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Month: February 2009

Streets of Fire (1984)

Streets of Fire (1984)

“It looks like I finally found someone who likes to play as rough as I do.”

Streets of Fire Poster

Synopsis:
When rock star Ellen Aim (Diane Lane) is kidnapped by the ruthless leader (Willem Dafoe) of a motorcycle gang, her ex-boyfriend (Michael Pare) and a female soldier (Amy Madigan) are hired to rescue her.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary is accurate but overly generous in his review of Walter Hill’s stylized rock-n-roll thriller-cum-western, which he argues is “a bit better than its reputation”. He notes that the film’s “unique look” (“part futuristic, part fiftyish, part Hollywood soundstage”), “exciting action sequences”, and “pounding rock score” (by Ry Cooder and others) compensate somewhat for its “familiar plot and intentionally skimpy dialogue” — but the film as a whole becomes increasingly tiresome after the initial excitement of its opening kidnapping sequence. Action-star Michael Pare couldn’t be more uncharismatic in the lead role, and Diane Lane — who does little more than “lip synch her songs” — is sadly miscast; one could care less about the cliched “romance” between them, complete with dramatic professions of love in a downpour. Meanwhile, creepy Dafoe — reminiscent of his later role as Max Schreck in Shadow of the Vampire (2000) — is the most compelling character in the film, but is given far too little screentime or narrative complexity. It’s no surprise this one became a “financial and critical bomb”.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Slick, colorful cinematography and art direction
    Streets Fire Cinematography
  • Willem Dafoe as Raven
    Streets Fire Defoe
  • Ry Cooder et al.’s score

Must See?
No; despite its small cult following, this one can easily be skipped.

Links:

Panic in Year Zero (1962)

Panic in Year Zero (1962)

“For the next few weeks, survival is going to have to be on an individual basis.”

Panic Year Zero Poster

Synopsis:
In the aftermath of a nuclear explosion, a Los Angeles father (Ray Milland) places the survival of his wife (Jean Hagen) and children (Frankie Avalon and Mary Mitchel) above all else.

Genres:

Review:
Ray Milland starred in and directed this earnest yet disappointing low-budget AIP flick about a family struggling to survive after a nuclear bomb hits Los Angeles. Post-apocalyptic dramas have the potential to explore a rich array of societal and psychological issues — including racism, loneliness, and despair (see Arch Oboler’s Five, for instance, or The World, the Flesh, and the Devil) — but Panic in Year Zero remains squarely in the realm of exploitation films, with a gang of marauding young hoodlums (led by Richard Bakalyan) representing the primary force of evil, and “every man for himself” serving as its rather uninspired theme. Milland isn’t great at directing his cast (not even spirited Jean Hagen or teen heartthrob Frankie Avalon emerge with much personality), and the film’s ultra-low budget inevitably hurts its veracity as well — most egregiously in the use of high-speed freeway footage to represent local two-lane roads (!). Despite its historical relevance as one of the first “atom scare” films to be released in America, Panic in Year Zero isn’t must-see viewing.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A compelling premise
    Panic Mushroom Cloud

Must See?
No; feel free to skip this dated flick.

Links:

Ghoul, The (1933)

Ghoul, The (1933)

“At the first hour, I will make my offering of the eternal light to Anubis, opener of the ways.”

Ghoul Poster

Synopsis:
A dying professor of Egyptology (Boris Karloff) asks to be buried with a valuable jewel known as the Eternal Light, which he believes will grant him immortality in the afterlife. When his butler (Ernest Thesiger) steals the jewel from his tomb, Karloff returns from the dead to seek revenge.

Genres:

Review:
This early British horror flick was believed lost for many years, until a print was finally found in 1969. Unfortunately, however — despite the presence of Boris Karloff in a starring role — it’s far from a missing classic. The pacing in early scenes is deathly slow, the film’s overall tone shifts awkwardly from comedy to horror, and Karloff is gone from the screen for far too long (he doesn’t “rise from the dead” until more than 45 minutes into the story). While it’s redeemed somewhat by effectively creepy lighting and sets — as well as Karloff’s surreal makeup and performance — overall, The Ghoul is a dull disappointment. See TCM’s article for in-depth background information on the making and context of the film.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Highly atmospheric lighting and set designs
    Ghoul Karloff
  • Boris Karloff as Professor Morlant

Must See?
No. Listed as a Sleeper in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Projectionist, The (1971)

Projectionist, The (1971)

“I’ve always liked movies; movies have always been a kick for me.”

Synopsis:
A nebbishy projectionist (Chuck McCann) escapes from the tyranny of his scolding boss (Rodney Dangerfield) by living vicariously through films, and imagining himself as a superhero named Captain Flash.

Genres:

Review:
The Projectionist is a movie made both for and about film fanatics. Character actor Chuck McCann — best known for his voiceover work, though fans of 1968’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter will immediately recognize him as the mute Spiros Antonapoulos — is perfectly cast in the lead role as an undistinguished projectionist whose passion for movies bleeds through into every facet of his waking life. At first, it seems that the projectionist’s fascination with cinema is one of simple homage to Hollywood: an early scene in which he gazes at a wall full of headshots and mimics the voices of Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Oliver Hardy, and other cinematic icons is a treat. Eventually, however, we become privy to the darker thoughts in the projectionist’s mind — including concerns about racism, tyranny, and the general state of the world — and the film becomes an increasingly surreal, postmodern pastiche of rapidly edited clips and images.

Interwoven throughout the mostly dialogue-free film are fantasy sequences in which the projectionist’s pudgy alter-ego — a superhero named Captain Flash — romances a beautiful damsel (Ina Balin) while escaping from the clutches of “The Bat” (Dangerfield); unfortunately, these silent sequences are oddly uninspired, and not nearly as humorous as writer/director Harry Hurwitz seems to want them to be. Much more impressive is Hurwitz’s seamless editing of McCann into classic movie clips — most notably Casablanca (viewers will doubtless be reminded of Woody Allen’s Play it Again, Sam). Note that fans of Rodney Dangerfield may be disappointed — or at the very least surprised — by his decidedly dark and non-comedic debut role here (though his performance is spot-on).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • McCann’s impressive imitation of a host of movie stars
  • A plethora of cleverly edited and integrated classic film clips

Must See?
Yes, simply for its oddball cult status. Listed as a Sleeper in the back of Peary’s book — though it recently gained some acclaim by being placed in the archives of the Museum Of Modern Art in New York

Categories

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Dead of Night (1945)

Dead of Night (1945)

“There’s a ghost as well as a skeleton in everyone’s cupboard.”

Synopsis:
When an architect (Mervyn Johns) shows up on assignment at a country estate, he’s disturbed to find that he’s “met” all the guests before in a recurring nightmare. A psychiatrist (Frederick Valk) among them tries to convince him that his fears are unfounded, while the remaining guests share their own spooky stories.

Genres:

  • Episodic Films
  • Flashback Films
  • Ghosts
  • Horror Films
  • Living Nightmare
  • Michael Redgrave Films
  • Possession
  • Puppets and Ventriloquism

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this “sophisticated”, historically important “classic horror anthology” — helmed by four different directors — “is where you’ll discover the cinematic origins of several of the creepiest shows you’ve seen on television since the fifties” (i.e., “The Twilight Zone”), and served as “the prototype for future British anthologies” (most notably those produced by Amicus Films). Critics have debated the relative merits of its various segments for decades, with most agreeing that the final episode (“The Ventriloquist’s Dummy”, starring Michael Redgrave, and directed by Alberto Cavalcanti) is the best; as Peary notes, it’s certainly “the most famous”. He adds, “As far as I’m concerned, all ventriloquist stories are terrifying, but this one really makes me jittery.”

Most also agree that the fourth vignette (“Golfing Story”, directed by Charles Crichton) — about golfing buddies (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne) whose rivalry for an indecisive woman (Peggy Bryan) leads to Wayne’s watery death and his resurrection as a vengeful ghost — seems out-of-place, given its decidedly lighthearted tone; Peary argues that it “should have been omitted” altogether, noting that “it was excised from the original print released in America”.

Also missing from this original print was the third vignette (“Haunted Mirror”, directed by Robert Hamer), a creepy morsel about a man (Ralph Michael) who “looks into a newly purchased antique mirror and sees the room of the previous owner, a jealous maniac who strangled his wife”, then “becomes possessed” and “starts to strangle his own wife (Googie Withers)”; it’s a satisfying little thriller, though we can’t help wanting to know more about the characters and their back stories.

The same holds true for the first and second vignettes (“Hearse Driver”, directed by Basil Dearden, and “Christmas Party”, helmed by Cavalcanti) — both of which, as Peary notes, “should have been expanded”.


But it’s the connective story of this edited tale (directed by Dearden) which ultimately emerges as the unexpected shocker: what begins as a relatively straightforward tale of an everyman (Mervyn Johns) experiencing perpetual deja vu turns into a surprisingly complex meta-narrative.

As noted by DVD Savant, “audiences even now will be thrown by the ending revelations, because few people expect Borges-like time-space enigmas to intercede in mundane filmic reality”. While the vignettes in Dead of Night aren’t quite as frightening or creepy as one might hope, it’s nonetheless satisfying to see the way this diverse team of writers, directors, and actors manage to pull their stories together into one cohesive nightmare.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Atmospheric cinematography
  • The “Ventriloquist’s Dummy” sequence
  • Michael Redgrave as “the ventriloquist”, Maxwell Frere
  • The “Haunted Mirror” sequence
  • Googie Withers and Ralph Michael as the “haunted couple” in the above sequence
  • The “meta-film”‘s frightening denouement

Must See?
Yes, for its historical relevance as the primary forerunner of all later horror anthology films and T.V. shows — and for “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy” segment.

Categories

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Bedlam (1946)

Bedlam (1946)

“Ours is a human world; theirs is a bestial world.”

Synopsis:
In 18th century London, the headstrong protege (Anna Lee) of a wealthy lord (Billy House) learns about the horrors inflicted by a cruel asylum director (Boris Karloff) upon his inmates, and vows to intervene — only to find herself unjustly committed.

Genres:

  • Anna Lee Films
  • Boris Karloff Films
  • Character Arc
  • Do-Gooders
  • Falsely Accused
  • Historical Drama
  • Mark Robson Films
  • Mental Illness
  • Psychological Horror
  • Strong Females
  • Val Lewton Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary correctly labels this postwar RKO horror film by producer Val Lewton “his most underrated”, noting that it possesses “terrific performances by Lee and Karloff”, as well as an “intelligent, witty script, offbeat supporting characters, and classy direction by Mark Robson”. Inspired by Plate 8 in William Hogarth’s series of engravings known as “A Rake’s Progress” (and with several of his other engravings appearing as wordless “intertitles” throughout the film), Lewton’s team (including cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca) effectively recreates the shadowy, sinister aura of the notorious “Bethlehem” asylum, whose abbreviated nickname has gone down in etymological history.

Karloff is perfectly cast here as “Master Sims” — an unspeakably evil psychopath whose desire to dominate those weaker than himself manifests in a hellish, sorry existence for the hapless souls trapped in Bedlam. His character’s depth of depravity is hinted at in one brief moment, as he strokes the cheek of a mute woman known simply as “The Dove”:

His simple gesture implies an ongoing history of sexual molestation, though this is never made explicit. Indeed, Sims’ depravity seems to have no limits: in one of the film’s most eerily disturbing scenes, Sims allows a young boy (Glenn Vernon) painted entirely in gold to suffocate while reciting a poem, then casually asserts that the boy caused his own death.

But it’s Anna Lee’s fiery courtesan Nell Bowen who this story is really about. As Peary notes, Lee is indeed “the most dynamic of Lewton’s remarkable women” — and her character’s transformation from self-absorbed mistress to selfless caretaker (without ever losing any of her spunk or vitality) drives the narrative.


As noted in TCM’s analysis, the film could be seen in some ways as a “feminist horror film”, given that the intelligent, fearless Bowen is essentially being punished for speaking her mind. When Bowen makes the mistake of defiantly eating the money given to her by her former client (House is drolly amusing as the corpulent, well-meaning, yet fatally clueless Lord Mortimer):

… our hearts sink from the knowledge that Sims will inevitably twist its meaning and use it against her.

SPOILER ALERT

Fortunately, Sims comes to an appropriately horrifying ending in the film’s satisfying, Poe-inspired denouement.

Note Apparently Lee’s riding dress is the infamous “curtain dress” worn by Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind (1939).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Anna Lee as Nell Bowen
  • Boris Karloff as Master Sims
  • Billy House as Lord Mortimer
  • Nicholas Musuraca’s striking cinematography
  • Lewton and Robson’s smart, creepy screenplay

Must See?
Yes. This powerful little B-flick has held up remarkably well, and bears repeat viewing.

Categories

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Kennel Murder Case, The (1933)

Kennel Murder Case, The (1933)

“If you knew Archer Coe, you’d know that suicide was almost a psychological impossibility for him!”

Synopsis:
Detective Philo Vance (William Powell) tries to solve the mysterious murder of a wealthy man (Robert Barrat) with many enemies — including his niece (Mary Astor), his niece’s boyfriend (Paul Cavanaugh), his brother (Frank Conroy), his secretary (Frank Morgan), his occasional lover (Helen Vinson), his Chinese cook (James Lee), and an Italian art collector (Jack LaRue).

Genres:

  • Detectives and Private Eyes
  • Mary Astor Films
  • Michael Curtiz Films
  • Murder Mystery
  • William Powell Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
This “fast-paced”, visually innovative whodunit by director Michael Curtiz is widely regarded as the “best entry in the [Philo] Vance mystery series”. William Powell — pre-Nick Charles of Thin Man fame — is “properly suave” as the urbane, impeccably dressed Vance, and Curtiz utilizes unusual camera angles and flashy editing to move things along. However, as Peary notes, the 75-minute film suffers from lack of both “a little romance” and a “sympathetic suspect”, leading the murder mystery to come across as academic rather than heartfelt. With that said, there’s still some fun to be had in watching Vance (debonair Powell is, naturally, well cast) smoothly uncovering one new clue after the other, while he drags the amazingly compliant local police force (embodied by beefy Eugene Pallette) along with him for the ride. You may or may not guess the culprit in the end.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Clever direction, camerawork, and editing by Curtiz, DP William Rees, and editor Harold McLernon

Must See?
No, but film fanatics will likely be curious to check it out once.

Links: