Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Don't Take Your Love to Town

I wanted to talk about the under-seen, under-appreciated 1977 film Ruby, but before I do that, as a semi-objective film blogger/reviewer, I need to come clean and declare my eternal love for Piper.

No, not this Piper, although she is right purty,

and not this one either, although he is awesome,

Oh, hell no! Not even close!

Let me give out some hints. She's been nominated for three Oscars and won an Emmy. She's worked with directors like Robert Rodriguez, Bruce Beresford, Norman Jewison, Dario Argento, David Lynch and Brian DePalma. She's co-starred with Albert Finney, Richard Harris, John Gielgud, Mel Gibson, John Travolta, Tony Curtis, Robert Duvall, James Garner, Walter Matthau, George C Scott, Paul Newman, Jack Lemmon, William Hurt, James Woods, Salma Hayek, Lauren Bacall, Carrie Fisher, Haley Mills, Olivia Hussey, Talia Shire, Shirley MacLaine, Sandra Bullock and Sissy Spacek. Of course, I'm talking about none other than the legendary actress that goes by the name...

Piper Laurie
Although she's probably best known for The Hustler, I first noticed Piper Laurie in Michael Pate's Australian film Tim which starred a very young Mel Gibson as a mentally challenged man who is befriended by her character. Tim is a curious film for a variety of reasons, one of the most interesting of which is that Laurie was cast because Pate had seen her in Curtis Harrington's Ruby. Laurie did the film Ruby following her monster come-back in DePalma's Carrie for which she was nominated for an Oscar.
In Ruby, Laurie once again plays a mom with a strange daughter. But instead of a frumpy, religious zealot, Laurie plays a beautiful but aging gun moll who "could have made the big time" as a singer/actress. Unfortunately for her, she took up with some mob guys, and unfortunately for them, they all got sent up the river. Sixteen years later, Ruby runs a drive-in theater that borders a swamp and shows movies like Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. She subsequently hired all the mob guys after their release from prison including her right-hand man Vince, played by Stuart Whitman. Her troubled daughter Leslie, who also lives with her, is mute, weird and tends to bite people when first meeting them. Leslie is played by the fabulous Janit Baldwin who had a great mini-career as a character actor in the 70's with films like Prime CutBorn Innocent, Phantom of the Paradise and Born of Water. Baldwin has an odd, distinctive kind of prettiness which makes her believable in roles such as a groupie (PoP) or carnival hooch girl (BoW), but she can also play a very creepy and menacing delinquent (BI) or a mentally disturbed character, as in Ruby, with great aplomb. Outside of Laurie's performance, Baldwin's is the most captivating thing about the film.

Curtis Harrington seemed to be at his best when doing stories with over-the-top, diva-like, maternal characters as evidenced in films such as The Killing Kind and Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? but Ruby may be at the top due in no small part to Piper Laurie's presence. She's like a younger, middle-aged version of Nora Desmond who is obsessed with the past and still has all her movie and music paraphenalia on hand.  She's the kind of woman that rocks a full length evening dress, complete with feather boa, while never leaving the house. Speaking of which, for a low budget horror movie, the make-up, wardrobe and set decorators went all out in their respective jobs really glamming Ruby up to her fullest and effectively creating her world in a small space. 

If you want to get an idea of Laurie's acting range (which is the big reason I love her), check out Ruby, Carrie and Tim back to back. Not too many actors could pull off such disparate roles with so much skill and style. Also, it's hard to imagine Ruby being the film that it is without Laurie's strong presence. The movie is essentially a ghost story with Ruby and her daughter the epicenter of events. There are some imaginative kills along the way, one involving a soda machine, and one taking place on the actual drive-in screen. The environment of the theater, home and nearby swamp were also effectively created and add a nice dose of atmosphere. However, without Laurie and Baldwin to anchor it, the film would have been left wanting in a big way. The two actresses are very interesting to watch and keep the viewer involved even when there isn't horror stuff occurring. 
Curtis Harrington is one of my favorite directors because he usually adds some kind of poetic and stylistic element to his work even in the context of a horror film. He was hampered a bit with Ruby as his DoP was a bit iffy and it shows at times. Also, Harrington apparently had a running battle with the executive producer who tacked on the crappy, jump scare ending. To further complicate matters, the initial VHS and TV release was heavily edited for violence and the original theatrical cut wasn't available for years. But the VCI Entertainment DVD release from 2001 is the original that I first saw in the theater way back in the day. It still has that tacky ending, but the rest of the film is all Harrington's. Night Tide is my favorite of all Harrington's films, but Ruby is a strong contender for second place and was a big box office sleeper when it was initially released. Although it's currently out of print, the VCI DVD (pictured above with only Janit Baldwin's image) is worth tracking down as it has a commentary track with Laurie and Harrington as well as an interview with the director. There is also a new, bare bones, double feature DVD that was put out recently with the uncut version of Ruby along with Kiss of the Tarantula.
So summing up, Piper Laurie + Curtis Harrington + Janit Baldwin = WIN. Final score 7.5/10

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

"It Would Be Just This Sweet, Funny Story We'd Have"

"Like walking in the rain and the snow 
When there's no where to go
And you're feeling like a part of you is dying
And you're looking for the answer in her eyes..."
 -The Things We Do For Love
by 10CC 

When I was in college, I used to bike home about 10 miles down an old highway that had fallen into disuse when the new freeway was built parallel to it. During one semester, I noticed repeatedly that a good looking girl from my Poly-sci class would drive by me at some point on this road every Tuesday and Thursday in the late afternoon. One day, as I was locking my bike up outside class, the girl walked by me and remarked that I must bike a long distance. I tried to say something cool like, 'Ain't no thang baby', but what came out was something like "un-hm, sure".  Much as I wanted to further wow her with my mad verbal skills, she sat on the opposite side of the classroom and I couldn't figure out a nonchalant way to get any face time. I did make some progress moving from Stranger-burg to Acquaintance-ville with the young lady, but the semester was quickly coming to a close, and I would be transferring to State the next year. I had to do something quick, but what? 

In the psychological horror film, Wind Chill, two students car pool together to Delaware during Christmas break. Ashton Holmes plays the seemingly nice, somewhat nerdy, college boy who is all too eager to give the beautiful, if distant, Emily Blunt character a lift in his somewhat crappy car. Initially, both characters, neither of which are named in the story, come off very unlikable with Blunt's displaying some great rudeness via cell phone early in the ride and Holmes' clearly infatuated boy trying, without success, to turn the ride-share into a date. The film does a nice job of heaping on the paranoia, as Blunt's character becomes more concerned with Holmes' and her increasingly vulnerable situation. Things go from bad to worse as Holmes' character impulsively attempts to take a scenic route that strays from the main highway in an attempt to jump start the "date". This makes neither very happy.

The film was directed by Gregory Jacobs, who has worked primarily as Steven Soderbergh's first A.D. for the past decade, but has also worked with the likes of Hal Hartley and Richard Linklater. Jacobs does a really fine job of not over-explaining or stating the obvious in the early going. He even throws in a few red herring-type details (like a stuck door, a lazy-eyed cashier and a lack of a rear license plate on the protagonist's car) that would steer even the most ardent horror fan onto the wrong track. There is the obligatory scene dealing with bad cell phone reception which seems to be ubiquitous in modern day thrillers, but outside of that, the film stays fairly fresh.

Once into the second act, the story begins to crystalize, but still maintains some unpredictability and a spooky atmosphere, which is pretty impressive considering it's set mostly in a car. The atmosphere is bolstered by a simple, understated score by Clint Mansell, who composed the music for most of Aronofsky's films and also did the sublime score for Moon. The film looks far superior to the average low-budget horror flick especially the snowy, nighttime landscape shots. Danish cinematographer Dan Laustsen who shot Brotherhood of the Wolf and Silent Hill among many others films really earned his money with a few shots in particular where images or people needed to be seen by the viewer despite the supposed darkness. Unlike a lot of horror shot at night, I never felt the need to strain to see something, but it still felt believably dark.

Ashton Holmes, who is probably best known as the son in A History of Violence, does a passable job as the "guy" in this film. However, it was Emily Blunt who was surprisingly good in a part that was a lot more interesting, strong and proactive than the average 'woman in danger' role to which actresses are usually relegated. She ranges from bitchy and put upon, to angry, to scared, to sad, all very smoothly and believably. It's a shame she doesn't do more stuff like this instead of the mainstream fluff she normally acts in. The best of the acting talent though is my boy Martin Donovan who never disappoints. He has a small, but pivotal role as a cop in the film, and whether playing good guy or bad, he always brings the intensity.
With Blunt and Donovan's performances, the decent story, the cool wintertime cinematography, sharp direction and solid soundtrack, it's hard not to recommend this film. It is a low budget, modest effort that nevertheless gets its atmospheric horror job done. One odd note is that the movie is rated R for no reason I can figure out other than that it scared the MPAA too much. It's currently available for free on Crackle.

Oh, what ever happened to me, my bike and the good-looking college coed? We started ride-sharing of course.

Score 7.5/10 

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Enter Sandman

"Sleep baby sleep,
down where the woodbines creep,
be always like the lamb, 
so mild and kind and sweet,
sleep baby sleep."

If you've ever heard the above lullaby composed by Jim Manzie with vocals by Teresa Straley, I feel positive you haven't forgotten it. It's partly due to the context it's used in, but partly because there's just something fundamentally and inexplicably disturbing about it. It's the type of ditty you'd sing to your annoying little brother to freak him the f out late at night and chase him back to his room. It's as memorable to me as the iconic themes from The Exorcist, Halloween and Phantasm. And if it were the only reason to seek out the film, Sleepstalker, I'd say go for it. Fortunately, the film has a lot of other things that make it worthwhile. Although it doesn't measure up in quality to two of my favorite horror films, Richard Stanley's Dust Devil or Garth Maxwell's Jack Be Nimble, it contains elements of both in its characters and atmosphere. 

Sleepstalker co-stars Michael Harris from the criminally under-seen 1993 art house thriller Suture with Dennis Haysbert. Harris plays a serial killer known as "The Sandman" in Sleepstalker. As the film opens, he slips into the Davis household where mom and dad are putting young Griffin Davis to sleep. Bad times ensue.

The cops eventually show up, led by William Lucking, who plays the awesomely named Bronson Worth (If I ever need a detective, I hope he looks as tough as Bill Lucking and could be labeled 'Bronson-worth'). But let me go back to Michael Harris. I've seen this guy in over a dozen movie and TV shows and he's always top-notch whether he's playing a hero, villain or something in between. He's particularly solid and delivers a low key performance in this film where he could have easily wound up like a NoES Freddy caricature or knockoff. He only has one line that is played for laughs and it works because it's the only time his villain is overtly humorous. The only gripe I had about Harris' character is that I thought he looked more menacing sans scary make-up, but either version ultimately worked well.

The first ten minutes of the movie really connect, and the first time I watched it, I thought I was in for something special. Then Jay Underwood showed up. Don't get me wrong, no one likes The Boy Who Could Fly more than me...OK I'm lying, I hated that treacly turd. The problem with Underwood is his grown up Griffin Davis character is the least engaging of the film. Every time the story leaves his character to focus on someone else, it becomes a much more entertaining and interesting movie. I oddly had the same issue with Four Weddings and a Funeral - whenever Hugh Grant's Charles lead was on screen, I got bored, but found the other supporting characters very engaging. Underwood's character didn't take me out of the movie, I just had a hard time believing or even rooting for him. Underwood looks more like the lead proctor of a college poetry reading seminar, not a survivor of some horrible childhood crime. 

The film probably would have worked better with a female lead or at least a character who appeared a little more frayed and life-worn. Luckily, in Sleepstalker, Underwood has ample company to divert at least some attention from his lackluster lead including Kathryn Morris, who plays would-be girlfriend, and reluctant gun toter Megan.

Even more interesting, is Michael D Roberts' character of 'Preacher', who helps the Sandman and adds some extra creepiness to the proceedings.

Ken Foree of the original DotD and Marc McClure best known as Marty McFly's older brother both show up at different points but unfortunately have limited screen time. The familiar faces don't hurt matters though. The flashback bits and everything not including the Jay Underwood character are very well done and really kept me involved in the story. The effects are decent enough to get the job done considering the limited resources. Turi Meyer co-wrote and directed the movie which is head and shoulders above his other lesser film efforts (Candyman 3, Leprechaun 2, Chairman of the Board).

At the end of the day, it's The Sandman and his backstory that really make this movie worth watching. Harris is riveting, and if they'd have made a franchise with him as the lead, I definitely would've been into it. But only if it included that lullaby - in each and every sequel.

Score 6.5/10