Week 17 – Kansas
Those of you who have read my other, less-frequently updated blog, The Sardonic Cinephile’s Guide to Everything, know that I have a pretty decent recollection of the stuff that scared me growing up when it came to movies. Some of these things I discussed in a feature called “Childhood Trauma Tales” included the undead hitchhiker from 1987’s Stephen King-produced horror anthology Creepshow 2 and the Zuni fetish doll which chased Karen Black around her apartment in 1975’s made-for-television Trilogy of Terror.
I want to talk about a whole other category of movies that freaked me out when I was younger — films which I didn’t even need to watch to give me nightmares because the VHS cover art did it for me. (I was a bit of a pussy in my younger days. You got a problem with that?)
Three local video stores I used to spend a lot of time at as a kid were Tina’s Pizza & Video and Movie Man Video in Glassboro, NJ, Carousel Video in Pitman, NJ, and Gloucester County Video in Sewell, NJ. These Ma and Pop video stores — all of which were wiped out in the Blockbuster Video apocalypse of the late 1980s — were famous for having robust horror movie sections full of rows of big “porno-style” cardboard VHS boxes.
I loved browsing through the horror movies at these stores as a kid, but it was always a harrowing affair. I remember well walking down the narrow aisles, heart pounding, averting my eyes from box art of films like the Faces of Death series and I Like To Hurt People, a faux-documentary about the professional wrestler The Sheik — not the WWF’s Iron Sheik — but the “original” Sheik, a 1970s-era wrestling villain whose gimmick was to stab his opponents in the head with pencils and other sharp objects. Ick. (Note: After a Google image search, I realized that it wasn’t I Like To Hurt People‘s cover art that grossed me out but that it was the cover of another wrestling tape that I was thinking of called Rock n’ Roll Wrestling. In the process of sorting this stuff out in my head I was reminded of a wrestling tape that Movie Man used to carry called Blood Battles of the South with gory cover art that seriously made me ill every time I saw it. I actually was able to find a picture of the box cover on the Internet and have decided not to link to it here because it’s that nauseating.)
Let me get to the point. Carousel Video used to carry a film called The Attic and its box art used to creep me the fuck out. It featured one of those scary-ass cymbal-clanging monkey toys with bulging yellow eyes and blood dripping from its mouth and — I’m just going to say it — whoever invented those little monsters as toys for children ought to be shot.
When I was a kid I had a serious doll-aphobia which, if I traced it back to its origin, began with the clown doll from Poltergeist. Still, I know it’s not just me and my personal hang-ups. There are probably millions of people out there that would agree that mechanical cymbal monkeys are scary.
Furthermore, real monkeys — chimpanzees at least — are not cute but dangerous monsters — retarded humans with superhuman strength lacking any sort of moral compass that might persuade them not to BITE YOUR FUCKING FACE OFF.
I’ll have more to say about monkeys later.
Since becoming a man of the world I’ve watched the Faces of Death series. I’ve watched I Like to Hurt People. Recently, I felt it was time to confront my fear of The Attic, a movie I really know nothing about other than it takes place and was filmed in Kansas. How convenient!
After watching it, I came to this conclusion: If I had seen The Attic as a kid, I probably would have been quite bored. However, it did deliver on its promise of monkeys, which I found refreshingly honest for a big box VHS movie.
The Attic is a psychological thriller/horror movie about Louise, a mousy librarian who lives with her abusive wheelchair-bound father in a huge plantation-style home in Wichita, Kansas. Louise, who I believe is supposed to be middle-age despite having the mannerisms of a little girl, is the sole caretaker of her father Wendel, whose permanent disability was the result of injuries sustained in a fire. Wendel blames Louise for the fire and he shows his contempt for his daughter with a non-stop barrage of insults and other forms of verbal abuse.
Louise deals with the stress of caring for her dad — well — poorly. At the start of the film, her wrists are bandaged from a recent suicide attempt. She spends hours in her room surrounded by a collection of toy monkeys obsessing over her fiancee Robert, who disappeared years ago on the eve of their wedding. The beginning of the movie opens with Louise crying over old film reels of herself and Robert together. To make matters worse, she’s about to lose her job at the library after trying to burn the library down one evening. I don’t know why she wanted to burn the library down. All I know is they throw a creepy going-away party at one point with the creamed corn lady from Twin Peaks.
When not in her room with her army of toy monkeys, Louise self-medicates through alcohol, masturbation and sex with random men. At one point in the movie, she meets a sailor at the movies and follows him back to his place to have sex. It’s a PG-rated movie, so it happens off-camera.
Louise also spends considerable time fantasizing about murdering — or sometimes, just humiliating — her father in various hilarious ways: poisoning him, electrocuting him in the bathtub and smothering him in chocolate cake.
The plot begins to move along — albeit at an extremely deliberate pace — when Louise befriends Emily, a new employee at the library. The friendship between the two women is based on mutual pity. Emily feels sorry for Louise because Louise is a total freak show who says things like, “Bologna, salami … heaven.” to describe how much she enjoys a sandwich she’s eating. Louise feels sorry for Emily, empathizing with her when she talks about running away to California to elope with her boyfriend Dennis.
One reviewer wrote that Emily and Louise all but consummate their obvious lesbian love for each other, which I think is wishful thinking on his or her part. Although, I will say, it wouldn’t have surprised me if the filmmakers had intended for Emily and Louise to have passionate lesbian sex, as the movie’s “uncredited director” Gary Graver spent most of his career directing skin flicks like The Silence of the Buns, Driving Miss Daisy Crazy Again, The Joi Fuck Club and other adaptations of Oscar-nominated films released between the years 1989 and 1993, in addition to a whole catalog of other adult fare.
That’s not to say that Emily and Louise don’t like each other a whole lot, even if they never “sealed the deal.” The two women like each other so much, in fact, that they wind up exchanging some very extravagant gifts. Louise buys Emily a one-way plane ticket to California. Emily buys Louise a chimpanzee.
I’ll repeat that: Emily buys Louise a chimpanzee.
Wendel is understandably pissed about Louise bringing the chimp, which she names “Dickie”, into their expensive home without consulting with him first.
Even though Wendel is a douche bag, I have to side with him on this one.
“It’ll maul me,” Wendel says, but Louise doesn’t listen because her father is just a crotchety old man and we all know that chimps love humans and would never hurt them. I mean … they’re just like people!
Okay, so maybe the two of them had been checking Dickie out in the pet store window — if I saw a chimpanzee in a pet store window, I would probably stop to look too. Maybe Louise had made some comment about how she’s always wanted a “monkey”, telling Emily, “They’ll never betray you like humans do.”
Maybe the pet store staff did put a lot of effort into the sign on the pet store window. Maybe the “monkey” did only cost $150.95.
All I’m saying is it wouldn’t have hurt for Emily to have checked with Louise first before buying her a dangerous wild animal. Friends don’t spring chimpanzees on each other.
At this point, I had hoped for the movie to take the “Louise trains Dickie to bite off her father’s face” route. Sadly, it did not. Instead, Dickie irritates Wendel to the point that one day, Wendel lures Dickie into a room with a banana and Dickie “disappears.”
The movie takes a few twists and turns after this point until it winds up at its predictable conclusion, where we learn what really happened to Louise’s fiancee all those years ago as well as the secret that Wendel has been hiding from his daughter. We also find out what happened to Dickie.
As a kid, had I picked The Attic up at the video store based on its creepy cover art, I would have surely been disappointed. As an adult, I found it to be oddly entertaining.
The acting is really campy. I’m not sure whether I can definitively call it “good” or “bad.”
What I didn’t realize until researching the film is that both of the lead roles are played by critically-lauded actors.
Carrie Snodgress, who plays Louise, was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar in 1970 for her role as Tina Belsare in Diary of a Mad Housewife. Her acting career would come to a halt when she began a relationship with rock legend Neil Young and bore him a son, Zeke, who was born with cerebral palsy. Snodgress’s relationship with Young lasted just a few years. Eight years after Diary of a Mad Housewife, Snodgress returned to acting in Brian De Palma’s The Fury, but her career was never the same. She died in 2004 of liver failure.
Ray Milland, who plays Wendel, took home a Best Actor Oscar for 1979’s The Lost Weekend, directed by Billy Wilder. The Attic was one of his last film roles.
The direction and cinematography is pretty good. In layman’s terms, there’s always plenty of interesting things to look at. It’s debatable whether credit for this should be given to George Edwards or Gary Graver, but I’ll assume the later. If you believe Graver’s story, Edwards — a screenwriter and B-movie producer — was often absent from the set, leaving him to direct the film. Most of Graver’s filmography is smut (though high-quality smut from what I’ve read). He has, however, directed some noteworthy non-pornographic films, including The Toolbox Murders, and worked as a 2nd unit director on some A-level movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark. Graver’s fans include none other than Orson Welles, who used him as a director of photography on several television and other projects late in Welles’ career.
So, with two very competent actors and a experienced director at the helm, where did The Attic go wrong?
I blame the screenplay. The film rides on a story that goes nowhere, continues to go nowhere, throws a chimpanzee into the mix, and ultimately — when it does go somewhere — you’ve already spotted the destination several miles down the road.
Counterpoint: The Attic is unique. It’s got mood, character and is full of laughs, even if the laughs aren’t intentional. It’s the kind of movie you can watch on a Sunday afternoon in bed and not care if you fall asleep before the ending, although if you’re anything like me you’ll stick with it till the end just to find out where the hell the story is going.
Not all bad films are obscure and not all obscure films are bad, but sometimes a movie is “forgotten” for a reason. Does The Attic fall into this later category? Decide for yourself. It’s available on DVD as a double feature with Crawlspace, a 1986 Klaus Kinski thriller (Crawlspace, incidentally, is available to watch instantly on Netflix.) The DVD of The Attic is probably out of print. Luckily, it’s also available in its entirety on YouTube. It’s also available on VHS through Amazon, although not with the terrifying box art.
Next Week: Kentucky Fried Horror!
The Attic on YouTube