Tuesday, January 14, 2014

THE GOLEM (1920) - A Review
Last night we had the pleasure of going downtown to the Whiteside Theatre (still in the process of being restored, but looking great) to see the silent German film, The Golem, with a new piano score performed live by its composer, Beth Karp. My wife and I got to the theater just as the outside lights came on, and there were already a few other people there. By the time the doors opened there was a good sized crowd waiting to get in, and, by the time the film actually started, I'd guess the crowd had grown to something like 500 people. Who knew that German films from the 1920s were such a draw?

Anyway, for those who don't know the legend of the Golem, it's a defender of the Jewish people that's made of clay or other materials, and brought to life by invoking a secret magic word. In any case, that's the Golem we see in the film, and though he is a welcome defender at first, eventually he strikes out - literally - on his own, and then must be destroyed. In the Golem, we can see the roots of many a man-made monster and cautionary tale, perhaps the most obvious being Frankenstein. (When we got home, my wife asked, "Is Gort a Golem?" I think Gort is indeed a Golem.)
Silent films are so far removed from what we are used to today, such a completely different cinematic animal, that it's difficult to "judge" them fairly. Some of the acting in this film should really be called over-acting, or wild emoting. The gestures are so broad, the style so out-of-touch with modern expectations, that some of it is, unfortunately, humorous.

But...The Golem itself, as played by the six-foot-six Paul Wegener (who also directed and co-wrote the film), is a figure of imposing presence. Playing a character that does not speak, Wegener is not hindered by the film's silence, and he manages the create a creature that is visually striking and often quite menacing. When the Golem finally goes on a rampage, and the streets are filled with hundreds of extras fleeing, and flames are ripping across the red-tinted screen, The Golem creates a majesty and sense of menace that stands the test of time. (Again, my wife commented, "People at the time this came out must have been terrified." I think she's right about that, too.)
The new score by Beth Karp was just fine, and helped to move the film along. I don't know if you'll ever get to hear her score - who knows what the market is for an updated DVD of The Golem - but it was nice to have her there to make the evening that much more special. It all took me right back to being a kid, hiding behind the couch at the house of one of my mom's friends as the adults watched a 16mm print of Nosferatu (1922). Silence isn't just golden - it can be pretty damned spooky, too.

Friday, January 10, 2014


One of many westerns featuring the ever mysterious character of Sartana, played here by Gianni Garko. In this one, which falls somewhere in the middle of his numerous film appearances, the plot is the familiar “bad guy wants your land (for gold/oil/a railroad) and will do anything (lie/cheat/steal/kill) to get it.” Sartana – did I mention he’s ever mysterious? – winds up in the middle of things, helping the lovely young Abigail Benson hold on to the land left to her by her uncle against the depredations of, well, of pretty much everybody in the movie, actually.

While not as stylish as some of the better known Italian westerns, nor as realistic as others (too many clean people and streets here), this movie offers a lot to enjoy for those who aren’t expecting things to conform too closely to reality.

Sartana Will Pay is actually fairly light on gunplay for a western; Sartana seems to favor a small, dainty pistol in many cases, though he’s no slouch with a rifle, either. He also knocks some heavies around with his pocket watch and fob, and uses playing cards as weapons on several occasions. As I watched the many unusual weapons used in this film, and some of the odd fights, I kept being reminded of Jackie Chan. So it was only appropriate, I guess, that at the end of the film Sartana has a kung fu fight with the evil Chinese owner of a casino. Something for everyone, right?

This last touch may have been courtesy of screenwriter Giovanni Simonelli, who a few years later would help bring Mr. Hercules Against Karate (1973) to the screen. The other screenwriter here, Roberto Gianviti, would go on to work on a number of interesting films directed by Lucio Fulci, including A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971), Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972) and The Psychic (1977). Given the breadth and (weird) depth of these writer’s credits, it’s not surprising that their take on the western would be a little off kilter. Frankly, I admired the way they melded the cliché (see plot synopsis above) with the offbeat. I don’t know if it was meant to be tongue in cheek or campy, but I do know it was a lot of fun.

As for the title…It’s literally true. As Sartana goes about dispatching various bad guys, and collecting the bounties on their heads, he always follows up by paying for their funerals. Well, except for Colorado Joe, who winds up being blown up in a mining tunnel. Still, technically, Sartana does see that he’s buried, so…

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

THE LAST DAYS ON MARS (2013) – A Review

This is one of those films that just kind of gets dumped into a handful of theaters on its way to a DVD release, generating more questions than excitement. Why was it made? It’s not a terrible film, so why didn’t it get a wider release and/or more of a promotional push? Lord knows worse films than this have gotten full-blown releases and ad campaigns. But, does the fact that at least five versions of the poster for the film exist speak to an uncertainty of how to market it? And, on a more local level, why did our local independent theater book this? (Not that I’m complaining, mind you, it just seems a little out of character.)

Anyway, The Last Days on Mars stars Liev Schreiber as a somewhat nervous astronaut who is part of a scientific team exploring Mars. Another member of the team discovers a bacterial life form in the most personal of ways: It infects him, turning him into a bloodthirsty proto-zombie who can survive both in the oxygen of the scientist’s base, and in the airless Martian atmosphere. It is probably unnecessary to explain that other members of the team become infected, and bad things happen.

Let me do the very simple movie math for you on this one: 28 Days Later (2002) divided by Ghosts of Mars (2001) plus the ending from Alien (1979) equals The Last Days on Mars.

So, is it derivative? Yeah. Is the plot (zombies…on Mars!) simple? Yeah. Did I enjoy it? Yeah. I liked the fact that they didn’t spend an unseemly amount of money to make this. The small budget also means that the CGI effects were kept to a minimum. And the film did manage to generate some moments of dread that were enjoyable. If there’d been just a little more light in a few scenes, and a little less herky-jerky camera work (to allow you to actually see what was going on), this would have been a lot more effective. Still, it did the job. My wife, who is a fan of both sci-fi and zombies, enjoyed it very much. When we saw it in the theater last night, there was only one other person there.

Which brings me back to the questions in the first paragraph…Still, if you’re like my wife, and are a fan of sci-fi and/or zombies, you could do a lot worse than this.


Tuesday, January 7, 2014

I WAKE UP SCREAMING (1941) – A Review
This well-known noirish crime drama has a very interesting cast, and a somewhat involved plot. To sum up, when beautiful model Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis) is found murdered, sports promoter Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature) is doggedly pursued by creepy police lieutenant Ed Cornell (Laird Cregar), who insists Frankie is the killer. Meanwhile, Lynn’s sister, Jill (Betty Grable), who is involved with Christopher, is also drawn into the search for the real killer.

Liberally sprinkled with flashbacks, some inappropriate musical choices, and a strong supporting cast (Alan Mowbray, Elisha Cook, Jr., Frank Orth), I Wake Up Screaming is, overall, a fairly passable if pedestrian crime drama of its time. Though perhaps of interest as an early, non-musical leading role for Betty Grable, it’s not very notable for any other reason…
…except for one remarkable thing: Laird Cregar.
To say that Laird Cregar transcends the mediocrity of this film is a huge understatement. He simply towers over the entire cast, the entire film, looming large as a malignant presence throughout the story. Even the dialogue for his character seems to be beamed in from some other, better movie. He is astonishing here. By turns menacing and pathetic, and always obsessive, you’ll not soon forget Lt. Ed Cornell.
In one scene, Frankie Christopher awakens in the middle of the night, and can see Cornell sitting silently in a chair in his bedroom, illuminated by the flashing neon light outside. It’s a simple, yet highly effective scene, and extremely unnerving.
In another scene, Cregar manages to imbue the simple line, “It can be done” with everything you’ll ever need to know about his character. Simple though the line is, in the context of the scene, it’s one of the spookiest pieces of dialogue I’ve ever heard.
Were it not for Laird Cregar’s performance, I would describe this as a very average, take it or leave it picture. But given his performance, I Wake Up Screaming is a must-see film for anyone who loves movies, or appreciates great acting. He really is that compelling. (And, to be fair, fans of the other stars here will not be disappointed with them.) When I first saw this film, I was so taken with his performance that I immediately watched it a second time, and have sought out all his other work since. Which leads to...
...the tragic postscripts for this movie. After his stellar work here, and in This Gun for Hire the next year, Cregar’s star was on the rise. In 1944, he was given the lead role in a remake of The Lodger, and the year after that, he was again the lead in what turned out to be his final film, Hangover Square. In an effort to move more in the direction of a leading man, the large actor (6’3” and 300 pounds) crash dieted down considerably. Apparently the dieting put some sort of strain on his stomach, and, days after a surgery to deal with that problem, he died of heart failure on December 9th, 1944 at 31 years of age.
As for Carole Landis…Despite the good notices she got for this film, Landis soon found her career slipping. She also went through a number of short-lived marriages. It all came to an end on July 5th, 1948, when she killed herself with an overdose of sedatives. She was just 29 years old.

Monday, January 6, 2014

A BAND CALLED DEATH (2012) – A Review

The story this documentary tells sounds straight out of an issue of What If…As in, what if it turned out there was an all-black band out of Detroit in the early 1970s whose sound was, as a New York Times headline later put it, punk before punk was punk? What if it wasn’t until 35 long years after they recorded that their music finally got a wide release, and the band got both the credit and acclaim they were due?

Well, that is exactly what really did happen. Long-story-short: In the early 70s in Detroit, headquarters of Motown, the three Hackney brothers – David (guitar), Bobby (bass and vocals) and Dannis (drums) – formed a hard rock band called Death. And yes, they played fast and they played loud, embracing a sound that had yet to go public or be given a name. They found a supportive producer, shopped a demo reel literally around the world, and found no takers. After pressing and releasing 500 copies of a 45-rpm single on their own, the band dissolved. Then, decades later, that same (now highly sought after and valuable 45) went viral as a MP3, generating intense interest in Death. The two surviving Hackney brothers, Bobby and Dannis, were tracked down, and their music finally released to the world.

Though this bare outline has the arc of fictional drama, it’s all true, with the context of the times and some of the details provided here giving even more depth to the remarkable nature of this story.

Three young black men, the sons of a Baptist minister, no less, forming a hard rock band in Detroit during the tail-end of the Motown era is unusual enough, to be sure. But then there’s that name…One that apparently caused no end of concern. When the Hackney brothers were recording in the same building as Gladys Knight, and she heard the name of their band, she locked the door to her studio. Producer Don Davis, who took the band on as a client, still apparently can’t bring himself to say the name, instead spelling it out “D-E-A-T-H” while talking on camera.

But the name clearly meant something to band leader David Hackney, and he absolutely refused to change it. His vision was to try to turn something negative into something positive, and he clearly understood that life and death are part of an interlocked cycle. David was also steadfast in his belief, since proven correct, that someday the world would come looking for the band’s music. His vision turned out to be true, but sadly, not until after he had died of lung cancer. But his songs, his children as he called them, have now finally flown the nest and taken on lives of their own.

The Hollywood Reporter described this film as “a moving testament to the enduring power of family ties and groundbreaking music,” and that’s a pretty good summation. The bonds between the Hackney brothers, and their extended family, are clearly strong, and Bobby and Dannis are also clearly proud to be carrying their brother David’s legacy forward. Though this film touches on lots of cultural and musical changes, it’s the Hackney family that is very much at the center of things. Their affection for each other, their faith, and their sense of purpose are all moving and inspiring.

Even though the story in this film is about “lost” music being rediscovered, it’s easy enough to imagine the same story being played out in any of the arts – the “lost” genius novel, the brilliant and undiscovered painter, etc. Another of my favorite music documentaries, Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey (1994) has this quality – with inventor Leon Theremin, long thought to be dead, being found by the documentary crew just before he actually did die, allowing him to ponder his legacy on camera. One of the emotional rewards of A Band Called Death is not only seeing the surviving Hackney brothers enjoying their music being released after so many years, but also seeing them, with guitarist Bobbie Duncan, getting to play the songs before audiences for the first time ever.

I don’t think it’s necessary to like punk, or even rock music, to enjoy this engaging and well-crafted film. To paraphrase the quote above, as a testament to the power of family and the arts in individual lives, A Band Called Death delivers the goods. My wife and I laughed, cried, and shook our heads in wonder. Though it starts to drag just a little near the end, both the band and the filmmakers can be proud of this piece of work. I highly recommend it.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

If you really love movies, the best place to see them is in a theater. But if you really love obscure movies, old movies, outright weird movies, you probably won’t find those playing at your local cinema - you’ll have to seek them out on video. This being the case, those people in the world who devote their time and energy to making the obscure and the outre available on video for all of us are vitally important, and should be greatly appreciated.

Mike Vraney, who founded Something Weird Video in Seattle, was one of those vitally important people. This makes his recent death (at age 56) something worth noting.

Over the past couple of decades, Something Weird has made a great deal of weird somethings available for the hardcore film fans of the world. The films they released on video covered numerous genres – from early drug scare films to 1950s “nudie cuties” to the groundbreaking gore flicks of Herschell Gordon Lewis and much, much more.

Beyond that, as a collector and cinema historian, Vraney also proved to be an invaluable resource to those researching and writing about the underground and back alley aspects of American cinematic history. A book that I just finished reading, Eric Schaefer’s Bold! Daring! Shocking! True! A History of Exploitation Films, 1919 – 1959, cites him as being a major source of original materials used to put the book together. In the acknowledgements, Schaefer also says, “I am also grateful for the efforts that Mike has made to find and preserve this unique slice of American culture…”

We should all be grateful for that, very grateful. Thank you, Mike. Your efforts are appreciated.
And, by the way…If you’ve never seen the 1967 Herschell Gordon Lewis movie (Something Weird) that Vraney took as his company name, you’re missing out on one of the most incredible, insane and audacious low-budget whatisits ever made. The “bedding attack” scene alone is worth the price of admission. Amazing!

Thursday, January 2, 2014


When I heard that the actress Juanita Moore had died, I had just finished watching an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents that I wanted to see because Theresa Harris was in it. Both Moore and Harris were gifted black actresses in the Golden Age of segregated Hollywood. Both were often relegated to playing maids (Harris played a maid in the Hitchcock episode – but did have some lines) and various other servants. But Moore, after appearing in films for nearly twenty years, gained broader acclaim and recognition when she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for 1959’s version of Imitation of Life.

That’s a title that probably held a lot of meaning for black actresses in Hollywood in the 30s, 40s and 50s. After all, the original 1934 version had provided a large and prominent part for the actress Louise Beavers, who had already made dozens of screen appearances. But, prominent role or not, after that, Beavers was relegated to the only roles (often uncredited) available for black actresses – such as “Lily – Cook #3” in 1939’s Made for Each Other, or “Woman Talking to Police” in 1940’s Primrose Path. Beavers played, by my count, a “Maid” around forty times, and characters named “Mammy” at least five times. Still, as Hattie McDaniel (who played dozens of maids herself) said, “I’d rather play a maid than be one.” Imitation of life, indeed.

In a sort of inverted echo of McDaniel’s quote, Moore was quoted as saying, “The Oscar prestige was fine, but I worked more before I was nominated. Casting directors think an Oscar nominee is suddenly in another category. They couldn’t possibly ask you to do one or two days’ work. You wouldn’t accept it. And I’m sure I would.”

In other words, Hattie McDaniel won an Oscar, but kept working, taking those small, one or two day gigs. Twenty years later, when Juanita Moore was just nominated, Hollywood had evolved enough to know they couldn’t recognize her talent and then keep shuffling her into bit parts. But it hadn’t (and I would argue still hasn’t) evolved enough so that there were actually meaningful roles to offer a mature woman of color.  Hollywood, for the most part, was past the “Mammy” period, and thus Moore was able to find numerous roles playing “Momma” instead.

Still, Moore did keep working, taking small parts in films and doing guest spots on TV shows. In 1968 she was featured in Jules Dassin’s black cast remake of 1935’s The Informer, titled Uptight, which was a harbinger of things to come.

She finally came into her own, in terms of billing and more prominent parts, during the Blaxploitation Era of the 1970s.  She had roles in the 1973 classic, The Mack, as well as Fox Style (also 1973), the black western Thomasine & Bushrod (1974) and the cult horror hit Abby (1974), a black cast knock-off of The Exorcist (1973). After starting in films during World War II, Moore’s last credit, a guest spot on the TV show Judging Amy in 2001, took her career into the 21st century. Her life and her work spanned a great deal of change in the country, and within the film industry.

Her career, low key as it might have often been, placed her in some classic films, such as Cabin in the Sky (1943); the controversial race picture Pinky (1949); the all-star Women’s Prison (1955); two minor classics starring Glenn Ford, Affair in Trinidad (1952) and Ransom! (1956); and the Technicolor musical masterpiece The Girl Can’t Help It (1956). Making a living as an actor is never easy. For Moore to have had the career she did, when she did, is extremely noteworthy. I hope she was proud of her work. It doubtlessly meant a great deal to a great many people.