9 More Days ’til Halloween, 2016: Blood and Beefcake – The Films of Michael J. Murphy

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It’s not like anyone can agree on what constitutes a film that is “so bad it is good.” Susan Sontag’s famous essay on camp, written in the 60s, hardly sheds light on the glut of trashy culture that has managed to cross over into the mainstream over the last 50 years. Camp is no longer necessarily a subversive aesthetic exclusively embraced by marginalized homosexuals. As early as the 70s, camp crossed over. By the 80s, camp had become indistinguishable from mainstream culture and the “low” tastes of popular sentiment – formerly known as kitsch – completely merged with the “high taste” of the cultural elite.

This is, perhaps, unsurprising considering that the camp aesthetic has always been left to the judgement of the consumer. From the very beginning, the intentions of a creator or the conditions of social or economic exchange that give value to an aesthetic object were recontextualized, reinterpreted or downright ignored when assessing its “camp” worth. It only makes sense that, as advertising companies and entertainment industries struggled for power over an increasingly cynical audience, they would embrace and encourage an aesthetic judgement that excuses or ignores their own less than honorable motivations. We have reached a point, culturally, at which one may proudly join a crowd of conformist, fascist thugs and still proudly point to one’s personal choice and independent, countercultural (or, perhaps, acultural) standards as justification. Real punks love Beyonce…

There are those, however, who try to keep (ironically) purist, subversive interpretations of camp alive while also taking into account the changing meaning of camp in popular culture. Bruce LaBruce, an “underground” gay filmmaker, has consistently pushed at the boundaries of camp by introducing purposeful, self-conscious “pretentiousness” that (used to) turn the stomach of both a popular audience and “high art” gatekeepers. His 2012 essay, NOTES ON CAMP/ANTI-CAMP, is the best attempt to define and recharge a living, subversive camp aesthetic that I’ve come across in recent years. In comparison, John Waters has attempted to keep up through what could only be described as ironic self-assimilation (a postmodern form of self-immolation as protest). Unfortunately, LaBruce’s most recent full-length film GERONTOPHILIA, a “sensitive” movie about a taboo subject, seems to be following suit.

Ultimately, as I said in the beginning, none of this matters. The assessment of whether something is “so bad it is good” is still a personal matter of taste that depends entirely upon your own cultural background and consumption habits. What draws you to a particular kind of “bad” movie and keeps you watching long enough to consider its value is entirely unique to you. As with any challenging work of art, appreciating something you initially reject or do not understand requires exposure and attention and the willingness to change your own values. Some of us thirst for this experience. Some of us resist it. Personally, when it comes to horror movies, I’m always thirsty for a challenge.

That said, I have hard-tested values that I will not violate. I would much prefer, for example, to be challenged by and ultimately adapt to the odd, idiosyncratic aesthetic choices of a struggling independent filmmaker like Michael J. Murphy than, say, the self-consciously (though still “independent”) capitalist ideals of Lloyd Kaufman’s Troma Entertainment.

Michael J. Murphy, a relatively unknown and under-appreciated British filmmaker, struggled for years, against the grain, to get his personal visions onto film and to the public without compromising his own tastes and ideals. Though he sometimes fails at communicating through a traditional cinema language, this ultimately highlights rather than detracts from what makes his vision unique.

Murphy, working in his home town of Portsmouth, England, has over 25 independent horror films to his name as well as having directed several apocalyptic sci-fi films. comedies and dramas. In some ways, his movies are comparable to those of another great name in “bad” horror, Andy Milligan. Like Milligan, Murphy came from the theater and his films are filled with hyperbolic, Tennessee Williams-esque conflicts and dramatic personalities that seem best suited for the stage. His characters like to talk…and they often talk a lot. Unlike Milligan, Murphy’s characters don’t come off as bitter representations of humanity’s worst. One gets the sense watching an Andy Milligan movie that the mean, misanthropic machinations of his characters are the projections of, to put it bluntly, an old gay “queen” sitting on his bar stool and drunkenly downgrading the world around him with vicious quips (in order to make himself look better). Michael J. Murphy, on the other hand, reminds me of myself. I would be the person on the other side of the bar watching this poor, old damaged man and finding him both hilarious and empathetic. Murphy loves his misanthropic characters in the same way that gay men have always loved certain “bitchy” female characters in movies. Ultimately, it is the faulty, awkward combination of both their attempts at power and their obvious weakness that makes them appealing.

Just from watching his movies, there is no doubt in my mind that Michael J Murphy was gay (he passed away, tragically, in 2015). His horror films are more amusingly “gay” in their subtext than any I have seen not overtly aimed at a gay audience. He never misses an opportunity, however absurd, for a man to take off his shirt. He revels in beefcake getting in fist fights or wrestling on the ground in poorly choreographed tussles that would seem more fitting in a 1950s muscle magazine than in a 1980s horror film. This incessant beefcake is all the more interesting in that it is often presented in a context that suggest perversion, corruption or repression. In INVITATION TO HELL (1982), Murphy’s first full length horror film, the heterosexually married owner of a country house ogles his muscular groundskeeper who is lifting weights in front of a girly magazine collaged wall. The situation suggests repression and deceit if you’re looking for a homoerotic subtext, but it is such an unlikely scene and such an obvious indulgence on the part of the director that it comes off as anything but an expression of self-hatred or shame.

Murphy’s exploration of the male body increased throughout his career but never verged into pure homoerotic sexploitation like the “gaysploitation” horror films of David DeCoteau. Murphy’s horror films always seemed aimed at an audience that isn’t necessarily in on the gay subtext. As far as I can remember, he never included full frontal (male) nudity or an actual gay sex scene in any of his horror films. You could play a drinking game for every time a man appears shirtless or near naked in his 2007 film SKARE, but it is still, on the surface, a story about heterosexual relationships. That said, the female character who leads the film, played by one of Murphy’s regulars, Judith Holding, is such an unrealistically exaggerated “bitch queen” that one could easily see her being played by a camping drag queen were the part not so obviously written as a tribute to the special talents and appearance of the actress herself. As much as Murphy stereotypically glorifies the attributes of cartoonish female stereotypes, one never gets the sense that this stems from an underlying misogyny or objectifying idolization of the female as an extension of gay sensibilities. Murphy always seeks to highlight the human behind the mask, and SKARE could easily be interpreted as a critique and deconstruction of the idolized “bitch queen” personas of actors like Joan Crawford (or Collins…or any of the other Joans), rather than simply exploiting the type.

Stylistically, Murphy is not averse to purposefully experimenting with cinematic tropes but, as in much of what constitutes “so bad its good” cinema, what really makes his movies special are his failed experiments or attempts at dramatic effects hampered by lack of funds or resources. Clunky pacing and bad acting can turn even ordinary scenes into absurdist theater, but Murphy’s editing tends to keep the ball rolling with some sort of uneven, unpredictable (and indescribable) kinetic energy that ultimately prevents them from becoming the kind of sluggish dreamscape one might find in a Bill Rebane movie. While Murphy has the talent to make something that adequately reflects his intentions, his failures truly reveal more than his successes. His movies have plenty of holes to let the light shine through anarchically free from its celluloid (or digital) mask.

Unfortunately, Michael J. Murphy has not developed the cult following that has deservedly grown around the other directors I name-dropped above. One would hope that he would attract, at the very least, a gay audience recognizing him and his work as important, early, and highly original examples of “queer horror,” but his movies remain frustratingly obscure (in spite of some coverage by the wonderful Bleeding Skull website). I’ve been wanting to share INVITATION TO HELL on my blog since the first year I started writing, but there was only one terrible, completely unwatchable VHS rip streaming online and any search for it through search engines was complicated by Wes Craven having made a TV movie by the same name in 1984. It is bittersweet but, since Michael J. Murphy’s death, the production company he helped found has finally released several nice prints of his films onto Youtube. They don’t seem to be too popular on the basis of viewing numbers, but I sincerely hope that his work will slowly build up an audience as well as the appreciation, as camp, that it deserves…

INVITATION TO HELL (1982):

SKARE (2007)

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