The Criterion edition of Brian De Palma’s Blow Out is not only welcome and overdue, the collection’s typically provocative packaging inspires new theories and thought-spurts about this great film. Criterion loses the original poster art, which was nothing more than the crescent moon’d face of John Travolta’s Jack Terry wracked with total screaming agony, hemmed in by oily darkness. This striking apotheosis of visceral defeat was an all-time favorite, yet I like Criterion’s new cover, which attempts to place this shockingly obscure 1981 thriller in a different cinematic/historical context.
The updated cover art is a still from the movie, showing exploitation film sound-man Terry sitting in his office, surrounded by a mess of distended audio-equipment and eel-esque tape tracks. His face is mauled by worry. If we’ve seen Blow Out, we know what’s going on. Terry (who may have accidentally recorded evidence of a political assassination while on a field recording for ambient sounds) returns to his studio to find all of his master tapes erased. De Palma's camera rotates in a perpetual 360 about the office, as frantic as Jack trying to recover some justification of his being. It’s a passage that critic Armond White described as the time where “safety goes spinning off into the void.” The image Criterion chose to represent the film has Jack slumped against his chair, briefly resigned, a lone individual at the edge of safety. He’s a poster boy for the insomniac obsessive.
Criterion is specifically aligning Blow Out with two obvious comparison points: Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966) and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), where men doubly fixated on their jobs recover opaque remnants of possibly insidious underplots. The Criterion cover recalls the final shot of Coppola’s film, where Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul plays saxophone inside an apartment he’s gutted while searching in vain for mechanical bugs. In the eyes of too many people, De Palma is a superficial Carnival huckster and sneaky Hitchcock thief. By choosing a quieter moment from the film, Criterion is telling the uninitiated that yes, De Palma is an artist and Blow Out is a movie of great cinematic antecedents and innovation.
Look inside the exhaustive booklet, however, and you’ll find another representation of Blow Out, linking the film to a more subterranean film culture. In the final pages, after a new critical appreciation by Michael Sragow and the classic review “Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Gageteer” by Pauline Kael (she wrote like Hendrix played guitar) we come to a display of movie posters. Exploitation movie posters. Framed on the walls of the penne-ante studio that employs Jack are one-sheets for B’s like Food Of The Gods, The Boogeyman, Without Warning, Squirm. These are pages torn from the graphic novel about America’s shameful exhibition history.
Exploitation, specifically the Horror subgenre known both affectionately and derisively as the “slasher film,” has a thematic bearing on Blow Out that Criterion secretly recognizes and leaves for the devotee or noob who has purchased spine #562 to discover for themselves.
The heart of Blow Out consists of three characters coiled together in a deathdance of maniac fate. The world, specifically the country on which they so wanted to make a difference, has left them alone to dodge and survey and pursue and murder each other while ignored by patriotic revelers and the nightdawn firework bliss. There are no movie characters I love more than Jack Terry, Sally (Nancy Allen) and Burke (John Lithgow). They reside in a Philadelphia littered with industrial Sarlacc pits and vaporized safety. Who are they?
Jack used to work for the Philly P.D. wiring undercover agents until one of his guys was discovered and snuffed after sweating out the bug. Jack always blamed himself and entered the B-movie assembly line, hating the grind and product but diligent about getting lost in it. He’s wound tightly, has no friends or family to call him away from his dedication to chintzy sound.
Sally is an aspiring makeup innovator and a pretty face. She wants to wash off life’s designation of her as a floozy even though she’s not quite smart enough or able to make the right decisions to do just that. Sally moonlights as vaginal bait for philandering businessmen so that her greasy partner in crime Manny Karp (Dennis Franz) can snap pictures of them in flagrante. Her life is undirected by anyone other than bad men by the time she meets Jack. He saves her from drowning. In the hospital when she comes to, the first thing she does is cover her face because she isn't wearing any makeup.
Burke (real name?) is a calculating, efficient madman, hired by a rival political party to knock rising pol Gov. McRyan out of the current race. It becomes clear they hired the wrong man after Burke causes a blow out in McRyan's car that kills the Governor and almost kills Sally before Jack intervenes. His incensed employer cuts him off, (“this wasn’t the plan we agreed on!”) yet Burke has convinced himself that the “mission” must continue. Burke is a self-styled lone wolf who could have emerged from any rural trauma, a psychopathic murderer of women who wants to be one of the men who allegedly set Lee Harvey Oswald up as a patsy. He finds excuses to kill women who look like Sally in order to blame the eventual murder of Sally on his own “series of sex crimes” plaguing Philadelphia.
This sad trio dream for greater recognition but find themselves unwilling citizens in the exclusive hamlet of the Slasher Movie Gutter Town.
“Slashers” came to prominence in America with the success of John Carpenter’s Halloween in 1978, though the “template” so smugly mocked by elitists had been in play virtually throughout the history of the medium (in everything from Tod Browning’s Freaks to Italian Giallo films) and was already the rubric of Bob Clark’s Black Christmas four years earlier.
By the time Blow Out appeared, slashers were relatively ubiquitous and were about to accelerate in visibility, as the first installment of Friday The 13th had just come out in 1980. The same year as De Palma’s film, Friday The 13th Part 2 was already finished. Shortly After Blow Out slashers would rule the decade's box office and grindhouses, one of the key generalized components my friends and I use to reconstruct the eighties, along with Ronald Reagan, nose candy-scribes Ellis/McInerney, and the two Coreys in the great old days when Haim was still with us.
Slashers imprinted warped first impressions of sex, death, and carnage on the small-town children who scooped them up from Mom and Pop rental stores. After another seventh grade day it was time. We walked the tracks with our holy Frito Lays, the tape sheathed in a low-hanging plastic bag. There was me, Derrick, Henry, Kenneth and Scott R. No girls, except the ones laminated and stored in VHS. Male legs touching casually on the floor wasn’t a cause for Salem-sized hysteria then. Desires were something that came from the screen, not from us. And it was ok, because we were watching movies designed for young heterosexual consumption. And we were eating potato chips instead of sucking on Lollipops.
Before they died on the blipping screen, the young people touched each other. On the Mondays after the weekends were finished that was all we could think about, the touching and imminent dying. We watched the bare skin, wondering what it was like to caress it. When the teenagers got murdered one by one we watched and secretly thought about what it might be like to die.
Viewing slasher movies in a small town was the privilege of young men. We built up temples from mythology that was constructed for the sake of capital. As the rapidity of technological breakthroughs allows even a 24-year-old to sound old fogeyish, I think it’s safe to say that that weekend magic is gone to the new young. That’s fine. They have more. They’ll never know.
There used to be a store in my town called Alice In Videoland, standing like a guard dog at the foot of a dead-ended street. It was chunked from a larger building which also housed business, agencies currently blanked and blurred to my memory like a network-televised breast. The slasher movies waited for us in crusty tape boxes that had been rented and returned, rented and returned. I always thought the pied piper hulks like Jason Vorhees and Madman Marz (or Burke) were hiding inside the street beyond Alice. Alice In Videoland is long gone (“Like a steel locomotive, rolling down the track…”) but it had to have had the most provocative and literary name of any nostalgia-tinged mom’n’pop. The Carroll allusions aside (though the committed movie watcher is always meeting strange, new characters, a Cheshire Cat Antonio Fargas or Red Queen Harvy Keitel in Bad Lieutenant, even Anna Karina as a harder core Alice in Godard’s My Life To Live) there’s the “Videoland” to consider. Like Spyro the dragon in a fully interactive Playstation level, we entered Videoland with the option of going anywhere, up hill and dale, through the path to righteous shock water. The guys and I, a collectively tainted Spyro, only had one destination in mind.
I have a deeply protective, unconditional love for American slashers-from Studio Bastard Child mainstreamers like the Friday The 13ths to the waterfall of independent productions like The Toolbox Murders and Slaughter High. I try not to demand more from them than they are able to give, yet I’ve also found myself wishing more had the same high-art style and airy, un-tethered camera as the best Italian horror. An Argento-like vision of the sometimes intoxicating pure Americana we get from the best slashers is a heady, dangerous thing to wish for. Heady because of the realized possibilities. Dangerous because it’s one of those utopian moviewatching requests that even the bluest genie couldn’t grant.
Blow Out’s opening salvo is that intermovie dream come true, a min-collegiate slasher which plays like the rather flatly shot Final Exam or The Dorm That Dripped Blood filtered through the instinctual screws of an aesthete fascinated by the limitless visionary potential of junk. The widescreen spectrum bounds and glides on the wings of a Demon (here, the Michael Myers POV of the in-film antagonist), peeping through the windows of a sorority on a blustery night. The Demon kills a security guard keeping silent watch. The pampered sisters play out little dramas of trying to study while bitches party in the next room. A sister riding her boyfriend catches a glimpse of the Demon and screams, but he cuts one hasty escape and enters the sorority on his mission for damage.
Every De Palma “Tour de force” isn’t just an empty “Look ma, No hands” gesture (to quote rag “Entertainment Weekly”), but examples of audacious cinematic reach embedded with visual ideas and extra-textual criticism. In this film-within-a-film, the essential slasher archetype is patriarchy on the prowl. De Palma sees him as the microcosm of every slasher villain: male, with sexual frustration boiling over, forced to remain outside a healthy social universe of fulfillment and sex. Each room is differently lit, containing a new breed of situational person. The Demon is denied access to any of these fresh girls, forever unaware of nightcrawlers like him. Joining the ranks of Grendel or Travis Bickle, he can’t connect so he’s chosen to pillage. The propulsive free-float of De Palma’s camera and wintery stark of Vilmos Zsigmond’s photography condense hours of material from vintage Times Square filler and the grime tapes from the days Kenneth (the one I had fallen for) was still in touch. The Demon stalks to the girl’s showers, reflected in the mirror as a crinkled hunchback of a middle-aged man, surely the interior look of even the youngest slashers the decade would provide us.
De Palma then narratively zooms out, revealing two men watching this extraordinary footage. Obviously they don’t see the art in it. (Maybe the version we’ve just watched isn’t the version they’ve seen but the dream projection of what that horror movie could be.) Terry and his swarthy, overweight, Bob Cresse-like boss can only be dismayed by the cheesy library scream from the overdubbed throat of a showering Next Victim.
“I didn’t hire that girl for her scream,” the producer says, “I hired that girl for her tits.”
Jack’s tired comeback: “With tits like that who’s gonna notice the scream?”
It doesn’t work. He’s ordered to find audio of a good scream. Blow Out begins as a Trash Aria, then a simple assignment. De Palma’s self-penned screenplays often start with assignments demanded of lead characters from others or from themselves. The protagonists never stop to examine their own shaky psychological ground before setting out on these ventures. Terry shares the same DNA as Body Double’s claustrophobic and mildly perverted Jake Scully, Raising Kane’s schizophrenic Carter Nix, Femme Fatale’s dreamy and dreaming Laure Ash, right up to the naïve, vlogging soldier Salazar in Redacted, who doesn’t see the harm in being a stealer of images until it’s far too late.
Sally becomes that scream. The legacy of her soul is transferred by Jack to one of the rental choices in Videoland, an urban legend that won’t ever catch on, a neighbor to the other houses on the same truncated road.
Blow Out is a serious film that deliberately references the unseemly byroads of genre product, exposing the self-contained tragedy of the slashers’ nightowl production universe. These three have no desire to be in a slasher movie: Jack wants to star in a version of 3 Days Of The Condor where the newspaper prints the story and the ostensible nut is validated; Burke wants to star in a cool, austere French Hitman movie along the lines of Melville’s Le Samourai, an immaculate professional in the darkness, cleaning up and taking out, doing his job for satisfied shadowmen; Sally just wants to be in a frothy, carefree musical, or at least provide glittery invisible makeup behind the scenes.
De Palma stages a climax of patriotic disillusionment and filmic exclusion. Burke has intercepted the phone line in Jack’s apartment building, talking to Sally over the phone and convincing her that he’s really a local investigative journalist doing a piece on Jack’s discovery. Apprehensive, Jack decides to wire Sally and listen in on her conversation when she meets the reporter at the 30th Street Station. As Sally walks around the train station (where Burke has just finished murdering a prostitute in the restroom) she talks to Jack through the bug. After this is all over, she says, they could travel to New York together and see some shows, “Like Sugar Babies and stuff.” Burke comes up behind her wearing a pleasant mask. Neither Sally nor Jack have met Burke, or even know that he’s the one man behind the tampering all film, but Jack doesn’t recognize that voice. He bolts from the car, sprinting like a rat in a maze thinking it has a chance.
The moment Jack realizes that isn’t the reporter is the moment all three of their fates are sealed in cruelty. In what is easily the finest chase sequence in movie history, Jack hopelessly runs through the station trying to locate them with only their voices as a weakening guidance. He jumps turnstiles and pirouettes at the whim of every casually spouted direction. He ends up plowing his car through the Liberty Day parade, which stands in for an America they all wanted to impact. Yet the festivities continue while the three remain ignored and fringe.
The parade continues at night when Jack finally spots Sally and Burke on a tourist lookout balcony above the crowd. Sally reaches out before Burke strangles her to death with his signature watch razor wire. Sally reaches to the faceless mass. Behind her hangs a gigantic, indifferent American flag. The reds bleed out. Jack’s cry glints like coined sunlight in all the smiles.
Jack, Sally and Burke are relegated to the slasher ghetto-Burke in the role of just another Demon slayer festering in hundreds of VHS releases from the Media and Vestron companies, Jack as another name in the bottom of the credits that middle schoolers watching as a rite-of-passage twenty years later won’t ever see, and Sally as just a victim, just another nameless female victim.
Jack listens to the accidental record of Sally’s death in coldest winter. He drops this malignant sound into the campus slasher. Really, her scream is their unified scream. Jack is the only one left alive. He isn’t alive at all.
Brian De Palma’s inclusion of female nudity, violence and spectacle has never been for mere unthinking titillation. He uses the disposable for means of critical exegeses. Like every De Palma film, Blow Out is a text on the run. The cinema that has come before serves as a graveyard and blueprint. Much has been reductively written about De Palma and Hitchcock (who is De Palma’s cross to bear), but there is so little acknowledging De Palma’s un-didactic commentary on Gutter Town. In providing his own interpretation of sleaze (body count movies in Blow Out, pornography in Body Double, paperback horror in Carrie and The Fury, Mad Scientists in Raising Kane, gender fetishization in Femme Fatale) De Palma alchemizes the subconscious poetry in Penny Dreadfuls without condescending to lesser producers and directors like Hershell Gordon Lewis, Jess Franco and the other great hellhounds who didn’t have the time to consider what they were putting on film and why.
All the slasher movies are about invasion. As much as Criterion emphasizes the European and alienated 70s New Hollywood trappings on the cover, those posters in the booklet get closer to the movie’s broken heart. In slashers, the lives of dopy youngsters guilty of nothing more than sowing wild oats are invaded by a franchise mutant. Recall a subplot: the struggles of an awkward Crispin Glover to prove to his bud that he isn’t a “Dead fuck” in Friday 4. This material is so engaging that we can’t help but feel cut loose, even cheated, after all the time invested in it is canceled with one sharp hack to Glover’s face. (With his character Jim’s death we also lose any chance of seeing his spastic party dance again.) This abrupt entrance of dismay is present even in Blow Out’s nonviolent scenes, when Jack finds one of Karp’s flash-tabloid photos of Sally, bare shoulders peeking through white hotel sheets as a married man scrambles to get dressed. When Karp forces himself on Sally her unsurprised desperation is the emotional fog above every dead teenager who was ever consigned to the Horror forest in Videoland.
De Palma sees this, and that’s why the Slasher movie spectre is either waiting at the end of each frame or parasitically draining nutrients from the host. America wants to pretend the films don’t exist, and that extends to the lost souls struggling in Blow Out's genre web. Slashers invade and erode Jack, Burke and Sally’s idiosyncratic dreams, Jack and Sally’s potential relationship (the scenes of them going to Sugar Babies together now part of the same ether as Glover’s Jim finding a mate in his sex-comedy that wasn’t to be), Jack’s career as an asset to the police force, Blow Out’s theoretically higher art aspirations. They are all pulled reaching and screaming past Videoland, into an unforgiving celluloid abyss.