the phantom empire #1

Photo © Scott Seymour. All rights reserved.

It’s the dream of every cinephile, I think, to own a cinema.  If not to own their own cinema then, at least, they wish to be employed at a liberal-minded establishment that would allow them to program whatever they wished to screen.  It’s an idea I’ve often fantasized about.  It would be a single screen joint (a huge one, of course, because bigger really is better in this case), project real film (of course), and have excellent sound.  Beer and wine would be available, as well as coffee, tea, and a few soda pops.  Fresh buttered popcorn, black and red licorice, and a couple of chocolate bars would also be offered.  Vintage movie posters, lobby cards, and stills would decorate the walls of the foyer, and the place would definitely have an old fashioned neon marquee out front above the glass ticket booth.  The place would seat about 425 people.  Old trailers would be shown before every movie, a cartoon also (Looney Tunes, the Fleischer brothers’ Popeye the Sailor cartoons from the 1930s, and Tom and Jerry), and appropriate soundtrack music would play before each feature as people found their seats.  A different double-feature would appear every couple nights.  Friday and Saturday nights would have midnight movies.  Late mornings and afternoons on the weekends would show kid-friendly fare.  There would also be theme weeks periodically or showcases for a particular actor or director.  No genre would be excluded and discussion/arguments would be encouraged.  I wouldn’t care about profits.  Each double-feature would be $0.99 just like the old Broadway theater in Portland.  The old one.  The rundown one back in the 1980s where I once took a girlfriend on a first date to see Day of the Dead and where I witnessed, with another girlfriend, the subversive horrors of Lynch’s Blue Velvet while I was frying on multiple hits of acid.  Oh, the stamina of youth!

It would be what I imagine the afterlife to be like.

But the challenging thing about the place would be what to show.  I mean, it’s easy to come up with titles.  It’s the order of things I would be concerned about.  A good programmer would serve much like a dj or someone who makes mix discs.  It’s all about the perfect combo, the correct flow of things, and making sure it’s always entertaining.  Unless… you’re trying to fry their little brains or something.

So what would my first double-feature be?

I could go with my favorite films, but I’ll wait to do that later.  I could go with some childhood favorites, but I’ll pass for now.  I’m figuring that the premiere screenings would be in the evening… so no kid movies then.  How about something simple?  Yes, I’ll stick with two easy but pivotal and life-altering choices.  These were two of the earliest films I remember seeing and they, I believe, set me on a path of image intoxication.  I was forever doomed.  And though the love affair with movies has hit snags from time to time, careened down detours leading to nowhere, and occasionally offered only heartbreak (mostly in my teen years, I should emphasize)… it’s been a love affair well worth indulging in.  It’s not like I really have a choice in the matter.  I am forever doomed after all.

The first film screened would be the 1931 Universal horror film Dracula starring Bela Lugosi and directed by Tod Browning.  The second feature would be James Whale’s 1931 film Frankenstein starring Boris Karloff, also from Universal.  Like I said, nothing radically adventurous, but they each made significant impressions on me as a child.  In many ways they shaped my future love of the medium and set me on a path of loving horror movies in particular.  I first watched both films with my father when I was around four years old.  Back in the 1970s there used to be a Creature Features-type horror movie program on KATU in Portland, Oregon after the news ended on Saturday nights called Sinister Cinema, hosted by Victor Ives.

What could I possibly say about these films that haven’t been said before?  Well, nothing really.  They both contain two iconic monster movie performances, they’re both well-crafted and contain moments of exceptional poetry and beauty (as do many of the early Universal horror productions), but they’re not exactly created equally.  Dracula betrays its stage origins a bit too much for my taste, especially after the initial brilliant cinematic scenes with Renfield (Dwight Frye) journeying to Count Dracula’s Transylvania castle.  Even as a child it slightly bored me.  It doesn’t now, although I’m always a little disappointed at how talky much of the film is.  I guess in the end, I like the later Hammer version better.  However, it never seduced me like Browning’s creation did.  Dracula may not be perfect, but it ensnared me darkly with its images.  Anyway, like so many horror movies, it’s not about the entirety… it’s those individual moments of aesthetic beauty, poetry, and/or genuine terror that reward the patient viewer.

Unlike now, I wasn’t exactly a night owl at the age of four.  But I tried to keep up.  I only made it through the opening few scenes of Dracula… the best part actually.  I nodded off quickly after.  But the image that burned itself into my brain is the moment when I snapped awake to see Renfield laughing maniacally when the authorities discover him inside the hull of the ship carrying Count Dracula to the shores of England.  I think I passed out afterward from the fright.

Frankenstein is even better, although I don’t recall one specific moment that sent me over the edge.  The whole film cast a spell on me–the sets, lighting, music, the monster himself–and the first three Frankenstein films have been favorites of mine ever since.  Bride of Frankenstein (1935), the sequel, is even more effective in its fusion of dark humor, melodrama, visual poetry, and melancholy.  But I didn’t see that film until much later.  This is the one that left its mark on my imagination… and for that I’m thankful.

Back in 1991 or so when I was in my early 20s, Dracula and Frankenstein were both screened at a small theater in NE Portland.  I lived on the other side of the city, didn’t drive, though I made sure I got to the screening.  It was great to finally see both films on the big screen with an appreciative audience of youngsters and older people.  And though I’d seen each of them numerous times over the years via videocassette, each unruly monster seemed to flourish unleashed in the flickering dark before a packed house of eager viewers.  Lugosi and Karloff were reborn.  Resurrected for a whole new generation of monster kids… a reminder to older ones that these cinematic creations still mattered.

By the time I watched these films in the theater, I was already a veteran horror film watcher–from silent classics to Hammer horrors to cannibal holocausts to necromantik evil dead maniac butchers… I had the psychic eyeball scars to prove my cred.  And though these Universal horror films would never be able to compete with their modern day unholy brethren in terms of graphicness or intensity, they did excel when it came to lyricism, imagery, pathos, and wit.  So for nostalgic and artistic reasons, Lugosi and Karloff would open the show… hopefully luring a whole new generation into the phantom empire.*

Stay tuned for further screenings….

 

 

* The Phantom Empire: Movies in the Mind of the 20th Century is a book by critic Geoffrey O’Brien.  It’s sort of an impressionistic, subjective, secret history of the medium–obsessive, fetishistic, and cosmic.  It’s a brilliant piece of writing and one of my favorite non-traditional books about cinema.  I would name my theater in its honor.

 

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not for sale: winchester ’73 (1950)

This is the first of five Westerns (eight films overall) that star Jimmy Stewart made with director Anthony Mann, inaugurating one of the most fascinating actor/director combos of the classic Hollywood era.  Mann, along with Alfred Hitchcock, realized that there was a wellspring of angst and turmoil underneath Stewart’s likable, American “everyman” persona, and that if guided in the right way Stewart would not alienate audiences but keep them transfixed despite the harder-edged tone of the film and character.  We would still be able to sympathize with Stewart’s character even when he tipped over into madness (however brief), because Jimmy Stewart would never exact vengeance for the pleasure of it.  He had to have a good reason to commit bloodshed, right?

Winchester ’73 originated at Universal Pictures with producer Aaron Rosenberg and Stewart attached but with no real script or director yet involved.  Screenwriter Borden Chase, a specialist in hard-hitting manly actioneers like The Fighting Seabees (1944) and Red River (1948), was brought aboard when the first screenwriter involved Robert Richards couldn’t get things cookin’, and it was Chase who was the one to see in Stewart the need for a new post-WWII toughness.  Stewart was desperate for a career resurrection after his last three films failed to connect with the box office.  He was more than a little game to forge into this new cinematic territory.  Only problem was, would audiences be ready for a tougher, more violent Jimmy Stewart?  John Wayne made gritty Westerns, not the guy more well-known for his easy going comedic and dramatic skills.  But Chase, who had grown up on the mean streets of New York City and in the 1920s served as gangster Frankie Yale’s chauffeur for a short time before Yale ended up a corpse, knew a killer when he saw one.  “[Jimmy Stewart] was in the Air Force, he knows how to kill,” Chase said in an interview with writer/film critic/professor of cinema studies Jim Kitses in 1970.  “You know, when you command a wing of fighters in a war, you’re not exactly soft.”

Anthony Mann, a journeyman director of considerable talent best known at that time for a series of hard-boiled pictures like T-Men (1947), Raw Deal (1948), and Border Incident (1949), was eventually hired to helm the picture on Stewart’s recommendation (they’d known each other years before) after Fritz Lang declined the job.  The resulting film became a huge success for the studio and specifically for Stewart who had taken a 50% share on the film’s profits instead of an upfront salary.  But the more important upswing surrounding Winchester ’73‘s success was that a new artistic partnership had been forged.  Over the next decade, Stewart and Mann would team up for seven other films–Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), Thunder Bay (1953), The Glenn Miller Story (1954), The Far Country (1955), Strategic Air Command (1955), and The Man from Laramie (1955)–most of them Westerns that are comparable in many ways to the finest of John Ford’s shoot ’em ups with John Wayne, though with far more Oedipal melodrama and intense psychological complexity bordering on the noirish than anything Ford and Duke would ever sully themselves with.   This was a new kind of Western in which conflict generated from within the main protagonist as much as it came from exterior dramatic circumstances.  The Mann/Stewart Westerns (three of them written with Chase) would betray the cracks deepening within the American postwar psyche, giving us doubt, turmoil, and showing a frightening, blinding rage hiding beneath the veneer of the good guy’s quest for redemption and honor.

In Winchester ’73, Stewart is no cowboy anti-hero, although he foreshadows how such a character would be shaped into misshapen idolization under the direction of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah more than a decade later.  The significant nudge into more mature territory that Winchester ’73 was attempting, moving away from the oaters of the past where divisions between good and evil were clearly recognized and into more complex psychological terrain,  was the inevitable evolutionary step for a genre that had already changed drastically since the Edison company tried to capture the American West on film with the short Cripple Creek Baroom in 1898 and Edwin S. Porter made cinema history with the more narrative-driven one-reeler, The Great Train Robbery (1903).

Winchester ’73 centers on the fabled “Gun that Won the West” and the strange attraction it held for those who coveted such a tool to tame the land.

The 1873 model was a limited edition.  Highly prized for its accuracy, durability, and efficiency.

It was a rare and beautiful machine.

Lin McAdam (Stewart) and his sidekick “High-Spade” (Millard Mitchell) ride into Dodge City on the hunt for the man who killed McAdam’s father.

Vengeance is good and all, but not in Dodge City.

In town, Wyatt Earp (Will Geer) is the law and guns have no place there except when he wields one.

Or when you can shoot for fun.

A July 4th shooting contest to be exact.

Winner wins a Winchester ’73 rifle.

McAdam is a good shot.  He beats everyone but one fella…

Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally)…

The cagey bastard he’s been hunting…

Who also happens to be talented with the ways of the gun.

After a few rounds, the stalemate holds tough.

So it comes down to McAdam…

If he can shoot through the postage stamp fixed to a coin as it flies through the air…

He wins.

McAdam wins the rifle and is given the option to have his very own name engraved on the metal plate affixed to the weapon.

Being that McAdam is a no-nonsense kind of guy, he declines.

He’s got more important things to deal with…

Like chase down loser Dutch Henry who has just split town with his gang…

Or so we thought.

Seems ol’ Dutch doesn’t like to lose.

And he doesn’t like to be hunted, either.

Dutch wants the Winchester, too.

And he figures he’s mean enough to take it.

But this rage inside of McAdam is something fierce.

He’s been living with it so long.

It’s rooted deep within him…

This lonely wilderness of pain within.

He’s been living with it so long.

It’s so easy to get lost within it…

Forget why you’re on this path in the first place…

That’s why it’s important to remain clear…

Keep focused on the task at hand…

That’s what Pa always said, right?

If you don’t keep it together and work hard…

You’re liable to lose control of the situation…

You’re liable to get yourself hurt…

Or wind up something worse.

There are always tougher hombres out there.

Sometimes it’s best just to let them win the battle.

It’s not about the gun anyway.

It’s about the long-haul.

It’s about biding one’s time.

Remembering why you’re at this moment in the first place.

What it took to get there…

And all the suffering that came along with it.

The “winning of the West” wasn’t just about brute force.

For some men, like McAdam, it was about weighing your options…

Knowing when to lie down on the floorboards and take a beating…

Remaining cool… in the moment…

Because the cool guy is the one who gets the job done.

It’s all about balance.

Never letting the rage within consume you…

It’s the guy who eases back on the trigger who stays alive.

Because it’s the angry ones who get themselves killed…

And wind up the subject matter for another person’s idiosyncratic blog.

i’ve never killed in hot blood: tower of london (1939)

He reeks of death.  But death is his trade and he has a taste for it.  Yet he’s never “killed in hot blood” before, never killed in war.

As Mord, the royal executioner and ally to King Richard III (Basil Rathbone), Karloff personifies the cruel representation of political violence behind the throne, the workmanlike brute force that does his master’s bidding to preserve the peace.

Mord may hide behind the throne, but Karloff’s gleefully morbid turn is nakedly, aggressively terrifying.  He is the prototypical executioner, the death dealer of our childhood nightmares.  The first moment we see the powerfully built but cadaverous looking Mord–hunched over his grinding wheel, sharpening his oversize axe with a black raven perched on his shoulder–it’s like watching Cain himself readying the next murder.  But where Cain acted impulsively, emotionally… Mord is pure professional.  There is little overt art to his blood-letting, hence why he yearns for something a little more exciting, creative, arousing.  Karloff is almost touching as he pleads to Rathbone to take him into battle.  Warfare must be a wonderful, crimson bounty for a man like Mord.  The opportunities for passion are no doubt endless.  God knows how energized Mord will be when he returns from murder on such scale.

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!