Friday, May 29, 2015


EXCELLENT NEW BOOK ON UNSOLVED 1946 MURDER SPREE TRIES TO ANSWER QUESTIONS;  Decades old story can still chill the bones...
by Don Stradley

The post-war Texarkana of James Presley’s The Phantom Killer had a “reputation as a rough little town,”  but it was also typical of small-town America in 1946.  High school musicians played swing music for couples to dance to at the local VFW, and there were plenty of all night diners where you could grab a snack.  The favorite pastime of all, though, was parking in a secluded spot  with your sweetheart.

That is, until the killer arrived.

He was darkness personified,  slipping in and out of murder scenes undetected, preying on parked couples, leaving virtually no trail. Over the course of several weeks, he shot and killed five people in cold blood, and inflicted physical harm on three others.  The town panicked. Evil was in the air.

Presley’s highly detailed recounting of the murders, the bumbling investigation, the media blitz,  and the aftermath, shows us that evil isn’t something that comes up from a netherworld. Rather, it can come in the guise of a plain bumpkin, in this case, a local hick named Youell Swinney. A 30-year-old ex-con, Swinney was the youngest son of a Baptist minister and was known for having a violent streak.  When Texarkana cops busted him for car theft, he all but confessed to the murders.  His wife  provided damaging statements that convinced every cop on the case that Swinney was the killer.   

The book is packed with minutiae.  Presley tells us as much as possible about the unfortunate victims, down to what they were wearing and what they liked to do in their free time.  Mostly, we learn about Swinney,  an egotistical loser who once drove 120 miles roundtrip to see a movie about Jesse James, as if he sought tips on how to be a vicious outlaw.   

Swinney wasn’t the type of misunderstood criminal that might draw sympathy.  He was warped, and his treatment of one of the female victims showed a man torn by a strange sexual anger.  Presley suggests that Swinney was sublimating homosexual urges, but  there had to be more to him than mere sex hang-ups. "He got his kicks through violence," Presley writes, "like killing and control." What influenced Swinney's messy psyche? Presley chews on several possibilities, and his chapter on the makings of a serial killer is as terse as any I’ve read on the subject.

In some ways, Swinney seemed to get what he wanted out of life. He liked the notoriety that came with being associated with the Phantom murders, and he avoided execution. He ended up serving a couple of decades for other crimes, was released briefly in the 1970s, but was soon back in the slam.  While most felt the killings were unsolved, with the Phantom becoming a sort of American Jack the Ripper, most authorities in the Texas penal system felt confident that they had their man.  (Other authors have suggested Swinney was a solid suspect in at least some of the murders, but Presley is determined to pin everything on Swinney, with no other suspects mentioned.)

Presley’s book is a good read, chockfull of research and insights – Presley spent many years reporting for the Texarkana Gazette, and his uncle was sheriff of Bowie County where the murders happened, so the events of 1946 loom large in the Presley family.  Yet, Presley spends too much time on the court trials and legal finagling that allowed Swinney  his freedom in the ‘70s.  I also lost track of the number of times Presley mentions that DNA evidence wasn’t available at the time of the killings.   

But Presley is also adept at the telling detail, such as his description of a battered saxophone case belonging to one of the victims, its plush blue lining “rotted from exposure to the elements.” The sax is such an integral part of the investigation that it begins to feel like a sixth casualty, and when it’s finally located in some underbrush near one of the murders, there’s a sense of relief.  It even takes on a human quality when the investigators check it for latent fingerprints, wondering if “the killer had opened the case and touched the instrument with an ungloved hand.”

I suppose anyone writing about such a grisly murderer should be allowed some hyperbole, but it’s a stretch when Presley writes that the slayings in Texarkana “represent a case history of domestic terrorism as threatening as any other.” He tries to fit Swinney into a lineage that includes the Boston Strangler, Adam Lanza of Sandy Hook, and even the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.  Without belittling the terror and pain he inflicted on the community, The Phantom of Texarkana  is more in league with William Heirens,  a wingnut who terrorized Chicago women for a few months in 1945-46 and became known as “the Lipstick Killer”. He’s a period piece.

But then,  a man known as “The Phantom Killer” and “The Moonlight Murderer”,  a man who has inspired at least a couple of low budget movies, might deserve a bit of grand talk.  “With the principle participants dead,” Presley writes, “and documentary evidence fragile and scattered  and possibly on the way to being lost forever, this was the last chance to set the record straight and close a popular but vexing old mystery.”

Consider the case closed.  But there are still questions.  Swinney's wife remains a puzzle. How much did she really know? And Swinney’s tattoo, for instance, of a skull  and heart with the word “revenge” on his left arm. Revenge for what?


Wednesday, May 27, 2015




Paper Mask reminds me of those dreams we all have, the ones where we show up at work or school and aren’t prepared for a major meeting or test. I think these dreams show our terror of being exposed as frauds. I also think they serve another function – they’re the brain’s way of telling us to wake up. The brain knows we have to get out of bed, so it creates an unpleasant scenario to jolt us from our sleep. In a way, our brain knows what buttons to push to get us moving in the morning. Still, it’s interesting that so many of us fear being revealed as a fraud. It must be a universal dread.

I imagine lawyers have dreams where they aren’t prepared for a trial. School teachers, too, must have dreams where they enter a classroom without knowing the day’s lesson. I suppose the most well-known of these dreams is the one where an actor has to go onstage but doesn’t know his lines. But these dreams must be especially terrifying for doctors, for few things could be more horrible than entering surgery and not knowing what to do. 

Paper Mask never quite approaches the atmosphere of a nightmare – it’s about a young man who sneakily assumes the identity of a doctor and gets a job at a small London hospital. At times he probably wishes it was all a dream, such as his first night of duty when he’s met by badly wounded people, people crying out for pain killers, and a man who’s nearly lost a leg in a motorcycle accident. The phony doctor looks the part, but even rookie nurses can see he’s overwhelmed by the blood and agony of the emergency ward.  

The sham artist, played by Paul McGann, had previously worked as an orderly in another hospital. He resented doctors, insisting to his pals that they were arrogant, overpaid jerks. Early in the film he sees an ex-girlfriend and her new doctor boyfriend in a car crash. He pulls them from the wreckage; she’s alive, but her beau is dead. McGann finds the fellow’s application to a nearby hospital; as if to prove his own theory that doctoring is easy, he takes the dead man’s place at the job interview.

McGann has, as one character tells him, the luck of the devil. He passes the interview, even as he stumbles when asked about the posh school he allegedly attended. 

Strangely, we’re compelled to celebrate along with McGann as he endures his horrendous first night on the job and gradually passes himself off as a doctor. He’s cagy, learning how to read X-rays by betting an older nurse she can’t identify certain problems. He loses each bet, but slowly learns his way around an X-ray. All is well until he eventually botches a procedure and causes the death of a patient.

As in the best novels of Cornell Woolrich or Patricia Highsmith, the plot thickens and the body count rises. Director Christopher Morahan, a veteran of BBC dramas and comedies, doesn’t go for laughs or dark humor in “Paper Mask.” Instead, he keeps things quick and tight until we know McGann will have to do something desperate to keep up his ruse. McGann is quite good as an ego-driven man who dives into a charade and always seems on the verge of cracking. I like how he occasionally plucks out an old American tune on a banjo, sometimes jubilantly, sometimes forlornly. His favorite song, not surprisingly, is ‘The Great Pretender’. Amanda Donahoe is very good as a feisty nurse who falls in love with McGann, as is Tom Wilkinson as an older doctor who suspects McGann isn’t legit. (Yes, it’s the same Wilkinson who taught the blokes how to dance in The Full Monty.)

I also loved how the movie subtly touched on the ever present British class divide. The working class McGann had begrudged doctors, but when he arrives at his new job, he finds that certain doctors resent the high-class schooling found on his phony credentials. “We just want someone who cares,” hisses Wilkinson. “We don’t care about your bloody superior education!” When McGann sneaks into his alleged alma mater to research his “past”, a boy accosts him.

“I don’t believe you went here,” the boy says. “Your clothes look cheap.”

McGann ignores him.

“I could report you,” the boy says.

“And I could break your neck,” McGann answers.

The movie succeeds because we get to know McGann so well that we identify with his fear of discovery. But are we supposed to feel alarm at the movie’s end, when he’s still out there, putting more people at risk? That’s where the movie gets a bit muddy. Who is the real villain of the piece? Is it McGann, or the medical profession? In retrospect, the most frightening moment of the movie is when Wilkinson informs McGann that he won’t be fired, for it would make the hospital look bad. The idea that a hospital would rather keep an inept doctor than attract attention for having hired him in the first place is enough to make one shudder.

(This DVD is region-free format)

Tuesday, May 26, 2015


The Human Centipede 3 (Final Sequence) Movie Review

I used to watch the drunks in the Boston Common, the ones who sat on park benches and talked to themselves. They'd occasionally lash out at someone, or break out into song.  I'd watch them, unable to understand how they'd reached this point.  They occasionally made me laugh, and now and then they revolted me with their stupidity and base behavior.  I watch the human centipede movies in much the same way, wondering what inspires director Tom Six to make them, and what drives his fascination with bodily functions. I'll admit, without an ounce of guilt, that I liked the first two HC movies. They were weird and, in their own way, vaguely artistic.  Each had a distinct look and tone.  Six, to me, is a kind of artist. Not a great one, but he has his own vision. That's why the latest chapter is a sort of letdown. The Human Centipede 3:  Final Sequence  is not exactly a fall from greatness, but it feels like the work of an artist who wasn't particularly inspired.

Part of the problem is that Six doesn't appear to be trying to scare us.  The first two HC films were frightening.  This one aims to be a sort of gross-out comedy, as if Six is parodying himself for his own amusement.  He even appears in the film as himself, meeting with  insane prison warden Bill Boss (Dieter Laser) who wants to use the human centipede technique to deal with his unruly prisoners.  On paper, the idea must have sounded good to Six, but to me it felt as if he'd simply run out of ideas, and decided to blow us away with sheer numbers. The climactic visual of 500 prisoners sewn together, snaking across the prison yard, is stirring, but not to the degree that Six had probably hoped. 

In short, the movie hits on most of the same gruesome details of the first two films, but without the originality, or the sense of impending doom.  It might be because the centipede gimmick already feels old. If you've seen one person with his mouth sewn into another person's ass, you've seen 'em all. But it's as if Six knows this, too, so we don't get much centipede action in HC3 as we did in the other movies. Instead, we get jokes about Crohn's disease and colostomy bags, which only deaden the movie's momentum.  

The plot is ridiculous. The first two films were actually vaguely plausible. But what Six knows of prison life seems to come from Machete movies.  Hell, Roger Corman's old women in prison movies were probably closer to reality than anything in HC 3. It's as if a demented high school kid put this story together, with no nod to reality or common sense. Maybe he thinks the people who watch these movies aren't concerned with such details, but I'll bet they are.

Somehow, Eric Roberts agreed to be in HC, but he wanders around like he's lost. He plays a Texas governor who wants to shut down Boss' operation.  This means 1) Six can now attract actors of Robert's stature, or 2) Roberts no longer has any stature. Roberts didn't even bother cutting his hair for the role, playing a Texas politician with a hippie haircut, another reason to suggest Six is clueless about a lot of things.  Adult film actress Bree Olson appears as Boss' secretary, and she's not as bad as you would think, though her previous film work comes in handy for a scene here. "Tiny" Lister, a familiar character actor in films by Quentin Tarantino, Luc Besson, and John Frankenheimer,  is here  as the largest of the prisoners, but isn't given much to do.  I remember when he got his start in the old WWF and wrestled Hulk Hogan.  Now he's at the front of the centipede line.  How far he's come!

If there's anything worthwhile in this movie, it's the absolutely unhinged performance by Laser as Boss. Whether he's performing a castration, or gobbling imported African clitorises as if they're pep pills, the snake-like Laser seems to be acting in another stratosphere.  Granted, most of his lines are screamed in a hard to understand German accent, but I was never less than mesmerized by him.  It was also great to see Laurence R. Harvey as Boss' lackey.  Harvey was brilliant in the second HC movie, and shows here that he's capable of playing different sorts of characters. At times, Laser and Harvey are so good together that they could easily be the Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet of modern Grand Guignol.  

Friday, May 22, 2015


I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story Movie Poster

The makers of I Am Big Bird were intent on tugging at the old heart strings.  They wanted this tale of Caroll Spinney,  the shy, inarticulate fellow who has commandeered the most famous of the 'Sesame Street' characters for four decades, to somehow represent all of the loners and dreamers out there, to feel that we, too, may one day find our big feathered friend at the end of the rainbow. Sometimes it works, and you may find yourself growing misty eyed, just like I did at one point, but by the end you'll be a little bit tired of the documentary's tone, which could be described as "melancholy majestic."  Apparently, every child in the world is desperately lonely, and can only be made to feel better by the unconditional love of a giant bird puppet.  Fans of Kermit the frog and Cookie Monster might beg to differ.

I didn't watch much 'Sesame Street' when I was a kid.  I vaguely remember it being a comforting program on PBS. The puppets were fun, but I didn't care for all of the number games and attempts to teach me to read.  I remember Big Bird as a tall, friendly character with a nasal voice.  He wasn't my favorite member of the gang, but according to the documentary, he was the most important figure in the show's history.  When we see footage of Big Bird at the Great Wall of China, we get the implied message: Big Bird is a worldwide phenomenon, just like MacDonald's and The Beatles.

We don't learn much about the character's origin - why did Muppet creator Jim Henson think a giant yellow bird would be so effective?  What did Henson see in Spinney that made him think he'd be perfect for the job of making the bird walk and talk?  And what sort of bird is he, anyway? Is he an ostrich? A giant chicken?  Though we see a lot of backstage footage of Spinney walking around in his bird legs, half-costumed as if to show that he's half-man and half bird, this isn't the place to learn about the inner working of 'Sesame Street'.  It's a celebration of Spinney, how he rose from his obscure, unhappy childhood to become, well, Big Bird.  He also plays Oscar the Grouch, but his relationship to that character isn't as deeply rooted as his feelings for the bird. When he recalls the time some pranksters broke into a 'Sesame Street' set and tore feathers off his alter ego, Spinney nearly weeps and says it was akin to seeing one's child raped.  Strong stuff, but over the top.

He was a sad child, bullied by  other kids and occasionally abused by his angry, ignorant father. He found some relief in the world of puppetry and cartoons, and as a young man went to work as a side character on the old 'Bozo the Clown' show.  He struggled through his early years, endured a loveless marriage, considered suicide, and then in one fell swoop found himself working for Henson, and then meeting the love of his life, a patient and effervescent woman who would become his wife and manager. Of course, the show has changed in recent years, aiming for what seems to be an even younger audience (two-year olds?). Big Bird is no longer the top gun on the street, not with Elmo around. The constantly chirping and squeaking Elmo is Jimmy Fallon to Big Bird's David Letterman. Not to worry, though.  Big Bird is evergreen, a bona fide "Muppet emeritus."

As he enters his 80s, Spinney now struggles to wear the heavy bird costume, and has completed the search to find a replacement, a young puppeteer who seems to share Spinney's love of the bird.  The people around Spinney seem respectful, and appreciative of his longevity, but their comments don't support the weighty tone of the documentary.  Granted, he's somewhat legendary in the field of puppetry, but despite the movie's somber music, and its effort to portray Spinney as a kind of uncomfortable, overly sensitive genius,  it's hard to look at Spinney as anything but a guy in a bird suit.

The moviemakers struggle to find a climax for their tale, and they find it in the story of Ouyang Lianzi, a little Chinese girl who appeared with Big Bird in a 1983 TV special. She hadn't seen him since then, and now, well into her 30s, is reunited with him for the documentary.  "I've never known such love," she says, genuinely moved, and still strangely childlike. Is that the secret to Big Bird?  Does he cast a spell on people and keep them as children forever? Maybe I'm lucky that I preferred 'Gilligan's Island' to 'Sesame Street'.

- Don Stradley


Friday, May 15, 2015


Poor Topsy.  She had the sort of unhappy life that could've served as the background for an old Disney cartoon:  captured and separated from her mother, she was brought to America and put to work as a circus attraction, where she was often subjected to brutal treatment by trainers. Disney would've given her a happy ending, but Topsy had no such luck. In 1903, Topsy was put before an audience and electrocuted for being a “bad” elephant.
Michael Daly’s highly readable historical saga, ‘Topsy: The Startling Story of the Crooked Tailed Elephant, P.T. Barnum, and the American Wizard, Thomas Edison’ covers a lot of territory, starting with America’s strange fascination with elephants, the rise of the American circus,  and Thomas Edison’s all-consuming thirst for power.  The execution of Topsy has become a sort of urban legend (it was filmed by Edison’s company, and you can see it on YouTube) but it wasn't the only time an elephant was executed in front of a crowd of gawkers. Elephants intermittently broke their chains and stomped a trainer to death, which lead to the animals being put down, either with bullets, poison, or by hanging.  Edison, as big a showman as P.T. Barnum, convinced circus owners that electrocution was the most efficient way to get the job done.
What’s most unsettling about this account of Topsy's end is that humans seemed to enjoy seeing elephants suffer. Consider that two of the first three elephants brought to America were promptly shot and killed by local yokels, including a couple of boys who wanted to test a circus barker’s claim that the creature was “bullet proof”. Or consider how easy it was for trainers, after a few drinks, to turn vicious. Throughout the book, despite the occasional appearances by the ASPCA, there’s a sense that elephants and humans are not a perfect match, as if humans, when confronted by the magnificent beasts, were overtaken by a horrific case of ‘short man complex’.
Daly, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, tells a good story, so even the chapters about elephant behavior come off as interesting and entertaining, rather than strictly academic.  Daly’s strongest writing is about the early elephant trainers, who ranged from the maniacal to the benevolent.  Some were drunks who dealt with an angry elephant by blasting him in the face with a shotgun, often leaving it blind or injured. There were others, though, such as the legendary ‘Eph’ Thompson, an African-American who used a calm, sweet demeanor and could teach an elephant to do a somersault. Then there was the renowned Stewart Craven, who began as a typically sadistic trainer, but had a change of heart and inspired decades of future trainers to try a gentler approach.
Edison comes off as a greedy and pugnacious man determined to flood the world with his inventions.  The early days of electricity were even more horrifying than the treatment of circus animals, such as the time lineman John E.F. Meeks died dangling on a live wire, “as blue flames shot out of his mouth and nostrils and sparks exploded from the soles of his feet.”  It was only a short jump from the tragic death of Meeks to the invention of the electric chair.  As for Topsy, she was brought to America as a baby, and enjoyed 30 years as a headliner before killing a trainer and causing several disturbances. Her death, which took place at Coney Island’s Luna Park, was the first time a living creature was shown dying on film.   
Fortunately, the grisly aspects of Daly’s book are offset with many moments of awe, such as when a herd of captive elephants remain serene during a major storm, emerging from the wreckage like “a procession of towering tranquility,” or when a throng of more than 3000 people gathered on a river bank to see some elephants taken to the water where they played and bathed.  True, elephants could bang on a drum or stand on their heads, but elephants always seem more majestic  in a more natural setting.  The tricks and stunts may be cute, but after reading Daly’s chronicle of Topsy and other elephants driven mad by captivity,  I think I’d rather see an elephant bathing in peace, than slumping around like a working stiff under the big top.

- Don Stradley


Saturday, May 9, 2015


Say what you will about Kristen Wiig, but she's not in it for the money. She could've done Bridesmaids II and III by now, but rather than milk her biggest hit into a Hangover style franchise, she's opted to carve a niche for herself as a kind of neurotic 'everywoman', or as she might have been called in a previous decade, an indie darling. Her latest is Welcome To Me, a loose pile of fluff that encourages every tic and quirk in her arsenal. The shame of it is that Wiig is such a charismatic and talented actress that she can almost lift this one out of its half-written malaise. But not quite. While watching it I felt like an uncle indulging a little niece or nephew in another grammar school production, applauding politely while stifling a yawn.

Wiig plays Alice Klieg, a mentally ill shut-in who spends her lonely days watching television and dreaming of being like Oprah Winfrey. When Alice wins $86-million in a lottery, she promptly spends a portion of it to produce her own Oprah-style TV show. The production company she hires is is only too happy to take her money because they're stuck making infomercials. Quicker than you can say 'Rupert Pupkin,' unpredictable Alice is off her meds and on TV.  

Her topics include everything from eating an entire meatloaf in front of a studio audience, to staging unhappy memories from her childhood. At one point she even neuters a dog. The strangeness of her show makes her a cult-favorite among bored TV viewers who enjoy watching train wrecks. She eventually rises up the ratings, beating a syndicated rerun of 'The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air'.

Of course, you can't have a movie about a mentally ill person without the obligatory "mad" scene, and we're eventually treated to a couple of moments where Alice cracks up in public. Wiig plays these scenes bravely, but we never muster any real feelings for Alice. She's too dippy. Wiig underplays the comedic aspects of Alice, but the result is confusing.  Are we supposed to laugh at her insanity, or shed a tear for this unfortunate woman? There's a scene where she has a panic attack and then wanders nude through a casino lobby, but it feels desperate, as if the filmmakers were trying to tack on some drama.  The excellent supporting cast - Tim Robbins, Joan Cusack, Linda Cardellini - is given little to do but act exasperated as Wiig mispronounces words and nibbles at string cheese. Most upsetting of all is to see Jennifer Jason Leigh in a dull role as a TV producer. Leigh was one of the bright lights of the 1990s. Now she's sixth-fiddle to Wiig.

I suppose the makers of this movie thought they were creating something in the vein of Network, where an unstable person was thrown into the TV spotlight, or Being There, where a hollow man learned everything he knew from watching television. In one scene, Wiig actually hugs her TV set, proud that it hadn't been turned off in 11 years.  The difference is that those movies played for bigger stakes, and were pitched at a much darker tone. At heart, Welcome To Me doesn't wish to be anything more than a trite feel-good story about a woman who learns that money can't buy happiness. Yes, it even has an upbeat  ending. Will Ferrell is credited as a co-producer, which makes me think the movie was, in its original inception, a much broader comedy. How might it have turned out if Alice had actually been a male character, played by someone like Ferrell? Funnier, I imagine, and better.

The character of Alice Klieg must have appealed to Wiig's love of lonely, misunderstood characters. But was she so enamored of the part that she didn't notice the rest of the script was underwritten and often illogical? Then again, most scripts are pretty bad these days, so it's probably better to act in a vacuum than to not act at all.

- Don Stradley