Friday, October 31, 2008

Season's Greetings

Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)
directed by Tommy Lee Wallace
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Silly at times, but at its best, pretty great. Tommy Lee Wallace was editor and production designer on The Fog and Halloween. It feels like everyone knew how the game worked by 1982, and it was time for Wallace to take the family car for a spin. So Dean Cundey is still on camera (you know right away, with the first elegant Steadicam troll backwards through the hallways of a hospital), John Carpenter and Alan Howarth are still making great music (you can't tell me the intersection of sound and technology in Season of the Witch wasn't "instrumental" to David Lynch), and Jamie Lee Curtis's boyfriend from The Fog - Tom Atkins - is still doing his best as the great, gruff Carpenter stand-in. It's as much the synthesizer sounds synchronized to an effectively animated computer pumpkin as the kids trick-or-treating across the country in a montage straight from the Dance of Death - which is to say inimitable low-budget movie-making.

Happy Halloween, everyone.

Monday, October 27, 2008


Tombs of the Blind Dead (1971)
directed by Amando de Ossorio
rating: 1 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Syl and I joke that when Richard Linklater says, "Slacker was inspired by Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio" (that is, multiple perspectives on the same place), he really means, "Slacker was inspired by Meatballs" (the Winesburg, Ohio of summer camps in the country). Time and again, self-conscious artists revert to the most critically-acclaimed bibliography they can think of in order to assert the importance of their own creative output.

When Peter Jackson adapted The Lord of the Rings, everyone heard the words "John Ford" every time a horse trotted across the frame (if I wasn't so lazy, I might even make dig up a quote). My bet is that Jackson, a big fan of bad horror films, got most of his equestrian inspiration from the zombie Templars of Tombs of the Blind Dead. When the Templars go riding, they ride in slow-motion, and every rapey Eurotrash cliche falls away for the sheer elegance of the knights' unholy hunt.

Otherwise, dialogue is a series of overstated excuses for dramatic lighting, and the rest of the production is a good example of the too-typical "she asked for it" narrative machismo that seemed to sweep a decade's worth of Europe's most marginal horror directors straight into Blue Underground's digital dustbin. When there's no more room in hell, there's always DVD.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

California Hit

Tourist Trap (1979)
directed by David Schmoeller
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

How to start a horror movie: car breaks down, gas station found, first death within five minutes. Perfect. By then the ratio of women to men is 3:1 (something else The Descent did well). Add psychokinesis, tube tops, and at least 2 in-film references to the title, and you can settle in to just enough over-the-top theatrics to really live the day.

"We can't go swimming anyway."
"Why not?"
"We didn't bring our bathing suits."
"So? Who needs a bathing suit?"

Unlike Lemora, Tourist Trap wears those lines on its sleeve. The villain, a Jack Palance-type old Hollywood hand, gets to stretch his dentures and even be charming in a sad, lascivious sort of way. And the best traditional effect this week wasn't the makeup on Neil Marshall's cave crawlers. Instead, it was Schmoeller's curio cabinet nailed to a ceiling in order to sell the impact of empty bottles let loose on an unsuspecting teen trapped on the other side of the room.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Digital is Dead, Long Live 35mm

The Descent (2005)
directed by Neil Marshall
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

The one thing I was never convinced of was that this was the US of A. Those are Scotland hills and Scottish goblins. And it's still an hour and forty minutes when it could be 80 flat. You don't need the marriage or the introductions - just the girls and the cave and one little lie. You wouldn't even need to change the ending. Who would want to (although I guess they did for its American debut)?

Some of Marshall's most beautiful shots are from a distance: inching towards the light, hanging by a cable. Scary isn't a girl getting attacked by a crawler; it's the girl unable to help as the crawler drags her conscious friend away. And there's one Fulci trick the director gets down pat: some awfully beautiful up-close eyes.

The hundred-year old climbing equipment and cave paintings lend the whole show a nice air of haunting long before the flesh-and-blood monsters appear, like it isn't just a cave but a human space, where people moved and talked and died. Then it isn't just rock climbers underneath the Appalachians, but the ground beneath your feet, right now.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Let's Bore Nathan to Tears

Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971)
directed by John D. Hancock
rating: 1 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

What's worse than your parents' hippie dream coming up against the man? How about domestic melodrama? Kids earning their keep with a song on the farm? The harsh vibe from old-timers in town? For a film with so few fresh ideas, Jessica leaves a lot of loose ends. It isn't just vague - about ghosts, vampires, and zombies - but unfinished, as if old houses speak for themselves. They don't. You need a story above and beyond a Flashback Photo in the attic, three oblivious homeowners, and enough DDT for a bad high and a worse comedy. Less a horror film than a casualty of circumstances and time.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Dreams of Bunker Hill

The Exiles (1961)
directed by Kent MacKenzie
rating: 5 out of 5 cravats
seen on the screen at Guild Cinema

Sometimes, the more I like a movie, the less I have to say right after.

Easy out, I know. Sorry.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Easy to Love and Harder to Hold

Waitress (2007)
directed by Adrienne Shelly
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

I'm not the only one, I'm sure, to wonder why Shelly, who wrote Waitress for her daughter, couldn't frame Keri Russell's pregnancy as something other than a drunken accident. I understand that, without the pregnancy, there isn't a film, but if a doctor can't even mention the word "abortion" onscreen, why harp on the unwanted conception? Why not say the pregnancy was a bad decision? Regretted too late, perhaps, but a decision nonetheless? Why does sex always have to exist in such a fog in movies, as if no one understands how it works?

I'll stop harping on this when films get smart about it. It shouldn't be the focus of this review, because Waitress is a likable, sweet love story full of sympathy and understanding for every one of Shelly's characters - even, and especially, the heels. I don't think I'll ever outgrow my knee-jerk reaction to sappy monologues, since I only need a Moonstruck or a Joe Versus the Volcano (same writer, right?), or, here, Andy Griffith saying something about regret to realize that romance can be pretty unbearable and still plow right through me.

The truth is, there isn't such an enormous leap from Waitress to Le Rayon Vert, and that's one of my favorite movies. People just need a little time to figure things out on their own.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Too Much by Torchlight

Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural (1973)
directed by Richard Blackburn
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

The decision to make this a period film renders the lecherous line of men and women - ministers, prostitutes, bus drivers - who escort Lila Lee to the vampire Lemora's gothic mansion one long (bad) joke about bumpkin Baptists. Once the girl is at the house, the children around her - dressed like pirates or in ghastly face paint like slopping on mom's makeup one afternoon alone - are frightening, touching, and sad. But the truth is, no truly delicate goodbye to childhood ("When I was your age, the things I liked best were hearing stories and having my hair brushed") leaves half as much room for licentiousness as the smuttier breed of horror director likes to believe ("You're not embarrassed to get undressed in front of another woman, are you?").

Comparisons to The Night of the Hunter forget that, as far as the kids in that film are concerned, the threat of Mitchum's preacher is most obvious to the grandmother. For the children, fear is a subconscious and even attractive inspiration to flee. Lila Lee "grows up" before Lemora is half through, and spends the rest of her time screaming. Low-budget clutter and colors (and beautiful music) do wonders for the atmosphere, but the metaphors for darkness at the edge of the yard never pare enough exploitative chaff from the terror that's an essential element of childhood's mysteries. Also, classic horror films don't - and shouldn't - depend on Christianity for content or effect.

Friday, October 17, 2008

First Werewolf of the Season

The Undying Monster (1942)
directed by John Brahm
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

To Hollywood, like rats, these European directors with such rich taste for the baroque! John Brahm, who died in television, is Brom Bones tonight, lurking behind Lucien Ballard (on the long road from Lubitsch to Peckinpah), flitting like a bat from shadow to shadow. How pleasant to watch the science-minded detective play his part as dashing hero - to let logic be logic, and men of reason be the great romantics - and still concede to superstition at least the occasional unexplained howl. Are scientists heroes anymore in movies? When was the last time an honest-to-goodness curse figured into a screenplay? By taking both for granted, a writer could fit a lot of excitement into an hour, and leave the magicians to do what they did best: light! "Chiaroscuro" is a word I love but hate to use, but this is what it means.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

There is Always a Hollower Hill

Pumpkinhead (1988)
directed by Stan Winston
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

With a horror film from the eighties, I can always get comfortable a little faster knowing that the special effects, however enjoyable, will look just dated enough to take the edge off my weak nerves. Oddly - or not, since directing his first feature probably required most of Stan Winston's concentration - it's Pumpkinhead himself who's the least convincing member of this otherwise atmospheric parable about the cyclical nature of revenge. As I added Halloween III: The Season of the Witch to my queue today, I read that Carpenter never intended for the Halloween franchise to focus on Mickey Myers exclusively. Instead, John wanted a series of films with the holiday as the loose thematic center. Pumpkinhead could have qualified. Minor in the best sense, and much better than the recent Hellboy story The Crooked Man, Winston shepherds a spooky little backwoods story complete with a wise Appalachian witch, the perfect fog-filled demonic cemetery, and lots of deep, dark hollows along its narrow, creeping path. Turns out there are plenty of ways to package "deserve's got nothing to do with it" without ten-gallon hats and no fun.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Night is a Bedroom Lampshade

Jewel Robbery (1932)
directed by William Dieterle
rating: 5 out of 5 cravats
on TCM at Syl's

When I am asked, someday, to name the greats, I will begin with a horror film and end here. Ernst Lubitsch's women are like F. Scott Fitzgerald's: oddly unappreciated in spite of their author's fame. Trouble in Paradise was released the same year as Jewel Robbery, and Kay Francis stars in both. They are the only films of hers I've seen.

When all is said and done, I'll take Jewel Robbery. No doubt intended to capitalize on the success of the early Lubitsch musicals (although, come to think of it, without the singing), this gem from Portrait of Jennie director William Dieterle and writer Erwin S. Gelsey says something very true about the grace and humanity of happiness. The most impossible love - the love between opposites, lady and thief, bachelor and wife - is, here, a love to bring out the best in everyone. No conflict begins that does not retreat meekly, gently, even humorously before the hope that any sacrifice in service of the right romantic gesture is always worthwhile.

Jewel Robbery is much else besides: a stoner comedy (one of the first?), a class on screwball, and a ninety-minute reminder of why we care about film stars. It is less a fiction than a dream, and as such, the less possible of the two. Twice as nice as either, though. Anyone who says the Hays Code inspired studio screenwriters' best work hasn't watched enough movies.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Pasty-Faced and Pear-Shaped

Supernatural (1933)
directed by Victor Halperin
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on VHS from Eddie Brandt's Saturday Matinee

Like The Amazing Mr. X, Supernatural employs a sham spiritualist as entry into the glamorous, photogenic world of high-class suckers. But X, if I remember, never compromised its cynical disbelief in ghosts and hauntings. By the end of Supernatural, there is no question of life beyond the pale, or the price to be paid for a trickster's bluff. Technically, the threat is from the soul of the crook's vengeful ex (and again there's an element of unhinged lust to the crimes), but a big focus on the physical act of strangulation puts Supernatural in a long line of Hollywood films obsessed with hands (including Mad Love, The Addams Family, Idle Hands, and the poster art for I Walked with a Zombie), and even further down the list of everyday fools killing the loves that sustain them.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Straight and the Narrow Even When the Road is Long

Directed by John Ford (1971)
directed by Peter Bogdanovich
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on VHS from Eddie Brandt's Saturday Matinee

I hate "best of" episodes in sitcoms - greatest-hits clips from laugh tracks past - more than anything on television, so I can't very well excuse this blog's patron saint for 45 minutes worth of American history extracted, scene by scene, from John Ford's long career. But neither can you really blame Peter, since Directed by John Ford debuted years before his audience had access to any of Ford's movies at home. More likely than not Bog's trimmed the fat since.

Still, anything worth saying is worth saying succinctly, so thank John Ford we have Duke plowing through the hagiographic repetition with crop-clearing anecdotes no fan of the nation should be without. Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, and Ford himself pile gruff brush onto the long-burning authoritarian reputation Hollywood's "State of Maine Republican" was famous for, but Wayne is more than willing to put a little heart behind it, revealing Pappy's crew for the decent democrats they were. Lonely men all, and Peter is human enough to conclude with The Searchers' most revealing and magnanimous gesture, a nod to Harry Carey that sends fifty years of useless movie criticism sailing downriver to the wide open sea.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Nightmares Worn Like Tailored Dresses

Messiah of Evil (1973)
directed by William Huyck
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
seen on the screen at the Silent Movie Theatre

The red tint to Cinefamily's "private collection" copy of Messiah of Evil obscured the film stock, makeup, and costume fabric that could collectively date the film to the exact year it was made. But without those tell-tale signifiers of 1973 (and possibly the hammock in the master bedroom), this oceanfront creepshow is a collage of the commonplace. Parking lots, construction sites, backyard pools, and movie theaters. More than that, they're summer scenes: the overrun and empty yards we ride our bikes through on the way to 7-Eleven for a Coke; the short main drag in every beach town, with sea salt on shop door handles and sand piled against the curbs.

Any great low-budget director knows location is everything (even on a set). When the recognizable splinters, mood follows. From Point Dume, California, where no character swims because it isn't even summer, the undead ascension is simply akin to finding out a little bit more about the people you see on a day-to-day basis but don't really know. Neighbors and regulars in places where you are a regular too. And everything you discover is worse than you could ever imagine - so horrible as to seem impossible - and you choose madness like a warm blanket. Horror can be a warm blanket sometimes, and terrible moments make for beautiful scenes.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Stranger than Fiction

The Black Cat (1934)
directed by Edgar G. Ullmer
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Young newlyweds endangered by history's first Karloff-Lugosi team-up on the surface, psychopathic satanic revenge nightmare just beneath! Two Americans take a train through the Carpathians on their honeymoon, meet prison camp survivor Lugosi on his way to confront Karloff about a missing wife, and wind up as ceremonial sacrifices intended to placate the lonely dark believers (gargoyle-like precursors to The 7th Victim) who unwittingly provide the climactic physical distraction Peter Ruric's one-hour plot requires. But the individual perversities committed in the movie (that is, the dark corners Ullmer finds to film) are much greater than the meanness people speak; more psychological subtext gets buried in Karloff's rebuilt-then-demolished WWI bunker than the most astute crime-crushing criminologists could ever explain away. If Lugosi skinning Karloff with a straight razor doesn't make you squeamish, Karloff waking up in bed beside Lugosi's drugged daughter before proceeding to a hall where Karloff (looking like Karl Lagerfeld) keeps his female victims preserved in glass coffins should at least raise concerns about backlot conditions in the Universal ward for writers.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

2-for-1 Mitchum, aka Fire Sale

Blood on the Moon (1948)
directed by Robert Wise
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
seen on the screen at Guild Cinema

This, by contrast, teams Mitchum with the "honest" suppliers of Indian reservation beef against an old friend whose sleazy mustache signals trouble the second he tries to stake partners with a sad-sack Walter Brennan doing his best serious grandfather routine. Because it's RKO, the production design, cinematography (by Nicholas Musuraca), and breakneck pace conspire to cover as much unstable ground as possible. They almost make it, but the unexplained (nearly inexplicable) title is an unspoken reminder that not every accomplished B-side matinee was a masterpiece in miniature. It doesn't need to be a masterpiece to be a bargain.

Pursued (1947)
directed by Raoul Walsh
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
seen on the screen at Guild Cinema

I just finished Grant Morrison's 12-issue run on Superman, which, instead of inevitably reducing Superman to Luthor's level, elevated Lex to all-powerful terror. I hope that's enough of a prologue to segue into saying that my movie kryptonite is the family melodrama. The moment mom twists up her face at the prospect of her pretty daughter's marriage to the wrong fool, Walsh's finish line recedes behind the next long bend. Even in New Mexico, shot by James Wong Howe, starring Robert Mitchum, the dull core of angry siblings and intolerant parents cools the aesthetic periphery at an extraordinary rate. I begin to forget the movie even as I'm watching it, except for one or two memorable alleyways and a stray marksman in back of the black.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Summers of Wind and Rain

When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006)
directed by Spike Lee
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Nothing like having the young heart of October ripped from its chest by a still-tender reminder of past miseries. Unless you want to cop some line about true-life horror, which is a terrible sentiment that I reject completely. You'll just have to bear with me while the queue catches up to the season.

Spike Lee could probably talk to more New Orleans residents with less difficulty than almost any other A-list director who might have helmed this project. If he isn't very curious with the questions he asks, the failures of Katrina are obvious enough to speak for themselves. Less insight than reminder, each plea, clip, and recollection is sadness piled on heartbreak, to disastrous effect. I'm always on the lookout for new anecdotes about unfairly maligned LBJ, so often the man the country took for granted, with a long way to go to receive his due:

"I am here because I want to see with my own eyes what the unhappy alliance of wind and water have done to this land and to its good people. And when I leave today to go back to Washington you can be sure that the federal government's total resources, with the help of the fine Louisiana Delegation, will be turned toward helping this state and its citizens find its way back from this tragedy."

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Hand of Glory

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964)
directed by Sergei Parajanov
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Even in Albuquerque, where we were told that cool weather arrived in the middle of September, October began feeling more like summer than fall. Only yesterday did I re-arrange my Netflix list to accommodate the season, and Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors was in my mailbox before the unseen pleasures of Halloween were awarded their annual bump to the top of the queue. The first try was a false start: a blare of long mountain horns like a failed Ricola commercial, the death of a young man beneath a felled tree, wailing mothers and brutish men converging in the mountain snow.

There is a temperature swing in the mornings at 5,000 feet, from the 50s to the 80s by lunch. I sat on the sofa at 8:30, cold, and began again. The snow, suddenly, was less a contrast to last night's dark, dry air than an imaginable gradation from blankets to roaring outdoor fires. Inside the Orthodox Carpathian church, where the family goes to mourn, the image felt - felt - like the year does when you first decide to close the windows in the house before bed. However I'd imagined the mountain tangles of Orloc, Nosferatu, and Dracula, this was no contrast, but a return of a world seen only in night to rich color - even colder, if possible, by day. More magic than fiction, mad as a hatter and marvelously coherent, this year's herald of a haunted mindset of dusk, wind, and rain.