come crawling out of the woodwork (or a hole in the basement) to wreak unimaginable horror on the world at large.  The Lovecraftian inspiration backing Fulci’s work here is obvious, and he throws a mysterious text titled The Book of Eibon into the proceedings as homage to the author.

The script, by Dardano Sachetti (Zombie), Giorgio Mariuzzo (The House by the Cemetery), and Fulci, is populated with strange side characters – two housekeepers that came with the hotel, a doctor investigating post-death brain activity, a potentially possessed little girl, and others – with occasionally questionable and frequently unknown motivations.  Housekeeper Arthur seems perpetually sweaty and nervous, and rummages around Liza’s bedroom in his spare time.  Housekeeper Martha just behaves creepily, wandering around a flooded basement with an oil lamp and giving knowing glances to the plumber who comes to fix the mess.  The potentially-possessed girl seems relatively harmless until after a funeral, when she suddenly presents with the same blind and shattered eyes as Emily.

The blind Emily is obviously a denizen of Fulci’s hell, though her purpose on Earth is unclear.  After hinting at awful things to come and confusing poor Liza into a state of panic she is confronted by the undead painter / warlock Schweik (Antoine Saint-John, Duck You Sucker) and his swiftly growing mob of the recently deceased.  She is quick to let him know that she’s done what she was supposed to do, though the audience is left in the dark as to just what that may be.  None of the side characters serve much in the way of narrative importance, they’re just intriguing stepping stones between the outrageously violent gags that serve as the meat to The Beyond‘s potatoes.

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Fulci must have had a field day conceptualizing the multitude of horrendous ways in which the supporting cast is dispensed with.  Liza’s property manager is gruesomely devoured by talkative tarantulas while the aforementioned potentially-possessed girl is chased by the malevolent red goo that’s left of her mother, whom she saw dissolved by a conveniently placed (and ludicrously full) canister of acid just moments before.  The blind Emily survives the onslaught of Schweik and his zombie minions only to be ripped to pieces by her once faithful German shepherd.  In perhaps the best gag of them all, a zombie is seen rising from a bathtub to attack Martha as she cleans a bathroom.  He grabs the poor woman by the face, taking careful aim before planting the back of her head on a nail and sending one of her eyes popping out of its socket.

Make-up effects man Gianetto de Rossi (The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue) is in top form here and his fine craftsmanship merges perfectly with Fulci’s eye for detail, elevating the Techniscope terrors of The Beyond to a strange sort of art.  Rarely has explicit violence been rendered with such aesthetic prowess, and there’s beauty to be had among the liters of expended stage blood.  Perhaps more interesting to me after the dozens of times I’ve seen the film is the uniquely cruel Fulcian humor that constantly bubbes just below the surface.  That the gateway to hell under Lisa’s hotel is opened by a nosy plumber (named Joe, of course) is on the verge of being parodic, and the sight of Emily fumbling about in a circle of unseen assailants feels like a particularly malicious prank.

The Beyond has seen a huge resurgence in popularity in the USA since the 1990’s, thanks to a theatrical reissue from Grindhouse Releasing and Tarantino’s Rolling Thunder and subsequent releases on home video through Anchor Bay.  Those home video releases are now long out of print, but Grindhouse Releasing filled the void by re-releasing The Beyond to DVD, with a newly remastered transfer to boot, in October of 2008.  I’ve not seen that disc (am waiting on the eventual jump to Blu-ray since I already own the OOP Anchor Bay disc), but online reviews attest that it is up to the high standards Grindhouse has set for itself since the 2005 special edition of Cannibal Holocaust.

Heralded by many as Fulci’s masterpiece, The Beyond is one strange customer.  It asks many questions in its 87 minutes and answers almost none of them, and the ambiguous ending will surely leave many scratching their heads.  But no one has ever captured the vision of all literal hell loosed upon the modern world like Fulci did, and The Beyond is a showcase for an underrated director at the height of the second wave of his career.  Highly recommended.


Mardi Gras Massacre

company: Omni Capital Releasing
year: 1978
country: USA
director: Jack Weis
cast: Bill Metzo, Gwen Arment,
Curt Dawson
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An overdressed man (Bill Metzo) comes into a bar in New Orleans. He asks the resident helpful prostitute Sherry (Gwen Arment) who among her colleagues there is the most evil. After being pointed in the direction of the evil gal of evilness, he introduces himself with the words “Hello….I understand….that you are the most…evil woman…here”. Having thusly won her trust (and delivered his big line of the movie), he takes her home, straps her to a massage table in the evil temple to the Aztec goddess of Evil part of his apartment and cuts her heart out.

He’ll do that intermittently for the rest of the movie with women of whose evilness he has made sure of by the mystical power of asking about it, because they are evil, the goddess is evil, and they’ll be happily evil together everafter. His final goal seems to be to kill three prostitutes at once on Fat Tuesday to bring the evil Aztec goddess of Evil back to (presumably evil) life.

When we are not watching him and his evil designs (of evil, etc), we have the dubious pleasure of witnessing the investigational efforts of the two cops (Curt Dawson & another guy) who are supposedly working on the case. In practice, they are sitting around in bars and drinking a lot and Dawson is romancing Shelly in a way that makes the romance plots of Don Dohler films look positively riveting. And that’s it for the plot.

I can recommend Mardi Gras Massacre only to the true scholars of horrible independent local filmmaking from the US. Less inquisitive/depraved minds will probably, nay certainly, be bored out of their minds with this one even before the cops make their first snail-like appearance.

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And yet the movie looks so good on paper: a Blood Feast rip-off taking place in New Orleans on the eve of Mardi Gras! Whatever could go wrong? So it is too bad that MGM‘s director Jack Weis makes Herschell Gordon Lewis look like a genius filmmaker. There’s no shot too static for Weis, no actor too slow and boring, no interior too drab and brown. It is difficult to truly comprehend how little creativity a director can bring to the plate and still be called one, really. Speaking of a lack of enthusiasm for his work would be sounding much too positive here. I suppose “zombie-like” is a fair description of Weis’ directorial style.

Not even the gore effects are worthy of consideration, mostly because it is one single, improbable heart-cutting effect repeated ad nauseam.

And don’t go around thinking Weis will show you much more of New Orleans than darkened bar interiors (although I doubt that it is in truth more than one place filmed from slightly different angles) and a handful of naked women, the latter often dancing unenthusiastically. True, there are two musical montages (yes, one of them a love montage) and a “chase” (if you like to call it that) through a Mardi Gras procession, but the former are painfully disinterestedly filmed and the latter comes much too late in the course of the movie to matter anymore.

There’s a complete and utter apathy about anyone we see in front of the camera, too, except for Bill Metzo’s nameless killer. He isn’t exactly sprightly, mind you, yet I appreciate his brilliant failure to sound or act like a human being, his…awkward…pauses…after…every…single…word….he…….says and his near-permanent bug-eyeing. At least someone is putting a little effort in.

Then there’s the music, a neverending, throbbing mass of bad disco funk with only short breaks for pointless, wavering synthie throbbing. The music never fits anything we see on screen, and if I were a cynic, I’d say that Weis just dubbed a “Worst of Disco Funk” compilation onto the film’s soundtrack to keep himself awake while editing and forgot to replace it with something more appropriate later on.

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But that’s not the worst of it. The worst, the terrible, unspeakable truth is that I somehow enjoyed watching this.

Mardi Gras Massacre has the warm and cozy rhythm only the truly great cinematic abominations have, combined with the curious thrill of watching a film in which every camera movement or an honest to god close-up are sensational moments of visual creativity that suddenly jolt the viewer awake.

There is something about a film that is structured like this one is – boring scene, utterly boring scene, boring scene, sudden idiotic line of dialogue, another boring scene, an even more boring scene, sudden excitement as a victim shows her dancing skills before she is sacrificed, another boring scene, more boring scenes, Shelly demonstrates her imaginary disco dancing prowess to the viewer’s shattering mind, more boring scenes, the end – that makes it hard for me to look away while it is running. When one’s taste has gone so far down the drain that one begins to think that Herschell Gordon Lewis wasn’t actually so bad in comparison to the director of the film one is watching out of one’s own free will, something like Mardi Gras Massacre develops a kind of hypnotic power much too perverse to be explained by a concept like “so bad that it’s good”.

Mardi Gras Massacre is so far beyond trivialities like this that I can’t help but think of poor, overused Nietzsche and one of his most overused little ditties. Enjoying its presence is what happens to you when you have stared into the abyss, the abyss has stared into you, and you have learned that, gee, you kinda like this abyss. At least nothing ever happens in it.

For more bizarre movie goodness, be sure
to visit Denis’ excellent review blog The Horror!?