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.

Sunday 20 June 2021

Solstice (2008)

Director: Daniel Myrick
Writers: Daniel Myrick, Martin Musatov and Ethan Erwin, based on the 2003 film Midsommer, by Carsten Myllerup and Rasmus Heisterberg
Stars: Elisabeth Harnois, Shawn Ashmore, Hilarie Burton, Amanda Seyfreid, Tyler Hoechlin, Matt O’Leary and R. Lee Ermey

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

I tend to avoid the inevitable American remakes of foreign horror films that succeed enough to be noticed by the mainstream, but I saw Solstice before I realised that it was based on a Danish film called Midsommer, and enjoyed its translation to the Louisiana bayou enough that I’m tentative about seeking out the original in case it spoils this one. In other major instances, such as The Vanishing or Let the Right One In, I saw the original first and don’t have that problem. Another reason why I’m not the logical audience for Solstice is that it’s a Daniel Myrick film, he who started out so successfully with The Blair Witch Project, surely the most popular horror movie I’ve never seen, on account of my having serious problems with shakycam. He hasn’t had the most prolific career, with few credits in between that debut in 1999 and a burst of activity around 2007 and 2008, but this should have brought him opportunity, as it’s a solid psychological drama that’s wildly different from what he was known for. Then again, maybe that was the problem.

The majority of the psychological weight stems from the inherent connection between twins, one of whom we meet immediately. She’s Megan Thomas and we meet her at the grave of her sister Sophie, who died in 2005 at the age of only eighteen. We know that we’re in New Orleans because the graves are all above ground vaults, on account of the water table being so high that burying them the usual six feet under would just mean floating coffins. How horror movie is that? Anyway, Sophie died on Christmas Eve and we join Megan the following June as she prepares to head out with friends to her family’s plantation house at Nowell Lake to both help get her mind off things and allow her the opportunity to pack up Sophie’s belongings. As you might imagine, doing both of those at the same time is going to be quite the accomplishment, because everything sparks a memory. And that’s before she decides to hook up with Christian, who used to be Sophie’s boyfriend. Sure, they’d split up before her suicide but how awkward can you get?

Father’s Day (2011)

Directors: Astron-6
Writers: Astron-6
Stars: Adam Brooks, Matt Kennedy, Conor Sweeney, Amy Groening, Mackenzie Murdock, Meredith Sweeney. Brent Neale. Garrett Hnatiuk, Kevin Anderson, Billy Sadoo, Alcon van der Baek and Zsuzsi

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

If Mother’s Day, the 1980 Troma movie, may not have actually been set on Mother’s Day, at least we’re in no doubt that Father’s Day, the unrelated 2011 Troma movie, is indeed tied to Father’s Day. In fact, it makes the point so crystal clear in the opening scene that it’s almost deliberately trying to make up for that odd omission over thirty years earlier. It’s an icky start. The bed is bouncing, but not for the reasons you think. Someone’s carving someone else into little pieces. Oh, and having sex with his bloody skull, so maybe it is what you think. This is a Troma movie, after all, even if it was made by the Canadian filmmaking collective known as Astron-6, and it’s more outrageous than Mother’s Day in almost every regard. Our gay necrophile doesn’t have long, as someone struts down his corridor with gun drawn. The pervert killer does escape out of the window but he’s promptly shot, run over and shot again just to be sure. “Happy Father’s Day,” our new killer tells the old one, looking down from a rakish angle with his one good eye.

This is Ahab and he’s our lead, even if he doesn’t show back up again for a while. I should clarify that it’s really only fifteen minutes but it feels like a lot longer because the script doesn’t seem to know what it wants to tell us and it throws everything but the kitchen sink into these opening scenes. It’s also very gay and I do mean that literally, not as some stupid politically incorrect insult. Within the first ten minutes, we’ve witnessed a cannibalistic gay necrophile indulging his vices; been introduced to a young gay man called Twink, who doesn’t really work at a pizza joint, as he tells the cops, but robs men he’s sucking off in the street for his pimp, Walnut; and watched Twink’s tormented father raped and set on fire by a fat man. That’s pretty gay stuff. Even the cop who wonders about Twink, because the last time he saw his dad was when he picked him up from the police station a day earlier after being questioned about being found in a room with a buggered dead man, slaps him on the tush and tells him that he’s watching his ass.

Monday 31 May 2021

Memorial Valley Massacre (1989)

Director: Robert C. Hughes
Writers: Robert C. Hughes and George Frances Skrow
Stars: John Kerry, Mark Mears, Lesa Lee, John Caso, William Smith and Cameron Mitchell

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

Given that you’re reading about Memorial Valley Massacre in a project about horror movies set on holidays, you might wonder why it isn’t called Memorial Day Massacre and I have exactly the same question. It is absolutely set on Memorial Day, but also in Memorial Valley, because the Memorial Day weekend is when the Memorial Valley Campground opens for the summer and it isn’t ready this year, for reasons that have nothing to do with COVID-19. We have no idea why Memorial Valley is called Memorial Valley but we do know that the movie was originally called Memorial Day because it still is in the end credits. There’s a poster online that still has that title too and the artwork on it is much better than for the film’s reissue titles like Valley of Death or Son of Sleepaway Camp. No, it has nothing to do with the Sleepaway Camp films, but little details like that don’t stop the unscrupulous. There are many other films called Memorial Day, of course, but none that seem to be close enough to this one, in subject or release date, to warrant a change.

My guess is that it changed when the filmmakers noticed that there was an actual Memorial Day Massacre and wanted to distance themselves from it. Reading up on it feels eerily like a contemporary news report but it actually happened in Chicago in 1937, when striking steel workers set off on a march to the Republic Steel Mill, only to be blocked by the Chicago police department. While the strikers were unarmed men and women, the police, “feeling threatened”, promptly opened fire, leaving ten dead. Forty others had bullet wounds and a hundred were beaten with clubs. Nine were permanently disabled and many had serious head injuries. No cop was ever prosecuted, of course, and the coroner’s jury called a verdict of “justifiable homicide”. News footage was suppressed. And, while I fully expect to see horror movies soon that are set during peaceful protests, that’s not what this is. This is clearly an eighties slasher movie as it follows many of the standard conventions, but it also sports an unusual killer and an even more unusual ending.

Sunday 9 May 2021

Mother’s Day (1980)

Director: Charles Kaufman
Writers: Charles Kaufman and Warren Leight
Stars: Holden McGuire, Billy Ray McQuade, Rose Ross, Nancy Henderickson, Deborah Luce and Tiana Pierce

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

At no moment in this film does anyone actually confirm that its events are taking place on Mother’s Day, making it something of a cheat for this project, but I have my reasons. For one, at no moment in this film does anyone say that its events aren’t taking place on Mother’s Day. For two, the subtext of the movie, which digs deep into consumerism and blindly rewarding mothers, regardless of whether they’re worthy or not, is perfect for a modern consumerist holiday like Mother’s Day. And, for three, while that bastion of low budget independent filmmaking, Troma Studios, produced this picture themselves, they also distributed a later homage in Father’s Day, which absolutely has ties to its titular holiday. In other words, if this film isn’t set on Mother’s Day, it ought to be, and, quite frankly, every consumerist holiday on the calendar should be commemorated in a film made by Troma. I’ll start a petition to have them tackle Valentine’s Day and Grandparents’ Day, Black Friday and Prime Day, and especially Singles Day.

If you don’t know Troma, I should introduce you. Troma Entertainment was founded in 1974 by Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz and they specialise in making and distributing low budget movies. No, that’s not enough, because lots of companies do that; Troma do it in a very particular way. By low budget, I mean really low budget, to the degree that sometimes there’s no budget. Traditional attributes like the ability of actors to act or scripts to make sense are far from priorities, but the abilities to shock, scare and ick out are. Many of the most disgusting, most outrageous and most offensive movies ever shot were either made or distributed by Troma and the company would take those descriptions as compliments; they might even throw them onto their DVD covers as quotes, in luminous lime green over a splatter of diarrhoea. And, with that unwelcome image stuck in your brain, I’ll point out that this film, as disgusting, outrageous and offensive as it is, is surprisingly well made and worthy of much critical comment.

Saturday 1 May 2021

The Wicker Man (1973)

Director: Robin Hardy
Writer: Anthony Shaffer, loosely adapted from the novel Ritual by David Pinner
Stars: Edward Woodward, Britt Ekland, Diane Cilento, Ingrid Pitt and Christopher Lee

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

It’s a testament to the power of The Wicker Man that, however many horror movies you watch, it consistently stands alone. Frankly, that holds true even if you start dabbling in the vein that’s become known as British folk horror, epitomised by Witchfinder General, The Blood on Satan’s Claw and this picture, because the other two films there are period pieces, while this was contemporary to 1973. It’s remembered very well, with its two primary stars praising it highly. Christopher Lee, whose long and distinguished career was a busy one for almost seventy years, remembered it as his very best picture, above anything he did in Star Wars, Lord of the Rings or James Bond. Edward Woodward, best known as TV’s Equalizer, described his lead role here as the best he ever played and called out the film’s ending as the best in film history. While received well at the time, it didn’t succeed wildly at the box office and had fallen into obscurity by the time Cinefantastique devoted an entire issue to the film in 1977, calling it “the Citizen Kane of horror movies”.

I had to choose it for this project because it’s inextricably entangled in pagan folklore and it ends on May Day, which long before its adoption in 1889 as International Workers’ Day, which would eventually lead to the iconic demonstrations of Soviet military might we saw during the Cold War, was a traditional spring holiday across most of Europe, dating back to Roman times and the festival of Flora. There are rituals in this picture that evoke Gaelic celebrations of Beltane, such as naked young women jumping over a sacred flame as part of their “divinity lessons”; they’re trying to get pregnant through parthenogenesis rather than sexual relations. Also here is a scene focused around a maypole but, unlike the family friendly version still celebrated in towns across England, this one is a phallic symbol, which Miss Rose teaches the girls of Summerisle is “venerated in religions such as ours.” In fact, there’s so much here that I wouldn’t be surprised if someone’s written a book about folklore to explain everything going on in The Wicker Man.

Thursday 4 March 2021

Father Brown (1954)

Director: Robert Hamer
Writers: Thelma Schnee and Robert Hamer, from the Father Brown stories by G. K. Chesterton
Stars: Alec Guinness, Joan Greenwood, Peter Finch and Cecil Parker

Index: 2021 Centennials.

It’s been Joan Greenwood week here at Apocalypse Later headquarters, because, hey, why not? Sure, I was trying to find an obscure but interesting picture from her career that I hadn’t seen but which would serve well as review material. I’d have watched the 1947 indie film called The White Unicorn, aka Bad Sister, given that it placed one of the most elegant British actresses ever to grace the screen in a home for delinquent girls, but I can’t find a copy anywhere. So I watched a bunch of others. After all, I’ve never heard a voice that does what her voice does to me. I could watch Joan Greenwood movies until the sun sets and until it rises again. Unfortunately, the excellent films I ran through didn’t feature her in a large enough role to warrant me covering them for her centennial. At least, I’m telling myself that and not that I merely don’t want to stop listening to that voice. It had a Scottish lilt in Whisky Galore! but was held back a little in The October Man. It’s just right, I feel, in Father Brown, a 1954 picture released in the U.S. as The Detective.

It reunited her with two major names: Robert Hamer, who had directed her in one of the blackest, sharpest features ever made, an Ealing comedy called Kind Hearts and Coronets; and its star, Alec Guinness, who played eight characters that time out but only one in this film, the titular priest, G. K. Chesterton’s timeless detective, Father Ignatius Brown. In between that picture in 1949 and this in 1954, she also played opposite Guinness in The Man in the White Suit, yet another classic Ealing comedy in a long line of them at that point, all of them absolute gems. She clearly got on well with Guinness and, while she’s not in Father Brown anywhere near as much as he is, their scenes together work very nicely indeed and her Lady Warren is the epitome of the elegant and unflappable but open and pixielike British lady that she played so often. It’s hardly surprising that she was able to hold her own in the 1952 adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest, even with Edith Evans and Margaret Rutherford to contend with.

Friday 26 February 2021

Incendiary Blonde (1945)

Director: George Marshall
Writers: Claude Binyon and Frank Butler
Stars: Betty Hutton and Arturo de Cordova

Index: 2021 Centennials.

After Klondike Kate turned out to be such a wildly inaccurate biopic that it was a precious detail indeed that came close to the truth, I probably ought to have sworn off Hollywood biopics for quite a while. But here I am with another one, after only a week, because 26th February would have been the one hundredth birthday of Betty Hutton and I couldn’t track down the film I wanted to explore anywhere. That was Cross My Heart, a comedy musical remake of the Carole Lombard movie, True Confession, in which she confesses to a murder that she didn’t commit so that her lawyer husband can secure her acquittal in court and so build a stellar reputation. It kinda sorta worked with Lombard because I could believe her as a sympathetic pathological liar, but Hutton? I was eager to find out if she would be able to carry it, but it’s a Paramount film from 1946 that was sold to Universal in a job lot of 700 for TV distribution and legal issues prevented it from being shown with the others. It seems like those issues may finally be solved, so fingers crossed.

But it’s Betty Hutton’s centennial today and so I plumped for Incendiary Blonde, as it’s another musical comedy in which she has the lead, playing a fictionalised version of Texas Guinan, a fascinating character from the early decades of the previous century. What’s important to note here is that we’re often not entirely sure what’s true and what isn’t from her life, because she made so much of it up out of thin air, so this Hollywood biopic could do the same and we might not be able to tell the difference. Yes, a lot of things got changed, but it’s not particularly important in the grand scheme of things and much of the sweep of the story resembles the truth. At least they got her name right! She really was known as Texas Guinan, for much of her time in the spotlight, and she did claim for years that it was her real name, though she was born Mary Louise Cecilia Guinan instead, in 1884 in Waco, Texas. When she died in 1933, she was known as “the queen of the nightclubs”. There were 7,500 people at her funeral and a biopic was inevitable.

Monday 22 February 2021

The Feather Fairy (1985)

Director: Juraj Jakubisko
Writers: Ľubímor Feldek and Juraj Jakubisko
Stars: Giulietta Masina, Petra Vancíková, Tobias Hoesl, Sona Valentová, Pavol Mikulik, Milada Ondrasíková, Valérie Kaplanová and Eva Horká

Index: 2021 Centennials.

One of the unwritten rules of cinema is that, if you want to see a fairy tale on film done properly, you go to Europe, travel east and keep on going. There are many good countries where you could stop to see good fairy tales, but most of them are on the other side of where the Iron Curtain used to be. This one is a multinational production that’s nominally Czechoslovakian and primarily in the Slovak language. I’m guessing that my grey market copy was taped from an Italian TV channel, because the few sections in Italiano are not subtitled but all the Slovak is. It doesn’t matter that much, because it’s clear what’s going on, except that I find myself a bit in the dark about the circus troupe that’s our focus as the film begins and which returns to the story later. It’s easy to see why they would be watching it in Italy, though, because the one cast member I recognise is the one I’m watching for. That’s Giulietta Masina, the magical clown of European cinema, who would have been a hundred years old today.

This is a late film for her, but she’s just as much fun to watch here in 1985 as she was in La Strada and Nights of Cabiria in the fifties or Juliet of the Spirits in the sixties. Apparently she was talked into doing this by her husband, the director Federico Fellini, who was a friend of this film’s director, Juraj Jakubisko. I’m very happy that she agreed to do it, because she remains a bundle of energy at 64 years young and her quirky charm is utterly perfect for a fairy tale. However, I also enjoyed the eastern actors, none of whom I had seen before. Most of them are women, because that’s just how this story rolls, with only one male character of real substance. That is another worthy aspect of eastern fairy tales, where female characters can be anything, rather than merely the two opposites the Disney adaptations polarise: the beautiful young peasant girl or princess and the ugly and evil stepmother or crone. Those clichés are here too, though with some serious caveats, and they’re not all there are to be found either because there’s also Perinbaba.

Friday 19 February 2021

Klondike Kate (1943)

Director: William Castle
Writers: M. Coates Webster, based on a story by Houston Branch and M. Coates Webster, suggested by the life of Kate Rockwell Matson, the original “Klondike Kate”
Stars: Ann Savage, Tom Neal, Glenda Farrell, Constance Worth, Sheldon Leonard, Lester Allen and George Cleveland

Index: 2021 Centennials.

The obvious film to review to celebrate what would have been Ann Savage’s one hundredth birthday is Detour, the highly regarded low budget film noir from Edgar G. Ulmer and PRC, released in 1945, in which she blackmails Tom Neal. However, as that’s the film that everyone else will be mentioning, I’m going to go back two further years to take a look at Savage’s first leading role, which also tasks her with acting opposite Tom Neal, under the direction of the great William Castle. It’s a biopic, of sorts, merely “suggested by the life of Kate Rockwell Matson”, the real lady behind the titular nickname, which means that it’s about as historically accurate as Klondyke Kate, the song by Suzi Quatro. What’s odd is that, unlike most heavily fictionalised Hollywood biopics, this one was written during the life of its subject, who lived until 1957, and it was apparently Kate herself who personally chose Ann Savage, then an up and coming actor at Columbia, to portray her in this picture.

We can tell how accurate it’s going to be as a biopic from the fact that they correctly name its subject in the opening credits but not in the film itself. The lady who would become known as Klondike Kate was born Kathleen Eloisa Rockwell, later adding a succession of surnames from three marriages. She was born in Junction City, Kansas in 1876, to parents who divorced when she was five, and she spent much of her youth travelling with her mother to places as farflung as Valparaiso, Chile. She became a chorus girl in New York City but soon followed a theatre troupe to Spokane, Washington, in which she’d previously lived, and it was while there that she heard rumours about the Gold Rush in the Klondike. She may or may not have got past the Mounties disguised as a boy, but she arrived in Alaska in 1899 and proved a big success in Dawson City, dancing her Flame Dance at the Palace Grande Theatre. This saw her trail two hundred feet of chiffon that she twisted into the illusion of fire. She made a fortune, sometimes over $750 per night.

Tuesday 16 February 2021

Happy Go Lovely (1951)

Director: Bruce Humberstone
Writer: Val Guest, based on a film story by F. Dammann and Dr. H. Rosenfeld
Stars: David Niven, Vera-Ellen and Cesar Romero

Index: 2021 Centennials.

While this is precisely the sort of film that rarely appeals to me, I had an absolute blast with it, and I’m trying to figure out why. It’s a musical but, like 42nd Street or Singin’ in the Rain, the song and dance routines all make sense within the wider plot. It’s a romance, but a touching one that happens by accident while neither half is looking, even though that accident is the core of the entire script. In fact, it’s a romcom, but one that benefits from a lively set of performances, including by our centenarian, the dancer Vera-Ellen, who is the female lead here rather than a prominent supporting actress. It’s set in Edinburgh, the cultural and geographic elements used sparingly but capably, even if some of the stock footage is obvious. And it’s a fantastic opportunity for me to see a few faces at a much earlier point in their careers than I’m used to. So I guess it’s the template for the sort of musical romcom that I’m likely to enjoy. Now, how do I plug that into Google to get realistic results?

I think it also helps that it’s a comedy of errors but not a love triangle, written by a talented, genre-hopping writer who had already become a talented genre-hopping director. He’s Val Guest—the Val is for Valmond—and, while I know him primarily for his work in the horror and science fiction genres, often for Hammer, films like The Abominable Snowman, The Day the Earth Caught Fire and When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, his filmography is as full of comedies, war movies and musicals. His handling of comedy here is surprising light but with a firm attention to detail, which only gets better as the picture runs on. For a start, everything is layered so that these situations build, as they ought to do in comedies of errors, but there’s a fantastic little detail that surrounds it all that’s the icing on the cake. Not only does one minor assumption on the part of a chorus girl kickstart the whole thing into motion, but all that motion is utterly unnecessary, as we learn at the end that that very chorus girl had the solution being sought all along. That’s glorious.

Monday 1 February 2021

Clash by Night (1963)

Director: Montgomery Tully
Writers: Maurice J. Wilson and Montgomery Tully, based on the novel Clash by Night by Rupert Croft-Cooke
Stars: Terence Logsdon, Jennifer Jayne, Harry Fowler, Alan Wheatley and Peter Sallis

Index: 2021 Centennials.

Before you ask, this particular Clash by Night is entirely unrelated to the RKO film noir of the same name from 1952, with Barbara Stanwyck in the lead, and the 1941 Clifford Odets play on which that was based. This Clash by Night is British, made by Eternal Films at MGM’s studios in Borehamwood, on the outskirts of London, and distributed in the UK in 1963 by Grand National Pictures. When Allied Artists brought it to the States a year later, it was wisely renamed to Escape by Night to help avoid confusion. Its original title comes from its source novel, by Rupert Croft-Cooke, published only a year earlier, and the author’s background does a lot to shape our understanding of the script. I’ll come back to explain why later but, for now, I’ll just point out that I’m watching for Peter Sallis, who would have been a hundred years old today. I know him for The Last of the Summer Wine, but you may know him far better for voicing a claymation curmudgeon called Wallace, he with a canine companion named Gromit.

Sallis doesn’t have a large part in Clash by Night, but it’s a quirky and memorable one, as the wildcard in a bevy of unusual jailbirds thrown together into an equally unusual situation. There are half a dozen of them, handcuffed in pairs on a bus that’s about to take them all to prison. Terence Longdon has the the leading role of Martin Lord, sentenced to five years for killing a man, even if he did so in his own house while defending his own wife from sexual assault; she let a stranger in to use the telephone. He’s handcuffed to Doug Roberts, a talkative thief played by Harry Fowler, who’s been handed 21 more months; he’s been through this routine before. Sallis is seated right behind them as we learn all this, but he’s the last to be introduced, because Mawsley, the experienced guard on this bus, builds up to him as he passes key notes on to his assistant, Danny Watts, before they set off. This is Danny’s first transport duty and that makes it easy for Mawsley to let us in on who everyone is and how everything works too.

Sunday 31 January 2021

The Mole People (1956)

Director: Virgil Vogel
Writers: Laszlo Gorog
Stars: John Agar, Cynthia Patrick and Hugh Beaumont

Index: 2021 Centennials.

I have to admit that The Mole People surprised me. Sure, some of that was because I had memories of watching this colour Universal monster movie, memories which turned out to be of something else entirely that I can’t figure out, as this is emphatically black and white. A large part is because of how it unfolds, because, while it’s often the poorly researched B-movie nonsense I expected, with a heck of a lot of ancient Egyptian iconography populating a supposedly Sumerian story, but there’s actually a lot of thought given to science in something I’d classify more as fantasy than science fiction. Most of all, though, it was the introduction that surprised me, because I’m used to the “scientists” gushing forth in them about whatever subject is to come having even fewer credentials for that role than the actors playing the parts they were paid to interpret. Maybe I’ve seen too many pseudo-educational flicks by showmen like Dwain Esper and Kroger Babb and far too much Criswell. But this introduction is by someone who’s really a big deal.

His name is Frank C. Baxter and he’s introduced as the Professor of English at the University of Southern California that he actually was. His spiel is pure Forteana, explaining to us that we know so much about the surface of our world and that we’ve reached out to the stars but we know very little about what might be hiding beneath our feet. “What’s inside this globe?” he asks us, launching into swift explanations of Victorian Hollow Earth theories by people like Cyrus Teed and John Cleves Symmes, Jr. The former suggested that we don’t live on the surface of our planet at all but inside it, with the heavens a giant sphere, the sun a gigantic battery and the stars mere refractions of its light. The latter believed that there are five concentric spheres inside our planet, each habitable and lit by the one above, with light getting in through giant holes at each of the poles, surely entranceways for us to visit our subterranean brethren within our Hollow Earth. These theories are pseudoscientific nonsense, of course, but Baxter is no pseudoscientist.

Wednesday 27 January 2021

Scandal Sheet (1952)

Director: Phil Karlson
Writers: Ted Sherdeman, Eugene Ling & James Poe, from the novel The Dark Page by Samuel Fuller
Stars: Broderick Crawford, Donna Reed and John Derek

Index: 2021 Centennials.

Any opportunity to review a Sam Fuller picture, I will happily take without hesitation, and, while Scandal Sheet isn’t either directed or written by Fuller, it is based on his novel, The Dark Page, published in 1944. It’s also a story about newspapers, something that he knew very well, having been part of the news industry since the age of twelve. He became a crime reporter at the New York Evening Graphic at seventeen and his film set in that world, Park Row, is possibly my favourite of all his movies; it was certainly his. Oddly, it was also released in 1952, though that was coincidental; he’d sold the rights to The Dark Page to Howard Hawks during the war and had even written a treatment of it as it wound its way slowly towards the screen. A young John Derek on the ascendant played the lead initially aimed at John Payne, playing a reporter who’s very sharp but not very principled, mostly due to his being mentored by his editor, in the form not of Orson Welles, as planned, but Broderick Crawford, Derek’s screen father in All the King’s Men.

The relationship arc between these two is one good reason to watch this movie, as it’s the only one that allows me to look past such an observant character as Steve McCleary, ace newshound for the New York Express, having a notable blindspot when it comes to his mentor, Mark Chapman. However, I’m watching in January 2021 not for Derek or Crawford but for Donna Reed, the other star who got prominent billing on the poster, because the 27th would have been her one hundredth birthday. This isn’t her best role or her best known, let alone her best regarded, but it is an appropriate one, given that Julie Allison is both McCleary’s love interest and his (and our) moral compass through this film, as well as an accomplished journalist in her own right. That sort of combo worked well for the future Golden Globe-winning star of The Donna Reed Show, which, only six years on, would become the first family-oriented sitcom to revolve around a capable woman instead of a capable man.

Thursday 21 January 2021

Gang War (1958)

Director: Gene Fowler, Jr.
Writer: Louis Vittes, from the novel The Hoods Take Over by Ovid Demaris
Stars: Charles Bronson, Kent Taylor, Jennifer Holden and John Doucette

Index: 2021 Centennials.

21st January marks the centennial of character actor John Doucette and it took me a long while to figure out what I could review in his memory. The problem is that he was such an effective character actor, stealing moments and scenes out from under the leads, often as a tough guy, whether sheriff or villain, that he was rarely given a lead of his own, even with credits in a hundred and forty films and even more TV shows. Eventually, I tracked down this picture, a relatively straightforward gangster flick released by 20th Century Fox in 1958. He’s not the lead here, either, that honour going to a young Charles Bronson, who was newly ascended to top billing himself. Doucette is fourth billed, after Kent Taylor and Jennifer Holden, but he dominates the entire film, because he’s the gangster that it’s all about, Maxie Meadows. This is his story just as much as it’s Bronson’s, even if his character has less depth and substance, and it’s easier for him to make his presence known in emphatic fashion.

We’re in Los Angeles and, to highlight what the City of Angels was like at this point, we’re treated to a montage of mayhem right at the start. Machine guns unloading their rounds directly at the audience! Cars screaming round corners at high speed! Barber shops exploding in the night! Even the title explodes onto the screen at us in military capitals: “GANG WAR”. And when our story begins, Louis Vittes’s script, adapted from Ovid Demaris’s novel, The Hoods Take Over, gets right down to business. Slick Connors slaps down his girl, Marsha, because she doesn’t like him becoming a stool pigeon. He’s turning state’s evidence against Joe Reno so that, when the syndicate moves in, he’ll become Mr. Big. “Glad to know you while you’re still alive,” she tells him, with prescience, because he leaves her apartment to find Joe and Bernard “The Axe” Duncan outside, waiting to murder him in cold blood. Which they do. Slick betrays himself to be a coward, but Joe isn’t. He takes care of business and that’s Leonard P. Geer’s uncredited performance over.

Sunday 3 January 2021

Fort Massacre (1958)

Director: Joseph M. Newman
Writers: Martin M. Goldsmith
Stars: Joel McCrea, Forrest Tucker, Susan Cabot, John Russell and George N. Neise

Index: 2021 Centennials.

Fort Massacre is an odd movie in a lot of ways, not least because it’s well worth seeking out but it’s frustrating to watch. There’s a lot that’s wrong with it, but it takes root in your brain and stays with you, because it also does quite a lot very right indeed. The lead is Joel McCrea, playing very much against type as the story’s bad guy, though oddly he’s also one of the good guys; the explanation of that sentence would count as a good synopsis of the film. There are other easily recognisable character actors here too, like Forrest Tucker and a very young Denver Pyle, but I’m watching for John Russell, who would have been a hundred years old on 3rd January, 2021 and he’s arguably the best thing about the film. He’s one of four highlighted co-stars and he’s the only one with a story arc, as his character is just as important to this story as McCrea’s, important enough that he literally gets the last word. His story arc both goes in the right direction and in the direction of right, making him our moral compass in a complex situation.

As you might imagine, this is a western, set entirely in the deserts of the southwest, and we begin on 28th July, 1879. Capt. Cole had command of C Troop, Second Regiment, Sixth Cavalry, but Capt. Cole is dead, along with half his men, after the troop was attacked by seventy Apache braves. His lieutenant survived but was seriously injured and he dies shortly into the film, having done nothing but fall off his horse, another corpse to bury. That leaves Sgt. Vinson in charge, as the only officer left alive. They’re somewhere in the southwestern corner of New Mexico and he figures that means about a hundred miles or so east of Fort Crain and safety. Their first task is to find the regiment’s main column that’s escorting a wagon train. It’s probably fair to say at this point that they never do, because this isn’t that sort of story. As expansive as the desert is, this really isn’t about what’s out there, whatever that may be, as this is a psychological western and the real story takes place inside the heads of Sgt. Vinson and Pvt. Robert W. Travis.