44 Days of Paranoia #7: Beyond the Doors (dir by Larry Buchanan)


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While I was researching The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald last week, I came across another film directed by Larry Buchanan.  Beyond the Doors (also known as Down On Us) sounded like one of those truly odd films that I simply had to see for myself.  Fortunately, it turned out that this rare and hard-to-find movie was available (in 13 parts!) on YouTube.

First released in either 1983 or 1984 (sources vary), Beyond the Doors tells the story of a FBI agent who, as the film begins, is out hunting with two friends who proceed to gun him down.  Staring down at the agent’s dead body, one of the assassins sneers, “Rock and Roll is dead.  Long live Rock and Roll.”  The agent’s son then goes through his father’s files and discovers that, during the late 1960s and early 70s, his father was responsible for murdering “the three pied pipers of rock and roll” — Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison.  The film then enters into flashback mode and we discover both why the U.S. government was determined to kill Hendrix, Joplin, and Morrison and how exactly they attempted to do it.

What can I say about Beyond the Doors?  If The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald seemed oddly respectable for a Larry Buchanan film, Beyond the Doors reminds us of why Larry Buchanan remains a cult figure for bad film lovers.  Everything that Buchanan is known for is present in this film: unknown actors playing real-life characters, melodramatic dialogue, one set continually redecorated to look like a dozen different rooms, and plenty of conspiracy theories.   As is typical of a Larry Buchanan film, it was shot with a lot of ambition but next to no money or actual talent.  Hendrix, Morrison, and Joplin are played by lookalikes who give performances that don’t so much resemble their real-life counterparts as much as they seem to literally be Wikipedia entries brought to life.  Hendrix worries that he’s sold out to the man, Joplin questions what fame’s all about, and Morrison makes pretentious observations.  Buchanan couldn’t actually afford the rights to any songs from Joplin, Hendrix, or the Doors so instead, the soundtrack is full of music that’s designed to sound as if it could have been written by one of the “three pied pipers of rock and roll” even though it wasn’t.  (And yes, the end result is just as silly as it sounds.)  In short, Beyond the Doors is one of those films (much like Tommy Wiseau’s The Room) that is so amazingly bad and misguided that it becomes perversely fascinating.

In short, it’s a film that, like me, you simply have to see for yourself.

44 Days of Paranoia #4: Interview With The Assassin (dir by Neil Burger)


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Continuing with the 44 Days of Paranoia, we today take a look at one of the best films to have been inspired by the assassination of John F. Kennedy, 2002’s Interview With The Assassin.

Interview With The Assassin tells the story of Ron (Dylan Haggerty), a cameraman who, at the beginning of the film, has recently lost his job.  His gruff neighbor, an ex-Marine named Walter (a brilliantly menacing Raymond K. Barry), approaches Ron and tells him that he’s dying of cancer and he wants Ron to film him confessing to a crime.  After Ron sets his camera up, Walter proceeds to state that he was the second gunman and that he — and not Lee Harvey Oswald — was the sniper who killed President Kennedy.  When Ron asks Walter who hired him to kill Kennedy, Walter says that he was approached by a man named John Seymour but that he’s not sure who Seymour was working for.

Ron, not surprisingly, is initially skeptical of Walter’s claims.  However, Walter gives Ron a spent shell casing that he claims he grabbed off the ground after he shot Kennedy.  Walter explains that the only reason he’s been allowed to live is because he has that shell casing and, therefore, can prove that there was a second gunman.  Ron gets the shell casing analyzed and is informed that it was probably fired in 1963.

Still skeptical but now intrigued, Ron agrees to make a documentary about Walter and his claims.  Walter and Ron drive across the country to find John Seymour and confront him.  Along the way, they stop in Dallas and Walter shares more of his memories of killing Kennedy.

As Ron becomes more and more convinced that Walter is telling the truth, he also finds himself becoming more and more immersed in Walter’s secretive and fatalistic worldview.  However, as their paranoid road trip continues, Ron also starts to find reasons to doubt whether or not Walter is telling the truth about anything.  It all leads to a genuinely surprising finale that forces us to reconsider everything that we had previously assumed about both Ron and Walter.

I usually hate found footage films but Interview With The Assassin is a wonderful exception.  In his directorial debut, Neil Burger (who would later direct the brilliant Limitless) makes good use of the faux documentary format.  As opposed to many other found footage films, Interview With The Assassin actually provides a believable reason for why the characters are filming everything and, even more importantly, it’s willing to both explore and question the motives of the man holding the camera.  As a result, even though he spends much of the film off-screen, Ron becomes as interesting a character as Walter.

The genius of Interview With The Assassin is to be found in the film’s ambiguity.  While the film creates a believable atmosphere of conspiracy and paranoia, it also forces the viewer to interpret what she’s seen and heard for herself.  Is Walter crazy or is he telling the truth?  Is Ron a hero trying to uncover the truth or is he a frustrated journalist who is exploiting a dying and mentally disturbed man?  Convincing arguments can be made for any of those interpretations as well as a dozen more.  I’ve seen the film a handful of times and I’m still conflicted on just how I feel about both Walter’s claims and the initial assumption that Ron is meant to be the film’s hero.

Interview With The Assassin is a film that invites its audience to think.  As a result, it’s a film that deserves to be seen.

Raymond Barry in Interview With The Assassin

Raymond Barry in Interview With The Assassin

44 Days of Paranoia #3: Winter Kills (dir by William Richert)


MPW-39279Yesterday, I took a look at Executive Action, a 1973 docudrama about the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  Today, I want to take a look at another film inspired by the Kennedys, the 1979 satire Winter Kills.

As the film opens, it’s been 16 years since a popular and dynamic President named Tim Kegan was assassinated in Philadelphia.  Despite constant rumors of conspiracy, the official story is that Kegan was killed by a lone gunman and that gunman was subsequently killed by another lone assassin.  The President’s half-brother, Nick (played by Jeff Bridges, who looks so impossibly young and handsome in this film), has disappointed his father (John Huston) by declining to follow his brother into politics.  Instead, he spends most of his time sailing on corporate oil tankers and dating fashion editor Yvette (Belinda Bauer).  This all changes when a dying man named Fletcher (and played, underneath a lot of bandages, by Joe Spinell) asks for a chance to speak to Nick.  Fletcher reveals that he was the 2nd gunman and that he was hired by to kill President Kegan.  Before dying, Fletcher tells Nick where he can find the rifle that was used to kill the President.

Following Fletcher’s directions, Nick finds both the rifle and proof that his brother’s death was the result of a conspiracy.  Determined to find out who was truly behind the conspiracy, Nick goes to see his father, the flamboyant tycoon Pa Kegan (John Huston) who, we discover, is only alive because he frequently gets blood transfusions from young women.  With Pa’s encouragement, Nick is sent on an increasingly bizarre odyssey into the darkest shadows of America, a world that is populated by militaristic businessmen, sinister gangsters, and an unemotional man named John Cerutti (Anthony Perkins) who very well may be the most powerful man in the world.

The martyred President might be named Tim Kegan, his accused assassin might be named Willie Abbott, and the man who shot Abbott might be named Joe Diamond (and might be played by Eli Wallach) but make no mistake about it — Winter Kills is a thinly disguised look at both the Kennedy assassination and the Kennedy family.  Based on a novel by Richard Condon (who also wrote the conspiracy classic, The Manchurian Candidate), Winter Kills takes all of the various Kennedy conspiracy theories and intentionally pushes them to their most ludicrous extremes.  The end result is a film that tries (and occasionally manages) to be both absurd and sincere, a portrait of a world where paranoia is the only logical reaction.

As I discovered from listening to director William Richert’s commentary on the Anchor Bay DVD, Winter Kills had a long and complicated production history.  The film was produced by two marijuana dealers, one of whom was murdered by the Mafia shortly after the film premiered while the other would later be sentenced to 40 years in prison on federal drug charges.  The production actually went bankrupt more than a few times, which led to Richert, Bridges, and Bauer making and releasing another film specifically so they could raise the money to finish Winter Kills.

When Winter Kills was finally released, it got a good deal of attention because of its spectacular cast.  Along with Bridges, Huston, Perkins, and Wallach, the film also features cameo appearances by Tomas Milian, Elizabeth Taylor, Ralph Meeker, Richard Boone, Sterling Hayden, Dorothy Malone, Toshiro Mifune, and a host of other actors who will be familiar to those of us who enjoy watching old movies on TCM.  And yet, according to Richert, the film itself was barely released in to theaters, the implication being that Winter Kills was a film about conspiracies that fell victim to a conspiracy itself.

Given the film’s history and the subject matter, I was really hoping that Winter Kills would turn out to be a great movie.  Unfortunately, it really doesn’t work.  The film struggles to maintain a balance between suspense and satire and, as a result, the suspense is never convincing and the satire is ultimately so obvious that it ends up being more annoying than thought-provoking.  The cast may be impressive but they’re used in such a way that film ultimately feels like it’s just a collection of showy celebrity cameos as opposed to being an actual story.

That said, Winter Kills remains an interesting misfire.  Jeff Bridges is a likable and compelling lead (and he gives the film much-needed focus) and, playing a role that has a lot in common with his better known work in Chinatown, John Huston is a always watchable if not necessaily likable.  Best of all is Anthony Perkins, who plays a role that, in light of what we now know about the NSA, seems oddly prophetic.

Finally, best of all, Winter Kills remains an interesting time capsule.  If nothing else, it reminds us that mistrust and paranoia are not unique to this century.

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44 Days of Paranoia #2: Executive Action (dir by David Miller)


The Kennedy Memorial in Downtown Dallas

The Kennedy Memorial in Downtown Dallas

Even though it happened 22 years before I was born, I sometimes feel as if it was only yesterday that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

A lot of that is because I’m from Dallas.  When I was born, my family lived in Oak Cliff, a few blocks away from where the accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald once lived.  I drive by the Kennedy Memorial several times a week.  I’ve gone to the Sixth Floor Museum.  I’ve made out on the Grassy Knoll.  On a daily basis, I see tourists who have come down here from up north with their preconceived prejudices, their unwieldy copies of Stephen King’s 11/22/63, and their overactive sweat glands.  (“How do you handle the heat!?” they ask when the temperature is barely above 90.)  With the 50th anniversary of the assassination approaching, the Dallas Morning News has been running daily stories examining every detail of that terrible event.

The rest of the nation, of course, will never let us forget that JFK was assassinated in Dallas.  Just last week, there was an idiotic and bitter opinion piece in The New York Times, written by James McAuley, in which he claimed that Dallas was a “city of hate” that should feel more guilt over the JFK assassination.  As McAuley (who is studying history at Oxford and is not a resident of that city that he apparently feels qualified to judge) put it, “For 50 years, Dallas has done its best to avoid coming to terms with the one event that made it famous: the assassination of John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963.”

This, of course, is bullshit.

There are two competing schools of thought about the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  One says that Lee Harvey Oswald was solely responsible.  The other is that Kennedy was killed as the result of a complex conspiracy.

JFK Assassination Bullets

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.  Well, Oswald was born in New Orleans but he was raised up north in New York City.  He was also a communist with a history of mental instability.  Hence, if you accept that Oswald was the lone assassin than you also have to be willing to accept that Oswald would have tried to kill Kennedy regardless of what city he was living in.

IMF Head-Perp Walk

Things get a bit more complicated if you believe that Kennedy was killed as the result of a conspiracy.  But let’s consider the usual suspects that come up whenever people start talking about the possibility of conspiracy.  The Mafia was based in the north.  The CIA was based in Washington, D.C.  The anti-Castroites were based in Miami.  Again, all of these conspirators would have killed Kennedy regardless of what city he went to in November.

It’s easy for the rest of the country, in a fit of jealousy, anger, and delusion, to blame Dallas and Texas for the assassination of John F. Kennedy but, regardless of whether you believe in the lone assassin or a larger conspiracy, the truth is far more complex.

Over the next few days, as part of the 44 Days of Paranoia, I’ll be taking a look at some of the many films that were inspired by this assassination.  Let’s start things off with one of the lesser known entries in the JFK genre, 1973’s Executive Action.

Executive Action opens with a series of grainy, black-and-white photographs of both America in the 1960s and the men who, over the course of the film, will be portrayed as having plotted and carried out the assassination of President Kennedy while a mournful piano plays in the background.  It’s a low-key but eerily effective opening and it also lets the viewers know exactly what type of film they are about to see.  As opposed to Oliver Stone’s far better known JFK, Executive Action is a low-key, almost deliberately undramatic film.   Despite the fact that there are some familiar faces in the cast (or, at the very least, familiar faces to those of us who watch TCM), Executive Action almost feels as if it could have been a documentary.

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As the film opens in 1963, we see a group of very rich men talking about the future of America.  Ferguson (Will Geer) and Foster (Robert Ryan) are concerned that President Kennedy’s policies are going to destroy America.  Foster is worried that Kennedy is planning on cutting back on military spending.  Ferguson is upset by Kennedy’s support of the Civil Rights movement.  (In one memorable scene, we see Martin Luther King delivering his Dream speech on TV before the camera pulls back to reveal Ferguson watching in disgust.)  Their associate, the shadowy Farrington (Burt Lancaster), argues that the only way to stop Kennedy is to assassinate him and put the blame on a lone gunman.

With the support of Ferguson and Foster, Farrington recruits a group of gunmen (led by Ed Lauter and including Roger Corman regular Dick Miller) and works to set up the perfect patsy.  A man (James MacColl) goes around Dallas, acting obnoxious and telling anyone who will listen that his name is Lee Oswald.  At Ferguson’s insistence, a picture is doctored to make it appear as if Lee Harvey Oswald is posing in his backyard with a rifle.  As all of this goes on, the date of November 22nd steadily approaches…

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As I stated before, Executive Action is an almost obsessively low-key film.  That, however, works to the film’s advantage.  Ferguson, Foster, Farrington, and the other conspirators are chillingly believable because they are presented almost as being anonymous.  Instead of being portrayed as being super villains, they are instead men who approach assassination as just another part of doing business.  The impression one gets is that Kennedy isn’t the first leader they’ve had killed and he probably wasn’t the last.  Director David Miller seamlessly mixes historical footage with film reenactments and the end result is a disturbingly plausible film.

Unfortunately, Executive Action is less well-known than some of the other films that have argued that a conspiracy was responsible for the assassination for John F. Kennedy.  However, it may very well be the best.

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Scenes I Love: The Montage from The Parallax View


In Alan J. Pakula’s 1974 film The Parallax View, Warren Beatty plays a seedy journalist who goes undercover to investigate the links between the mysterious Parallax Corporation and a series of recent political assassinations.  The film is a masterpiece of a paranoia, the type of film that makes you want to check under your bed for listening devices before you go to sleep in the morning.  In the film’s most famous sequence, Beatty — pretending to be a job applicant (read: potential assassin) for the Parallax Corporation — is shown an orientation film that has been designed to test whether or not he’s a suitable applicant.  This film turns out to be a nightmarish montage of rage, insecurity, fear, Oedipal psychosis, and — oddly enough — comic book super heroes.  The montage is shown in its entirety, without once cutting away to show us Beatty’s reaction.  The implication, of course, is that what’s important isn’t how Beatty reacts to the film but how the viewers sitting out in the audience react.

So, at the risk of furthering the conspiracy, here’s that montage.

(By the way, Oswald acted alone.)