Craig J. Clark Watches a Lot of Movies
Thursday, October 1, 2009
I wouldn't be your teacher for all the coal in Barnsley.
For his follow-up to 1967's Poor Cow, Ken Loach chose Barry Hines's novel A Kestrel For A Knave, which he adapted for the screen with Hines and producer Tony Garnett in 1970. In the process they shortened the title to Kes, which is the name schoolboy David Bradley gives to the falcon that he finds and trains, and which is his only source of joy in the depressing coal-mining town where he lives. (Of course, using "depressing" and "coal-mining town" in the same sentence is probably redundant.) Abandoned by his father, barely looked after by his mother (Lynne Perrie), bullied at school and by his older brother (Freddie Fletcher, who works down the mine), traumatized by his sadistic football coach (Brian Glover), and disciplined by his headmaster when he's caught daydreaming (which he does often), Bradley is introverted and defensive at all times except when he's with Kes (or, in one memorable scene, telling his rapt English class a story about his relationship with the bird). At the close of the film he's looking to leave school and start work, but his prospects are few and his future looks bleak. Too bad falconry isn't really a marketable skill...
Don't be a nuisance. We don't need that.
Speaking of not having marketable skills, the protagonist in Kelly Reichardt's 2008 film Wendy and Lucy is so desperate for work that she's willing to drive to Alaska just because she hears "they need people." She also must think they need dogs because she's brought hers along for the trip. When we first meet Wendy (Michelle Williams), she's made it as far as Portland, Oregon, having set out from Indiana in her beat-up Honda Accord, which she and her dog Lucy (who previously appeared in Reichardt's Old Joy) live out of. She has little money, so when her car won't start one morning she's caught in a real bind, especially since the repair shop across the street doesn't show any signs of opening anytime soon.
To top things off she's out of dog food, so Williams heads to a nearby supermarket and gets caught shoplifting while Lucy is tied up out front. (Maybe if she wasn't staring down an unforeseen car repair bill she would have just paid for the few cans she picked up.) Thanks to the store's unforgiving theft policy, Williams is arrested and while she's in custody Lucy is taken away. When Williams makes it to the pound the next day she is confronted by a forlorn lineup of strays but no sign of Lucy, so she turns looking for her dog into something a full-time job. It's one that will consume her until she's able to continue on her way.
Like Old Joy, this film was written by Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond, based on a story by Raymond. It also features Old Joy's Will Oldham as the pricelessly named Icky, who gives Williams some advice about where to look for work up north (as well as permission to drop his name with the right people). Other supporting players include Walter Dalton as a Walgreens security guard who is easily the kindest representative of authority she encounters during her ordeal, Elephant's John Robinson as his exact opposite, Will Patton as the mechanic she goes to (and who doesn't have good news for her), and Larry Fessenden as the crazy guy who disturbs her sleep the night she tries roughing it in the woods. (With her car in the shop, she doesn't have much choice in the matter.)
So far Reichardt is two for two in my book. I look forward to seeing whether she can pull off the hat trick. (I also hope I get the chance to see her next movie in a theater.)
Friday, October 2, 2009
Don't you wish you could change things?
I would be lying if I said I didn't go into the new Ricky Gervais comedy The Invention of Lying with certain expectations. Unlike last year's Ghost Town, which gave him his first leading role in a motion picture (and which I declined to see), this was a project that he initiated and one that saw him going behind the camera for the first time since the series finale of Extras. Happily, I can report that the film is extremely funny and has a degree of wit and sophistication that most modern comedies don't seem to even attempt anymore.
Co-written and directed with Matthew Robinson (subbing for Stephen Merchant), the film finds Gervais playing a sad sack on an alternate Earth where everyone tells the truth at all times because they're incapable of doing otherwise. Since there's no such thing as fiction, the movie industry is dominated by a studio called Lecture Films, where Gervais toils as an struggling screenwriter shackled to the 14th century, which isn't exactly known for its uplifting stories. (As boss Jeffrey Tambor tells him when he finally works up the nerve to fire Gervais, nobody wants to see a film about the Black Death.) Gervais also has to contend with a receptionist (Tina Fey) who despises him and a smugly superior rival (Rob Lowe) who tells him to his face how much he's been bad-mouthing him behind his back. Even when he manages to score a date with a beautiful woman (Jennifer Garner), he knows he's hopelessly out of his league, especially since she's obsessed with finding a genetic match and pug-nosed, overweight Gervais doesn't exactly measure up.
Things turn around for Gervais, though, when at his lowest ebb a switch is pulled in his brain and he's suddenly able to fib, which gives him a leg up over everybody else in the world. He's also able to improve not only his own lot in life (by using the power of his imagination to actually make up fantastic stories), but also those of his suicidal neighbor (Jonah Hill) and perpetually drunk best friend (Louis C.K.), and as a way of comforting his dying mother (Fionnula Flanagan) invents heaven pretty much on the spot, which puts him on the spot when others want him to expand upon this novel "life after death" he just made up. Soon enough Gervais is telling his eager listeners about the Man in the Sky who makes everything happen (the good and the bad) and the rules by which he governs the world. For all that, though, he's still not able to make Garner think of him as anything more than a friend, but that's largely because his overriding sense of ethics prevents him from manipulating her.
Chock full of sight gags (a nursing home is bluntly called "A Sad Place for Hopeless Old People," a church is "A Quiet Place to Think About the Man in the Sky") and wish-fulfillment fantasies (one of Gervais's first acts is to clean up at the casino), the film also features a host of cameos from the likes of Martin Starr (as a waiter), Christopher Guest (as Lecture Films' most distinguished reader), Philip Seymour Hoffman (as a bartender), Edward Norton (as a motorcycle cop), Jason Bateman (as an insensitive doctor), Nathan Corddry (as a news reporter) and John Hodgman (as a wedding overseer). And in a nod to Extras fans, Shaun Williamson and Stephen Merchant reprise their hilarious double act, playing Gervais's felonious father and one of his would-be victims, respectively. The main thing I took away from the film, though, was Gervais's innate decency and his burgeoning sense of responsibility when he realizes his every utterance can have real-world consequences. Even if I can't effect change in my own life by sheer force of will, that's not a bad example to follow.
Saturday, October 3, 2009
Those maniacs out there will eat anything that don't eat them first.
This morning's TCM Underground movie was 1955's Shack Out on 101, a film I wanted to see the first time they aired it back in March but accidentally taped over it. Lucky for me, TCM occasionally recycles its Underground titles, so I got a second crack at it last night.
Written by director Edward Dein (who went on to make MST3K favorite The Leech Woman five years later) and Mildred Dein, the film is set in and around a greasy spoon owned by cantankerous war vet Keenan Wynn, who has the jones for sultry waitress Terry Moore and has his hands full with uppity cook Lee Marvin. Wynn might be looking for new help soon since Moore is studying for a civil service exam, largely at the behest of her nuclear physicist boyfriend Frank Lovejoy, who shares an interest in sea shells with Marvin that turns out to be a front for smuggling nuclear secrets to the enemy. (This being the height of the Cold War, no one needs to come out and say who that enemy is.) The other major player is Wynn's war buddy Whit Bissell, a traveling salesman with a phobia of blood and violence that just has to come into play at the climax of the film.
As B movies go, Shack Out of 101 has a lot going for it. In a lot of ways it would play well on a triple bill sandwiched between Samuel Fuller's Pickup on South Street and Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly. Even so, neither of those films have a scene as bizarre as the one where Wynn and Bissell stomp around wearing the flippers and masks they plan on using when they go on their long-talked-about skin diving vacation. And the one where Wynn and Marvin pump iron before opening in the morning and then compare pectorals and leg muscles is a real humdinger. The film even manages to avoid being too rah-rah patriotic, which is no small feat considering the climate in which it was made. One only need take a look at a movie like 1952's Invasion USA (another one that got the MST3K treatment) to see how it could have easily gone the other way.
I never met a man like you before.
Since my library is divesting itself of its VHS collection, I figured it would be a good idea to check out a title or two while I'm still able. Today I went with Anthony Mann's 1958 western Man of the West, which wouldn't have been on my radar if it hadn't been included in Danny Peary's first book of Cult Movies. Directed by Mann from a screenplay by Reginald Rose (whose previous screenwriting effort was the Oscar-nominated 12 Angry Men, based on his own teleplay), the film starred Gary Cooper as the title character, a stranger who buys a ticket to Fort Worth so he can hire a schoolteacher and winds up on the same train as saloon singer Julie London and chatterbox Arthur O'Connell. There are rumblings that he may have once been in trouble with the law, but he has more immediate problems when the train is robbed and he, London and O'Connell get left behind.
In search of shelter, the unlikely trio winds up at the hideout of Cooper's outlaw uncle (Lee J. Cobb), with whom Cooper used to ride and whose current gang includes mute gunman Royal Dano and violent psychopath Jack Lord. Cobb is thrilled to have Cooper back despite his long absence (long enough for him to settle down and start a family) and even includes him in the gang's latest plan to rob the bank in a prosperous mining town. The others are less welcoming, especially Lord, who makes London do a degrading striptease while he holds Cooper at knife-point. They settle up later on, though, during a knock-down, drag-out fight that ends in Lord's utter humiliation. From that point on it's only a matter of time before Cooper is able to turn the tables on the others, but they don't make it easy for him to prevail.
People on long journeys become bored, madam. They crave excitement.
For my first horror film of the month, I went with 1972's very appropriately titled Horror Express, which is one of the few "Chilling Classics" with a decent pedigree thanks to the presence of horror icons Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Directed by Eugenio Martín (credited as Gene Martin), the film was shot in Spain but set aboard the Trans-Siberian Express, which anthropologist Lee is using to transport a crate containing a fossilized ape-like creature that he found in Manchuria. As the story takes place in 1906, Lee hopes his discovery will be able to prove the theory of evolution and so jealously guards it, even from the eyes of fellow Briton Cushing, a doctor much in demand during the journey once people start dropping like flies. In fact, one of the first victims is baggage man Víctor Israel, who previously played the creepy innkeeper in The Witches Mountain.
The more we get to see of the creature, the stranger it becomes. Not only does it have glowing red eyes, but it can also pick locks and once out of its crate it has the run of the train, much to the annoyance of police inspector Julio Peña. It also raises the hackles of Rasputin-like monk Alberto de Mendoza, who attends to the spiritual needs of Polish countess Silvia Tortosa. And the story isn't over when the creature is cornered and killed because its dying act is to telepathically take over the body of Peña, who also somehow gains an ape-like hand which he has to keep in his pocket at all times. Soon enough Lee and Cushing are trading fantastic theories about memory transference and using a microscope to look at images preserved in the dead creature's corneal fluid, which would come off as a lot hokier than it does if they didn't discuss it with such conviction.
Throughout the film the director is more show-offy than he needs to be. In fact, he loves making the image go in and out of focus, especially during the creature's attacks. And once it takes over Peña's body, he has a great fondness for turning out the lights so he can show off the special effects department's incredibly fake-looking head with the red glowing eyes. Then, just as things start getting bogged down, Telly Savalas enters the picture as the "one honest Cossack" who believes he can get to the bottom of things. Whether he actually does or not is beside the point.
Sunday, October 4, 2009
I'd say it was highly unusual -- a man being attacked by a werewolf in a London park.
Having cured their go-to werewolf Lawrence Talbot of his lycanthropy in House of Dracula, Universal reached back into the past to turn-of-the-century England for 1946's She-Wolf of London. Directed by Jean Yarbrough, the film seems at first to be a throwback to 1935's Werewolf of London, but in fact what it most resembles is Fox's The Undying Monster what with all the talk of family curses and attacks on the Scottish moors (which are never actually visited, just described). In this case it's the Allenby Curse which has lone heiress June Lockhart (yes, that June Lockhart) worried that she's been creeping into the park near her estate, turning into a she-wolf and savaging random strangers.
As the film opens Lockhart's all set to marry Shakespeare-quoting barrister Don Porter, but after waking up one morning with mud on her slippers and blood on her hands she grows distraught and refuses to see him anymore. Her decision is bolstered by family caretaker Sara Haden, who would much rather see her own daughter (Jan Wiley) marry somebody upwardly mobile like Porter than the penniless artist she's in love with. Meanwhile, suspicious housekeeper Eily Malyon (who also appeared in The Undying Monster) is watching everybody like a hawk but seems to keep missing the mysterious figure that keeps coming and going at all hours of the night.
It wouldn't be a Universal horror film without some unsuccessful comic relief, and this film puts most of it in the mouth of Scotland Yard detective Lloyd Corrigan, who puts more stock in the newspapers' werewolf theories than his superior (Dennis Hoey) approves of. And speaking of putting words in people's mouths, this film was written by George Bricker, who subsequently worked on the screenplay for the Rondo Hatton vehicle The Brute Man (which was also directed by Jean Yarbrough and showed up many decades later on MST3K). I realize that doesn't have much to do with She-Wolf of London, but at least I find it interesting (which is more than I can say for the film itself). Quite possibly the shortest film in all of Universal's Legacy Collections (it just barely tops 61 minutes), it's also one of the most forgettable. I guess it's somewhat appropriate that The Wolf Man: Legacy Collection has at least one dog in it.
Monday, October 5, 2009
When the moon is full, don't make any important appointments. You will be busy.
To make up for She-Wolf of London being such a laughable werewolf film, I have decided to spend this week watching some '80s wolf-man flicks that were actually meant to be funny. First up was 1981's Full Moon High, which was written, produced and directed by perpetual triple threat Larry Cohen, whose approach to comedy is unfortunately scattershot at best. The film opens in 1959, when high school football star Adam Arkin accompanies his super-patriotic father (Ed McMahon!) on a super-secret mission to communist Romania. While McMahon is busy scoring some microfilm for the C.I.A., Arkin is attacked by the cheesiest werewolf imaginable and is amazed when he turns out not to have a scratch on him. ("By all rights you should be a dead man," he tells himself, "or at least have rabies.")
Upon their return home, Arkin takes to attacking young women but doesn't kill them. Rather, he just nips them in the butt, inspiring the local paper to run the understated headline "Werewolf Annoys Community." All of his extracurricular activities cause Arkin's grades to suffer, though, and after transforming in front of McMahon (who draws the line at growling in his house) and chasing him into his bomb shelter (where the old man accidentally shoots himself), Arkin leaves town before the big game, which the school loses in his absence. The film then leaps forward 21 years (with the passage of time marked by the changing of presidential portraits and a series of newspaper headlines detailing Arkin's global perambulations) at which point he returns home and, posing as his own son, hopes to fulfill his destiny.
Chock full of non sequiturs, one-liners and running gags (such as the pesky gypsy violinist who seems to follow Arkin everywhere), Full Moon High also comes equipped with a mostly unknown supporting cast that is augmented by Kenneth Mars (as the grab-ass football coach-turned-principal), Jim J. Bullock (as Arkin's old flame's flaming son), Bob Saget (as a sarcastic sportscaster), Pat Morita (as a silversmith), and Alan Arkin (a.k.a. Adam's father) as a famous abnormal psychologist who specializes in insult therapy. In the end the film is a little too chaotic for its own good (some of the editing is noticeably choppy), but at least it's well-photographed by Daniel Pearl (best known for shooting The Texas Chain Saw Massacre as well as a slew of music videos). Little surprise, then, that Cohen hired him to shoot It's Alive III: Island of the Alive and A Return to Salem's Lot back-to-back in 1987.
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
With certain obvious exceptions, werewolves are people just like anybody else.
I've often wondered whether the makers of Teen Wolf ever looked at Full Moon High and said, "Hey, we could make a movie like that, only not so schticky." In fact, Teen Wolf's Scott Howard (played by Michael J. Fox, as if I needed to tell you that) is one of cinema's most nonthreatening werewolves, so much so that the movie spawned a Saturday morning cartoon, which is more than can be said for most of his hairy brethren. Directed by Rod Daniel -- who came out of television and, after an undistinguished run of features ranging from Like Father Like Son and K-9 to The Super and Beethoven's 2nd, returned to it -- the movie was such a staple of cable television that I doubt I actually have to recount the plot, but for the half dozen of you who have managed to miss it, here it is in broad strokes:
Scott Howard is an unremarkable small-town youth who plays for his high school's lousy basketball team, hangs out with his slacker friend Stiles (Jerry Levine), is mooned over by his best friend Boof (Susan Ursitti), and works part-time at his father's (James Hampton) hardware store. Then he starts noticing some things -- extra hair on his chest and hands, heightened senses of smell and hearing, pointy ears -- that aren't the sorts of changes that they talk about in health class. As anybody who's read the title of the movie can tell you, he's turning into a teen wolf, but this is still something of a shocker to Scott -- one which is compounded when he undergoes a full transformation on the night of the full moon and discovers that his father, too, is a werewolf (just not of the teen variety).
This being a comedy as opposed to a straight-up horror film (or even a send-up like Full Moon High), being a werewolf turns out to be a pretty sweet deal for Scott, especially once he demonstrates his prowess on the basketball court. All of a sudden the hot blonde he has the hots for(Lorie Griffin) is giving him the time of day, the drama teacher (Scott Paulin) is writing a part into the school play just for him, and his coach (the hysterically funny Jay Tarses) has a winning team on his hands. His only problems are the vice principal (Jim McKrell) who's gunning for him for some unknown reason, a sporting and romantic rival (Mark Arnold) who knows how to push his buttons, and his teammates (including Mark Holton from Pee-Wee's Big Adventure) who grow to resent his ball-hogging antics. Will Scott learn to control the wolf within in time to help his school win the state championship? Do I even need to answer that?
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
The face of the beast always becomes known, and the time of the beast always passes.
After 1981, the other big year for werewolf movies in the '80s was 1985 since it saw the release of Teen Wolf, the abominable Howling II (which I have never seen out of principle) and Silver Bullet (which I had never seen before tonight). Now, unlike the other films I'm watching this week, Silver Bullet isn't strictly speaking a horror comedy, but it's a creature feature that opens with the legend "Dino De Laurentiis Presents," which all but guarantees that there will be plenty of unintentional laughs before the closing credits roll.
Directed by Daniel Attias, who made only one feature before jumping to the small screen, Silver Bullet was written by Stephen King and based on his own novelette Cycle of the Werewolf, which covered a whole year of werewolf attacks in a small town. For the film version, though, he compressed the timeline to just a few months (from late spring to Halloween night) and did away with the conceit of having each attack fall on a different holiday (which was patently unrealistic, but King would be the first to cop to that). And the film wastes no time getting to the first laugh-inducing moment, which comes 3:27 inwhen a drunken railroad worker's head rolls in a hysterically funny fashion. The requisite opening jump-scare thus taken care of, King then gets down to the business of introducing his characters.
Top-billed is Gary Busey, who plays the frequently drunk and unrepentantly vulgar uncle of crippled pre-teen Corey Haim and his resentful older sister Megan Follows (who intrusively narrates the film, which takes place in 1976, from the present day). In a fantastical touch that must have seemed like a good idea on paper, Haim is equipped with a gasoline-powered motorized wheelchair called the Silver Bullet, which Busey upgrades to a zippier model about halfway through the film -- all the better to outrun the marauding werewolf in their midst. Since he's the "cool uncle," Busey is the one adult Haim is able to confide in after he has a run-in with the hairy beast, although Busey is understandably skeptical until the moment when he's face to face with it himself. The film also features Everett McGill as the local reverend who quickly runs out of words of comfort as the bodies start piling up, Terry O'Quinn as the harried sheriff trying to get to the bottom of things, Bill Smitrovich as a loudmouthed troublemaker, and Lawrence Tierney as a bartender with a baseball bat called "The Peace Maker" (which gets commandeered by the werewolf in one of the few moments where the filmmakers deliberately set out to get a laugh and succeed).
Of course, the real star of a werewolf movie should be its werewolf and the one in this film -- which was created by Oscar winner Carlo Rambaldi -- is a pretty sad specimen indeed. It's not a good sign that the second big laugh in the film comes when the werewolf reaches into the frame (12:02 in) and its hand looks more like it belongs to a hairy ape. Other unintentionally comic moments are the greenhouse grab (24:50), the posse of werewolf hunters that is suddenly revealed to be in waist-deep fog (40:15), the multiple-casket funeral service (41:56), the confusion ("Is that a bear? Oh, wait. I think that's supposed to be the werewolf.") when the creature is seen reflected in the water (54:19), the shot that I like to call "Reverend Five O'clock Shadow" (1:08:00), and -- last but not least -- the werewolf's Kool Aid Man entrance at the climax (1:28:36). (Frankly, I'm surprised they didn't have it growl out an "Oh, yeah!") Maybe I would be more forgiving if I had seen it when it first came out, but coming to it now I'm afraid I can only shake my head in unabashed amusement.
Thursday, October 8, 2009
If this is some kind of joke, you'll notice I'm not laughing.
When the time came to make a sequel to Teen Wolf, Michael J. Fox was far too big a star to want to don the hair, fangs and claws a second time, so it was left up to his sitcom sister's real-life brother Jason Bateman to take on the role of his college-bound cousin for 1987's Teen Wolf Too. Of course, his casting may have also had something to do with the fact that the film was produced by Jason's father Kent Bateman, who in all honesty should have held out for a better vehicle for his talented son's feature debut. I'm not saying Teen Wolf is an unassailable classic, but on the list of unnecessary sequels Teen Wolf Too has to rank somewhere near the bottom.
Written by Tim Kring, who went on to create the shows Crossing Jordan and Heroes, and directed by Christopher Leitch (who has also gone to a long career in television), the film lands Bateman's Todd Howard -- who believes the werewolf gene has skipped his generation -- at a second-tier college where he wants to study science to become a vet, but the imposing Dean of Men (John Astin) would rather he concentrate on boxing since he's there on a sports scholarship. This is due to the machinations of the new Coach Finstock (Paul Sand), who has graduated from high school basketball to college boxing, but had to change actors in the process. Another casting change is the enterprising Stiles (played by Stuart Fratkin), who fixes it so he's rooming with Todd and also corners the market on Teen Wolf merchandise once his lupine genes win out. At least the filmmakers managed to get James Hampton (as Uncle Harold) and Mark Holton (as Chubby) to reprise their roles, which is something, I guess.
Anyway, the story follows the Teen Wolf template almost to the letter (there's even a direct callback to the first film in the scene where Todd's eyes go red and he uses a deep voice to intimidate an unbending registrar into changing his classes), even to the point of giving Todd a nerdy, Karen Allen-ish biology lab partner (Estee Chandler) who's hopelessly hung up on him. And like in the first film, Todd doesn't know quite how to handle his new-found popularity after he becomes the wolf during his first boxing match and cleans his opponent's clock. The post-fight celebration is something else entirely, though, with Todd singing "Do You Love Me?" and leading an embarrassing dance number. And Michael J. Fox's Teen Wolf would have never consented to catching a Frisbee in the air, which is beyond degrading.
Another thing that bothers me about the film is the choice of boxing for the sport Todd goes out for. There's a reason why there aren't more boxing comedies and that's because it's kind of a brutal sport to make jokes about. This is amply illustrated by the training/fighting montage (set to Oingo Boingo's "Who Do You Want to Be") as well as Todd's climactic bout with the macho rival who's had it in for him since the day he arrived at school. The inclusion of Oingo Boingo on the soundtrack (another scene where Todd shows off his reckless driving skills is set to "Outrageous") also brings to mind 1986's Back to School, especially during the study montage when Todd decides to make up his biology final instead of coasting on his pugilistic prowess. He finishes that up just in time for the regional boxing finals (which are held on the same day, of course) and the film works up a modicum of suspense over whether he'll wolf out like Astin and coach Sand expect him to or follow the advice of his uncle and biology professor (Kim Darby, who's barely in the picture despite getting second billing) and be himself. This is where the difference between basketball and boxing is most pronounced. It's one thing to be on the receiving end of the occasional personal foul, but getting beat to a pulp and then refusing to transform just makes Todd look like a masochist.
This is capitalism -- a system of taking and giving. Mostly taking.
Took a break from the humorous werewolves to check out Capitalism: A Love Story, Michael Moore's latest salvo against the corporate culture that continues to widen the gap between the haves and have-nots in this country. Harking back to his first film Roger & Me (which was released 20 years ago this December), Capitalism traces the roots of the current economic crisis, focusing on the financial institutions that benefited the most from last year's bailout and enumerating the risky lending practices (home equity loans, sub-prime loans, mortgage fraud) that led to it.
Opening with excerpts from an educational film entitled Life in Ancient Rome, it's pretty clear what connection Moore is trying to make even before he starts splicing in shots of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, American Idol and so on. Then he cuts to home video footage of families being evicted from their homes after they've been foreclosed on (sadly, a running theme in Moore's films) and an interview with the owner of a company called Condo Vultures, a venture that is pretty self-explanatory. Less self-evident is the concept of free enterprise, which is defined by actor/playwright Wallace Shawn, who makes a lot more sense than the bankers and economists who try to explain how derivatives work later on. Moore also investigates the injustices that occurred when a Pennsylvania town started using a private juvenile detention center and the life insurance policies that some big businesses have taken out on their own employees.
It's not all bad news, though. Moore also goes inside an employee-owned company that is run democratically (and still turns a profit) and covers the story of a factory where the employees refused to leave until the company, which announced that it was closing with just three day's notice, gave them a proper severance package. All this plus a visit to GM headquarters (where he's still not allowed in the building), newsreel footage of Franklin D. Roosevelt outlining what he called the Second Bill of Rights (which to this day has not been passed in this country) and ironic archival film and television clips galore. It's a lot to process and isn't as focused as it could have been (plus, a couple of Moore's stunts are just plain dumb), but as long as corporations continue to think they can get away with murder, I'm glad someone is out there calling them on their bullshit.
Friday, October 9, 2009
I was a kid once. I thought monsters were cool.
If Full Moon High and Teen Wolf tipped more toward the comedy end of the horror/comedy spectrum, then The Monster Squad made up the difference by not skimping on the horrific aspects of its story. Of course, instead of being centered around a sympathetic (and occasionally just plan pathetic) werewolf, it had the advantage of having five kinds of monsters to work with, led by a ruthless Count Dracula (Duncan Regehr) bent on world domination. Written by Shane Black and Fred Dekker -- whose previous genre effort was 1986's Night of the Creeps and who went on to co-write (with Frank Miller) and direct Robocop 3 -- The Monster Squad follows the titular quintet of grade-school Van Helsings as they take on not only Dracula, but also Frankenstein's Monster, Wolfman, the Mummy and the Gill-Man in a bid to restore the balance of power.
A real treat for horror movie fans, this film gave special effects wizard Stan Winston the opportunity to have a go at all of Universal's iconic monsters. He does an especially good job on Frankenstein's Monster (who's played quite effectively by Tom Noonan), although I'm less impressed with his Wolfman since the poor guy's completely unable to turn his head and his face is pretty immobile. And then, of course, there's the Scary German Guy (played by veteran character actor Leonardo Cimino), who turns out not to be so scary after all. So I guess the moral of the story is don't be afraid of the German guy who lives down the road because he just might be able to help you banish the bad guys to limbo where they belong. Also, Wolfman's totally got nards.
Saturday, October 10, 2009
You must leave this house now. It is not a healthy place for you to be.
Kicked Edgar Allan Poe's bicentennial celebration back into gear with 1960's House of Usher, the first of Roger Corman's seven Poe adaptations for AIP. The film also represents Corman's first collaborations with screenwriter Richard Matheson and star Vincent Price, who would become a fixture of the AIPoe cycle as well as a few other films Corman made during the same period. Price plays Roderick Usher, a sinister, white-haired recluse who believes his family line is doomed and tries to stonewall Bostonian Mark Damon when he arrives at the titular residence and announces his plan to take Usher's sister Madeline (Myrna Fahey) away with him. The only other living character in play is Usher's faithful servant Harry Ellerbe, but in a lot of ways the most important character is the house itself, which shudders from time to time and appears to be ready to collapse at any moment. No matter how annoyed he gets at Price's insistence that he leave, Damon can't deny that his life is in danger as long as he stays.
Corman may have been known for his ability to churn out movies quick and on the cheap, but this film and the others in the series show what he was capable of given a little more time and money. It also benefits greatly from having been shot in CinemaScope (which cinematographer Floyd Crosby uses to enhance the atmosphere) and Daniel Haller's sumptuous production design really stands out thanks to the decision to spring for Technicolor. It's no surprise that the National Film Preservation Board chose to add House of Usher to the National Film Registry in 2005. It's definitely one that has stood the test of time and laid the groundwork for more compelling films to come.
We do indulge in our little pleasures here.
For my second Poe film of the day I went with the "Chilling Classic" Dr. Tarr's Torture Dungeon, which is also known as (among other things) The Mansion of Madness. As one might expect from the title, the 1973 film is based on Poe's story "The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether," which was quite liberally co-adapted to the screen by director Juan López Moctezuma. Shot in Mexico, but set (like the story) in the south of France, the film stars Buñuel regular Claudio Brook as the permissive sanatorium director whose facility is visited by humorless journalism Arthur Hansel, who never seems to work up much of an emotional response no matter what's going on around him. (This despite the revelation that his father died in an asylum years before.)
Accompanying Hansel to the sanatorium is local landowner Martin LaSalle, who has to leave Hansel at the gate when his niece becomes ill. While Hansel is being shown around by Brook, who explains his "soothing system" and introduces him to patients like Mr. Chicken and all the women who apparently prefer to go around topless, LaSalle's coach is ambushed by Brook's guards, his niece is ravaged by one of them, and he is held captive. (To give some idea of the tone Moctezuma is going for, when LaSalle manages to escape from his captors he is mocked by the Sesame Street-style music on the soundtrack.) Meanwhile, Hansel finds much to dislike about Brook's methods at the same time he becomes infatuated with Brook's "niece" Ellen Sherman, who turns out to be the daughter of the real asylum director, who was locked up by the inmates some months before. Eventually Hansel helps restore the status quo, but not before they put on a big tar-and-feather-themed dance number for him. Somehow I doubt that was in the original Poe...
Sunday, October 11, 2009
I've got one that can see.
All this month Curiodrome -- a second-hand store in town with a tiny screening room in back -- is having a film series they're calling the 31 Nights of Halloween. (Sound familiar, Geoff?) So far I've attended two of their screenings (for the 1963 version of The Haunting and John Carpenter's remake of The Thing), but didn't feel the pressing need to write about them. (The Haunting is such an undisputed classic that it doesn't need me to blather about its virtues, and I'm saving The Thing for a John Carpenter/Kurt Russell Portraits of Badassery series that I have planned for the near future.) I changed my tune, though, when I found out tonight's selection was going to be Carpenter's 1988 cult fave They Live, a film I've been meaning to revisit ever since it was added to the Onion AV Club's New Cult Canon last spring. Curiodrome just gave me the perfect excuse to do so -- and to see it with an (admittedly small) audience for the first time.
Written by Carpenter (using the pseudonym Frank Armitage), the film follows nameless drifter Roddy Piper as he stumbles upon a vast conspiracy being perpetrated by a race of aliens who have disguised themselves as affluent members of society. And the key to discovering their secret? Why, it's a pair of sunglasses that allows the wearer to see the aliens as they really are, as well as all of the subliminal messages they've planted in everything that we look at on a daily basis. Newspapers, billboards, street signs, magazines, food products -- you name it, it's hiding some command designed to keep us complacent. That even extends to paper money, which contains the hidden message "THIS IS YOUR GOD." Kind of explains a lot, doesn't it?
At first Piper goes on a one-man offensive against the hideous beings only he can see (during which he utters the immortal line "I have come to kick ass and chew bubblegum, and I'm all out of bubblegum."), but eventually he joins forces with construction worker Keith David (who takes a certain amount of convincing before he puts the sunglasses on) and cable station programmer Meg Foster (who at first doesn't realize how complicit she is in disseminating the aliens' message). The film also features Carpenter regulars Peter Jason (as a resistance leader) and George 'Buck' Flower (as a bum who undergoes a radical transformation at the aliens' hands) in key supporting roles.
I don't believe anybody would seriously claim that They Live is a perfect film, but it's quite a fun ride while it lasts. And even though it starts out a little slow, it picks up considerably once Piper gets his first look behind the veil and starts fighting back. Then there's the matter of the knock-down, drag-out fight between Piper and David, which takes up a full six minutes of screen time and is the sort of thing that will either have you in stitches or reaching for the fast-forward button. Either way, make sure you stick around for the conclusion, because if you think the aliens are ugly mothers in black and white, wait until you see them in garish color. It's a sight that would wake up just about anybody.
Monday, October 12, 2009
Evolution does not necessarily reward intelligence.
It wasn't hard to miss Mike Judge's Idiocracy in theaters in 2006 since it was only released in a handful of cities and received no marketing push whatsoever. (Way to go, Twentieth Century-Fox!) An entertaining and eerily plausible satire set 500 years in the future, the film was written by Judge and Etan Cohen (not to be confused with Ethan Coen) and stars Luke Wilson as an unambitious Army librarian picked to be the guinea pig in a top secret Pentagon Human Hibernation Project because he's the most average soldier they can find. The problem is, like Woody Allen in Sleeper, he winds up getting frozen for much longer than he was expecting and wakes up in a future populated by morons who watch shows like Oh, My Balls! (on The Violence Channel) and movies like Ass (which is nothing but 90 minutes of a man's naked butt on the screen, yet it still manages to amuse the masses) and read magazines like Hot Naked Chicks & World Report. And you can probably guess what the Fuddruckers of the future is called.
Judge gets a lot of comic mileage out of simply showing how messed up his dystopian future is (one of my favorite sight gags is the digital clock tower that is flashing "12:00," although the Costco that is the size of a major city runs it a close second), but he also has to put Wilson through the paces of a slightly mundane story which sees him running afoul of the judicial system (represented by submoronic lawyer Dax Shepard and showboating judge Stephen Root) before being appointed to the cabinet of populist president (and former professional wrestler) Terry Crews when an IQ test shows that he's the most intelligent person on the planet. Even so, he never quite figures out that the woman who was cryogenically frozen alongside him (Maya Rudolph) was actually a prostitute in their time, but he is able to suss out why all the crops are failing (one of many major problems he's expected to fix as Secretary of the Interior). The film also features funny cameos by Justin Long as a doctor who acts like he's been dipping into the medical marijuana and Thomas Haden Church as the CEO of energy drink company Brawndo, which has replaced water in drinking fountains and irrigation systems by sheer force of its aggressive marketing. Naturally this turns out to be the root of a lot of their problems, but not all, of course. There's also the small matter of the periodic landfill avalanches, not to mention the ecomony. No wonder Wilson just wants to hop in a time machine and go back home. That proves to be much easier said than done, though.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
My grandfather's work was doo-doo!
Tonight's movie at Curiodrome was the 1974 classic Young Frankenstein, which stands as one of Mel Brooks's best films as well as one of the most handsomely mounted comedies ever made. Everything about it speaks to Brooks's total assurance behind the camera (his insistence on shooting in black and white to approximate the look of the Universal horror films of the '30s and '40s paid enormous dividends) and his ability to get hysterically funny performances out of the actors in front of it. Of course, it probably helped that star Gene Wilder also co-wrote the screenplay (his first) and thus was able to channel his participation in the creative process into his performance as a scientist engaged in the creation of life. And if that seems a little highfalutin for a Mel Brooks movie, well, don't forget there's also jokes aplenty about knockers and schwanzstuckers.
Taking major inspiration from 1939's Son of Frankenstein (as well as the original Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein), the film surrounds Wilder with terrific comedic foils like Madeline Khan (as his fussy fiancée), Marty Feldman (as an ingratiating Igor), Teri Garr (as the bearer of the aforementioned knockers), Cloris Leachman (as the horse-distressing Frau Blüaut;cher), Peter Boyle (as the Monster) and Kenneth Mars (whose one-armed police inspector character was lifted wholesale out of the 1939 film). This is, of course, not the leave out Gene Hackman's tour-de-force as the blind hermit who takes the Monster in and in a matter of minutes nearly kills him with kindness. (His parting line -- "I was going to make espresso." -- has long been a favorite of mine.) Whenever anybody makes a horror comedy, this is the standard by which they are judged. Little surprise, then, that few manage to measure up. (Even Wilder's own Haunted Honeymoon, which came along 12 years later, was a bit of a washout. Wait, strike that; it was a total washout. Some might also say the same thing of Brooks's Dracula: Dead and Loving It, but I'm still glad that was his swansong and not Robin Hood: Men in Tights.)
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
She says the monster came out of the sewer and ate her grandfather.
For tonight's horrific entertainment I went with the acronym-happy C.H.U.D., which I bought on DVD a few months back because I had a Borders coupon that allowed me to get it for $5. I figured I could either spend $3 to rent it from Plan 9 or chuck in a further $2 and add it to my personal collection. (The promise of a lively commentary track featuring director Douglas Cheek and all three leading actors also sweetened the deal.)
For those not in the know, C.H.U.D. stands for Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers, although I suspect most people of a certain age will know that even if they haven't seen the movie. Released in 1984, it's somewhat akin to Larry Cohen's films of the period like Q: The Winged Serpent or The Stuff which featured off-center characters investigating strange occurrences with a dollop of social commentary thrown in for good measure. In this case, there have been a number of missing persons reports in the run-down neighborhood where photographer John Heard has just moved in with his model girlfriend Kim Greist (making her screen debut just one year before she became Sam Lowry's dream girl in Brazil), but since most of the people that are missing are the dregs of society police captain Christopher Curry has been ordered to keep a lid on it. This becomes difficult when self-styled "reverend" Daniel Stern, who runs the local soup kitchen, starts asking nosy questions about EPA inspectors whose visits to the sewers coincide with the absence of his regulars from the underground. Could a government cover-up be involved? Where are Mulder and Scully when you need them?
In addition to the main cast, the film also features Sam McMurray (as a sarcastic cop), John Goodman (as a sexist cop) and Jon Polito (as a newscaster), all of whom went on to appear in films by the Coen Brothers. Coincidence? Yeah, probably. Somehow I doubt Joel and Ethan Coen ran C.H.U.D. while they were casting Raising Arizona and said, "Okay, we can use that guy and that guy and, oh, that guy'll be great for our next movie." At any rate, if you're at all inclined to run this movie, do not under any circumstances seek out the in-name-only sequel C.H.U.D. II - Bud the Chud. The fact that not a single person who worked on the original had anything to do with it should tell you all you need to know.
Thursday, October 15, 2009
How could I have gone from the King of rock 'n' roll to this?
"Hail to the king, baby." So said Bruce Campbell in 1992's Army of Darkness, little realizing that one decade later he would be playing the King himself as an aged rest home resident who joins forces with JFK to do battle with a soul-sucking mummy. Having kept close tabs on it in the months leading up to its extremely limited release, I made a special trip up to New York City to see Bubba Ho-tep with my friend Tony and I was very glad I did. And I was equally glad when I found the DVD on sale at Borders for $6. That's a no-brainer right there.
Written and directed by Don Coscarelli, based on a short story by Joe R. Lansdale (who also wrote the story that Coscarelli's Masters of Horror episode Incident on and Off a Mountain Road was based on), the film advances the notion that Elvis Presley switched places with an Elvis impersonator to get away from the trappings of fame and then went out on the road impersonating himself until a hip injury sidelined him. In the meantime the impostor had died, leaving him unable to return to his old life even if he had wanted to, which is how he wound up at the Shady Rest Convalescence Home in Mud Creek, Texas, also the home of a black man who believes he's John F. Kennedy (Ossie Davis in an outstanding performance). There his biggest concern is the possibly cancerous growth on his pecker (which nurse Ella Joyce regularly has to apply ointment to, much to Elvis's embarrassment), that is until Kennedy (the only person who actually believes he's Elvis) alerts him to the ancient Egyptian menace (who's taken to wearing a cowboy hat and boots) that is literally sucking the life out of their fellow residents.
In addition to playing off both Elvis's and JFK's mythologies and the legacies they left behind them (at one point Elvis catches a commercial for a marathon of his own movies, JFK's room is decorated with assassination paraphernalia), the film also has an undertow of sadness as they share their regrets and come to terms with the inescapable fact that they are in their twilight years. Still, that doesn't prevent them from suiting up and setting out -- Elvis with his walker, JFK in his motorized wheelchair -- to kick some mummy butt. Because if they don't take a stand, who will? Now if only Coscarelli would hurry it up with the promised followup, Bubba Nosferatu: Curse of the She-Vampires. According to the IMDb it's been announced (with Ron Perlman in the role of Elvis and Paul Giamatti as Colonel Tom Parker), but I'll believe it when I see it.
I'm not so sure that Mr. Polanski was aware of what being arrested in America meant.
I had an interest in the documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired when it was released last year, but since his detention by Swiss authorities a couple weeks back I figured it was high time I reacquainted myself with the facts in the controversial case. Of course, I admit my previous source was somewhat biased since it was Polanski himself (in his autobiography Roman by Polanski). Still, I believed I had a good understanding of what had happened and why he chose to flee the country when he did. Putting aside the question of whether he was right to do so, it seems pretty clear that the judge in the case -- who loved all the publicity he was getting -- was acting unpredictably and couldn't be trusted to give him a fair sentence.
Unsurprisingly, this is the conclusion that filmmaker Marina Zenovich comes to as well and she has the footage -- both archival and contemporary interviews -- to back it up. But first, the facts: During a photo shoot for a French magazine Polanski gave alcohol and Quaaludes to the 13-year-old model and had what he believed was consensual sex with her. The following morning the girl's mother called the police to have him brought up on rape charges. The case turned into a media circus and the legal maneuvering on both sides became increasingly labyrinthine. Ultimately Polanski fled the country and has been a fugitive from justice ever since with no conclusion to the legal proceedings in sight. The only resolution he's had has been with the victim, with whom he reached a settlement in 1997, after which she expressed her desire to put the whole business behind her. Then the Swiss decided to stick their noses in and well, here we are.
For her part, Zenovich managed to score interviews with almost everyone involved in the case, with the notable exceptions of Polanski (who is represented by archival interviews with the likes of Mike Wallace and Dick Cavett) and Judge Laurence J. Rittenband, who died in 1993. She also spoke to people in the film industry who worked with him on various projects over the years, including Rosemary's Baby star Mia Farrow (who recounts the terrible time he went through after the murder of his wife Sharon Tate) and Lorenzo Semple Jr. (who wrote the film he was preparing to shoot at the time of his sentencing). I'm a little unsure about her decision to include scenes from The Tenant and Chinatown, but the clips from his early short The Fat and the Lean were well-chosen since they show the director subject to the whims of a capricious master. For someone who much preferred dancing to the beat of his own drum, that must have been intolerable.
Friday, October 16, 2009
Max, go and play with your friends.
Was given the afternoon off, so I headed straight over to the theater to catch the first showing of Where the Wild Things Are. Spike Jonze has kept us waiting long enough for his followup to Adaptation. (seven years to be exact) that I didn't want to waste another minute. Happily, the 1:00 showing drew a decent-sized crowd and the children present were, for the most part, well-behaved (unlike their counterpart on the screen), so if you have any hesitation about seeing the film on that count you can put your fears to rest. This is the kind of film that captures the imagination (and holds the attention) of young and old alike.
Now, it's been decades since I last read Maurice Sendak's 1963 classic, so I can't speak to how faithful Jonze's film is to the letter or the spirit of the book, but that hardly matters because as a film it is a wondrous, fantastical creation. If Being John Malkovich took us inside John Malkovich and Adaptation. gave us insight into the creative mind of Charlie Kaufman, then Where the Wild Things Are is firmly rooted in the point of view of its 9-year-old protagonist Max (Max Records), who is frankly more than his single mother (Catherine Keener) can handle. (It's never stated in the film why his father is absent, but he is very clearly out of the picture since Keener has a boyfriend played by Mark Ruffalo, who's present for one of Max's more pronounced tantrums.) It's only after he runs away from home and finds a boat which he uses to sail across the sea (in a sequence reminiscent of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) that he winds up on the island where the Wild Things are.
The Wild Things are, by and large, impressive creations, which isn't too surprising considering they were brought to life by Jim Henson's Creature Shop. Their voices are also well-cast, with James Gandolfini as the tantrum-prone Carol (who is clearly Max's analogue in the Wild Things' social dynamic), Paul Dano as Alexander (who's as desperate for attention as Max is in real life), Catherine O'Hara as resident downer Judith, Forest Whitaker as her dim-bulb mate Ira, Chris Cooper as the ever-dependable Douglas and Lauren Ambrose as the ever-elusive KW. By giving them such diverse personalities (and the conflicts that go with them), Jonze and his co-screenwriter Dave Eggers run the risk of overcomplicating what is in essence a simple adventure story, but I believe the gambit pays handsome dividends in the long run. Jonze's film may not supplant Sendak's book in the public imagination, but that won't prevent it from standing head and shoulders beside it.
Saturday, October 17, 2009
You're going to look pretty silly delivering up a 16-year-old girl as a master spy.
As he continued to expand his horizons beyond the horror field, gimmick-happy producer/director William Castle turned to the budding spy genre with 1963's 13 Frightened Girls, in which an American diplomat's 16-year-old daughter (newcomer Kathy Dunn) spends her vacation playing spy in order to save the job of an agent (top-billed Murray Hamilton) in her father's employ. She has romanticized his life all out of proportion, so it probably goes without saying that she is totally hung up on him despite the fact that he's engaged to his top codebreaker (Joyce Taylor) and that Dunn's diplomat father (Hugh Marlowe) would likely have some objections to the match. As for the spying business, it all starts out innocuously enough, but it isn't long before Kitten (as she signs her anonymous messages) is being sought after by every intelligence agency in the world, and not because they want to shake her paw.
Castle and screenwriter Robert Dillon (who also worked on the script for Roger Corman's X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes the same year) have some fun playing around with spy thriller conventions (sample dialogue: "I want a drink." "Of course. What?" "Ginger ale.") and they build up a certain amount of suspense in the scenes set at the Chinese Embassy, where Dunn visits friend Lynne Sue Moon, whose uncle is played by Khigh Dhiegh of The Manchurian Candidate fame. The tone varies too wildly between lighthearted fun and deadly seriousness, though, for the film to be a complete success and the title, by the way, is a complete misnomer. Sure, there are 13 girls (all of them daughters of ambassadors and diplomats) at Miss Pittford's Academy for Young Ladies, but there's only one scene where all of them are frightened at the same time and it's over before the opening credits even start. Look, it's okay if you don't want to make a horror film, Bill, but you shouldn't try to pass it off as one.
Some people think it's sickening when they see someone who's not whole.
For today's "Chilling Classic" I chose 1973's Scream Bloody Murder largely because I liked the headline potential: "13 Frightened Girls Scream Bloody Murder." Has a nice ring, don't you think? Too bad the movie itself is by far one of the most unpleasant 90 minutes I've ever spent in the service of being "entertained." (And I've seen Manos: The Hands of Fate uncut, so I know from unpleasant.)
Co-written and directed by Marc B. Ray (whose other writing credits include -- I shit you not -- episodes of Kids Incorporated, The New Mickey Mouse Club, New Zoo Revue and Lidsville), Scream Bloody Murder is about a malevolent little boy who flattens his father with a tractor, jumps off while it's still running, and somehow manages to get his hand run over. He then grows up to be a young man (Fred Holbert, making his first and last screen appearance) with a hook for a hand and severe psycho-sexual problems who doesn't take the news well when his mother (Leigh Mitchell, whose only other credit is The Incredible Melting Man) remarries on the very day he gets out of the mental hospital where he's lived since the accident. Soon enough junior has taken an axe to new Dad and accidentally killed dear old Mom, which sends him out on the road to find other people to kill, because why not?
His first victims are a couple of elopers who make the mistake of giving him a lift. When they stop to dip their toes in a stream and get a little too playful with each other, Holbert imagines they're his dead mother and stepfather and kills them both, crying, "Now, you stay dead. Dead, do you hear me? Stay dead!" Unfortunately they don't hear him and Holbert is plagued by auditory and visual hallucinations that send him running to a shack where an amateur painter/professional prostitute (Mitchell again) lives and works. (As she helpfully explains, she's a painter to friends and a prostitute to customers.) After slashing one of her customers to death, Holbert tells Mitchell he's rich and offers to take care of her, but she'd rather have her freedom. In order to make good on his claim Holbert lies his way into a local mansion, kills the sassy maid (the only likable character in the whole movie) and her elderly employer (who beats him with her canes before going down for the count), and even beheads the dog. He then invites Mitchell over and makes her his captive, which is about the time I started thinking there wouldn't be enough showers in the world to wash the stench of this movie off me.
In order to provide for them Holbert starts committing petty thefts, which should get him nabbed by the police because there can't be that many guys with a hook for a hand running around, but somehow he manages to get his subsequent shopping done without incident. He's especially interested in setting Mitchell up with an art studio so she can work, but when she fails to respond positively, he whines, "See what I do for you? I get groceries and clothes and art stuff and kill people. And do you appreciate it? No." Eventually the mansion is visited by the most persistent chocolate bar salesman on the planet as well as the old lady's doctor (played by Angus Scrimm from the Phantasm movies, credited as Rory Guy), but Mitchell is unable to turn the tables on her captor until she realizes how uncomfortable he gets when it comes to sex and nudity -- specifically her sex and nudity. Too bad the filmmakers didn't even seem the consider the possibility of letting her get away. (She was certainly resourceful enough.) Instead, Holbert kills her in an uninspired fashion and winds up at a church just in time for the hackneyed conclusion. I swear, if there weren't other movies on this disc that I wanted to see, I would break it in half right now.
Sunday, October 18, 2009
If I ever got the bug to do what you're trying to do, I'd end up getting murdered myself.
Decided to double up on the "Chilling Classics" this weekend so Scream Bloody Murder wouldn't be able to linger in my imagination. To that end I went with Dario Argento's 1975 giallo Deep Red a.k.a. Profondo Rosso (which is a much more evocative title than The Hatchet Murders, which is what it originally went out under in the States). I first saw this many years back at an Exhumed Films screening and as I suspected the version in Mill Creek's set is the same heavily edited print that I had previously seen (as opposed to the full 126-minute cut that the packaging promised). And to top it off it was panned and scanned (sometimes blatantly so), so I still haven't gotten the full Deep Red experience, but that will have to wait for another time, I guess.
David Hemmings heads the cast as an English pianist/composer living in Rome who witnesses the murder of his downstairs neighbor, a German psychic played by Macha Méril, and takes it upon himself to conduct an investigation, largely for the hell of it. At times he teams up with feminist journalist Daria Nicolodi, but mostly he hunts down clues by himself, frequently finding that the killer has gotten to each of his potential contacts first. The other major character is his oft-drunk friend Gabriele Lavia, who may have also seen the killer but decides the best course of action is to play dumb and stay out of it.
The real star of the film, though, is Argento's highly mobile camera, which always seems to be swooping around and zooming in on people and objects. There are also plenty of extreme closeups of the killer's black leather gloves (a giallo staple), childhood toys and wild staring eye. Then there is the music, which was composed by Giorgio Gaslini and Goblin, who inaugurated their association with Argento with this film and whose prog-rock stylings are all over the soundtrack. It's the kind of score that will have you reaching for the volume button (Argento really likes to play it loud) or searching for a Goblin compilation after the film is over. Luckily I already have mine in hand.
Monday, October 19, 2009
It all seems so absurd, so fantastic.
To say that strange things are afoot at the celebrated dance academy of Freeborge would be more than an understatement. In fact, strange occurrences appear to be the rule rather than the exception, what with all the rains of maggots, unworldly snoring and bizarre murders that plague the school. Oh, yes. And the staff is actually a coven of witches, as American ballet student Jessica Harper comes to learn after a series of bewildering events.
The first part of Dario Argento's "Three Mothers" trilogy (which he only recently got around to completing), 1977's Suspiria remains his most well-known film, coming right at the crux between the relatively restrained Deep Red and the completely bonkers Inferno, which was the point where he decided that coherent plots were way overrated. Suspiria finds Argento edging in that direction -- above all else, it is a film full of surreal imagery and outlandish set-pieces -- but it's still grounded by a story that we can follow and, most importantly, a protagonist that we actually care about. Unlike David Hemmings in Deep Red, though, Harper's investigation into the strange goings on at her school is done more out of self-preservation than idle curiosity.
By placing the mystery in a decidedly supernatural context, Argento and co-writer Daria Nicolodi gave themselves license to take it in just about any direction they wished. How about a scene where a blind pianist is viciously attacked by his own seeing-eye dog? Sure, why not? What about having a creepy little kid who stands around with nothing to do but look creepy all the time? Yeah, that'll work. And why not cast Udo Kier as a psychiatrist who gets to play the part of the voice of reason? Why, nobody will be expecting that! (My favorite thing about Kier's scene is the way he hands Harper off to a professor who specializes in the occult and then abruptly leaves.) Other key roles are filled by Stefania Casini (as Harper's next door neighbor at the boarding school who's just as keen to get to the bottom of things), Alida Valli (as the strict dance instructor who has her eye on Harper from the moment she steps in the door) and Joan Bennett (as the very proper head of the school).
Visually, this is one the most striking films Argento has ever made. The colors are bold, especially the reds and blues (although there's one scene where he goes with green for some reason or another), and the murder scenes are nothing if not memorable. (When I saw this at an Exhumed Films screening, the first such sequence drew applause despite the poor condition of the print that made it seem choppy.) And the score by Goblin (which Argento collaborated on) is probably their crowning achievement. (The music in Deep Red is also good, but at times it's too reminiscent of Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells.) Don't be surprised if you go around humming it for days afterward.
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
There was only one answer to the fury that tortured him.
Skipping past 1980's Inferno (which I've seen once and don't feel the need to see again), Dario Argento's next film -- and his return to the giallo tradition -- was 1982's Tenebre, which was retitled Unsane when it was released in the States. That's also the name it goes by in the "Drive-In Movie Classics" box set (it was, in fact, one of the main reasons why I picked it up in the first place), so I knew going in that it was very likely going to be the severely truncated version. (This is especially noticeable when the edits are in the middle of a scene, causing the Goblin music to jump like a skipping record.) Even so, I've seen enough of it to know that I've seen enough of it.
In broad strokes, the story concerns an American mystery writer (Anthony Franciosa) who travels to Rome on a press tour and becomes the center of a police investigation when a serial murderer borrows the m.o. from his latest book (which is naturally titled Tenebrae). As it happens, though, the first victim -- a beautiful shoplifter who is caught trying to steal a copy of his book -- was killed before Franciosa even arrived in the country, which doesn't make things easy on the detective on the case (Giuliano Gemma). And as the bodies pile up, and Franciosa continues to receive taunting messages from the killer, he decides that it's in his best interest to find out who it is before he's next. The film also features John Saxon as his agent and Daria Nicolodi as his personal assistant, who must be dedicated to stick by a guy who's being threatened by a psychotic killer.
As befits an Argento film, the murders (of which there are many) are quite bloody, and he falls back on the traditional closeups of black leather gloves and slashing razor blades (which the killer eventually trades in for an axe). In terms of style the film is up to his usual standards, but as a screenwriter Argento still can't quite overcome his shortcomings. Of course, it's hard to tell whether some of the clunky exposition (sample line: "Tell me, where's Anne, my secretary?") is the fault of Argento's writing or the English dubbing. Most likely it's a little bit of both. Also, the minute they're introduced it's pretty obvious who the killer is, but this doesn't detract too much from the proceedings because it still takes a while for the other characters to catch on, allowing Argento to double the body count. Because why settle for four brutal murders when you can have eight or nine?
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
You're in a position to do extraordinary things with that gift of yours.
Along with Unsane, Dario Argento's 1985 film Creepers (a.k.a. Phenomena) was another big reason why I picked up Mill Creek's "Drive-In Movie Classics" set. If it's known at all outside the ranks of Argento cultists it's as the film Jennifer Connelly starred in right before Labyrinth, and its premise is just as fantastical. Connelly plays the daughter of a very famous actor sent to a Swiss boarding school where a mad killer is on the loose. She's no helpless damsel, though, because this self-proclaimed insect lover actually turns out to have powers over the six-legged creatures, which would probably be more impressive if Argento had the budget to fully show them off.
Written by Argento and Franco Ferrini, whose previous credit was on Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America and who has co-written most of Argento's films since, Creepers doesn't even spend a whole lot of time establishing the boarding school or its severe headmistress before plunging Connelly headlong into the mystery when she witnesses one of the murders while out sleepwalking. That same night she also winds up at the home of wheelchair-bound Scottish entomologist Donald Pleasence, whose helper monkey would give Ella in Monkey Shines a run for her money. Pleasence introduces Connelly to some bizarre theories ("It's perfectly normal for insects to be slightly telepathic.") and gets her to play amateur detective, which would put her in danger if she weren't already in deep. The film also features Daria Nicolodi as one of the teachers at the school and Patrick Bauchau as the police inspector who is about as useful as police inspectors are in these films.
As with Deep Red and Unsane, this film was severely edited before it was shown in the States (by some accounts close to half an hour of footage was excised), so I can't really come down too hard on it for not making a lot of sense. I can, however, fault Argento for choosing to augment Goblin's score (which was their last as a group for him until 2001's Sleepless) with music by "special guests" Bill Wyman, Iron Maiden, Motörhead and, umm, Andy Sex Gang. I have nothing against heavy metal, per se, but frankly it's the last thing I expect to come blaring out of the speakers during an Italian horror film.
Thursday, October 22, 2009
You could relate to Harvey on many levels.
I had planned on getting my oil changed this morning, but the dealership can't fit me in until this afternoon, so I sat down and watched The Times of Harvey Milk, winner of the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature of 1984. It's a film I've been wanting to see ever since I saw Gus Van Sant's Milk last fall and one where I've had to wait a long time for it to filter down through my library's hold list. Directed by Rob Epstein and produced by Richard Schmiechen, The Times uses vintage news reports, photos, home movies and interviews, coupled with contemporary interviews with people who knew Milk (and who understandably get a little emotional at times because his murder was still in the recent past at the time the film was made) to tell his story and of the advances he spearheaded for the gay rights movement during his brief tenure in public office.
Well-deserving of its Oscar (as well as all the other awards it received), this film goes beyond the scope of Van Sant's Milk by covering the violent demonstrations that broke out when conservative city supervisor Dan White -- who killed not only Milk, but also San Francisco mayor George Moscone -- was found guilty of manslaughter instead of murder and given what the gay community perceived to a light sentence. (The fact that he committed his crime in November 1978 and was released from prison before this film came out in October 1984 is still quite shocking to me.) A quarter of a century later, it's sobering to think we're still fighting some of the same battles (isn't it about time we got rid of "Don't ask, don't tell"?), but the fact that gay people can live more openly across the country (and not just in the Castro) is a tribute to Milk's continuing influence.
This certainly is a benighted household.
The other night Turner Classic Movies aired both versions of The Old Dark House back to back (although why they chose to show William Castle's 1963 remake first is beyond me). Thanks to the miracle of videotape, though, I have corrected their error and given James Whale's 1932 original its proper due. Based on the novel Benighted by J.B. Priestley, this Old Dark House came out the year after Frankenstein (but not directly after because Whale made a drama called Impatient Maiden in between them). It stars Boris Karloff as the mute brute of a butler at the titular residence, which plays host to two groups of travelers who lose their way in a violent storm and need shelter for the night when the roads are washed out. Of course, all things being equal, they probably would have rather not stopped at all.
The grudging host and hostess are squabbling siblings Ernest Thesiger (who has a way with the phrase "Have a potato") and Eva Moore (whose deafness is frequently played up for laughs), and their reluctant guests are itinerant war veteran Melvyn Douglas, married couple Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart, oafish industrialist Charles Laughton, and his paid companion, chorus girl Lilian Bond. A lot happens to them in the course of the night (which shouldn't be spoiled if you're at all interested in seeing the film) and a lot has happened to the film itself if the print shown on TCM is any indication. (If Universal is at all inclined to restore it, they would probably do well to get to it sooner rather than later.) And while it seems a bit old-fashioned compared to Whale's other masterpieces, which have aged much better, the film is still quite enjoyable. I'm not sure why William Castle felt the need to remake it three decades later, but I'll find out soon enough.
Friday, October 23, 2009
It's not every day that we have an American for dinner.
During his introduction to William Castle's remake of The Old Dark House, TCM host Robert Osborne noted that the reason Castle had taken on the project was because he wanted to prove that he could make a successful film without having to rely on a gimmick. Produced in association with Hammer Films (which explains why it was filmed in England), it was his second film in a row to be a shot in color (although Columbia Pictures, in their wisdom, distributed it in black and white in the States) and the second to be written by Robert Dillon, who adapted the same J.B. Priestley novel (but much more loosely, I'm sure).
The Old Dark House also reunited Castle with his Zotz! star Tom Poston, who plays an American car salesman who is invited by eccentric gambler Peter Bull (with whom he shares a London flat) out to the family estate, where Poston makes the acquaintance of Bull's decidedly eccentric relatives, all of whom remain at the house because it's the only way they can hang on to their part of the inheritance. They include uncles Robert Morley (who has a sizable gun collection) and Mervyn Johns (who believes the constant rains are a sign of the second flood and has built an ark for the occasion), dotty mother Joyce Grenfell (who is an avid knitter), and cousins Janette Scott and Fenella Fielding (who compete for Poston's affections). Of course, why they choose this night of all nights -- when there's an actual witness present -- to start bumping each other off is quite beyond me, but the movie has to go somewhere.
Overall the comedy is pretty broad (Castle cuts to an exterior shot of the family flag being lowered to half-mast every time a family member is eliminated), but not quite fast-paced enough, and the original's sarcastic quips get traded in for lots of physical comedy which grows increasingly tiresome. Most of all, it doesn't help that it never seems like Poston is in any real danger, and having him be the only outsider in the house is inherently limiting. As for the others, Morley is the only one who really comes off well and that mostly has to do with the conviction he brings to his role. (It also helps that he gets most of the good lines.) Too bad Castle and Dillon don't give him anybody to go toe-to-toe with.
Saturday, October 24, 2009
Please do not mock, because if the vampires should hear you, they will take their revenge on all of us.
Early in its run TCM Underground ran a double feature of 1932's Freaks and 1935's Mark of the Vampire, which made a certain amount of sense since both were directed by Tod Browning. I had long been familiar with the former at that point, but now, three years later, I have finally caught up with the latter since TCM was kind enough to show it again this morning. It's a film that has all the trappings of Browning's Dracula, so naturally he got Bela Lugosi to play the part of the vampiric Count Mora, who along with his daughter Luna (Carroll Borland) is terrorizing a modern-day Czechoslovakian village. When one of the victims is a nobleman whose daughter (Elizabeth Allan) stands to inherit his estate, inspector Lionel Atwill arrives from Prague and attempts to get to the bottom of things.
After Allan is attacked by Borland (to whom she surrenders quite willingly), Atwill brings in occult specialist Lionel Barrymore (who is top-billed despite not showing up until nearly a third of the film is over), who much to Atwill's chagrin doesn't debunk the claims of the superstitious locals but rather sets about preparing defenses against the supernatural threat. (Instead of hanging garlic around the place, though, he insists on a plant called bat-thorn, which I've never heard of before but apparently it's supposed to ward off vampires.) Naturally this does not prevent Lugosi from prowling about at will or Borland returning for seconds, but there are reasons for that that become clear soon enough (and I really mean that since the running time is just barely an hour). Even if the ending is a bit of a letdown, there is enough of a spooky atmosphere leading up to it (specifically, any scene featuring Lugosi and Borland) to justify any classic horror fan giving it a look-see.
The knowledge of terror is vouchsafed only to the precious few.
Roger Corman's penultimate Poe picture was 1964's The Masque of the Red Death, easily the most sumptuous film he ever made. Written by Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell, it also gave Vincent Price one of his meatiest roles as the decadent Prince Prospero, an avowed Satanist who locks himself away in his castle with dozens of equally loathsome courtiers while the Red Death ravages the countryside. Joining him in the service of Satan is Hazel Court, who seems all too eager to give herself over to the Prince of Darkness, and fighting against Price's corrupting influence is innocent believer Jane Asher, who pleads with him to spare the lives of her lover (David Weston) and father (Nigel Green), who are intended to fight each other to the death for the amusement of Price's guests. In terms of depravity, though, Price may be matched by the leering nobleman played by Patrick Magee with all the malevolence he can muster. (Little surprise, then, that he went on to play the Marquis de Sade in Peter Brook's Marat/Sade just three years later.)
All of the films in Corman's Poe cycle are known for their lavish visuals and this one benefited greatly from the work of cinematographer Nicolas Roeg and production designer Daniel Haller. The most striking image in the film, though, is one of its simplest: the faceless personification of the Red Death sitting leaning against a tree dealing out tarot cards. Not only does it bring to mind Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (an admitted influence), but it's an eerie depiction of the implacability and inevitability of death. Not even Prince Prospero, with all his wealth and power and influence, can escape that forever.
Sunday, October 25, 2009
Some things have to be endured, and that's what makes the pleasures so sweet.
And I call myself a horror fan. How can I claim that when I've only just gotten around to seeing Hellraiser? Ah, well. Better late than never, right? Up until now the only Clive Barker film I've seen was 1990's Nightbreed, which I caught on video (and which was mostly of interest to me for David Cronenberg's performance and Danny Elfman's score). Then along came Lord of Illusions, which looked too gory for my tastes, so I gave that one a pass. As for Hellraiser, I was more than a little wary about getting into it because of the ubiquity of Pinhead paraphernalia and the glut of sequels (seven to date, four of them direct to video), plus the remake that's on the way (because the world totally needs it). I should have realized, though, that I can watch and appreciate the original on its own terms.
With the exception of two short films he made in the '70s, this was Barker's directorial debut, and after the mishandling of his two previous screenplays (1985's Underworld a.k.a. Transmutations and 1986's Rawhead Rex) he clearly felt he had something to prove. Basing the script on his own novella The Hellbound Heart, Barker weaved a ghastly tale about a puzzle box that literally gets its hooks into you -- at least that's what happens to the sadomasochistic Frank (Sean Chapman), whose motto appears to be "It's never enough." After being torn apart by the Cenobites (led by Doug Bradley's as-yet-unnamed Pinhead), Frank is only able to come back when his brother Larry (Andrew Robinson) and sister-in-law Julia (Clare Higgins) move into the family home and he convinces Julia, with whom he once had a torrid affair, to procure victims for him so he can use their blood to reconstitute his body. And it probably would have worked, too, if it weren't for his meddling niece Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), who gets her hands on the puzzle box and learns its dreadful secrets.
It's hard to imagine the impact this film had when it was fresh and new, before Pinhead became a household name -- not to mention the Freddy Krueger-like mascot of the series. I remember being present when a friend was recruited by a market research company to watch a movie trailer and give his opinions about it. The movie in question turned out to be Hellraiser: Bloodline, the fourth entry in the series and the last to get a theatrical release. From the parade of incomprehensible images in the trailer it was clear that the studio had no idea how to market it, but they did know one thing: people wanted to see Pinhead. In fact, that may have even been part of the questioning: "Would you like to see more Pinhead? Would more Pinhead make you more inclined to see the movie? How much Pinhead is too much Pinhead?" Clearly the answer they were looking for was "It's never enough."
Monday, October 26, 2009
There's just something really funny going on in this house.
Following the left-field success of Re-Animator, director Stuart Gordon went to Italy to make a pair of horror films back-to-back for Empire Pictures. The first to reach audiences was 1986's From Beyond, but the first to go before the cameras was Dolls, which was released the following year. A throwback to "spooky old house" stories like The Haunting or House on Haunted Hill, albeit with the explicit violence that was the hallmark of '80s horror, Gordon's Dolls doesn't go as far as his other films of the period, but there's still plenty of strong stuff if that's what you're looking for.
Set on the proverbial dark and stormy night (with an opening cribbed from The Old Dark House), Dolls was written by Ed Naha, who was just coming off scripting Troll (also for Empire) and wastes little time stranding the usual assortment of bedraggled travelers at the sprawling estate of creepy doll-maker Guy Rolfe and his dotty wife Hilary Mason. Their unexpected guests include henpecked vacationer Ian Patrick Williams and his new wife Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, the bitchy stepmother of 7-year-old Carrie Lorraine. (If anybody needs proof of how unsympathetic Purdy-Gordon is in this film, within minutes of her introduction she throws Lorraine's beloved teddy bear away and later on even threatens to beat the child. Clearly she's not out to win any parenting awards.) Then there's the two snotty punks (Bunty Bailey, a.k.a. the girl from a-ha's "Take on Me" video, and Cassie Stuart) who get a lift with bumbling man-child Stephen Lee and are basically around so Rolfe and Mason's killer dolls can have a couple more victims to stalk.
If there's one frustrating thing about Dolls (and it's far from the only one), it's that it takes so long for the killer dolls to make their intentions known. I realize Gordon was working with a limited budget, so therefore had to conserve his effects shots, but keeping their activities off-screen for the bulk of the picture doesn't really do it any favors. After all, it's not like it's a big secret to the audience who's doing all these terrible things to these terribly deserving characters. Also, for a film about the power of imagination it gets pretty graphic at times. I realize that's par for the course for Gordon, but the overt violence seems out of place, especially since one of the goriest moments in the film takes place in the little girl's imagination. Sure, killer dolls are creepy as all get out, but a little girl who imagines her stepmother's arm being torn off by an angry bear? That's even more disturbing than Gordon probably intended.
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
What is this, an opera or an amusement park?
For his followup to Phenomena, Dario Argento turned to the world of opera for 1987's aptly named Opera (a.k.a. Terror at the Opera). Written by Argento and Franco Ferrini, the film opens with a famous diva throwing a fit and storming out of a rehearsal for Verdi's Macbeth because she thinks she's being upstaged by the live ravens the unconventional director wants in the production. That she walks right out into traffic and gets hit by a car, thus giving her understudy (Cristina Marsillach) the chance to make her debut as Lady Macbeth, is unfortunate for her but equally unfortunate for Marsillach, who immediately becomes the target for a psychotic killer who has a penchant for tying her up and forcing her to watch him kill people in gruesome ways.
For the murder scenes Argento relies on his usual closeups of the killer's black gloves, but this time he also gives him a black hood in order to keep his identity a secret for as long as possible. Among those attempting to figure out who it is are director Ian Charleson, who hails from the world of horror films and is called a sadist by his own girlfriend, and police inspector Urbano Barberini, whose investigation goes nowhere in a hurry but that's far from unusual. Then there's Daria Nicolodi as Marsillach's agent, a part she nearly didn't take because she had split up with long-time partner Argento a couple years earlier. (As it turned out, she wouldn't appear in another film for him until 2007's Mother of Tears, the long-delayed third part of the "Three Mothers" trilogy.) And while I admit that Argento and Ferrini come up with an ingenious way of revealing who the killer is, I think they wrote in one twist too many. Also, I wish Argento wasn't so enamored of putting hard rock songs on the soundtrack, but I guess he wasn't ready to break that habit just yet.
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
I don't find it fascinating. It's morbid, frightening.
In all the years I've been a George Romero fan I've somehow never gotten around to seeing Two Evil Eyes, the two-part anthology film he made with Dario Argento in 1990 based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. First up is the segment by Romero, who alters "The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar" so that it's about a gold-digging trophy wife (Adrienne Barbeau) who's ready to claim her prize from her terminal millionaire husband (Bingo O'Malley), who's being kept alive -- barely -- by her ex-lover (Ramy Zada), a doctor who happens to be practiced in the art of hypnosis. Their attempts to circumvent O'Malley's will get stymied by his suspicious lawyer (E.G. Marshall), though, and when the old guy kicks the bucket too early they have to put him on ice, but since he died while in a hypnotic trance his spirit's still hanging around waiting to be released.
In many ways, "The Facts in the Case" plays like an extended segment from Romero's Creepshow, a notion reinforced by the casting of Barbeau and Marshall, both of whom had starred in the earlier anthology. So did O'Malley for that matter, and the same goes for Romero's wife, Christine Forrest, who plays the nurse who takes care of him until his untimely death, and Tom Atkins, who plays a police detective. And I would be remiss if I didn't mention the makeup effects by Tom Savini, which are particularly effective. The end result may be a little slow-going at times, but at least I get the impression that it's more faithful to the spirit of Poe's work than Argento's contribution...
That would be "The Black Cat," which is just one of many Poe stories Argento and his co-writer Franco Ferrini took inspiration from. For example, Harvey Keitel's beret-wearing crime scene photographer is named Roderick Usher and his violin teacher girlfriend (Madeleine Potter) who takes in the titular creature is named Annabel. Then there are the crime scenes he photographs, one of which is directly inspired by "The Pit and the Pendulum," but the police detective on the case (John Amos) doesn't appear to pick up on the obvious Poe connection. Finally, there are Keitel's elderly neighbors Mr. and Mrs. Pym (Martin Balsam and Kim Hunter), who have a way of coming around to complain about the loud music at inopportune moments (e.g., right after Keitel has murdered Potter for no apparent reason).
Speaking of the music, both segments were composed by Pino Donaggio, who went on to score Argento's 1993 followup Trauma, as well as 2005's Do You Like Hitchcock? "The Black Cat" also marked Argento's first true collaboration with Tom Savini, who puts in a cameo appearance at one of the crime scenes and who also worked on Trauma. With a pedigree like that I may end up seeking it out eventually, but I hope it's a lot more focused than this mess of a story. Then again, maybe I should stop expecting Argento's films to add up to more than the sum of their parts.
Thursday, October 29, 2009
Do you see what a metaphysical can of worms this portal is?
When it was released ten years ago today, Being John Malkovich seemed like it was tailor-made just for me. Sure, I didn't know anything about director Spike Jonze or writer Charlie Kaufman at the time, but the film had an intriguing premise (man finds portal into the mind of actor John Malkovich), a terrific cast (John Cusack! Catherine Keener! Uh, Cameron Diaz!), and a killer trailer that used music from Brazil (my favorite film of all time) to good effect. So why didn't I enjoy it more when I first saw it in theaters? Well, part of that had to do with the fact that the Cusack character is named Craig...
You see, Cusack plays a highly skilled puppeteer whose talents are unrecognized by the world at large, mostly because he channels his energies into somber pieces like "Craig's Dance of Despair and Disillusionment." Faced with few prospects in his chosen field and a distracted wife (a deglamorized Diaz) who has channeled her desire for a child into a menagerie of exotic pets (including a chimpanzee that is in therapy to work through its suppressed childhood trauma), Cusack takes a job at a filing company located on the seventh-and-a-half floor of a very bizarre office building (just one of many absurd conceits Kaufman packs his script with). There he works for the mildly batty Orson Bean, who claims to be 105 years old and is obsessed with carrot juice and sex, the latter in particular as it pertains to his executive assistant Mary Kay Place, whose doctorate in speech impedimentology may be a smokescreen to cover for the fact that she is hard of hearing. For his part, Cusack develops a hopeless crush on fellow 7 1/2-er Catherine Keener, who can barely be bothered to give him the time of day let alone have a drink with him.
So far, so bizarre (the orientation video is a real hoot), but the film doesn't really shift into gear until Cusack stumbles across the portal into John Malkovich (gamely playing himself), a development with ramifications he barely has time to contemplate before Keener has turned the experience into a money-making venture predicated on the notion that ordinary people would pay $200 a pop to spend 15 minutes inside Malkovich (who is, for the most part, unaware of their intrusions). And that's really only the beginning, but I should refrain from saying any more lest I spoil subsequent plot developments for anybody who hasn't gotten around to seeing the film yet. (And if you haven't, you may want to get on that.)
I will say, though, that what bothered me the first time through was the way Cusack's character has to get turned into a villain of sorts in order for the second half of the story to work -- and I didn't think he deserved his ultimate fate, ironic though it may be. These concerns didn't prevent me from giving it a second look on video, though, which gave me a different perspective on the film and allowed me to appreciate it on its own terms. And now that I've watched it a third time I can honestly say that it gets better and better every time I see it. Some moments play like a dry run for future Kaufman screenplays (in particular, the chase through Malkovich's subconscious prefigures the chase through Jim Carrey's memories in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and others are so singular I can't imagine them ever being recreated in any other form. I've even come to accept the downbeat ending, which is horrifying on so many levels that it fits in perfectly with the other films I've been watching this month. Sure, Being John Malkovich may look like a quirky comedy and act like a quirky comedy, but there's a horror film about the loss of identity lurking just under the surface. All you have to do is look for it.
Friday, October 30, 2009
I'm in the face business.
Before he returned to the land of the living dead (and box-office success) with, well, Land of the Dead in 2005, George A. Romero broke the long silence that followed 1993's The Dark Half with Bruiser, which was on the market in 2000 but went directly to video the following year, sadly illustrating how low his stocks had sunken in the interim. A deceptively simple revenge fantasy, the film cast Jason Flemyng as a timid fashion magazine executive who allows his boorish boss (an extremely flamboyant Peter Stormare) to run roughshod over him and takes nearly as much abuse from his harpy of a wife (Nina Garbiras), who turns out to be having an affair with Stormare. Furthermore, his stockbroker friend (Andrew Tarbet) has been giving him the runaround about his finances, which doesn't come to light until he's turned down for a platinum card. No wonder he's given to violent fantasies wherein he strikes out at a world that he feels powerless to impact.
All that changes when he wakes up one morning to find that his face is a blank white mask, which somehow frees him up to act out his violent impulses in real life, starting with the Latino maid he catches stealing from him. From there it doesn't take him long to settle accounts with all those who have turned him into a nonentity, starting with his unfaithful wife and working his way up. Along the way he attempts to make contact with Stormare's ex-wife (Leslie Hope), who still lives with him for some undisclosed reason, and shake the homicide detective (Tom Atkins) on his trail. Everything comes to a head at a hedonistic masquerade party in Stormare's honor where everyone is wearing masks (naturally) and the Misfits are providing the entertainment. (Well, most of it.) If only the ending didn't seem so anticlimactic, but I guess Romero was leaving the door open for a possible sequel (which, needless to say, has not been forthcoming).
Saturday, October 31, 2009
I'm certain that we're immersed in another dimension completely uncommon to us all.
For Halloween I went with a double feature of "of the Zombies" movies, one of which was slow and uninvolving and the other even slower and more uninvolving than the first. It helped that the first one had better zombies, but that's most likely because it was the third in a series. Made in 1974, Horror of the Zombies (as it's called in the "Drive-In Movie Classics" set) was written and directed by Amando de Ossorio, whose "Blind Dead" was a staple of Spanish horror of the early '70s. All four films tell of a sect of the Knights Templar who were excommunicated by the Pope for performing Satanic rituals (that's a good reason, I'd say) and were executed and had their eyes put out. The movie is a little unclear about how long they've been dead, but it's easily been a few centuries because these are quite possibly the slowest-moving zombies ever put on film. Still, at least they have a neat look with their hollow eye sockets, skeletal hands, long cloaks and non-clanky armor (because if it were noisy, they wouldn't be able to hear their victims).
Before we get to the Blind Dead, though, there's a lot of hullabaloo over a couple of fashion models who get lost in the fog while drifting in the Atlantic Ocean for a publicity stunt. Buxom blond Bárbara Rey, who works for the modeling agency of super-bitchy Maria Perschy, wants to get to the bottom of things because her girlfriend Blanca Estrada is one of the missing models. She finds out that sporting goods magnate Jack Taylor is the one behind the campaign and soon she's being held against her will by Taylor's repulsive right-hand man Manuel de Blas. After a trip to a scientific research center, where professor Carlos Lemos regales them with tales of a phantom ship that has been sighted in the area where the girls disappeared, all five of them set out to find it, little realizing that they are sealing their own fates.
Since the Blind Dead are, well, blind, they have to rely on their apparently heightened sense of hearing to home in on their victims. Every squeaky door, rattling chain, footstep, knock or rattling doorknob is like the dinner bell to them, and their prey makes it even easier for them when they start screaming. In such cramped quarters it isn't long before the Knights' superior numbers prove overwhelming and after one victim is bisected with a sword they go to town. As far as I can tell this is the only entry in the series set on the water (in a 16th-century galleon, no less) and it results in some frankly adorable underwater miniature work when the survivors attempt to throw the Knights' caskets overboard. It's topped, though, by the model galleon that is set ablaze at the film's conclusion. Of course, since they've been tossed overboard the Knights get to rise once again, but it's not exactly terrifying when they emerge from their watery graves and their eye sockets have to empty of seawater. De Ossorio must have thought that worked like gangbusters, though, because he repeats the action several times. I guess when one has paid for an effect, one wants to show it off.
The same thing would probably go for 1981's "Chilling Classic" Oasis of the Zombies, but that would imply that they actually spent some money on their effects and I wouldn't believe that for a second. This was my second exposure to the work of prolific Italian director Jesus Franco, a man famous for the sheer number of films he's made over the years, not for their quality. (The first was 1969's The Castle of Fu Manchu, which I saw on MST3K if that's any indication.) Franco has nearly as many pseudonyms as his films have alternate titles (on this film, the direction is credited to A.M. Frank and screenplay to A.L. Mariaux) and this one is no different since it also goes by the names The Oasis of the Living Dead and Bloodsucking Nazi Zombies. The second one will give you some idea of what the story is about, which is more than can be said for the opening scene.
You see, first we're introduced to two buxom young women out on a holiday in Africa who find an oasis in the desert where they are set upon by energetic Nazi zombies. They're the appetizer. (We can assume their attackers are Nazis because the women pass an extremely blatant swastika, which Franco zooms in on just in case we missed it, but that's all we really have to go on.) Next we meet a former German officer and his wife who are after a cache of Nazi gold that was being transported through the desert back in 1943 when the convoy was attacked by Allied troops who killed all of the Nazi soldiers. All of the Allies died, too, apparently, save for one who gets a flashback where he pads out the running time by stumbling up and down a few sand dunes before he is rescued and nursed back to the health by some nomads. It is this man (who, incidentally, looks disconcertingly like Kurt Vonnegut) who reveals to the German where the oasis with the gold is located and is immediately killed for his trouble.
This leads to the third set of characters, headed by Kurt Vonnegut's son (the top-billed Manuel Gélin), a university student who gets his father's journals upon his death and decides along with his friends (one of whom looks disconcertingly like Bud Cort) to look for the gold themselves. They're beaten to the oasis by the German, his wife and the two strapping, shirtless lads they brought with them, though, which is just as well since they're the main course. Plus, before Gélin and his pals can head out to the desert they have to pad out the running time by doing some shopping in the marketplace, where they meet a professor (who's doing some kind of research, I'm sure) and Bud Cort hooks up with his assistant (second-billed France Lomay, credited as France Jordan). Eventually they all wind up at the oasis, where you'd think the Nazi zombies would be full, but apparently they left room for dessert.
At this point things start to get a little hazy and Franco starts to get a little pretentious. (For example, each time a group arrives at the oasis he zooms in on a spider in its web. Yes, thank you, Jesus. We got it the first time. Or rather, we would have if we could tell what we were looking at.) He also goes overboard with the shots of zombies emerging from the sand (not long after a character has exclaimed, "The sand! They came out of the sand which is here!" -- which sounds like "sandwiches here") and repeated closeups of guys with zombie makeup and worms crawling on their faces. Then our heroes light fires to keep the zombies at bay, and also so much of the climax can be obscured by smoke, but I think Kurt Vonnegut actually comes back from the dead to save his son and one of his classmates (I'm not sure which one, but I don't think it was Bud Cort) from the Nazi zombie menace. In the end the survivors crawl away and wind up collapsing on a sand dune, eerily recreating the final sequence of Horror of the Zombies, where the survivors pull themselves up on shore and collapse, little realizing that the Blind Dead are right behind them. In this film, though, the Nazi zombies stay put. I guess they finally had their fill.
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