Category Archives: Horror

Blu-ray Reissue: Mystery of the Wax Museum [1933] (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 11, 2020)

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Mystery of the Wax Museum – Warner Archive Collection

“Images of wax that throbbed with human passion!” Get your mind out of the gutter…I’m merely quoting the purple prose that graced the original posters for this 1933 horror thriller, directed by the eclectic Michael Curtiz (Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Casablanca, Mildred Pierce, King Creole, et.al.).

Beautiful (and busy) Fay Wray (who starred in King Kong the same year) captures the eye of a disturbed wax sculptor (a hammy Lionel Atwill) for reasons that are ah…more “professional” than personal. Wray is great eye candy, but it is her co-star Glenda Farrell who steals the show as a wisecracking reporter (are there any other kind of reporters in 30s films?). Farrell’s comedy chops add just the right amount of levity to this genuinely creepy tale. A classic.

The film was considered “lost” until a lone, worn out print was discovered around 1970. It was originally filmed in the long-defunct Two-Color Technicolor process, adding to the challenge of an accurate restoration. Thank the gods for the UCLA Film and Television Archive and the Film Foundation, who tackled the project with their usual aplomb (with a little sugar from the George Lucas Family Foundation). The result is a glorious print that will make buffs wax poetic (sorry). Extras include the documentary Remembering Fay Wray.

Virtual International Film Festival: Week 1

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 11, 2020)

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So movie theaters are shuttered, the balcony is closed, and film festivals are right out.

Normally, right about now I would be submitting for my press credentials to cover one of the largest film festivals in the country. But as you are aware, these are not normal times.

No worries. I’ve been covering the annual Seattle International Film Festival for Digby’s Hullabaloo since 2006. Over the 14 years, I’ve reviewed over 200 festival selections. So I thought I’d comb the archives and curate a sort of Best of the Festival Festival (since the acronym for that is BOFF-for the sake of decorum, I felt I ought not to use it as a header).

So welcome to Week 1 of VIFF! These 10 fine selections are all available via streaming:

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Another Earth (Amazon Prime Video) – Writer-director Mike Cahill’s auspicious narrative feature debut concerns an M.I.T.-bound young woman (co-scripter Brit Marling) who makes a fateful decision to get behind the wheel after a few belts. The resultant tragedy kills two people, and leaves the life of the survivor, a music composer (William Mapother) in shambles. After serving prison time, the guilt-wracked young woman, determined to do penance, ingratiates herself into the widower’s life (he doesn’t realize who she is). Complications ensue.

Another Earth is a “sci-fi” film mostly in the academic sense; don’t expect to see CGI aliens in 3-D. Orbiting somewhere in proximity of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, its concerns are more metaphysical than astrophysical. And not unlike a Tarkovsky film, it demands your full and undivided attention. Prepare to have your mind blown. (Full review)

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Kurt Cobain: About a Son (YouTube, iTunes) – A.J. Schnack’s documentary is a unique, impressionistic portrait of musician Kurt Cobain’s short life. There are none of the usual talking head interviews or performance clips here; there’s nary a photo image of Cobain or Nirvana displayed until a good hour into the film. Schnack was given access to a series of frank and intimate audio interviews that Cobain recorded at his Seattle home circa 1992-1993. Schnack marries up Cobain’s childhood and teenage recollections with beautifully shot footage of Cobain’s hometown of Aberdeen and its environs.

The combination of Cobain’s narration with the visuals is eerie; you feel that you are inside Cobain’s temporal memories-kicking aimlessly around the cultural vacuum of a blue collar logging town, walking the halls of his high school, sleeping under a railroad bridge, sitting on a mattress on a crash pad floor and practicing guitar for hours on end.

The film is an antithesis to Nick Broomfield’s comparatively sensationalist rock doc Kurt and Courtney. Whereas Broomfield set out with a backhoe to dig up as much dirt as quickly as possible in attempting to uncover Cobain’s story, Schnack opts for a more carefully controlled excavation, gently brushing the dirt aside to expose the real artifact. (Full review)

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Life of Reilly (Amazon Prime Video) – One interesting thing I learned watching this filmed performance of Charles Nelson Reilly’s entertaining one-man show Save it for the Stage is that he was classically trained as a stage actor. Yes, that Charles Nelson Reilly, perhaps best known for his constant presence on the talk show/game show circuit from the late 60s onward. Reilly (who passed away in 2007) once wryly predicted his obits would contain the phrase “game show fixture”.

Reilly runs the theatrical gamut, segueing from hilarious anecdote to moving soliloquy without missing a beat. He begins with a series of wonderful vignettes about growing up in the Bronx. After a promising start in “Miss (Uta) Hagen’s $3 Tuesday afternoon acting class” in NYC in the early 50s, he hits a brick wall when he auditions for an NBC talent scout, only to be bluntly informed “They don’t let queers (sic) on television.”

Reilly got the last laugh; he recalls poring over TV Guide at the peak of his saturation on the tube, to play a game wherein he would count how many times his name would appear (including reruns). “I know I was once told I wasn’t allowed on TV,” he quips, “…but now I found myself thinking: Who do I fuck to get off?!” Funny, moving and inspiring. (Full review)

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Mid-August Lunch (Amazon Prime Video) – This slice-of-life charmer from Italy, set during the mid-August Italian public holiday known as Ferragosto, was written and directed by Gianni Di Gregorio (who also co-scripted the critically-acclaimed 2009 gangster drama Gomorrah). Light in plot but rich in observational insight, it proves that sometimes, less is more.

The Robert Mitchum-ish Di Gregorio casts himself as Giovanni, a middle-aged bachelor living in Rome with his elderly mother. He doesn’t work, because as he quips to a friend, taking care of mama is his “job”. Although nothing appears to faze the easy-going Giovanni, his nearly saintly countenance is tested when his landlord, who wants to take a little weekend excursion with his mistress, asks for a “small” favor. Complications ensue.

It’s the small moments that make this film such a delight. Giovanni reading Dumas aloud to his mother, until she quietly nods off in her chair. Two friends, sitting in the midday sun, enjoying white wine and watching the world go by. And in a scene that reminded me of a classic POV sequence in Fellini’s Roma, Giovanni and his pal glide us through the streets of Rome on a sunny motorcycle ride. This mid-August lunch might offer you a somewhat limited menu, but you’ll find that every morsel on it is well worth savoring. (Full review)

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Monkey Warfare (iTunes) – Written and directed by Reginald Harkema, Monkey Warfare is a nice little cinematic bong hit of low-key political anarchy. The film stars Don McKellar and Tracy Wright (the Hepburn and Tracy of quirky Canadian cinema) as a longtime couple who are former lefty radical activists-turned “off the grid” Toronto slackers.

When McKellar loans the couple’s free-spirited young pot dealer and budding anarchist (Nadia Litz) his treasured “mint copy” of a book about the Baader-Meinhof Gang, he unintentionally triggers a chain of events that will reawaken long dormant passions between the couple (amorous and political) and profoundly affect the lives of all three protagonists.

Monkey Warfare is not exactly a comedy, but Harkema’s script is awash in trenchant humor. If you liked Jeremy Kagan’s 1978 dramedy The Big Fix and/or Sidney Lumet’s 1988 drama Running on Empty, I think this film should be right in your wheelhouse. (Full review)

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Nowhere Boy (Netflix, iTunes, Showtime) – There’s nary a tricksy or false note in this little gem from U.K. director Sam Taylor-Wood. Aaron Johnson gives a terrific, James Dean-worthy performance as a teenage John Lennon. The story focuses on a specific, crucially formative period of the musical icon’s life beginning just prior to his first meet-up with Paul McCartney, and ending on the eve of the “Hamburg period”.

The story is not so much about the Fabs, however, as it is about the complex and mercurial dynamic of the relationship between John, his Aunt Mimi (Kirstin Scott Thomas) and his mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff). The entire cast is excellent, but Scott Thomas (one of the best actresses strolling the planet) handily walks away with the film as the woman who raised John from childhood. (Full review)

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Poppy Shakespeare (tubi, Amazon Prime Video) – Anna Maxwell Martin breaks down the fourth wall and tears up the screen as “N”, a mentally troubled young woman who has grown up as a ward of the state, shuffled about from foster care to government subsidized mental health providers for most of her life. She collects a “mad money” pension from the government, and spends most of her waking hours at a London “day hospital” (where many of the patients participate on a voluntary basis and are free to go home at night).

While there are some amusing moments, I need to warn you that this is pretty bleak fare. That being said, it is well written (Sarah Williams adapted from Clare Allan’s novel) and directed (by Benjamin Ross, who also helmed The Young Poisoner’s Handbook). The jabs at England’s health care system remind me of Lindsay Anderson’s “institutional” satires (Britannia Hospital in particular).

Naomie Harris is very affecting as the eponymous character, a fellow patient who befriends “N”, but it is Martin who commands your attention throughout. She has a Glenda Jackson quality about her that tells me she will likely be around for a while. She’s better than good. She’s crazy good. (Full review)

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Queen of the Sun (Amazon Prime Video) – I never thought that a documentary about honeybees would make me laugh and cry-but Taggart Siegel’s 2010 film did just that. Appearing at first to be a distressing examination of Colony Collapse Syndrome, a phenomenon that has puzzled and dismayed beekeepers and scientists alike with its increasing frequency over the past few decades, the film becomes a sometimes joyous, sometimes humbling meditation on how essential these tiny yet complex social creatures are to the planet’s life cycle. Humans may harbor a pretty high opinion of our own place on the evolutionary ladder, but Siegel lays out a convincing case which proves that these busy little creatures are, in fact, the boss of us. (Full review)

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Telstar (YouTube, iTunes) – This biopic recounts the life of legendary, innovative and tragically doomed music producer Joe Meek (whose career abruptly ended when he shot his landlady before shooting himself in 1967). Telstar is named after Meek’s biggest and most recognizable hit from 1962, an instrumental performed by The Tornados (who were essentially his studio band at the time).

The film (based on a stage play by James Hicks, who co-adapted the screenplay with director Nick Moran) suffers a bit from an uneven tone, but I still think it is quite watchable (especially for fans of the era), thanks to the great location filming, a colorful and tuneful recreation of the early 60s London music scene, and a fearless performance from Con O’Neill (recreating his original stage role as Meek). (Full review)

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Trollhunter (tubi, Amazon Prime Video) – Like previous entries in the “found footage” sub-genre,  Trollhunter features an unremarkable, no-name cast; but then again you don’t really require the services of an Olivier when most of the dialog is along the lines of “Where ARE you!?”, “Jesus, look at the size of that fucking thing!”, “RUN!!!” or the ever popular “AieEEE!”.

Seriously, though- what I like about Andre Ovredal’s film (aside from the surprisingly convincing monsters) is the way he cleverly weaves wry commentary on religion and politics into his narrative. The story concerns three Norwegian film students who initially set off to do an expose on illegal bear poaching, but become embroiled with a clandestine government program to rid Norway of some nasty trolls who have been terrorizing the remote areas of the country (you’ll have to suspend your disbelief as to how the government has been able to “cover up” 200 foot tall monsters rampaging about). The “trollhunter” himself is quite a character. Not your typical creature feature! (Full review)

…one more thing

In case you are still bereft of ideas for movie night, film programmer and writer Kathleen Geier has posted a comprehensive guide aimed at housebound cinephiles jonesing for a deep catalog dive via online streaming. Her eclectic recommendations run the gamut, from classic Hollywood to indie, art house and world cinema.

Creepy lodgers and seedy inns: 10 worst places to stay in the movies

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 26, 2019)

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“People come, people go. Nothing ever happens.” So says a character in the 1932 film Grand Hotel. Obviously, he never lodged in any of the dubious caravansaries on tonight’s top 10 list, where one-star Yelp ratings go beyond bad room service or a fly in the soup. So for a spooky Halloween movie night, I triple dog dare you to check in to one of these flops! As usual, I listed them alphabetically, not by ranking.

Enjoy your stay…?

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The film: Barton Fink

Where not to stay: The Hotel Earle

This is one of two films on my list involving blocked writers and eerie hotels (I’ll entertain anyone’s theory on why they seem to go hand-in-hand).

The Coen brothers bring their usual blend of gleeful cruelty and ironic detachment into play in this tale (set in the 1940s) that follows the travails of an angst-ridden New York playwright (John Turturro) who wrestles with his conscience after reluctantly accepting an offer from a Hollywood studio to move to L.A. and grind out screenplays for soulless formula films. Thanks to some odd goings-on at his hotel, that soon becomes the least of his problems.

The film is a close cousin to Day of the Locust, although perhaps slightly less grotesque and more darkly funny. John Goodman and Judy Davis are also on hand, and in top form.

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The film: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Where not to stay: The Mint Hotel

Okay, so the hotel in this one isn’t so bad. It’s the behavior going on in one of the rooms:

When I came to, the general back-alley ambience of the suite was so rotten, so incredibly foul. How long had I been lying there? All these signs of violence. What had happened? There was evidence in this room of excessive consumption of almost every type of drug known to civilized man since 1544 AD… These were not the hoof prints of your average God-fearing junkie. It was too savage. Too aggressive.

Terry Gilliam’s manic, audience-polarizing adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s classic blend of gonzo journalism and hilariously debauched, anarchic invention may be too savage and aggressive for some, but it’s one of those films I am compelled to revisit on an annual basis. Johnny Depp’s turn as Thompson’s alter-ego, Raoul Duke, is one for the ages. My favorite line: “You’d better pray to God there’s some Thorazine in that bag.”

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The film: Key Largo

Where not to stay: The Largo Hotel

Humphrey Bogart stars as a WW2 vet who drops by a Florida hotel to pay his respects to its proprietors- the widow (Lauren Bacall) and father (Lionel Barrymore) of one of the men who had served under his command. Initially just “passing through”, he is waylaid by a convergence of two angry tempests: an approaching hurricane and the appearance of notorious gangster Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson) and his henchmen.

Rocco takes the hotel residents hostage while they all ride out the storm. It’s interesting to see Bogie play a gangster’s victim for a change (in The Petrified Forest, and later on in one of his final films, The Desperate Hours, he essentially played the Edward G. Robinson character). The acting is superb. Along with The Maltese Falcon and The Asphalt Jungle, it’s one of John Huston’s finest contributions to the classic noir cycle.

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The film: The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog

Where not to stay: Mrs. Bunting’s Lodging House

Mrs. Bunting is a pleasant landlady and all, but we’re not so sure about her latest boarder. There’s a possibility that he is “The Avenger”, a brutal serial killer who is stalking London. Ivor Novello plays the gentleman in question, an intense, brooding fellow with a vaguely menacing demeanor. Is he or isn’t he? No worries, I’m not going to spoil it for you!

This suspense thriller has been remade umpteen times over the last eight decades, but IMHO none of them can touch Hitchcock’s 1927 silent for atmosphere and mood. Novello later did a reprise of the role of the mysterious lodger in Maurice Elvey’s 1932 version.

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The film: Motel Hell

Where not to stay: Motel Hello

OK, all together now (you know the words!): “It takes all kinds of critters…to make Farmer Vincent’s fritters!” Rory Calhoun gives a sly performance as the cheerfully psychotic Vincent Smith, proprietor of the Motel Hello (oh my, there seems to be an electrical short in the neon “O”. Bzzzt!). Funny thing is, no one ever seems to check in (no one certainly ever checks out). Vincent and his oddball sister (Nancy Parsons) prefer to concentrate on the, ah, family’s “world-famous” smoked meat business.

Despite the exploitative horror trappings, Kevin Conner’s black comedy (scripted by brothers Steven-Charles and Robert Jaffe) is a surprisingly smart genre spoof and well-made. The finale, involving a swashbuckling duel with chainsaws, is pure twisted genius.

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The film: Mystery Train

Where not to stay: The Arcade Hotel

Elvis’ ghost shakes, rattles and rolls (literally and figuratively) all throughout Jim Jarmusch’s culture clash dramedy/love letter to the “Memphis Sound”. In his typically droll and deadpan manner, Jarmusch constructs a series of episodic vignettes that loosely intersect at a seedy hotel.

You’ve gotta love any movie that features Screamin’ Jay Hawkins as a night concierge. Also be on the lookout for music legends Rufus Thomas and Joe Strummer, and you will hear the mellifluous voice of Tom Waits on the radio (undoubtedly a call back to his DJ character in Jarmusch’s previous film, Down by Law).

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The film: The Night of the Iguana

Where not to stay: The Hotel Costa Verde

Director John Huston and co-writer Anthony Veiller adapted this sordid, blackly comic soaper from Tennessee Williams’ stage play about a defrocked minister (Richard Burton) who has expatriated himself to Mexico, where he has become a part-time tour guide and a full-time alcoholic.

One day he goes off the deep end, and shanghais a busload of Baptist college teachers to an isolated, rundown hotel run by an “old friend” (Ava Gardner). Add a sexually precocious teenager (Sue Lyon, recycling her Lolita persona) and a grifter with a prim and proper exterior (Deborah Kerr), and stir.

Most Tennessee Williams archetypes are present and accounted for: dipsomaniacs, nymphets, repressed lesbians, and neurotics of every stripe. The bloodletting is mostly verbal, but mortally wounding all the same. Burton and Kerr are great, as always. I think this is my favorite Ava Gardner performance; she’s earthy, sexy, heartbreaking, intimidating, and endearingly girlish-all at once.

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The film: The Night Porter

Where not to stay: The Hotel zur Oper

Director Liliana Cavani uses a depiction of sadomasochism and sexual politics as an allusion to the horrors of Hitler’s Germany in this dark 1974 drama. Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling are broodingly decadent as a former SS officer and a concentration camp survivor, respectively, who are entwined in a twisted, doomed relationship years after WW2. You’d have to search high and low to find two braver performances than Bogarde and Rampling give here.

I think the film has been misunderstood over the years; it frequently gets lumped in with (and is dismissed as) Nazi kitsch exploitation fare like Ilsa, SheWolf of the SS or Salon Kitty. Disturbing, repulsive…yet weirdly mesmerizing.

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The film: Psycho

Where not to stay: Bates Motel

Bad, bad Norman. Such a disappointment to his mother. “MOTHERRRR!!!” Poor, poor Janet Leigh. No sooner had she recovered from her bad motel experience in Touch of Evil than she found herself checking in to the Bates and having a late dinner in a dimly lit office, surrounded by Norman’s creepy taxidermy collection. And this is only the warmup to what director Alfred Hitchcock has in store for her later that evening.

This brilliant shocker from the Master has spawned so many imitations, I long ago lost count. Anthony Perkins sets the bar pretty high for all future movie psycho killers. Anyone for a shower?

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The film: The Shining

Where not to stay: The Overlook Hotel

“Hello, Danny.” It has been said that Stephen King hated Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of his sprawling novel about a family of three who hole up in an isolated Rocky Mountain hotel for the winter. Well-that’s his personal problem. I think this is the greatest “psychological” horror film ever made…period (OK that’s a bit hyperbolic-perhaps we can call it “a draw” with Polanski’s Repulsion).

Anyway…Jack Nicholson discovers that all work and no play make Jack a dull boy. Jack Nicholson discovers that all work and no play make Jack a dull boy. Jack Nicholson discovers that all work and no play make Jack a dull boy. Jack Nicholson discovers that all work and no play make Jack a dull boy, etc.

Happy Halloween!

 

Pretty as you feel: Chained For Life (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 5, 2019)

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Now the questions that come to mind: “Where is this place and when is it?” “What kind of world where ugliness is the norm and beauty the deviation from that norm?” You want an answer? The answer is it doesn’t make any difference, because the old saying happens to be true. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, in this year or a hundred years hence. On this planet or wherever there is human life – perhaps out amongst the stars – beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Lesson to be learned in the Twilight Zone.

— Epilogue from “Eye of the Beholder”, a Twilight Zone episode written by Rod Serling.

Depending on how far back your pop culture references go, a certain classic episode from the original Twilight Zone TV series may (or may not) keep popping into your head as you watch writer-director Aaron Schimberg’s “movie within a movie” Chained For Life.

Picture if you will: a postmodernist mashup of The Elephant Man with The French Lieutenant’s Woman (I’ll give you a moment). Schimberg’s film intercuts two parallel romantic affairs; one involving two fictional lead characters in an arthouse horror flick, and the other one that is developing off-set between the two actors who portray the leads.

Mabel (Jess Weixler) is the leading lady, a beautiful movie star hoping to score some art cred by working with a critic’s darling German director (Charlie Korsmo) who is making his English-language debut. Cast opposite Mabel is Rosenthal (Adam Pearson), a sweet-natured young man with a pronounced facial deformity. “Herr Director” is using a semi-abandoned hospital for his set, casting a dwarf, “real” Siamese twins, a “bearded lady”, and other folks with unusual physical attributes alongside professional actors like Mabel.

Rosenthal has never acted in a film before; he picks Mabel’s brain between takes for tips. He’s particularly nervous about memorizing his dialog. Mabel assures him that every actor, no matter the degree of experience, worries about that in the early days of a shoot.

“Name an emotion,” Mabel says to Rosenthal in an impromptu acting lesson. On the spot, he can’t think of one. “Sadness,” she offers, as she changes expression to match the emotion. “See?” she says, “Acting.” “I see,” says Rosenthal, “Now I’ve got one. Happiness.” Mabel obliges. “Let’s try fear,” he says. She promptly shows fear. “How about…empathy?” Rosenthal requests. Mabel begins to hedge. “So…empathy in 3-2-1, action!” he repeats. Cleverly, Schimberg keeps his camera on Rosenthal as Mabel gives it a go. “And…it’s a lot like ‘pity’. But all the same, I’m touched,” Rosenthal deadpans.

That funny/sad scene in the first act is essentially the crux of the film: “Empathy” truly is “an advanced emotion” to convey, as Mabel says to Rosenthal with a nervous laugh. Rosenthal’s resigned response to Mabel’s good intentions reveals much about what it’s like to be inside the head of someone who has no control over others’ first impressions of them (he’s thinking “different day, same old shit”). Our first reactions give us away, and honest conversations about how society treats such “outsiders” are far and few between.

Schimberg’s film, while decidedly unconventional, is eminently accessible (once you adjust to its peculiar rhythms). He is clearly a student of the Robert Altman school; highly populated shots with slow zooms from multiple cameras, overlapping dialog, and an improvised feel (although I don’t know for a fact that he gave his actors that leeway).

For me, the best scene is the denouement. Mabel is taking a taxi to the airport after the film production wraps. The camera remains solely on her while she has a conversation with the driver (who we hear, but never see). Initially, Mabel appears uncomfortable, particularly when the driver tells her she is very beautiful and then says he’s a movie fan.

“We have something in common,” the taxi driver says. “We are both artists.” He hands her a book that he has written about his escape from Nigeria. He thinks it would make a great movie. Maybe Denzel Washington can play him. “I know 9 languages,” he tells her. “I am also a math wizard.” He asks her to give him a random math problem, which he solves in seconds, Rain Man style. He tells her about his plans to produce a YouTube series that teaches children math. He dreams it will become so popular that he will be able to use his celebrity status to “ask President Trump to bring my family from Nigeria.”

“You’re an extraordinary man,” Mabel says in wonderment.

And this is an extraordinarily timely film.

SIFF 2019: Here Comes Hell (**1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 1, 2019)

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UK director Jack McHenry’s feature film debut is an homage to classic black-and-white “haunted mansion” thrillers, mixed with contemporary gore film sensibilities. A bit reminiscent of Ken Russell’s Gothic (although not quite in the same league), the story takes place over the course of one eventful and unsettling evening. A group of people converge at an isolated country estate and accidentally open the door to Hell (I hate it when that happens!). There’s a fair amount of mordant humor, and the special effects are pretty good for a low-budget production, but it’s all rather rote.

Spirits in the night: John Carpenter’s The Fog [re-release] (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 27th, 2018)

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Just in time for Halloween, a 4K restoration of John Carpenter’s 1980 chiller The Fog debuts this weekend in select cities. Carpenter’s follow-up to his surprise 1978 low-budget horror hit Halloween didn’t conjure up quite the same degree of enthusiasm from film-goers and critics, but still did respectable box office and has become a cult favorite.

Set in the sleepy hamlet of Antonio Bay on the California coast, the film opens with a crusty old salt (the great John Houseman) holding court around a campfire scaring the bejesus out of children with a local legend about a mysterious 19th-Century shipwreck on nearby rocks. This happens to be the eve of the 100th anniversary of the incident; the codger hints at portents of imminent phantasmagorical vengeance. ‘Night, kids-sleep tight! Enter a winsome, free-spirited hitchhiker (Jamie Lee Curtis) who catches a ride into Antonio Bay with one of the locals (Tom Atkins), just in time to see a dense, eerily glowing fog roll into town at the stroke of midnight (rarely a good sign). Mayhem ensues.

As is the case in most of Carpenter’s oeuvre, narrative takes a back seat to suspense and atmosphere. In another Carpenter trademark (and ongoing nod to one of his Hollywood heroes Howard Hawks), there’s more character development than you find in contemporary horror fare, which tends to emphasize shock and gore. The film isn’t gore-free, but (cleverly) it’s more aurally than visually graphic; which showcases the craft of the Foley artists and sound engineers (as much of the action literally takes place in a fog).

It’s not Carpenter’s crown jewel (which for me is Escape from New York), but it gave me a few jumps and a guilty twinge of 80s nostalgia. The cast is game, especially 80s scream queen (and Mrs. Carpenter at the time) Adrienne Barbeau as a late-night radio DJ who broadcasts from an old lighthouse. I also enjoyed watching the Hollywood royalty on board (Houseman, Curtis’ mom Janet Leigh, and Hal Holbrook) doing their best to lend gravitas to the proceedings (which they must have had a tough time taking too seriously).

Due to technical limitations, the preview copy I watched was not in true 4K format, but it was the newly restored version, which highlights striking work by cinematographer Dean Cundey (Halloween, Escape from New York, The Thing, Romancing the Stone, Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Jurassic Park, et.al.) and is a noticeable upgrade over murky, faded prints that I’ve seen circulating on cable and home video for years. I imagine that on the big screen, you can nearly make out what’s lurking in the mist now…

SIFF 2018: The Place ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 19, 2018)

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Much of the “horror” in Paolo Genoveses’ horror anthology is left to the imagination, which is not dissimilar to what an enigmatic benefactor who holds court at a diner requires of his “clients” – if they want their wishes to come true. This deadpan “genie” hands out dubious assignments to desperate souls. There’s an opt-out, but few take it. Slow to start, and somewhat marred by repetitive staging, but becomes more gripping as it chugs along.

I want to believe: The Endless (**1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 28, 2018)

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Solaris meets Wild Wild Country in The Endless, a new horror-sci fi-thriller from co-directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. Benson and Moorhead cast themselves as (wait for it) “Justin” and “Aaron”, two 30-ish brothers who managed to escape from a UFO death cult in their early 20s. One day they receive an enigmatic message via VHS tape. Something really “big” might be going on back at Crazy Town Ranch; something tangibly intangible. Intrigued (if wary), they decide to hit the open road and head back to the camp, hoping to gain a sense of closure about their experience.

 Yes, of course it’s a dumb decision on their part…but then again, if they laughed off the tape and moved on with their lives, you wouldn’t have much of a film, would you? Predictably, their old “friends” are overjoyed to see them again back at the old enclave (located somewhere in the scrubby wilds of Southern California’s rugged back country). The brothers make it clear this is only a visit. The cult members smile. They understand.

That’s how it always starts, doesn’t it?

I won’t risk spoilers, suffice it to say if Justin and Aaron were hoping to discover there really is “something out there”, they get all that and a large orange soda. For me, the “twist” ending demotes all that precedes it into a glorified Twilight Zone episode, but hardcore genre fans should appreciate the genuine sense of dread, and what the filmmakers lack in budget is effectively compensated by their imaginative workarounds.

Fright night at the art house: A top 10 list

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 28, 2017)

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Since Halloween is coming up before my next weekly post, I thought I would do a little early trick-or-treating tonight (wait…you don’t think 61 is too old to trick-or-treat…is it?). Now, I enjoy a good old fashioned creature feature as much as the next person, but tonight’s recommendations largely eschew the vampires, werewolves, axe-murderers and chainsaw-wielders. Okay, we’ve got a few aliens, and (possibly) the odd zombie or ghost; but these are films where the volume knob on the sense of dread is left up the viewer’s discretion. The “horror” is in the eye of the beholder. Alphabetically:

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 Blue Velvet– Any film that begins with the discovery of a severed human ear, roiling with ants amid a dreamy, idealized milieu beneath the blue suburban skies instantly commands your full attention. Writer-director David Lynch not only grabs you with this 1986 mystery thriller, but practically pushes you face-first into the dark and seedy mulch that lurks under all those verdant, freshly mowed lawns and happy smiling faces.

The detached appendage in question is found by an all-American “boy next door” (Kyle MacLachlan), who is about to get a crash course in the evil that men do. He is joined in his sleuthing caper by a Nancy Drew-ish Laura Dern. But they’re not the most interesting characters. That honor goes to the troubled young woman at the center of the mystery (Isabella Rossellini) and her boyfriend (Dennis Hopper).  Hopper is frightening as the 100% pure bat shit crazy Frank Booth, one of the all-time great screen heavies

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Brotherhood of the Wolf– If I told you that the best martial arts film of the 1990s features an 18th-century French libertine/naturalist/philosopher and his enigmatic “blood-brother” (an Iroquois mystic) who are on the prowl for a supernaturally huge, man-eating lupine creature terrorizing the countryside-would you avoid eye contact and scurry to the other side of the street? Christophe Gans’ film defies category; Dangerous Liaisons meets Captain Kronos-Vampire Hunter by way of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the best I can do. Artfully photographed, handsomely mounted and surprising at every turn.

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Don’t Look Now– This is a tough film to describe without risking spoilers, so I’ll be brief. Based on a Daphne du Maurier story, this haunting, one-of-a-kind 1974 psychological thriller from Nicholas Roeg stars Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie as a couple who are coming to grips with the tragic death of their little girl. Roeg slowly percolates an ever-creeping sense of impending doom, drenched in the Gothic atmosphere of Venice.

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In the Realms of the Unreal– Artist Henry Darger is not usually mentioned in the same breath as Picasso, but he is a fascinating study. Darger was a recluse who worked as a janitor for his entire adult life. He had no significant relationships of record and died in obscurity in 1973. While sorting out the contents of the small Chicago apartment he had lived in for years, his landlady discovered a treasury of artwork and writings, including over 300 paintings.

The centerpiece was an epic, 15,000-page illustrated novel, which Darger had meticulously notated in long hand over a period of decades; it was literally his life’s work. The subject at hand: An entire mythic alternate universe populated mostly by young, naked hermaphrodites, whom he dubbed the “Vivian Girls”.

Although it’s tempting to dismiss Darger as a perv, until you have actually seen the astounding breadth of Darger’s imaginary world, spilled out over so many pages and so much canvas, it’s hard to convey how weirdly compelling it all is (especially if you view an actual exhibit, which I had the chance to see). The doc mixes Darger’s bio with animation of his work (actors read excerpts from the tome). Truth is stranger than fiction.

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Liquid Sky – A diminutive, parasitic alien (who seems to have a particular delectation for NYC club kids, models and performance artists) lands on an East Village rooftop and starts mainlining off the limbic systems of junkies and sex addicts…right at the moment that they, you know…reach the maximum peak of pleasure center stimulation (I suppose that makes the alien a dopamine junkie?). Just don’t think about the science too hard.

The main attraction here is the inventive photography and the fascinatingly bizarre performance (or non-performance) by (co-screen writer) Anne Carlisle, who tackles two roles-a female fashion model who becomes the alien’s primary host, and a male model. Writer-director Slava Zsukerman also co-wrote the electronic music score for his 1982 curio. Deeply weird, yet eminently watchable (I’ve seen it more times than I’m willing to confess in mixed company).

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Mystery Train-Elvis’ ghost shakes, rattles and rolls (literally and figuratively) all throughout Jim Jarmusch’s culture clash dramedy/love letter to the “Memphis Sound”. In his typically droll and deadpan manner, Jarmusch constructs a series of episodic vignettes that loosely intersect at a seedy hotel. You’ve gotta love any movie that has Screamin’ Jay Hawkins as a night clerk. Also be on the lookout for music legends Rufus Thomas and Joe Strummer, and you will hear the mellifluous voice of Tom Waits on the radio (undoubtedly a call back to his DJ character in Jarmusch’s previous film, Down by Law).

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The Night Porter– Director Liliana Cavani uses a depiction of sadomasochism and sexual politics as an allusion to the horrors of Hitler’s Germany. Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling are broodingly decadent as a former SS officer and a concentration camp survivor, respectively, who become entwined in a twisted, doomed relationship years after WW2. You’d have to search high and low to find two braver performances than Bogarde and Rampling give here. I think the film has been misunderstood over the years; it frequently gets lumped in with (and is dismissed as) Nazi kitsch exploitation fare like Ilsa, SheWolf of the SS or Salon Kitty. Disturbing, repulsive…yet weirdly mesmerizing.

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Upstream Color– Not that my original take on Shane Carruth’s 2013 film was negative (it leaned toward ambivalent), but apparently this is one of those films that grows on you; the more time I’ve had to ponder it, the more I have come to appreciate it (most films I see nowadays are forgotten by the time I get back to my car). To say it’s a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma is understatement. To say that it redefines the meaning of “Wha…?!” is more apt.

A woman (Amy Seimitz) is abducted, then forced to ingest a creepy-crawly whatsit that places her into a docile and suggestible state. Her kidnapper however turns out to be not so much Buffalo Bill, but more Terence McKenna. Long story short, next thing she knows, she’s back behind the wheel of her car, parked near a cornfield, and spends the rest of the movie retrieving memories of her bizarre experience in bits and pieces. As do we. You have been warned.

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Venus in Furs (aka Paroxismus)– Jess Franco’s 1969 Gothic horror-psychedelic sexploitation fest was inspired by a conversation the director once had with trumpeter Chet Baker. Maria Rohm portrays a mysterious siren that pops into a nightclub one foggy night, and stirs the loins of a brooding jazz trumpeter (played with a perpetually puzzled expression by James “Moondoggie” Darren). Darren follows Rohm to the back room of a mansion, just in time to witness her ritualistic demise at the hands of a decadent playboy (Klaus Kinski) and several of his kinky socialite friends.

Sometime later, Darren is playing his trumpet on the beach, where Rohm’s body is seen washing ashore (you following this so far?). Next thing we know, she has “revived” and sets out to wreak revenge on her tormentors, in between torrid love scenes with Darren. Does she (or her “killers”) actually exist, outside of Darren’s mind? This visually arresting mash-up of Carnival of Souls and Blow-up is a bit dubious as to narrative, but heavy on atmosphere.

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Wake in Fright– Considered one of the great lost entries from Australia’s own “new wave” movement back in the 70s, Ted Kotcheff’s unique psychological thriller concerns a burned-out teacher (Gary Bond) who works in a one-room schoolhouse somewhere in the Outback. Headed back to Sydney to visit his girlfriend over the school holiday, he takes the train to Bundanyabba, where he will need to lodge for one night.

“The Yabba” is one of those burgs where the clannish regulars at the local pub take an unhealthy interest in strangers, starting with the “friendly” town cop (Chips Rafferty) who bullies the teacher into getting blotto. This kick starts a lost weekend that lasts for days.

The ensuing booze-soaked debaucheries have to be seen to be believed; particularly an unnerving and surreal sequence involving a drunken nocturnal kangaroo hunt (a lengthy disclaimer in the end credits may not assuage animal lovers’ worst fears, but at least acknowledges their potential sensitivities). The general atmosphere of dread is tempered by blackly comic dialog (Evan Jones adapted from Kenneth Cook’s novel). Splendid performances abound, especially from Donald Pleasance as a boozy MD.

Blu-ray reissue: Multiple Maniacs ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 22, 2017)

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Multiple Maniacs – The Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Warning: This 1970 trash classic from czar of bad taste John Waters is definitely not for the pious, easily offended or the faint of heart. A long out-of-print VHS edition aside, it has been conspicuously absent from home video…until now. Thank (or blame) The Criterion Collection, who have meticulously restored the film back to all of its original B&W 16mm glory (well, almost…there’s grumbling from purists about the “new” music soundtrack, reportedly precipitated by the prohibitive costs of securing music rights for some of the tracks that were “borrowed” by Waters for his original cut).

The one and only Divine heads the cast who became Waters’ faithful “Dreamland” repertory (Edith Massey, Mink Stole, David Lochary, etc.) in a tale of mayhem, filth and blasphemy too shocking to discuss in mixed company (you’ll never see a Passion Play the same way).

Watching this the other day for the first time in several decades, I was suddenly struck by the similarities with the contemporaneous films of Rainier Werner Fassbinder (Love is Colder than Death and Gods of the Plague in particular). Once you get past its inherent shock value, Multiple Maniacs is very much an American art film. Extras include a typically hilarious commentary track by Waters.