Thursday 31 December 2020

Terror Train (1980)

Director: Roger Spottiswoode
Writer: T. Y. Drake
Stars: Ben Johnson, Jamie Lee Curtis, Hart Bochner and David Copperfield

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

Slasher movies had been around for a long while by the time Terror Train came along in 1980, but they were becoming a huge deal. Halloween had kicked off the genre’s classic era in 1978, courtesy in large part of its lead actress Jamie Lee Curtis, who cemented her stature as the leading scream queen of the day with The Fog, Prom Night and this film, all in 1980. The election of Ronald Reagan the same year brought a conservative backlash against what they saw as a growing epidemic of violence on screen, and the studios got quickly on board, releasing over a hundred slashers between 1978 and 1984. This one was shot independently in Canada for $3.5m, but picked up for distribution by 20th Century Fox, who contributed another $5m worth of marketing. While it isn’t the best of the slashers, it’s a particularly interesting one for a few reasons, including the fact that the majority of the film takes place on a moving steam train booked on New Year’s Eve as a celebration for Alana, who’s graduating early, making them a captive audience.

The primary one is that there’s an underlying theme of illusion, emphasised through the surprise presence of David Copperfield as a magician hired to perform at the party. We’ve probably all watched half a dozen slasher movies in which the identity of the killer is so obvious that we’ve shouted it at the screen, even though the line up of victims to be never pay any attention to us. Here, it’s a deliberately played theme. The killer doesn’t wear a single iconic mask to slap on the movie’s poster, instead consistently adopting the costume of the previous victim at every point. The task at hand for each of the potential victims on board the Terror Train is to see through the particular illusion shown them when the killer, whose identity we know from the very first scene, appears to them in a new disguise. If they can, then maybe they’ll have a chance at survival, though this is one heck of a party and most of them are drunk before they even get off the bus that takes them to the train.

Friday 25 December 2020

Christmas Evil (1980)

Director: Lewis Jackson
Writer: Lewis Jackson
Stars: Brandon Maggart, Jeffrey DeMunn and Dianne Hull

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

There are so many Christmas horror movies out there (and others that may not be horror but are just as traumatising) that I may well write a book on just them, but I still needed to pick one for A Horror Movie Calendar. I avoided Black Christmas, as that’s too easy a choice and plumped for this one, which John Waters has described as “the greatest Christmas movie ever made”. As flawed as it is, it’s actually a surprisingly inventive look at Christmas and what the holiday means, wrapped up in slasher clothing. One thing I really like about it is that it seems to unfold in a world where there are no days that aren’t holidays, which is social commentary in itself. We watch Harry Stadling get out of bed in his Santa pyjamas, practice his Santa laugh and check his Santa belly as he hums a carol or three, in an apartment decorated like a greeting card. He works at a toy factory and Frank has him cover his late shift so he can take his wife out of town for the holidays. It’s so obviously Christmas, we’re shocked to discover that it’s really Thanksgiving.

Harry rings his brother Phil to tell him that he won’t make it over for Thanksgiving dinner. He’s busy watching Santa in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the announcer pointing out that it’s his first appearance of the season. That prompts Harry to shift into overdrive with his preparation for Christmas and a quick montage highlights that he’s not alone. The stores promptly put out their Christmas displays, Christmas trees go up in public squares and, no doubt, on the 1980 equivalent of Facebook, people would moan about how soon this is all happening. Heck, we haven’t even got to Halloween yet and everything’s suddenly Christmas. In Harry’s world, Thanksgiving and Halloween don’t exist, because the Christmas season lasts for all twelve months of the year. To Harry, the day after his Christmas-themed Thanksgiving is his work’s Christmas party and the day after that is Christmas Eve. And, we know from the intro, which took place on Christmas Eve in 1947 when Harry was a child, that’s a gigantic #C54245 Christmas Red flag.

Wednesday 9 September 2020

The Flying Luna Clipper (1987)

Director: Ikko Ono
Writer: Ikko Ono
Stars: Anne Lambert, Ina Krantz, Mark Hagan and Zev Asher

Index: Weird Wednesdays.

Back in the eighties, films weren’t as available as they are now, because the internet is a wonderful thing and we shouldn’t ever lose sight of that. Then, I’d read about amazing movies in fanzines that I had no expectation of ever seeing myself. Because I read quite a few zines, I could see the paths of the underground tape trading circuit manifest like a map out of the order by which the latest wild title that came out of nowhere, like Nekromantik or Urotsukidoji, would see review in those zines. For decades, The Flying Luna Clipper was one of those wild titles, a film for the psychotronic cognoscenti to rave about like it was manna from heaven but rarely seen by the rest of humanity. Now, of course, it’s on YouTube in entirety, because, of course it is. The world has fundamentally changed. It’s said that someone found a laserdisc copy in a thrift store, ripped it to digital and sent it to Matt Repetski, because he doesn’t merely write about movies, he writes about video games too. He showed it to Matt Hawkins at Attract Mode, who uploaded it to YouTube.

And that sparked a resurgence of interest in The Flying Luna Clipper, which is very possibly the most unique film I’ve ever seen and a sort of visual shot of happiness. It’s batshit insane, it makes next to no sense and yet, while watching it, I drift into a feeling that all is right with the world. Given that I’m writing in September 2020, the ninth level of the Jumanji game that has comprised this crazy year, that’s quite the achievement, especially for a film released in Japan in 1987, on Video8, Betamax, VHS and LaserDisc, for what was then the equivalent of sixty bucks. And, quite frankly, it’s not really even a film in the sense that we tend to think. It’s more of a psychedelic graphics demo, created on an 8 bit MSX computer. Nishi Kazuhiko had clout, as a founder of the ASCII Corporation and a vice president at Microsoft, and he wanted to create a unified standard for home computers in 1983, but he failed. Sony made the bulk of the MSXs and they only shipped five million units in Japan, those sales helped by the original Metal Gear game.

Saturday 16 May 2020

Hell is Empty (1967)

Director: John Ainsworth
Writers: John Ainsworth, from screenplays by George Fowler and Bernard Knowles, each in turn based on the novel Hell is Empty by J. F. Straker
Stars: Martine Carol, James Robertson Justice, Shirley-Anne Field and Carl Möhner

Index: 2020 Centennials.

Given that I’m watching and reviewing Hell is Empty for Martine Carol, born a hundred years ago today in Saint-Mandé, a high end department of the Île-de-France, it seems appropriate to remember her through this movie, produced by her last husband, because it’s quintessentially European. It isn’t just that it’s a British film shot in Prague, then in Czechoslovakia. It isn’t just that it has a set of European actors in prominent roles, like the Italian Isa Miranda and the Austrian Carl Möhner, or that they speak fluent English with accents that betray that it isn’t their first language. It isn’t just that there are two members of European nobility in the cast: Baroness Irene von Meyendorff was born in Tallinn, now the Estonian capital but then in Russia, while Catherine Schell, daughter of a Hungarian baron, is from Budapest. Ironically, the former was the most popular Nazi pinup girl while the latter’s family estates were confiscated by those same Nazis. It’s also that the film isn’t commercially available, so I found myself watching a dubious VHS rip with hardcoded Finnish subtitles. Needs must.

It’s not a good film but it is an interesting one, not least because it either had no idea what it wanted to be or because it aimed to be everything. I haven’t read the 1958 source novel by J. F. Straker, a maths teacher by profession, but he claimed to create books by outlining their beginnings and ends, then letting the middles flesh out as he wrote. That might explain why this picture, adapted from a pair of different screenplays, is so open to anything. At heart it’s a thriller but it also spends time as a courtroom drama, a heist flick, a polite mystery, a hospital drama and even a dubious romance during which the telling words “Stockholm Syndrome” aren’t ever mentioned. It isn’t even sure who to treat as the most important characters. The young crook who serves as our initial focus loses it pretty quickly. The romance angle hinted at early on is forgotten for most of the film. Martine Carol may be top billed and she may receive the most opportunities, but she’s hardly the lead. Characters come and go, their importance always unknown.

Thursday 30 April 2020

Ritual of Evil (1970)

Director: Robert Day
Writer: Robert Presnell, Jr., based on characters by Richard Alan Simmons
Stars: Louis Jourdan, Anne Baxter, Diana Hyland, John McMartin, Belinda Montgomery and Wilfrid Hyde-White

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

Many of the films I’ve included in this book are obscure, but for different reasons. Some were indie releases that didn’t reach a big audience. Some have been unjustly neglected. Some of them just plain suck. This TV movie may have merely arrived a blink of the eye too early to have the impact that it could have had, meaning that, instead of spawning a cult television show, it became instead a historical footnote for half a century, waiting to be rediscovered. It’s actually a sequel, to 1969’s Fear No Evil, which introduced us to a psychiatrist named David Sorell, played by the ever-reliable Louis Jourdan, who reprises his role here. Sorell is also an expert on the occult and he investigates the strange and unusual. Both films were broadcast on NBC during their Tuesday Night at the Movies series of films made for TV, which tended to run longer and cost more than their equivalents on other networks. The cast of each was stellar and Ritual of Evil even won a Primetime Emmy for cinematography, but the hoped for TV show never materialised.

Instead, they served as an influence. Another investigator of the supernatural, Carl Kolchak, showed up a couple of years later, with his history beginning on the TV movie The Night Stalker, an ABC Movie of the Week, in 1972. The Night Strangler followed it a year later, with the supernatural horror genre perhaps reaching its peak with William Peter Blatty’s adaptation of his 1971 novel, The Exorcist. ABC promptly ordered a full series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, which only lasted a single season but was itself a primary influence on later shows like The X-Files. Had Fear No Evil and Ritual of Evil been made just a couple of years later, perhaps Chris Carter would have been inspired by the cult investigations of David Sorell rather than those of Carl Kolchak. In a parallel universe not far adrift from ours, maybe he did, but here in our universe, we’ve had to make do with terrible quality nth generation bootleg VHS tapes thus far. The good news is that Kino Lorber may well be releasing both these films on BluRay in late 2020. Fingers crossed.

Monday 17 February 2020

Presidents Day (2016)

Director: David Zuckerman
Writers: Benjamin Goodwin, David Zuckerman and Jud Zumwalt
Stars: Monica Ricketts, David Zuckerman, Jud Zumwalt, Brittany Faith Rosoff, Chelsea Taylor Leech, Dax Hill, Benjamin Goodwin, Mike Ostroski and Michael Minto

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

There are a lot of movies that look like they’d be great choices for the third Monday in February, but the list whittles itself down in no time flat. For example, I was planning to review President’s Day, a 2010 movie with a tiny $5,000 budget that was made by 25 year old Chris LaMartina, surely best known now for Call Girl of Cthulhu. However, while it did feature a mysterious murderer dressed up as Honest Abe, slashing his way through the candidates for Student Council President at Lincoln High (home of the Lincoln Lambs), it turned out to have nothing to do with the actual holiday known as President’s Day in eight states of the union, so it doesn’t count. Now, I did want it to count, just so that I could introduce you to Eddie Mills, who thinks being Student Council President would look great on his Naval Academy application. His pitch? “At Lincoln, everyone deserves a shot.” That’s glorious and, with a line like that, I don’t want to look at any other possibilities. But, sassinfrassin, this is a holiday horror book, so I had to move on.

Fortunately, this picture came along to help me out, and it’s absolutely set on what’s known as Presidents Day in three more states. That’s Presidents Day without any punctuation, unlike the President’s Day mentioned above, which features an apostrophe before the final S, or indeed Presidents’ Day, with the apostrophe after the final S, which is how the holiday is known in ten states, making it the most popular spelling. Oh, and that wandering apostrophe is just the beginning of the rabbit hole that was originally known as Washington’s Birthday, by which name it’s still known in six more states. Washington was born on 22nd February, 1732, though it was actually 11th February, 1731 at the time, because, while we think of George Washington as a famous American, he was born in the colonies of the British Empire, which was then on the Julian calendar. In 1752, the British Empire changed to the Gregorian calendar, and most people still alive at the time, Washington included, began to start celebrating according to that instead.

Monday 27 January 2020

Sorcerer (1977)

Director: William Friedkin
Writer: Walon Green, based on the novel Le Salaire de la peur by Georges Arnaud
Stars: Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal, Amidou and Ramon Bieri

Index: 2020 Centennials.

The birth of the modern blockbuster can generally be dated to 1975, when Steven Spielberg’s Jaws opened in 464 theatres at once, becoming the hit of the summer and the highest grossing film of all time up to that point. Readers in 2020 might be surprised that such an approach was a big deal, as it’s utterly standard today, but, before Jaws, wide releases like that were generally associated with exploitation movies of, shall we say, dubious quality, that needed to make money quickly before word of mouth killed them. Jaws wasn’t the first, as some James Bond films, among others, had seen wide release, but it was the turning point after which the industry changed and it became the norm. William Friedkin, who had directed a proto-blockbuster in 1973 in The Exorcist, missed out on this change, as that film opened in a mere 24 theatres, gradually expanding nationwide. However, he was right there when the next big change happened and it’s why Sorcerer isn’t particularly well known today outside certain circles of film fans.

It opened theatrically on 24th June, 1977. It was budgeted at $15m but had cost over $21m to make so, adding in marketing, it had to make at least double that to break even. It didn’t by a long shot, eventually earning less than $6m in the US, a number that only expanded to $9m worldwide. It was a huge flop. There are many reasons why, from the misleading title that led many to believe it was another supernatural film, like The Exorcist, to the fact that it takes sixteen minutes to hear a word spoken in English, However, the biggest reason is surely that it arrived in the wake of a phenomenon: Star Wars. Mann’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood, which had premièred Star Wars less than a month earlier, was still showing it to huge crowds, so had no wish to replace it with Sorcerer. They had to, because of contracts, but when Sorcerer failed dismally, Star Wars promptly returned and the audiences returned with it. Suddenly, Sorcerer seemed like a silent movie after the advent of sound, or a black and white movie in an age of colour.

Monday 20 January 2020

Nights of Cabiria (1957)

Director: Federico Fellini
Writers: Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano and Tullio Pinelli
Stars: Giulietta Masina, François Périer, Franca Marzi, Dorian Gray, Aldo Silvani, Mario Passante, Ennio Girolami, Christian Tassou and Amedeo Nazzari

Index: 2020 Centennials.

If 1939 is indeed Hollywood’s Golden Year, as has been so often suggested by critics, then 1957 has a pretty good claim for being the equivalent for world cinema. It’s the year in which Ingmar Bergman released both Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal, probably the double whammy of all time, and Akira Kurosawa released both Throne of Blood and The Lower Depths. Mikheil Kaltozishvili’s The Cranes are Flying won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. The UK produced both Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon and the year’s biggest hit, David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai. Even the US contributed movies which could easily be seen as world films rather than typical Hollywood fare: Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution, Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory and Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men. In such company, the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar went to Italy (and director Federico Fellini) for a second time. Nights of Cabiria followed La Strada, supposedly nudging out Mother India by a single vote. Before Fellini, it wasn’t a category but a special award.

And I’m not going to argue with that. It’s a film not easily forgotten. Janet Maslin wrote in The New York Times that the final shot of Giulietta Masina in Nights of Cabiria is more valuable than “all the fire-breathing blockbusters Hollywood has to offer” and we have two hours of cinematic magic in which we can revel before we get to that point, if we include the seven minute “man with the sack” segment which had been removed after the film premièred at Cannes. Film legend tells us that this was due to censors bowing to pressure from the Roman Catholic Church, but producer Dino de Laurentiis later owned up to stealing that scene from the negative himself because, in his opinion, it slowed down the film. It doesn’t and it offers a valuable contrast to other sections of the picture. To me, it would seem unbalanced without it and, fortunately enough, I’m reviewing it today for Fellini’s centenary because it’s one of only a few of his films that I’ve never got round to watching, so I’ve still never seen it without the “man with the sack”.

Gunfight at Comanche Creek (1963)

Director: Frank McDonald
Writer: Edward Bernds
Stars: Audie Murphy, Ben Cooper, Colleen Miller, De Forest Kelley and Jan Merlin

Index: 2020 Centennials.

One of the problems of only reviewing new material, as I do with music, is that the pivotal gamechanging moments often fail to be obvious at the time. An album might be original enough to spark a whole new genre, but at the time of release it more likely feels a little awkward, if not outright stupid. Why would someone do that? Only in hindsight does it start to seem like a grand idea. One of the benefits of mostly reviewing old material, as I do with film, is that moments like these tend to be easily identified in one picture and the reason I mention this is because Gunfight at Comanche Creek feels like one of these that, for a variety of reasons, simply failed to become the spark it could. It was an Allied Pictures release, a remake of an earlier film of theirs, 1957’s Last of the Badmen, and it’s a bizarre hybrid of two completely separate genres that someone clearly thought ought to merge to become something new. As the title suggests, it’s a western, but it’s also very much a detective story in police procedural form, with the usual narration.

And this feels more than a little weird. It opens roughly as we might expect for a western, with a static shot of a western town full of men in Stetsons and women in long dressses, horses being ridden down Main Street and credits unfolding in the usual American woodcut font style, all accompanied by an orchestral score with a hint of romance and a couple of danger. It looks very nice, shot in anamorphic widescreen with bright DeLuxe colour and, as those credits wrap up, night falls. But then the music stops so that we’re able to listen to a deep voice hurling out details. “Sunrise. June 5th, 1875. 5am. Comanche Creek, Colorado.” We might wonder why this is spoken rather than thrown up onto the screen in the same western font, but many will realise right off the bat that these are just the facts, ma’am. If not, we’ll grasp it soon enough: “A man named Peters came out of the Comanche Creek Cafe. He carried two breakfasts, one for a prisoner, another for the deputy on duty in the jail.” Why do we care?

Saturday 18 January 2020

Buck Rogers (1939)

Directors: Ford Beebe and Saul A. Goodkind
Writers: Norman S. Hall and Ray Trampe, based on the newspaper feature by Phil Nowlan & Lt. Dick Calkins
Stars: Larry (Buster) Crabbe, Constance Moore, Jackie Moran, Jack Mulhall, Anthony Warde, Philson Ahn, C. Montague Shaw and Guy Usher

Index: 2020 Centennials.

In 1977, soon after the launch of a rather successful space opera whose grip on pop culture continues unabated, this popular twelve episode movie serial from 1939 was edited down to feature length for the third time and released by Crystal Pictures with a notably telling tagline: “Star Wars owes it all to Buck Rogers, the original inter-planetary adventure”. While it’s not surprising for companies to cash in on the success of others, it’s frankly impossible not to watch the second episode of Buck Rogers, Tragedy on Saturn, without Star Wars coming immediately to mind. That’s because it follows its usual opening credits with what I’ve only ever heard described as “the Star Wars opening crawl”, a brief summary of where we’re at scrolling up into infinity before the action starts. George Lucas, who was born in 1944, didn’t see the 1939 Buck Rogers and the 1940 Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe in theatres, but he was a huge fan of them on television, watching nightly on Adventure Theatre, and the Star Wars opening crawl is very much an homage to them.

Now, Lucas, even as a kid, knew how bad they were and he told Starlog in 1981, “Loving them that much when they were so awful, I began to wonder what would happen if they were done really well. Surely, kids would love them even more.” The rest, as they say, is history, but there’s history before this serial too because, like Star Wars, Buck Rogers was a media franchise and an important one. It began in August 1928, when a pulp magazine, Amazing Stories, published a novella by Philip Francis Nowlan, Armageddon 2419 A.D. It might all have ended there, but the John F. Dille Company, a newspaper syndicate, adapted it into comic strip form, renaming the hero from Anthony Rogers to Buck Rogers. It launched on 7th January, 1929, the same day as Tarzan, and was initially syndicated to 47 newspapers. By 1934, it was appearing in 287 American newspapers daily and a further 160 internationally in eighteen different languages. The initial artist was Lt. Dick Calkins, an Army Air Service pilot and flight instructor.

Thursday 16 January 2020

Vicki (1953)

Director: Harry Horner
Writer: Dwight Taylor, based on the novel I Wake Up Screaming by Steve Fisher
Stars: Jeanne Crain, Jean Peters, Elliott Reid, Richard Boone, Casey Adams, Alex D’Arcy, Carl Betz and Aaron Spelling

Index: 2020 Centennials.

Vicki Lynn is everywhere in New York City, it seems. The billboards highlight that she drinks Royal Tea, smokes Crowns and uses Caress facial creme by Daniele. When we get a glimpse of the real Vicki, she’s being taken out of a building on a stretcher with a tag already on her toe because she’s been murdered before the opening credits. This film noir is a look back at how she got there, both the skyline and the morgue, and why in what’s half a detective story and half a look into how stars are made. And, in keeping with the traditional Hollywood success story, we soon meet her in the real world, slinging coffee and waiting tables at Weber’s Cafeteria. She’s played by Jean Peters and, for all the glamour that’s soon visited onto her as she’s elevated to stardom, she looks her best here as a gorgous girl next door at Weber’s. Ironically, for someone so magnetic on the big screen, this came close to the end of her film career, as a different role was calling: that of being the second wife to billionaire Howard Hughes, whose seclusion she also adopted.

Hughes met Peters before she became a film star and they were in a highly publicised relationship when she made her first picture, playing the female lead opposite Tyrone Power in 1947’s Captain for Castile. They didn’t marry until 1957, though, after she had wed and divorced a Texan oilman, Stuart Cramer, in a matter of mere months. The character that she plays here appears to be as flighty and starstruck as Peters might seem from those details (but apparently wasn’t, remaining surprisingly grounded during a fourteen year run as a billionaire’s wife). Vicki is swept up by the interest of a number of men, most obviously Steve Christopher, PR agent to the stars. While this film is Vicki’s story, it’s told by Christopher, mostly in flashback, as he tries to convince the cops that he didn’t murder her. He found her, he made her name and he may even have loved her, but he professes that he had nothing to do with her death, even when badgered by policemen who grill him without mercy in a dark room under a strong light. Hey, it’s film noir.

Tuesday 7 January 2020

The Manchu Eagle Murder Caper Mystery (1975)

Director: Dean Hargrove
Writers: Dean Hargrove and Gabriel Dell
Stars: Gabriel Dell, Will Geer, Anjanette Comer, Joyce van Patten, Vincent Gardenia and Barbara Harris

Index: 2020 Centennials.

Sure, I’m remembering important people to film on what is or what would have been their one hundredth birthdays, but I want to do it by finding interesting and unusual movies that don’t get a lot of press. Today, the 7th January, would have been the centenary of Vincent Gardenia, an Italian actor so associated with New York that he was named the “King of Brooklyn” at the Welcome Back to Brooklyn Festival in 1989, became an honorary chief of the New York City Emergency Medical Service and was memorialised on the map of Brooklyn after it renamed a section of 16th Ave. to Vincent Gardenia Blvd. in his honour. The catch for us, of course, is that there are many New York Italian actors who quickly spring to mind: Robert de Niro, Al Pacino, Danny Aiello, Armand Assante, Sylvester Stallone... the list goes on. Unlike them, however, Gardenia was a New Yorker actually born in Italy: in Naples. He moved to the US with his family in 1922 at the age of two and started acting three years later in a local Italian language acting troupe.

Fast forward a hundred years and we can look back on his major career. Three films in which he appeared were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture (The Hustler, Heaven Can Wait and Moonstruck). He was personally nominated twice, fourteen years apart and both times as a Best Supporting Actor, for Bang the Drum Slowly and for Moonstruck. He didn’t win either, being beaten on the former occasion by John Houseman for The Paper Chase and on the latter by Sean Connery for The Untouchables, but he did win both an Emmy and a Tony. The former was awarded for a 1989 TV movie called Age-Old Friends, for which Hume Cronyn also won; the latter was for playing opposite Peter Falk in The Prisoner of Second Avenue. While we’re counting awards, he also picked up a pair of Obies for off-Broadway productions, in 1960 and 1970. Eagle-eyed readers might notice that Rue McLanahan also won an Obie in 1970; the two would go on to play wife swappers on an episode of All in the Family in 1972, before Gardenia became a regular.