Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Recommendations...of The DAMNED!!!

My best friend and I have a movie review show. This week, we recommend some bad-ass Halloween treats.

   

POLTERGEIST

A young family are visited by ghosts in their home. At first the ghosts appear friendly, moving objects around the house to the amusement of everyone, then they turn nasty and start to terrorise the family before they "kidnap" the youngest daughter. - from IMDb

You asked me to do it; I did it! Late last night, on Halloween Eve, I finally saw the horror classic Poltergeist.


Poltergeist is one of those films you think you know even if you've never seen it. The poster is iconic, the lines are oft-quoted ("They're here"), Family Guy remade it in an episode. It's very easy to walk into Poltergeist and be underwhelmed. Where's the opportunity for surprise and suspense when every twist and turn is part of popular culture?

Well, let me get out of the way first: Poltergeist is not really that scary, and I don't think you can completely blame overexposure for it. The film just doesn't work that way. The ghosts are big special effects creations, shining lights floating down like the aliens in Cocoon, or else monstrous skull demons roaring and throwing their heads out of closets. Monstrous and ugly, but not scary. There are moments that made my skin crawl -- the chairs on the table, the steak, the tree -- but it's not like I shivered and sat on the edge of my seat. It's spooky, certainly, but not terrifying. For me, anyway.

Still...

But it'd be nuts to base the quality of Poltergeist off of that alone. After all, not every ghost flick has to be chew-your-nails terrifying, and Poltergeist is obviously not concerned with that anyway. Its focus instead is on the effects these supernatural events have on a family, in particular the mother, played by JoBeth Williams.

I think this is what separates Poltergeist from all others. Craig T. Nelson's dad Steven is the one who actually goes out and calls on parapsychologist Dr. Tesh (Beatrice Straight) for help, but Williams' Diane is the film's focus. She refuses to leave the house, not wanting to leave her baby stuck in the spirit realm, but she is far from the helpless, hysterical mess this would imply. Instead, it's Steven who sits by in a chair, doubting the capabilities of his visitors, visibly exhausted, uncertain what to do. As the man, the protector of the family, he is left defeated by a force he can not understand, unable to bring his family through this horror -- it's emasculating, and Nelson gets this emotion through his slack face and confused movements.

As I said, it's the wife who takes charge. She refuses to leave her baby. She stays up with Dr. Lesh, forming a bond in a moving late-night conversation scene, learning more about this thing that has taken over her house. She puts her trust in medium Tangina. She is the one who puts on the rope so she can fetch Carol Anne from the other side, and she is the one who brings her children out of the house while Steven yells at his boss outside. Of course, she's also the one who at first toys with the idea of having these spirits around, using first her chair, then her own daughter, in an experiment to see them rush across the floor. She's flabbergasted and excited, but not afraid, and perhaps her vigilance later on is just as much a product of guilt as it is maternal instinct. After all, she literally offered up Carol Anne to the ghosts; what are they gonna do, deny it?

DON'T DO THAT

The conflict between husband and wife is hinted at throughout the film. I love the scene where Diane smokes pot in the master bedroom while Steven, unable to roll a joint, gives up and picks up Reagan: The Man, The President instead.

 

I love when she's trying to show him the chair moving across the kitchen and tells him to "Reach back into our past, when you sued to have an open mind. Remember that?" I love when Tangina asks the disciplinarian of the two to call Carol Anne's spirit closer using force and anger, and they argue about which one fits the role. I love most of all when Dr. Tesh asks Steven to name everyone in the house, with ages. And he names his wife Diane, 32, their oldest daughter Dana, 16....that kills me. You get a real idea of who these two were and are, understanding the dig at Steven's former open-mindedness and Diane's expert rolling of a joint.

It also provides a purpose for the presence of Dana in the story, a character who says nothing, does nothing, and might as well not exist. Ah, but what insight Dana's presence lends! The first child, there's eight years difference between her and son Robbie. And since her parents were both, presumably, in high school, there is a looser hold on her. She is frequently out with friends, apparently allowed to stay out on school nights, and while not open about her sex life, her references to her experiences are left virtually unchecked.


Through these moments, Poltergeist presents an interesting peek at the changing nuclear family. The free-lovin', free-wheelin', everyone smoke a jay, fuck-the-man, we won't be anything like our parents 60s and 70s is giving way to the Yuppie nirvana of the Reagan 80s. One gets the sense that whatever Steven and Diane did in that time, she was the instigator and he went along because he loved her. It's the one thing about this movie I cannot shake.

Ok, and Zelda Rubinstein as Tangina.

Get it, girl!

There are lots of other things I could discuss, like Dr. Lesh's own awakening to what she's experiencing, or the fact that after seeing four other Tobe Hooper films, I see his fingerprints on this just as much as Spielberg's. But this was all about introducing me to a film so that I could give a Casting Coup. After the jump, of course.


Shocktoberfest Stew

Happy Halloween everybody!

There's lots of catching up to do, including (I promised!) my review and Casting Coup of Poltergeist. That's later. Right now, I want to reassure you all that I have not been lolly-gagging about this October. I've actually been celebrating with the following films.

FRANKENWEENIE

THIS CAT IS AMAZING
 It's important to get the new releases in, right? Score, cinematography, animation -- all A-Plus! But is it me or did this script seem rushed, not fully formed? It's about the relationship between kids and their animals, about the importance of science, about letting go, about cats with psychic poop. That's fine, but the film really seems to only focus on each of those things for a five-minute span before getting distracted by things like a child version of Boris Karloff, or broad Japanese caricatures, or Martin Landau calling everyone dumb. Ok, that last part was the best thing in the film, but the rest of it is some half-formed theses about outcasts...? Laudable attempt that misses the mark. Most criminal: not enough Winona Ryder.  2.5/5 black cats.


V/H/S

Man had I been hearing some good things about this found-footage horror anthology -- two genres that are difficult to execute on their own, but together?! Here's what they offer:
  •  Tape 56 - The wrap-around story, in which some thugs record themselves in their thuggery as they break into a house to steal a videotape. They don't know what videotape, so they go through all the tapes in the house. Meanwhile: mysterious happenings and disappearances! Interesting enough, decent execution, 2.5 black cats.
  • Amateur Night - In which some guys sneak a camera on to one of their eye-glasses to make a sex tape. But the girl they pick up is not what she appears to be! Funny, inventive, gruesome, creepy: 3.5 black cats.
  • Second Honeymoon - A stretch of genuine creepiness; longer stretches of tedium. Director Ti West is a fan of the slow-burn. Given 15 minutes to work with, he goes for all slow-burn capped off with an abrupt ending that disappoints. 2 black cats.
  • Tuesday the 17th - Neat idea for a villain is sole redeeming value of this hunk o' junk. And just look at that smug title. Just...just terrible. .5 black cats.
  • The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger - If you can get past the awful twist, the fact that it's Skype conversations that we are repeatedly told are not being recorded, and the fact that, wait, were these un-recorded Skype convos recorded then put on a VHS? Maybe I can't get past that. And what's with these self-satisfied titles? 1.5 black cats.
  • 10/31/98 - INCREDIBLE. The only film here that believably executes the found footage conceit, presents characters you can immediately relate to, and is pants-shittingly terrifying. A twist that's earned and fluid within the narrative, not a lame "GOTCHA" moment? The most terrifying haunted house ever? A CULT?!? Baby, you reeeeal good. 5 black cats.
Overall, a disappointing venture with one glittering jewel...and another not-so-bad entry. 2/5 black cats.

For more thoughts and discussion of V/H/S, you'd do well to check out Cinemaniacs.


SISTERS OF DEATH


What a bizarre little film. A sorority (I guess?) of four invites two new members, one of them gets killed in a mock execution, they're lured to a ranch-house in the desert seven years later, and they get bumped off. Kind of falls apart at the end, with twist upon twist that, when compared with the film you just watched, don't make a lot of sense. Especially the last shot. Still, some great '70s eye candy, as you can see. 2/5 black cats.


EATEN ALIVE

Tobe Hooper's follow-up to Texas Chain Saw Massacre follows a disturbed innkeeper whose motel is off the beaten track, built above a swamp wherein lives his vicious crocodile. Often repetitive in its Character Checks In/Innkeeper Goes Fire-and-Brimstone Nuts/Croc Eats structure, the real draw here is the central performance by Neville Brand as the innkeeper, Judd.


Muttering away to himself, a mix of fearful child and pious old man, his is an interesting creation that stays with you long after -- in my case, weeks after. Brand's performance in unsettling, not least of all because you can see how the switch gets flipped from accommodating host to vengeful murderer. That alone brings it to 3.5/5 black cats.


BLOOD FEAST

Finally watched a Herschell Gordon Lewis film, his first foray into horror. Filmed in Miami (whoo! Florida! represent!), the splatter-fest follows an Egyptian caterer who murders women for a cannibalistic feast meant to bring goddess of death Ishtar to Earth. It's ridiculous, but it knows and accepts it. Lewis almost scoffs at anything like "characters" or "actors" or "cinematography". He knows you came for the gore, and he delivers -- oh, boy howdy, he delivers like no one ever before. The tongue getting ripped out bare-handed is probably the highlight. 4/5 black cats.

But you know, for me it's all about Mrs. Fremont.



Hahaha! Mrs. Fremont is the fucking best. That hat, the way she bugs her tiny eyes, the way she enunciates every syllable of "student of Egyptian culture." Oh my God, Mrs. Fremont is my hero! Sure, the film's cops try to steal the show with their attempts to secure the tile of Most Unfazed Homicide Detectives in All of History. But when I think of Blood Feast, I think of Mrs. Fremont learning her caterer was going to serve her human flesh and clucking, "Oh, dear. The guests will just have to eat hamburgers for dinner tonight."


Give her 5.5/5 black cats.


ORPHAN

See, this is how you do horror. Build your characters, build suspense, get a few macabre laughs in there, cast some classy, able thespians...then in the last 15 or 20 minutes go completely balls to the wall insane! That Orphan manages to be such a good time while dabbling in such icky subject matter is a credit to the filmmaking team -- director Jaume Collet-Sera (House of Wax) and writer David Johnson (Red Riding Hood) know from guilty pleasures. 3.5/5 black cats.


TWO THOUSAND MANIACS

Yeah, I went and watched it anyway. And oh my GOD am I happy I did so! Herschell Gordon Lewis's clever satire about the South's fanatical attachment to its Confederate history comes wrapped in blood and guts...or do the blood and guts come wrapped in butcher paper? HA! No, but it's great. Six Northerners get lost in a tiny Southern town and become sacrifices during the town's Civil War Centennial celebration. Where Blood Feast has one highlight, Two Thousand Maniacs has several, including a great "horse race" punctuated by "Dixieland" and a "barrel roll" that is actually stomach-churning to watch. Overflowing with sadistic creativity and proudly tasteless humor. And I know everyone looked like this in 1966, but I love how much femme fatale Betsy looks like a demented Lawrence Welk champagne girl.


Right? Anyway, this is what horror is all about. 5/5 black cats.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Casting Coup Tuesday: Young Frankenstein

One Sunday -- third grade, perhaps? -- I came home from a friend's house to see my parents watching a horror movie on TV. I was into old school horror for a while (still am): if it was black-and-white and had a Frankienstein or a vampire or a Chaney, I was in.

My parents seemed a trifle wary about my joining them...but my dad had a certain rule for even the most risque films: if it was awesome, it was the exception. So it was that I sat down and prepared to enjoy some creature feature thrills and chills.

But this Frankenstein movie seemed different. This one seemed....funny. And why were Mrs. White and Willy Wonka in this?

Well, you better believe by that Christmas I had Young Frankenstein on VHS. It was a favorite of mine, perfect for a rainy day. And as the years went by, I found more and more people who felt as I did. Imagine my excitement when, studying the original novel in high school, the teacher chose the Mel Brooks version as the finest cinematic execution of the conflict and themes Mary Shelley first portrayed. And even if it wasn't, it was entertaining enough to keep us quiet for a bit.

Since I was already a fan of the Universal films, Young Frankenstein offered more to me than just laughs. I appreciated Mel Brooks' affectionate homage on a technical level, from the sets to the cinematography to the acting to the music to...I mean, you get it. I was also surprised by the emotional depth: the Monster's climactic appeal for love and understanding for himself and his creator is beautifully written and performed, but it's Frederick's own acceptance of both the Monster and his family in the middle that has always struck me as the most moving scene in the film.

Young Frankenstein was equally successful with critics and audiences. At the box office, it was bested only by The Towering Inferno and Mel Brooks' other genre parody, Blazing Saddles. Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks found themsleves nominated for the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, while co-stars Cloris Leachman and Madeline Kahn earned Golden Globe nominations of their own. Richard Portman (who would eventually win for The Deer Hunter) and Gene Cantamessa (ditto for ET) were nominated for their sound work, but all the nominations in those "prestigious" awards bodies came to naught. Still -- when you're a black-and-white horror-comedy, going up against The Godfather: Part II on Hollywood's biggest night ain't bad.

Naturally, we can never let a good thing go, so it was inevitable that, following the success of his Broadway adaptation of The Producers, Brooks would choose Young Frankenstein as his follow-up. Actually, I think Young Frankenstein would be ripe for a musical transfer, but Brooks' music here is similar to that of The Producers. And let's face it, what's good for the satire about show business is not good for the homage to horror classics. But I bring this up not just to note the film's continued influence, but to mention that there is precedence for re-casting the roles of this classic comedy.

And here's mine:

ELIZABETH
Who is She: Frederick's fiancee, a high-maintenance city gal who surprises her love with an impromptu visit. She is kidnapped by the lustful Monster Frederick created....but finds herself not entirely displeased.

Originally played by: Academy Award Nominee for Best Supporting Actress (Paper Moon, Blazing Saddles), Golden Globe Nominee for Best Supporting Actress (Paper Moon, Young Frankenstein), SAG Award Nominee for Best Ensemble (Nixon)
Madeline Kahn (What's Up, Doc?, Clue)

My Choice: Hollmann Award Winner for Best Supporting Actress (Doubt), Academy Award/SAG Award Nominee for Best Supporting Actress (Junebug, Doubt, The Fighter), BAFTA Award/Golden Globe Nominee for Best Supporting Actress (Doubt, The Fighter), Golden Globe Nominee for Best Actress - Musical/Comedy (Enchanted), SAG Award Nominee for Best Ensemble (Doubt, The Fighter)
Amy Adams (Trouble with the Curve, The Master)
She should play bitchy more often. And comedy.


INSPECTOR KEMP
Who is He: Transylvanian police inspector with the false arm, one eye and limp. Visits Frederick to assuage the village's fears, but later feels that it's about time to riot. His accent is so thick as to be barely comprehensible.

Originally played by:
Kenneth Mars (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, We're Back: A Dinosaur Story)

My Choice:
Matt Berry (Moon, Snow White and the Huntsman)
He of the distinctive voice, from the television shows "Garth Marenghi's Darkplace" and "The IT Crowd". Could bring the authority that comes with being a police inspector, and certainly capable of executing the ridiculous.


FRAU BLUCHER
Who is She: Loyal housekeeper of Castle Frankenstein, she lures Frederick to Victor's diary, tempting him to also play God and create the Monster. In the past, she helped Victor...loved Victor...he was her boyfriend!

Originally played by: Hollmann Award Nominee for Best Supporting Actress (Young Frankenstein), Academy Award/BAFTA Award Winner for Best Supporting Actress (The Last Picture Show), Golden Globe Nominee for Best Actress - Musical/Comedy (Charley and the Angel, Young Frankenstein) and Best Supporting Actress (The Last Picture Show), SAG Award Nominee for Best Supporting Actress (Spanglish)
Cloris Leachman (Sky High, The Oogieloves in: The Big Balloon Adventure)

My Choice:
Catherine O'Hara (Penelope, Away We Go)
One of the very best comic actresses in the business, so effective because she doesn't play comic characters, but people who happen to be amusing or funny or embarrassing. She's a master of voice-work: witness her playing multiple parts in Nightmare Before Christmas and Frankenweenie. Can't you just see her climbing up those stairs, fiddle in hand, screaming, "He vass my BOYFRIENNNNN'!"?


INGA
Who is She: Frederick's beautiful assistant, fiercely loyal, often up for a roll in ze hay.

Originally played by: Academy Award/BAFTA Award Nominee for Best Supporting Actress (Tootsie)
Teri Garr (Oh, God, Pret-a-Porter)

My Choice:
Malin Akerman (Watchmen, Rock of Ages)
Her work with the alum of The State on "Children's Hospital" and Wanderlust, and with Lisa Kudrow on "The Comeback", showcase her comic chops. Never playing down her beauty, yet never relying on looks alone, Akerman's one of the more exciting comediennes the decade's offered us. I'm pretty sure she can do the accent -- I know she's Swedish, which isn't the same at all as Transylvanian, but I feel like she could probably do a good German voice. And she's just so lovely!


IGOR
Who is He: Frederick's hump-backed assistant, grandson of the original Ygor. Eager to please, almost child-like, one of my favorites.

Originally played by: Hollmann Award Nominee for Best Supporting Actor (Young Frankenstein), Golden Globe Nominee for Best Supporting Actor (Silent Movie)
Marty Feldman (The Magnificent Seven Deadly Sins, The Last Remake of Beau Geste)

My Choice: SAG Award Nominee for Best Ensemble (Frost/Nixon)
Toby Jones (Finding Neverland, City of Ember)
The man deserves every possible chance to prove himself. Although he gets funny bits in some of his roles, he has yet to really showcase his comic talents on film. Now is the time.


THE MONSTER
Who is He: Frederick's creation, blessed with a talent for Irving Berlin and an enormous schwanz.

Originally played by:
Peter Boyle (Taxi Driver, The Adventures of Pluto Nash)

My Choice:
Jason Segel (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Five-Year Engagement)


FREDERICK FRANKENSTEIN
Who is He: The American grandson of the Dr. Victor Frankenstein, seeking to distance himself from Grandpa's reputation by offering a different pronunciation of his name (Fronk-en-steen). Inheriting his grandfather's estate, he travels to Transylvania and finds himself caught in the same madness that haunted Victor: the creation of human life.

Originally played by: Hollmann Award Winner for Best Adapted Screenplay (Young Frankenstein), Academy Award Nominee for Best Supporting Actor (The Producers) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Young Frankenstein), Golden Globe Nominee for Best Actor - Musical/Comedy (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Silver Streak), WGA Award Nominee for Best Adapted Comedy (Young Frankenstein)
Gene Wilder (Haunted Honeymoon, The Woman in Red)

My Choice: SAG Award Nominee for Best Ensemble (The Cider House Rules)
Paul Rudd (Clueless, Wanderlust)
His understated delivery works for him as much as it did Gene Wilder. But his more laid-back, everyman approach, even when playing prude, would guarantee a new interpretation that would still kill.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Plague's the Thing!

I promise you I have been watching horror flicks. Soon, Poltergeist!

LIFEFORCE

In Lifeforce, Tobe Hooper and The Cannon Group give us a tale of a decimated spaceship bringing three mysterious humanoids back to Earth. And wouldn't you know it -- they're energy vampires, intergalactic antecedents of the bloodsuckers of legend! Soon, they escape, and it's up to SAS Captain Peter Firth and surviving American astronaut Steve Railsback to stop the creatures as they spread their plague throughout London.

What starts promisingly, even nightmarishly, soon dissolves into a run-of-the-mill, so-so acted, nonsensical bore. Railsback becomes the narrative's hero, and he's just nowhere near as interesting as, say, scientist Frank Finlay or Home Secretary Aubrey Morris. I don't know if it's the fault of the severe edits from post-production, either, because even in the moody beginning Railsback is a problem. You lull yourself into a false state of security, assured that since all the astronauts died, he went with them. But no! He's the lead! And chasing around blue lazers that are supposed to be souls! NEON SOULS FROM OUTER SPACE! Or something.

I was immensely disappointed, and between this and last year's viewing of The Funhouse -- which is admittedly more of a noble failure than a terrible movie -- I was beginning to wonder if maybe everyone was right. Maybe The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was an anomaly.

More on that later, though. Out of five black cats, Lifeforce gets two. I'm being generous.


RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD

I loved this film the first time I saw it, but that was two years ago now. I had to re-visit it, even if it was just to watch Clu Gulager and brag to myself that I've met and spoken with him a number of times since moving to LA (he heard me singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and told me I had a wonderful falsetto).

Ok, so, Return of the Living Dead is about two guys at a medical supply warehouse who accidentally open a toxic container that was meant to be shipped to the military. This container releases a zombie and a chemical that not only slowly kills them, but gets into the air and awakens the dead. And these are the type of dead who want BRAAAAAINS and can talk and run and are really fucking creepy. The two guys soon find themselves battling the zombies alongside their boss, the younger employee's girlfriend, her friends and an undertaker.

What everyone loves about Return of the Living Dead is the humor. It's a horror-comedy, so there's plenty of grisly laughs to be had. What I especially love about Return of the Living Dead is the empathy it has for each of its protagonists. Both of the guys who release the toxins are pretty doofy, but instead of settling for "buncha dummies" laughs, the film gives them stakes, real fear about their predicament, and choices that are alternately horrific and tragic.

Rich in character, suspense and humor, it's no surprise that it's Dan O'Bannon who both wrote and directed the picture. He is, of course, the screenwriter of horror masterpieces Alien and Dead & Buried (brilliant!), as well as the visual effects guru/co-writer of Dark Star (John Carpenter's first film) and disappointed screenwriter of -- guess what? -- Lifeforce! If one was to choose between his 1985 plague offerings, of course, it's this one that wins. Because, I mean:



So awesome! Five out of five black cats!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Casting Coup Tuesdays: Theatre of Blood

Vincent Price is my favorite actor.


I don't remember when I realized this, exactly, but I know it must have been around middle school. While my fourth grade teacher playing a Vincent Price-hosted clip show of classic horror on Halloween excited me, I was a Chaney, Sr. man then, and a Lugosi faithful by the end of elementary school. Somehow, though, as my adolescence began and my knowledge of film grew past 1941, Price took over.

Do you think it might have been the films? Not to sound unsophisticated or anything, but much as I admire Chaney's silent-era physicality and Lugosi's early-sound histrionics, Price got to ham it up in the colorful 60s and 70s, when bare breasts began bouncing on-screen alongside close-up gore effects and bizarre Hollywood concepts of the drug scene. His movies were campy and dark, funny and violent, sexy and...sexy?

We could talk for ages about his Wm Castle flicks (The Tingler, House on Haunted Hill), his Poe vehicles for Roger Corman (House of Usher, The Tomb of Ligeia), his work in more prestigious fare (The Song of Bernadette, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex), or his contributions to early Tim Burton ("Vincent", Edward Scissorhands). But I think any Price fan worth his or her salt knows that nothing beats his one-two punch of Dr. Anton Phibes and Edward Lionheart, the anti-heroes of 1971's The Abominable Dr. Phibes, 1972's Dr. Phibes Rises Again and 1973's Theatre of Blood. Both men seek to avenge perceived wrongs by murdering those he begrudges in the most creative ways possible. In the first Phibes, it's according to the Plagues of Egypt. In Theatre of Blood, it's the works of William Shakespeare.

It's really quite a phenomenal idea for a film: Vincent Price as a hammy Shakespearean actor who attempts suicide when the Critics' Circle Awards snub him in favor of a young Method actor. Unbeknownst to everyone else, he survives, and he plans his revenge on the nine members of the jury according to the plays he performed in his final theatrical season. And in between killings, he performs scenes from those very plays to a rapt audience of homeless drug addicts who "rescued" him from his botched drowning.

This is my favorite Vincent Price film, and I've always loved that it was his, too. Of course, it was here that he met his third wife Coral Browne, and realized his dream of performing Shakespeare on film. I am not lying or exaggerating when I say that I always just heard Hamlet's soliliquoy in legitimate film versions of the Bard's work; only with Price's recitation after losing the coveted prize did I fully "get" the import of the words, and the beauty of the writing.



Lionheart goes from a darkly comic villain to a tragic hero, a man who only wants to be recognized for his hard work and dedication, to be celebrated for pursuing his dream with such single-mindedness...and they laugh at him. These people who dare not try their hand at performing, who make their living scoffing at struggling performers and eviscerating the efforts of hard-working craftsmen, these butchers (as Edwina puts it) laugh at him. Perhaps Lionheart puts it best:



And if those two scenes aren't enough to convince you of this movie's greatness:


So awesome.

But Price isn't the only one with a great part. The critics are a colorful ensemble of pompous prigs, the policemen are the right balance of competent and befuddled, and Lionheart has a beautiful daughter (played by Diana Rigg) who may or may not be working with him. It's a film ripe with character parts, which is why I'm a little surprised no one's tried to remake it. There was a stage version a few years back, with Jim Broadbent and Rigg's daughter Rachael Stirling as the Lionhearts, but otherwise, no one else dares to touch the film. Is it the daunting task of even equaling Price's performance? The difficult tone? The logistics of rounding up an ensemble not only willing to do a slasher flick but giving said flick an air of legitimacy and class?

Perhaps. But this is Casting Coup Tuesday. We gotta try. But let's at least do it after the jump:


Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Casting Coup Tuesdays: Strait-Jacket

Lucy Harbin has been in an insane asylum for twenty years after hacking up her husband and his lover in front of her young daughter. Finally released, she is reunited with her affianced offspring, who only wishes to be one happy family. And then people start losing their heads -- literally.

I first saw Strait-Jacket a little over a year ago, for my 1964 retrospective. I had wanted to see it for a long time: being a fan of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, it was only natural that I should desire to see the Hag Horror Follow-Ups, especially if they starred my beloved Hudson Sisters. Well, Trog! remains unseen, but this gem, made the same year as Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte, is one of those that I've seen over and over again -- even if it's only in my head.

As much as people outside the cult horror fandom like to deride William Castle as little more than a marketing whiz and PT Barnum type, the man used his kitschy tricks to further enhance his films, not as stand-ins for creativity and imagination. His "Emergo" trick for House on Haunted Hill -- a skeleton crawls out of the ground and flies over the audience just as a skeleton emerges in the film -- would not have worked were you not already on the edge of your seat. Same with his "Percepto" gimmick for The Tingler. Indeed, the evidence of his strength as a director lies in the immortality of his work. Sans gimmicks, sans publicity, sans campy trailer, his films still have the ability to frighten and engage.

And while Strait-Jacket isn't really scary, per se, it does an unsettling, almost discombobulating film. Joan Crawford's entrapment in the most mind-bending washroom ever built is not only eerie for its Caligari-esque production design, but for the lack of transition. We are suddenly in this bizarre prison (with sink), with no explanation of how or why. Castle gets us into the mind of his unstable heroine through such "tricks" -- although any other filmmaker would be credited for his CRAFT. It's his most uncomfortable film since the underrated Barbara Stanwyck thriller The Night Walker.

But really: who designed this?

What I love most about Strait-Jacket are the performances, of course. The characters really are rich, and ripe for multiple interpretations. Perhaps Lucy's encounter with her daughter's fiance wouldn't be so queasily horned up in another actress's hands; perhaps Mrs. Fields would seem more understandable rather than just a tight-ass; perhaps Bill Cutler would show noticeable signs of strain. And I don't know how anyone could work on their own version of Diane Baker's character, but they've got a tough road ahead of them -- I nominated her for Best Supporting Actress.

I don't know, and yet I tried:

DR ANDERSON
Who is He: Lucy's psych at the hospital, who drops by for a visit. And then just disappears...

Originally played by: Pepsi-Cola Vice President
Mitchell Cox

My Choice:
Audra McDonald (It Runs In the Family, Rampart)


EMILY CUTLER
Who is She: The wary wife of Bill, she's helped him to raise niece Carol but is naturally concerned with the reappearance of nutty mama Lucy. Supportive throughout, she maintains dignity and patience even in Lucy's less lucid moments.

Originally played by:
Rochelle Hudson (Les Miserables (1935), The Night Walker)

My Choice:
Caroline Rhea ("Sabrina, the Teenage Witch", Christmas with the Kranks)


MRS. ALISON FIELDS
Who is She: The snobbish mother of Carol's fiance, she takes an instant dislike to Lucy, and is vehemently against the marriage. I mean, would you want your son's mother-in-law to be a just-released murderess?

Originally played by:
Edith Atwater (True Grit, Die Sister, Die!)

My Choice: Hollmann Award Nominee for Best Supporting Actress (Cedar Rapids)
Anne Heche (Wag the Dog, Psycho)


RAYMOND FIELDS
Who is He: Her husband, a man of means who thinks Carol's a nice girl, but that mother... Anyway, he winds up in the closet on the wrong end of a hatchet.

Originally played by:
Howard St. John (Born Yesterday, Lafayette)

My Choice: Golden Globe Nominee for Best Actor - Musical/Comedy (The Purple Rose of Cairo, Something Wild, The Squid and the Whale), SAG Award Nominee for Best Ensemble (The Hours, Good Night and Good Luck)
Jeff Daniels (Pleasantville, Looper)


LEO
Who is He: The Cutlers' extra set of hands around the farm. Greasy, sleazy, none-too-bright, Leo sees -- and sees through -- everything happening around the house. And of course, someone feels that he must be gotten out of the way.

Originally played by: Academy Award Winner for Best Supporting Actor (Cool Hand Luke), Golden Globe Nominee for Best Supporting Actor (Cool Hand Luke, Airport)
George Kennedy (The Naked Gun, Bolero)

My Choice:
Jason Clarke (Public Enemies, Lawless)


MICHAEL FIELDS
Who is He: Carol's fiance, a good-looking young man who is oddly patient with his future mother-in-law, even when she's obviously hitting on him. By wrapping her arms about him. And sticking her fingers in his mouth.

Originally played by:
John Anthony Hayes (Ride the Wild Surf, Winter A-Go-Go)

My Choice:
Chace Crawford (The Covenant, What To Expect When You're Expecting)


BILL CUTLER
Who is He: Lucy's brother, concerned for her mental well-being and Carol's welfare. Thinks something is amok, but also hopes that Lucy is healthy again.

Originally played by:
Leif Erickson (Sailor Beware, On the Waterfront)

My Choice:
Louis C.K. (Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins, The Invention of Lying)


CAROL HARBIN
Who is She: Lucy's daughter, brought up by her aunt and uncle. She witnessed the mother of her father and his mistress by Lucy, but has grown up well-mannered, confident, and beautiful. When Lucy comes home, Carol immediately tries to pick up where they left off, which may not be a good thing.

Originally played by: Hollmann Award Nominee for Best Supporting Actress (Strait-Jacket), Golden Globe Nominee for Best Supporting Actress (The Prize)
Diane Baker (The Silence of the Lambs, The Joy Luck Club)

My Choice: Hollmann Award/Golden Globe Nominee for Best Actress [Musical/Comedy] (Easy A), SAG Award Winner for Best Ensemble (The Help)
Emma Stone (The House Bunny, The Amazing Spider-Man)


LUCY HARBIN
Who is She: Locked away for twenty years after hacking up her adulterous husband and his mistress, Lucy comes back quiet and gray, ready to be reunited with her daughter. Oy, but she's only a few steps away from crazy -- she hears chanting and bells jangling (she wore a bell charm bracelet during the murder), blacks out, hits on her future son-in-law, screams at his mother... She's a piece of work. And then the bodies start piling up.

Originally played by: Academy Award Winner for Best Actress (Mildred Pierce), BAFTA Award Nominee for Best Foreign Actress (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?), Golden Globe Nominee for Best Actress - Drama (Sudden Fear)
Joan Crawford (Grand Hotel, Trog)

My Choice: Hollmann Award Nominee for Best Supporting Actress (Savage Grace), Academy Award/SAG Award Nominee for Best Actress (The End of the Affair, Far from Heaven) and Best Supporting Actress (Boogie Nights, The Hours), BAFTA Award Nominee for Best Actress (The End of the Affair, The Kids Are All Right) and Best Supporting Actress (The Hours), Golden Globe Nominee for Best Actress - Drama and Musical/Comedy (The End of the Affair, An Ideal Husband, Far from Heaven, The Kids Are All Right) and Best Supporting Actress (Boogie Nights, A Single Man), SAG Award Nominee for Best Supporting Actress (Magnolia) and Best Ensemble (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, The Hours, The Kids Are All Right)
Julianne Moore (The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Being Flynn)
She's been my first choice since I saw the film. She would bring a whole new spin to the role, one that didn't depend on making this old woman pathetic. Naw, this Lucy would be sexy-dangerous, and yet moving with her attempts at familial bonds.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

All Them Witches...and Vampires, Too!

Got some re-boos ready for you! If you're celebrating SHOCKTOBERFEST at your own home, tell us about it; the more the scarier....


HAXAN; OR, WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES


This Danish cult flick is a silent documentary, released in 1922 after three years of an on-again, off-again shooting schedule. Presented in seven acts, Haxan presents the origins of witchcraft mythology, with an especial focus on how the beliefs of the Middle Ages made everyone susceptible to accusations of consorting with the devil. Vignettes both comic and and tragic follow: a woman uses a series of love potions to seduce a monk; two well-intentioned scientists are accused of witchcraft when they are seen performing an autopsy.

The bulk of the vignettes is devoted to the story of The Printer's household. When he is taken ill, an expert convinces his family it is the enchantment of a witch; naturally, his wife is quick to suspect the gnarled old neighbor-woman who comes asking for bread. Because this is the Middle Ages, the wife's suspicions are taken as fact, and the old woman is brutally tortured until she confesses and names names.

The film finishes off with a treatise on the similarities between the symptoms of being bewitched by the devil and the symptoms of suffering from hysteria. Therapeutic treatments are compared to Ye Olde Inquisitor's methods of torture, with an added wag of the finger for the way society tolerates a clinic for the wealthy and a sanitarium for the poor. Haxan is a condemnation of the ignoble treatment of women throughout history; the labels may change, but the effects are the same.

Of course, this is Shocktoberfest, so you better believe there were some horrifying images to take home. And I gotta hand it to Haxan: it's tough a choose a Most Disturbing Scene. The mechanical diorama of the tortures of Hell? The close-up of a malnourished, sobbing, tortured crone confessing to a lie? The montage of torture methods? The orgy featuring demon ass-kissing (literally!)? An entire convent going nuts? The appearance of the most lascivious representation of the devil I've ever seen?


Violence, nudity, disturbing images, moral outrage. Haxan has it all, and has neatly earned itself 4 out of 5 black cats in the process. Congratulations!


ONCE BITTEN


Once Bitten came in that glorious decade of cinema known as the 80s. And I don't mean that ironically: the 80s gave us William Hurt, Whoopi Goldberg, Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, Woody Allen's flawless Mia Farrow run, and 1987 (The Lost Boys, The Monster Squad, House II: The Second Story). Just to name a few.

Here, we get Jim Carrey as a high school senior who, after four years of dating beautiful Robin (Karin Kopins), is still a virgin! Not for lack of trying, of course, but Robin wants to wait. Until she's ready. Frustrating for Jim Carrey, but great news for aging vampire Lauren Hutton, who needs three "transfusions" of male virgin blood by All Hallow's Eve to maintain her beauty and much of her powers. She finds and bewitches him (or is it hysteria?!), and he slowly starts to transform, leading to COMIC MOMENTS.

It's a shame that whole scenes of COMIC MOMENTS are devoted to Carrey's sidekicks trying to lose their virginity, though. The movie stops dead as it trots out their tired routines, from Gay Panic to BDSM Panic to Gay Panic to...well, there's a lot of Gay Panic, and I guess after making it through 1975's almost fetishistic abuse of the word "faggot", I should be able to get through some lighter, high school-based homophobia, especially when the film's best character is Cleavon Little's gay vampire's assistant, a witty, confident creation who seems to wield more power than we would guess. But oh my God, these two nudniks aren't even funny!

Thank goodness for Little, Hutton and Kopins (Carrey is solid, as usual). Kopins especially delivers a neat transformation from virginal girlfriend to sexy protector, not only succeeding at charm and humor but squaring off with vampire Hutton in a wordless dance fight that is just exciting. It develops characters and story without stopping to let anyone say a line or tell a joke (the song already shouts the lyrics "HANDS OFF! HE'S MINE"), and it's mesmerizing.

Acting, music: YEAH! Script: Eh. I say 3 1/2 out of 5 black cats.

Now dance, ladies! DANCE!


Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Casting Coup Tuesdays: Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte

With the success of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were hot commodities once again and psycho-biddy films were born. And Hollywood being, in the end, all about the green, you know they had to have a sequel of some sort for the Oscar-winning, fourth highest-grossing picture of 1962. Of course, the way Baby Jane ends, a direct sequel would be impossible, not to mention anticlimactic.

Luckily, source novelist Henry Farrell had another gem in paperback: What Ever Happened to Cousin Charlotte?. It's another faded beauty gem, this time set in a dying plantation in Louisiana, where mad Charlotte Hollis has been living for forty years. Haunted by the mysterious murder of her married lover John Mayhew in 1926, a crime which she was suspected of but never convicted for, Charlotte's only company is poor white trash companion Velma and the workers trying to demolish her home to make way for the new highway. Charlotte loves Velma; the workers, on the other hand, she fires at with her daddy's shotguns. Desperate to save the place, she calls upon citified cousin Miriam to help her keep the place -- but Miriam is more interested in the vast wealth of the estate, wealth that would be hers if she can successfully have Charlotte committed. And with the help of former lover Dr. Drew Bayliss, she may get her way...

Once again, Lukas Heller adapted (this time with some help from Farrell), Robert Aldrich directed, and Bette Davis and Joan Crawford acted opposite each other. This time, Crawford was to play the cunning manipulator to Davis's shut-in, though of course the latter was getting the juicier role. Alas, the first publicity still featuring the two divas on location is all we'll see of the Crawford-Davis version: the animosity between them finally came to a head, and Joanie walked off the picture. Davis recommended her friend, fellow two-time Oscar-winner Olivia de Havilland...and surprise of surprises, her subtler, more insidious performance almost steals the show from Davis's histrionics!

Once again, audiences responded: the film was the ninth highest-grossing flick of 1964, ahead of A Hard Day's Night and right behind Viva Las Vegas!. And although it didn't bring home the gold come Oscar night, the film was still graced with seven Academy Award nominations: Best Supporting Actress for Agnes Moorehead as Velma; Best Film Editing (Michael Luciano); Best Original Score (Frank De Vol); the black-and-white categories for Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design (Norma Koch) and Best Cinematography (Joseph Biroc); and Best Original Song.

Of course, we've covered most of this before: last year, I did a retrospective of the year 1964, and I did profiles for five of those categories. So strong were the technical categories that year, I couldn't even give my personal vote to Score or Song, both of which I play repeatedly on my iTunes. My own Hollmann Awards could only fit Moorehead in -- and once you've seen the performance, you'll understand why.

I expect interest in this film, which has never really weakened, to come on still stronger in the near future. People will want to check out the Bette Davis Psycho-Biddy Double Feature that started it all once Walter Hill's remake of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is completed. And if they want to give the same treatment to Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte...well, shouldn't they stop here for a look first?


SHERIFF LUKE STANDISH
Who is He: Local sheriff, knows and respects the Hollis family, tries to reason with Charlotte but more or less knows its fruitless.
Originally played by:
Wesley Addy (Tora! Tora! Tora!, Network)

My Choice: SAG Award Nominee for Best Ensemble (Dreamgirls)
Hinton Battle (Foreign Student, TV's Child Star: The Shirley Temple Story)


BIG SAM HOLLIS
Who is He: Charlotte's daddy, a wealthy man who sought to separate his daughter from the married John Mayhew. It was his party that played host to murder, with his gazebo as the star.

Originally played by: Academy Award/Golden Globe Nominee for Best Supporting Actor (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?)
Victor Buono (The Greatest Story Ever Told, Beneath the Planet of the Apes)

My Choice:
Ken Howard (1776, J. Edgar)


HARRY WILLIS
Who is He: An insurance investigator posing as a journalist, he's poking about for the truth behind John Mayhew's decades-old murder.

Originally played by: Academy Award Nominee for Best Supporting Actor (The Luck of the Irish, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?)
Cecil Kellaway (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Harvey)

My Choice: Golden Globe Nominee for Best Actor - Drama (Wilde), SAG Award Winner for Best Ensemble (Gosford Park)
Stephen Fry (Tales of the Riverbank, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows)


DR. DREW BAYLISS
Who is He: A local doctor and old friend of the Hollis family, he courted Miriam as a young man but left her after the murder of John Mayhew. Now that Miriam's back in town, single, and close to a fortune, Bayliss is more than happy to pick up where they left off.

Originally played by:
Joseph Cotten (Citizen Kane, The Third Man)

My Choice: Academy Award/Golden Globe Winner/BAFTA Award Nominee for Best Supporting Actor (Adaptation), SAG Award Winner for Best Ensemble (American Beauty)
Chris Cooper (The Town, The Muppets)
Can bring a slick Southern charm, and also nail the sleazier aspects. Cooper's a master, of course, and I dare say he'd find a more nuanced approach than Cotten (and don't get me wrong: I adore Cotten).


JOHN MAYHEW
Who is He: The husband of Jewel Mayhew, he was going to elope with Charlotte Hollis the night of Big Sam's party. Instead of marital bliss, a hatchet to his hand and head saw to it that he enjoyed a honeydoom.

Originally played by: Hollmann Award/Golden Globe Nominee for Best Supporting Actor (The Great Gatsby), Academy Award/Golden Globe Nominee for Best Supporting Actor (Coming Home)
Bruce Dern (They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, The Driver)

My Choice: SAG Award Nominee for Best Supporting Actor (J. Edgar) and Best Ensemble (The Social Network)
Armie Hammer (Billy: The Early Years, Mirror Mirror)


MRS. JEWEL MAYHEW
Who is She: John's widow, respected in the community, still in mourning-dress, more reclusive. Oddly, she seems to bear little ill will for Charlotte; it's Miriam who sticks in her craw.

Originally played by: Academy Award Winner for Best Supporting Actress (The Great Lie)
Mary Astor (Dodsworth, The Maltese Falcon)

My Choice:
Morgan Fairchild (Phantom of the Mall: Eric's Revenge, TV's Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady)
The first to be cast, actually. I was thinking, "Who could pull off the small but important role of widow Jewel Mayhew? Who could do it but not be so distracting as to take away from the film?" Diane Keaton? No, something didn't sit right with that. Morgan Fairchild? But of course! She could bring the aging beauty queen thing into it, the former belle who's still got the confidence to hurl a metaphorical loogie in Miriam's face.


VELMA CRUTHER
Who is She: Charlotte's loyal cook, housemaid and companion, white trash from the bayou who'd do anything for her employer but talk down to her. She knows the truth about everything that goes on 'round these parts...if only she would keep her mouth shut!
 
Originally played by: Hollmann Award Nominee for Best Supporting Actress (Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte), Academy Award Nominee for Best Supporting Actress (The Magnificent Ambersons, Mrs. Parkington, Johnny Belinda, Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte), Golden Globe Winner for Best Supporting Actress (Mrs. Parkington, Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte)
Agnes Moorehead (Raintree County, The Singing Nun)

My Choice:
Beth Grant (Crazy Heart, The Artist)
A large role worthy of her talents, one that allows her to "LET IT RIP" as far as her dialect goes. She's played homely before, but rarely as central as this. You know I love her.


MIRIAM DEERING
Who is She: Charlotte's glamorous cousin from the city, still a beauty, who's come to town to take care of Charlotte and the estate. Like all beauties throughout history, however, Miriam is playing another, more manipulative game, one that ends with Charlotte in the madhouse and Miriam in a penthouse. She's a "vile, sorry little bitch".

Originally played by: Academy Award Winner for Best Actress (To Each His Own, The Heiress), Golden Globe Winner for Best Actress (The Heiress)
Olivia de Havilland (Gone with the Wind, The Swarm)

My Choice: Academy Award/Golden Globe Winner for Best Actress [Drama] (Blue Sky) and Best Supporting Actress (Tootsie), BAFTA Award Nominee for Best Actress (Tootsie), SAG Award Nominee for Best Actress (Blue Sky)
Jessica Lange (Broken Flowers, The Vow)
Still lovely, capable of a regal bearing, and great at playing controlling or sinister family members. Plus, she'd have great chemistry with my Charlotte.


CHARLOTTE HOLLIS
Who is She: Big Sam's impressionable daughter, she never got over the murder of her lover -- especially since she's the Number One Suspect! The kiddies sing, "Chop-chop, sweet Charlotte/Chop-chop 'til he's dead..." But Charlotte's miserable without him, her family, her riches, aging away in a dying plantation set for demolition, close to crazy already before Miriam and Bayliss get their hooks into her.

Originally played by: Academy Award Winner for Best Actress (Dangerous, Jezebel), BAFTA Award Nominee for Best Foreign Actress (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?), Golden Globe Nominee for Best Actress - Drama and Musical/Comedy (All About Eve, A Pocketful of Miracles, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?)
Bette Davis (The Nanny, Death on the Nile)

My Choice: Hollmann Award Nominee for Best Supporting Actress (Get Low), Academy Award Winner for Best Actress (Coal Miner's Daughter), BAFTA Award  Nominee for Best Actress (Coal Miner's Daughter, Missing, In the Bedroom), Golden Globe Winner for Best Actress - Musical/Comedy and Drama (Coal Miner's Daughter, Crimes of the Heart, In the Bedroom), SAG Award Winner for Best Ensemble (The Help)
Sissy Spacek (Carrie, An American Haunting)
 Could find the crazy and the lady, creating an entirely fresh performance out of a character we all think we know. I imagine something in the vein of her Crimes of the Heart character. And speaking of that film: she and Lange have been sisters before, so why not cousins this time around?