Quantcast Trilogy Pics - 3 Movies You Should Watch Tonight: OCTOBER 2006 - AN EVENING WITH JESSICA HARPER: MURDER, MAYHEM, AND MUSIC



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Oct. 2006 Trilogy Pics:

An Evening With Jessica Harper: Murder, Mayhem, and Music

This month's Trilogy Pics invite you to slip, slip, slip into your little black dress, throw on some ballet slippers, and sign over your immortal soul for a chance to spend an evening watching 3 films featuring actress Jessica Harper. Her genre pictures are more than unique in that they're all extremely focus on music in some fashion. In Dario Argento's classic ‘Suspiria’, Jessica moves to Europe to study in a dance conservatory run by witches, and her other two genre films, the criminally overlooked ‘Phantom of The Paradise’ and ‘Shock Treatment’ are musicals with horror motifs to them.

Why Jessica Harper isn't a major star today is a mystery. Watching these films over again (and watching Shock Treatment for the first time) I can only guess that while these are excellent films that have stood the test of time, and attained the status of cult and horror classics none of them were really appreciated or truly understood upon their original release. Today you can see Jessica popping up in the occasional TV appearance but she focuses mainly on her success as a singer/songwriter of children's songs.

Suspiria (1977): If I find that a friend doesn't care for the horror genre, or maybe has just never seen an Italian horror film, this is one film I like to whip out. For people who think horror can't be art, who think violent images can't be strangely beautiful this will change their minds. For those who've only experienced pop-horror ‘Suspiria’ is such a powerfully influential film it can be a life-changing experience for the new horror fan. The story is almost secondary to the images that Argento presents. He juxtaposes scenes of incredible violence with scenes that are quiet, skin crawling creepy. There's a fantastic and now classic score by Goblin. The opening scene is heart-attack inducingly violent and shocking, and possibly one of the scariest in modern horror history. It's got a relatively simple story: Jessica Harper is an American dance who comes to Europe to study at a world renowned conservatory. The school happens to be run by a coven of witches (not really giving away much here) who will do anything to protect their secret society. There's been a lot of imitators and cheap retreads, but nothing has ever matched ‘Suspiria’, not even close.

Phantom of the Paradise (1974): There's something specific that I love about Brian DePalma's early films. They're fantastically excessive, but really extremely cinematic. He took a lot of shit back in his day for this excess. It's the kind of excess you hear film school professors warning you against and critics calling cheap. I love it. DePalma is and was known for his use of things like slow motion, split-screen, wild camera angles and tricks. Lots of stuff that if it's misused is distracting and probably cheap, but I never get that feeling when I'm watching DePalma, and especially not with ‘Phantom of the Paradise’. Nobody works the camera like DePalma did in his early days, and this is so evident in this strange horror-musical. The story is a criss-cross and mish-mash of elements from ‘Faust’ and ‘Phantom of the Opera’. Winslow Leech is a hapless singer-songwriter who gets his songs stolen by soulless (literally) music producer Swan. Winslow ends up horribly disfigured and trying whatever he can do stop Swan from using his music to open his rock club ‘The Paradise’. However, when Winslow sees Phoenix, played by Jessica Harper, auditioning he decides she's the only one who can sing his music and insists Swan use her, and her alone, to open his club, or else. The film is an over the top satire of music at the time (taking particular aim at glam rock and the 50's nostalgia trip people were on in the early 70s), but it's got a real fun spirit to it. The original songs are by Paul Williams (who also plays Swan) and they're almost all excellent. Williams would go on to compose film scores, including all the original songs for ‘The Muppet Movie’, and the ‘Love Boat’ theme song. Brian DePalma would direct ‘Carrie’ a few years later (featuring this films set decorator, one Sissy Spacek, in the title role). Considered a terrible flop upon it's initial release, ‘Phantom’ has developed a strong following, and although we still can't seem to get a special edition DVD released in the US there is an excellent region 2 one available.

Shock Treatment (1981): So anyways, I'm watching "Shock Treatment" on my TIVO, it's been showing on the Fox Movie Channel (which shows a significant amount of genre films from the Fox library, almost always in widescreen. Excellent channel if you get it). Ever heard of it? It's the sequel to "Rocky Horror Picture Show". Came out in '81, and was looked upon as favorably by the Rocky Horror fans as your average Michael Bay produced horror-remake. While some loved it, and it does have a following, it probably strayed too far from "RHPS" to connect with those fans. Besides, trying to strike cult-movie gold like that again would have been tough anyway, that's just one of those organic things that kind of has to happen on it own.

Back to the movie--I've watched it about 4-5 times since I caught it one FMC. Now, I'd never seen it before and was always curious, especially since it came with such a stank reputation (10 crap cinema points), was a sequel (20 more points) and it's also one of those extremely rare cinematic animals, the musical sequel (CRAP JACKPOT), and a sequel to a horror musical at that.

I knew a few things about it going in: It's got nothing to do with fishnet tights, transvestites, floating castles, or other wild and untamed things. I knew that the setting was a game show in which Brad and Janet were contestants on and that in this one they were played by Jessica Harper and Cliff DeYoung. I was really drawn to this because of Jessica Harper. Also returning were Richard O'Brien (acting and writing), Patricia Quinn, Charles Gray, and that screechy chick who wore the sparkley top hat.

It's a very, very strange movie and years ahead of it time (well, as "ahead of it's time" as a chintzy 80's movie could be). It takes place entirely in the TV studio of "D-TV", Denton's local television station. Brad and Janet, whose marriage is on the rocks, are in the studio audience for the taping of the days shows when they are selected to participate in a game-show called "Marriage Maze". It's hard to write out the rest of the plot because it's going to make very little sense out of the context of this movie, but I'll try: On the game show Brad and Janet are separated. Brad is secretly drugged and taken away to be treated by TV doctors on another show, while the D-TV station manager tries to steal Janet away from Brad by turning her into an instant star.

It's awfully bizarre, and truthfully it's even hard to follow. Story wise, "Shock Treatment" lives up to it's reputation of being an absolute mess. I could not follow it the first time through, but one thing was perfectly clear: I really liked the look of the film, how it was directed, and the songs were brilliantly catchy and I couldn't get them out of my head (especially one called "Bitchin' In The Kitchen").

The look and direction of this film was really interesting. Since it takes place in a TV studio and on TV shows, the whole thing was shot in soundstages on these very exaggerated, sometimes garish sets. Everything, rightfully so, looks artificial, thin, and it gives the film a fantastic surreal feel to it. Adding to this is the way it was shot, which alternates from film and video. For example, one musical number is shot partially to match the frame of a TV set. Sometimes when the characters are addressing the studio audience they shoot it so it looks like you're looking at television monitor. It's interesting, this is both "Shock Treatment"'s strength and it's fatal flaw. It's design and cinematography are so busy it really draws you away from what's going on otherwise in the movie.

However, as far as "bad" movie musicals goes you could honestly do much worse than "Shock Treatment". Ever seen The Blue Bird or Grease 2? I mean, bad musicals are a strange passion of mine because they're often so hilariously unwatchable that the biggest shock I got out of this is how on the cusp of being really good this film was. It's almost a shame that it did so poorly upon release because it's obvious that O'Brien and Jim Sharman were two extremely talented guys. After this failed to catch on they never made another film again and I can't help but think we've missed out on something there. If it were released today it would probably be looked on as brilliant satire of reality TV (and that's where it seems ahead of it's time).

I still can't stop watching it, and I'm really excited to picking up the DVD when it comes out since it's going to include a lot of extras about the making of the film. I'm really curious what was going on with O'Brien when he wrote this. I mean, it strays so far from "Rocky Horror" that you have to agree with the original marketing for "Shock Treatment" in that it's not really a sequel. It's not really an equal either, but certainly joins the ranks of some terribly overlooked films (I'm told even a lot of RHPS fans never knew there was a sequel). Hopefully, 25 years later, "Shock Treatment" can really find, outside of a handful of fans, an wider audience to appreciate it's weirdness. - mikec.


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isn't the term 'bad musical' tautology?

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