a completely idiosyncratic list of five silent films you should see

We can argue all day and night about the merits of this year’s Oscar darling The Artist.  I liked it and you can read my take on it here.  One thing that’s not up for argument, however, is that the movie’s relative popularity gives cinephiles, critics, and teachers the perfect opportunity to capitalize on it, highlighting movies from the silent era for people who may have never seen a film from that period.  Where to start?  The Guardian yesterday blogged some suggestions–“The top five silent films to shout about”–for those of you wanting to wade in a little further.  Five picks doesn’t really do it justice, of course, but the choices are good and it’s hard to go wrong with Sherlock Jr. and The Last Laugh, both essential movies.  And I love that they included Guy Maddin’s masterful short The Heart of the World from 2000.

I’m no silent film scholar by any means, but I do have some favorite movies from that era.  This is a purely subjective, off-the-top-of-my-head list… not meant as anything authoritative.  If I were pressed, I’d say my favorite silent film is Abel Gance’s masterpiece Napoléon from 1927.  This rarely screened epic is a sprawling achievement and if you’re lucky enough to see Kevin Brownlow’s restoration of it later this month in Oakland, you’re in for a once-in-a-lifetime treat.

Excluding that, though, I’d go with the following five films for my own great silent five list:

Der Golem: How He Came Into the World (1920), directed by Paul Wegener & Carl Boese.

German Expressionistic horror film based on Gustav Meyrink’s novel, which was itself based on the Judaic legend of a mighty clay avenger mystically conjured to destroy those who tyrannize the Jewish inhabitants of the Prague ghetto.

Sherlock Jr. (1924), directed by Buster Keaton.

I have to add it to my list as well.  The scene above is a justifiably brilliant moment of fantasy, physical comedy, and sly meta-commentary/self-reflexivity that is as incisive, simple, and clever as anything Charlie Kaufman has ever done.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), directed by FW Murnau.

One of the great movie moments from this period.  Visually impressive, this tragic melodrama focuses on a poor farmer (George O’Brien) who gets romantically involved with a swinging city girl (Margaret Livingston) and agrees to murder his faithful wife (Janet Gaynor) so that he can be with his new lover.  This film has many memorable scenes and the clip above is one of them.  The editing and cinematography are simply incredible here and throughout the entire movie.  Sunrise gets better and more nuanced with every viewing.

Tumbleweeds (1925), directed by King Baggot.

This is a rollicking good Western starring William S. Hart, who was known for adding a bit of cowboy authenticity into his performances and films, unlike many of the other silver screen range-riders like Tom Mix and others.  Is it a great movie?  No.  But it’s entertaining and this sequence is fantastic–an intricate and dangerous action scene reenacting the legendary Oklahoma Land Rush.

The Call of Cthulhu (2005), directed by Andrew Leman.

This homage to silent films is based on the cosmic horror story by HP Lovecraft.  It’s nicely done.  There are so many legitimate silent films to put on this list–Fritz Lang’s The Spiders (I couldn’t find any clips) or his other films from those years or Wings or any of Douglas Fairbanks’ swashbucklers–but I couldn’t resist this one.  It’s great fun and evokes the mood of the story rather well.

underrated halloween movie picks

[This was actually supposed to be posted on Wednesday October 29.  Then on Thursday... and then Halloween came around and it still wasn't up.  Now it's November 2 and well... Halloween really is every day for those who love horror and the macabre.

You love horror movies and want to host a marathon of them for Halloween… only problem is: you’ve seen everything!  What to do?  You’ve seen all of the Halloween and Friday the 13th movies, you’ve had your fill of zombies, you’ve worn out your discs of Argento, Bava, and you want something a little edgier than your beloved Universal monsters, Hammer horrors, and wispy Val Lewtons.  What to do?  Here are my picks for some underrated horror films sure to scare, disturb, or freak you out.

Possession (1981)

Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neil are a married couple in peril.  She wants a divorce and her emotionally detached husband doesn’t.  So she does what any person would do in her situation… she has an affair with a monster.  Or something like that.  Crazy, brutal, surreal, bloody, and did I mention… crazy?  This is the trailer for the shorter American cut of the film, thankfully no longer available.

The Keep (1983)

Not a great movie by any means.  In fact, the second half is downright unintentionally hilarious, hideous, and memorable in all the wrong ways.  Up to that point, though, Michael Mann’s one foray into the eldritch regions of cosmic horror is pretty damn good and is a faithful interpretation of F. Paul Wilson’s Lovecraftian-styled vampire novel.  I think this film’s unavailibility on DVD has helped it generate a cult appeal that… well, would wear off pretty quickly if people actually watched it.

Having said that… there are some amazingly hypnotic scenes early on–e.g. the opening few minutes, the discovery by the two Wehrmacht soldiers of the hidden tomb, Scott Glenn’s “awakening” and his subsequent journey to the Keep–that easily separated this from the glut of slasher and gore films flooding the screens around the same time.  Hopefully, Paramount will unleash Mann’s “director’s cut” (rumored to be 180 mins) onto BluRay and DVD soon and I’ll be pleasantly surprised by how wrong I am about that second half.

Prince of Darkness (1987)

This is one of director John Carpenter’s lesser known movies, but one that has always had its share of supporters… me being one of them, though I didn’t come on board until the mid-1990s.  It has two terrible lead performances by Jameson Parker and Lisa Blount, some hilarious unintentionally funny scenes, and yet… yet… it scares me.  In fact, it contains one of the scariest moments that I’ve ever seen in film.  And no, it has nothing to do with Jameson Parker.  My gods, what was Carpenter thinking when he hired him?  Guess he came cheap.

Santa Sangre (1989)

Director Alejandro Jodorowsky, no stranger to surrealism and provocative subject matter (see the cult classics El Topo and The Holy Mountain), here conjures up what is arguably his most cohesive and overall best film.  It’s also a strangely moving film, while never abandoning the grotesqueness and violence that frequently shape Jodorowsky’s films.

The Reflecting Skin (1990)

The nightmare of childhood indeed.  Plenty of great films have been made about the loneliness, pain, and horrors of adolescence–Bunuel’s Los Olvidados, Victor Erice’s Spirit of the Beehive, Robert Mulligan’s The Other, Jean-Claude Lauzon’s Leolo, and Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, to name just a few–and though I don’t think Philip Ridley’s feature debut deserves to be placed in the pantheon, it sure does pull you down into its dark undercurrents, leaving you unsettled and lost afterward.  I haven’t seen it since 1990, so my recollection of it may be a bit foggy.  But I often think back upon the film’s American gothic sensibility and surrealistic touches… and that awful moment with the frog.  And then there’s that thing in the barn… and those greasers in the car… and that vampire….

Here’s the trailer.  Also look out for the great Viggo Mortensen in an early role.  Mortensen would team up again with Ridley for the director’s second film, The Passion of Darkly Noon.

Dust Devil (1992)

When South African director Richard Stanley’s post-modernist science fiction/horror Hardware was released in 1990, it seemed like the work of a true stylist and pessimistic visionary… a long fetid industrial howl in complete opposition to the overblown escapist fantasies that the Hollywood studies churn out and have perfected.  Hardware felt like a true cinematic comrade to the so-called cyberpunk literary sub-genre that was already burning out around that time.

Hardware wasn’t a hit when it came out and it quickly disappeared from theater screens in the US.  I managed to see it three times at the cinema and eagerly wanted to know where this Richard Stanley was going to lure us next.

But when Dust Devil was finally released a few years later, it arrived straight to video from Paramount as an 87 minute mess (courtesy of Harvey Weinstein at Miramax) and I was left frustrated by its incoherence. Then I read a review in Sight & Sound where a longer cut of it had been released, fleshing out the film’s more mythic ideas as well as the storyline involving Zakes Mokae as cop on the hunt of the supernatural serial killer played by Robert Burke.  Thankfully, the “Final Cut” and an even longer workprint are readily available on DVD, giving us an opportunity to reevaluate it.  Now, if only Stanley would direct a new feature.

Here’s the video trailer for the “Final Cut.”  Warning: graphic violence.

Dark Waters (1993)

The 1990s were not a great time for the supernatural horror film, especially of the European variety.  But for lovers of Argento and Fulci, Mariano Baino’s feature-length debut is a hot shot of sinister atmosphere and monstrous evil.  While pretty much ignored in the years after its release, the film has garnered a much deserved cult audience since its stellar US DVD release a few years back from NoShame.  A minor classic to be sure.

Cemetery Man (1994)

Here’s another brilliant, inspired Euro cult classic from around the same time as Baino’s film.  Although most serious horror aficionados were familiar with director Michele Soavi from his numerous supporting roles in films like Fulci’s City of the Living Dead, Lamberto Bava’s Demons, and many others, as well as his own directoral work with StageFright and The Church, it was Dellamorte Dellamore aka Cemetery Man that made many of us realize how brilliant Soavi truly was.  Based on the long-running Italian fumetti (comic book) Dylan Dog, the film was unavailable legally for years in the US before finally being given a disastrous theatrical run a couple of years later.  The best Italian horror film of the 1990s, without a doubt.  And a zombie film to boot… when zombies were far from being hip.

Dead Birds (2004)

Now for one of the best American horror films from this decade, the supernatural Western Dead Birds.  Starting off like The Wild Bunch when a group of AWOL Confederate soldiers rob and shoot up a bank, the film careens into Lovecraftian cosmic horror when the bandits retreat to an abandoned plantation mansion.  Strong performances, especially from Henry Thomas, Patrick Fugit, Michael Shannon, and Isaiah Washington, and a deliberate pace help draw us into the creeping inevitable doom these characters face.  Highly recommended.  Why this wasn’t given a proper theatrical release from Columbia Pictures is beyond me.

The Call of Cthulhu (2005)

Premiering at the 2005 HP Lovecraft Film Festival in my hometown Portland, Oregon (where I first saw it and reviewed it for VideoScope magazine), this short is a true labor of love.  Based on Lovecraft’s tale of eldritch terror and madness from beyond the stars, the film is a black and white homage to silent film (think Guy Maddin mixed with Weird Tales) and is surprisingly faithful as well.  Until Guillermo Del Toro finally makes the long rumored At the Mountains of Madness… this is the supreme Lovecraft adaptation around.  And there’s even a stop-motion sequence too!