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Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Thoughts on Perfect Strangers

In May, I went to the newly reopened Quad Cinema for their weekend tribute to the cult genre director Larry Cohen. I had seen one of his films before, an 80's satirical horror comedy called The Stuff, where people become addicted to a trendy ice cream that, unknown to them, has a parasite in it that uses people as a host and eats them from the inside out. I liked the weirdness and dark comedy of it, as well as its social commentary on commercialism and consumerism, and was happy to watch another one of his films, 1984's Perfect Strangers.

The film is about a hitman named Johnny who has to murder a two-year old boy that witnessed Johnny's contract killing, and he dates the kid's mom to get close to him. It was a really intense thriller, made more so by the fact that the kid recognizes Johnny as the killer, but cannot speak, and there are some great scenes between them where Johnny is conflicted over not wanting to kill a child vs. being pressured by the mob to get rid of him. The boy was so young that his "acting" was more of compiled reaction shots by Cohen, as he explained in the post-film Q&A, and being guided by Cohen and his parents, who all hid behind furniture on set to get the boy to take direction. There were some great reaction shots by the kid timed with the editing and context of a scene, and I could suspend my disbelief that this kid was playing a kid who knew that his mom's boyfriend was a killer but was unable to speak or defend himself, it made it much more intense to watch from that young a perspective.

The film combined being a crime thriller with a surprisingly feminist bent, as the mom had left a bad marriage to an abusive man, was managing well as a single mom, and her friends were involved in feminist activism. There is a scene with a real-life Take Back the Night march, showing a slice of 80's feminist protest work, including protests against pornography, rape, and sexism. However, the actress playing the mom, Anne Carlisle, was really terrible. She had a very wooden and stiff delivery of her lines, and it was a drag to watch her scenes, despite that she was supposed to be the sympathetic heroine of the film.

I also thought she was way too trusting when meeting the guy, like allowing him to carry her son and come to her home a day after meeting him on the street. She knows that her son witnessed a murder, but doesn't know who did it. And while I wouldn't expect her to suspect her boyfriend, he had such a streetwise and seedy look to him that I thought she should have had hesitations about letting him so intimately in her life, since she really didn't know anything about his life, and he looked like he had a shady past. I just thought she was very dense when it came to trusting men in her personal life.

There were some really interesting side characters, like a private detective (hired by the ex-husband to track his ex-wife's boyfriend) who sounded like Arnold Schwarzenegger and had a strange, lanky presence; and Ann Magnuson as the heroine's artsy feminist best friend, who was funny, quirky, and reminded me of Annie Potts' character from Pretty in Pink.

The film broke twice while playing, and it was funny, just because it felt like an experience of watching a B-movie in a cheap theatre where films would break mid-reel. Cohen was cracking jokes from the back of the theater when it happened, going "Intermission time!" He was a lot of fun to listen to when he told stories about the making of the film, with a scratchy New Yorker accent of decades past and a salt of the earth sense of humor. I am happy that I got to see this film and see him speak about it, and I would definitely check out more of his films.

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