Vault of Secrets: The Bloody Fists of Romance

Three new manufactured-on-demand DVD releases prove that the heart is both the cruelest and weakest organ in town.

Love can be the most beautiful thing in the world. But more often, it’s a brutal, chest- ripping assault on everyone in its path. Storytellers have capitalized on the icy grip of affection since the dawn of man, and Hollywood is constantly tasked with finding (and remaking) fascinating variations on this theme. In this edition of Vault of Secrets, we take a look at three movies that teach us to never go near another heart or reproductive organ again for as long as we live.

WINDOWS
Dir. Gordon Willis / 1980 / MGM Limited Edition Collection

It’s easy to dismiss Talia Shire as just another head on the Coppola hydra. But somewhere between being Francis Ford’s sister, Rocky’s bride and Jason Schwartzman’s mother, she pulled off a very delicate leading performance in this tense -- and probably reprehensible -- obsession thriller.

Shire plays Emily, a timid, recently divorced neurotic New Yorker living on her own for the first time. As she enters her apartment one night, she’s savagely attacked by a shadowy man who forces her to engage in acts of R-rated vileness. Emily’s outrageously sympathetic neighbor Andrea (Elizabeth Ashley) does her best consoling, but Emily can’t face the memories and relocates to a different building. Andrea compulsively follows, and tracks Emily’s every move as her fixation takes increasingly darker forms.

Windows is arguably as unrealistic a portrayal of psychopathic homosexuality as the Coppola-free Cruising, released the same year. But that being said, several scenes are as compelling and artfully upsetting as Fatal Attraction or any other high-profile stalker blockbuster.

Much of the credit for that can go to director/cinematographer Gordon Willis, best known for his camerawork for...(drumroll)...Francis Ford Coppola on the Godfather pictures. Windows represents WIllis’ only directorial work, and from the first image, every shot is a wrecking ball of highfalutin, keen composition. It’s a similar achievement to Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool, only switch out Robert Forster for a dead cat in a freezer. Willis excels at unbeatable footage of New York, which somehow transforms America’s most congested city into the loneliest place in the universe.

SPELLBINDER
Dir. Janet Greek / 1988 / MGM Limited Edition Collection

Lawyer meets Satanic witch. Lawyer falls in love with Satanic witch. Lawyer is demolished by the boundless forces of pure evil.

This wildly underappreciated supernatural blood-chiller follows up-and-coming white collar yutz Jeff (Timothy Daley) as he becomes entangled in the devil’s web via a chance meeting with terrified Miranda (Kelly Preston). He’s instantly enchanted by the damsel in distress, and the two begin a whirlwind love affair that immediately leads them straight into the least neighborly corners of hell. See, Miranda’s brimstonian colleagues are intent on bringing her back into the fold, and will use every occult whammy in their arsenal to accomplish their black-hearted ends.

While that completes the simple plot, and the cover looks like a goth romance paperback, Spellbinder is shockingly effective at every point. The sections where Jeff is telekinetically attacked by the cultists are both unique and genuinely terrifying. The slow unveiling of Miranda’s black powers is pulled off in subtle ways, culminating in a memorable scene involving a home-cooked turkey dinner. Kelly Preston shows a lot of skill handling a very complicated character. She also shows a lot of her body parts, which is surprising considering no man has seen her nude since 1990.

Director Janet Greek’s only other feature was The Ladies Club, another seldom-seen slambammer that follows a group of women who rampage through the city on a rapist- castrating bender. She’d follow up this double decker sandwich of wang-slicing and demonology with several contributions to the “Weird Al” Yankovic Video Collection.

GHOST WARRIOR
Dir. J. Larry Carroll / 1986 / MGM Limited Edition Collection

In the 15th century, a samurai witnesses the death of his beloved at the hands of a remorseless enemy. This figurative knee-to-the-heart is followed by an actual arrow through the chest, which sends him plunging into the icy waters in the frozen ravine below. 500 years later, he’s revived by modern American science into our blaring, hideous neon culture, and sets out on a bloody path of vengeance. The only problem is: everyone he’s mad at died four centuries ago on the other side of the world. So he mainly stomps around in a kimono, sullenly grimacing at automobiles and frozen yogurt shops.

Ghost Warrior was just one of eleven (!!) films produced by exploitation mogul-oid Charles Band in 1986, and it sure seems like it was pulled from the bottom of the sack. Though the movie is feature length, you’d swear it was written, shot, edited and scored in a total of 12 minutes. This would be the lone directorial achievement for J. Larry Carroll, who co-wrote the bizarre family scifi epic The Day Time Ended, as well as Tourist Trap, which I’ve long considered to be the most underrated American horror movie of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Unfortunately, his talents didn’t translate to grumpy Japanese popsicle-dudes.

A monotone voiceover follows our lead scientist as she interacts with the unfrozen samurai: “I reached out and touched his hand,” as she reaches out and touches his hand. Later, she brings him some food as her omnipresent drone informs us that she “...decided to bring him some food.” This fascinatingly ill-conceived flaw is just one of several that give Ghost Warrior its made-for-USA-Network TV movie aesthetic. But that’s satisfyingly shattered when our hero’s sword graphically amputates the hand of a middle-aged, filth-caked mugger. Once that happens, feel free to go right back to sleep.

******

...That’s it for now. Special thanks to those of you who fought for the good guys in the race war we accidentally started in the comments section of our previous Vault of Secrets column. I just realized: If you rearrange the letters in “Neo-Nazis,” you get “Zani Ones.” That can’t be a coincidence.

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