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by Sean Axmaker

Contributor

Robert De Niro is Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese's 'Taxi Driver'

Blu-ray: Martin Scorsese’s ‘Taxi Driver’ at 40

taxi-driver-bdTaxi Driver: 40th Anniversary Edition (Sony, Blu-ray)

Martin Scorsese’ incendiary 1976 masterpiece of alienation and anger and urban anxiety may be the most maverick vision of seventies American cinema. It is certainly one of the most visceral portraits of the American urban underbelly ever put on film, a movie bathed in blood as much as in light, and almost forty years later it still has the power sink the audience into the mind and filthy, fetid world of Travis Bickle.

Directed by the ambitious young Scorsese, who confesses that he was driven to make this silent scream turned psychotic explosion of a script by Paul Schrader, and starring Robert DeNiro as Travis Bickle, it is a primal portrait and uncompromising vision carved out of the New York night, the summer heat and the garbage of the Times Square cesspool. Bickle, a character inspired by Schrader’s own spiral into self-obsessed urban loneliness, is no hero. The restless, insomniac Vietnam veteran who takes a job driving a taxi on the night shift and muses over the urban cesspool that he wanders through in his nocturnal prowlings in a hateful gutter poetry has convinced himself that he’s “God’s lonely man,” the self-appointed avenging angel out to clean up the garbage on the streets.

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Seattle Screens: Black and Chrome and Christine Chubbuck

Sure, Marvel’s Doctor Strange, Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge, and the animated toy musical comedy Trolls are competing for audiences this weekend, but there’s a lot more out there.

Moonlight, one of the most acclaimed American films of the year, opens at The Egyptian. Robert Horton reviews it for Seattle Weekly.

Mad Max: Fury Road Black & Chrome Edition, the black-and-white version of the film that George Miller called “more authentic and elemental,” plays exclusively at Cinerama for a ten-day run. Schedule and ticket information here.

The 8th Cinema Italian Style series opens Thursday, November 10 at SIFF Cinema Uptown with Paolo Virzi’s Like Crazy with Valeria Bruni Tedeschi. It continues for a week. Series and individual ticket available. Complete schedule and tickets here.

Premieres:

Christine Chubbuck, the local Sarasota TV newswoman who committed suicide on air in 1974, is the subject of two films opening in Seattle this weekend. Christine, from director Antonio Campos, stars Rebecca Hall as the newscaster spiraling into depression. It’s scheduled to play for a week at SIFF Cinema Uptown.

Kate Plays Christine, from dramatic / documentary hybrid from filmmaker Robert Greene, follows actress Kate Lyn Sheil as she attempts to get into “character” as Christine Chubbuck. It won the Special Jury Award for screenplay at Sundance. Plays through Sunday at NWFF.

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Linas Phillips

Interview: Linas Phillips, Nonthreatening Triple Threat

Linas Phillips is probably better known to fans of American indie cinema as an actor than as a filmmaker. A graduate of New York University’s Experimental Theatre Wing, he co-starred with Jay Duplass in Manson Family Vacation (2015) as the Charles Manson-obsessed character who drags his estranged brother on a tour of Mason murder sites. Phillips has supporting roles in Craig Johnson’s True Adolescents (2009, starring Mark Duplass) and his buddy Todd Rohal‘s Uncle Kent 2 (2015), and he appeared in the HBO shows Togetherness, working again with the Duplass brothers, and Eastbound and Down, with director David Gordon Green.

In 2006, after moving from the East Coast to Seattle, Phillips directed his first film, the non-fiction feature Walking to Werner. He became an active member of the Seattle independent scene, constantly developing projects and working with other local filmmakers trying to get their films made. “I originally came here because I wanted to change my life,” he explained. “I just checked out, I stopped everything I was doing in my life, like babysitting work and performing, and I decided I was going to learn to be a filmmaker. It was great to be in a whole new city while you are re-identifying yourself.”

Continue reading at Keyframe

Blu-ray: Giallo! Restored Italian horrors on Arrow, Synapse and more

bloodblackBlood and Black Lace (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD)
What Have You Done to Solange? (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD)
Death Walks Twice: Two Films by Luciano Ercoli (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD)
Killer Dames: Two Gothic Chillers by Emilio P. Miraglia (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD)
Edgar Allan Poe’s Black Cats: Two Adaptations by Sergio Martino & Lucio Fulci (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD)
The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD)
Tenebrae (Synapse, Blu-ray, DVD)
Manhattan Baby (Blue Underground, Blu-ray)

A mysterious stranger stalks a beautiful woman as the camera creeps in like a voyeuristic partner in crime. Black gloved hands reach for the lovely neck of a young maiden. The faceless killer strangles, stabs, slashes, or otherwise horribly murders her in front of our eyes, the camera recording every perverse detail. This description of the giallo could fit the hundreds of slasher films but the true giallo—a distinctive Italian brand of horror film that was born in the 1960s and flourished in the 1970s and 1980s—combines a poetic, haunting beauty with Grand Guignol gore and a bent of sexual perversity. You could call it “spaghetti horror,” though it hardly captures what makes the genre so unique and, at its best, so delicious.

Italian horror did not begin and end with giallo, which is the Italian word for “yellow” and refers to a series of cheap paperback mysteries and thrillers that sported yellow covers, but it certainly put the genre on the map and influenced the direction of Italian horror (as well as, among others, Spanish and French horror) for decades. The cinematic roots include Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (with its elaborately choreographed murder scenes), Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, and the krimi, a distinctly German genre of murder mystery based on the British thrillers of Edgar Wallace and his son, Bryan Wallace. These films generally featured a mysterious, usually masked killer, an eccentric investigator, and a roll call of suspects that usually ended up systematically murdered in creatively gruesome ways.

Death Walks at Midnight - image courtesy of DVD Beaver

Death Walks at Midnight – image courtesy of DVD Beaver

Mario Bava and Dario Argento are the king and crown prince (respectively) of the genre that was born in the sixties, bloomed in the seventies, and celebrated a resurgence in the late nineties as scores of gialli rolled out on videotape and DVD in restored and uncut versions. I devoured these releases but, like so many other fans, I also discovered that the pool of Italian horror was, just as with the spaghetti westerns in the 1960s, huge and filled with copycats and knock-offs cashing in on the current trends. The excitement waned as the pool of classics was quickly drained and I worked my way through lesser and lesser horrors just waiting for moments of inspiration. That’s not to say anyone gave up on the genre, only that for a few years the hits were fewer and farther between.

Labels like Blue Underground, Kino Lorber, Synapse, and Mondo Macabro kept the genre alive during these fallow years. Now Arrow, a British label that recently launched an American line of Blu-ray and DVD releases (through distributor MVD), has injected new blood into the genre with some of the best editions of classic, notorious, and outrageous giallo titles in the past couple of years. Most (if not all) of these films have previously been released on DVD, some of them satisfactory, others not so much. They make their respective Blu-ray debuts in impressive deluxe editions. Here are a few stand-out releases from the past 12 months or so, as well as a few choice releases from other labels. And where better to start than…

Blood and Black Lace (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD), Mario Bava’s 1964 giallo landmark. Many experts of the genre have cited The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) as the birth of the giallo, but I say this elegant slasher picture and its mix of poetic, haunting beauty with Grand Guignol gore and a bent of sexual perversity is where it really began. If Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch turns violence into a ballet, then Blood and Black Lace is murder as ballroom dance. Bava sets the atmosphere with a beautiful yet eerie credits sequence that gives each star his or her own moving fashion still and then jumps into a stormy night, where the winds lash and snap the chains of the hanging sign and twist the streams of the elegant fountain until it resembles the spray of a disaster. Order becomes chaos.

Continue reading at Cinephiled

The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of Friday, October 28

“In retrospect, the authentic set of the film looks mostly unreal, and in spite of minute attention to details, even by the 1920s standards, it is a décor which looks like décor. It has an MGM quality to it. The camera never makes any attempt to hide the fresh paint on the walls (in reality, when Joan of Arc was on trial the castle was already 200 years old and ravaged by wars and natural elements). In fact, the sets were painted pink to look grey in the final film—more Frank Tashlin than “transcendental.” But was Dreyer looking for any sort of realism at the first place?” A tour of the models and photos at the Danish Film Institute has Ehsan Khoshbakht considering anew the full-scale set built for Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, whose every carefully researched detail was radically fragmented, deconstructed, and “ignored” in the filming and editing.

The new issue of La Furia Umana contains a dossier on Jack Smith, including Marc Siegel’s career overviews of both the filmmaker (“While Smith found redeeming social and aesthetic qualities in all of these undervalued genre films that allowed visual spectacle and exotic settings to trump narrative and character development, he reserved a special place in his personal pantheon for the films of director Josef von Sternberg and actress María Montez.”) and one of his stars, Mario Montez (“At that point they were releasing Cleopatra [Joseph Mankiewicz, 1963] with Elizabeth Taylor. And there were these wide-screen posters in the subways in New York City. (I stole one. I used to steal posters and things like that.) I said, ‘Jack, why don’t we do a version of Cleopatra. And we’ll title it Cleo Pot Roast.’”). Andrea Lissoni argues his centrality in American underground art (“How could I summarize the essential traits of such a dense body of work, spanning film, theatre, performance, photography, visual art and life? It could all be wrapped up in one word: authenticity.”), while J. Hoberman recounts Smith’s live performances of the later years. (”At the performance [of Smith’s staging of Ibsen’s Ghosts] I attended, Regina was played by a large pink plush hippo suspended in a pulley-operated basket, Engstrand and Pastor Manders by a pair of toy monkeys, each placed on a little wagon, while Mrs. Alving had a human interpreter (NYU drama professor Ron Argelander) who sat inside a supermarket shopping cart, swathed in scarves and a thick, black veil.”) There’s an essential interview (by Renaldo Censi) with Jerry Tartaglia, the restorer of Smith’s film archive (“There never was any Normal Love movie in a complete form that he preordered. His life and his art were an ongoing process of mixture and reinvention. That is the point. The “restoration” was not a scientifically ordered procedure. It was a preservation of the works in the state that they were in at the time of his death.”), and some short, rancorous personal anecdotes from Ken Jacobs and David E. James that testify to the affronted paranoia almost inevitable when an artist as personal and rapturous as Smith is greeted mostly with censorship and harassment.

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Seattle Screens Halloween weekend: ‘The Hunger,’ ‘The Pit,’ ‘Rocky Horror,’ and Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’

Park Chan-Wook’s The Handmaiden, a con artist scheme by way of a steamy erotic thriller, opens at multiple theaters this week, including SIFF Cinema Uptown and Guild 45.

The Canadian coming of age comedy Closet Monster plays for a week at SIFF Cinema Egyptian.

Miss Hokusai, an animated Japanese feature from director Keiichi Hara and the creators of Ghost in the Shell, opens for a week at SIFF Cinema Uptown.

Archival and revival screenings:

Grand Illusion presents two contemporary twists of the vampire film on 35mm this weekend and on Halloween night: The Hunger (1983), the feature debut of director Tony Scott featuring Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie, and Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) with Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston.

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Review: The Handmaiden

Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden (South Korea) leaves behind the austerity and cool tone of his superb but unheralded American debut Stoker to return to the intense imagery, twisting narratives, perverse subcultures, and elevated emotions of his Sympathy trilogy. The story of con artists in 1930s Korea, adapted from the British novel “Fingersmith” by Sarah Waters (also made into a British TV miniseries), has the look of a lavish period drama, the elegance of an arthouse picture, the complex plotting of an ingenious caper that only the movies could sustain, and the sex of a classy softcore picture. Park shifts the setting from Victorian England to Korea under Japanese colonial occupation, which adds national tensions to drama already roiling with class division and sexual exploitation.

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Blu-ray/DVD: Robert Altman’s ‘McCabe & Mrs. Miller’

mccabeMcCabe & Mrs. Miller (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), Robert Altman’s third film since staking out his claim on 1970s cinema with M*A*S*H (1970), turns the western myth into a metaphor for the fantasy of the American Dream colliding with the power of big business.

Warren Beatty is John McCabe, a drifting gambler who rides into the mining camp town of Presbyterian Church (named after a building that has yet to open for business), surveys the possibilities of the muddy streets and rough-hewn buildings carved out of the Oregon wilderness (Vancouver, Canada, stands in for Oregon), and stakes his claim as the slick sophisticate to give these hicks the delights of civilization, namely a whorehouse and a well-lit bar with clean floors and fancy furniture. Julie Christie is Constance Miller, a veteran hooker who hitches a ride on a steam-powered tractor and pitches McCabe a partnership. She comes on strong and knowledgeable, a professional with plenty of management experience, but look carefully in the scene where McCabe negotiates for a handful of haggard prostitutes and you’ll catch her through a doorway, just another bordello working girl taking a break. Altman does nothing to draw our attention to her but it’s the only backstory we get and you can just imagine her hatching a scheme to escape her dead-end trajectory and roll the dice on this flashy backwoods businessman who has more ambition than talent. McCabe plays the would-be frontier tycoon for the miners, striding the camp in his fox-red fur coat and Eastern bowler hat, but Mrs. Miller is the brains behind his success. That’s clear when the corporate mining concern sends in it negotiators (Michael Murphy and Antony Holland) to buy up the town and McCabe plays the hard-sell dealmaker in an ultimatum dressed up in polite ritual.

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Blu-ray/DVD: Takeshi Kitano’s ‘Violent Cop’ and ‘Boiling Point’

violentcopViolent Cop (Film Movement, Blu-ray, DVD)
Boiling Point (Film Movement, Blu-ray, DVD)

Takeshi Kitano has a way of making stillness into tension in his crime films.

In the opening shot of Violent Cop, Kitano’s 1990 directorial debut, the camera holds on the smiling face of a toothless derelict. Like a pebble dropping into a pond the calm is shattered when a soccer ball knocks his dinner from his hand and a swarm of teens rushes him. The violence erupts out of nowhere as they relentlessly beat and kick him, and as the homeless man lies dead on the ground the feckless kids hop on their bikes and nonchalantly peddle away as if leaving the playground.

Into this cruel, uncaring world strolls Azuma (Takeshi), the police detective who earns the film its title many times over. In his first scene he beats a suspect, one of the teenage boys, in the kid’s own room. Azuma has a reputation for making up his own rules and he maintains a precarious position in the department that looks away as the lone wolf gets results at the price of unbridled police brutality. “Behave yourself for a year while I’m chief,” demands his new superior. He looks on like he hasn’t heard a thing, and before long he’s back to his usual tricks, running down suspects, beating drug dealers, planting evidence, even slugging a pimp standing in the stationhouse hall. Once in a while he cracks a smile, but mostly he wears a deadpan mask. Kitano has an amazing face, calm and bemused, at times almost blank, with big teddy bear eyes and soft features that suggest a gentle nature denied in his every action. Even when the battle becomes personal and the hair-trigger cop goes on his rogue rampage, he maintains that serenity, hardening just a bit, his crook of smile straightening out to a taut determination, perhaps suggesting a touch of bitterness and sadness.

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‘Memento Mori’ and the Terrible Melancholy of Korean Horror

The rise of Asian horror in the late nineties was built on a different recipe than the Freddy and Jason knock-offs and post-Blair Witch found-footage horrors of American movies. After the cycle of gore films of the eighties ran its course in both Japan and Hong Kong, horror was relegated to the made-for-video industry (known as v-cinema), where younger talents found ways to create eerie thrills on limited budgets and resources. A 1991 novel by Koji Suzuki laid the groundwork for the coming boom: Ringu (a.k.a. The Ring) was made into a TV film, a TV series, a smash 1998 movie by Hideo Nakata, and a string of sequels and remakes (including a Korean version). Along with the eerie madness and supernatural forces of Kiyoshi Kurosawa‘s movies (Cure, Pulse) and the vengeful ghosts of Ju-on(a.k.a. The Grudge) and its many sequels and remakes, a new genre was born. J-Horror underplayed the on-screen violence, creating shivery moments of malevolence seeping into the material world from beyond, killing and corrupting everything it touches, with stories built on the vengeance of spirits unable to move on. The conventions of American ghost stories—discover the secret keeping the dead trapped on Earth to send them on their way—no longer applied. The truth will set neither the living nor the dead free.

Where the Japanese industry largely recycled the creepy imagery and angry supernatural killers of those trend-setting films, South Korean directors took the same elements in a different direction. K-Horror also focused on unsettled spirits, but rather than anger and vengeance, they explored regret, anguish, loss, and betrayal; the most resonant films offered spirits more damaged than malevolent, prevented from moving on by unfinished business or unfulfilled yearnings. The Asian horror revival coincided with the sudden relaxation of film censorship rules in South Korea, which helped fuel the rise in Korean action cinema. But even as action thrillers became more visceral and violent, horror cinema was closer to the teen and young-adult serial melodramas that still dominate Korean TV—more focused on the emotional than the physical.

Continue reading on Keyframe

VIFF 2016: Con artists, poets, and life on the streets

viff_signature-01I still marvel at how the Vancouver International Film Festival seems to be one of the best-kept secrets on the West Coast. Opening a few weeks after Toronto, it is almost concurrent with the New York Film Festival, which makes headlines with the official American premieres of some of the season’s most anticipated films. Many of those very same films are screening across the country in Vancouver, often a day or two before NYFF, and it is a mere 2 ½ hours away from my Seattle domicile. It’s one of the quirks of the festival circuit: the films that made their respective North American premieres in Toronto (after a possible “unofficial” screening at Telluride) vie for a spot at NYFF, where it gets the media spotlight, while Vancouver quietly slips somewhere around half of those into their line-up.

Here are a few titles snagged by VIFF this year: Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta, Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s The Unknown Girl, Hong Sang-soo’s Yourself and Yours, Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, Pablo Larraín’s Neruda, Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation, Cristi Puiu’s Sieranevada, Albert Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV, Paul Verhoeven’s Elle…. There are other films playing both fests, and plenty of films screening at Vancouver that are nowhere to be seen on the NYFF schedule, but that should give you a taste of a few of the delights that Vancouver offers over 16 days and eight venues (seven of them within walking distance of one another). It’s why I go every year that I am able.

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Godzilla Evolution

Shin Godzilla, the first new Japanese Godzilla film in twelve years, stomped into the record books as Japan’s top moneymaking live-action film of 2016, and the highest grossing Godzilla film ever, but it practically snuck into American theaters last week, staking out one or two showings a day in urban multiplexes with practically no advertising and no advance screenings. American audiences sought it out and sold out showings nonetheless, inspiring stateside distributor Funimation to expand its release to more screens and showtimes.

What makes this all the more surprising is that it’s counter to everything we associate with a classic Godzilla movie. And I don’t mean the inevitable shift from suitmation (the man in a suit stomping through elaborate miniature cityscapes) to motion capture and CGI. The third Japanese reboot of the series opens with an echo of the original 1954 Godzilla, on the mystery of an abandoned boat in open water, but otherwise it wipes the slate clean and treats this as the first ever encounter with a giant creature on a tear through Tokyo. Not what you expect from a film whose title translates roughly to New Godzilla—according to the film’s executive producer Akihiro Yamauchi, “Shin” can stand for “new,” “true,” and “god”—and alternately has been called Godzilla Resurgence by Toho. As far as this film is concerned, it isn’t a return. This is first contact.

Continue reading at Keyframe

The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of Friday, October 21

“Each table is crowded with sinister figurines as well as examples of that creepiest of all nineteenth-century fads, dead flowers under glass. The rooms seem to oppress the characters with all these things. The main staircase and the hallways are emptier, it’s true, but who wants to hang out in the hallways, where every door looks alike and is ready to swing shut without warning?” Farran Smith Nehme gets her seasonally appropriate production design love on, praising (for Library of America) how Robert Wise, cinematographer Davis Boulton, and designer Elliot Scott crafted images in The Haunting to somehow match Shirley Jackson’s implicitly sinister prose; then at Film Comment saluting one of the essential elements of Hammer horror. (“Every time characters walk outside or ride in a carriage, on their way to investigate, to rescue, flee or pursue—no one is ever just out for a walk or a drive in a Hammer movie—the wheels send dead leaves flying and half-bare branches curl toward the road like fingers. The travelers clutch their wraps and look up at menacing, usually gray skies. And when they arrive, what should greet them, but the sets of Bernard Robinson.”)

Film Comment also has Steven Mears on Deboarah Kerr’s unique aptitude for playing governesses (“This reciprocity (or, at worst, codependency) [with her charges] infuses all of her governess portrayals, and is one reason why her creations are miles apart from Julie Andrews’s impeccable Mary Poppins or concurrent TV domestics like Shirley Booth’s Hazel and Alice from The Brady Bunch: Kerr’s nannies need their children, perhaps even more than they’re needed by them.”); and Margaret Barton-Fumo applauds Harry Nilsson’s soundtracks, from Skidoo’s tellingly old-fashioned tunes to Popeye’s on-the-money raggedness, as well as the rare “concert” films the stage-fright afflicted Nilsson only allowed to be filmed without an audience.

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Seattle Screens: Japanese horror in 35mm and ‘The Battle of Algiers’ restored

The Japanese horror classic Kuroneko (Black Cat) (1968), directed by Kaneto Shindo, is both an eerie ghost story and a ferocious horror tale of righteous revenge. Set in feudal Japan, in a bamboo forest perpetually shrouded in fog and shadow as ethereal as the ghosts that seem to float through it, the film chronicles the spirits of two women, raped and murdered by scruffy samurai who are more like feral bandits, driven to revenge themselves on all samurai, which they lure to their ghost house, itself a spirit that moves through the forest like a supernatural creature. It’s one of the greatest of Japanese ghost stories, a horror film of elemental drive, feminist rage and visual grace. It plays three shows at Grand Illusion this week from a 35mm print.

Also at Grand Illusion in 35mm is Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1965), a quartet of ancient ghost stories. It may not be strictly speaking a horror film—it’s not scary or particularly unsettling apart for a few exquisitely created images—but it is breathtakingly lovely, visually composed like a painting, scored and sound designed by Toru Takemitsu with a spareness that leans on silence, and suffused in sadness, regret, and loss. The 160-minute film plays twice this week.

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Blu-ray: The original ‘Cat People’

catpeopleThe original 1942 Cat People (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) was made on a low budget for RKO’s B-movie unit, the first in an amazing series of B-horror films from producer Val Lewton that transcended its origins. It’s a masterpiece of mood and psychological ambiguity masquerading as a cheap exploitation knock-off. Cheap it is, but Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur create mood not out of what is seen, but what isn’t.

Simone Simon is a kittenish young artist from a rural Siberian village who has moved to urban America but still believes in the legends and superstitions of her homeland. Kent Smith is the generically charming American engineer who meets her in the zoo, where she obsessively sketches the black panther prowling its small cage, and they marry, but her fears prevent her from consummating the marriage. She believes that she comes from a cursed bloodline of the devil-worshippers and that any form of romantic passion will transform her into a jungle cat. That’s not exactly how the film frames it—she won’t even allow a passionate kiss out of her fear—but the film slyly makes the connection between sex (both repressed and unleashed) and horror. Smith sounds more parental than partner as he dismisses her superstitions and fears with a superiority that comes off as insensitive as best and arrogant at worst. The only transformation we see is in the character of the suddenly aggressive Simon when she becomes jealous of her husband’s coworker (Jane Randolph). Everything else is left to suggestion and imagination, using feline snarls and shadows on the wall and ingenious art direction (her apartment is filled with art featuring cats) to hint at transformation. Tom Conway is both slickly sophisticated and a little sleazy as a psychiatrist who becomes too interested in his troubled patient.

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