Saturday, June 23, 2012

Susan Tyrrell: Farewell, Wild Woman

I couldn't believe it when it popped up on my Facebook status. I thought it surely must be one of Susu's gags, but when it turned out to be true, I was stunned. She was actually gone. Last Sunday the 17th, to be exact.

Susan Tyrrell, the defiantly individualistic actor, artist and bent bon vivant never hesitated to speak her mind. In an interview with Psychotronic magazine in 1990, she opened up about her career and her life as a Hollywood fringe-dweller. I quote heavily from that original article for my reminiscence.

Her usual response when one of her films was brought up in the interview was "I hated it!", but she'd always follow up with an insightful anecdote. John Huston, who directed her to an Academy Award-nominated performance in Fat City (1972) screwed her over badly, physically and mentally, and she insisted that he really was Noah Cross, the creepy, manipulative character he played in Chinatown who got his own daughter pregnant.

When she made the disastrous Flesh + Blood in 1985, she quickly developed a profound hatred for director Paul Verhoeven and especially co-star Rutger Hauer. One day, she said, "He told me, 'I just want to suck on Marlon Brando's nipple' so he could learn how to act. I said, 'You'd better start with his dick 'cause you've got a lot to learn.'" That's prime Tyrrell — and what a great rejoinder to such a ridiculously pretentious comment.

She hated Andy Warhol's Bad, too, yet she hilariously switches tones in midstream when discussing it. Her quote: "I hated it. I don't like making anything. It's no fun, none of this is fun until you see it and it's a hit. But if it comes out a piece of drek then I'm just pissed off. Bad was just so ugly it wouldn't wash off at night. Everybody was so bad and beautiful, and I was so good and ugly. I love to watch it, I think it's very brilliant, very funny."

That's our Susu. But I love to watch it, too, and it's true — she really is good and awful-looking here, always lugging around an astoundingly ugly baby until, at one key moment, she is startled into dropping it on the floor.

She enjoyed playing Doris, Queen of the Sixth Dimension, in Richard Elfman's Fleischer cartoon-come-to-life, Forbidden Zone (1980), and she seems to have been charmed by her co-star, the pint-sized Hervé Villechaize as well. She admitted to having a long-term affair with him in a 2010 interview.

1982's Night Warning (aka Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker), directed by Bewitched creator WIlliam Asher, got another schizophrenic review from Tyrrell. "It was a piece of crap! I mean I liked it because it gave me a chance to go berserk. I always like that, but I don't need a piece of shit movie to make me go berserk."

I can believe that. Anyhow, she plays Cheryl, a lonely and rather desperate woman who engineers the fatal car accident of her sister and brother-in-law so she can adopt their infant son and raise him as her own. Years pass, and the boy has grown into a teenager (Jimmy McNichol) with interests of his own, and she becomes insanely jealous of his interest in girls and desire to get out from under her smothering embrace. Of course, she goes completely off the deep end and we get trademark insane, murderous Susu. 

Big Top Pee Wee was the awful sequel to Tim Burton's breakthrough hit Pee Wee's Big Adventure. Tyrrell played the 6" tall bride of Kris Kristofferson. And what did she think of it? "It was horrible. Everybody on the crew said I was such a bitch to work with, and I was. I was so ashamed to be in the fucking thing." No objections here – it really is a terrible movie.

Her career started in the early '60s when she moved to New York and got a part in As The World Turns (!). She lived for two years with Warhol superstar Candy Darling, who she claimed as her best friend. Of Candy, she said, "She was so velvet, so helpless, and so funny and beautiful. She was in Vogue, she was ravishing, yet so tacky. She had no teeth in front, two were rotted out; she looked like Ollie from Kukla, Fran and Ollie with this fang that came down."

Except for the dental issues and helplessness, the same could almost be said about Susu. She could make herself look unbelievably glamorous or unconscionably hideous. And it wasn't just make-up. Somehow she could manifest these changes in appearance from within.

I had the privilege of meeting her in 1991 when she did her one-woman show, My Rotten Life, at a nightclub in Los Angeles. She played a dead actress who, with her equally dead poodle by her side, reminisces about her time on earth. It was hilariously profane, and she proved that she had a great singing voice, too. She was sitting out in the lobby greeting the audience after the show, and she looked stunningly beautiful. When I asked her to sign my program, she said, "I'd be honored." Now that's class.

And I still have the t-shirt. It's embellished with her face on the front with the title of the show, and on the back is a picture of the poodle with one of her character's outrageous lines: "God, I miss my pussy."

Losing her legs in 2000 to essential thrombocythemia, she updated her fans about her condition through her web site and even posted video of herself working with her new artificial limbs. She also still did some film work, and she kept up with her painting, which is as bizarre and out-of-control as the woman herself. You can see samples on her site.

One of her final Facebook posts, in May of 2011, was this:

Will somebody do a re-make of fucking "Freaks" before I fucking croak!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Love, and Fuck you all!--from the bottom of my heart!! Your Chicken Hag! 

We're gonna miss you, Susu...and about the news of your death?

"I fucking hated it!"

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Retro Review: City of the Living Dead

Ah, Lucio Fulci. He's the gift that keeps on giving (even though he's dead). I know there are tons of Fulci aficionados who consider his "gates of hell" trilogy — City of the Living Dead, The Beyond and House by the Cemetery — to be masterpieces in his peculiar genre of film where mood overrides plot, but I enjoy them for the simple reason that they're pretty durn funny.

I was first treated to City of the Living Dead in its U.S. incarnation as Gates of Hell in the early 1980s, back when such films would actually get a theatrical release in the States. I saw it again theatrically at one of Quentin Tarantino's Grindhouse shows at the New Beverly Cinema in 2007. That time, I was with a mob of like-minded, twisted movie fans who roared appreciatively throughout.

Just last week I revisited it on DVD and experienced all over again the magic, the majesty and the mystery that is...City of the Living Dead.

It starts in a mellow Lovecraftian mood as a priest in the small New England town of Dunwich hangs himself in a fog-shrouded cemetery. His suicide is actually a sacrifice that unlocks one of the seven gates of Hell which will allow the dead to rise up and roam the earth. Meanwhile, at a seance in Manhattan, a medium, Mary Woodhouse (Katriona MacColl) has a vision of the priest's act and it seems to scare her literally to death.

The cops arrive on the scene and accuse the seance-goers of being on drugs. "What is it?" demands the hilariously gruff lieutenant. "Pot? Smack? Did you flush it down the taw-let?" Theresa, of the seance, accuses him of being a ridiculous cartoon of a police officer or something similar. She's played by Adelaide Aste, a strange-looking actress who delivers her lines with an an intense edge that even bad dubbing can't dull. And Fulci zooms in tight on her bizarre little  eyes as she stares straight into the camera. It's too much.

Anyhow, the investigation is interrupted by a ball of fire emerging mysteriously from the floor, going up through the ceiling and, thanks to film reversal, going back down again, accompanied by what sounds like a lion's roar. The detective's uniformed officers are terrified, but he snarls, "Who lives in the apartment downstairs?", to which Theresa responds, "It's been vacant for over 20 years."

Wait a minute. An apartment in Manhattan...vacant? For 20 years? That requires too much of a suspension of belief.

Enter Peter Bell (Christopher George), a reporter who's gotten wind of Mary's mysterious death and has zoomed in for the scoop. Speaking of getting wind, if this film was in Smell-O-Vision, every time George appeared onscreen you'd get the unmistakable aroma of cigarettes, Vitalis and Jim Beam. Seriously, though, George seems to be having a good time with this role and makes a likeable presence.

He goes to the cemetery where Mary has already been planted in the ground but is still uncovered because the lazy gravediggers have already punched out for the afternoon. Leaning against a gravestone, Bell makes some notes (about what? the weather?) and starts to walk away, but he thinks he hears sounds coming from Mary's plot.

Indeed he is. Thankfully, she wasn't embalmed prior to burial, so she snaps back to life, screaming and trying to claw her way out of the coffin. Peter grabs a pickaxe and starts plunging it through the lid, barely missing the screaming woman's eyes and head. He manages to rescue her (as opposed to decapitating her) and takes her back to Theresa, who'd been studying up on Mary's vision in her handy copy of the ancient book of Enoch and can now say with certainty that the hanging of the priest is the beginning of a prophecy and — unless the gate is closed by All Saints Day — "no dead body will be able to rest in peace again." In short, all sales final.

Peter and Mary jump in the car and head for Dunwich, which is supposed to be in New England but at various times looks like the South, Brooklyn and even the island of Matul, where Fulci's blockbuster splatterfest Zombie took place.  Since most of it was shot in Georgia, that would explain the wandering locales. But nothing can explain the loud jungle noises that are heard on the soundtrack whenever anybody is walking around the dark, wind-blown streets at night.

There, the much-killed Giovanni Lombardo Radice (aka John Morghen), who plays the town idiot, Bob, wanders around the aforementioned Zombie sets until he goes into a house, finding a blow-up sex doll which automatically inflates. He smirks as he ponders what he's going to do with it, but suddenly cries out in terror when he sees a decayed corpse lying next to it, covered in worms that are crunching really loudly. Of course, Fulci's camera pans ever-so-lovingly over the slime and wriggling creatures for our maximum enjoyment. And none of this has anything to do with the plot thus far.

Later, a young couple is making out in their jeep when the dead priest appears, eerily illuminated in the headlights and staring at the girl until her eyes begin to bleed. Her boyfriend is played by Michele Soavi, who went on to become a director in his own right with films like Stage Fright and the magnificent Dellamorte Dellamore. Here, he can only stare in horror and make gagging noises as she vomits out her entire intestinal tract in the film's most riotous scene. At first, just the small intestines come slithering out as she makes "blehh, blehh" noises, but the sequence climaxes with gigantic organs speedily being ejected from the obvious dummy head. Then, a hand grabs the back of Soavi's skull, ripping it open and squeezing out his brain. Now that's one powerful grip.

The priest claims another soul by giving her a worm facial, and her grief-stricken father accuses Bob, exacting his revenge by forcing the poor sap down onto a drill press and ventilating his head. This killing is actually quite good effects work by Fulci fave Gino De Rossi, who'd so memorably penetrated a victim's eye with a wooden splinter in Zombie.

Yet another young girl, Emily (Antonella Interlenghi) is killed and her family, consisting of two really old parents and a really young little brother named John-John (Luca Venantini), come to mourn her at the funeral home. In a nearby coffin is the body of an elderly neighbor who'd also recently handed in her dinner pail, and she's wearing a hilarious wig that looks like it was skinned off a poodle's ass. Remember her...she'll be back.

Emily's boyfriend is the town psychiatrist, Gerry, played by Carlo De Mejo, who's the real-life son of Suspiria's Alida Valli. How's that for family horror connections? Still recovering from the shock of her tragic death, he gets a call from his jittery patient Sandra (Janet Agren) who begs him to hurry over to her house. When he arrives, she shows him to the kitchen where — yep — Mrs. Poodle-Ass herself is lying on the floor. She doesn't stay there for long, though. The body disappears and soon there are sounds coming from upstairs. Emily has a complete meltdown and pleads to Gerry, "I don't want to see her again! Tell her to go!", but he insists that they carefully search the house room by room as opposed to just getting the hell out of there.

Soon Gerry and Sandra team up with Mary and Peter, and as they're standing in somebody's house trying to decide what to do, the window suddenly blows open and a never-ending stream of maggots come pouring in. Surprisingly, everyone just stands there, mouths closed and squinting to keep the little buggers from getting into their orifices. Didn't it occur to anyone to leave the room — or at the very least turn around? Maybe one of the actors suggested it and Fulci said:

"NO! The maggoti must-a stick-a to you FACE!" (That'd make a great t-shirt.)

Next, they go to rescue John-John, whose annoying, worm-faced sister has killed their parents and plans to do the same to him. Unfortunately, Sandra falls victim to the brain-squeeze technique we'd seen demonstrated earlier, and even though it's supposed to be Emily doing the squeezing, it's clearly a man's hand that's shown.

Leaving John-John with a cop (who seems clearly annoyed when he says, "All right...I'll take care of him"), the remaining three go to the cemetery and down into the crypt that the trouble-making priest had been buried in. You see, only by killing the priest will they be able to close the gates of Hell know the drill. At least Bob did — get what I did there?

Oh, did I mention that all the victims so far besides Emily have also risen from the dead and come to menace some old drunks at a roadhouse? Fulci builds the suspense in this scene to an unbearable degree by slow-w-w-ly panning the horror in the tipplers' rheumy eyes before the zombies start consuming their well-marinated carcasses.

But the three finally make it to the crypt where Sandra waits to put the squeeze on Peter's brain. Gerry retaliates by stabbing her in the abdomen with a handy spear, causing more worms, maggots and guts to pour out. Sensing a theme here?

Finally, they locate the priest and dispatch him by stabbing him in the crotch with a large wooden cross, which causes all of the zombie helpers that have been shuffling around the crypt to burst into flames and rotate slowly as if they're being cooked on a spit.

Gerry and Mary emerge, filthy but relieved, and the elated John-John comes racing toward them. At first they smile and get ready to embrace him, but suddenly Mary screams, and the final image of the kid running toward them in slow-motion shatters like a pane of glass. Eh?

If you haven't treated yourself to a screening of City of the Living Dead yet, you must immediately buy, rent or download it. Otherwise, no dead body will be able to rest in peace again.


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