I consider myself a pretty big fan of horror films, and even if I’m always game to give into my baser senses and watch them, the slasher has always been near the bottom of the preferential pack. The distilled hypocrisy of their formulas always irked me, but at the same time from a cultural standpoint they remain juicily revealing. Like almost every genre, my top picks rank among my favorites. Those would be Black Christmas, Sleepaway Camp and Alice, Sweet Alice. The Burning is a pleasant and consistently entertaining surprise, almost but not quite nailing that top-tier level. My checklist for slashers there needs to be a dated, kitschy or fun tone or I need to enjoy the pack of oblivious victims. The Burning hits both requirements.
The characters are a joy to hang out with, and the actors achieved a naturalistic and playful summer camp camaraderie. Many folks judge slashers by the quality of their kills. Tom Savini does reliably solid work, though had little time to prepare, but the kills are standard fare. Luckily, the tone and interplay between characters matter more to me. You’ve also got some notable film debuts here; Jason Alexander, Holly Hunter and Fisher Stevens. Lead soap opera actor Brian Matthews is hero-hunk of the hour and Ratner from Fast Times at Ridgemont High gets saddled with the outcast role. Probably most notable for being the Friday the 13th rip-off brainchild and one of the first Miramax films from the Weinstein’s, who produced and co-wrote. Friday the 13th is highly over-appreciated. Seek this one out instead.
Mid-range John Carpenter impresses by working to the filmmaker’s strengths, his palpable fixation with theoretical physics and atomic theory on full display. He achieves sustained dread through synths and anamorphic lenses, accumulating to an explosion of disturbing abstract imagery complete with Cocteau homage. Second in his apocalypse trilogy, Carpenter thrives off of putting his characters in an enclosed space to fight off evils that slowly become cognizant to the characters as they come together and split apart. That set-up works here because the hive mind of the group offsets Carpenter’s weak spot for writing individual characters. Donald Pleasance has first billing as ‘Priest’ but he never feels present in the slightest. If it weren’t Pleasance in the role he would have received a bit part billing. The developing relationship between mustachioed Jameson Parker and frigid Lisa Blount is established then amusingly dropped. I especially loved Parker’s apparently correct prognosis of frigidity came from her being rightly offended by a sexist jab he makes. Yes, clearly this means she is humorless and dead to the world around her.
The middle section treads a lot of water with the possessed students roaming around taking others over with Linda Blair look-alike Susan Blanchard at the helm. It makes the threat corporeal in a repetitive and uninventive way, which wears thin after a while.
The reasons Prince of Darkness impress are the constant blatant imagery contrasting the scientific lab equipment set-up within the holy space of the church. Most impressive is the climax which mystifies in its atypical form, representing some of the best work in John Carpenter’s career.
Modern Girls completely won me over through its flamboyant immersion into the then-present 80’s, the kind of film that needed decades to ripen and amass a following. It’s a conventional wild-night-out film that sees its three archetypal women (Virginia Madsen, Daphne Zuniga, Cynthia Gibb) getting into all sorts of hijinks as they run from club to club with unwitting male Cliff (Clayton Rohner). Its appeal lies in the dated culture shock, the youths of L.A represented by three idealized women. These women are written as the kind of ‘cool’ that young women would aspire to be. Hell, I found myself wishing I could be Margo. Their fashion sense, which I think holds up in its funky way, and obscenely confident demeanor (at least on the outside) give way to dream lives that writer Laurie Craig tries to make relatable through their oh-so-woeful work weeks as they waltz through dead-end jobs.
On the outset, all they care about are men, but thankfully there’s some nice work done towards the end to offset their priorities by challenging the characters to favor long-standing friendships and daring to want things for themselves. If made today, I likely wouldn’t care much about Modern Girls. But this 1986 cult film is abundantly quirky and lively with a lot of neon dated character impossible to resist. Its female-centric focus also feels relatively rare for 80’s teen comedies. All in all, I adored the hell out of this one.
Cutter’s Way is an uncut gem, one of the best American films of the 80’s, flying completely under the radar since its limited release in 1982. I had heard of it a couple of years ago amongst fellow dedicated treasure-seekers, and the hyperbolic acclaim was through the roof. Believe the long-deserved but still dreadfully unconsummated ballyhoo about this undiscovered classic. A character study with its own matchless identity of damaged individuals bound together by unimpeachable and unspoken personal history and codependency. None of these characters are healthy for the other, but they stay loyal for better and worse. The set-up for a conventional thriller is established only to be abolished, using its genre fake-out to explore the ambiguous maybe-delusions of crippled patchy-eyed alcoholic Vietnam vet Cutter, played by John Heard in a remarkable piece of acting. I will never primarily see him as Mr. McAllister again.
These maybe-delusions are an outlet for his unsuppressed rage at the world and his experiences in it, a misguided effort to reclaim the long lost (ever there?) hero within him. He’s a volatile unreachable mess of a human, beyond repair. Along for the ride is indecisive best friend Bone, an excellent and often gloriously shirtless Jeff Bridges. Despite being known for keeping his distance from trouble and conflict, his life is built out of decidedly running in place. The third member of this codependent group is fellow depressed alcoholic Mo (Lisa Eichhorn, rounding out this trio of superb performances), a committed defeatist who picks her battles but always loses. The only anomaly is the Ann Dusenberry character, whose presence feels forced and disjointed from the rest of the proceedings. The open ending cements both the ambiguity and the loyalty of the central friendship in a heart-wrenching coda.
First Seen in: 2009
While fairy tales and unrelated cousins, such as Lewis Carroll’s works, inaccurately get categorized as fairy tales and continue to be trendily bastardized into lazy old forms, I went back to visit what is easily my favorite adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s classic. This is another film I’d love to write about at length someday. For now, a quick basic gathering of thoughts will suffice.
To be clear, Alice isn’t a full-on adaptation and the credits even state ‘inspired by…’. It’s amusing that the most artistically rewarding take on Carroll’s work is really a decayed skeletal recreation, nothing like the dainty fantasy of the book. For Svankmajer, there is no Wonderland; only shavings, nails, wood, bones, endless clutter, keys, pebbles and the like within a decomposing house. There’s nothing wondrous or magical here in the traditional sense. The world of Alice is constructed out of a fascination with found objects, and with Svankmajer’s bizarrely unforgettable and literally eye-popping stop-motion mastery. The sound design is as crucial to Alice as the visuals are, calling attention to itself in an out-of-step way, purposely existing on a different plane.
The magic of Alice is undoubtedly in Svankmajer’s stop-motion work,which brings sawdust-stuffed rabbits, socks, skeletons, cards, leaves and dolls to unsettling life. It makes the power of Alice what we discover through sight and sound. There’s little-to-no dialogue, which is all told in narration and purposely dubbed over in English. The story is stripped to its abstract subconscious guts and thrown at us in dreamlike image after dreamlike image.
It comes back to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland being inaccurately categorized as a fairy tale. Sure, a connection can be drawn to fairy tales in that there is a lesson to be learned, a parable at its fantasy-laced heart. Jan Svankmajer forgoes all of this for his first feature film, focusing instead on the dream state. Alice’s curiosity and the art of nonsense is distilled into pure uncut image and sound, and as an audience our understanding of the possible is newly awakened.
Don Siegel, who would go on to direct Dirty Harry, Two Mules for Sister Sara and much more in future decades, gets off to a formidable start with this fog-strewn whodunit set in London starring Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet. Its twist ending is relatively evident but that in no way takes away from The Verdict and the revelation still lands. In another film, the plot set-up would lay the cobblestones for a shot at redemption. Here, it sets up a suicide run.
Lorre, playing another man who loves to dilly-dally with alcohol, is tops as usual. Really, the whole thing is a great yarn. At this point, it’s become a grand ambition in my life to be a Lorre/Greenstreet afficianado. Films with Lorre and Greenstreet headlining are more than worth seeking out, first for their existence and second because they are wonderful fare. I fear I’ve seen the best of them, although I hear great things about The Mask of Dimitrios.
I’ve been wanting to see all of the Peter Lorre/Sydney Greenstreet collaborations for years now. Last month I saw that both Three Strangers and The Verdict were going to air on TCM, and so I commanded my DVR to finally trap them for me. I had heard both are overlooked films to seek out and after seeing them I have to agree.
We meet the three strangers just as they converge, without context, brought together by Geraldine Fitzgerald’s frank pretend-dalliance into prostitution. Greenstreet’s expression when he sees Lorre in the apartment is priceless. Placing a ritualistic gamble on Chinese goddess Kwan Yin, each go their seperate way and we see all three (with the partial exception to sympathetic loser Lorre) knee deep in their own criminal activity, manipulation and scheming.
Three Strangers is about fate and asks whether or not destiny already had it out for these three characters. Only Lorre realizes that fate is an excuse, that you have a choice and that this choice stems from the soul of your own person. Greenstreet and Fitzgerald never had a chance because they mistook destiny for their own greedy gait which only left one path for their ends.
The film’s middle section gets away from the main three and there are troublingly less engaging times to be had when ten minutes pass and we haven’t seen Lorre, Greenstreet or Fitzgerald. But when it concentrates on any or all of them, each gets their chance to play the hell out of their parts. The film is a study of nefarious deeds and the relentlessness that comes with unknowingly digging one’s own fateful grave. Negulesco gives the film a dreamlike connective tissue which feels like an upper hand moving the chess pieces of fate into place.
Nicolas Roeg uses his elliptical memory-based editing to great effect here as past and present reminisce, contradict, and reveal the troubled layers beneath a turbulent relationship based on conflicting interests in desires for possession and freedom. Roeg uses Art Garfunkel’s persona to swerve expectation. We presume to encounter worldly kindness from him. Instead he’s a cold demeaning asshole. Garfunkel’s lack of acting ability damages the film in some ways, but also has its advantage in the streak of indifferent cruelty he unintentionally exudes.
Theresa Russell is fiery and damaged and a force to be reckoned with. The film works against her, invalidating her claim to independence by giving her a self-destructive weakness, and by being so invested in the way Garfunkel’s obsession with her is undone by old-time masculine arrogance. It’s also got a misogynistic streak. But I think Russell’s performance saves the film from being accusingly dismissive of her perspective on life. She gets Melina. She gets that she dares to want her own life, to not be defined or owned by a man. She presents this with a conviction shakeable only in her inability to reconcile when it gets down to brass tacks. And so I got Melina and sympathized with her plight even when Bad Timing seems to want to dismiss her as an alcoholic emotional wreck. In a sense she saves the film and I mostly loved it as a result. It’s an obsessive, delusional work of in-sync connections giving way to an unresolvable avalanche. It demands more attention, as much as Roeg’s most famous works.
Whoever haughtily dismisses this early Frank Capra is off their rocker. Because I’ll say it outright; I prefer this to It Happened One Night. That has just as much to do with how lukewarm I am towards It Happened One Night as it represents how much I loved Lady for a Day.
It’s the earliest Capra film that oozes his trademark sentimentalist formula. It’s yanks at your insides but provides just as many belly-laughs. It’s populated with character actors, mostly from the Warner Brothers lot, giving everyone a chance to shine. It’s bookended by estranged family schmaltz and is a delicious comedy of errors at its center. Warren Willam, May Robson, Guy Kibbee and Ned Sparks are all memorable, even if Robson is dropped in the middle section.
Lady for a Day encapsulates what I love about Old Hollywood and the singular spell it can cast. It’s a world where a superstitious gangster won’t make any shady deals until he buys an apple from ‘Apple Annie’. The film is unabashedly sentimental, completely preposterous, and a result, summarily charming.
Some of my favorite documentaries are the ones where the finished product is entirely different from its original conception (ex. The Up Series, Capturing the Friedmans). Hoop Dreams was meant to be a 30-minute special, only to morph into an ambitious 4-year project, collecting 250 hours worth of footage. Examining the American Dream via two African-American teenagers in inner-city Chicago who dream of playing in the NBA, Hoop Dreams develops far beyond its subject. I don’t like basketball. Hell, I don’t really care for sports. But this isn’t about basketball. It’s about the make-it-or-break-it years for William Gates and Arthur Agee, both extremely talented players. In the world of basketball, adolscence is where the stakes are highest both professionally and personally. This is more than just a dream for Agee and Gates. In an urban enviornment such as this, surviving and graduating high school are considered not give-ins but achievements that not everyone gets to experience. Success means getting out of their ‘inherited incarceration’ and making a better life for themselves and their families. The pressure on them from themselves, family members, professional mentors, coaches, etc. is incaluculable and palpable. The stakes literally become life-or-death for these kids and we as an audience get wholly caught up in their victories and their strife.
The running time and the way Steve James and company assemble the film, which follows the two boys throughout their high school career, lets everything breathe. We are so used to super-structured documentaries and reality TV, that to see Hoop Dreams both construct a narrative, and acknowledge that it’s not the narrative feels revelatory. The filmmakers always take care to remind us that we are getting a sliver of a peek into their lives. Events unfold naturally and often surprisingly, being careful never to anticipate the directions the boys lives will take. We get our information presumably when the filmmakers do.
In constant periphery are the inherent and complex social and economic problems that pervade all without it ever feeling condescending to its subjects. Hoop Dreams is on-the-level and some people could learn a lesson on how to represent African-American inner-city life almost two decades later.
Included is the life-and-money-sucking meat market of the sports world where coaches, schools, recruiting agents and the like fall over each other for a taste of these kids, promising riches and waiting to suck them dry before their lives have even started. St. Joseph’s witholding of Arthur’s scholarship is devastating as is any other number of things in Hoop Dreams. This is a rousing and at times overwhelmingly emotional and involving experience that stands at the tippity-top of the best documentaries out there.
Depicting violence without key trade-offs for the audience i.e titillation, a focus on the build-up to and the inevitable ‘pay-off’ was a bold and hard-to-swallow conceit in 1968 (especially by those expecting a ‘Vincent Price’ movie). Hell, it still is. Michael Reeves, who died at age 25 shortly after this film’s release, took some chances with his scummy trek through an inescapably bleak world where power yields a blank check of unimaginable suffering. It’s all doled out in matter-of-fact fashion by Vincent Price, in a chilling atypical depiction of collected subtlety. There’s really nothing inherently or traditionally enjoyable about Witchfinder General but that doesn’t take away from it being a good film. Perhaps the most admirable thing about it is that it while its depiction of 17th century England is likely not a paragon of accuracy, it feels so dirty, so lived in, so meager. It steps beyond forced recreations of time periods with its low-budget expenditure and a washed out glow of pales and whistling winds. It’s not a pretty film in either content or aesthetic and Reeves makes good by sticking to his guns in this way.