Tuesday, December 20, 2011


It's a gorgeous production, really. I think the original story is absolutely foolproof in the horror and the humanity it evokes (and that its message is timeless), and all an adaptation really has to do is commit to the characters and the words, but my goodness. George C. Scott gives a full-blooded, totally human Scrooge - cold-blooded at the start, but every little reaction he gives on the way back to humanity's embrace is well-calibrated, building on the one before it. And the whole damn cast commits - among others, who knew that David Warner had such reservoirs of vulnerability to draw upon?

A mention of the late Edward Woodward (yes he died two years ago, but I miss him still). I remember watching this with my mom, the first night it aired. Budding cinephile that I was, I was digging the period detail, the effectiveness of the performances and photography, and just having a nice pre-holiday with mom and this story. But good lord, when the Ghost of Christmas Present bounded in, Mom and I were both agape. Who the hell is this guy? Bedecked in white fur, holly laurels, and an impossible mane of hair, Woodward is the ultimate, pre-eminent party animal, both Lord of the Dance and one of the pubgoers from Wire's "A Serious Of Snakes". Watching him playfully fucking with Scrooge on their tour of Christmas present, and then seeing that mischief turn vicious as he delivers a WITHERING judgment on him, is an absolute joy. I wasn't at all surprised when Woodward returned to CBS the following year in his own series, and I like to think that some executive saw him booming through A CHRISTMAS CAROL and, for some beautifully obscure reason, said "Holy shit, this guy, THIS is our Robert McCall."

(Thanks to fellow Woodwardian Stacia at She Blogged by Night for the second image above.

And Merry Christmas to you.)

Thursday, December 8, 2011

the Cassavetes dream

In the dream I'm watching a Cassavetes film.

It is the opening night of a play (so I assume the film is OPENING NIGHT, which I've never seen). I'm watching the film from within, travelling like a camera through various rooms backstage.

I note a tuxedo'd Cassavetes as director, pacing with a strange focused aimlessness. He is the director, after all. Gena Rowlands is in this lovely purple costume. Everything's tension and hushed excitement.

I slip alone into a small ready room and start crying. I'm aware that this moment is lost, even as I walk within it.

The show, now an opera, begins, continues, and ends.

Everybody's buzzed after the show. I'm offering congratulations to passing cast members. Soon I am brought to John, lucid but reclining on a brown sofa. He's happy to see me. He asks me if I'd ever seen "Prucci" (the opera just performed). I tell him no - he recommends it. I ask him if he conceived a fully mountable production of "Prucci" for the film. "Not quite," he says, allowing that he wanted the production to look full and convincing for the film, but that he stopped short of basically mounting the whole thing.

A huge rainstorm outside. Getting home will be tough, since I walked to the venue. It clears a bit, and I'm offered a ride home by one of the performers. She's a striking, dark-haired woman in black leather jacket and the tightest, shiniest, thickest black vinyl trousers I've ever seen on someone (in either reality or in dreams). "Come on," she says, and splits.

John gives me this warm but knowing look, chuckles, and says, "Yeah, you gotta go." I do of course.

Outside the woman has turned into a more earthy, but still charming woman who speaks to me in a recognizably East Coast accent. She asks me if I live in the dorms. I tell her I do. She laughs, says she hasn't lived in the dorms since she was older than me. She's 29. I tell her I'm forty. Visibly impressed, she tells me that clearly my battery's still running. And then the alarm clock goes off and fucks it all up.


You may recall that your proprietor was recently displaced from his apartment by a fire that tore through the building a couple of months back. I'm pleased to report that I've secured a place to live (after rooming in the homes of three different, dear friends), and am moving into a room in a Victorian just 1.5 blocks from my former-and-ideally-future residence. I move in early next week, and am relieved to have a space for at least the immediate future that is mine.

Thanks to everyone who wrote or tweeted their support. I'm blessed to have such thoughtful well-wishers, and your friendship has been a beacon through a darker period than I ever hope to experience again.


Justine isn't happy. Surrounded by family, friends, and colleagues during her wedding dinner, Justine's profound sense of depression and alienation casts a thick pall over the proceedings. This is evident to no one so much as Justine's doting (if frustrated) sister Claire, and Claire's husband John (who financed Justine's wedding). An untold number of days later, Justine's mood seems to change as a mysterious planet pulls dangerously close to Earth's orbit.

While watching MELANCHOLIA I couldn't help but flash onto Hitchcock's THE BIRDS. Like that film, the supernaturally-driven disaster of the second half seems indirectly caused by the heroine's actions and moods during the more realistically domestic first half. (Further Hedrenism comes in a painful horseback riding scene that recalls MARNIE.) But outside this atypical rhyme of another filmmaker's work, MELANCHOLIA is a Lars von Trier film through and through. The shifts from gorgeously rendered effects shots to documentary-styled scenes of domestic disturbance are familiar from BREAKING THE WAVES and THE KINGDOM, and the completely ineffective intellectual, aggressive male (played effectively here by Kiefer Sutherland) is a staple of Trier's work all the way back to EPIDEMIC.

Trier's use of an overture (music from Tristan und Isolde accompanying scenes of the film's cast amid apocalyptic images) is particularly deft here. Setting up our expectations from the very start, allowing that yes, indeed, the world will end in this film, we become more alert to the story unfolding. We're attentive to the strong performances of both Kirsten Dunst (who powerfully nails both Justine's depression and her eerie tranquility) and Charlotte Gainsbourg (whose groundedness gives way to all-consuming desperation). We look for hints that Justine's moods are tied into the events transpiring around her. We become more deeply engrossed, hoping that the stylized opening was only a fantasy, that maybe we're not doomed after all. And we take comfort in the weird grace and strength that ultimately radiates from Justine, seeing the futility and pointlessness of the world's rituals through her eyes and feeling an odd calm as we separate from them.

For all the film's stylization, it's in many ways Trier's most human film. I can't think of a more true-feeling representation of depression (this is surely aided by both Trier and Dunst's experiences with it) in film, or the reactions to it. There's something oddly upbeat in the very realization of this film - I don't recall Trier ever realizing a project this quickly that resonated with such depth.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011


A comely reporter for a late-night news show is trying to make the best of what promises to be a boring night covering the lives of firemen. An emergency call to the station has first responders (with their documentarians in tow) rushing into an apartment complex to aid an infirm old woman whose peculiar behavior has her neighbors fearing the worst. The video camera captures events as they escalate from bad to worse: the woman seems in the throes of a disease that is making her violent; the authorities have quarantined the building; and those trapped inside are dying horribly one by one. And they aren't staying dead.

If anyone is even thinking about making yet another first-person, shot-on-DV film about the zombie apocalypse, they need to take a good, long look at [REC], and be honest about whether or not their project will bring anything new to the table. Though filmmakers Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza are treading paths well-worn by low budget horror auteurs, their attention to character details, pacing, and documentary realism bring a bracing freshness and real suspense to what could have been yet another zombie flick. All genre familiarity goes right out the window as [REC]'s long horrible night unfolds, and even a final reel reveal that threatens to undermine the realism of the piece only serves to heighten our anxiety. The thing fucking works.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


Chadzilla has posted like four different times about this movie, and who can blame him? Adapting his short story "Trucks", author Stephen King admits to having made a moron movie (and that he was coked up for pretty much the entire shoot)(as you did when making a genre picture in the 80s). But he sells it like a motherfucker in this, one of my favorite movie trailers ever:

Your proprietor makes no bones whatsoever about loving this film. Experienced theatrically during its original run, this movie, the tale of a desperate group of people held hostage at a truck stop by motor vehicles animated by sinister forces, charmed me with its low-key humor and anything-can-happen automotive violence. Even the score by AC/DC (which I was too jaded to admit to liking at the time) has grown on me over time - I dig particularly the ripoff of Herrmann's PSYCHO score that slashes through the film's bloodier moments.

A number of memories tied into screenings of this film also keep it solid in my esteem. For a long while (until last year, actually) it held the distinction of being the last film I saw at a drive-in theatre. Saw it with my grandfather, George Baker, in the summer of '86 at a Salt Lake City drive-in, in fact. George was a big Stephen King fan, and had mentioned that "Trucks" was his favorite King story on a number of occasions. When I told him about MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE he was hot to see it, even as I volunteered, though willing to see it again, that it wasn't what one might call a good movie. It was playing at the bottom half of a double bill, and though we were willing to venture out late, my grandmother guilted us into leaving earlier, on the argument that it would be silly not to see the movie at the top of the bill as well. Never mind that the movie in question was FRIDAY THE 13th PART VI: JASON LIVES - such things didn't matter to her. George was stoic through that film (though I did quietly admire the face-into-metal-sheeting killing), but grandfather and grandson both had themselves a time during MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE.

The movie lingers in my consciousness for a number of reasons, and I suspect it's stronger than I'm giving it credit for (any movie you like isn't a bad movie). When Stacie Ponder solicited her readers for their favorite single horror character over at Final Girl, I vacillated too long for my entry to be counted in her Shocktober event. Every day I tried to come up with a single favorite character I'd come up with a list, and each day different characters vied for supremacy. But one character showed up each time I thought about it, lurking through all of the debate like Richard in KING HENRY VI, and on the basis of that ongoing presence in mind I decided my favorite horror character ever is the Green Goblin truck from this very film. Maybe King was totally coked out for the making of this thing, but dammit, whatever crazy suburb of Ideatown he went to to conceive a bloodthirsty truck with a supervillain face was a worthwhile stop.


Sunday, November 13, 2011


The movie just holds up, though it's not hard to see why it was less than successful. It condenses an awful lot of material into its running time, and brother, if you don't pay heed to the dense exposition of the first few minutes you're gonna be lost.

I remember being amazed by the film when I was younger, though having read the novel in anticipation of the film certainly helped guide me through its complicated politics and galaxy-spanning setting. I'd seen THE ELEPHANT MAN and was even at 13 enough of an auteurist that I was excited about seeing a new David Lynch film.

Returning to the film with fresher eyes (and a greater understanding of what, exactly, a David Lynch film is), it's impossible to dismiss the film, as compromised as it is. Though Lynch would never have final cut on a movie this massive, there are plenty of his tropes and obsessions that ring loud and clear, from the grotesquerie of his villains and their setting (the Harkonnen home planet Geidi Prime looks much like the Philly of ERASERHEAD) to the wide-eyed innocence of its hero (and his journey toward wisdom). The power of Paul's unconscious, rendered in vivid dream sequences that no other director could have realized, and the strength he derives from it may indeed be one of Lynch's most direct on-screen corollaries to his own spirituality. (Though D. reminds me that just about every Lynch film features a protagonist confronting his/her subconscious - I immediately remembered Dale Cooper's dreams in TWIN PEAKS, but was further reminded of Betty's dream world in MULHOLLAND DR., and a mess of other examples come to mind just sitting here.)

And even if the thing is choppier than it should have been, torn as it was between Lynch's desires, those of the di Laurentii, and the demands of the marketplace, there's an emotional throughline that feels as tapped to the Unified Field as anything else Lynch has made. It's not clear in the film why it's important that it rain on Arrakis; that it's powerful and moving when it finally does is undeniable.

Given the vast amount of material shot for this film, one wishes Lynch would return to the project, and reshape what was there to something closer to his intent. But his disappointment with the project as a whole is well-documented, and as tantalizing as the notion is it'd be folly to put too much stock in it. What we have is all we're going to get of that particular film. But Kyle MacLachlan's growing divinity; Kenneth McMillan's goony malevolence; the majesty of the sandworms; the beatific but creepy presence of the prematurely mature Alia Atreides; hell, even the guitars that swell up during Eno's Prophecy theme at key moments are more than enough to make this thing, as it stands, feel complete.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Penn State, Paterno, and Polanski

Like many of my peers, I've been sickened at the details and the fallout of the Penn State football sex scandal. There's a timeline of the charges here, helpfully culled by author CC Finlay from the lengthy but clear (and harrowing/nauseating) Grand Jury Presentment here.

I find myself thinking back to two years ago, when filmmaker Roman Polanski was arrested in Switzerland and facing extradition to California where he would presumably finally be judged for his 1977 offenses against then-13-year-old Samantha Geimer. There was what felt like a deafening roar among those who were grateful that Polanski was finally going to receive proper justice. The fervor felt like that of a lynch mob (though only Jonathan Rosenbaum was brave enough to point this out), as did the outrage prompted by a petition of filmmakers from around the world asking for Polanski's release.

Back in the present, the charges leveled against Penn State athletic officials, including the allegations of a cover-up by many including beloved football coach Joe Paterno, have finally grown too big for Penn State to ignore. After Paterno's dismissal, thousands of outraged Penn State students took to the streets for a violent riot...in support of Paterno. There's been some disappointment expressed, but nowhere near the level of outrage expressed over Polanski's crime.

I'm wondering why the multitudes (and there were an awful lot of people) who were howling for Polanski's blood upon his 2009 arrest are not downright apoplectic over both the multiple sex crimes perpetrated within Penn State's athletic facility, as well as the institution-level cover-ups of those crimes. At least from the vantage point of my Facebook account I see scant few of those among the anti-Polanski mob sounding off with any of that fervor regarding the Penn State atrocities. I feel like the media coverage is similarly skewed, with far less bandwidth being used to cover the ongoing Penn State scandal than was used to pillory Polanski.

I'm asking myself if I too am biased - I engage film with the same religious fervor as many Penn State fans (and sports fans in general) engage football, and I've wondered more than once if I'm giving Polanski something of a pass simply because he made CHINATOWN and THE TENANT. And yet comparing the two cases, I can't help but feel like Polanski (who did submit to arrest, serve a court-ordered psych evaluation, and spent several weeks in jail) has held himself more accountable, and comported himself better, than anyone involved in the Penn State scandal.

Which, in and of itself, speaks to the depth of their depravity.


On whosever side you stand in this matter, be you film freak or football fanatic, if you're moved to outrage by anything you've read about this case, be it here or elsewhere, I hope you'll consider contributing time or money to a local charity in support of survivors of sexual assault. The crimes continue, and those affected by them could use your support.

Monday, November 7, 2011


THE BAT WHISPERS, one of my favorite films, is spun from a comedy whodunnit called THE BAT by Avery Hopwood and Mary Roberts Rinehart. It offers an expressionistic take on the genre, framing its characters in bizarre architecture and inky shadows (in addition to seeding the character of Batman in the mind of the young Bob Kane). I'd known it was the second take on the material by director Roland West, but his first - a silent film made four years prior - had eluded me.

Happily, last Friday the San Francisco Film Society had a 9:30pm screening of the first film, so I was pleased to finally catch up with it. It is something of a rough draft for the more ambitious and accomplished later film, but it still offers a remarkable (if rougher) visual take on the proceedings. With the dialogue confined to title cards, the mysteries permeating the film are given somewhat scant treatment, but there's enough there to keep the details interesting amid the experiments with light, shadow, and setting. And the shorthand necessitated by the silent film format works to the film's advantage as the Bat is finally captured thanks to a hilarious detail planted in the first reel.

Adding to the event was the musical accompaniment by Bay Area guitarist Ava Mendoza and her drummer Nick Tamburro. There's a healthy amount of silent film/live music pairings here throughout the year, and the music more often than not leans towards a kind of cutesy whimsy. Mendoza and Tamburro were much more daring, and their looping technology and improv energy served West's mise-en-scene beautifully, often electrically. Rather than preserve the film in a kind of amber, their music truly brought the film to life. It was my first encounter with their work - here's hoping it won't be the last.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


D: Why're we the youngest people here?

Me: Because young people aren't being taught that Bresson matters.

D: (pause) Bresson's all that matters.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Dr. Phibes puts your proprietor to the Test...

Dr. Phibes is in...

...and administering a Halloween horror test through the indispensable continuing ed program run over at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. And the questions suggest that he's as queer for Dark Shadows as your proprietor, which is no less than Halloween deserves. ONWARD!

1) Favorite Vincent Price/American International Pictures release.

Gonna go with The Haunted Palace, mainly for the post-production gymnastics the film went through to shoehorn it into Corman's ongoing Poe cycle, and for the joy I had seeing it in San Pedro last month. It is a lovely piece of Lovecraftian cinema, though, and Price is just fine in it.

2) What horror classic (or non-classic) that has not yet been remade would you like to see upgraded for modern audiences?

Though many might argue that it's science fiction, The Incredible Shrinking Man is a dandy horror film. Though I'm extremely wary of the notion of Keenan Ivory Wayans and Eddie Murphy remaking it (as has been threatened for years), I'm not averse to a contemporary take on it. In my mind's cinema it retains the original dialogue (including Grant Williams' achingly gorgeous final monologue), and boasts a new Radiohead score.

Another remake I would like to have seen is the proposed Tim Burton/Lisa Marie remake of Bava's Black Sunday. Marie really should have been the star of one of her lover's films - one of those rare instances where I think intimates should collaborate, considering the amazing work she did in others of his films - but it wasn't meant to be.

3) Jonathan Frid or Thayer David?

The 1795 storyline put me in awe of David's incredible sensitivity. But Barnabas Collins is the fucking Man, so I gotta go with Frid.

Believe it.

4) Name the one horror movie you need to see that has so far eluded you.

I won't count movies I've seen on video but not theatrically (would love to catch up with An American Werewolf in London on film, someday) or films that are famously lost (like London After Midnight). I suppose it's a bit strange that I haven't seen the original Friday the 13th, but I feel greater pangs over having seen so few of the giallo flicks on the incredible list posted on Sound On Sight today.

5) Favorite film director most closely associated with the horror genre.

I gotta go with Dario Argento. The stylization of his best films sends me, and even his worst films are quite watchable. This blog was originally to be called the House of Peacocks, located in Brussels, Belgium, as an homage to the man but I decided to change up the name to give it its own flavor.

6) Ingrid Pitt or Barbara Steele?

No damn contest: Barbara Steele. Black Sunday clinches it alone. Plus her eyes are incredible:

7) Favorite 50’s sci-fi/horror creature.

Next week I intend to buy a lush sushi dinner for my host and watch some of the films featuring this creature, on its birthday. Through all of his iterations, my fondness for Godzilla remains unabated.

8) Favorite/best sequel to an established horror classic.

Whether or not Child's Play is an established horror classic is open to debate, but Bride of Chucky absolutely transcends it. Ronny Yu packs the thing with a cornucopia of fine choices, from the blue lighting to Jennifer Tilly's fetishwear to the deployment of a bubble machine during the transformation sequence.

Of all the Hong Kong expatriates who worked in Hollywood following the 1997 changeover, Yu's output may be the most curious. I very nearly picked his Freddy vs. Jason to answer this question - like Bride, it eschews any attempt at scariness to instead focus on artfully crafting a bloody fantasy.

9) Name a sequel in a horror series which clearly signaled that the once-vital franchise had run out of gas.

My threshold for watchability is very low, i.e. it takes a lot to make me want to write off a franchise. That said, per my previous entry, Halloween: Resurrection is absolutely tedious, and (among many other problems) wastes the talents of a former classmate.

10) John Carradine or Lon Chaney Jr.?

With respect, Carradine.

11) What was the last horror movie you saw in a theater? On DVD or Blu-ray?

As of this writing (executed piecemeal, over several days), Nadja was the last horror movie I saw theatrically. And though it doesn't count as a horror film per se, the "Just A Dream" two-parter from the Justice League cartoon offered some surprisingly-strong-for-Y7-rated imagery, and a beautifully nuanced voice performance by William Atherton as John Dee/Doctor Destiny.

12) Best foreign-language fiend/monster.

Rather than repeat myself, I'll say Kayako/Toshio from the Ju-On/The Grudge series. Each of the films has at least somewhat unsettled me, and I think taken together they're one of the most notable bodies of work in the genre of the last thirty years.

13) Favorite Mario Bava movie.

Oh, goddammit. Shit. Black Sabbath, then, for style, variety, genuine scares, real laughs, and that mind-bending coda.

14) Favorite horror actor and actress.

Lugosi. The aforementioned Steele.

15) Name a great horror director’s least effective movie.

Clearly recognizing that The Card Player is the least of Argento's features didn't keep me from wishing it were the pilot to an ongoing TV series. I also note that I had kind of a fucked up experience with his most recent film, Giallo, put off as I was by the false spoiler in the film's IMDB page. And that tacked-on ending undermines what could have been Argento's most powerful finish.

16) Grayson Hall or Joan Bennett?

Joan Bennett brings class to Collinwood, but there's a scene toward the end of the first Barnabas arc where Julia is beset by low-tech, ghostly visions. It's basically Grayson Hall just riding a fucking crazy train - for ten glorious, unbroken minutes, the only thing you saw on ABC was Grayson Hall losing her shit. I would LOVE to have been in the studio the day that scene was shot.

17) When did you realize that you were a fan of the horror genre? And if you’re not, when did you realize you weren’t?

God, I don't even remember. I'm not sure it was a single epiphany as much as it was a gradual process. I steadily weathered all of the images that schoolmate Yuri Lowenthal savvily collected as the root of our generation's cinematic trauma (specifically: the daughters in The Shining; the clown in Poltergeist; the sister in Twilight Zone: The Movie [see below]; and Ralphie Glick at the window in Salem's Lot) and just gradually developed a taste for it.

18) Favorite Bert I. Gordon (B.I.G.) movie.

It doesn't boast the giant insects/creatures run amok that most people associate with the Gordon oeuvre, but I thought Tormented was a nicely effective little spook show. Plus it had a fun role for Joe Turkel.

19) Name an obscure horror favorite that you wish more people knew about.

I want to share Bigas Luna's film Anguish with everyone, but need them to not read reviews and to just fucking trust me.

20) The Human Centipede-- yes or no?

I'm going to go with "fuck, no." Not because of its disgusting premise, but because it offers no wit or insight along with its gruesomeness. I've said before that if Tom Six was so influenced by David Cronenberg, then how come his films aren't smarter?

21) And while we’re in the neighborhood, is there a horror film you can think of that you felt “went too far”?

I've no desire to see A Serbian Film. Or to link to it.

22) Name a film that is technically outside the horror genre that you might still feel comfortable describing as a horror film.

Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd., in addition to being my favorite of his films, gives me the fucking creeps. Norma Desmond is a glorious mess whose plight transcends camp, and her need to take down others with her is nothing short of vampiric. Terrifying.

23) Lara Parker or Kathryn Leigh Scott?

Like'em both, but Scott gets a slight edge. Not sure why.

24) If you’re a horror fan, at some point in your past your dad, grandmother, teacher or some other disgusted figure of authority probably wagged her/his finger at you and said, “Why do you insist on reading/watching all this morbid monster/horror junk?” How did you reply? And if that reply fell short somehow, how would you have liked to have replied?

Mom would give me this too-pointed glare when she didn't approve of something we'd seen together. I just ignored her. I love her dearly, but when she put that glare on, I ignored her.

25) Name the critic or Web site you most enjoy reading on the subject of the horror genre.

The House of Sparrows would not have opened without the abiding influence of Arbogast on Film and Final Girl.

26) Most frightening image you’ve ever taken away from a horror movie.

27) Your favorite memory associated with watching a horror movie.

The applause that busted out in the Castro Theatre the third time she said "Bastard."

28) What would you say is the most important/significant horror movie of the past 20 years (1992-2012)? Why?

The Blair Witch Project. It established a template and a spirit for 21st century, low-budget, off-Hollywood horror. And, after the hype and backlash, it was scary as hell.

29) Favorite Dr. Phibes curse (from either film).

Beasts (from the first film). Phibes kills a guy by shooting a brass unicorn at him from across the street, for crying out loud.

30) You are programming an all-night Halloween horror-thon for your favorite old movie palace. What five movies make up your schedule?

This is the question I'm most eager to read the responses to.

An American Werewolf in London - Because I've never seen it projected.

Phenomena/Creepers (Argento, 1985) - Likewise.

Anguish - Because I want to feel an audience's reaction to the halfway point again.

The House With Laughing Windows - Wanna fatten the program up with a movie I've never seen.

The Sleeping Car - Never saw this either, though its mention in a trailer for a month of horror on Cinemax back in the early 90s intrigued me. So my horror-thon is framed by David Naughton pictures. Clearly he's pleased.

Naturally, this exhibition would be loaded with at least two horror trailers before each film, and short films scattered as entr'actes. Including Peter Tscherkassky's Outer Space.

So that's a wrap on this, right on time for Halloween! How'd I do, Doctor? ...Doctor?

Oh, never mind.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


Some extremely random notes on the franchise:

-The first film is simply a masterpiece. John Carpenter had copped to the influence of Howard Hawks with Assault on Precinct 13, and it's interesting to think what Hawks would have made of this assignment. The thing is buoyed by its mythic antagonist, youthful sister-killer turned embodiment of ultimate evil Michael Myers, and as realistic and well-realized as the town of Haddonfield, Illinois feels, it is but a setting for a highly formalistic exercise in suspense. The movie is a well-calibrated tool with the purpose of keeping its audience on edge. More than thirty years on it remains absolutely fresh and involving, and impossible to skip by on television without being absorbed into it anew.

Credit to the two lead performances: Jamie Lee Curtis is a completely relatable heroine, filled with recognizable neuroses. Her reactions to the mounting terror around her are nothing but believable. Laurie's arc grows richer with each viewing: among other things, knowing what she goes through in the final reel gives significant weight to her assurance to her young charge that "I'm not going to let anything happen to you." Believe it.

Donald Pleasance is at the other end of the innocence spectrum, the sole voice of reason and experience that goes under-heeded until it's too late. Though Michael's an imposing and menacing presence throughout, it's the terrified intensity that Pleasance brings to Loomis that makes the threat real. And dig the little arc of Loomis' stakeout of the Myers place - scaring off the kids from behind the shrub, then seconds later getting a scare of his own from the sheriff's hand. Perfectly executed comic miniature.

Add to all of this the film's substantial musical accomplishment (with Carpenter himself providing the most recognizable and insistent horror movie theme this side of Jaws), plus the invaluable contribution of director of photography Dean Cundey (whose work on this immediately catapulted him into prominence) and you've got a pretty terrific little horror film. Given the quality of the film, plus the insane box office it reaped back (after such a minimal investment) during the first years of the franchise era of American filmmaking, it was inevitable that its forumlae would be copied. And that sequels would follow.

-Halloween 2? Not so good. Mired in an unnecessary deepening of the bond between Laurie and Michael, the film is too much a by-rote slasher. One can't help but be a bit disappointed that the movie abandons both the abstraction and the realism of its predecessor to follow the template of its imitators. There's a sense of fatigue, here - even Pleasance, whose pronouncements gave the first film real weight, is just firing them off over his shoulder, like he's trying to get to the pub at the end of the shoot. Perhaps in response to the growing popularity of the Friday the 13th films, a bunch of gore effects were added outside Carpenter's involvement - the film plays a bit better without them. As to the film's invocation of Samhain (and Pleasance's surprising mispronunciation of same), it pretty much captures the movie's overambition (in explaining too much) and half-assedness.

-Halloween 3: Season of The Witch was a GREAT fucking idea, trying to spin the title into a Michael Myers-less franchise of Halloween-related tales, guided by many members of the original creative team (particularly Dean Cundey, and Carpenter himself present as producer and composer). The story of a sinister plot to unleash a pack of Celtic demons upon the world through a toy company's mask promotion is, um, more than a little muddled, but Cundey's gorgeous photography and some spirited performances more than make up for any problems at the plot level. Special mention to Daniel O'Herlihy, who's on the record saying he didn't think much of the material but that he had fun making it anyway. It shows.

-Halloweens 4-6 were quickly ejected by many fans from continuity, but hold up as a watchable (if over-complicated) trilogy of low-rent horror films that nonetheless have their own pleasures.

For one thing, the credits sequence for Halloween 4 is one of my favorite cinematic depictions of autumn:

They're more entertaining than 2, on the whole, and are mainstays on cable television these days. I must admit that when one of them rolls onto television on my nights in, I wind up watching through. The triptych involving Michael's pursuit of a niece (while being pursued, in turn, by Sam Loomis) while a weird cult starts to manifest around him is undemanding but engrossing. Donald Pleasance takes it very seriously, which helps to no end. He clearly felt a bizarre kinship with the series, stating at one point that as long as Michael kept coming back, Sam Loomis would necessarily be there. Halloween 6 was among his final films, and is, sweetly, dedicated to his memory.

-Speaking of which, there's also a strange cult surrounding the producer's cut of Halloween 6. I can't speak to the differences between the versions (though this post has been months in the writing, it was only ever intended to be a quick run-through), though I will say that, despite even this cut being a bit muddled (thanks to the film's insanely troubled creative history) there are a few noteworthy pleasures in 6 that make it more than worthwhile, including an engaging supporting turn as Tommy Doyle by Paul Rudd. Rudd brings a little humor and soul to the kind of resourceful, smart male we really rarely see in slasher films, and the film culminates in a THRILLING fight scene between Tommy and Michael. Directed by Joe Chappelle, before his tenure directing THE WIRE.

--The oddly titled Halloween H20: 20 Years Later, like many horror fans, completely ignored the continuity of Halloweens 4-6 and returned the focus to Laurie Strode, seen struggling as a single parent while working as a teacher at a scenic prep school. Save for the omnipresent theme music, John Carpenter's touch is absent from this film, which has a weird Scream-like pacing and look (the casting of various attractive TV-ready young things doesn't help - Laurie and her high school friends in the first film looked, acted, and FELT like late-70s teenagers). But the movie has some of Scream's verve and wit, as well, with Adam Arkin scoring considerable points as Laurie's lovelorn colleague (the TV edit cuts a hilarious piece of dialogue he has with his students, where he cheerfully matches their wrongness with playful sleaze of his own). The film juices the duality between Laurie and her supernaturally evil brother (a confrontation through a porthole clinches it), and Jamie Lee Curtis plays the final reel like it's fucking Medea or something, stalking her brother through the empty halls of her school, and indeed, her very consciousness.

--The rest of the franchise is sadly pretty crap - Halloween 2 director Rick Rosenthal was brought back to helm the profoundly ill-conceived Halloween: Resurrection, which begins with a well-paced but detestable prologue that dispatches Laurie Strode (and, by natural extension, Jamie Lee Curtis) from the series entirely. As if following the example of fans who have therefore decided to banish the film from memory, the rest of the film strives to be absolutely forgettable, with Michael stalking a group of kids filming their tour of his house as part of an internet reality show you know what just fuck this

--Rob Zombie's reboot of the series doesn't interest me a whole lot. His two films continue to call up the things that I admire about aspects of his style (his knack for capturing a very particular and very lively white trash patois and dialogue) while reminding me of all that I dislike about his style (like putting that particular and lively patois in the mouths of damn near all of his characters). And all that shit with the white horse in his second film was just fucking stupid.

And given that I've been handling this piecemeal for more than a year, I think it's time to just publish the fucker. Thanks for reading.

Monday, October 17, 2011


Today's entry in the annual 31 Screams series at Arbogast on Film enshrines a fabulous reaction shot from The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, wherein a lady on the street has a completely understandable reaction to the rampaging creature that has suddenly arrived on the scene:

My favorite moment in any of the Jurassic Park films comes near the end of The Lost World, when a Tyrannosaurus Rex is just kicking around suburban San Diego. It happens before the carnage and the chase, and Spielberg takes a quiet moment to just let us take in the sight of, as Arbo would say, A FUCKING DINOSAUR WALKING DOWN THE STREET. It gives us just enough time to project the creature onto our own hometown, and though it offers enough frisson to juice the chaos of the final reel, it's this minute that lingers.

In describing the end of this film some critics mentioned allusions to Godzilla or even BF20KF, but this moment was more like Dali. For all our CGI and jadedness, a dinosaur walking down the street just isn't something we see every day. It's not the huge, effects-laden climactic moments of these movies that really resonate; it's the quiet ones where the makers take a second to let us reflect that yes, if this were actually happening, it'd truly flip our shit.

Monday, October 3, 2011

love goes to a House on fire

To clarify, the House of Sparrows is alive and well, if a bit quiet.

The real house lived in by your proprietor, however, is otherwise.

Not a pretty sight, and a truly unhappy thing to return home to. My apartment is not one of the ones on fire there - I live deeper inside the building, and my immediate living space was untouched by fire. Water and smoke damage, however, have claimed much that was within my living space (though I was able to get in and quickly retrieve some necessary and/or precious things left within).

I'm fine, as is everyone else who lives in the building (and their pets). An incredible community of friends, neighbors and well-wishers has assembled to support us.

At the moment I am sheltered, clothed, and fed (with adjacent house-sitting gigs lasting thru the end of October). I'm hoping the ball will roll toward a quick resettlement - happily, I live in San Francisco, a renter-friendly town that seems to be working hard to accommodate me and my neighbors.

Just dropping a note here, should you find this House darker and quieter than usual in the coming weeks. I had not wanted things to be this way in the weeks prior to Halloween, but it really wasn't in my hands.

I hope you all are well, and safely ensconced this Halloween season.

Monday, September 19, 2011

three films.

Chillerama is an anthology horror film, and man, anything fucking goes. There's a contagious joy as each movie attempts to up the one previous for sheer bloody-minded wrongness (the most clever is The Diary of Anne Frankenstein), and various bodily fluids and parts fly with abandon. But the thing's informed by no shortage of love for the drive-in movie experience - the framing sequence sets the movies as the offerings on a drive-in theatre's final night, and emotion and action fuse the caricaturistic but keenly-felt characters wind up making their own desperate bid for survival as a zombie plague sweeps the rows. Chillerama stands tall as a monument for this kind of batshit-crazy experience, and the audience I saw it with at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery offered the kind of enthusiasm and warmth you just can't get watching a movie on your fucking iPhone.

Drive is a lovely film, indeed, from the cold open heist/getaway through the last shot. Ryan Gosling plays his role with Terminator efficiency, but his thawing is absolutely credible. Just about every shot in this thing is suitable for framing (my favorite is the look on Christina Hendricks' face as the pursuing vehicle wipes out through the windshield behind her). Much is being made (quite reasonably) about Albert Brooks' against-type performance, but Bryan Cranston is equally strong - there's not even a shade of Walter White in his broken-down but earnest mechanic. I'd been eager to see how Nicolas Winding Refn (of the PUSHER trilogy, BRONSON, and my favorite FEAR X) would fare in his Hollywood debut - handpicked for the job by Gosling, and given resources and skilled craftspeople than I think he'd ever enjoyed, he's crafted his best film. An 80s-style crime film that nevertheless feels totally fresh.

Restless is an intimate step back by Gus van Sant from the epic period piece trappings of Milk. It's a quiet, quirky (but not overly so) tale of a young misfit whose life is transformed by his relationship with an imaginative cancer patient. There's absolutely nothing in it that hasn't been seen before, but Mia Wasikowska and Henry Hopper are a charming pair of young leads, and the thing is played so quietly and honestly that it earns each of its melodramatic hits.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


A friend recently was worried about today, fearing that the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001 would be a time for another attack. I told her that we couldn't just sit and panic in anticipation of such an attack. Walking forward was the only thing we could do. Also, I added, it's the best thing we can do.

This weekend would seem to be a perverse time to premiere CONTAGION, Steven Soderbergh's tale of a deadly virus that sweeps the globe during a tumultuous autumn and winter. It would be difficult to divorce one's feelings about today from the feelings evoked by this remarkable and spare film. Soderbergh plays expertly on personal and social phobias, capturing both the societal breakdown in the face of disaster and the tiny gestures by which the plague is spread. But its moments of light prove just as potent, similarly tiny gestures that speak to our capacity to stand tall and resolute in the face of chaos.

Though I'd thought I'd put most of my emotions about today behind me, I braced myself for a potentially rough ride. The movie was involving from the first minute, and its startling deployment of the caption "Day 2". But it was one of its artful turning points (a moment involving Jennifer Ehle and a chimp that offered a curious mirror to similar moments in RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES) that truly took me over. After the film I took a much-needed break in the lobby and wept for a moment. After straightening up, I wiped away my tears and, though perhaps not entirely purged, walked forward, out the door into the sunlight.

Thursday, September 8, 2011


"Evil attacks you through your television sets."

This is the suitably ballsy first line of this television episode, and it's delivered by this man:

Brother Max (Alexander Scourby) is addressing the congregation of an inner-city mission on the dangers of Evil, and the threat it poses to us in our daily lives. His spiel is caught in a bracing, uncut 2-minute take:

"You say 'Hallelujah', you say 'Amen'...but what you say and what you do, my friends, they can be very different." And Brother Max should know, as we find someone special waiting for him after the service...

Our hero saunters into the frame, captured, unsurprisingly, in a stolen shot from a handheld camera, in the true Cassavetes manner:

In VO, Johnny tells him that he's been asked to check out a mission to which the girlfriend of a pal has given all her savings. Johnny asks around, eventually winds up in the orbit of the VERY drunk Brother Conrad (Elisha Cook):

Johnny is taken to the congregation of Brother Max, seen holding forth against Evil:

Brother Conrad stands to testify, but finds his repeated drunkenness too many lapses into Evil, and he is cruelly ejected by Brother Max:

Johnny takes the stage to do some testifying of his own, insisting that "nobody was ever that far gone that he couldn't be forgiven." And when he directly charges Brother Max with lying to and exploiting his flock, the faithful descend upon him, knock him unconscious, and leave him in the alley outside:

Brother Max briefly steps outside and cheerfully comes clean to Johnny: he is, indeed, a fraud, who has taken these good people for every penny he could get.

Ironically, this hipster detective's moral compass is more functional than that of the false man of God, and Johnny knows Max is right when he says that to expose him would be to shatter the faith of the parishioners. At the moment, only Johnny and we see Brother Max for who he is.

But their conversation has been observed:

This is Brother Thomas (Lloyd Corrigan), the original founder of this modest church. After 20 years of little success in attracting much of a parish, Thomas found his ministry taken over by Max. And though Max has filled the pews with the devout in a way that Thomas never could, Thomas has always suspected that Max wasn't completely on the level. The shame of these new revelations shatter him.

Johnny knows that if Max is going to be exposed, and if the faith of the parish is to be preserved, Brother Thomas is going to have to be the man to do it. Max is too weak, too ashamed to fight. "You don't have the faith in those people that you expect them to give to you," chides Johnny. "All we can do is try."

Brother Thomas takes the stage to make a last, desperate plea for the souls of his flock...

...and the last we see of Johnny before this final conflict makes us wonder if even he's saying a little prayer:

The seventh episode of Johnny Staccato, starring John Cassavetes in the title role, might as well have been filmed last week. It's a powerful piece of filmmaking, and its portrait of religion abused and faith exploited for the benefit of charlatans is, sadly, as timely as ever. And it's an insanely well-crafted episode, completely jettisoning Johnny's jazz milieu (which had framed the series thus far) to enter some downright Rod Serling territory. Richard Carr's script stays safely off the side of polemic, letting the episode's two main characters remain human even as they embody Good and Evil.

I'd been bothered by the tendency of the show to background its leading man, a tendency that Cassavetes himself seems to acknowledge with the funny framing of this shot:

Johnny emerges here as a conscience, observing the conflict (like us) from the sidelines but still wholly invested. And there's a downright utopian confluence in this episode, as Johnny's moral hipster and Corrigan's meek but resolute man of God find common ground. It's a powerful moment that resonates in these fractious times, and though greed hides behind a number of faces (including a few of those who were debating last night), there's more than one kind of faith, too.

Take a bow, Johnny. And tag it:

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

going retro

I've been more and more concerned about the ongoing recycling across popular culture, wondering when a truly new trend, art form, genre of music, etc. etc. etc. would hit (the arrival of Simon Reynolds' RETROMANIA in the mailbox today may help me put words to my anxiety). But I've always been (perhaps too) nostalgic by nature, and I'm always happy to experience new work by creators I've enjoyed in the past. At its best, this experience reveals that my old favorites continue to create vital work (as Wire, Gary Numan, and Ryuichi Sakamoto, among others continue to do).

So when DC Comics announced DC Retroactive, a series of special, single-issue stories returning creative teams from the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s to the characters they worked on, I was intrigued. Particularly by the return of writer Alan Grant and artist Norm Breyfogle to the Batman book.

The original Grant/Breyfogle run on Batman (with Grant's JUDGE DREDD co-writer John Wagner) was at a fortuitous time. I was as excited about Tim Burton's then-forthcoming BATMAN movie as any of my peers, so excited that in the run-up to the movie's release I resumed reading the Batman titles after years away. At that time, the books included the Wagner/Grant/Breyfogle run on Detective Comics, which I took to instantly. These issues remain something of an unsung classic - Wagner and Grant released all kinds of their Dredd-styled pop madness on the book, combining the street-level grit of Dredd with a weirdly cartoonish darkness (their run is a nice bridge between the classic, pop-artish Englehart/Rogers run and the Bruce Timm animated series). The writers also introduced a mess of new villains to Batman's sizable rogues gallery, including Scarface and the Ventriloquist, who've been revisited by other writers and artists many times since. And Norm Breyfogle was a perfect artist for their run, creating a mise-en-scene of high energy darkness for the stories and realizing the characters with a sometimes cartoonish style that included a downright expressionistic take on physiognomy.

Plus, some of Breyfogle's covers were truly stunning:

The new book, sadly, falls into a number of traps that plague many "retro" style adventures. Grant and Breyfogle resurrect Scarface for their story, but his fate is left weirdly unresolved in Batman's battle with new foe Big Mel (whose origin - given deadly powers after being dunked in chemical goo, he seeks revenge on his criminal former employer - is too close to too many other comic book villains, including Wagner/Grant/Breyfogle's own Corrosive Man). Breyfogle's shapes and staging are as striking as ever, but his lines are a bit too think, and the coloring too soft to recapture the bleeding darkness that served his Batman so well. But the thing works, mainly thanks to the introduction of a sympathetic cab driver, once a criminal, now an expecting father. If his constant intersection with the action of the main story breaks credibility (I was reminded of the Mambo Taxi driver of Almodovar's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), his humanity offsets the superheroics nicely, and helps give the final page a modest but genuine lift. (Which rhymes well with the downbeat ending of "Trash," the 1990s Grant/Breyfogle/Mitchell story also included in the book.)

So though your proprietor's not quite down with the package as a whole, I can't help but be pleased to have a new issue of the Grant/Breyfogle Batman in my grasp. Hollow or unsuccessful as it often is (you can never really go home again, after all), there are joys, even fleeting ones, to going retro.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Orson Welles: A Crash Course

(cross-posted from The VHive, from a thread seeking a three-movie crash course in a genre, body of work, etc.)

Orson Welles

I suspect many could use a crash course on Welles' work - CITIZEN KANE looms in the minds of many as his greatest and sole contribution to cinema, but it's only a part of a much larger (and still evolving) story. Welles remains one of our most notorious and least understood artists, and though footage survives of many of his thwarted/incomplete projects, a string of bad luck and bad choices kept Welles from realizing most of them.

The crash course, then, is but a place to start, a solid first step compiled from the works of his that are most readily available.

CITIZEN KANE - A movie that many are tired of hearing about, but Welles' cinema (and much else) begins with it. Less a Hollywood movie than an independent realized with studio resources, the film was considered an expansive, expensive misfire upon its release. It was, of course ahead of its time. As remarkable as Welles' technique was for his first time out - some scenes look filmed in a magic box, others in a stadium, and all of it coheres so damn well - his touch with his actors is as assured (not surprising, given his expansive theatrical experience). Also impressive from a 25-year-old storyteller is his empathy for any number of characters, his understanding of the toll of age, his eloquent grasp of human suffering.

Bonus added here: Welles' own, crazy, essayistic trailer for this film, a compelling piece of filmmaking in its own right:

THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI - Like many Welles projects, a compromised work, taken out of his hands during the editing process, and greatly reduced from its now-lost original form. What remains, however, is an essential noir, complete with doomed protagonist, alluring femme fatale, a world in chaos, and some gorgeous, shadowy photography. A true work of pulp art, and, compromises notwithstanding, a wholly satisfying Welles film.

MacBETH - Welles returned to the well of Shakespeare many times over his career, and this film (made for Poverty Row studio Republic Pictures) shows what Welles could do given free reign (if minimal budget). Though lambasted by critics who preferred Olivier's more stately, "respectable" take on the classic text, MacBETH serves the text gloriously, and finds within it a nourish heart of darkness that colors everything within BLACK. The film exists in two versions (both cut by Welles) - seek out the longer (107 minutes) version, which contains thick (but completely intelligible) brogue accents and the first-ever, ten-minute take in a released film (predating Hitchcock's ROPE by a year).

Most of Welles' stylistic tropes can be found here - his overlapping dialogue, his psychologically-oriented camera work, his theatrical mise-en-scene - as well as his keen grasp of tragedy (which informs all of his films, as well as, sadly, his own life and process off camera). And, most importantly, they're all insanely entertaining.