Wayning Interests

Random thoughts on and of the modern age

Travoltography: THE DEVIL’S RAIN (1975)

devils_rain_poster_01

Synopsis: Satanists in the middle west terrorise and sometimes melt the terrified locals.

What a stupid tagline. What a stupid synopsis.

Mark (William Shatner) goes missing while investigating a Satanic cult (led by Ernest Borgnine). Tom Skerritt plays Mark’s brother Tom, in a casting move that seems to have inspired the Tony Danza effect of the 1980s (Danza has no less than eight credited roles as a ‘Tony’, and at least one ‘Tommy). The film chronicles Tom’s search for Mark and eventual battle against Borgnine and his motley crew of Satanists, including our man John Travolta in his screen debut. You gotta start somewhere, right?

The Devil’s Rain gets some stuff right: falling as it did between 1973’s The Exorcist and 1976’s The Omen, as a religious horror film it was definitely in the right place at the right time. Much of the imagery is effectively creepy, the opening montage of Hieronymus Bosch paintings backed by sounds of moaning and crying (spoiled only by an overly audible and very campy shout of LET ME OUT OF HERE!) is fantastic, and the special effects aren’t bad either.

But the acting is largely very cheesy, the premise is C-grade Twilight Zone (or B-grade Outer Limits), and the film itself is so padded…by slow…ponderous… grimy shots…of scenery…architecture…and sometimes just nothing of interest whatsoever…that it takes…much longer than necessary…to tell…what…is…essentially…a pretty simple story. Audiences…hate…you know, they despise…that kind of thing…meaning…when…something…takes…way longer…than they feel…that it should. Don’t they?

Also, the effectiveness of religious horror depends largely on the viewer’s own faith. What’s terrifying for a Christian might be totally benign to a Buddhist. Likewise, what petrifies a Roman Catholic will probably make a Scientologist laugh and/or become aroused. I guess you could always convert…

The film (and indeed, film as a whole) gets its first dose of high Travoltage about 40 minutes in, when Tom is exploring a seemingly-empty house. John provides the jump scare, bursting out of the shadows and engaging in a very lame fight scene that lasts all of twenty seconds – about a quarter of the time spent on the exterior shot of the house. Close-ups are scant, and that, coupled with his heavy monster make-up, meant that on first viewing I wasn’t even sure it was him – despite his urban cowboy attire:

Yep, that's him.

Yep, that’s him.

Being Travolta’s first film, he only manages a ‘Featuring’ credit, although the end credits reveal his otherwise nameless character to have been ‘Danny’. Wait, ‘Danny’? Surely you don’t mean…

danny-1

Sup?

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. For me, the most striking thing about The Devil’s Rain is the foreshadowing of what Travolta would become by the early 90s – a relic of an earlier era, spawned from a popular TV show, and tied too closely to his most iconic role to be taken seriously in anything else – in the form of co-star William Shatner.

Unable to break out of his Star Trek typecasting after the show’s demise in 1969, Shatner’s career stagnated until 1979 when he gave in and returned to the franchise in the first of a series of popular feature films. Creatively though, it wasn’t exactly the kind of get-out-of-jail-free card eventually awarded to Travolta by Tarantino.

After affording the plot way too much time than was necessary, the climax of the film sees the Satanists melting under the driving Devil’s Rain, with John in particular receiving more than a featured player’s share of closeups. It’s a strange sight, watching the young Travolta bubbling and melting in an admittedly impressive-for-the-time display of special effects work that is the film’s centrepiece, his skin and essence washing away. Gee John, it never would have happened if you’d been encased in…oh, I don’t know, maybe some kind of plastic bubble?

PROJECT: THE TRAVOLTOGRAPHY

John Travolta as Vinnie Barbarino, 1975

John Travolta as Vinnie Barbarino in Welcome Back, Kotter, 1975

Much has been written about Pulp Fiction in the 20 years since it came out: it’s Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece. It’s his worst film. It’s his edgiest. It’s his most mainstream. It’s the greatest American film made in the last 30 years. It’s the epitome of all that’s wrong with cinema. It’s blindingly original. It’s shamelessly pieced together from other films. Revolutionary. Regressive. It’s everything and it’s nothing, the best and the worst. There seems to be no middle ground on the film, but to be honest I can’t really remember the last time I gave it this much thought.

It was meant to usher in a new wave of American cinema, doing away with the kind of contrived, by-committee, Syd Field screenwriting course approved junk that Hollywood studios had been churning out since the Heaven’s Gate fiasco of 1980. This last weekend saw Disney/Marvel’s Captain America – The Winter Soldier break box office records worldwide, suggesting that things didn’t really come to pass the way 1994’s hyperbole insisted (but hey, Samuel L. Jackson hardly looks a day older!). 20 years later, what really is the legacy of Pulp Fiction?

By all accounts, the most apparent lasting impact the film made (aside from the current ubiquity of Jackson) was the resurrection of the career of John Travolta. No assessment of the film seems complete without addressing Travolta’s resurgence, and Tarantino’s subsequent filmography is peppered with attempts to do the same for other faded stars of yesteryear, with varying results.

In reading about the film, I came across a quote from film critic Jerome Charyn’s 2006 profile of Tarantino that echoed in my mind for days afterwards. Charyn believes that the power of Travolta’s performance – and even his mere appearance – in the film comes from the actor’s to-date career itself:

Travolta’s entire career becomes “backstory“, the myth of a movie star who has fallen out of favor, but still resides in our memory as the king of disco. We keep waiting for him to shed his paunch, put on a white polyester suit, and enter the 2001 Odyssey club in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where he will dance for us and never, never stop.

For perhaps the first time ever, I took the time to stop and really think about John Travolta. How accurate was Charyn’s statement? Was this kind of…holistic casting possible, let alone effective? Was it intentional on Tarantino’s part, or was it just another overly pretentious critic finding meaning where there was none?

I’d seen a fair few of Travolta’s films, including Pulp Fiction. Welcome Back, Kotter had gotten a thrashing from Channel 9 back when I was in high school, and I’d watched a tonne of that. I was familiar with him, but not to the extent necessary to put Charyn’s theory to the test. It was certainly hard to imagine a pre-Pulp Fiction Travolta, that disco guy condemned to D-grade comedies and family fare, a far cry from his heyday of the late 1970s. One other quote from my research stuck with me, this one by Erika Hernandez of AboutFilm.com:

The late Seventies triumphs of Saturday Night Fever and Grease made Travolta an icon. But it did not take him long to become an embarrassment in the Eighties. … After [Perfect]’s release [in 1985], we pretty much did not want to look at this man anymore. He had become a relic of an era we were trying to forget.

But for someone born in 1985, it was an era I couldn’t remember. I looked over Travolta’s filmography on IMDb. Phew…would these films really bear the weight imposed on them by Charyn’s idea? Was it even feasible to watch all of the films he’d made prior to Pulp Fiction? Hmm…I could do this. It’d take time, and I’d have to watch Staying Alive…but I could do it.

So here we are. I’ll periodically watch the following films and publish my thoughts on them as I go. I’ll end with Pulp Fiction, after which I’ll assess just how integral Travolta’s history was to his effectiveness in the film.

I’ll have to watch exactly 20 films.

They were made over a 20 year period.

Pulp Fiction just turned 20.

I just noticed this list includes Look Who’s Talking Too.

Stop me now.

The Devil’s Rain (1975)

Carrie (1976)

The Boy in the Plastic Bubble (1976)

Saturday Night Fever (1977)

Grease (1978)

Moment by Moment (1978)

Urban Cowboy (1980)

Blow Out (1981)

Staying Alive (1983)

Two of a Kind (1983)

Perfect (1985)

The Experts (1989)

Look Who’s Talking (1989)

Look Who’s Talking Too (1990)

Eyes of an Angel (1991)

Chains of Gold (1991)

Shout (1991)

Boris and Natasha (1992)

Look Who’s Talking Now (1993)

Pulp Fiction (1994)

DAMN

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HOW NOT TO HAGGLE

“Hello, sexy!” he yelled at the girls as they passed. He had to yell so as to bridge the wide berth they’d given him. “I’d fuck her,” he muttered to no one in particular, leering after them a moment more before turning his attention back to me. Perhaps feeling he’d been too subtle, he raised his eyebrows at me as he squinted in the afternoon sun. “You can have it for ten bucks if you fuck her.” A hollow laugh escaped me, but he wasn’t smiling. “Final offer.”

“It’s worth thirty as is,” he declared. It was my turn to raise an eyebrow. “Look at it,” I said. “How am I supposed to plug it in without the cord?” He looked hurt. “My friend…” he sighed, “Fucking women took it. It’s in here somewhere, leave your money and I’ll find it for you.” He picked up a tangled mess of cords, and then suddenly hurled it to the ground in anger. “Never fuck a woman! It will be a lay-by for you.” I laughed off the suggestion that my money would be safe with him, especially since he’d already told me what he planned to buy with it. I was far more interested in these women that had allegedly absconded with his goods – as if a woman had ever entered his shop. “What women?” I enquired from behind a mask of innocence. It was his turn to laugh.

When he spoke, his voice was full of enough bitterness and regret to fill his shop five times over. “My friend, when you fuck a woman,” he started, emphasising his point by crossing his arms over his pelvis, “won’t be long before she fucks you. I was worth a million dollars,” he said, as he stared wistfully off into the distance between us. “But then…she cleaned me out. She sucked my dick. Took the four kids.” He must have noticed me straining to hold back a smirk…he must have. But if he did, he didn’t give any indication. Instead, he blurted out a proposal that must have been on what was left of his mind a good while: “Do you want to live here?

“When she left and sucked me, she took my four kids,” he explained. He was still canny enough to realise that what he’d said needed context. “I used to be worth millions, and now I am alone. Four bedrooms upstairs empty.” Before I could respond, he added “You know something, my friend? I used to gamble fifty thousand a night. I once gambled fifty thousand in one night.” I shook my head. “Did you lose it all?” He nodded gravely but with a hint of pride as he proved his mangled point to me. I looked around, making a show of taking in the dank surroundings he now called home. I made sure my gaze came to linger on the item I wanted. “Then you should take ten bucks for that.”

He tapped his dirty fingers on the table. “My friend, there’s something you’re not understanding. This is brand new item.” I held back an urge to inform him that it had been released over ten years ago. “Easily worth two hundred. If you’re not careful, a desperado will show up here today and pay me two hundred for it.” I looked up and down the empty street. “Then I hope for your sake he’s on his way,” I told him. I pulled out the ten dollar note to show him I meant business. “Mate,” he said, closing his eyes. “I can’t buy a packet of cigarettes for that. I can’t eat pussy for that.”

HUUAAJJOOAARRRR!” His sudden explosion of gibberish caught me off guard, and he smirked as I jumped – a sign of weakness that had compromised my position in our mind game. I turned around to see what he’d yelled at; a hotted-up shitbox of a car sped off up the street. “Who was that?” I asked in a desperate attempt to take the heat off my tell. “I don’t know,” he said, his gaze still fixated on where the car had been. His left eye had a scratch on the eyelid. I wondered how you’d get a scratch like that.

He turned back to me with a look of finality; clearly we were entering end game. “My friend,” he began. “How did you get here?” I felt fear wash over me. As it so often does, my mind started to race through the possibilities, the implications. What did he mean? What was he planning? Oh, Christ…had that yell been a signal…to the guy in that car? Was I going to be followed, and ambushed for the $10 he knew I had? Was he that determined? In a heartbeat I mentally evaluated our entire relationship, scanning it for clues, signs, any hint that he might not be the friendly, stubborn sex-pest I’d come to know.

I needed to buy some time. “Why do you wanna know?” Weak, yes, but he wasn’t worth extra effort. “Well, did you catch the bus, did you walk, what?” I still couldn’t figure where he was going with this. “I drove,” I started, suddenly inspired. “In fact, I can’t wait to put that machine in the back of my car if you’ll just take the ten-” My attempt to steer proceedings back to the matter at hand was dismissed by a wave of his hand. “Which car is yours?” Gulp. I’d been right, this was part of some shakedown. I’d been played, and I’d lost hard. Time to kiss my tenner goodbye, not to mention my car and anything inside it. It suddenly occurred to me exactly how he’d scored all the junk in his shop. They weren’t inventory…they were trophies.

I waved my arm toward the nearby carpark, where I had in fact parked. A quick glimpse of the scene brought comfort: my car was obscured by a truck. Phew. But I was still backed into a corner. There was only one trick I had available to me. “That ute there,” I replied, hoping I hadn’t taken too long in doing so. I turned my wave into a gesture toward the beat-up ute, which was the vehicle closest to his shop. “Oh,” he said. I breathed a sigh of relief – my trick had worked. Maybe now I could get this deal done and get out of here. But he wasn’t finished. “That’s my ute.”

Check mate.

LONDON MAULING

In case you hadn’t heard, Grand Theft Auto V was released this week with a record-breaking $800m in day-one sales. Wow. Things have come a long way from the original GTA, 1997’s top-down world simulator quite unlike anything else on the market at the time. You played the role of a thug coming up in the criminal underworld of any one of three metropolis: Liberty City, San Andreas and Vice City, each tougher than the last. The approach: steal and kill for glory and respect.

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For twelve-year-old me, it was like video games had grown up (despite the juvenile take on the subject matter). Here was a game that used the word ‘shit’! When you died, it didn’t say ‘game over’; instead, huge yellow letters gleefully informed you that you’d been ‘WASTED!’, as if you couldn’t tell. If you were nabbed by the 5-0, you were ‘BUSTED!’ – this never happened to Super Mario.

gta london cover

However revelatory the original game was, however technically impressive and more complete the later 3D games felt, my favourite of the series remains largely forgotten. In 1999, on the eve of the release of the highly anticipated GTA2, Rockstar released an add-on for the original. Presumptuously titled ‘Mission Pack #1’ (there would be no #2), GTA London 1969 put a fascinating spin on the original concept. Where the first GTA had attempted, through its tone, its sense of humour and its (awesome) soundtrack, to immerse the player in the now, GTA London casts you back to – you guessed it – 1969, and attempts a similar level of immersion. By choosing a real-world location and a specific era, Rockstar set themselves a pretty lofty goal.

You’re given your choice of four likely lads to unleash upon the unsuspecting London: stoner Charles Jones, proto-punk Sid Vacant, well ‘ard geezer Maurice Caine and mod Rodney Morash. It’s purely an aesthetic choice. Regardless of who you choose, your in-game sprite is the same yellow jumper-wearing goon from the first game. If you’ve played GTA to death and are excitedly jumping into new missions in London, it’s an eerie sight to see what could be Kivlov or Travis waging war across the pond.

gta london

And that’s not the only jarring aspect. If you’ve adjusted to driving on the right hand side of the road in the US-based original, get ready for a cruel surprise in London. Rockstar have smothered the game in all kinds of UK-style slang, too. Where the first game was full of bent cops, rastas and mobsters all adhering to the broadest of stereotypes, you won’t get far in GTA London without knowing a ‘prat’ from a ‘ponce’, or ‘the monkey’ from ‘the cheese grater’.

Your thug is working for the Crisp Twins, businessmen brothers whose legitimacy is about as kosher as a sausage synagogue. You tear around a scale approximation of London featuring all the good parts and plenty of the bad. The entire palette of the game feels drab, and as such it’s not hard to imagine the gloomy grey sky above the city. When you’re busted in this one, ‘YOU’RE NICKED’, and when you’re wasted, ‘YOU’RE BROWN BREAD’. Cultural references abound: you’ll upstage a James Bondian secret agent, help Lord Lucan disappear, jack a big red double decker bus and drive one of those stupid Union Jack Austin Powers cars while listening to a pirate radio station. Feel like you’re there yet?

That’s all before the best part of the game. The GTA games might be as well known these days for their extensive licensed soundtracks as for their brutal violence, but it wasn’t always that way. The first game has an entirely original soundtrack spanning all kinds of genres (and as I’ve said, it’s excellent), but GTA London was the first time a GTA game featured licensed music. And what a soundtrack it is: Trojan Records superstars like Harry J. Allstars, the Upsetters and Symarip to Italian cinema maestro Riz Ortolani find themselves remixed into 1969-esque radio stations that are absolutely unforgettable once heard. It’s the same keen ear at work behind the scenes picking the perfect songs to set the tone as in the modern era of GTA games, and it’s just as much of a success for it. You can even put the PlayStation disc in your CD player (remember those?) and listen to the soundtrack that way. As you’d expect, it makes for great driving music.

As the series grew in notoriety it’s easy to understand why Rockstar have never gone back to London. Setting the level of violence the fans expect in a virtual ‘real’ city would cause outrage beyond imagination, even if the level of detail put into Vice City or San Andreas makes it no less ‘real’. But that’s okay, GTA London is still there whenever you want to blow it up, not that that was ever the point. The game’s greatest impact and legacy remains its soundtrack. So…let’s blow it up again.