Buzzing Thru the Pylon: Halloween Free-For-All, Pt. 2

Phase IV (1974)
Director: Saul Bass
Cinema 4 Rating: 7

The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1959)
Director: Terence Fisher
Cinema 4 Rating: 6

I remember exactly where I was when I first saw Saul Bass' insect politics thriller, Phase IV. I just don't remember the "who" of the story.

It was a Friday night, and there was someone at our house. Was it an uncle, and not one with quotations around it? Was it just a friend of ours from the neighborhood, or my cousin Brad, and was my father actually even around for this? Was it him? I don't fully recall the name of the person who filled in that particular role in this story, but I am fairly certain it was one of her abhorrent dates following my parents' then soul-wrenching but actually perfectly timely divorce.

I only recall that this person who probably ended up banging my mom bet me a dime for every thirty minutes I could shut completely up for the evening. I was still young enough where a thin dime still meant a good deal to me -- 10 cents would still buy me a pack of baseball cards at that time -- but I was already engaged enough verbally where I could drag any sane adult to the dark side in no time flat. Much like today, it seems. And thus, the deal was born. I sat down, shut up, and decided to watch whatever movie was coming on that evening. In the '70s, ABC had an amazing penchant for showing horror and science-fiction movies in prime time on Friday nights, most of them made-for-TV (and that is no knock on their quality, for there were some excellent ones) and some of them theatrical releases. (Click here for the opening to their show.)

This evening, they were showing what appeared to be a really spooky looking film called Phase IV. Anything with bug attacks at that age, I was there. It's what tricked me into actually seeing The Swarm in a theatre. And so, having dragged a sleeping bag into the living room, I crawled inside and shut my trap, counting out how many cards I could buy if I did not squeak a single word for the next three hours. (That would be, for the curious, sixty cards.) And then, over the next two hours, I found myself losing the ability to speak anyway. Thanks to Phase IV, which had me so scared I couldn't even get out of the sleeping bag to go down the hall to the bathroom on commercials, I was cheating whoever it was out of their money.

At first, I remember being bored, but then, as the implications of what was happening in this oddly located film were growing, and as the tension built up, I found myself unable to turn away. I didn't really understand what was happening, but that didn't matter. It was about the moment, and that moment found me not just easily earning the first two hours of that cash, but in the end found an entire dollar being slapped into my hand. Never has silence been so golden. I maintain that if the entire world would just pay me hush money in this same manner, I would leave everyone alone. I wouldn't yell about organized religion and idiot Republicans (and, occasionally, idiot Democrats) and crazy Hollywood cults and everything else that pisses me off.

If only I could get people to listen to me in the first place, this would be a great way of life for me.

I also remember where I was when I first saw The Man Who Could Cheat Death. OK, not the full movie, but I did see it in sixth grade at our graduation prize summer camp. The people running the camp had a series of 8mm ten-minute versions of various monster films -- the kind that I would ogle in the back pages of Famous Monsters magazine but never have the guts (or the cash -- I apparently wasn't being paid to shut up enough) to order them -- and as a gift for winning Capture the Flag earlier that morning on our second day there, our class was treated to a night at the movies, camp 8mm style. Popcorn, hot dogs and condensed versions of Christopher Lee Dracula and Peter Cushing Frankenstein films.

In this mix was the miniaturized version of The Man Who Could Cheat Death, with Anton Diffring as a sculptor who appears to be 40ish, but is in reality an increasingly mad Dorian Gray type who has lived for 104 years by replacing certain glands in his body with those of gullible, much younger victims. Chiefly, I remember the final sequence, which I will not relate here in the interests of those who have yet to see what is actually a middling though handsome Hammer production. Of course, being a Hammer film, most likely all will not work out for the villain in the end, so if I were to say that the sculptor is not just flaming in spirit, you can work it out for yourself. The scene, though, did make quite an impression on me, as did the appearance of Christopher Lee, with whom I was beginning a definite fascination. Within the next year, I would start watching the full versions of these same Hammer horror films.

But I got my Hammer start by watching the 8mm renditions, all truncated and jumpy on an old projector -- also, completely silent, so we had to provide our own soundtrack -- inside a cabin that split the difference between a cafeteria and a congregation room for this camp usually attended by the biblically minded. That I would totally discard any attempt at connecting with established religion within the next couple of years, and then possibly replaced such worship with a devotion to the very films that I saw that night in the camp is perhaps an irony worth far more delving on my part. But, I will save that for another time. For now, and for once, I will just shut up.

After all, it's your dime. And soon it will be mine...

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