Wednesday, October 26, 2011

3 OG MoH films

I've never been a fan of gore or jump scares in horror films. To me, they're just too easy and require too little thought, imagination and talent to employ. They are the comedic equivalent of a pie in the face, pratfall or bad pun. When anyone can do it, it just isn't that impressive or effective. Which I guess explains my pre-Halloween viewing habits this year. I've been re-watching some of the old masters like William Castle, John Llewellyn Moxey and Leslie Stevens. These guys were, first and foremost, masters of atmospheric horror. That doesn't mean they never used jump scares or gore - they just didn't rely on them to sell the film. Instead, they did something much more difficult which was to create an atmosphere, an environment of unease and dream-like quality, that permeated the story and setting. Three films in particular, one from each of these masters, provide excellent examples of the spooky atmosphere they were so adept at creating.

As you can see, William Castle's 1964 film, The Night Walker, certainly has a good pedigree with a screenplay by horror icon Robert Bloch and stars Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor. The DoP for the movie was Harold E. Stine who would go on to shoot The Poseidon Adventure and MASH. Like the majority of Castle's work, it's filmed in black and white and looks sharp and crisp. But two of the strongest components that lend immeasurably to the atmosphere of the film are Vic Mizzy's fabulous score, and Hayden Rorke's creepy prosthetics. Mizzy's score is nothing short of sublime, and though it is very much in his style, it's missing the goofy Adam's Family/Ghost and Mr Chicken playfulness that's a hallmark of his work. Being that this is one of Castle's more melodramatic films, which is performed without any hint of humor, the music is spot on, especially the main title theme which is used throughout and will stay with you forever, at least it has with me.
Hayden Rorke, who was a TV staple for three decades, beginning in the fifties, and best known for his role as Dr. Bellows on the I Dream of Jeannie television show, is terrific in this. His role in the film as Howard Trent, Barbara Stanwyck's blind, jealous husband, is about as far a way from his comic character in IDoJ as is humanly possible. Moreover, his white contacts, and later, his burn prosthetics freaked me the f out as a kid, and still make me uneasy. The make-up effects on Rorke may well be the most valuable thing about the movie outside of Mizzy's score.

The story itself of The Night Walker does veer a little more toward the melodramatic, especially early on, as the Howard Trent character accuses Barbara Stanwyck's Irene Trent of cheating on him after he overhears her moaning about a supposed lover in her sleep. The movie then becomes equal parts horror, mystery and melodrama as Stanwyck's dreams continue to haunt her and strange things continue to occur. If there's a flaw in the film, it's the pacing, which can be noticeably slow at times. In addition, there are several scenes of driving from one location to another that seem like unnecessary padding. Even with an 85 minute runtime, the film still could have been cut by another 10 to move it along at a more tolerable rate. Overall though, it is a creepy little sleeper that, like it's music, stays in your head long after viewing. Unfortunately, The Night Walker is not included in The William Castle Collection which is a crime considering there are some absolute duds in that box set that no one would miss. The good news is, the VHS of the film was last released in the mid-90's and is immaculate. It is out of print, but there are ample copies available.
Score 7/10

Even if you don't know John Llewellyn Moxey's name, you've likely seen and enjoyed one of his movies. Moxey is best known for 1972's made-for-TV movie The Night Stalker with Darren McGavin as the scruffy newspaper reporter Carl Kolchak. But Moxey also made a number of other memorable TV films in the 70's including A Taste of Evil, The Strange and Deadly Occurence and Where Have All the People Gone? In addition, he directed some solid theatrical releases early in his career of which The City of the Dead was his first. Oddly renamed Horror Hotel and cut for the American market, a recent DVD restored the film to its original length and title. It is a minor classic chock full of atmosphere with a plot twist that was unprecedented at the time. Shot entirely on set, and in black and white, it is nevertheless a fantastic looking movie and does a great job of creating its spooky setting where most of the movie takes place.

As the story begins we are introduced to these guys:

and this woman:

...and well, you get the picture. We then flash forward to modern day where Professor Alan Driscoll, played by the great Christopher Lee, is recounting the previous historical event to his students. One of the students, Nan Barlow who is played by Venetia Stevenson, obviously has a wee crush on the teacher (can you blame her?) and he gives her some advice on where to further research the subject matter at hand.

Miss Barlow then travels to Whitewood, a small, extremely fog-enshrouded town in New England to continue her study on witchcraft. On the way, she meets this figure...

...which probably can't be good judging by appearance. From then on, the film is a familiar, but exceptionally well executed gothic horror story with loads of atmosphere courtesy of the ubiquitous fog, creepy townspeople and strange hotel where the heroin is lodging. Most everything about this film works extremely well from the solid acting, especially Patricia Jessel in a dual role, to the atmospheric mega-Fulci fogged set, to the film's quick and unfaltering pace. Moxey proves true to his name by pulling a few interesting camera moves as well that other first-time director's would likely shy away from especially on a low budget, limited time shoot such as this.
I was really surprised at how well this film holds up and how well crafted it is. It's certainly a prime example of how good something shot on set can look and the strong atmosphere that can be created with some good acting and a little fog. The movie is available all over the internet including YouTube at the link below as Horror Hotel, but I'd recommend the restored DVD (the color cover above) as it has many extras including commentaries and interviews with Christopher Lee, John Llewellyn Moxey, Venetia Stevens and more.

Score 8/10

Simply put, if you loved the original Outer Limits television show, you will love the 1966 film Incubus. Reason being is that the people who worked on the show, made this movie including the writer/director, Leslie Stevens, future Academy Award winning cinematographer, Conrad L. Hall, composer Dominic Frontiere and cast members William Shatner, Allyson Ames and Robert Fortier. The film definitely has the unique look and feel of the television show, but is steeped in religious mythology instead of science fiction.

The story is about a succubus named Kia, played by Ames, who has tired of taking corrupt men's souls and wants to go after someone pure of heart. One of her fellow succubi Amael, played by Eloise Hardt, cautions her against it as these type of men are capable of the power of love which is anathema to the evil ones like themselves. Enter Shatner as Marc, a courageous wounded soldier who has come home to his sister to mend. Kia, after failing to find someone good among the local clergy, sets her sights on Marc and trouble ensues for both.

There are many things, both film related, and occurrences that happened outside of the production, that set this movie apart. First and foremost, the script was written in Esperanto - a language invented in the late nineteenth century to serve as a European common language. As far as I can garner, this was basically done for two reasons, one artistic and the other for marketing purposes. Stevens apparently wanted an other-worldly feel, and to this end, used the artificial language. It works exceedingly well, in my opinion, and gives the film a flavor and strange European authenticity it would not have had if filmed in English or even another traditional language. The major beef at the time among Esperanto speakers was that the accents were off which seems kind of silly being that the language has no real ethnic or cultural roots and was less than 70 years old at the time of the film's release. It would be akin to a Star Trek nerd complaining that the actors were mispronouncing Klingon words. Ultimately, it's an effect that works for everyone except Esperanto speakers. Unfortunately, Stevens counted on distributing the film to an estimated seven million Esperanto speakers not realizing that they were scattered far and wide throughout the world. A negative screening by those who spoke the language, coupled with a high profile murder/suicide involving a cast member just as the film was set to release, doomed the film at the box office. Further, all domestic prints of the film were lost by a storage facility under mysterious circumstances. Producer Anthony Taylor was subsequently able to track down a print in France and restore and release it in the early 2000's.

I saw the movie when it initially showed on the Sci-Fi channel in 2001. A lot of people I knew who had never seen the film were expecting a campy delightful train wreck of a movie. I had high hopes, and low expectations, but was blown away by its quality. Film snobs may whine that the movie is like warmed over Bergman, but even they can't argue that Hall's cinematography looks fantastic. Further, the ethereal music by Frontiere helps create that other-worldly mood that Stevens was attempting. And although I've been to Big Sur and the central coast area where the film was shot, I hardly recognized it due to Hall's great use of lighting in conjunction with the black and white film. Stevens claimed to be a Kurosawa fan, and you can definitely see some similarities, especially in the landscape soft focus shots, but there's also some shots cribbed directly from Bergman like the two women standing in profile to one another. In addition, there are some great money shots like the Incubus rising from the earth, the shadowy winged creature by the house and the attack on the Arndis character. In short, there's a lot of great eye candy, even when there's little happening. The acting is theatrical, but professional, with Shatner giving a surprisingly relaxed performance which is truly amazing given he's speaking an unfamiliar language phonetically. There's not a hint of camp or goofiness to be found anywhere. If there is a flaw, it comes thematically, with a story that has a pretty simplistic point to make. I do wish the characters had been a little more complex and the ending a little more ambiguous. But at its heart, the film is very much a fairly tale and such stories are usually simple and straightforward.
The movie is currently available on YouTube at the link below, but there is a very nice DVD available with two separate commentaries by Shatner and producer Taylor. 

Score 7.5/10

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Crowe Weaving

"Before love comes trust. Before trust comes...Proof."

Long before Russell Crowe was a tough gladiator or a salty sea captain, and long before Hugo Weaving was a wise Elven king or flashy drag queen, they played friends caught in a strange love triangle in a film from 1991 called Proof. Weaving's character, Martin, is a single, educated man who lives alone and has a passion for photography. He's also blind. Crowe plays a likable young busboy named Andy whom Martin befriends one evening outside the restaurant where Andy works. All would be well but for Martin's housekeeper Celia (Genevieve Picot) who harbors a rather unhealthy obsession for her seeing-impaired employer. A blind photographer as a lead character sounds like a trite art house conceit or a bad joke, but writer/director Jocelyn Moorhouse has a salient point to make with the character who has a legitimate and believable reason for photographing things he can't see which becomes apparent as the story unfolds.

The film is brilliant, and at times, darkly comic in its look at trust, love and obsession. It's also one of the few examples I've ever seen in cinema of a near perfect unrequited love triangle. Martin loathes his housekeeper Celia, who desires him, but he keeps her around so he can pity her instead of her pitying him as he later explains to Andy. Martin becomes quite fond of Andy but Andy has an unspoken attraction to Celia. Celia is jealous of Martin's new "little friend" Andy, but is quite aware of his attraction to her. The story is executed with subtlety, intelligence and a wry since of humor with each character fully formed and there motives quite clear. There are no good or bad guys necessarily and even Celia, who is clearly the antagonist, elicits some compassion in the end. 

Weaving is fantastic as the fiercely independent, introspective Martin who is almost the polar opposite of his upbeat character in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Initially, he seems a cold and uncaring person, but as the story unfolds, he becomes understandable, human and even likable. Crowe's busboy Andy is also a far cry from the characters he played in LA Confidential or Romper Stomper. In Proof, Crowe is at his most charming, likable and natural. Andy is portrayed as a nice, but somewhat naive, slacker who is a little in over is head when it comes to dealing with neurotic people like Martin and Celia. Andy's not dumb, but his two new friends are whip smart and not above using Andy to torment each other. Genevieve Picot should have been blown off the screen by these two future cinema icons, but surprisingly, she gives the juiciest and most nuanced performance. She somehow manages to be believably bitchy, sexy, plain-looking, acerbic, sad, frightening, beautiful and funny in the role of Celia. Janet Maslin compared her favorably to Glenda Jackson, but I think Picot is actually funnier in a dark way and more interesting.

The writing and performances are enough to make this a great movie, but Moorhouse's direction and the original music by Not Drowning, Waving, kick it up another notch. There's a great backwards tracking shot of Weaving's character, early on, walking down an ally with the camera angled up to show his head and shoulders framed against the cloudy sky. Moorhouse makes several clever or wry statements like this with her camera work throughout the film that just add to the superb quality. The photograph's taken by Martin were similarly clever, but just out of whack enough to appear to have been shot by a blind photographer. The award winning soundtrack for the film was done by Not Drowning, Waving and is a little reminiscent of Tangerine Dream only less electronically based with more percussion and wind instruments to give it a driving but still melodious beat. It adds a very unique tone and feel to the film.

For those who are not already fans of Crowe and Weaving, this film, and their performances will certainly push them in that direction. It will also cause some puzzlement on why Moorhouse and Picot haven't become international household names as well. Moorhouse did go on to direct a few films, but nothing approaching the quality and wit of Proof.

Score 9/10

Monday, October 3, 2011

God is Love and Versa Visa

"If we could each other, as much as we say we love Him, I 'spect there wouldn't be the bother in the world there is."

-Eva Le Gallienne as Grandma Pearl
in Resurrection

Francois Rabelais once said, "Nature abhors a vacuum." I think the same can be said of mankind in a metaphysical since. We hate ambiguity, especially when it involves the big mysteries of life. We have a hard time accepting the wonders of the universe at face value and seem to feel the need to assign meaning or assume knowledge. Should anyone or anything get in the way of our knowing the unknowable (or pretending to), they tend to get crucified.

In the 1980 film Resurrection, Edna Mae McCauley (Ellen Burstyn) is a transplanted mid-westerner  living with her husband in California when tragedy strikes. Edna Mae suffers a near-death accident and decides to return home with her father (Roberts Blossom) to recuperate on their rural Kansas farm. Soon after her homecoming, she discovers she has acquired the power to heal and is encouraged by her grandmother to use it to help the community. Of course, a few people have a problem with Edna Mae's miraculous power and just can't accept her mysterious blessing at face value.

After watching a pristine version of the movie on Netflix Instant, I was surprised and confused that the tag words used to describe the film were "supernatural" and "fantasy".  The story, characters and settings feel so authentic, that the movie doesn't seem to have any fantastical elements although the description is, in fact, very accurate. Scenes, such as Edna Mae and her cousin Kathy (Lois Smith) catching up on the local gossip, ring very true and feel quite natural. The distant relationship between Edna Mae and her father also feels very real especially Blossoms' portrayal of the stoic, loveless widower/father. Ellen Burstyn absolutely owns the 'every-woman' role and is superb in this film playing someone, who while not a saint, is a very decent, caring and moral person. Her performance anchors the film and really tugs at the heart without ever being sentimental. I found myself tearing up several times as Burstyn struggled to recover from her tragedy and then began healing those around her. Burstyn is supported by some first-rate character actors like Roberts Blossom, Richard Farnsworth, Lois Smith, Sam Shepard, Jeffrey DeMunn and stage actress Eva Le Gallienne. Both Burstyn and Le Gallienne were nominated for Oscars for the film, but the rest of the cast is incredibly praiseworthy.

Oscar nominated writer, Lewis John Carlino, who wrote the screenplays for such films as The Mechanic,  Crazy Joe, The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea, The Great Santini, and one of my all-time favorite TV movies, Where Have All the People Gone? wrote Resurrection and imbued it with a mid-western tone, sensibility and melancholy. It could have gone overboard in so many ways, but there's a nice subtle restraint to the writing that keeps it out of the melodramatic and/or maudlin territories.
Canadian director Daniel Petrie, who has a wildly diverse resume, has piloted some of my favorite sleeper films including Buster and Billie, Fort Apache The Bronx, The Bay Boy and Rocket Gibraltor, but is probably best know for A Raisin in the Sun with Sydney Poitier. He mixes some nice outdoor footage (with Texas standing in for Kansas) as much as possible to emphasize the vast expansiveness and loneliness of the mid-west.
Lastly, French composer Maurice Jarre, who has worked on over 150 films including Eyes Without a Face, Witness, Doctor Zhivago and The Tin Drum provides the oft etherial music for Resurrection, and although it's not nearly as memorable as some of his other work, it's still quite serviceable.
If I have any complaint about the film, it's in the cinematography from DoP Mario Tosi, whose work always seems to be uninspired, drab and colorless. There were great opportunity's for some vista and landscape shots that were photographed poorly. There were some similarly wasted opportunities in Buster and Billie which featured some nice rural southern locations that were also shot haphazardly. Unfortunately, the cheap looking cinematography gives the film a made-for-TV look. It may be the reason the film's never had a proper DVD release even though it garnered many awards and much critical acclaim.

Overall, Resurrection is an uplifting film that doesn't get preachy but nevertheless delivers its message through engaging performances and a heartwarming, if somewhat sad story. It's an unforgettable and surprisingly moving film that makes me yearn to move back to the mid-west. Although quite different in story, in many ways the film reminded me of David Lynch's The Straight Story and would make an excellent companion piece about middle America.

Score 8.5/10