Thursday, July 28, 2011

Remembering Polly Platt: Housewife and Powerhouse

Critic Jason Zinoman recently spoke to Terry Gross of Fresh Air about his new book, Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror. The interview kicked off with discussion of a low-budget 1968 film that helped launch the modern horror genre. This was Targets, which unforgettably pairs the aging Boris Karloff with a sniper holed up at a drive-in movie theatre. Zinoman praised Targets as a Peter Bogdanovich film: Bogdanovich not only wrote and directed, but also plays a version of himself, a young filmmaker trying to persuade horror star Byron Orlock (Karloff) to appear in one last movie. As the producer who had stipulated that Karloff footage from The Terror must be incorporated into the new film, Roger Corman got mentioned too.

But no one said a word about Polly Platt. In 1968, Platt was Bogdanovich’s wife and artistic partner. Though content to stay in the background as Bogdanovich’s star rose, she contributed hugely to Targets, as well as to films before and since. I’ve just learned that Polly, whom I interviewed at length in 2008, has succumbed to the ravages of Lou Gehrig’s disease. It seems time to set the record straight.

Polly Platt and Peter Bogdanovich were young marrieds, passionate about film, when they met Roger Corman in 1961, following a screening of Last Year at Marienbad. As Polly described it to me, “Roger wanted to make money and we wanted to make movies. It was a perfect marriage.” By 1964, the pair were polishing Chuck Griffith’s ungainly script for Corman’s The Wild Angels. While Bogdanovich, as Corman’s all-purpose production assistant, did chores on the Wild Angels set and ended up directing second unit, Platt designed the costumes and served as stunt double for female lead Nancy Sinatra. She also played supportive spouse. A friend from those days remembers Bogdanovich’s near-total dependence on her: “Polly, what do I want for breakfast?”

On Corman’s Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women, a Russian-made sci-fi film with added footage featuring Mamie Van Doren as a mermaid, Peter directed the new material under a pseudonym, while Polly was the very novice production coordinator. Then came Targets. The germ of the story was Polly’s realization that for Baby Boomers true horror was represented by President Kennedy’s sudden death.. She told me, “I had this terrible fear that some day I would open the front door of our house on Saticoy Street and somebody would just shoot me for no reason. Or that someone would drive by with a rifle and shoot Peter in bed, “ By then the mother of a young daughter, she carved out time to contribute to Targets’ script as well as its production design.

In 1971, she had an equally hands-on role in Bogdanovich’s break-through film, The Last Picture Show. But she suffered tremendous emotional pain when, during production, he left her for the film’s ingénue, Cybill Shepherd. A true survivor, Polly went on to a successful mainstream career as a costume designer, Oscar-nominated production designer, and producer of such hits as Broadcast News and Say Anything. . . . One of her final projects was Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel. She graciously served as executive producer for this film tribute to the mentor who made it all happen, for better and for worse.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Fantastic Four: Revenge of the Invisible Film

With the triumphant arrival of Captain America, another comic-book superhero has made his mark at the movies. Frankly, I’ve not enough of a comic-book geek to fully appreciate films like this one. When I was Roger Corman’s story editor at Concorde-New Horizons, his wife Julie often spoke of filming Spiderman, for which the Cormans briefly held the rights. Julie had me read treatments for a Spiderman movie, but I had a hard time imagining how we’d come up with special effects that were anything but laughable. Spiderman, I learned, slings webs and shimmies up the sides of buildings. On a budget of $1 million (or less, much less), it would be hard to avoid looking cheesy.

But in late 1992, I found myself working on The Fantastic Four. The Only-in-Hollywood story has often been told: how Bernd Eichinger, of the Munich-based Neue Constantin, owned the movie rights to this Marvel Comics series about four colleagues who gain eccentric superpowers (like invisibility and the tendency to burst into flame) after being struck by cosmic rays during a space mission. Eichinger envisioned a lavish Hollywood epic, costing $40 million or so, but time was running out. Unless he started shooting by the end of 1992, the rights were no longer his. Enter Roger Corman, who was kicking himself for having missed the chance to buy the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise. A deal was made for a fast and cheap co-production. Stan Lee came aboard as creative consultant, making sure we stuck to every detail of the original storyline, and my Concorde colleagues set to work on characters they had loved since childhood.

Holiday plans were scrapped, and the film went before the cameras on December 28, 1992. For director Oley Sassone and his no-name cast, this was a labor of love. They did their best, in a pre-CGI era, to replicate such superpowers as team leader Reed Richards’ impossibly stretchy limbs. And they reached into their own pockets to help bankroll a publicity effort that took them to comic book stores and fanboy conventions around the country. There was a big unveiling of the film’s trailer at L.A.’s Shrine Auditorium on July 11, 1993. Plans were also made for two celebrity galas when the film debuted in early 1994, raising money on behalf of critically ill children.

Then in December 1993, exactly one year after filming began, came word that Eichinger had just paid big bucks for Roger’s share of The Fantastic Four. He promptly shelved the finished movie, which allowed him to proceed with a major studio version that ultimately appeared in 2005. One of many disheartened by this turn of events was the director of the Children’s Miracle Network, which had just lost out on its gala charity premiere. Her wry comment: “If they were going to throw $2 million at a movie that will never be seen, I wish they would have thrown it our way.” Actors and crew members were equally crushed. There’s a bit of sweet revenge in the fact that the officially non-existent movie survives everywhere in bootleg copies, treasured by fans for its sincere, if threadbare, loyalty to its source material.

Hollywood insiders debate whether Roger Corman knew while the film was being made that it would never be released. He claims he’s not that conniving. But, being Roger, he focuses on the bottom line: “I was disappointed that we didn’t get a chance to release it, but I was also happy to make a whole lot of money off it.”

(Here's an essential link for Fantastic Four enthusiasts, sent my way by the screenplay's author, Craig Nevius. Thanks, Craig!)

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Big Parade: A War Film to End All War Films?

The other night, I treated myself to a screening at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Right now the Academy is featuring silent films, and as always it is generous in giving patrons their money’s worth. The evening kicked off with a real rarity, the family comedy short “Brownie’s Little Venus,” starring a moppet called Baby Peggy and an extraordinarily well-trained pooch. (Baby Peggy, now known as Diana Serra Cary, was in attendance: she’s over ninety, still charming, still feisty. Brownie, alas, has gone to that big dog house in the sky.)

But it was the main attraction I was there to see. The Big Parade (1925) is King Vidor’s take on the War to End All Wars. It was introduced by silent film historian Kevin Brownlow, who told us that the war movie clichés we know all too well were brand-new ideas when The Big Parade was shot. I believe he was talking about the comrades-in-arms whose differences in social background don’t keep them from bonding; the dramatic shots of long columns of marching men; the brief moment of communion between two soldiers on opposite sides of the fray; a GI desperately searching for the buddy who’s beyond help.

Though The Big Parade is saddled with a romantic story that makes for a sappy ending, I found its battlefield scenes remarkably fresh. What surprised me most of all was the film’s fundamentally anti-war attitude. Less than a decade after the American side emerged victorious over Germany and its allies, Vidor’s cast brings home to the viewer the horrors of armed conflict. True, in the film’s early scenes, the United States’ entry into World War I is treated as an exciting adventure. Leading man John Gilbert starts out as an idle rich boy who enlists because his fiancée thinks he’ll look handsome in a uniform, and because a patriotic parade down Main Street stirs his blood. But the film’s second half makes clear that war means dirt and pain and death. For me, Gilbert’s most memorable speech comes in the thick of battle, when he says (on title-cards, of course), “What the hell do we get out of this war anyway! Cheers when we left and when we get back! But who the hell cares . . . after this?

I found this approach striking because Hollywood’s later World War II films (such as Sands of Iwo Jima) were traditionally dominated by actors like John Wayne, men who made self-sacrifice in battle seem glorious. Though Wayne himself never served in the military, his brand of on-screen patriotism made a deep impression on the men of his era, and on their sons too. A young man named Ron from Massapequa, New York grew up at the movies, watching war films and sobbing when the Marine Hymn came on the soundtrack. Later he wrote, “I loved the song so much, and every time I heard it I would think of John Wayne and the brave men who raised the flag on Iwo Jima that day.” Ron's passion for Wayne helped propel him into the Marine Corps right out high school, in 1964. That’s when Ron Kovic discovered that war is not beautiful. He returned from Vietnam paralyzed from the chest down, and later wrote, “I gave my dead dick for John Wayne . . . .”

Ron Kovic's memoir, a powerful one, is called Born on the Fourth of July. In 1989, it was made into a movie.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Warwick Davis: Standing Tall in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows"

So—Harry Potter mania is upon us again. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II, a pantheon of English actors take their final bows as characters in J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world. This seems a fitting time to salute one British thespian who puts a distinctive twist on the old saw that there are no small parts, just small actors. Warwick Davis may stand a mere 3 ½ feet tall, but he’s no small actor in my book. He’s probably unique among the Harry Potter cast in that he plays, with aplomb, two very different roles: the plucky Professor Flitwick (definitely one of the good guys) and the conniving goblin Griphook (indisputably one of the bad).

I interviewed Warwick Davis while working on Ron Howard: From Mayberry to the Moon . . . and Beyond. We spoke by phone, and I couldn’t help being surprised by his rich baritone voice. But he was hardly a baritone when he got his first role. Purely by chance, his grandmother heard a commercial seeking people under four feet tall to play the furry Ewoks in Return of the Jedi. Warwick was eleven years old, and stood a mere three feet eleven. George Lucas cast him on the spot, then quickly noticed that the tiniest Ewok was imbuing his role with some character. Unexpectedly, his time in drama class was paying off. Warwick explained to me, “Because I was a very outgoing and social sort of child, my mum felt that quite a good way of channeling all this energy was to send me to a drama group. It really wasn’t because she felt I would have a career in acting. It was just something for me to do on a Saturday morning.”

Another stroke of luck: the actor set to play a scene with Princess Leia contracted food poisoning. Young Warwick took over, and earned the character name of Wicket the Ewok. Some years later, Lucas hired rising director Ron Howard to helm a sword-and-sorcery epic, Willow, and Warwick nabbed the title role. Aside from the challenge of starring in an action film, he was faced with the fact that, at seventeen, “I was going to be playing the father of two children, a man of the world. And of course I’d never even lifted a baby, let alone had the experience of being a father at that point.” Ron Howard (whose own wife Cheryl was about to give birth to their fourth child) prepared Warwick to interact—as the plot required—with a full-sized baby by scheduling two weeks in which “they had the mothers bringing these children in. I would just rehearse holding them and carrying them and feeding them and changing their diapers.” By the end of the shoot he felt ready for fatherhood, though it took several decades to get that joyful opportunity.

Since then, Warwick has played the creepy title character in the Leprechaun films, a wacky android in A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and the treacherous Black Dwarf in The Chronicles of Narnia. For most roles, he’s resigned to spending long hours in the makeup chair. He’s not bothered that he rarely gets to portray a regular guy in a regular situation: “I’m an actor, and creating characters is what I do, and often these strange creatures are actually more challenging and interesting to create as an actor.” Still, Ricky Gervais has written him a new sitcom, Life’s Too Short, in which he’ll be able to play—for a change—a version of himself.

An update: Here's a great review of the new series. Looks like Warwick's got himself a hit!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Carmageddon --- The Monster That Ate L.A.?

Carmageddon is here, and it’s not pretty. Everybody knows about L.A.’s longstanding love affair with the automobile. Well, this weekend the exasperating but invaluable 405 Freeway—which normally trundles masses of L.A. motorists from the bedroom communities of the San Fernando Valley toward the ocean, the airport, and parts beyond—is totally shut down. It’s the price we Angelenos pay for a freeway widening that will result in more lanes and, inevitably, more cars and more gridlock.

Movies, of course, have helped to glamorize the connection between Southern California and its automobiles. Think of all those scenes where the hero tools down Pacific Coast Highway in a sun-kissed convertible, or the bad guy slaloms through the curves on Mulholland Drive in a lethal-looking sports coupe. When TV was coming into its own, the popular detective show 77 Sunset Strip brought stardom to Edd “Kookie” Byrnes as a young hipster with the most L.A. of job descriptions: valet parking guy.

But Carmageddon (the word sounds like Pixar’s take on a disaster movie) reminds me that some films do acknowledge that bane of modern existence, the traffic jam. Jean-Luc Godard has been French cinema’s enfant terrible for more than five decades. Back in 1967 he captured moviegoers’ attention with a dark comedy called Weekend. Its centerpiece is an eight-minute tracking shot of a horrendous traffic stoppage, complete with blaring car-horns on the sound track, that throws a quiet country road into near-chaos. Re-watching that footage today (thanks, YouTube!), I’m forced to confess that it doesn’t look so bad. Believe me, I’ve been in worse.

It’s often said that part of L.A.’s problem is the failure of Angelenos to support public transit. Maybe so. I once worked on a Concorde-New Horizons thriller called Final Judgement (yes, there’s a misspelling in the film’s official title). I well recall screenwriter Kirk Honeycutt, now international film critic at The Hollywood Reporter, submitting a scene in which the killer has an unnerving encounter aboard a local bus. Though this was one of the strongest, most original moments in the entire script, it was nixed by Roger Corman, who was not pleased by the idea of a villain as a bus commuter. Shrugging off Kirk’s argument that it might be fun to go against convention by depriving the bad guy of his own set of wheels, Roger decreed that the fiend should ride a cool motorcycle. And so it came to pass.

Though Roger wasn’t willing to buck convention, several big studio films have taken advantage of the apparent oxymoron of L.A. and mass transit. Speed, of course, cleverly used a city bus to take audiences on a thrill ride. The American re-make of The Italian Job is an all-star heist flick in which canny crooks manufacture a traffic jam as part of their plot to steal a truckload of gold. The details are fuzzy in my brain, but I recall the henchmen’s cars, Mini Coopers of all things, actually zooming onto the rails of L.A.’s fledgling Metro to make a quick getaway. (Eventually, the gang says adios to Los Angeles—perversely enough—on the Coast Starlight.) I’m also a fan of Michael Mann’s Collateral. This atmospheric suspense drama starts with a taxi driver cruising L.A.’s night-time streets and alleys, but ends in a tense shoot-out as hero and villain pursue one another through the cars of the city’s near-empty subway. Come to think of it, maybe I’ll stick to driving my Toyota.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Fans of Slumber Party Massacre: Their Hearts Are Young and Gay

It’s Outfest time in Los Angeles. L.A.’s oldest film festival, founded in 1982 to showcase movies that resonate with the gay community, should draw 40,000 fans over ten days. I suspect a fair number of Outfest’s sixty-four offerings will be outrageous sex comedies and sensitive coming-out-of-the-closet dramas. But there’ll also likely be a horror film or two. From working on the Slumber Party Massacre trilogy, I’ve learned that films of this ilk have a substantial gay following.

The question is—why would a young gay male want to watch a gaggle of pubescent girls in lingerie fend off a rapist/killer/creep armed with a phallic electric drill? For answers, I turned to two experts. Jason Paul Collum, a filmmaker whose work includes Something to Scream About, recently wrote, produced, and directed “Sleepless Nights: Revisiting the Slumber Party Massacres.” This documentary is a featured extra in the new Slumber Party Massacre box-set that’s part of Shout! Factory’s Roger Corman collection. Tony Brown, a serious fan of the genre and creator of the Old Hockstatter Place website, helped out as co-writer and associate producer of "Sleepless Nights.” As a gay man, Tony appreciates the Slumber Party movies for “their sense of sisterhood, basically. . . All the girls team up together to help defeat the killer.”

Jason Collum explains that “women-in-jeopardy films as a whole appealed to me as a teenager because I was associating myself with the heroine of each film. I wasn't enjoying watching her get tormented. I was enjoying watching her survive. Overcoming the odds. Here was someone going through the worst time of her life, but she was coming out on top. Battered, bloodied and bruised, she was still beating the bad guys. That's how—in some pseudo-psychological way—I was trying to just get through teen angst and my feeling of everyone being out to get me.”

Growing up, Jason “always hung out with the girls. . . . Most of my childhood was spent adoring my mother and aunts. Strong women, like Wonder Woman, or the women I later viewed in horror films, drew my attention in particular. Maybe it had to do with having something of a more feminine side than most of the straight men in my life.” From his perspective, “when you look at a horror film, and you see an initially defenseless girl who more often than not is being tormented by a brute of a man using some phallic symbol (which Slumber Party Massacre in particular does very pointedly, right down to the ‘castration’ of his ‘big drill’ at the end), I think psychologically there's something going on in a gay man's head.”

Like other gay males I’ve talked to, Jason and Tony value big studio pictures like Brokeback Mountain for teaching the general public to empathize with specifically gay problems. But for their own pleasure, they much prefer the low-budget and the lurid. The movie Tony remembers most fondly from 2005 is not Brokeback Mountain but rather Jason’s shot-on-video October Moon, a gay male version of Fatal Attraction that ends in a pool of blood. Blood, of course, also spurts in the Slumber Party film trio, but Jason too focuses on the camaraderie: “The girls in each film are pretty, enjoyable, and fun-loving. They're the girls you wanted to hang out with in high school. They were strong, independent. . . . Nobody was trying to steal anybody's boyfriend. And once the mayhem begins, they generally stick together.”

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Slumber Party Massacre 3: My Son the Serial Killer

Yes, I worked on Slumber Party Massacre 2. And, though I’m somewhat abashed to admit it, my son made his screen debut in the film’s quickie follow-up, which naturally enough is called Slumber Party Massacre 3.

The three Slumber Party movies have been getting some attention lately because they’ve been reissued by Shout! Factory, as part of its series of Roger Corman Cult Classics. (Obviously, the definition of a classic is not the same for everyone.) To round out the collection, serious fans Jason Paul Collum and Tony Brown contributed a “Sleepless Nights” documentary, for which they interviewed everyone they could find who had a hand in the making of the films.

That meant I spent a blustery afternoon at Shout! Factory videotaping my recollections. I discussed why Roger Corman liked handing the reins of these highly sexualized films to female directors, and how the third film in the series was conceived to fill a hole in the schedule at Corman’s Venice, California studio. I also revealed the story of my son’s participation.

The maniacal driller-killer in the third Slumber Party film (known to its makers as SPAM3) is a boy-next-door type gone wrong. In the shorthand of so many horror films of the era, his underlying problem is that he was molested as a child by an evil uncle. The filmmakers needed a photograph of a very young Ken (yes, Ken!) with creepy Uncle Billy, to use as a climactic explanation of the bad guy’s warped psyche. My son Jeffrey was a cute eight-year-old, and so he was a natural choice. I took him down to the studio, where he obligingly climbed all over the production assistant (a nice guy with kids of his own) who would supply the slightly sinister face of Uncle Billy.

Then I found myself on the horns of a moral dilemma. Director Sally Mattison decided the backstory should be made clearer. So several flashback scenes were written for little Ken and his uncle. In them nothing visually disturbing happened, but the innuendo was unmistakable. Would Jeffrey participate? At first I was amused and pleased at this chance for my son to make his acting debut. But then I started to worry. What if somehow the implications of these scenes seeped into Jeffrey’s subconscious? What if, years later, he’d find himself traumatized? That’s how maternal guilt stood in the way of his fledgling acting career. (P.S. The scenes were never shot.)

I don’t regret my choice. But I do regret that Roger Corman, in his infinite wisdom, decided to strip this story—and my entire interview—out of the finished documentary. Jason Collum and Tony Brown complained loudly, but to no avail. For additional Slumber Party trivia, check out Tony’s ultimate fan site, which he calls The Old Hockstatter Place. There you’ll find several versions of the Uncle Billy picture, along with news of such tasteful giveaways as a Slumber Party Massacre blood-stained pillowcase (while supplies last) to commemorate the release of this cinematic landmark.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Whitey Bulger: The Godfather, Part IV

So they got Whitey Bulger, just down the street from the rehab facility where my mom is recuperating from a fractured pelvis. It’s a quiet street: folks walk their dogs there, and take strolls toward the ocean two blocks away. Bulger, on the lam after racketeering, narcotics, and murder charges put him at the top of the FBI’s Most Wanted list, had slipped into Santa Monica fifteen years ago. He and his longtime lady friend posed as a mild-mannered pair of retirees, shopping at the 99 Cents store and becoming familiar faces to neighborhood residents. Bulger’s arrest on June 22 was a great moment for law enforcement, as well as for the geriatric folks whose day was brightened by all the TV vans and other commotion in the vicinity.

The thought of Whitey Bulger growing old and grey in Santa Monica put me in mind of Henry Hill, the leading character (played by Ray Liotta) in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. In the course of that film, Hill (based on a real-life mob henchman) swindles, robs, murders, and betrays; by the end he is under the wing of the Witness Protection Program, surviving a dull, law-abiding life in suburbia. His final voiceover tells the tale: “I'm an average nobody. . . I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.” Scorsese’s film is a brilliant exposé of a Mafia sidekick, but -- from what I hear --Whitey Bulger played second fiddle to no man. So, though of course I’m relieved that he was arrested peaceably, without recourse to any of the thirty weapons he apparently had stashed in his modest apartment, I can’t help feeling slightly disappointed that his demise was so, well, uncinematic.

Yes, I’m a sucker for the classic gangster films of the 1930s. Those early crime-does-not-pay flicks, with their dramatic finales, set the pattern for decades of movie bad guys. (Warning: spoilers ahead!) Remember James Cagney in The Public Enemy unexpectedly coming home in a box? Remember Paul Muni in Scarface, felled in a shoot-‘em-out with the coppers? Best of all, remember Edward G. Robinson as Caesar Enrico Bandello in Little Caesar? In a sorry state following a life of crime, he is lured from his flophouse by his nemesis on the police force.. When Sgt. Flaherty guns him down beneath a billboard that bears the image of his glamorous former love, he raises his eyes to the heavens and utters a deathless line, “Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?”

Over the decades, the endings of gangster movies have kept getting bigger. White Heat (1949) has one of the all-time great death scenes, featuring gunfire, explosions, and Cagney on high shouting, “Made it, Ma. Top of the world!” I don’t pretend that the characters played by Cagney and the others were heroes. But they were bold, forceful, charismatic figures, pursuing the American Dream on their own terms. As a red-blooded American, I can’t help rooting for guys like these on the movie screen, if not in real life. They went out in a blaze of glory. Whitey Bulger, though, met his fate quietly—not with a bang but with a whimper.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Chuck Palahniuk and Manuel Muñoz: Reading in the Dark

Chuck Palahniuk has talent to burn. He’s best known for the outrageously brutal Fight Club, which of course was the source material for David Fincher’s notorious 1999 film. So when he took on the adult movie industry in Snuff, he presumably had some inside knowledge about the way films are made. But Snuff is less a realistic look at the dark side of moviemaking than an opportunity to shock and outrage his readership. The blurb on the book jacket proudly proclaims, “From the master of literary mayhem and provocation, a full-frontal Triple-X novel that goes where no American work of fiction has gone before.” Since the book’s subject is a porn star’s assault on the world record for serial fornication on camera, how could Snuff be otherwise than deliberately, extravagantly tasteless?

The telling is clever, darting among the points of view of three of the six hundred men lined up to copulate with the fading star. And Palahniuk has fun dabbling in porno queen Cassie Wright’s filmography, giving her leading roles in such adults-only masterpieces as Lay Misty for Me and Sperms of Endearment. An author who names his villain Branch Bacardi definitely has his tongue in his cheek, or someplace infinitely nastier.

But in writing about the way of all flesh, Palahniuk seems to have precious little interest in genuine human emotion. Which brings me to a small first novel by Manuel Muñoz, just published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. What You See in the Dark is a tour-de-force melding of the world of movies and the much narrower world of Bakersfield, California in the late 1950s. In Muñoz’s artful telling, the story of a small town love affair gone wrong intertwines with the brief visit to Bakersfield of an unnamed Hollywood actress and director, there to shoot a scene or two for a movie that is obviously Psycho. While in town, they do a casual location scout, casing a few roadside motels for visual ideas, and the actress picks up from the sad, lonely proprietress of one of them some character notes she will incorporate into her movie role. Later (in a narrative that uses time with great creativity), we will see that same sad, lonely proprietress watch Psycho in a local movie house, and recoil in disgust from the sordid doings the film portrays.

As in Psycho, there’s a brutal murder in this novel, but the story is never a direct parallel of Hitchcock’s familiar one. Instead, the two plotlines bounce off of one another in ways that are always intriguing. Muñoz’s central characters—a shy young Mexican girl who works in a shoe store, the handsome local stud, his careworn mother (who combines waitress chores with the running of that roadside motel), a respectful Mexican field hand—have lives of their own that have nothing to do with Marion Crane and Norman Bates. But these folks, and those living beside them, are starved for the romance they see on movie screens. Muñoz captures their craving for Hollywood’s magic, but also veers into the head of Hitchcock, who’s pondering (a decade after Psycho) exactly what he has wrought.

The New Violence on movie screens—violence that’s blatant and not especially artful—is what’s bothering Hitchcock. Palahniuk obviously revels in it. On the strength of What You See in the Dark, I’ll take Muñoz any day.