Tuesday, October 14, 2014

DOCTOR X (1932) - A Review
Horror movies? Love 'em! Horror movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood? Even better. Two-Strip Technicolor? One of my favorite "looks" for films - so dreamlike, so uniquely unnatural.
All that being the case, it's no surprise that I love this movie, given that it's a very rare creature indeed - a Golden Age horror film in Two-Strip Technicolor. The fact that it's also got a great cast (Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Lee Tracy, Preston Foster, Robert Warwick, etc.), a cracked plot and script, and is genuinely weird and creepy in parts only adds to my affection for it. It would seem strange and wrong to make it through October without visiting Doctor X.
This is one of those films where the plot is very much secondary to the mood (and, when first released, to the novelty of color), so it doesn't really matter much that Lee Tracy plays a wisecracking newspaper reporter who is trying to crack the case of the "Moon Murders." He winds up at the institute run by Doctor Xavier (Atwill). Xavier's daughter, Joanne (Wray) also lives there, along with the craziest collection of mad scientist types ever assembled at one location. This movie doesn't just have one or two oddball, suspicious characters - oh no, that would be skimping. At Doctor Xavier's place, pretty much everyone is in full-blown, eyes-bugging loony mode. It's like a whole house full of Dwight Fryes, or a Technicolor Dwain Esper movie.

The creepy, crazy aspects of this film are super-strong, and extremely enjoyable, and fortunately, most of the story focuses on these elements. Unfortunately, in more ways than one, Lee Tracy plays the kind of snappy patter comic relief part that was more suited to, say, Ted Healy. Tracy is a much better actor and comedian than this role calls for, and he is pretty much wasted here. (For the record, I am a big Lee Tracy fan. But this film is, to say the least, disappointing from that perspective.)

In addition to the overall lunatic tone of the entire film, there are also multiple elements of deformity, disability and infirmity. Characters have missing limbs, missing eyes, get around on crutches, etc. And - SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! - it's the element of deformity that ultimately turns out to be the driving force behind the man/beast committing the "Moon Murders." Though, to be honest, I still am not quite sure exactly why the killer kills people - other than perhaps because he just looks so monstrous.

But never mind. This is 76 minutes of fairly pure cinematic delirium, the real stuff. It starts strong, and builds towards a truly creepy scene near the end in which the killer smears himself with icky pink putty, while muttering about the virtues of "synthetic flesh." It's a scene that I think is still powerful, nightmarish stuff, and I can only imagine how shocking and scary it must have been to audiences with 1930s era sensibilities. And yes, it's all in glorious, unnatural color. As my late criminology professor Doctor Sims would have said: "Outstanding!"
FOOTNOTE: IF there had never been Doctor X, then there would never have been the a-little-too-late non-sequel sequel, The Return of Doctor X (1939). And that probably would have been good news to Humphrey Bogart, who starred in that famous turkey which, by the way, didn't actually feature a character named "Doctor X" at all. But it did allow Bogart to make his one and only, terrible, terrible appearance in a horror movie - an experience he would doubtlessly liked to have avoided.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

PIRANHA (1978) - A Review
What a great film.

I mean, this is a perfectly calibrated and executed horror film that genre fans should find impossible not to enjoy. It's also a great example of what is generally thought of as the Roger Corman, less is more, shoot 'em quick aesthetic, having been shot in less than a month on a budget of $600,000. (It earned ten times that amount at the U.S. box office alone.) The plot is also comfort food for creature fans: Mutant piranha developed by the U.S. government get released into a river. Downstream? A new resort, a summer camp for kids, and plenty of clueless potential victims seeking some summertime fun in the water.
In any case, let's start by noting the smart, lightly politcal and (intentionally) funny screenplay by John Sayles - his very first. It starts with a bang - well, with a bite, actually - and then moves right along at a brisk pace, inserting enough necessary exposition and gratuitous bloodletting to simultaneously keep the plot afloat and the fans shrieking in their seats. (Sayles also makes a cameo appearance in the film.)
Then there's the direction by Joe Dante - helming his second film. Already he shows the sure hand with fantasy material that would become even more evident with his better know films such as The Howling (1981) and Gremlins (1984). And, now that I think about it, this film is almost a hybrid of those two future projects, combining the humor and small scaly creatures of Gremlins with the full-on bloody horror of The Howling. (However, the next stop for Dante was working on 1979's Rock 'N' Roll High School.)
Then there's the cast. Forget about top-billed Bradford Dillman, who, though generally enjoyably grumpy, comes across as a low rent Charlton Heston. And forget about second-billed Heather Menzies, whose character isn't really believable, but hey, whatever. No, the real strength and joy of this movie is the truly great cast of characters supporting the two leads.

Literally starting everything off is Kevin McCarthy, who plays the scientist who helped develop the mutant piranhas that end up causing so much trouble. Keenan Wynn is a sweet, drunk old codger who finds out the hard way that drinking and fishing can be fatal. The always reliable Dick Miller is a glad-handing, sleazy resort developer. Paul Bartel, most improbably, is an uptight children's camp counselor. Richard Deacon shows up briefly for no good reason at all. And the beautiful and fierce Barbara Steele arrives midway through as a government scientist (the evocatively named "Dr. Mengers") who is interested in the piranhas, but doesn't seem too terribly upset by the destruction they're causing.

As for the piranha themselves, praise must be given to the effects crew and filmmakers for making what turns out to be such simple effects work look so realistic and ferocious. Between the editing and the generous bloodletting, you'd think you were seeing real, live, gnawing beasties. Between this and Jaws (1975), the 1970s were a bad time to go swimming.
Now, I well know that some will disagree with saying anything positive about a film like this. Okay. Point taken. It's inherently a questionable genre, and might not be your thing. I get that. Movies like this are never in much peril of being burdened with Oscars.

But, for those open to fantasy, for those actively seeking some horror - say, around Halloween-time - Piranha is like a perfectly baked, perfectly sweetened cinnamon roll. It offers up layer after layer of delicious, gooey goodness, sure to hit your sweet spot. And after that first bite (as mentioned above), you'll doubtlessly want to finish the whole thing.
Ah, but be warned. This first goodie is just that, but approach the sequels and remakes that followed with a bit of caution.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

So, before kicking off our annual month of horror movies, there was a brief discussion between my wife and I about whether or not we'd start in the shallow end of the pool, say with a Universal monster movie from the 1930s, or just dive right on into the deep end. Well, given the fact that today brought us further news of the first Ebola case diagnosed on U.S. soil, in Texas, and given the further fact that today is, per NPR, the 40th anniversary of the release of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), it just seemed right to start with a movie I'd been wanting to revisit - The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986).
In other words, we dove right on into the deep end.
I can still vividly recall seeing TCM 2 in the theater with friends when it first came out. Now, obviously, we all went in expecting a horror film, but I think it's safe to say we weren't really expecting anything as intense as this film. When the movie was over, I left the theater a little stunned and with a headache - both of which I counted as positive signs, mind you. You can't say this is a film that doesn't make an impression.
Years later, and viewed on DVD, TCM 2 can't hope to have the same impact. But it still packs a wallop. Boasting much higher production values, some truly effective acting, and a razor's edge balance of humor and horror, I think this sequel is much better than the first film - though, admittedly, both have the ability to make an audience very uncomfortable.
Picking up years after the first film, TCM 2 finds a vengeance-seeking "Lefty" Enright (Dennis Hopper) obsessively trying to hunt down the murderous hillbilly family that killed his brother. Said family - Drayton, Chop Top and Bubba ("Leatherface") Sawyer - has gone into the catering business - in a sense, hiding in plain sight. An ambitious radio DJ, "Stretch" Brock (Caroline Williams) winds up getting caught in the middle of it all after accidentally recording a couple of Texas yuppies who called into her show - and promptly got chopped up by the Sawyers while still on the phone. 

The sharp script, by L.M. Kit Carson, hits the right notes to please genre fans, while also deftly inserting some character development and psychological motivation for the far-out characters brought to life here. Dennis Hopper, an outsider making his way back in (the more critically acclaimed Blue Velvet and River's Edge both came out the same year as this), wisely underplays his role, and never seems to be "playing down" to the horror genre.
But most importantly, and impressively, Caroline Williams is simply great in what is the real lead role in the film. I find her extremely believable, very appealing, and she handles some genuinely difficult and horrific scenes perfectly. The scene where she talks her way out of getting killed by Leatherface at the radio station is tense, uncomfortable, and memorable, and Williams rises far above the average horror film screamer. Why she never went on to bigger and more mainstream roles, I don't know, though I'm happy that she's still acting.

Special note must also be given to Jim Siedow, who plays Drayton Sawyer, and to Bill Moseley, who plays Chop Top. Siedow, all toothy grins and stiff, awkward movements, is way too believable as the disgruntled and demented redneck patriarch. A returning cast member from the first film, Siedow acts as a sort of rotten foundation on which to build all the outrageous and vile things that make up this story. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, Moseley is wild and way over the top in what was only his second film role. Over the top, yes, but extremely creepy as the ever-manic Chop Top, Moseley also gets some of the film's choicest lines of dialogue. After watching this movie, you'll never hear the phrase "lick my plate" the same way again.
The film starts off on a fairly light note, before night falls (literally and figuratively) and the story becomes darker and darker. By the final section of the film, when the action has moved into the Sawyer's underground maze of a home, the film becomes truly nightmarish, and the pace becomes faster and faster. Finally, the film doesn't so much end as simply jolt to a halt - not unlike a dreamer being jolted awake. Everyone but Stretch is dead (or so it seems at any rate), but, even though she has survived physically, it's not clear that her psyche is intact.
Really, after watching this film again, the only complaint I can muster is that the original score, by director Tobe Hooper and Jerry Lambert, is truly terrible - cliché, cheap sounding keyboard washes and squeals that add nothing to an otherwise excellent and unsettling experience. But even that cloud has a silver lining: the soundtrack features a number of strong songs by "horror-friendly" bands like the Cramps, the Lords of the New Church, and Oingo Boingo, among others.

And it's a line from one of the Lords songs on the soundtrack that I always think of when this movie comes up: "You can get away with murder out here/If you don't run out of gas." This is a film that comes with a full tank, and gets away with murder and then some. It is not for the faint of heart.
And let the Halloweening begin!

Sunday, September 7, 2014

And subtitled Romanian Urban Myths of the '80s. Being that a little historical context is necessary, let's start with just a bit of text from the DVD cover: "The final fifteen years of the Ceausescu regime were the worst in Romania's history. Nonetheless, the propaganda machine of that time relentlessly referred to that period as the country's Golden Age."
Before we watched this film, I read a little about it online. Several reviews essentially said that, if you weren't there (for the Ceausescu years), you wouldn't get it. Well, that's a load of bunk. This is a film that speaks a universal language - satire. And the thing it's satirizing is a nearly universal source of angst - the stupidity of bureaucracies. Anyone over the age of, say, twelve, who's ever had to deal with a dysfunctional human system will understand what this film is all about.
One aspect of this film that is fairly unique, though, is that it's a comic anthology. Golden Age consists of six different stories, all written by Cristian Mungiu, and directed by Mungiu and four other directors. The titles of the episodes often give a hint of the type of foolishness to come: The Legend of the Official Visit; The Legend of the Party Photographer; The Legend of the Zealous Activist; The Legend of the Greedy Policeman; The Legend of the Air Sellers; and The Legend of the Chicken Driver. I don't think it will spoil anything to tell you that a recurring theme is the search for the basic necessities of life, generally food. This search is, of course, both caused by, and impeded by, the aforementioned dysfunctional human systems.

The Official Visit is somewhat self-explanatory, and concerns a small town preparing ("Clean up that cow shit!" "Bring the cow over! Bring the cow over!") for a visit from high officials - only to have things go horribly wrong.
The Party Photographer portrays the efforts to manipulate an official news photo so it meets party requirements - only to have things go horribly wrong.
The Zealous Activist is about just that - a zealous activist who volunteers to bring the literacy rate in a remote village up to 100%. Of course, things go horribly wrong...

I think you get the idea. We enjoyed each episode, and the film as a whole, though some stood out above the rest for me. The Official Visit was the most laugh out loud funny of the legends, and, since it's the first story, the film starts off on a high note. The Party Photographer was a truly classic representation of how you generally make things worse, not better, when you start massaging the truth, and it builds to a very good (visual) punchline. The educated urbanite versus the wise country folk theme of The Zealous Activist was also very enjoyable, and showed the very real perils of being overzealous. I also very much enjoyed the final legend, The Chicken Driver, though it was more lightly humorous than full-on funny, and had a pleasantly bittersweet tone to it.

So while some stood out more than others, none of the episodes here were less than perfectly enjoyable. I don't know why there aren't more comic anthologies, frankly. Lord knows we still get horror anthologies turning up. And, since dying is easy, but comedy is hard, it seems like a smart move to hedge your bets by putting together several short humorous stories like this film does. That way, even if one or two bomb, the film as a whole may still be worthwhile.
But in my zeal, I digress. Suffice to say that this film was a pleasant surprise, and is a little satirical gem. My only real complaint might be that it has a running time (well over two hours) that generally gives me pause. But, given the episodic nature of Golden Age, it can easily be taken in a legend or two at a time.
One definition of comedy is that comedy is tragedy that happens to someone else. In this specific case, the tragedy happened to Romania. But the greater tragedy, the one that will speak to anyone watching this film, is the human tragedy. In other words, whether you're Romanian or not, you will doubtlessly find many things here you recognize, and much to recommend.
Comrades! Life is beautiful! Now, clean up that cow shit!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

DEATH NOTE (2006) - A Review
So, you're walking down the street and you find a black notebook laying on the ground. Even though it's raining, the notebook is resting inside a mysteriously dry circle. You pick up the notebook and take it home. Later, upon opening the notebook, you find instructions explaining that this is the Death Note, and if you write a person's name in the notebook, they will die within ten seconds of a heart attack.
That's the fantastic but believably presented scenario for Death Note, and this is the situation the main character, Light Yagami (Tatsuya Fujiwara), a college student, finds himself in. Not surprisingly, he doesn't believe what he's reading, but, when he sees a news report about a vile criminal on TV, he impulsively writes the man's name in the notebook before going to bed. In the morning, the newspaper reports the sudden death - by an apparent heart attack - of the criminal whose name Light wrote in the Death Note.
In case that's not enough to convince Light that he's in possession of the real deal, he's soon visited by Ryuk, the God of Death, who dropped the notebook and explains that it's Light's to keep - and use - for as long as he likes. Ryuk quickly becomes a regular presence in Light's life, seeming to take a deep interest in how this human wields his new death dealing power. Generally, Ryuk neither advocates for use of the Death Note, nor argues against the use of it, though he does ask Light the occasional probing question as the young man's life becomes more and more centered around the lethal notebook.

At first, Light does what he sees as a public good, by targeting and eliminating criminals who seem to have escaped being punished by the legal system. He reasons that ridding the world of these despicable individuals is an inherent good, and, hopefully, will send a message to other would-be criminals that just because they escape the law doesn't mean they will escape justice.
Soon enough, dozens of rapists and murderers around the world are dead, and the authorities are both interested in how this is happening, and concerned that it will continue. As the investigation into the deaths grows, it becomes clear that the person or persons behind them are in or near Tokyo. So, in order to try to get the authorities to back off, Light begins targeting various law enforcement investigators, hoping their deaths will frighten those who remain away from continuing with their efforts to find him.
And this sets up the central dilemma in the film: How much bad can you do in the pursuit of doing good, while still being able to convince yourself that you're still doing good? It's watching Light try to navigate this moral quandary that seems to engage Ryuk. Even though he's the God of Death, and literally takes his life force from those who die, he appears to be genuinely surprised at the lengths to which Light goes (killing numerous members of the law enforcement community) in order to continue with his supposedly righteous crusade (killing numerous members of the criminal underground). So, sure, this is a fantasy film with teen appeal, but that doesn't mean it couldn't spark some interesting conversations about the nature of good and evil.

In the end, the film offers some nice twists and surprises, and there are a lot more details about the Death Note itself offered, all of which I've avoided talking about here, and this film certainly seems perfectly calibrated to appeal to the youth market. So perfectly, in fact, that as we were watching this, I found myself marveling that it hasn't been remade by an American filmmaker. Well, oops! As soon as I looked this up online, I discovered that a remake is indeed in the works, directed by Gus Van Zant, of all people. Sounds like Mr. Van Zant knows he needs a more commercial property on his resume right about now.
Though, unlike my wife, I was less than taken with the character of "L," a young, brilliant super sleuth (played by Ken'ichi Matsuyama), he made perfect sense from a commercial angle. Personally, I found Ryuk to be more believable and engaging, even though he is an over-the-top CGI creation. It took me a few minutes to buy into his super stylized and cartoonish appearance, but once I did, the humor and observations he brought to the story worked well. As Light becomes more and more of a one-note(book) character, bent on enacting his personal justice, Ryuk comes to be the more thoughtful and nuanced personality of the two. What's more, despite Ryuk's monstrous appearance, he doesn't behave in any of the ways that a typical (American) CGI creature would be expected to. He doesn't growl or threaten, or act aggressive in any way, really. He just hangs out talking with Light and eating apples.
It is perhaps needless to say that this film ends with a perfect set up for a sequel - and one did indeed come out later the same year, one of the three films that director Shusuke Kaneko helmed in 2006. (He's also directed projects with characters that should already be familiar to American audiences: three Gamera movies, one Godzilla movie, and multiple episodes of an Ultraman TV show from the 2000s.) We certainly enjoyed this enough to seek out the sequel, and I'll be curious to learn a bit more about the American remake as well. In the meantime, if you're looking for something that mixes fantasy, humor and the moral issues surrounding the power of life and death, well then, I'd say this is the film for you.
Just be sure to have plenty of apples on hand when you're watching it - just in case.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

LAUREN BACALL (1924-2014) - A Tribute
Bye, bye, Baby - The Look has left the building. When someone is nearly 90 years old, it's not exactly surprising to hear that they died, but it's still sad to lose Lauren Bacall - though, up in Movie Star Heaven, I'm sure that Humphrey Bogart is looking forward to having her company again. As for the rest of us, well, we still have her films.
The general outlines of her biography - young model makes her first movie with big star Humphrey Bogart and they live happily ever after together until his death - are pretty well known, so there's no need to go into the details again here. Little Betty Perske became Lauren Bacall in the time when Hollywood was still forming real, honest to goodness Stars, and goodness knows, they certainly created a hot celestial body with her. While I think she was somewhat limited as an actress, there's no denying that she had magnetism and Star Power to spare. Those eyes, that voice, that attitude - who could resist?

Such was her appeal that it's not much of a stretch to say that Lizabeth Scott started her career as a sort of Bacall knock-off. (A statement that is not in any way intended as a knock of Lizabeth Scott, mind you.) Both co-starred with Humphrey Bogart early in their careers, and both had bedroom eyes and distinctive husky voices - but only Bacall managed to achieve the status of being an A-List Star and Hollywood Legend.
To be sure, the films she made with Bogart are all infinitely watchable and enjoyable. I've seen them all multiple times, and have even made the pilgrimage to the very cool art deco house in San Francisco that her character in 1947's Dark Passage lived in.

But my absolute favorite Lauren Bacall film is a little obscure - in more ways than one. It's The Cobweb (1955), an all-star oddball that I still marvel at. I am not joking when I say the plot is all about the conflicts that erupt at a ritzy mental hospital over getting...new drapes. Richard Widmark is a psychiatrist, Gloria Grahame is an oversexed nut, and Oscar Levant is a neurotic nut. Trouble ahead! Bacall is the calm in the eye of the storm in a movie that is often over the top, totally inexplicable, and highly entertaining.

Still, no matter how long her career, or what other projects she was involved with, it's likely to be the films she made with Bogart that people remember the best. Much of the press about her passing has focused on the four films she made co-starring with Bogart - but they actually appeared in five films together. Yes, five. There are the four iconic ones, and then there is Two Guys from Milwaukee (1946), a Jack Carson and Dennis Morgan vehicle in which she is mentioned throughout, and then, at the end, she and Bogie make cameo appearances as themselves. (See video clip below.)

So long, Slim. You'll be missed, but very fondly remembered. 

Sunday, August 3, 2014

THE OUT-OF-TOWNERS (1970) - A Review
Or, in a sense, The Purge for two, in a film that is really just one joke played out in multiple ways.

The set up is simple. George Kellerman (Jack Lemmon) has to fly from the Midwest to New York for a job interview. His wife, Gwen (Sandy Dennis), goes with him. And from the moment their plane lifts off, everything that can go wrong, does go wrong. Rerouted landings, missing luggage, missed trains, canceled room reservations, a transit strike and a garbage collectors strike, crooks, conmen and a really big dog - these are but a few of the things to plague the unlucky couple.
So yes, it's one joke, offered up in a variety of ways, for an hour and a half. In most cases, this would probably be a fairly effective recipe for boring or annoying an audience. But in this case, with the truly great Jack Lemmon in the lead, the film manages to be funny nearly all the way through, as Lemmon does a feature film-length slow burn, before finally melting down completely. His comic skills save the day, and elevate the script (by Neil Simon) to a higher level. (He had already done this same trick a few years earlier, in 1967, in Simon's The Odd Couple - a DVD of which I picked up just this weekend at a thrift shop.) I personally think that a little Neil Simon goes a long way, and I fail to completely understand his sterling reputation as a writer. But this is a case of "It's the singer, not the song," as Jack Lemmon tucks into the simmering fury of the ever more frustrated George Kellerman.

Further adding to the fingernails on the chalkboard fun is Sandy Dennis. A nasal, toothy presence, she adds immeasurably to the aggravation Lemmon's character is visibly feeling every time she whines his name - "George." Though in the end she manages to maintain her composure better than Lemmon, it's only because he has to bear up under everything she is also experiencing, while also bearing up under her. And, while she may not get as many laughs as Lemmon does, she does manage to perfectly nail several laugh lines, including one or two ("Oh my god, the children!") that aren't necessarily, in and of themselves, that funny, save for her delivery.
I would never call this a great film, but it does offer a fairly choice leading role to the great Jack Lemmon, who more than makes the most of it, ably supported by Sandy Dennis. It's no stone cold comedy classic, but you could certainly do much worse than this for entertainment. (Say, for example, watching the remake of this? Hmmm?)