Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Fly (1958)

While I'm on the subject of scary movies, I have to reveal the only film that ever kept me wide awake. The Fly, the old one, not the Cronenberg gross-out fest that is way more intelligent that it should have been. I mean the one with Vincent Price, which also was way more mature and intelligent than it should have been.

I was rather young, about ten years old. I was intrigued about The Fly after seeing a Simpsons "Treehouse of Horror episode" which homaged it (including the web scene, more on that later) My parents, absolutely underestimating my sensitivity to anything remotely frightening, thought my repeated vocal worries about the subject matter were entirely unfounded. Yeah, right. To be fair, they hadn't seen the film either, so how were they to know that this cheesy sci fi film could possibly terrify a child who hid behind the sofa whenever she heard the Psycho theme?

Admittedly, the first half of the film is rather tame, though it does contain an extremely effective build-up to the inevitable monster of the title. Those who have seen the film know what I'm talking about. The reveal was frightening enough, when the wife pulls back the black cloth over her transformed husband's head only to reveal that dreaded fly's head, her screams reflected in its multiple eyes. That was enough to send me running up the stairs, and I wouldn't come down again until my parents exasperatedly shouted up the stairs that the "scary part" was over. Foolishly, I believed them, and went down, aware what was going to happen, but underestimating its impact.

So, if that poster at the beginning of the post didn't already give it away, after the scientist with a fly's head ends up getting destroyed by his wife, the fly with the scientist's head is still free. That is, until the scientist's son finds it stuck in a web, and the audience is treated to a 1-2-3 punch of shock:

1- The Voice. Before we get a chance to see anything clearly, we hear that voice. That ungodly high pitched voice, so tiny that it's indistinguishable from a fly's buzzing. It's the scientist, crying out in primal pathetic tones. "Help me! Help me!" And it's coming from the middle of a spider web.

2- The Spider. When we finally get a close-up on the fly/scientist crossover, we are mistreated to the grotesque sight of a bald, toothless human head on a fly's body, wrapped up in spider silk, its lone human arm sticking out helplessly as a gigantic spider looms over him. The Magic School Bus taught me long ago what was going on, and what the impending fate of the fly would be.

3- The Rock. Just as the fly completely covers up its victim, and the fly/scientist gives a spine-chilling scream of fear, Inspector Herbert Marshall, viewing the scene with Vincent Price (ah, 50s casting), grabs a rock and slams it down on the spider, effectively killing it and the fly creature.

So, in simple math, when you add 1.screeching, primal voice of the fly/scientist + 2. horrifying visuals of snarement + 3. a sudden, brutal conclusion to a scientist's wayward experiments, you = 1 absolutely terrified 10 year old.

I know I eventually feel asleep that night, but it took a very long time. I distinctly remember that my leg could not stop twitching, that was how edgy I felt. Even after such jumpers as The Haunting  (1963) and Insidious, I can still get a good night's sleep. But even know, if I come across a scene from a certain 50s sci-fi film that took a silly concept and turned it into a tragedy of  regressive  humanity, subconsciously I can't hold back a shiver. 

Sunday, July 6, 2014

[Rec] (2007)

An example of how viewing environment affects movie watching:

A few months ago, A friend and I watched the great Spanish horror movie [Rec] in his dorm room. The clever use of found footage, combined with the increasing claustrophobia and whammy of an ending, resulted in both us being quite shaky when it finished.  He felt fine, but since I lived across campus, I was really nervous about taking that 10 minute journey alone.

Look at this! Wouldn't you be terrified as well? Source

However, my nervousness was unjustified, because if there was anything that could relieve one of the confining terrors seen on screen, it was a nice cool walk in the outdoors; I got home fine and ended up sleeping without a problem.  So who ended up staying awake until 3 am? That's right, my buddy, who freaked out his roommate by remaining wide awake at that late hour, peeking out from under the covers.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Mark of the Vampire (1935)

Tod Browning and Bela Lugosi's post-Dracula vampire reunion film is a nice atmospheric Universal horror film with plenty of low hanging fog and giant spiderwebs, all within a giant castle, of course. It also contains one heck of woman vampire.

That's Luna (Carroll Borland), and she's supposed to be the daughter of Count Dracula, d'I mean, Count Mora. While the main plot, which has something to do with Lionel Barrymore investigating a murder, is doing its own thing, Mora and Luna are wandering around their castle, looking ever so classily spooky.

Luna is a wonderfully designed creation. While Lugosi repeats his vampire garb of suit and cape, reminiscent of the 19th century, Luna looks like she comes from a more ambiguous time period. Her dress with train is reminiscent of the vampire brides that haunted Dracula's castle in the earlier film, but the lack of ornamentation on her modest, long sleeved gown, long hair, and striking make-up gives her the appearance of a more modern, yet ageless type of vampire. I have read theories that her look was an inspiration for the appearance of Lily Munster, which isn't too far-fetched.

Besides her appearance, Luna, as far as I know, is not only one of the earliest examples of a cinematic vampire who happens to be a woman, but also is one of the first seen (or more accurately, implied) to actually bite a person. I hesitate to say first, because this film is a remake of an earlier Tod Browning silent, London After Midnight (1927), one of the most famous lost films of all time. Judging from the "reconstruction" (actually just a bunch of promotional stills tied together with inter titles), the woman vampire in that film also attacked the good (ie forgettable) heroine.

Given what few scenes she has, Luna manages to hold attention in those moments with her otherworldly appearance: the way her dress spreads like wings when she attacks:

Or her slow decent with actual bat wings, a true way to enter in style.

While hesitant in calling her a rebel, there is something gratifying in seeing a lady vampire joins the Dracula club in neck bitting and transformation; it's how she separates herself from the previous vampire brides. She is a daughter, defining herself outside of a parent, no longer just a passive follower of her authority figure willing to slink off at the first glint of disapproval. Though she still follows orders, she manages to make do on her own, all the while staring eerily with the best of the bloodsuckers.

(Spoilers) Even the revelation that she and her "father" are no more than actors, hired by Detective Lionel Barrymore to...accomplish something relevant to the case, I think.... doesn't deter Luna from being cool. It's here that the audience is finally given a chance to see her without make-up, and smiling. Remaining mute throughout much of the film, she is finally given a voice, and a snarky one at that. Responding to the Count's pompus declaration that he "was better than any REAL vampire", she says "Sure, sure, but get off your make-up", followed by "And help me with some of this packing" (referring to their trucks of props, including those gorgeous wings). Her grounded demeanor is a refreshing break from the somber, hysterical ladies that so often populate this Universal horror movies; she's had her fun, but is ready to move on with her life, like a true professional performer.

Even as a mortal, she still is her own woman, one who is no-nonsense and not defined by her more famous co-star. It's beyond appropriate, after being placed in a consistent position of subservience,  we last see Luna giving that man who played her father orders.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Unseen Movies

I recently found out that Warner Archives has made the long unavailable Saturday's Children (1940) available on DVD. This is really exciting, because I've been longing to see this Claude Rains/John Garfield feature for a while now, and wasn't able to due to its rarity on home video. Thankfully, this is no longer the case.

However, there are still plenty of movies that I've been dying to see, but haven't because of the near impossibility of getting ahold of a copy; they are unseen movies. The following list (complete with clips) show my current top five: here's hoping that some of them get removed the upcoming years.

1. Casanova (1927)

Ivan Mussuskin was a strange sort of Matinee Idol. He had the charm and smolder of Valentino, but the goofiness and thick pancake make-up of Harry Langdon. This is supposed to be his best movie, and it does sound awesome: plenty of amorous shenanigans, dramatic and humorous, with elegant costumes and set pieces to boot. Please, Flicker Alley, you released 3 of his movies already; perhaps you can make room for one more?

2. Outward Bound (1930)

What's most intriguing about this flick is the cast, primarily Leslie Howard as a cynical drunk, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as the normal nice guy (as usual), and the eternally etherial Helen Chandler (of Dracula '31 fame). It doesn't sound that great, but come on, it's Fairbanks Jr and Howard on a boat to the afterlife; that's worth it for the curiosity value alone.

3. The Warrior's Husband (1933)
This one's a real mystery: no clips, no trailers, no sign of any festival showings. Perhaps there's no copy in existence. All I know is that this is a movie about ancient greek Amazons, who have their authority challenged by manly men. It may not fit our modern ideas of feminism, but strong women characters are always a treat to see in old movies, mostly because they are so unfortunately rare (and still are: when was the last time you saw a film where a woman participated in combat?)

4. Too Much Johnson (1938)
It must be a rights thing: This long-thought lost silent short by Orson Welles was just rediscovered last year, and has been making the festival rounds, but no word on a home video release yet. It's genius Welles having Joseph Cotton do Harold Llyod stunts while wearing an old-timey straw hat. All I've heard has been praise, so I await its inevitable release with anticipation.

5. The Lovers of Verona (1949)
(ignore the goofy music below and just enjoy the images)

Another forgotten film, this time in French. I've known about this one for years, but aside from some not-subtitled clips on youtube, no dice. It has a great premise: as a movie version of Romeo and Juliet is being filmed, the stars' stand-ins (played by Serge Reggiani and Anouk Aimée) fall in love but, of course, it ends tragically. Sure, it sounds sentimental and melodramatic, but the again, it is a French Romeo and Juliet; I'd feel ripped off it was otherwise.

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Desperate Hours (1955)

The Hillard's are your average suburban family, with a father (Fredric March), mother (Martha Scott), grown daughter (Mary Murphy), and young son (Richard Eyer). One day, their organized routine is disrupted when a trio of escaped convicts, led by Humphrey Bogart, invade their home and force them at gunpoint to keep their existence quite.

The movie is not that far from a horror film; you have the home invasion angle and the characters making stupid decisions that elongate their trial. However, what raises The Desperate Hours above most other films covering the same ground is its brief shocking bits of violence. There's no blood, but there are guns being used as a club, as well as breaking of glass, china, and furniture. As the criminals feel more at home, the family, particularly the patriarch, take to using more and more desperate measures to try to get them out of their house. What results is a tense, if slightly overlong, film that toys with the security that one would normally feel in suburbia, topped by stellar performances from March, Scott, Bogart, and Arthur Kennedy as the deputy sheriff put in charge of the manhunt.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

What Price Hollywood? (1932)

A waitress at The Brown Derby restaurant in Hollywood, Mary Evans (Constance Bennett) serves the very famous and very inebriated director Max Carey (Lowell Sherman). Being a wannabe actress, Evans gets into his good graces, and he arranges for her to have a bit part in his current film. After a stalled start, this performance impresses the heads of the studio so much that they make her a star. But Hollywood has other trick up its sleeve, not all of them nice.

It's widely believe that this film was the inspiration for the original  A Star is Born (and, by default, its many remakes). It manages to stand up on its own, however, thanks to a good cast and plenty of realist behind the scenes looks at how Hollywood works. There are meetings with yes men, a wedding that gets chaotically mobbed with fans, paparazzi with flashbulbs, and of course, studio scenes, including an indoor rain shower created with sprinklers and fire hoses!

A special highlight is Sherman's performance as the director whose career goes into decline as Bennett's rises. In real life, Sherman was a director along with being an actor, so his few scenes behind the camera have a special sort of authenticity. Sherman also shares very good platonicly fond chemistry with Bennett, and is both amusing and moving as a troubled mentor who is unable to give himself the leg up that his star received on her way to success.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

I Married a Witch (1942)

In Puritan times, a witch and her father are burned at the stake in a New England town. Before her execution, however, the witch placed a spell on Johnathan Wooley (Fredric March), the man who accused her, cursing him and all his decedents to be stuck in miserable marriages. Fast-forward to the present, and the newest Wooley (again Fredric March) is running for governor and is due to be married to a shrewish woman (Susan Hayward) the next day. As (bad) luck would have it, the witch is resurrected in the form of Veronica Lake, and she plans to continue messing with the Wooley family by having March fall in love with her.

I have a special nostalgic place in my heart for this movie. It was one of the first old films I ever watched multiple times as a child, and it was my introduction to director René Clair and stars Veronica Lake and Fredric March, the latter who has and will always be one of my favorite actors. Therefore, it's completely reasonable that I should herald this film as an under-seen comedic masterpiece. Which it is. It's funny,  charming,  witty, well-acted, smartly filmed, and contains some marvelous special effects for the time. What more can I say?

Well, Lake gives one of her best performances as the witch of the title, being at times beguiling, conniving, and a little goofy. She pouts when things don't go as planned, but recovers herself by sliding up a banister in order to give March a love potion. March himself is also enjoyable, trying unsuccessfully to hide his attraction to Lake through briskness, only for his voice to squeak whenever she gives him reason to panic. Together they make a cute pair; I'm particularly fond of the sequence when March spends literally all night explaining to Lake why she can't be in love with him, only to end up stroking her hair and laughing at her gobble up his breakfast waffles.

Director René Clair was a master craftsman when it came to moviemaking, and despite being overshadowed by his earlier and more well-regarded French musicals (Le Million for example), I Married a Witch is just as visually stunning as its predecessors. The special effects are deceptively simple, with miniatures, wires, and plenty of smoke to go around. Lake's costumes, designed by Edith Head are gorgeous. And the comedic sequences are golden, especially March's chaotic wedding to Hayward, which is continually interrupted, at first by Lake and her devious spell casting father (Cecil Kellaway), then by March as Lake's influences take their toll on him.

The total effect is nothing short of hilarious; it's the type of film that not only leaves you smiling and maybe a little moved, but will also prevent you from hearing the song "I Love You Truly" the same way ever again.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

You can sure cram in a lot of story in an hour. This pre-code gem stars a young and handsome Joel McCrea as world famous hunter Bob Rainsford, who ends up shipwrecked on a foreboding island. He meets the island's owner, the polite and cultured Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks), who also happens to be a well regarded hunter. He also has guests who have been shipwrecked a week earlier: siblings Martin (Robert Armstrong) and Eve (Fay Wray) Trowbridge. But something sinister is afoot: turns out that Count Zaroff has grown tired of killing wild animals. Now he enjoys hunting The Most Dangerous Game of All: MAN!!!!

Filmed on the same jungle sets as King King (1933), with the same actors (Wray and Armstrong), producers ( Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper, the former additionally co-directing), and composer (Max Steiner), The Most Dangerous Game is based on a short story, but is smart enough not to kill it with padding. The telling is straightforward, and gets to the gist relatively quickly, thanks to some well-placed severed heads. And when we reach the jungle, and McCrea and Wray (a wonderful name pairing), the pacing doesn't lag. There isn't even time given for a love scene, but that shouldn't be suprising; when there are killer dogs and kosaks on your tail, sweet nothings would be the farthest thing from anyone's mind.

McCrea and Wray are in fine form in their lightly ripped clothing, as is Armstrong in his brief role as an realistically annoying drunk, but Banks steals the show. He recites his lines with a touch of camp, but he remains a formidable villain who is equally exited with the prospect of killing McCrea and having Wray. It's to the movie's credit that, though it tells a gripping yarn, the stakes are never lowered. Banks's Zaroff is a figure of imminence experience and discipline when it comes to hunting, making the chase sequences chock full of suspense, particularly when the couple are pursued by Zaroff and his hounds through a foggy swamp.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Blood and Sand (1922)

Juan Gallardo (Rudolph Valentino) is a famous bullfighter in Spain, married to his saintly childhood sweetheart Carmen (Lila Lee), but seduced into an affair with the vampy Doña Sol (Nita Naldi). This silent film is one of Valentino's better known titles, but without him, it would have been a slog to get through.

The movie seems to be preoccupied not only with the adulterous hijinks of Naldi and our hero, but also with the idea that nothing good can result from a career which puts so much emphasis on death. It presses the latter point home with the inclusion of two rather superfluous characters who are vague acquaintances of Juan: an outlaw who also makes his living by killing, and a philosopher who muses on passion and death while gazing at the torture devises that decorate his study (a macabre hobby that no one else seems to find odd).

Valentino is in fine form, as usual, and pulls off the bullfighting garb. Naldi is unintentionally very amusing as the bad girl who causes our hero to stray the moment she gives him an ancient Eygptian snake ring as a trophy for one of his successful kills. At one point in the film, she bites his hand in a passion, causing him to violently throw her across the room! She is the definition of over the top silent film acting, and is by far the most amusing aspect of the film

The 1941 technicolor version, with Tyrone Power and Rita Hayworth, is a far more satisfying and engrossing telling, but Valentino and Silent Film fans should check the original out in passing. Just don't expect anything mindblowing.

Fun Factoid: Fred Niblo, the director of the 1922 film, went on to direct silent versions of Ben Hur (1925) and Camille (1926), both of which are also overshadowed by later, more famous cinematic variations.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman (1971)

There are a few stories that follow this plotline: Rugged White Man gets captured by Natives, who treat him badly. Eventually, through gumption and good-old civilized know-how, the Rugged White Man gains the respect of the tribe, and in the meantime learns to adapt to their ways.

A Man Called Horse (1970) is the movie that came most often to mind while I watched How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman, a criminally little-known Brazilian flick that follows the same trajectory, though with different results. The Old West is switched out for the Amazon, Native Americans for Native Brazilians, the "hero" is French (of course), and instead of hooks through the pecks, our protagonist is faced with the fate of being cannibalized.

It's worth noting that almost everyone is practically naked, but this is played very straightforwardly;  there's only one distressingly erotic scene between the titular Frenchman and his tribal "wife", and that occurs while she playfully describes in detail his imminent consumption.

A refreshing lack of condescension and white washing towards either party is an additional breath of fresh air. The handheld camerawork is effective in capturing the tribe's daily life and customs, and how the Frenchman tries to adapt in order to survive. It's an unusual little film with a subtle disturbing commentary on imperialism that I would highly recommend checking out if you can.