Thursday, December 27, 2007

The greatest story ever blogged

Star Trek character he most resembles

I had planned to watch more of my new Blade Runner set this morning, but settled on welcoming our first born. PeaceFrog Borialis Ross Aiden Michael Ross was born at 5:20 a.m. today, about three weeks before we were expecting him -- but he's completely healthy. The doctor's name who delivered him was Dr. Love, and I only managed one Kiss reference.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Quick rundown of the evening

Snow on the ground
The new Shining DVD playing
Maker's Mark egg nog in hand
Presents under the tree
World's greatest enchiladas in the oven
It's dark out
My wife could go into labor at any moment
Not wearing sunglasses yet

Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Format 'War': Observations and Predictions

At Costco this week, I saw the high definition DVD Format War epitomized. A Blu-Ray kiosk with a monitor playing dazzling images from popular films, with a jaw-dropping price of $279. Beside it was some HD-DVD promotional materials, without a monitor or even an HD-DVD player in sight, instead relying on that tired phrase "up to six times the resolution!" and the low price of $200. Before this night I was a full HD-DVD believer, convinced by its low price and simplified disc design that would result in lower-priced movies eventually. But when Blu-Ray gets to $279, that means their next player model will probably be below $200 not too soon, and by then the price advantage of HD-DVD goes out the window. I had never really considered Blu-Ray before, since I would never pay $500 or $400 for one, but at an affordable price you have to look at both formats equally. And in this increasingly common environment, with a gaping contrast in marketing presented to the consumer, I can't imagine HD-DVD winning over too many customers.

It's become a common sight at most electronic stores. Target sells movies on both formats, but only offers Blu-Ray players -- complete with a snazzy kiosk displaying Blade Runner and other knockouts. BestBuy sometimes sets up an HD-DVD monitor, but it's nowhere near the showmanship of the Sony-sponsored Blu-Ray kiosk. Although HD-DVD reportedly wrote DreamWorks a nice check for their exclusive backing, it looks like Sony's capital will keep them from ever "losing" in this format war.

But is it really a format war? I don't see it as one, mostly because of the third adversary in the fight: standard definition DVDs. Despite over a year of high-definition offerings, production and sales of DVDs are as strong as ever, with no slowdown in sight. Since high def players are compatible with S-DVDs, it ensures the standard discs will continue to be produced indefinitely. And since S-DVDs are very cheap compared to their better-looking counterparts, and will always feature a much larger selection, consumers will continue to buy them. Not a war, it will be more like a prolonged conflict -- like we've seen between video game systems over the past two decades. And like video game consoles, each side will have a few hot exclusive titles and there will be plenty available for both formats. The real die hards will have both kinds of players, but most people will be happy with one or the other -- still continuing to buy standard discs.

All of this is very good news for consumers, as both formats continue to hack away at their prices and offer attractive free-movie packages with purchase. HD-DVD comes with 300 and The Bourne Identity in the box, with five more available free through mail. Blu-Ray offers five by mail, with slightly better offerings. Wal-Mart even had a doorbuster PS3 sale on Black Friday where you could get 15 total free Blu-Ray movies. But there's also a lot of consumer confusion: when I told my wife about the attractive high def prices her reaction was "then would you get rid of your old DVDs?" I think this is a common thought, because when people hear "format war" they imagine CDs vs. cassette or BetaMax vs. VHS. That's why the term "format war" doesn't really apply to this situation, since there's already a viable alternative that's not going away any time soon. Even when analog broadcast signals are turned off in 2009, millions will continue to have analog televisions because they will be supported by all cable and satellite services, as well as the converter boxes. And to answer my wife's question, yes I would be keeping my "old" DVDs and continue to buy them: will I ever need a high def version of The Third Man? The Simpsons? Will Danger: Diabolik ever be released in high def? Doubtful.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The next FRIDAY SCREEN TEST you read may be your own!

Starting on Jan. 18, 2008 Friday Screen Test will return to these pages. You may have read it last year, you may have heard some hobos talking about it while huddled around a barrel fire ... and you may have even been featured in it last year! Whatever the case may be, the new season approaches and with that means the opportunity for more bloggers and film writers to be featured. I've already sewn up a few participants, but the ink is still drying so I can't name any names. Of course, there's still many Fridays open for anyone who regularly puts their film thoughts into text and is willing to submit to a questionnaire. The Screen Testers are new, and so is the format -- this year there will be all new questions, and more of them!

If you had cold feet about participating last year, take a snort of liquid confidence and send me an email saying "Yes, sir -- why the hell not?!"

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

What 'Blade Runner' DVD is right for you?

2008 will mark (just about) the 10th anniversary of the first rumors of a Tyrell-Sized Blade Runner DVD Set, and to mark the occasion Warner Bros. will finally release this set -- along with many other Blade Runner DVDs. In fact, the Redundancy Department Administration has just released the following data: starting Tuesday you can theoretically go into BestBuy and pick out eight BR DVDs -- with all of them featuring a different bar code. With so many BR options to choose from, what's a Christmas shopper to do? Follow this handy guide to ensure you won't make the wrong choice:

Blade Runner: The Director's Cut
Low Price: $5 maybe
Target Demographic: Misanthropic Grinches
I'm pretty sure Wal-Mart has been selling this DVD in their bargain bin since 1995. Extras? Remastered picture and sound? Look elsewhere. The lasting value of this DVD is you can buy it for the BR fan who's at the top of your Naughty List. Wrap this up and hand it to them saying "Well I know you like Blade Runner..." and watch as their expectations of seeing the new 4-disc set drip away like warm egg nog.

Blade Runner: The Final Cut
Low Price: $14.49
Target Demographic: Blade Runner Virgins, Penny-Pinching Christmas Shoppers
There's nothing wrong with this DVD, in fact it's a great deal -- the target demographic has more to do with the other BR DVDs. On its own merits, The Final Cut has the titular new version of the film, three commentaries, a feature-length documentary, remastered transfer and the best cover art of the lot. If you've never seen BR before, start here. Everyone else should proceed to the next item.

Blade Runner (Four Disc Collector's Edition)
Low Price: $22
Target Demographic: Shrewd Consumers, Wide-Eyed Movie Bloggers
The price might as well read "a song." This is maybe the best DVD deal of the year. In addition to the specs of The Final Cut, you get THREE MORE versions of the film and a fourth disc full of deleted footage, featurettes and TV spots. This set contains just about everything a BR fan could have hoped for during the past decade of hoping, and its content alone would put it in the year's top 10 of best DVD releases, but then you get to the sticker shock of its low price! It may feel a little like stealing, but then you see that briefcase on the shelf and realize why the price is so low.

Blade Runner (Five Disc Ultimate Collector's Edition)
Low Price: $54.99
Target Demographic: Absolute Completists, Edward James Olmos Groupies
Warner's Ultimate Collector's Editions routinely offer little bang for the price, and while there's certainly no lack of interesting goodies here, the price is not justified. The best of this set is already included in the four-disc collection, plus another version of the film and a plastic briefcase full of trinkets. Inside the briefcase is a letter from Ridley Scott, a spinner car model, an origami unicorn figurine, photographs and a lenticular motion film clip. The extra disc, plus the items weigh in at $32. On that extra disc is the infamous "work print" of BR, which DVD Savant describes as "fairly ugly compared to the restored versions." The work print version apparently has the most differences among the five versions, but the price of that is a substantial downgrade in appearance. When these releases were originally announced, I instantly settled on this set before really weighing the other options. Now I can't really justify the price -- that is, outside of the thrill of placing the origami unicorn in my entryway and shouting "It's a shame she won't live, but then again who does?" to any visitor.

Blade Runner (Five Disc Complete Collector's Edition) HD/BluRay
Price: $27.95
Target Demographic: Smugly Amazed HD/BluRay Converts
The Moviezzz Blog originally brought this up, but it bears repeating: who are the ad wizards who thought this one up? So in addition to being able to watch BR in glorious high definition, HD/BluRay folks are also able to buy this five disc set without all the briefcase hoopla for $28?? Even more baffling, those same folks still have the option of paying $38 more for a plastic briefcase full of trinkets, since the big set is also available in HD/BluRay!?! By all accounts, Warner Bros. seems to be undercutting itself from multiple fronts with these BR releases.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Know your Coen dialects

You may not be able to spot a Coen movie on the screen in the way you can a John Carpenter or Martin Scorsese work, but that may be due to the fact that the brothers have never really settled on a firm set of trademark tells. The Coens bounce through genres and themes perhaps more than any other filmmakers, and it wouldn't surprise anyone if their next project was about a wind surfing magician. But one of the few constants in their work is the creative ability to enhance a film's fictional world with a distinct language and speech pattern. Since "boy, you got a panty on yer head" was first uttered, the Coens have celebrated a different dialect in almost all their succeeding movies. For your convenience, here is a rough field guide to Coen Linguistics:

Stupid by Southwest
Characteristics: Folksy enthusiasm (occasionally genuine) and desperation combined with minimal education.
Common habitat: Trailer parks, prisons and convenience stores.
Slang: Cereal flakes (breakfast cereal), l'amour (sex, possibly with someone else's spouse), Edwina (desert flower), Gubmint (government).
Examples: "Do they blow up in funny shapes? Nope, unless round's funny;" "Edwina's insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase;" "H.I., you're young and you got your health, what you want with a job?"

Whiskey in the Swear Jar
Characteristics: Close to the vest, overly confident, rapid fire with Irish Whiskey close at hand (or in hand).
Common habitat: Illegal drinking establishments, warehouses, alleys.
Slang: Injuns (Indians), bed antics (sex), fix (business venture), ethics (criminal behavior).
Examples: "Leo, I ain't embarrassed to use the word - I'm talkin' about ethics;" "Nobody knows anybody. Not that well;" "If I'd known we were gonna cast our feelings into words, I'd've memorized the Song of Solomon."

Minnesota Nice

Characteristics: Easily excitable, unoffensive with exaggerated Nordic speech patterns.
Common habitat: Frozen highways, fields of snow, frosted cars.
Slang: Smooth smooth (bad ass), oh daddy (oh shit), Buick Ciera (well-made automobile), super lady (moderately attractive woman).
Examples: "That's, a fountain of conversation there, buddy. That's a geyser;" "So, uh, you married old Norm son-of-a-Gunderson?" "You're darned tootin'!"

Drunk Lazy Dick

Characteristics: Passionately relaxed, unimpressed, overly opinionated, profane, thirsty.
Common habitat: Los Angeles, specifically bowling alleys and often the houses of the rich and famous.
Slang: J (marijuana cigarette), Swiss Fucking Watch (flawless plan), little kid walking into a movie theater (out of your element), johnson (penis), ringer (distraction), coitus (sex).
Examples: Innumerable.

High Art Bumpkin

Characteristics: God-fearing, musical, philosophical, sweetly dim.
Common habitat: Dusty roads, back woods, rivers, railroads.
Slang: Paterfamilias (husband, or something), unaffiliated (non-religious), can (microphone), hogwallop (unknown).
Examples: "One third of a gopher would only arouse my appetite without bedding it down;" "I suppose it'd be the acme of foolishness to inquire if you had a hair net;" "Me an' the old lady are gonna pick up the pieces and retie the knot, mixaphorically speaking."

Bloody Nowhere

Characteristics: Few words, nonsensical metaphors and stories, lack of sense of humor.
Common habitat: Empty streets, open fields, empty hotels.
Slang: Coin toss (maker), gettin' place (where you get things), friendo (friend).
Examples: "Well, age will flatten a man;" "What is he, like the ultimate bad ass?" "You can't stop what's coming"

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

DVDs WE LOVE: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls

Release: 2006

Availability: In print

Legacy: Before its release under Fox's Cinema Classics Collection label, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was only available as a bare bones Region 2 disc -- which made the lavish treatment it got for its Region 1 debut all the more surprising. One of the strongest all-around releases of the year, Beyond stretches the cult classic's psychedelic theme inside and out, and is bursting at the seams with extras (another common theme of the movie). Inside the blue snapcase is a DVD with perhaps my favorite animated menu of all time -- a few select scenes from the movie pop up in succession, eventually forming a sort-of photo mosaic of the title, and a Carrie Nations riff takes us through any menu selection. The movie itself bounces off the screen with a beautiful transfer, and when The Strawberry Alarm Clock busts out the tunes at Z-Man's party, it makes you want to grab your honey and start shaking. Nearly outshining the stars on screen are two discs loaded with extras, highlighted by a commentary track from the screenwriter -- one Roger Ebert! Always one of the better commentary participants, Ebert's turn on Beyond is unique in that he's critiquing the movie and also giving stories of what it was like to work with Russ Meyer and all the assorted starring beauties. The story of how Ebert came to work with Meyer seems like something out of a movie, and Ebert seems delighted to tell the tale, as well as many others stemming from his young film career. A second commentary track features many of the cast members -- but not the recently departed Michael Blodgett (who played Lance "Jungle Lad" Rock). The second disc features lots of interviews, with the best being a short conversation between Erica Gavin (Roxanne) and Cynthia Meyers (Casey) about their love scene late in the movie. It's obvious neither is sober, and their recollections of the steamy scene has the awkward erotic tone of an old married couple laughing about their first date.

Personal: DVDs like this give hope to those of us who dream of some day seeing a special edition of Leonard 6 or a Shannon Tweed box set. The Cinema Classics version of Beyond is that much of a dream come true for fans of the film, since it gives you more than you ever could have imagined. After watching Beyond many times on DVD, I can't imagine having to see it in pan-and-scan on VHS, since Meyer's wide screen lens is always filled to the edges with eye candy -- especially during Z-Man's parties. "This is my happening DVD, and it freaks me out!"

Availability: $19.99 at Amazon.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

'Peanut Butter' still sticks

With our first baby on the way, I've been doing some soul searching about kids movies. On one hand I'll love watching Toy Story or Willy Wonka for the first time with my child, but I'll also silently dread having to brave a Shrek movie. Of course, I'll wean the child on my (appropriate) favorites from Day 1, but there will be many times when a kids movie has to be put on. I've thought a lot about the unorthodox diet of movies that comprised much of my youth, which was usually HBO and whatever I could convince my parents to rent. I can't tell you how many memories of nameless movies from HBO I have, and most of them I'll probably never see again. But I was finally able to re-view one of those random crazy 2 p.m.-on-a-Sunday movies this week, thanks to Google Video.

Joseph B brought it to my attention that The Peanut Butter Solution was online in its entirety, which was kind of amazing since it's not on DVD anywhere. Peanut Butter was a movie I watched in fragments many times, and for quite awhile I wasn't sure if my memories of it were real or dreamed. The IMDB comments for the movie confirm that many other people felt the same way. Watching it again, I think it's holds up very well as a kids movie, and I think my kid will be the only one in the schoolyard trying to explain the art of magic paintbrushes.

Yes, magic paint brushes. And ghosts, and kids enslaved by a mad art teacher, and a kid with a lot of hair. A truly strange movie, The Peanut Butter Solution's best plot device happens early, when young Michael finds his way into a burnt out house and is mysteriously frightened to such a degree that he goes bald. Michael can't remember what it was that scared him so much, but he does know that he can't go on with his life without any hair. Luckily, a couple of hobos died and became ghosts and they want to help Michael with his problem. They know about a concoction that will regrow hair -- just don't put too much peanut butter in it. Of course, Michael does put too much peanut butter in, and soon he has Cousin It hair growing at an astonishing rate. If that's not bad enough, he soon gets kidnapped by an art teacher he didn't like who imprisons him in a factory run by enslaved children where his hair can be farmed to create magic paint brushes. Yup, this movie has it all.

Peanut Butter freaked me out as a kid, and it is genuinely creepy, considering its intended audience. The idea that something could scare you so much as to force baldness is a chilling concept for a child, and the movie sells the idea well by having it be unexplained until the end. And kidnapping, especially in the 80s when it seemed every kid was convinced their captor could be lurking behind the nearest tree, is always a gruesome concept for kids and even more so when it involves a hated teacher. The magic paintbrushes made from Michael's enchanted hair allow a person to paint a picture that they can "enter" and interact with, and the low budget effects do a good job of portraying this concept. Unfortunately, when the culprit of Michael's fright is revealed at the end, it's an unquestioned letdown -- probably due to an equal lack of writing creativity and budget constraints.

Released in 1985, the Canadian production of The Peanut Butter Solution was the second in director Rock Demers' Tales for All series, and by far the most popular. Apparently, Demers was an influential figure in Quebec's emerging film industry in the 1970s:

Throughout the 1970s, Quebec quietly established itself as the centre of production for Canadian children's films. The success of 1970's The Christmas Martian spawned such venerable kiddie fare as Jacob Two Two Meets the Hooded Fang (1972) and Mystery of the Million Dollar Hockey Puck (1976), but it wasn't until the 1980s that the industry became one of the cornerstones of Canadian b-film production, thanks primarily to the efforts of one man? Rock Demers.
No offense to my Canadian readers, but that paragraph reads like something out of a Christopher Guest script. The Christmas Martian? Jacob Two Two Meets the Hooded Fang? Wow. The Peanut Butter Solution sounds pretty normal compared to those titles. Another bit of trivia: this movie featured the English language debut of one Celine Dion! So if you have 90 minutes to spare, click below and enjoy this odd Canadian 80s kids flick.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Walk Silently and Carry a Big Whatever-the-Hell-That-Thing-is

No Country for Old Men is the most quietly ferocious movie you'll ever see. I can't stop thinking about the brilliant sound design choices by Joel and Ethan Coen that lift the movie from a simple genre exercise into another level of terror and excitement. In the same way Ennio Morricone fashioned a theme out of creaks, drips and cracks for the opening of Once Upon a Time in the West, here we have an entire "score" made out of footsteps, desert wind, breezes through an open window, distant passing trains and simply the sound a man makes when he's contemplating what his next action will be that won't result in his death. All these sounds are heightened because no note (whether dialog or effects) goes wasted, wrapping the viewer in silence and putting us in the same mindset as the characters, where fate seems to be waiting behind the corner.

The sequence that best exemplifies this method is when Llewelyn checks into the second hotel, and tries to assess his possibly fatal situation inside his room. He hears something strange from the front desk, then tries to phone the manager -- with no answer. The next two minutes are nearly silent, save for a couple remote footsteps and Llewelyn's fear of what might be outside his door. There's no dialog, but it's one of the most exciting moments of the movie, as we wait for the action to shift toward Llewelyn or Chigurh at any moment. The masterful sequence one-ups itself as the action shifts outside, with Llewelyn commandeering a man's truck as bullets from Chigurh's suppressed pistol attack the vehicle like hellfire from some unearthly beast. The sound design on the gunfire is unlike anything else I've ever heard -- you can almost hear the bullets zipping through the air, and it's never clear where they're coming from. The exhilarating battle continues on the deserted street (with the adversaries still never seeing one another) much like it began, with both men waiting for the other to make a move.

No Country For Old Men is essentially about a satchel full of MacGuffin, the quest of two men to extend their lives for one more day, and an aging sheriff dealing with the fear of where his road may end. Like many Coen Bros. characters, the three men are very precise in what they say and do. These are the kind of resourceful men who use items such as tent poles, cotton balls, wire hangers and their confidence to extraordinary effect. And of course there's the little matter of a high-powered captive bolt pistol. This kind of device could only be utilized so efficiently by a man such as Chigurh, whose drive requires only the most clean, horrifying and consistent methods. When we first see him use the weapon, he appears almost giddy at introducing another person to its quiet terror, confident that his victim won't struggle because he doesn't know what the hell it is. Has there been a weapon so befitting a movie villain since Leatherface started up his chainsaw?

As to be expected from the Coen Bros, the characters are charmingly foolish, but with more than enough wits to make you believe in them. Llewelyn is not a smart man, but he's definitely cut from a different cloth than other Texan trailerpark folk. He brings trouble on himself more than once, but he never flinches when searching for the next rabbit hole that will lead him to daylight. Chigurh is a psychopath, but he's also a self-aware psychopath, and his confidence can often betray him (such as when he's squaring off against a bull-headed trailer park manager). Sheriff Bell always wears the face of the law, but he's obviously terrified of what he's up against. And you can always count on the Coen Bros. to pepper their films with odd, one-off characters who wouldn't show up in any other movie (Llewelyn's encounter with the teenagers on the bridge? Fantastic!), and they're always able to remind you never to try and take some world-encompassing message from what you're seeing.

After the second act, I knew the movie would produce an abrupt and divisive ending ala Miller's Crossing or Barton Fink, since it seemed the Coens were giving us another story that had no intentions of wrapping up nicely. I wasn't quite sure of it right after I left the theater, but it made more sense once I realized that Bell never saw Chigurh, but knew without a doubt he was still at large. To know that an invisible terror was capable of re-entering your life at any time is truly the stuff of nightmares, particularly the one Bell describes in the final shot.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Paradox of the Ghostbusters

I was witness to a rare event this weekend: a child of the 80s seeing Ghostbusters for the first time. Actually, it's not really his fault -- he was raised in a pentecostal household, so it's my job as his friend to introduce him to some of the movies he missed out on. It's possible that I've seen Ghostbusters more than any other movie. Growing up, I watched it every time it came on HBO, and many more subsequent times after learning where the "record" button was on our VCR. I obviously know the movie backwards and forwards, but there's a few elements that have intrigued me during my last couple viewings.

It's easy to see why Ghostbusters was one of the decade's biggest hits, as it successfully combined the genres of comedy, sci-fi, horror and adventure. None of these genres really overshadows the other, as a well-crafted paranormal story is always building in the background as the jokes on the screen keep coming from the right and the left. The Gozer/Zuul plot is the stuff of childhood nightmares, and by the end you want to know more about these Sumerian gods and just what the hell they had in store for New York City -- nevermind the goddamned marshmallow parade. Ghostbusters leaves a lot on the table, and that's a good thing because the plot carries so many possible pathways and terror that it's never stretched thin. But what got me thinking during this last viewing were two lines that could have pushed the movie in another direction, especially if it was straight sci-fi/horror and not comedy.

Let's say this Twinkie represents the normal amount of psychokinetic energy in the New York area. Based on this morning's reading, it would be a Twinkie thirty-five feet long, weighing approximately six hundred pounds.

Egon is projecting huge paranormal activity on the horizon. While he has lots of scary data, Egon doesn't arrive at the conclusion his numbers should point to. From the outside, it appears that the number of ghosts in New York increases with the amount that the Ghosbusters catch, that no matter how many they contain there will always be that many more throughout the city. Emphasizing this point is that in the early stages of the film the ghosts are few to none, and it stays that way after they open business. Also, when all the spirits are freed by shutting down the containment grid, the city is obviously terrorized like never before. Whether it's the act of containing these spirits in a central location, or merely the psychological hysteria in the public that comes with knowing ghosts actually exist -- the Ghostbusters are the true public enemy by contributing to the city's ghost population.

Wait for the sign! Then our prisoners will be released!

Lewis, while possessed as Vinz Klothar, forecasts the chaos that will result when the containment field is shut down. So the question is, without the Ghostbusters, would the terror dogs and Gozer have been awakened/summoned? Are the Ghostbusters an unwilling participant in a paranormal apocalypse by harboring their collection of spirits? Or, was their enterprise merely one of the final steps of a plot set in motion thousands of years ago in Sumeria -- with Ivo Shankor and his interdimensional gateway of a skyscraper being yet another Earthly pawn?

Questions like these have to be asked because they are not touched on at all in the movie. Since its intentions are fairly light, the battle with Gozer ends with a parade. With a more serious tone, Ghostbusters may have ended with the team reflecting on their role in Gozer's summoning, and perhaps deciding to hang their proton packs up for good in the interest of mankind. As it is, the Ghostbusters never feel any weight of responsibility after the events in Dana's apartment building or speak of any closure with Egon's Twinkie data. The sequel brings down this way of thinking, as the paranormal activity in the city obviously continues after Gozer is turned back. It's a tribute to the movie that even with a comedic tone, Ghostbusters manages to weave such an involving and complex ghost story.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Good reads, bad radio

I've been out of action lately while tending to a pregnant wife and a kitchen in disrepair, but I'm back in the lineup beginning this week. While I've been behind in my writing, I've kept up in my reading, and have these gems to pass along:

-- Good gracious, have you seen what Chris Stangl is up to now? Chris presents The Ballad of the Hermeneutic Circle: An Essay on the State of Film Blogging, 2007 -- it's a richly illustrated comic starring the author and many key film issues of the year. The 15-page adventure comes at you in one page installments. Wow!

-- Alan at Burbanked has never been one to be confined by traditional blogging, but now he's really broken out of his template. Again re-working his site, Burbanked now takes advantage of every line of HTML to give you an overflowing page of info and humor. My Action Figure Mood Indicator is set at Stunned.

-- If you're not caught up with Thom Ryan's ambitious Film of the Year, don't ask for sympathy -- just head over there and read his 1941 entry for Citizen Kane. And if anyone over there gives you trouble, "have your man call him ... an anarchist!"

-- Joseph B. has some good picks for movies that freaked you out as a child. Joseph tipped me off that one of my freaky movies of old, The Peanut Butter Solution, is available to watch in its entirety on Google Video. I was able to watch it for the first time in maybe 20 years, and will have my thoughts on the matter up here later this week.

-- Stacie Ponder concluded her week-long look at the best of Amicus horror, with her take on Vault of Horror. As usual, there's no shortage of scary/funny screen grabs.


Finally, I have some original horror to share with you. The following is a 100% factual transcript from a local radio station after they posed the question "can you name three Martin Scorsese films to win a $10 lottery ticket?" (All callers were 20-something males):

Caller 1: Ummmm, no.
Caller 2: Martin who?
Caller 3: No, sorry.
Caller 4: Let's see, The Departed, The Aviator ... what was that gangs film he made -- Teams of New York?
Caller 5: (sounding confident) The Departed, The Aviator, and ... I want to say, The Godfather?

By this point I was practically kicking in my radio while trying to navigate traffic. The sixth caller finally got it right, after which one of the DJs confessed he couldn't even name one of Scorsese's movies: "Didn't he direct Dog's Day Out?" he said, presumably referring to Dog's Day Afternoon.

Like I said, horror. The horror.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Danny Roane: First Time Director

I'm usually not brave enough to watch the movies that premiere on Comedy Central, and until this week I didn't think I ever missed anything good. Andy Dick's Danny Roane: First Time Director premiered in August on the cable channel, came out last week on DVD, and is one of the funniest movies I've seen this year. It's 84 minutes of completely low-brow, low-budget, low-intelligence humor, and I was laughing the entire time.

Written and directed by Dick, it's a documentary about burnt out former sitcom star Danny Roane's attempts to make "Dead Dream," a semi-autobiographical look at the harrows of drug and alcohol addiction. After starring in the sitcom "Don't Quit Your Day Job," Roane hit rock bottom with his drinking problem, culminating in a disastrous drunken appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live. He sees directing as the logical next step, and his surreal script is set to be produced by Quad Gold Pictures, where head man Pete Kesselman (Bob Odenkirk) boasts about their last hit, Vicious Cycle 3: Killer Load, a laundromat horror flick. The fact that Odenkirk is in Danny Roane told me the movie had a chance to be good, and there are plenty of other great cameos, including Ben Stiller, Danny Trejo and Jack Black.

Since it's a mockumentary, there's very little narrative structure, and Dick is able to keep the joke pace high. Most of the time it seems Dick is just doing improv, and it usually works. Dick's brand of vulgar slapstick is divisive, but if you like him then you'll love him in this, as I can't imagine a better vehicle for his comedy. But the biggest star of Danny Roane is the movie within the movie, "Dead Dream." Originally designed to be a stark look at addiction with James Van der Beek in the lead, the movie quickly devolves into a musical based on Jim Morrison-like flashbacks. Trejo plays the Indian chief who instructs the main character to go on a spiritual quest, but as Roane points out, Trejo the Indian chief has a huge tattoo on his chest of a Mexican woman praying.

Danny Roane is often sloppy, with some uneven moments, but the best is saved for last when we get to see the finished product of "Dead Dream." It contains my favorite line of the year, when a character tries to describe how his head is feeling on drugs: "It feels like my mind is made of Hitler." This line leads to a lengthy musical scene of a bad Hitler impersonator stalking a Jewish clown through city streets. Like I said, it's 100 percent dumb, low-brow comedy, but if that's what you go for try and find Danny Roane.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Criterion covers: 10 beauties, 5 duds

The never dull Chris Stangle recently pointed out the odd similarities on the cover designs of Criterion's new release of Two Lane Blacktop and a recent Bergman set. I'm always up for any discussion about Criterion's cover designs, because they're pretty much the best in the business (in addition to the actual DVDs they contain) and almost never ordinary. I'm a self confessed cover art snob, and I'm continually fascinated about this cult that I belong to. What is it about cover art that turns normal people into cover art snobs?

I read about DVD technology long before the first discs were released, and couldn't believe all the features they would bring home for cinephiles, but I don't think anyone predicted that DVDs would usher in a golden age for cover design. In the same way that album cover design fell by the wayside when vinyl gave way to cassettes and CDs (with their tiny canvases), the enormous value of DVDs as a product to be purchased (and not just rented) means consumers now value how their movies look from the outside. It wasn't always this way for DVDs, I remember the first cover design that really intrigued me was the Boogie Nights New Line Platinum edition. It had radically original cover art, on a slip cover that housed even more of the garish 70s design on the digipack inside. The simple jewel case long ago gave up the stranglehold on DVDs, and now we have designs on cardboard, plastic and even metal.

The Criterion Collection has always presented top quality DVDs, but it has also striven to have high class cover art -- and it hasn't always succeeded. The look of Criterion has evolved over the years, culminating this year with a homologous spine and logo treatment (the crescent "C"). Here's my list of Criterion's best covers, followed by five of their worst:

The Masterpieces

10. Days of Heaven (No. 409)

I just love this picture -- I would put it on my wall if I could. This is a great simple design, because it's an image that you would instantly recognize from Days of Heaven, even without the text. The size of the title is also perfect, avoiding being dominant over such a great image.

9. RoboCop (No. 23)

Effective understatement, for a movie that is always over the top. This cover really stands out, and the color choice is almost exactly what Verhoeven uses throughout his ugly future Detroit.

8. M (No. 30)

One of a handful of iconic shots from M, heightened further by an excellent design. Enhancing the "M" on Peter Lorre's shoulder is an easy choice, but the execution is flawless, as the effect doesn't look hokey.

7. Videodrome (No. 248)

While the cover is certainly good, it's the whole package that really grabs you: the discs are housed inside a BetaMax-like package that has "videodrome" written on the spine and "long live the new flesh" on the face. It's an awesome concept, and mine sits on the shelf sans the outer covering, as it really does look like one of Max Renn's videos.

6. The Man Who Fell to Earth

I don't care for the movie, but the cover is truly striking. It's also nicely packaged, with Walter Tevis' original novel reprinted specially for inclusion in the DVD.

5. The Naked City (No. 380)

In a perfect world that title font would really exist, and I would use it for every word I typed.

4. Robinson Crusoe on Mars (No. 404)

I know nothing about this movie, only that this cover truly rocks. If I could get this as a print (unspeakably large, of course), I would pay up to $100 for it. The colors are amazing, and the font is used perfectly.

3. Dazed and Confused (No. 336)

I originally wasn't a fan of this cover, but after holding it and exploring all the fun stuff it contained -- I was hooked. The cover is brash and makes no apologies, plus it works like the vinyl cover of Led Zeppelin III, with those holes on the front making it possible for multiple cover possibilities.

No image (or words for that matter) can adequately represent Tati's masterpiece, but this comes pretty darn close. Like the movie, it's wild with many planes of existence, and presents itself with no explanation.

1. Notorious (No. 137)

It doesn't get any better than this for me. This is just everything you would want in a DVD cover: it's bold but also understated, and plays off one of the movie's key plot points without really giving it away. It would have been easy to put Carey Grant along with Ingrid here, but the black space is very effective.

The Misfires

5. Eyes Without a Face (No. 260)

This should be a great cover, but I just can't get past the awkward use of the title -- is it supposed to look like her mouth?

4. Rebecca (No. 135)

This design is a little too ambitious for its own good. There's about five different elements gasping for attention here, and why the "A David O. Selznick Presentation"? Criterion usually omits such text, for good reason.

3. Picnic at Hanging Rock (No. 29)

They picked a great image from the movie to use, but what's with the romance novel font and size of the title? This is one DVD that's begging for one of Criterion's recent re-releases, as this one is non-anamorphic and largely extra-free. I'm sure a re-release would have a much better cover.

2. The 39 Steps (No. 56)

Okay, the title looks cool, but why are we looking at the two main characters? It's a cop-out design, that has nothing to do with the movie. It also fails to convey any of the urgency and suspense that fills this classic. This was also put out during Criterion's habit of using small type on the spine, exacerbated this time by using a brown font against a black background, making it legible only from close range.

1. The Most Dangerous Game (No. 46)

This looks like something I would make on Photoshop, when I was still learning it in college -- complete with gimmicky typeface. Why are they green?

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Next stop: Spiritualism?

Note: This post is a contribution to the Film + Faith Blog-a-Thon at Strange Culture

In The Darjeeling Limited, Owen Wilson's character Francis proclaims he and his brothers are on a "spiritual journey" through India, like it was a package arranged by an online travel agency. In Wes Anderson's previous films, religion was almost never touched on -- save for The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou's imagery of an undersea world of obvious intelligent design. With his latest film, Anderson often looks at how religion is viewed from the outside, by those who are in it as tourists.

Wilson's performance and his odd character are the driving forces of The Darjeeling Limited, and it's telling that Francis never really expounds on what spiritualism means to him, even though he goes out of his way to trumpet how "spiritual" upcoming locations are and to involve his brothers in complex spiritual rites. To Francis, "spiritual" is merely an adjective. It represents the unknown of what he may find at a temple of a religion completely foreign to him or what a strange ceremony involving peacock feathers may produce.

Francis clearly wants something big to happen between he and his brothers on their journey, but it's unclear why he chose India other than the land's spiritual qualities that baffle him. Perhaps the most spiritual moment of the trip is when the brothers find themselves at a young boy's funeral, inside a small village. Anderson focuses on the the villagers' rituals of burning the body, an image that no doubt shocked the clean cut brothers. Since they had recently attended their father's funeral, the brothers now find themselves at a more emotional event for a person they didn't know, but the effects of the native rituals are probably more profound than anything at the American ceremony.

There is a seismic rift between Francis, Peter and Jack, and Francis may know that it will take a higher power to heal it. Though he praises the spiritual qualities of the land they're traveling through, Francis doesn't appear to be very spiritual himself. But Francis seems convinced that a spiritual ceremony with peacock feathers will help the brothers find common ground -- but it only further illustrates their disconnect since Peter and Jack were unclear on their roles. The ceremony shows Francis' misunderstanding of spiritualism and faith, and how they connect.
The peacock ceremony is empty without the necessary faith, and only when the three brothers have faith in themselves and their family, at the end, does the "ritual" work for them and serves as a uniting force.

Friday, November 02, 2007

'Halloween' lessons learned

I really couldn't turn down the opportunity to see a double feature of Halloween 4 and Halloween 5 on the big screen. Showings like this don't come around very often in Boise -- the only other such offering this month was a 25th anniversary screening of Heavy Metal at the so-beautiful-they-really-should-show-better-movies-than-Heavy Metal Egyptian Theatre. And while I wasn't expecting to see two good movies, I did come away with some good lessons about the original Halloween, and the new one.

I really had no knowledge of the Halloween sequels past II. I've seen almost all the Friday the 13th sequels and a few Nightmare on Elm Streets, but didn't really know what I was in for with these two Halloweens. Actually, that's not true. A friend of mine in grade school, who saw every new horror movie that came out, told me once that Part 5 was his favorite movie of all time

The double feature was part of a national event put on by Monsters HD, I think it was broadcast by satellite or something, and the movies were prefaced by a new documentary on the two sequels. Since it consisted of 20 minutes of interviews of cast and crew trying to make the movies out to be masterpieces, there were a few highlights. Notably, Danielle Harris talking about how she and Donald Pleasence had fun "taking pictures" of each other on the set (when Harris was about 11) and how Part 4 director Dwight Little was qualified to make a Halloween movie because he celebrated Halloween in the Midwest. My experience with the other two 1980s slasher franchise sequels convinced me that I was in for a few solid entertaining hours in Haddonfield ... but as Crissy Hines once sang: "My city was gone."

4 and 5 are simply horrible movies. To say they were made "by the numbers" would be an insult to first grade arithmetic. On my way out of the theater, I kept siting examples to my viewing companion that the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street sequels, while hardly "good," at least found ways to spice things up with each successive movie -- giving you a reason to not walk out on it. While Jason continually carved up campers as the years dragged on, we at least got to meet Corey Feldman's character, the psychic girl, and even experienced him in 3-D. Freddie Krueger had a built-in sequel mechanism, with more bad puns and nightmare imagery added to each movie -- however tiresome that became. With the Halloween sequels, all we're given is the mask, a crazy Donald Pleasence and a Haddonfield sign placed in a Salt Lake City neighborhood.

And it's one thing for a slasher movie to be bad, but does it have to be boring? When both movies arrive open their third acts, the action grinds to a screeching halt: In 4 we have all the characters sitting in a dark house waiting for suspense that never arrives, and in 5 there's literally a 10 minute scene of characters chasing stray kittens through a barn before being killed (the people, not the kittens). Worse yet, there's absolutely zero scares in either of them, not that they don't try. It seems like both directors felt Michael Myers was the reason Halloween was scary, giving us many shots of him: Michael standing in the mist, Michael on a roof, Michael floating down a creek, Michael driving a car, Michael ordering an iced Chai latte (sadly, only this last one is a lie). Of course, Michael by himself is not scary, and certainly not when he's wearing a cheap imitation of John Carpenter's mask -- it makes him look like an action figure being used for a miniature shoot. Carpenter went the Jaws route with Michael -- just giving us glimpses of him, usually in between shadows. A glimpse of Michael's face in perfect lighting can be scary, seeing Michael poorly hiding behind branches in broad daylight on a busy street is not.

After being disappointed with 4, I felt for sure 5 would be an improvement -- especially after David McReynolds' hearty 5th grade endorsement of it. Just as The Wild Bunch closed the Western era in 1969, Halloween 5 must have really slammed the door on slasher movies 20 years later. The movie is so ridiculously flawed and uninteresting that the only redeeming quality of it is that it was shot and distributed in a span of only 5 months -- beginning production in May 1989 and getting to screens that October. In that sense, it's a little understandable why it feels only half completed: why the opening 5 minutes are recycled from the previous movie, why we see Michael taken in by a hobo and his parrot who let the masked monster apparently sleep for a year until the next Halloween, why Ellie Cornell's 4 character is reduced to a few scenes of excitedly taking off her clothes and grinning at the large sweater she's going to wear like it's a birthday cake, why we're made to watch teens leave a rockin' Halloween party so they can chase kittens in a barn, and why there is an infuriatingly anonymous character who apparently plays a huge role in the film's plot.

That last part still rankles me. Who is this Man in Black who wears steel-tipped boots and a cowboy hat? What are his motives? Does he have anything to do with Michael's unexplained tattoo we see at the beginning? We'll never know for sure, especially not after the Man in Black guns down the police station and allows Michael to escape from jail (yes, Michael is dramatically arrested in 5 -- justice is finally served). Couldn't this character have been used to provide us something interesting in the movie?

And that brings me to Rob Zombie's Halloween, which I've been holding off writing a review for. I honestly really enjoyed the movie, even more so after seeing these awful sequels. Remake or sequel, it's a high quality addition to a franchise that was repeatedly dug up and buried through the 80s and even 90s. There are actual interesting elements of the movie, and its momentum peaks where it should -- in the final act. I don't mind that Zombie tried to explain Michael's past, especially because it draws no conclusions. No matter who raised Michael, there was something behind those black eyes that would eventually become pure evil, and Dr. Loomis couldn't find the answer after decades of research. I think it works perfectly as a remake, riffing on a few of Carpenter's scenes, while adding original ones, without being too obvious. Best of all, Zombie was smart enough to know how to shoot that mask.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Worst. Funeral. Ever.

I'm really thankful never to watch Phantasm as a child, because the amount of lost sleep I would have endured may have resulted in being held back a grade. Phantasm is a one-of-a-kind horror movie, seemingly springing from a brain storming session of what people are afraid of. It ends up feeling like a wax museum of horror frights, with a wide variety of spooky images that only occasionally relate to the plot. And yes, there is a plot -- run from the bad stuff. It's the kind of movie that couldn't be remade today: there's only one Tall Man, and most of the movie's charming creep-factor relies on mood..

It's a tribute to Coscarelli that it all comes together to work so well. A production light on story, heavy on special effects, yet with minimal budget. Some sleight-of-hand effects work well to mask what shortcoming Phantasm had in the cash department, and music by Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave adds another uneasy element to the atmosphere. The music may be my favorite part of Phantasm, and one of the reasons it's so easy to turn on anytime -- has there ever been a more rocking horror score? What starts as eerie, slowly builds up to almost soft rock when the percussion kicks up later in the movie, providing a perfect backdrop to the Tall Man's pursuit.

From the beginning, Coscarelli gives you slight hints of what you're in for: a glimpse of a hooded dwarf scurrying behind a grave, the silent mystery of what lurks inside the mortuary and ... who is that Tall Man? Thankfully, there are few to no answers in Phantasm. It exists as a nightmare that goes in and out of actual dreams, never trying to explain whatever evil is at play in Morningside Cemetery: are there other Tall Man portals on our planet? Is it another dimension? Where does the mortuary go after it disappears? Almost every scene asks another question without an opportunity for an answer (the finger turns into a bug?), and Coscarelli keeps the scares coming so there's no reason to keep wondering.

The Tall Man has to be one of the best original monsters of the past few decades. What is it about him that works so well? He's not exactly tall or ugly -- he just has that walk and that hair, and that way of saying things: "You play a good game, boy. But the game is up -- it's time to die!" I think Phatasm is one of the few movies where I can picture a television series based on it: each week, a new hair-raising adventure for Mike and Reggie with the Tall Man. And every episode ends the same way -- with the Tall Man lunging at Mike through a mirror.


Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Initial thoughts on Kubrick box set

Well, Oct. 23 is finally here and as you can see from above -- I did not need reminding. Just a few early items about the Kubrick box set, I expect to have more comprehensive posts on the DVDs after checking out all the extras.

-- A nice surprise is the cover art, which is different (save for The Shining) from the new individual releases that also came out today (get a look at the normal art here). It's a cool extra, and I really like how the 2001 cover looks with the effect. The reverse sides are identical to the individual releases, which unlike the box set come with slip covers.

--Eyes Wide Shut is advertised on the back as "Selectable in both rated and -- for the first time in North America -- unrated versions," yet as far as I can tell the unrated version is the only one on the disc. In most DVDs with this option, you go to a menu after selecting "play" that allows you to toggle between rated or unrated, but there's nothing like that here. The second disc contains all extras. The rated version is definitely no real loss, since all you gain are those CGI censors, but it's a little curious that it's missing.

--About those CGI censors in the Eyes orgy scene: Their absence has a much more positive impact on that scene than I had anticipated. They were a distraction to begin with, but without them an already great scene is made even better. It just seems right to see all the debauchery that Bill is seeing, and the sex itself is presented with the artistry of the rest of the movie. A shot of two women having oral sex with their masks still on is an interesting choice that adds to the scene's mysterious atmosphere.

--A commentary track on Full Metal Jacket featuring Adam Baldwin, Vincent D'Onofrio, R. Lee Ermey and critic/screenwriter Jay Cocks is highly entertaining and informative. There's no dead air, and everyone has something insightful to say.

--That said, Full Metal Jacket is the only release in this set unavailable individually on regular DVD. HD and BluRay get an individual release, though that may be due to the fact that the current release of the movie on next generation formats had mastering problems.

--I'm excited to watch Vivien Kubrick's documentary The Making of the Shining, that surprisingly contains a commentary track.

--2001 has a lot of good looking extras, including a 1966 audio-only interview with Kubrick.

For $55, this is a very attractive box set.

Monday, October 22, 2007

DOUBLE BILL: 'The Terror' of 'Targets'

Note: This post is a contribution to the Double Bill Blog-a-Thon at Broken Projector.

Targets is a movie about a seemingly ordinary, well-behaved man who suddenly goes on a killing rampage in Southern California. So it's a bit odd that it starts out with Dick Miller and Boris Karloff in a castle shouting about something, with water quickly filling up the room. Credits fill up the screen, and we learn that Karloff is indeed in the movie -- but where are the guns? And why do we keep seeing that raven? And who's that ghostly woman we see before "The End" pops up on screen. Peter Bogdanovich's first major film, Targets is a unique experience for the viewer in part because it makes great use of another film, Roger Corman's The Terror, released five years earlier in 1963. For this Double Bill, we're going to screen The Terror first.

The Terror (1963)
A French cavalry guard riding on the beach. An attractive woman who may be a ghost. A castle inhabited by the strange Baron von Leppe and his assistant Stefan. A raven. These are the main characters in Corman's The Terror, and there are well-known names behind almost all of them (I don't know the name of the raven): Jack Nicholson, Dick Miller, Boris Karloff and Sandra Knight. Behind the camera at one point or another during the piecemeal production were Francis Ford Coppola, Monte Hellman, Jack Hill and even Nicholson. And the actors and collaborators aren't the only familiar pieces of the film -- Von Leppe's castle interior is also seen in the Corman pictures Tomb of Ligeia, The Haunted Palace and The Raven.

Shot in the dream-like Pathe color, The Terror is titled as horror, but is more mystery or detective story than anything. Nicholson's Lt. Andre Duvalier has been separated from his military unit, and seeks shelter in Von Leppe's castle, as well as an explanation for the beautiful woman he saw on the beach who disappeared. Von Leppe is hesitant to do either, and the fidgety Stefan seems to be hiding something. Oh, and the raven is outside cawing. A coherent story is not always on the screen, as it seems most of the movie is comprised of Duvalier following Von Leppe around the castle asking questions. Eventually, the mysterious woman appears (and disappears) again, and some elements of Von Leppe's past are revealed. The raven makes many more appearances (often cawing), there's lots of shouting at the end, Stefan and the bird get in a fight on a cliff, and the raven wins.

There's never a point in The Terror where it doesn't feel like a legendarily cheapo Corman production, and it's really not one of his better cheapos. But considering it was filmed in many fragments by several directors, it comes together pretty well, and has a fun gothic atmosphere. But these aspects combined to make The Terror a great choice for a second life in Bogdanovich's Targets -- as a run-of-the-mill drive-in movie. Bogdanovic made the movie at Corman's urging, with the conditions being that he use portions of The Terror and also utilize Karloff, who owed the producer two days of shooting from another production.

Please enjoy this episode of Batfink

Targets (1968)
Since we're now familiar with The Terror, it's a little strange to see it on the screen again, this time with credits imposed over the film's climax. We once again see Von Leppe's discovery in the tomb, with good old raven flying next to "The End." The next shot shows us the origin of what we were watching: a studio screening for producers, director Sammy Michaels (Bogdanovich) and star Byron Orlock (Karloff). Orlock is an aging horror star who is ready for retirement, studio contract or not, and is also hesitant to participate in a hokey premiere of The Terror at a local drive-in. The next shot of Orlock is a masterful introduction to the film's other main character, Bobby, who has Orlock in his crosshairs from a gun shop across the street. Bobby has a lot of guns, and he's about to buy some more. Leaving the gun shop, Bobby opens the trunk of his Mustang to reveal a startling weapons cache. For the rest of the film, we follow Bobby and Orlock's paths until they meet in a near-perfect climax.

Bobby appears to be a young man cut right out of the My Two Sons mold, and he's more than eager to speak to his parents in "Yes, sir!" "Great!" and "Delicious" tones. But besides his gun collection, there are a few other odd aspects about Bobby: during an outing at the shooting range, he puts his father in his crosshairs briefly, and when his wife comes home from work that night, she finds him sitting in the dark smoking a cigarette. The next morning, Bobby mechanically kills everyone in the house, leaving a confession note and a warning of many more killings that day. Orlock, meanwhile, is spending the day in high spirits, content that his often disappointing career is coming to a close. He will make an appearance at the drive-in tonight, and that will be that.

Bobby's killing path will take him to a water tower overlooking a freeway, where he will pick off several cars with remarkable ease -- while eating a sandwich and drinking a Dr. Pepper. While eluding the police later in the day, Bobby finds the perfect hiding place for more mayhem: behind the screen at the drive-in. It is here where The Terror again becomes a character, with the images of Von Leppe, Duvalier and the raven filling the screen. Bogdanovich films the drive-in scenes perfectly, with dialog barely audible through the collective drone of the tiny car-mounted speakers. Bogdanovich makes great use of The Terror's B-movie quality, showing us fragments of it that make it appear even less comprehensible than in full form. Orlock arrives just as Bobby's terror begins, and as people drive out of the lot in horror, he takes it as their reaction to his movie.

The Terror and Targets come full circle as Orlock gets out of his car to find the source of all this murderous mayhem. Bobby looks up at the screen to see Von Leppe walking down a castle corridor, and then looks to his left to see Orlock walking toward him. The converging characters -- fiction and reality in one -- is too much for Bobby, as he surrenders with his hands over his eyes.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Two new horror favorites

Following up on the post below about 31 Flicks That Give You the Willies, it's once again a great month to find out about underseen and underrated horror movies. I recently took in two of these flicks, and have nothing but good to say about both of them:

The Tomb of Ligeia (1964)

A tip of Vincent Price's top hat to Neil Sarver for this one. After reading Neil's recommendation, I saw that TCM was showing the Roger Corman classic the following day -- huzzah! The Tomb of Ligeia contains one of my new favorite openings of any horror movie. How could you turn away after hearing these opening lines:

"You cannot bury her in consecrated ground, she was un-Christian!"

"This is my ground."

"It's the Lord's ground."

"Then let the Lord refuse her."

"She will not rest with the Christian dead."

"She will not rest for she is not dead ... to me. And she will not die for she willed not to die."
The opening scene is a dark funeral procession at a crumbling English abby. Price's character, Verden, carries the body of his wife Ligeia, which has a convenient window to display her face. After she is lowered into the ground, we see her eyes pop open, which Verden attributes to a "simple reflex." A snarling black cat walks over her grave, and the pallbearers leave in horror, Verden asking if "cat got your tongue?" The film's title is displayed over the cat and Ligeia's tombstone, then we're taken through a creative credits scene of numerous gothic paintings featuring the abby and that darned cat.

It's a beautiful beginning to an entertaining movie, shot in gorgeous widescreen in England and on a familiar Corman set that was also used for The Terror, The Raven and The Haunted Palace. The last of Corman's Edgar Allen Poe-based movies, the short story Ligeia provided the basis here. Poe's 1838 story featured a narrator married to the strange title character, although he could not remember her last name or quite how they met. His wife was obsessed with the philosophy of a person's will to live, and also die, and continues through her passing. As in most Poe stories, the ending packs a punch. Corman's movie does not show us any of Ligiea's life, instead focusing on Verden and his relationship with Lady Rowena, whom he meets shortly after the opening funeral.
A dapper gentleman who is forced to wear bad-ass wraparound sunglasses due to light sensitivity, Verden is haunted by Ligiea's existence, or lack thereof. Strange things happen after her death: the date of her death is removed from her tomb (Verden probably did it, but he can't remember), a hunting party's trophy fox disappears from plain view (a fox was Ligiea's symbol) and that black cat is not exactly welcoming of Rowena. While not scary, The Tomb of Ligeia has an intoxicating atmosphere of morbid English mystery. Verden's abby is an amazing setpiece (particularly in outdoor scenes), and the story builds right up until the pure Poe ending (with a little more action added in from Corman). And as good as the opening dialog was, nothing matches this beauty from Verden, which I hope was taken straight from the Poe text:
"Christopher, not ten minutes ago I... I tried to kill a stray cat with a cabbage, and all but made love to the Lady Rowena. I succeeded in squashing the cabbage and badly frightening the lady. If only I could lay open my own brain as easily as I did that vegetable, what rot would be freed from its grey leaves?"
I Walked With a Zombie (1943)

These Val Lewton/Jaques Tourneur movies never cease to entertain, and while it's not as good a movie as Cat People, it's equally as bold and mysterious. One of the most interesting elements of this movie is the title, which seems to put it in the same league as Teenagers from Outer Space or My Stepmom's a Werewolf. I took the "walk" in the title as a courtship slang, maybe equating to I Went With a Zombie, and expected a tale of a husband or boyfriend who turned into a zombie. And when you learn that the title is literal, the choice seems strange or perhaps a bad translation ("You walked with a zombie? Big whoop, my family got eaten by them!").

While the title is a little off, the film is anything but. A reworking of Jane Eyre, I Walked With a Zombie shares the novel's concept of a husband with a wife allegedly gone mad, with a comely new woman firmly in his sights. Betsy is a nurse who has agreed to help on a Caribbean plantation, where she cares for the owner's wife Jessica. Suffering from the strange effects of a local fever, Jessica is in a near vegetable state -- a zombie. Constantly dressed in flowing white with an eerily distant stare, Jessica is the haunting mystery that is central to the film. After falling in love with husband Paul, Betsy is determined to cure Jessica, as her condition seems to defy medical logic.

The film's title refers to its most satisfying scene, when Jessica and Betsy walk through the plantation's wheat fields to a spooky voodoo gathering. With this scene, the relationship between Betsy and Jessica gathers some sapphic qualities, especially if you interpret the "walk" element the way I did. It's a beautiful scene, with the moonlight shining through Jessica's gown and the scenery allowing you to almost feel the West Indies night heat. Tourneur has a field day with the odd voodoo elements, and Darby Jones' piercing Carrefour character is the physical embodiment of the area's zombie practices, with bulging eyes and an emaciated gait. Not one of the scarier of producer Val Lewton's horror movies, but the sexual undercurrent in a creepy voodoo land appeal of I Walked With a Zombie makes it memorable.