Friday, 21 January 2022

The Train (1964)

Director: John Frankenheimer
Writers: Franklin Coen, Frank Davis and Walter Bernstein, based on the book Le front de l’art by Rose Valland
Stars: Burt Lancaster, Paul Scofield and Jeanne Moreau

Index: 2022 Centennials.

Telly Savalas wasn’t the only important name in film to be born on 21st January, 1922, because Paul Scofield also found his way into the world, albeit on the other side of the pond in Birmingham, England. Savalas is the bigger star, because we’ve probably all seen a few of his films and his bald head made him in an instantly recognisable figure. Scofield dedicated most of his career to the theatre, having discovered Shakespeare at Varndean School in Brighton at the age of twelve, but he reached pinnacles in acting that are the envy of every classical actor. For instance, a poll of Royal Shakespeare Company actors in 2004 decreed his King Lear as the greatest Shakespearean performance of all time, potentially a greater honour to him than his triple crown of Oscar, Emmy and Tony, which he achieved in a record span of only seven years. His Tony and Oscar were both for A Man for All Seasons, the latter ahead of Richard Burton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Michael Caine as Alfie. His Emmy was for Male of the Species, an NBC TV movie.

The Train was the last feature that Scofield made before A Man for All Seasons, after only two in the fifties: That Lady in 1955, in which he played King Philip II of Spain, stuck in a love triangle with Gilbert Roland for the attentions of Olivia de Havilland; and Carve Her Name with Pride, the 1958 biopic of Violette Szabo, a valiant British spy working undercover in France, though his role was fictitious, a blend of many of her male colleagues. Similarly, The Train is based on real events during World War II, but I believe that Scofield’s role, as Colonel Franz von Waldheim of the Luftwaffe, was made up for the movie. It’s an unusual role, but then it’s also a highly unusual feature, given that it wears the clothes of an action movie and wears them well; is, of course, a war movie too; but is at heart a brutal character drama. What’s stayed with me the most about The Train isn’t the train at all, but what it means to three characters: von Waldheim, a Nazi art lover; Paul Labiche, an agent of the French Resistance; and Christine, a simple café owner.

Lisa and the Devil (1974)

Director: Mario Bava
Writer: Mario Bava and Alfredo Leone
Stars: Telly Savalas, Elke Sommer, Silva Koscina, Alessio Orano, Gabriele Tinti, Kathy Leone, Eduardo Fajardo, Franz von Treuberg and Alida Valli

Index: 2022 Centennials.

In some ways, Guy Madison and Telly Savalas, born only two days apart, had similar careers. Both were best known for a television role that kept them busy for multiple seasons, but both had racked up plenty of credits on the big screen before that and had many more to come after, a majority of them in leading roles across a whole slew of genres and a three and a half decade span. There are differences too, of course, the most obvious being that Savalas landed much more prominent films than Madison but also that they started no fewer than seventeen years later. Madison’s first credit was in 1944 and his last in 1979; Savalas didn’t arrive on that big screen until 1961 but he stayed there until 1995, even though he had died a year earlier. One other similarity is that there’s just so much for me to choose from in their filmographies, but I’m not unhappy with my choices. This one is a dreamlike (or nightmarish) horror movie from 1974, an Italian, West German and Spanish co-production but shot and originally released in Spain.

One reason I chose it is because I’ve reviewed other likely candidates for other people or have them slated for other projects, while this one was directed and co-written by the incomparable Mario Bava, one of those directors whose name guarantees that a film is going to be interesting at the very least and likely more. This one is certainly interesting, shot with a haunting eye and told in such a way that we’re never quite sure what’s real. It may be that nothing is real and the entire film is a daydream generated in the very first scene, or maybe the second. A whole discussion could be had about which, if any, moments are spent in our reality. Whatever the correct answer to that unanswerable question is, it’s probably fair to say that at least the majority of the picture is the product of Lisa Reiner’s imagination, whether aided or not, and she’s played by the delightful Elke Sommer, who had starred in Baron Blood for Bava in 1972 but who I remember for comedy in Carry On Behind and as a joyous foil to Inspector Clouseau in A Shot in the Dark.

Wednesday, 19 January 2022

Reprisal! (1956)

Director: George Sherman
Writers: David P. Harmon, Raphael Hayes and David Dortort, based on the novel Reprisal by Arthur Gordon
Stars: Guy Madison, Felicia Farr and Kathryn Grant

Regular readers of my centennial reviews may be shocked to discover that I’m opening up 2022 not with Betty White but with Guy Madison. Sure, Betty was a beloved household name who’s still generating falling petals on searches for her name in Google three weeks after her death on New Years’ Eve of last year. She came within a breath of celebrating her hundredth birthday with us, but she went out as she lived: entirely on her own terms. Hey, 99 and a lot really counts as 100 if you count the leap days, or so memes would have it, but that’s nonsense. I’m 133 and going strong if you count in dog years but nobody gives a monkey’s. Anyway, Betty White did surprisingly little on film for such a prolific television actress, her most prominent role arguably being the contrary old cuss in Lake Placid, not enough to warrant me covering it as a centennial review. So, let’s kick off 1922 with Guy Madison, who was more prolific as a lead on film, as well as on television and radio, prompting a couple of stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Even though he was never an A list star, there was plenty of choice for me in what to review. I could have gone for his debut, Since You Went Away in 1944, which prompted thousands of letters from fans seeking information on who he was, even though he was a bit part sailor with only a few minutes of screen time. RKO lent him out to William Castle for Texas, Brooklyn and Heaven, before his initial round of fame as the title character in The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, which ran for eight seasons on TV from 1951 to 1958 and on radio from 1951 to 1956. He never stopped making features, though, and a few leap out for attention in varied genres: The Charge at Feather River, a western shot in 3D; On the Threshold of Space, not the sci-fi flick it might seem but a drama about test pilots with an unusual première on an air force base; and a weird western shot in Mexico called The Beast of Hollow Mountain. He’d later gain success in Italy, starring in an array of peplum epics, spaghetti westerns and what are now called macaroni combat films.

Monday, 29 November 2021

Hanukkah (2019)

Director: Eben McGarr
Writer: Eben McGarr
Stars: Charles Fleischer, P. J. Soles, Joe Knetter, Sid Haig, Caroline Williams, Dick Miller and Sid Haig

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

Apparently, Hanukkah films are enough of a thing for them to have their own Wikipedia page, even if that page points out that the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah shows up more often on television than in film. Surprisingly, given that the Jewish people have their own country, there are more Hanukkah films made in the United States than in Israel. It seems that Hanukkah films are kind of like what Christmas films used to be before they got taken over by Hallmark and stopped being about Jesus and started being about the spirit of the season. Then again, maybe we can blame Charles Dickens for that! The most obvious difference is that they’re Jewish, but they celebrate a religious holiday with a religious story told using religious elements: lighting menorahs, spinning dreidels and eating traditional food. They often reference the Maccabees, Judas Maccabeus and his four brothers, who took back Judea from the Seleucid Empire in the second century BC, founding the Hasmonean dynasty and rededicating the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

This is a Hanukkah film because it includes many of those component parts but, because it’s in my Horror Movie Calendar series, it’s unsurprisingly a little unlike most other Hanukkah films, even more so than An American Tail, Eight Crazy Nights or The Hebrew Hammer, all Hanukkah films but an animated feature, a musical comedy and a blaxploitation flick respectively. This one is a horror movie and it revels in being a horror movie, as full of as gratuitous gore and gratuitous full frontal female nudity as menorahs and dreidels. Surprisingly, though, for a movie that’s as ruthlessly exploitative as this one, it even manages to cram in some honest to goodness Rabbinical debate, one character going toe to toe with the killer and arguing against his justification by quoting from the Torah and the Mitzvahs. This Hanukiller may be killing, mutilating and flaying bad Jews but he thinks of himself as a Jewish priest and the book of Leviticus strictly prohibits Jewish priests from touching corpses or even being in the same room as one. So there!

Friday, 5 November 2021

Attack the Block (2011)

Director: Joe Cornish Writer: Joe Cornish Stars: John Boyega, Jodie Whittaker, Alex Esmail, Franz Drameh, Leeon Jones, Simon Howard, Luke Treadaway, Jumayn Hunter, Danielle Vitalis, Paige Meade, Sammy Williams, Michael Ajao and Nick Frost

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

Many of the films that I’ve covered in this book are obscure for really good reasons, but this is one I’m hoping you’ve tracked down already. If not, let me be the one to introduce it to you, because this is a hidden gem that’s full of people you know now. I first saw it in 2011, when it came out, at the late and lamented Royale in Mesa. I picked up a copy to show the family and I’m watching it afresh for this project. It’s become an old friend. None of the key players were anybody at the time but, less than a decade later, you would recognise the first female Doctor Who, Jodie Whittaker, and the first black stormtrooper in Star Wars, John Boyega. Two more movies on from this £8m indie picture, the writer/director, Joe Cornish, was writing Ant-Man for Marvel. Debuting composer, Steven Price, would win an Oscar for his work on Gravity, though he had quite a career as a music editor before this, working with Howard Shore on The Lord of the Rings and Batman Begins. The only name fairly recognisable in 2011 was Nick Frost in a supporting role as Ron.

It’s here because the fireworks that kick off the movie and partially mask an imminent alien invasion aren’t for Independence Day, a holiday we amazingly enough don’t celebrate in the UK; they’re for Guy Fawkes Night, a peculiarly British holiday that most know about nowadays from the movie adaptation of Alan Moore’s graphic novel, V for Vendetta. I always loved Guy Fawkes Night growing up, with its bonfires, fireworks and the tray of parkin that Minnie Smithies baked for me every year because she knew exactly how much I adored it. Officially, it remembers something far more serious: the events of 5th November, 1605, when Guy Fawkes and his colleagues in the Gunpowder Plot planned to blow up the Houses of Parliament, murdering not only the entire British government in one fell swoop but also the king, James I, as he officially kicked off a new session during the State Opening of Parliament. Let’s say that the political and religious ramifications of the day are not as obvious in 2020, though I’ll get back to that later.

Tuesday, 2 November 2021

All Souls Day: Dia de los Muertos (2005)

Director: Jeremy Kasten Writer: Mark A. Altman Stars: Marisa Ramirez, Travis Wester, Nichole Hiltz, Laz Alonso, Mircea Monroe, Jeffrey Combs, Ellie Cornell, Noah Luke, Damien Luvara, David Figlioli, Robert Budaska, Danny Trejo, Laura Harring and David Keith

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

While it doesn’t have a much higher rating on IMDb than Evil Breed: The Legend of Samhain, this low budget film looked a lot better from moment one. Joe Kraemer’s lively score underpins some exotic spellcasting, while the opening credits suggest that we’re not just going to be watching a bunch of new names but a few that we’ll recognise too. I spotted Jeffrey Combs, Danny Trejo and David Keith, for a start. And we soon discover that we’re south of the border, in Santa Bonita, Mexico in 1892, adding an exotic feel, even if it’s really Santa Clarita, California with some colourful costumes to liven it up. Clearly the budget isn’t particularly large, but the Mexican townsfolk actually look like Mexican townsfolk instead of white or Native American actors in brownface and Christopher Duddy’s camera does a pretty good job of making it look like Raoul is struggling through a carnival with whatever he’s found in the local mine rather than just the handful of extras that are thrown his way. It’s some sort of headdress, apparently made of gold.

Unfortunately for him, Danny Trejo is already inside his house, watching him hide that headdress and he promptly talks Raoul into shooting himself in the head, so spilling his blood all over the gold. Trejo is Vargas Diaz and he looks fantastic in period attire, with none of his tattoos visible. He’s gloriously colourful in a waistcoat that’s turqouise on the back and red on the front, fringed in gold and accented by a green tie and tiny blue spectacles. He has a gift for the townsfolk. “Reap the rewards of our discovery,” he tells them, which is of something important located inside the mine, because that’s where he ushers everyone to “Enjoy the celebration, which I know you will remember for the rest of your lives.” Turning towards the camera in truly villainous style, he adds under his breath, “every remaining moment of it”. Sure enough, the next thing we know, there’s a huge explosion and it’s in the entrance to the mine, surely killing every one of the townsfolk or, at least, trapping them inside for a slower, more horrible death.

Monday, 1 November 2021

Evil Breed: The Legend of Samhain (2003)

Director: Christian Viel
Writers: William R. Mariani and Christian Viel
Stars: Bobbie Phillips, Howard Rosenstein, Ginger Lynn Allen, Chasey Lain, Taylor Hayes, Jenna Jameson, Richard Grieco, Brandi-Ann Milbradt, Lael Stellick, Phil Price, Neil Napier, Heidi Hawkins, Gillian Leigh, Simon Peacock, Alex Chisolm, Robert Higden, Alanah Dash

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

You know that you’re in trouble when a horror movie set on a holiday consistently mispronounces that holiday, especially given an overt focus on why it’s important and why it’s an especially cool setting for a horror movie. It’s Samhain, which is a Gaelic word, so not pronounced anywhere near what you’d think—if we turned the M upside down, you’d be closer—and it’s celebrated on the first day of November, making it one of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals, along with Imbolc, Beltane and Lughanasadh. And, if I’m going to call out the filmmakers for getting things wrong, I should take extra care to get things right and point out that Samhain actually starts on 31st October, as the Celtic day began and ended at sunset, and runs through most of 1st November, marking the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter, the darker half of the year in these wintry climes of the north. By the way, when talking about the Celtic people, the word has a hard C; when you use a soft C, as the teacher does in this film, it’s a Glasgow football club.

Then again, maybe I’m digging far too deeply here. We don’t have to go too far at all to figure out things wrong with this movie. It opens with generic Nickelback-esque alt rock from a band who go entirely without credit, perhaps because they aren’t a band at all and just a creation of Russian-Canadian composer Alex Khaskin. Then we find our way into a tent in the woods so we can watch an unenthused Richard Grieco getting it on with porn star Chasey Lain, who’s clearly in the movie because of her big eyes, dangerous nipples and willingness to be murdered before the opening credits. Grieco is gone by then too, though he does get to wander in the woods muttering “Amy” a lot, wake up in a cave chained to a stone altar to ask “What the hell is this place?” and revolve on a spit, sans limbs but with pecker intact. The opening credits feature everyone in the cast, I think, highlighting in the process that no less than four porn stars are going to be tasked with actually acting and that never bodes well, even if one is Ginger Lynn Allen.

Sunday, 31 October 2021

Trick ’r Treat (2007)

Director: Michael Dougherty
Writer: Michael Dougherty
Stars: Dylan Baker, Rochelle Aytes, Anna Paquin and Brian Cox

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

And so to Halloween, the most horror holiday of the year, a horrorday if you will! I avoided Halloween partly because it’s too damn obvious a choice, but also because something on the cover of my DVD copy of Trick ’r Treat bugged me. It’s a quote from the Wizard Universe website, the forerunner of Wizard World, to state that this is “the best Halloween film of the last 30 years.” It’s obvious to everyone that they’re saying “since John Carpenter’s Halloween, which came out in 1978”, but I’d call this easily the best Halloween film, period, as it isn’t just a horror flick set on Halloween, as so many others are, it’s actually a distillation of the fundamental rules of Halloween into movie form. It didn’t get a wide release, only playing a handful of film festivals over the couple of years until it hit home video in 2009. It was critically acclaimed but there’s never any guarantee that the moviegoing public are going to see eye to eye with the critics and this has sadly remained an underground hit, although the size of the cult is thankfully growing.

It really is the epitome of the movie to throw on every year on the holiday in question. You can watch Halloween any day, but Trick ’r Treat gains magic when viewed on Halloween, late at night after the trick or treaters have gone home and you can slouch back in your comfiest chair with a beer or three. It’s an anthology film but an unusual one because, unlike most anthology films which just hurl out random, if perhaps themed, short films inside a framing story, these stories are interwoven. All four take place in roughly the same place at roughly the same time. The place is Warren Valley, OH and the time, of course, is Halloween night. There’s a fifth piece that does too, but it’s much shorter than the others and it serves as our framing story, mostly there to set us up for what’s to come. It features a couple returning home from the carnival atmosphere in town and, while Henry is a huge Halloween fan, Emma is not. As she starts taking down their Halloween decorations, she outright states, “I hate Halloween”. And that’s not good.

Saturday, 30 October 2021

Mischief Night (2013)

Director: Richard Schenkman
Writer: Richard Schenkman, from a story by Jesse Baget and Eric D. Wilkinson
Stars: Noell Coet, Daniel Hugh Kelly, Charlie O’Connell, Erica Leerhsen, Stephanie Erb, Richard Riehle, Ian Bamberg, Adam C. Edwards and Ally Walker

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

There are a few movies named for and set on the surprisingly old but unofficial holiday of Mischief Night, but I had to pick this one because it’s a Richard Schenkman film, his first since one of my very favourite modern science fiction features, 2007’s The Man from Earth. Yet I watched it, wrote a bunch of notes but not a review, came back to it three years later and realised that I’d forgotten the entire thing. Finally putting virtual pen to paper on an actual review, I wonder what it really does and why. It’s obviously a holiday horror, because the entire film takes place on two different 30th Octobers, with almost all of it being the mischief of Mischief Night. These mischiefmongers do more than hurl eggs though, so it becomes a home invasion movie, one that benefits from an additional trick up its sleeve but loses out on back story and motivation. But, and here’s the kicker, none of it really matters in the way that we expect it to matter. It all matters for a completely different reason that we’ve completely forgotten about by that point in the film.

We know that this particular mischiefmaker, whoever he is (and we never get a name, background or even connection), is serious about his mischiefmaking because of the intro sequence, which amounts to a full tenth of the entire movie. It’s routine until it isn’t, with Kim enjoying a romantic bathtub rendezvous with Will while her husband is away in Tokyo. There are red petals and candles everywhere and Will is gonna rip her to shreds, in the most romantic way, of course. But what’s that? Is it a noise? The microwave is messed with and there’s no dialtone. It’s just kids, suggests Kim, messing around on Mischief Night like she used to, but I’d be far more concerned knowing that these particular kids are inside my house and they’ve found and cued up a sextape I recorded with a partner other than my spouse. Really, there are two important things happening here. One is that there are zero naughty bits on display in a movie that starts with a couple getting it on in a bathtub. The other is Will asking, “What the hell is Mischief Night?”

Sunday, 4 July 2021

Uncle Sam (1996)

Director: William Lustig
Writer: Larry Cohen
Stars: William Smith, David Shark Fralick, Leslie Neale, Matthew Flint, Anne Tremko, Tim Grimm, P. J. Soles, Thom McFadden, Zachary McLemore, Morgan Paull, Richard Cummings, Jr., Robert Forster, Christopher Ogden, Bo Hopkins, Timothy Bottoms and Isaac Hayes

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

Some people apparently have an affinity for horror movies set on holidays. This one, which features an American soldier, killed in action in Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm, rising from his grave on Independence Day to murder his way through his living townsfolk who aren’t showing much patriotism, features a couple of names we’ve met already. The director is William Lustig, who brought so much fun to St. Patrick’s Day with Maniac Cop, and the first face we see is that of William Smith, who was blown up in his RV on Memorial Day in Memorial Valley Massacre. He’s here to be driven to a downed helicopter in Kuwait. Apparently it was shot down by friendly fire, leaving those on board burned up in the wreckage. “These things happen in war,” Smith tells his men in that patented half-growl that has served him so well in roles like these over decades, albeit not quite as far back as his child acting days in early forties films like The Ghost of Frankenstein or A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It’s what happens next that doesn’t usually.

Smith, whose major has no name, orders a soldier into the helicopter to try to identify any of the bodies from dogtags. He does, but the charred corpse of Master Sergeant Sam Harper promptly comes to life, snaps the man’s neck, steals his handgun and empties it into him and through him into the major too. “Don’t be afraid,” he snarls, “It’s only friendly fire.” Then he relaxes back into death. Yeah, that’s unusual, but it only gets more unusual. Back home in the town of Twin Rivers, there’s a signed photo of Sam Harper on Jody Baker’s bedside table. It falls, apparently on its own, waking Jody, who promptly steps on the broken glass and cuts his foot, at least a couple of drops of his blood ending up on this picture of his literal Uncle Sam. It’s been three years, apparently, but Sam’s still in that helicopter, where his corpse may have just felt that connection. It’s surely no coincidence that he’s found immediately and Sgt. Twining shows up to give the news to Sam’s widow in person.