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Month: January 2016

Silent Night, Bloody Night (1972)

Silent Night, Bloody Night (1972)

“Someone keeps calling — with a message for my father.”

Synopsis:
A woman (Mary Woronov) whose father (Walter Abel) is mayor of a small town reflects on the gruesome history of a house inherited by a man (James Patterson) who sends his lawyer (Patrick O’Neal) and O’Neal’s wife (Astrid Heeren) to try to sell it, with bloody results.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Horror
  • Murder Mystery
  • Old Dark House

Review:
This wintertime slasher flick — once a drive-in film, then a staple of late-night-TV — is primarily known for featuring a cast of Andy Warhol’s “superstars” (including Mary Woronov, Ondine, and Candy Darling):

and for offering a gory alternative to the sanitized cheer of holiday films like White Christmas (1954). The storyline is somewhat convoluted, but that’s beside the point: what’s really on display here is plenty of atmospheric mystery and suspense in the midst of bloody murders, all as snow falls gently outside in a small east coast town with a heavy history (it was filmed in Oyster Bay, Long Island).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Some effective imagery

Must See?
No; this one is only must-see for its cult followers.

Links:

Five Million Years to Earth / Quatermass and the Pit (1967)

Five Million Years to Earth / Quatermass and the Pit (1967)

“You realize what you’re implying? That we owe our human condition here to the intervention of insects?”

Synopsis:
When a team of anthropologists led by Dr. Mathew Roney (James Donald) and his assistant (Barbara Shelley) discover a cylindrical object and primate bones in an underground construction site, rocket scientist Dr. Quatermass (Andrew Keir) is brought to the scene. He eventually determines the object is a spaceship rather than a bomb, and that the bones are evidence of an ancient Martian race that landed on Earth five million years ago.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Aliens
  • Horror
  • Roy Ward Baker Films
  • Science Fiction
  • Scientists

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that this “exceptional, extremely intelligent, thematically controversial science-fiction film” — the third of screenwriter Nigel Kneale’s “BBC-TV serials to be filmed” — “still hasn’t received due recognition in America”. He notes that while the “film is complicated”, it’s “always fascinating and exciting”, and is “skillfully directed by Roy Ward Baker”. While I agree with Peary that Five Million Years… is provocative and well-made, I disagree with his assertion that it’s “Hammer Studios’ best film”, and will actually admit to preferring its less colorful and less flashy predecessor, The Quatermass Experiment (1956). Five Million Years… is often compared to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 (1968), given that both explore “the intriguing theme of ‘race memory'”, with the distinction that “whereas Kubrick’s humans retain memories of ‘God’ from their ape ancestors who had contact with extra-terrestrials”, the “Martian insect-creatures” in this film apparently had contact “with the devil” — thus lending it a different type of horror vibe than Dave’s interactions with H.A.L. This finely produced cult flick is certainly worth a look by all film fanatics, but I’m going to go against the grain in not considering it must-see.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine cinematography


Must See?
No, though it’s certainly worth a look as a cult favorite. Discussed at length in Peary’s Cult Movies 3 book.

Links:

Hideous Sun Demon, The (1959)

Hideous Sun Demon, The (1959)

“You mean a human being could evolve backwards in time to become some sort of prehistoric creature?”

Synopsis:
After exposure to a radioactive isotope, a scientist (Robert Clarke) turns into a scaly creature in the presence of the sun; can his colleagues (Patricia Manning and Patrick Whyte) do anything to help him, or will he turn into a murderous, rampaging monster?

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Atomic Energy
  • Mutant Monsters
  • Science Fiction

Review:
This low-budget sci-fi horror flick — written, directed, produced by, and starring Robert Clarke — was filmed in 12 consecutive weekends with rented equipment on a budget of $50,000. The result is a film only Z-grade aficionados will appreciate, though Clarke certainly deserves points for trying. It’s not nearly as inept as other first-time directorial efforts, but the acting and pacing are terrible:

… and the central premise is laughably simplistic. Clues that we’re watching a sub-par production first emerge when we hear characters discussing how Clarke became exposed to radiation; their description is quite vivid, and we wish we could actually see all this taking place! Reasonably memorable elements include Clarke dallying on the beach with a Marilyn Monroe look-alike (Nan Peterson), and interacting with a young girl (Xandra Conkling — how’s that for a name?) whose mother allows her to slip outside to play after a warning has just been announced on the radio:

It’s yet another homage to the famous scene in Frankenstein (1931), also referenced in The Creeping Unknown (1955). Check out Wikipedia’s entry for more information about this flick’s production, reception, and comedic re-dubbing in 1983.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Some reasonably effective direction

Must See?
No; this one is only must-see by true low-budget SF aficianados. Listed as a Camp Classic in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Creeping Unknown, The / Quatermass Xperiment, The (1955)

Creeping Unknown, The / Quatermass Xperiment, The (1955)

“It’s almost beyond human understanding: some fantastic invisible force converted two men into… jelly?”

Synopsis:
When a rocket crash-lands in the British countryside, Dr. Quatermass (Brian Donlevy) and Inspector Lomax (Jack Warner) are summoned to investigate, and find that its sole survivor (Richard Wordsworth) is gaunt and catatonic. Wordsworth’s wife (Margia Dean) enlists the help of a private detective (Harold Lang) in rescuing him from supervision, but this quickly proves disastrous as Wordsworth mutates into a monster and begins absorbing the organisms he touches.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Aliens
  • Brian Donlevy Films
  • Horror
  • Possession
  • Science Fiction

Review:
Based on the popular six-part BBC TV serial, The Quatermass Experiment (renamed The Creeping Unknown in the United States) was the first in a cluster of films featuring Dr. Bernard Quatermass, a fictional space scientist whose primary task in life is protecting the Earth from alien forces. This early outing remains an exciting entry in the series, with a quickly paced script and a highly empathetic accidental “villain” (Wordsworth). Wordsworth’s expressions are genuinely haunting: he’s traumatized by what happened on board the spaceship, terrified of (yet unable to control) his own actions, and devastatingly incapable of expressing himself. His character is reminiscent of the monster in Frankenstein (1931); indeed, a scene in which Wordsworth emerges out of hiding in a boat and attempts to interact with a sincere little girl (Jane Asher) is clearly an explicit homage to this earlier classic.

Also driving the film is a true sense of urgency and mystery: what exactly happened to the astronauts, and how much of a danger does Wordsworth now pose? The ultimate findings are reminiscent of modern-day fears over widespread biological contagion (viz. Soderbergh’s Contagion, 2011), as well as ongoing concerns with full-scale invasion by “alien” forces on multiple fronts. Fans have quibbled over the casting of American Brian Donlevy as Quatermass, who comes across as entirely no-nonsense from beginning to end (in one scene, he brusquely contradicts his own orders just a few minutes after realizing he was wrong); but personally, I find him refreshing and well-cast. If the final scene feels a tad rushed, this actually fits with the story’s overall sense of continuous doom, and sequels were nigh on the horizon.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Richard Wordsworth as Victor Carroon
  • Atmospheric cinematography
  • Many effectively eerie scenes

Must See?
Yes, as an early classic of the genre.

Categories

  • Good Show

Links:

Design for Living (1933)

Design for Living (1933)

“Delicacy is the banana peel underneath the feet of truth.”

Synopsis:
An advertising employee (Miriam Hopkins) becomes enamored with two friends — an aspiring painter (Gary Cooper) and playwright (Fredric March) — and moves in with them to become their platonic muse. When March goes to London to oversee his successful new play, Cooper and Hopkins begin an affair, bringing their friendship with March to an end; but when March comes to visit and Hopkins can’t resist intimacy with him, either, she eventually decides to save the men’s friendship by marrying her boring boss (Edward Everett Horton).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Aspiring Stars
  • Ernst Lubitsch Films
  • Fredric March Films
  • Gary Cooper Films
  • Love Triangle
  • Miriam Hopkins Films
  • Play Adaptation
  • Romantic Comedy

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “much acclaimed comedy” by Ernst Lubitsch — liberally adapted by Ben Hecht from Noel Coward’s play — is “still risque”, given that we’re “not used to seeing a sexually available free spirit like Hopkins’s Gilda (who in some ways anticipated Jeanne Moreau’s Catherine in Jules and Jim).” However, he accurately asserts that other than Hopkins’ “delicious, vibrant, witty performance”, the “film lacks energy” and simply plods along — which is especially surprising given the inherently provocative nature of the storyline and some clever turns-of-phrase:

“It’s true we had a gentleman’s agreement, but unfortunately, I am no gentleman.”
“I’m sick of being a trademark married to a slogan.”

This one’s worth a one-time look for its risque themes, but ultimately not an enduring classic.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Miriam Hopkins as Gilda
  • Evidence of “Lubitsch’s touch”
  • An enjoyably risque pre-Code sensibility

Must See?
No, though it’s recommended for its historical relevance.

Links:

Blonde Venus (1932)

Blonde Venus (1932)

“I’m no good, you understand? No good at all.”

Synopsis:
A German-born nightclub singer (Marlene Dietrich) takes money from a wealthy admirer (Cary Grant) so her husband (Herbert Marshall) can receive a life-saving cure from radiation poisoning — but when Marshall finds out that she had an affair with Grant, she goes on the run with her son (Dickie Moore), trying to eke out a shadowy existence while eluding capture.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Cary Grant Films
  • Herbert Marshall Films
  • Infidelity
  • Josef von Sternberg Films
  • Marlene Dietrich Films
  • Single Mothers

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary refers to this pre-Code melodrama as “the most underrated of the seven Josef von Sternberg-Marlene Dietrich collaborations” (all of which are included in his GFTFF). He focuses his review on Dietrich’s performance, noting that she’s “one of the sexiest mothers in the history of the cinema” and “gives one of her finest stiff-upper-lip performances” (he nominates her as one of the best actresses of the year in his Alternate Oscars).

Dietrich’s unusual character — a “strong, selfless woman who is willing to sacrifice herself for others’ happiness (even if it means giving her body) and to face the consequences for her sins” — “sees no need to apologize or defend herself to Marshall for what she did on his behalf,” yet also doesn’t “expect him to understand or forgive her”.

She’s a highly complex woman, and yet a bit of a feminist cipher: we’re not sure why she falls in love with Marshall and comes with him to America, nor why she so easily commits infidelity while her husband may be on his deathbed. Ultimately, the storyline itself — including a “descent into hell” as Dietrich “winds up sleeping in some bizarre dives, including one place in which hens and chickens run free”:

— simply emerges as pure melodrama peppered by two highly memorable nightclub performances, one in which Dietrich dons a blonde frizzy wig as “Blonde Venus” while emerging out of a gorilla suit:

and a later scene in which she famously wears a white top hat and tails while ogling chorus girls.

It’s no wonder this film is a favorite with gay and camp-loving audiences!

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Memorable direction and imagery


  • Bert Glennon’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, simply for its cult status.

Categories

  • Cult Movie

Links:

Bluebeard (1944)

Bluebeard (1944)

“She defiled the image I had created of her — and so, I killed her.”

Synopsis:
As a rash of murders occurs across Paris, an investigator (Nils Asther) interrogates an art dealer (Ludwig Stossel) who seems to have some connection to the case, and a puppeteer (John Carradine) becomes enamored with a costume designer (Jean Parker) who eventually realizes he is the murderer known as “Bluebeard”.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Artists
  • Edgar G. Ulmer Films
  • Historical Drama
  • Jean Parker Films
  • John Carradine Films
  • Mistaken or Hidden Identities
  • Serial Killers

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary is clearly a big fan of Edgar G. Ulmer’s low-budget PRC production (based on the enduring French folktale of Bluebeard), given that he refers to it as “a real sleeper”. He writes that the “Expressionistic” film — which has a “European look to it” — is “strikingly directed” and features a “great use of close-ups, shadows, and bizarre camera angles”.

He notes that it provides John Carradine “his best lead performance and one of the few in which he doesn’t succumb to hamminess”; indeed, in his Alternate Oscars book Peary nominates Carradine as one of the Best Actors of the Year for this role.

While I find the film visually impressive, I’m much less taken with its rather insipid storyline, which doesn’t reveal Bluebeard’s motivations until close to the end, and thus leaves us puzzled about why a seemingly likable puppeteer turns randomly into a murderer whenever he paints a beautiful woman.

It’s nice to see Carradine given a leading role, and he’s suitably nuanced, but I much prefer him in his more memorable supporting roles — like Preacher Casy in The Grapes of Wrath (1940).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Atmospheric cinematography

  • John Carradine as “Bluebeard”

Must See?
No, though it’s recommended for one-time viewing.

Links:

Little Shop of Horrors, The (1960)

Little Shop of Horrors, The (1960)

“Feeeeed me!”

Synopsis:
The nebbishy employee (Jonathan Haze) of an irritable flower-shop owner (Mel Welles) tries to impress his sweet co-worker Audrey (Jackie Joseph) by naming a new hybrid plant after her — but Seymour (Haze) soons learns that “Audrey, Jr.” lusts for human blood, and he becomes caught in a vicious cycle of securing his flesh-eating plant with fresh food.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Black Comedy
  • Jack Nicholson Films
  • Killer Plants
  • Roger Corman Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “genuinely funny cult classic” (directed by Roger Corman in “just two days”, and written by Charles B. Griffith) is “a low-budget gem”: a “spoof of every mad-scientist picture in which blood is needed to keep some experimental creature alive, and of every fifties sci-fi film in which there is a giant mutation, and of numerous horror films”. He points out its similarity to “Jerry Lewis comedies, with Seymour as the man-child with an IQ of seven, a good heart, a lousy personality, and work habits that drive his boss crazy”. He also notes the connection to Dragnet in the hilariously “terse, unemotional dialogue between… two detectives investigating missing persons”. Peary argues (and I agree) that the film “works on its own terms as [a] good, absurd comedy”, and that “the cast is marvelous — they might pass as a Yiddish repertory company which has been working with the script for years instead of doing it while it was being written”. The storyline stays consistently outlandish, filled with one unexpected scene after the other — including the infamous “dentist scene” featuring the “little-known Jack Nicholson as the squeaky-voiced masochist”:

… visits from “a low-keyed flower eater” (Dick Miller) which presumably are intended to “counter the man-eating flower”:

… “Seymour’s visits with his hypochondriac mother (Myrtle Vail)”:

… and each of Seymour’s unintentional killings — er, scavenger hunts for food.

LSOH was eventually made into an off-Broadway musical, which itself was turned into a 1986 film by Frank Oz (listed in the back of Peary’s book).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The creative opening credits
  • Many enjoyably ludicrous scenes and moments
  • Fine performances from the entire cast
  • Charles B. Griffith’s script: “It’s a finger of speech!”

Must See?
Yes, as a cult classic.

Categories

  • Cult Movie

Links:

These Three (1936)

These Three (1936)

“They’ve got secrets, Grandma — funny secrets!”

Synopsis:
When the spoiled granddaughter (Bonita Granville) of a socialite (Alma Kruger) becomes angry at her boarding-school headmistresses (Merle Oberon and Miriam Hopkins) and seeks revenge, she spreads malicious lies about a love triangle between Oberon’s fiance (Joel McCrea) and Hopkins, and involves her innocent classmate (Marcia Mae Jones) in the deception. Meanwhile, Hopkins’ self-absorbed, histrionic aunt (Catherine Doucet) does nothing to help her niece during the time of crisis.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Boarding School
  • Bonita Granville Films
  • Evil Kids
  • Joel McCrea Films
  • Love Triangle
  • Merle Oberon Films
  • Miriam Hopkins Films
  • Morality Police
  • Play Adaptation
  • Revenge
  • Teachers
  • Walter Brennan Films
  • William Wyler Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “compelling adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour” still “seems bold” despite the fact that “Hellman did away with the play’s lesbian theme”. He notes that the film’s “strength lies in its exploration of several interesting females (young, middle-aged, and old) and their relationships with one another: we can compare the friendship of Oberon and Hopkins with that of Granville and her outcast pal Jones” (though I would argue their power-driven interactions hardly constitute a ‘friendship’) “and the [strained] relationship between Hopkins and… Doucet with that of Granville and Kruger”. (McCrea is the “only male with a large part”.)

I agree with Peary that this probably represents one of Oberon’s “finest performances”, and the rest of the cast is top-notch as well — most notably Doucet as “Aunt Lily”:

… and Granville and Jones in key juvenile roles. Indeed, Granville’s sociopathic Mary Tilford gives The Bad Seed‘s Rhoda Penmark a run for her money (not an easy feat), and Jones effectively radiates the soul-crushing fear felt by a young girl caught in the grips of a vicious bully.

Note: Director William Wyler re-adapted the play in 1961 as The Children’s Hour, starring Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn, and utilizing “the lesbian theme” — but many feel this earlier outing is the better adaptation.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Bonita Granville as Mary Tilford
  • Marcia Mae Jones as Rosalie
  • Catherine Doucet as Aunt Lily
  • Gregg Toland’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as an early Wyler classic.

Categories

  • Important Director

Links:

Hitler’s Children (1943)

Hitler’s Children (1943)

“It wouldn’t be our child — it would be Hitler’s, just another child to die for the state!”

Synopsis:
A German-born American (Bonita Granville) working with the director (Kent Smith) of an American School in Hitler-led Germany is heartbroken when her boyfriend (Tim Holt) becomes a Nazi officer — but she refuses to swear allegiance to the government even when she’s at risk of being forcibly sterilized.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Bonita Granville Films
  • Edward Dmytryk Films
  • Hans Conried Films
  • Nazis
  • Resistance Fighters
  • Star-Crossed Lovers
  • Strong Females
  • World War II

Review:
This WWII-era propaganda film about the indoctrination of German youth during Hitler’s reign (one of only a handful of titles made at the time including the name “Hitler”) was meant to be simply a B-level exploitation flick, but ended up as RKO Studios’ highest grossing film of all time, surpassing even the earnings from Top Hat (1935), King Kong (1933), and Little Women (1933). Surprisingly, the film feels almost as fresh and horrifying today as it must have been back in 1943, when America was in the thick of a world war and just beginning to learn about the true horrors of the Nazi Regime; it’s still shocking to see Nazi officers casually strolling around a special breeding camp designed to house unwed young women whose job was simply to produce Aryan children for the Third Reich. Granville is a refreshingly plucky heroine:

… thankfully putting her innate determination and grit to much better use than in her most (in)famous role as bad-seed Mary Tilford in These Three (1936); and Holt is suitably stoic as her conflicted lover.

Only at one point does the film’s studio-bound nature betray the drama, as Holt interrupts Granville’s public flogging at a concentration camp and the two are “allowed” to gaze into each other’s eyes while the world around them apparently stops completely (why not show them being pulled violently apart while feverishly shouting their love out to one another?). Regardless, all film fanatics will likely be curious to check out this historically relevant flick, which hold up surprisingly well today.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine cinematography

  • A refreshingly frank (for the time) depiction of some of Hitler’s many horrors

Must See?
Yes, for its historical relevance.

Categories

  • Historically Relevant

Links: