Micheal K. Williams passed away

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jim LaMotta is one of Pittsburgh’s premiere wrestling announcers, as well as a great writer. I’m really happy that he chose to write this and share it with the site. This article originally appeared on Steel City Underground. You can follow Jim on Twitter.

I was shocked to read the news earlier this week that Micheal K. Williams, the actor known for his iconic roles in HBO’s The Wire and Boardwalk Empire was found dead of a suspected drug overdose in his New York apartment at the age of 54. Sadly, Williams’ struggled with addiction the majority of his life, and the authenticity that he brought to the screen seemed to be based on much of the real-life trauma from his youth. Growing up in the East Flatbush housing projects in Brooklyn, his youth provided somewhat of a preview for that roles that eventually made him famous when he dropped out of high school as a troubled teen. Thankfully, he found a level of stability at the National Black Theatre in Harlem, where he studied dance and stage performance. Through the hustle and showing up at enough studios, he landed work as a back up dancer for various artists, including Madonna for tours in the early-90s. He landed a break when he was cast for a minor role in 1996’s Bullet, a film that brought together Mickey Rourke and Tupac Shakur.

Random chance brought Williams the opportunity, as his photo was noticed during the production of the film, which led to an offer for a role. A few years earlier, Williams attempted to stop a fight outside of a club and was slashed across the face with a razor blade, leaving a massive scar. That scar not only got him noticed for Bullet, it became one of the notable trademarks throughout his career. While the healed stitches got him on set with Tupac, it also had him typecast in generic roles throughout the rest of the 90s.

The defining mark on his face was quite literally proof of life on the streets, and in many ways, it was just too easy to cast him as a generic thug because the visual was already there. However, Micheal K, Williams had much more to offer to the art of acting than anything just skin deep. Thankfully, David Simon, writer of The Wire, and later The Deuce for HBO as well, was willing to take the usual street drama the entertainment world saw before and allow for more depth than the usual superficial presentation. Simon’s gritty and unrefined look at the hardships of poverty and the effects of corruption within society were almost too much for some critics. Despite being critically-acclaimed and nominated for a myriad of awards, The Wire never won an Emmy, and when the show was broadcast in Britain, it was relegated to a late-night time slot based on the subject matter.

The Wire, a saga about Baltimore’s drug trade and the police that were tasked to stop it, quite literally was the subject of academic materials. Entire essays can and have been written about the topics that Simon explored with the production that was filmed in Baltimore on the same streets that its narrative chronicled. On a basic level, Simon allowed the audience to question just who are “the good guys?” and what measure determines it. As the tales of the street unfolded on HBO when the series ran for five seasons, drug dealers sometimes had more of a moral code than elected officials. Those that were deemed hopeless or a lost cause flourished, while others squandered their opportunities.

Any form of art, regardless of the media used to create it, often evokes an emotion within the audience and makes them think deeper about its subject matter. Simon’s work through The Wire certainly did that, but the main catalyst that made it possible was the series’ anti-hero, Omar Little, a role that will probably define the legacy of Micheal K. Williams. His career wasn’t limited to just Omar’s adventures on The Wire, but it left such a legacy on a number of levels that it must be discussed to truly sum up the impact of Williams acting ability.

Omar Little, a shotgun-welding gangster, made his living on the streets of Baltimore by robbing the city’s drug dealers, those that were responsible for much of the drug epidemic that ravaged the city. In many ways, those that lined their pockets by exploiting the addiction problems of the citizens were the villains, while Omar would even the score with Robin Hood-style justice. The philosophies of the moral gangster were staples of the anti-hero and can be seen throughout film for those that landed in similar roles. The primary focus of the anti-hero is the difference between legal and moral justice. We’ve seen so often in society that sometimes liars or con artists can manipulate the system and get away with it. In real life, there’s not always moral or even legal justice, we all know OJ did it.  Along with a way to even the score, the anti-hero always had a code, even if it’s not legal. This set of rules lets the audience know that the anti-hero has a moral compass, which allows them to cheer for the anti-hero under different circumstances.

Speaking of a code, that was one of the many trademark lines that Omar made famous on the HBO series, “a man got to have a code” told the audience that Omar had rules for his way of life, and the pursuit of money, the entire objective of the hustle wasn’t enough to break them. Along with moral justice, the anti-hero in film can always be portrayed to do what’s right from the viewpoint of the audience. A prime example of this being when one of the drug cartel enforces shoots an innocent man that happened to witness a transaction because he was just doing his job as a security guard. “Snitchin'” might’ve been an unwritten rule of the street, but it didn’t apply to civilians. Omar, with a lengthy rap sheet himself, agreed to testify against the enforcer in an almost comical court room scene. “I ain’t never turn my gun on nobody that ain’t in the game,” he said as he confirmed the identity of the shooter. The point being, if anyone was involved in the hustle of the streets, they knew the risks so they are fair game, but that doesn’t apply to the general public or the security guard that was just trying to make an honest living.

It’s the same reason the audience can cheer for Tony Soprano, he might be a criminal, but there’s a code of ethics, as unconventional as they might be, to conduct business. A wise guy might end up with a pair of cement shoes, but women and children were safe because they weren’t part of it. Speaking of family ties, Omar might’ve robbed meth dealers on Saturday, but in a memorable scene, took his grandma to church on Sunday morning.

Obviously, the large facial scar enhanced the presence of the character, but it was Williams’ charisma and authenticity that really made the role iconic. Besides the cool anti-hero that Omar was, the character broke new ground on many levels with the portrayal of a gay gangster. David Simon, who used his writing style to push the narrative of The Wire in a more progressive direction, flipped the script on gay characters on television. When Omar strolled down the street in Baltimore in 2002, film and television had only begun to scratch the surface of prominent gay characters. Will and Grace put a spotlight on a gay character, but up until that point, while the presentation of gay figures on screen was positive, it portrayed a gay character as passive or defenseless. Omar Little blasted that stereotype away faster than the front door to a poker game he was going to rob. Omar was cool, dangerous, could defend himself in the streets, and he was gay. His sexuality wasn’t the defining factor of his existence or the narrative on the show. Williams’ work in this regard was really superb because Omar’s homosexuality was presented as any other type of relationship, which again emphasized that a character’s orientation doesn’t determine their narrative.

The character became so iconic with its unique style that President Barack Obama cited the stickup man as his favorite television character. Unfortunately, in the years after The Wire‘s 2008 series finale, Micheal Williams revealed that he continued to struggle with drug use during the production of the HBO show. Perhaps, that’s why The Wire is so revered and examined more than a decade after it wrapped, because it was a dose of reality that many weren’t ready for at the time. Aside from being filmed on the same Baltimore streets where the story was set, the level of authenticity associated with the show went beyond just skilled acting. While Williams’ Omar had such a charismatic presence on-screen, he was actually be responsible for bringing another certified aspect of Baltimore to the set. While at a club there, Williams spotted Felecia “Snoop” Pearson, who he introduced to producers, and eventually a role was written into the show for her. As she detailed in her autobiography, Grace After Midnight, Pearson was a real-life drug dealer in Baltimore that was convicted of second-degree murder at the age of just 15 and spent six years in prison. “Snoop,” similar to Williams, had an unique charisma and her authenticity was undeniable.

Williams went on to continue to work in a variety of roles in both film and TV, including his run as Chalky White on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, the Atlantic City saga set in the 1920s with the lead role brilliantly played by the underrated Steve Buscemi. The bootlegging days of Atlantic City were far away from the drug trade of Baltimore, but the character of Chalky White showed that Williams knew how to portray a powerful persona on-screen. More recently, he earned an Emmy nomination for his work on another HBO series, Lovecraft Country, and was reportedly set to be cast in an upcoming George Foreman film.

My sincere condolences to Micheal K Williams’ friends and family at this difficult time.

Slap the Monster on Page One (1972)

So this is kind of cheating, because Sbatti il mostro in prima pagina is more a drama or crime movie than a giallo, but it has enough elements of the form to warrant being included in the company of black gloved killers.

Il Giornale is a newspaper that may remind you of some other media sources in 2021: it has a strictly conservative and fascist audience and seeks to discover the right wing way of looking at every issue, no matter how silly they are, while ignoring the real issues that people are dealing with every single day.

Then a young woman is assaulted and killed, so the bullpen goes all in screaming for the return of the death penalty and actually goes so far as to get involved in the investigation. They believe that an idealistic student protester is behind the sex crime, which their readership is only too happy to get behind.

Gian Maria Volonté plays the editor who gets the fires burning. He always ends up in the more mindful and socially conscious giallo that don’t really fit the standard ideas of what makes one of these films, like Investigation of a Citizen Above SuspicionTodo Modo and, well, this one. Plus Laura Betti (A Bay of BloodHatchet for the Honeymoon) and John Steiner are in this if you’re looking for familiar faces. Plus there’s an Ennio Morricone soundtrack.

Sergio Donati, who wrote the script, was the original director but he and Volonté had artistic differences. He also wrote The Weekend MurdersThe Island of the Fishmen AKA Screamers, the original Man on Fire and Almost Blue. And oh yeah — Raw Deal!

Life imitates art: two years later, a real right-wing newspaper named Il Giornale started up.

Trancers III (1992)

Jack Deth has the worst luck. Just when he gets one last chance to save his marriage to Lena (Helen Hunt), he gets pulled into time just in time to save Angel City from a Trancer war, but loses thirteen years of his life and loses the love of his life.

I mean, Jack has more than one love of his life. Just go with it, you know?

Now, the U.S. government is creating their own Trancers, which means that Jack is going to have to get in and shut it down along with help from a soldier that has escaped the program named R.J. (Melanie Smith, Jerry’s girlfriend Rachel), a camp escapee and an android named Shark (R. A. Mihailoff, who was Leatherface in the third film and is part of a paranormal group with Kane Hodde and Rick McCullum named the Hollywood Ghost Hunters).

You can watch this on Tubi.

Master of Horror (1965)

This is a dubbed version of the 1960 Argentinan horror film Obras Maestras del Terror. It’s missing “The Tell-Tale Heart*” and fifteen minutes of footage that was cut from “Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” and “The Cask of Amontillado.”

You can blame Jack H. Harris.

I have to say that this is my favorite version of Amontillado that I’ve seen, as the young wife is seeking the flowery passion from the young rogue who is staying at the farm of the older husband, a man who seeks to love and provide for his wife yet doesn’t have the romantic mind of his younger rival.

I’d love to see a full release of this along with the original Spanish language uncut film. Until that is commercially available, you can check out the American version as part of Severin’s Tales of the Uncanny blu ray. However, as far as I know, it was only part of the Black Friday version.

*This story was part of 1972’s Legend of Horror.

Santo contra Blue Demon en la Atlantida (1970)

To enjoy a Santo movie, you must just say, “Well, yes, alright” to all manner of statements. For example, you must realize that Santo is the equal of Batman, a scientific genius who is also a millionaire playboy who the cops rely on to solve all manner of cases but he also wrestles and unlike Bruce Wayne, he never shows up without his mask. Also, his greatest enemies are ersatz Universal Monsters that avoid lawsuits with the way they appear, aliens, demons, witches and, finally, a Nazi scientist who lives in Atlantis and is ready to nuke the world to prepare for the Cuatro Reich.

You know what makes my like for this movie transform into mad obsessive love? The fact that it outright steals footage from Invasion of Astro Monster, Atragon and Ebirah Horror of the Deep.

For some reason, Blue Demon always gets hypnotized and sent after Santo. I much prefer the movies where Leyenda de Azul gets to be his own man or even leads a team of luchadors.

That said, I love any movie where bad guys get speared with javelins, then wither away and die. Oh Aquiles and Juno, Hope Sandoval may have written about you when she sang, “It was you, breathless and tall. I could feel my eyes turning into dust. And two strangers turning into dust. Turning into dust.”

ORDER DRIVE-IN ASYLUM ISSUE 22!

Drive-In Asylum #22 is here! The newest issue is bursting with retro thrills related to your favorite horror, cult and exploitation films.

There’s are interviews with Candace Hilligoss from Carnival of Souls, underground filmmaker Jon Moritsugu (My Degeneration, Terminal USA), and Italian actor Giovanni Lombardo Radice (City of the Living Dead, Cannibal Ferox) and movie reviews like Satan’s Cheerleaders, The Last MatchThe Prowler, Zombie Lake, The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here!Hanging By a Thread and much more.Plus as usual, #22 is loaded with the vintage newsprint ads that you love

DIA #22 is 60 black and white pages (with some pages on colored paper), 5.5 x 8.5 inches in size. You can get it right here!

The Keep (1983)

Based on the novel by F. Paul Wilson* — which was the first of a seven book series called The Adversary Cycle — The Keep is the movie you find on Wikipedia when you look up troubled production. Starting with a rough thirteen week shoot that went all the way to twenty two weeks with reshoots and a supernatural creature that kept changing because director Michael Mann couldn’t decide how he wanted it to look, the fact that this movie was ever released is pretty amazing.

Making things even more challenging was the sad fact that visual effects supervisor Wally Veevers died while the film was still being made and nobody knew how he planned to finish the visual effects scenes in the movie. Mann had to finish 260 shots of special effects himself after Veever’s death.

This is a movie with so many different endings that it’s hard to keep track. The original end was close to the effects Veevers did for 2001: A Space Odyssey with a dimensional wormhole tearing through The Keep and time and space itself. Paramount refused to pay for the filming of the additional footage needed for this finale, so Mann had to compromise.

Mann’s original cut was 210-minutes long and we may never see that version of this movie. It was taken out of his hands and cut down to 96-minutes and the result was utter hackwork. Huge chunks of the story are missing, continuity is all over the place and there are obvious mistakes in the sound design, soundtrack and editing. And that’s what played in theaters!

There was a Laurie Anderson score for this — it ended up becoming her album United States Live — but this film wouldn’t be as successful as it is without the Tangerine Dream score that plays throughout.

Somehow, it took until 2020 for this to come out on DVD and that was only in Australia. It looks like this will never get a big release, but hey — we’ve been surprised before. When asked if it would ever be released in 2016, Mann said, “No. we were never able to figure out how we were to combine all these components that were shot (pre blue and green screen). That one’s going to stay in its…” before he just stopped talking.

A German unit of soldiers have occupied an uninhabited citadel n Romania in an attempt to control the Dinu Mountain Pass. Two soldiers attempt to steal a religious icon before releasing Radu Molasar, a monster that kills several soldiers as it becomes more physically real. And as the soldiers struggle to keep their ownership of The Keep, even more sadistic troops come to town, killing the local villagers.

There’s also a Jewish historian named Prof. Theodore Cuza (Ian McKellen) who the Molasar is using to escape the confines of this building, another mysterious named Glaeken Trismegestus (Scott Glenn) and yeah — just listen to the cool music and watch the pretty lights and let this movie wash over you. I mean, German soldiers and Jewish people joining together to stop a golem? Is that a good explanation? Who knows!

There’s a great cast game for whatever happens, like Gabriel Byrne, Robert Prosky, Jürgen Prochnow and Alberta Watson.

As for Mann, he left the movies behind for a while. But he did just fine, creating Miami Vice and making films like the fascinating ManhunterHeat and The Insider.

Somehow, Mayfair Games was able to take the movie and make a board game and a Dungeons & Dragons module in its RoleAids line.

No matter how disjointed or poorly editing this movie is, I keep watching it. Maybe someday, the film I get to see will be the one that Mann actually wanted audiences to see.

*Wilso disliked this movie so much that he wrote a short story called “Cuts” in which a writer puts a voodoo curse on a director who has ruined one of his books.

Medusa (2020)

In the world of myth, Medusa was a gorgeous woman who was assaulted inside the temple of Athena by Poseidon, who gained power over the goddess of wisdom through this attack. Angered, Athena punished Medusa by transforming her into a horrific creature, her radiant hair replaced by snakes. Today, feminists see the story of Medusa as one of the first cases of victim blaming. There’s also the theory that she was transformed into a beast because men have always feared female desire. 

That brings us to the movie Medusa, in which a young woman suddenly finds that a snake’s bite has begun to change her into something new, beautiful and deadly. 

The first full-length movie from director Matthew B.C. — working from a script by Scott Jeffrey — tells the story of a caravan of prostitutes facing a variety of addictions, violent customers and an existence bereft of any hope.

When a new girl named Carly — who had escaped this caravan once before, only to succumb back to the siren’s call of heroin addiciton — is taken to work there by her pimp, her first job introduces her to Alexis, who is both a snake and a woman. Once Carly is bitten, she becomes something that will change the world of all of the women. 

If you told me the premise of this movie without showing it to me — and told me the budget — I’d think it was a trifle. Yet I was pleasantly surprised by the way the narrative is in the now without clubbing you over the head with its messages. It’s a talented filmmaker who can thread the narrow divides of commerce, exploitation and message. Somehow, against the odds, this movie does that.

And hey — I’m all for movies that feature snakes growing out of a woman’s head.

Medusa is available on demand and on DVD from New Era Entertainment.

The Tomb of Ligeia (1964)

Based on Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ligeia” and adapted by Robert Towne, this is the last of the Roger Corman Poe films. Because Poe’s story was so short, Towne expanded on the themes of mesmerism and necrophilia. The result? “Literally being controlled by someone who was dead, which is gruesome notion but perfectly consistent with Poe.” said Towne to John Brady in The Craft of the Screenwriter.

In that same book, Towne confessed he thought that “…it would have been better if it had been with a man who didn’t look like a necrophiliac to begin with. I love Vincent. He’s very sweet. But, going in, you suspect that Vincent could bang cats, chickens, girls, dogs, everything. You just feel that necrophilia might be one of his Basic Things.”

Corman agreed, as he was thinking Richard Chamberlain would be perfect. Yet American-International Pictures wanted Price and Corman had to break the news to Towne.

The film starts with a casket on display with a young woman’s face visible through a window in the pine box. A black cat jumps on the coffin and takes her soul, which belonged to  Ligeia, the wife of Verden Fell (Vincent Price). He’s troubled by her death, as she refused to die and was blasphemous about God to the end of her life.

Despite his strange appearance — he must wear special glasses as he is allergic to sunlight* — he meets another woman at the grave, Rowena (Elizabeth Shepherd, The Kidnapping of the PresidentThe Omen II). They fall instantly in love and he moves her into his home which is haunted by the spirit of his wife in the form of that black cat. By the end of the film, we learn that he’s been mesmerized by his dead wife and can only love her, yet he battles the cat that has her soul until her tomb burns around them.

As for his new wife, well, she goes back to the man she left at the start of the movie and has a happy future, which is pretty sad for poor Vincent Price.

*Poe invented being goth.

Tales of Terror (1962)

The fourth of Roger Corman’s Poe films — which includes House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Premature Burial, The RavenThe Haunted PalaceThe Masque of the Red Death and The Tomb of Ligeia — Tales of Terror was released on a double bill with Panic in the Year Zero!

Each of the three stories is narrated by Vincent Price, who also appears in all three parts of this anthology.

In “Morella,” Poe’s story forms the basics of the story but this take on the story is near-apocalyptic. Lenora Locke has come to visit her father (Price), who refuses her company as he believes that she killed her mother Morella in childbirth. That’s when the daughter discovers that her mother is rotten in her father’s ancient home, father learns that the daughter is dying and the mother comes back for everyone.

“The Black Cat” has Montresor Herringbone (Peter Lorre) discovering that his wife Annebelle is cuckolding him with the world’s foremost wine taster, Fortunato Luchresi (Vincent Price). So he does what any of us would: entomb them inside a wall along with his wife’s black cat. Obviously, this story also has elements of another Poe story, The Cask of Amontillado. If you enjoyed this story, it was also filmed by Lucio Fulci as The Black Cat and Dario Argento within the Poe double feature Two Evil Eyes.

In the last story, “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” finds hypnotist Mr. Carmichael (Basil Rathbone) helping to stop the suffering of the dying M. Valdemar (Vincent Price). However, Carmichael places him in a trance between life and death, taking control of his entire life and even trying to take his wife. This story features Price’s face literally melting away, which is really horrifying for a 1962 movie.

Roger Corman and Richard Matheson were really working together quite well here. I’m a sucker for a good anthology and these stories move quick and pack a punch.