The conflicted Paul Schrader works out some hellacious personal issues, in a feverish tale of a Michigan Calvinist searching for his daughter in the porn jungle of L.A.. A disturbingly dark modern-day cross between The Searchers and Masque of the Red Death, it was meant to be even darker.
1979 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 108 min. / Street Date August, 2016 / Available from the Twilight Time Movies Store / 29.95
Starring George C. Scott, Peter Boyle, Season Hubley, Dick Sargent, Leonard Gaines, David Nichols.
Cinematography Michael Chapman
Production Designer Paul Sylbert
Art Direction Edwin O’Donovan
Film Editor Tom Rolf
Original Music Jack Nitzsche
Produced by Buzz Feitshans, John Milius
Written and Directed by Paul Schrader
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
I’m not sure that the word ‘controversial’ has the same meaning it once had. There has to be a consensus on what is ‘normal’ in society for some topics to become edgy. These days we’re not quick to air our views, for fear of losing friends, being ostracized or having one’s career affected. Back in 1979 the cultural paralysis hadn’t yet set in, and the notion of ‘politically correct’ was in its infancy. Paul Schrader’s film Hardcore was definitely controversial — even among filmgoers accustomed to extreme content in films. Schrader contributes a new commentary to Twilight Time’s Blu-ray edition, and as is typical for the writer-director, it contains a number of surprises.
Several of Schrader’s seventies scripts revisited The Searchers in various genres, the most eloquent being Sydney Pollack’s The Yakuza and the most successful Martin Scorsese’s
Taxi Driver. His Hardcore makes the connection explicit. George C. Scott’s odyssey through the underworld of the porn industry is similar to the quest of John Ford’s Ethan Edwards. The unpleasant movie holds way back from a full examination of its subject yet for average audiences is still strong stuff. Considering the temper of the times, it’s probably less ready for polite company now than when it came out. It’s too bad that the gripping, daringly direct picture goes tame in the final stretch.
The story starts in the repressed Midwest. Single father Jake VanDorn (George C. Scott), Michigan businessman and member of a strict Calvinist church, takes appropriate action when his daughter Kristin (Ilah Davis) disappears while on a church trip out west to the Los Angeles area. When the police won’t help, he hires private detective Andy Mast (Peter Boyle). To Jake’s horror, Andy discovers that Kristin has shown up in an 8mm B&W porn film. Steeled for the worst, Jake leaves his community for the Sodom of the California porn industry, to search for Kristin himself.
Hardcore is probably too schematic for its own good. Dutch Reformed Calvinist Jake must descend into a veritable hell to recover his stolen daughter. The streets of L.A., San Diego and San Francisco consist exclusively of ugly adult bookstores, sex nightclubs and massage parlors that transparently front for cheap brothels. San Diego has a ‘combat zone,’ designed to keep sailors within a confined area. Jake’s unsatisfying dealings with Peter Boyle’s sleazy private detective make him realize that if he’s going to find his daughter, he’ll have to do the job himself. That means total immersion in the hardcore lifestyle and the formation of a key relationship with Niki (Season Hubley), a savvy young hooker. Jake and Niki verbally spar over their wildly divergent personal philosophies. We want to hear this debate of lifestyles, but it does come off as somewhat contrived.
Schrader’s film has a lot going for it. George C. Scott is convincingly resolute as a good but closed-off man who uses his business and his religion as a tool of isolation against the world. Jake’s hermetic Grand Rapids society even treats relatives who leave the fold as dead. Yet it seems a heroic quest when Jake changes his style to wade deep into the sex underground, pretending to be an adult film producer to get a lead on his missing daughter.
The portrait given of the hardcore scene isn’t exaggerated. There were indeed massage parlors just like the ones shown on Western Avenue in the 1970s (roughly ten blocks from my house in what’s considered a very good L.A. neighborhood), and far more adult bookstores than there are now. Schrader captures the venality of the producers, who earn millions making garbage. The hardcore films then were really shot on film. Like a good repressed fellow, Schrader is obviously fascinated by the workings of the porn filmmakers at various levels — he even makes jokes about the director being from the UCLA film school.
Schrader tells his story from the POV of a devout Calvinist, but that won’t make Hardcore more palatable for conservative audiences. Jake would gladly welcome a Biblical flood, a Travis Bickle-ish ‘real rain’ to wash away the perverted filth he finds in Los Angeles. Up to a certain point the show hangs together well, and seems directed toward some really frightening revelations. George C. Scott powers his way through a great many difficult scenes as Jake adapts to the needs of his quest. He hits every note squarely except the most important one: the experience does not fundamentally alter his outlook. Back in Michigan he’ll become his old self again, save for an occasional nightmare.
(the rest of this review is probably all spoiler)
As with The Searchers’ Anglo homesteaders and Native American Comanches, Hardcore is about a clash between two completely incompatible species. Schrader’s dividing line is moral instead of racial. The power in John Ford’s film is that his subversive message (yep) went unnoticed by most of straight America in 1956. Ethan Edwards is a racist sociopath, and his sickness is a mirror for the country. Hardcore may be too obsessed with these parallels. The lost daughter Kristin is never developed beyond a screenwriter’s concept. Leaving Michigan on the vacation bus, Kristin VanDorn is seen cheering with her friends. They’ve escaped their constrictive parents, who control every second of their lives with religion-themed dogma. Kristin then disappears with some boys, which supports the police conclusion that she’s just another runaway. Jake is convinced that she has been abducted, and we naturally side with him. He cares deeply for Kristin and is not an unreasonable man. Despite some tears, he holds up like a rock.
The film’s central image is powerful and true: Jake must watch his missing daughter in a hardcore sex film found by Andy Mast. It’s beyond uncomfortable, especially for the parents of vulnerable children. Unlike Ethan Edwards of The Searchers, Jake forms a relationship with a representative from the Dark Side, the hooker and porn performer Niki. At first this is a revelation — will he accept Niki as an equal, even if she’ll never be one of the Calvinist ‘elect’?
Just as Schrader seems poised to critique Jake’s paternalistic father figure, Hardcore opts to become a more standard revenge melodrama. Schrader taps what was then an urban myth, the existence of atrocious porn films in which women are murdered as well as merely exploited: Kristin may be in the clutches of a scary producer of ‘snuff’ films. The concept became popular a couple of years earlier with the release of a fake snuff movie actually called Snuff.
We’re suddenly in all-too familiar territory. Jake penetrates this final circle of Hell too easily, and zeroes in on a cardboard villain who goes by the name ‘Ratan.’ Just like the savage War Chief Scar, Ratan seems to be Kristin’s lover. Jake breaks a few heads and trashes an S&M parlor, and the evil underworld falls apart like a house of cards. Where are all the bouncer thugs who cleaned his clock so well before?
Schrader’s rescue sequence directly references Roger Corman’s film of The Masque of the Red Death. Ratan’s inner sanctum of evil is a chain of themed fantasy torture rooms, each painted a different color. Prospero’s rooms communicate through doors, but Jake plows from one chamber to another through cheap fiberboard walls. The parallel can’t be an accident, unless both ‘architectural’ constructions have a common classical source – does such a thing appear in Dante’s Inferno, perhaps. I can’t remember if I read of this connection in critic Raymond Durgnat, or heard it from my perceptive editor friend Steven Nielson.
Jake locates Kristin just in time for a conventional, unsatisfying action finale. Peter Boyle’s detective shoots a baddie in the back, one he’s barely seen – how exactly is that act of murder going to shake down? Then Jake has his reunion with Kristin, who initially rejects him, much like Debbie in The Searchers. The scene is a disaster, as Hardcore is choosing to confront its core relationship just as it rings down the curtain. Only now is it suggested that Jake was a harsh and oppressive father, perhaps punishing Kristin for the sins of her mother. Jake earlier revealed to Niki that his wife isn’t dead, an important clue that should have had weight, just like Jake’s ‘gentle’ bullying of an art director at his furniture company: he rules his business and his loved ones alike with inflexible church-given paternalism. Jake cries in woe over his false pride and begs Kristin to come back — a scene that any thinking parent should be able relate to. Like the child prostitute in Taxi Driver, Kristin claims hatred for her daddy, but deep down wants to be back with him. It’s a whole new film that starts and ends in about ninety seconds. In Jake’s defense, at least he doesn’t want to kill Kristin, as did Ethan Edwards. Has Niki influenced him?
These frantic character revelations make us feel as if we’ve been watching the wrong movie. Jake ditches Niki more or less just as the detective said he would. It’s a shame, as their bond means more to us than the runaway daughter; we’re forced to conclude that, with his daughter back, Jake will want everything in his life to return to a status quo in which Niki will have no part. The detective then gives the appropriately-named Jake a, “forget it, it’s Chinatown” kiss-off speech. This whole last scene takes place on one of those steeply pitched San Francisco streets. At any moment, we expect any or all of the characters to slip and roll to the bottom of the hill. The movie certainly does.
Hardcore is as close to a Protestant horror film as one can get. Jake’s having to face his worst nightmares about his daughter packs a punch in the first third of the story. But the movie never settles on any but a cursory judgment against the porn world. The killing of just one bad guy at the end restores the moral balance; the threat was always on the outside and not a natural consequence of Calvinist repression.
I always thought the story of Hardcore wasn’t finished. The perfect follow-up would have Niki appear in Grand Rapids, cleaned up and straight, hoping to fit into Jake’s world while helping him with his emotional isolation from his daughter. Wait a minute, that sounds a lot like Sam Fuller’s twisted The Naked Kiss.
George C. Scott is excellent in a tough role where he clearly had some misgivings about being in scenes that could be considered borderline hardcore material. Season Hubley is also terrific at making Niki more than a token prostitute. She has to literally let it all hang out, so to speak, yet she loses not an ounce of dignity. Peter Boyle gives us an interesting interpretation of a private dick, who is both a sleaze and a sage. His detective Mast is also a crack shot with a short-barreled pistol, I have to say. Dick Sargent looks suitably uncomfortable as Jake’s hometown relative.
Jonathan Demme’s recurring actor Tracey Walter is a convincing adult bookstore clerk. A green-looking Ed Begley Jr. plays a soldier moonlighting in an adult movie. ‘He’s a bargain,’ the sleazy producer says, ‘He brought his own uniform.’ The various porn bosses and pimps are acceptable until we get to the Ratan ‘Mr. Big’ character. Then Schrader doesn’t know how to express the unspeakable except to put Latin music on the soundtrack and make ‘Evil’ and ‘Mexican’ synonymous. It’s pretty insulting, but nobody’s perfect. As with several early Paul Schrader pictures, Hardcore plays as if the director is under psychic stress and wrestling with personal demons.
Paul Schrader again shows himself a director determined to take ‘controversial’ subject material as a starting point for deeper probing. Perhaps Hardcore was just too strong for mainstream Hollywood. It’s a shame, for much of it is daringly honest.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Hardcore is a nigh-perfect encoding of this strongly-felt movie, which seems fascinated by its own sordid subject matter. Cinematographer Michael Chapman finds good contrasts between the snowy Michigan locations and the garish colors in the maze-like adult business districts of three California cities. The audio is fine, including the country music main theme associated with Jake’s Michigan hometown. Jack Ntitzsche’s eerie music is similar to his work for Cutter’s Way, employing themes played on a water glass table.
Twilight Time’s generous extras are an original trailer and two new commentaries. Eddy Friedfeld, Lee Pfeiffer and Paul Scrabo return from their commentary for Tony Rome / Lady in Cement. It’s a pleasant discussion track conveying info and opinions on the picture. The big draw will be the second commentary with filmmaker Paul Schrader himself. He practically compares watching the movie to torture, as he doesn’t like how it looks, doesn’t like his direction, and opines that his screenplay consists of amateurishly unnecessary explanations and on-the-nose debates. He even despairs over the ’70s fashions, when Hardcore is an excellent freeze-frame of that ugly disco era — when men in all parts of the film industry dressed like pimps. Someone should tell him that it’s a great, adventurously daring picture, and that we wouldn’t want to see him go any closer to Robert Bresson territory than he is now. He also explains how George C. Scott bullied him, calling the movie s___ and Schrader a s___ director, and making him promise never to direct again! Schrader doesn’t even think Season Hubley is a good choice, because she’s too pretty. He explains these positions, but is still much too hard on himself.
One unpleasant truth Schrader brings up is that ‘snuff’ films do indeed exist now, except that the ones I know of are based in political terrorism, not perverted sex. Or, is there a difference? The unthinkable is available to anybody with an Internet connection. It’s too bad that Schrader sides with macho directors like Peckinpah and Oliver Stone, in projecting ‘ultimate outrages’ as the domain of foreign cultures.
The big revelation confirmed by Schrader in the commentary is that he commenced filming with a different ending. The entire rescue of Kristin was a reshoot, as she originally wasn’t supposed to be found. At the last minute the studio demanded that a conventionally ‘happy’ ending be arranged, which conforms the story arc even more closely to that of The Searchers. After verbally flagellating himself over his so-called bad filmmaking, Schrader finishes by confessing that he ‘ruined’ the movie with this compromise.
I think Schrader has made a very good movie. It confronts important ideas, like the clash between polar extremes in American culture. Hardcore was made by the production company “A Team,” concurrently with Spielberg’s big 1941. Out in the special effects hangar, we heard nothing but strange and contradictory rumors from the two films’ shared front office. In charge were Mary Ellen Trainor and Kathleen Kennedy, then production coordinators / secretaries. Some of the producer’s staff didn’t understand the script and shuddered at the faux-porn material being shot for the film. I later learned that wildcat director William Dear may have done some of that filming.
The final finished ending is similar to the filming script I saw, except that the script ends with a kicker shock ‘button’ not unlike Carrie or Deliverance. Jake has a nightmare in which he imagines Kristin as the victim of a bondage snuff killing. Schrader’s commentary points out that a scene earlier in the picture, where Jake begins to dream about Kristin, was actually for this original ending. When someone as creative as Paul Schrader is trying to work through his personal demons, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Considering that it was released by a major studio, I’m surprised that Hardcore was allowed to be as tough as it is.
TT’s liner note essayist Julie Kirgo sees the essential integrity in Schrader’s film as well. Her essay (which I read after writing my review) appreciates the daring originality of Paul Schrader’s ‘vision.’ I wonder what Kirgo would have thought of the scandalized reactions I heard in the office scuttlebutt — those women weren’t at all comfortable. The nervousness centered on the fear that they were making a million-dollar porn picture, and that Paul Schrader himself was a perverted, dangerous man.
Wow, what an endorsement!
Thanks to Ken Karpinski for his corrections.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Hardcore Blu-ray rates:
Supplements: Isolated Score Track / Audio Commentary with Writer-Director Paul Schrader / Audio Commentary with Film Historians Eddy Friedfeld, Lee Pfeiffer, and Paul Scrabo / Original Theatrical Trailer, Julie Kirgo liner notes.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: September 1, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson