DVD Tricks and Treats: Small Screen Halloween Picks

Instead of the usual “best of” countdown of familiar classics, here’s a look at some of the more interesting horrors that have arrived on DVD within the last year. (Reviews originally published on seanax.com)

The Hills Run Red
The Hills Run Red

Direct to DVD:

The Hills Run Red (Warner) is the rare self-aware horror by an unabashed fan of the genre that works on its own terms. Dave Parker’s first feature, his sadly underappreciated love-letter to Italian horror films and giallo buffs The Dead Hate the Living!, was made ten years ago. In the meantime he honed his technical skills on movie documentaries and featurettes for DVDs. As a result, The Hills Run Red—which sends another horror buff on the trail of a lost movie with a camera, a small crew and the lost girl-turned-junkie stripper daughter (Sophie Monk) of the mysterious, long dead director and into a real-life continuation of the film—is leaner, tighter, more assured in its direction and less obvious in its references. His male leads are a bit thin—Parker creates likable characters but not particularly vivid or memorable heroes—but Sophie Monk takes a big bloody bite out of her part and William Sadler makes the mad movie director into a real gone guy, an obsessive lost in his delusions of suffering for art. Other people’s suffering, that is. “Everybody is expendable for the good of the movie,” is his mantra. “Everybody.” The signature villain, Babyface, is as visually distinctive a figure as you could hope for (it has eerie echoes of a creature escaped from a Quay Brothers nightmare) and the shake of a baby rattle as he runs after his victims is a nice touch.

You can find echoes of Psycho, Peeping Tom, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Blair Witch Project and Theodore Roszak’s cult cinephile novel Flicker in the script (which was significantly worked over by The Crow screenwriter David J. Schow) and imagery, and there’s a timely meta-textual debate on the aesthetics of modern horror cinema that is played for grisly humor between warring art-killers. While one argues for the importance of context and emotional resonance, the other makes the case for shock value and upping the ante on sadism spectacle: “Nobody cares about that subtext shit.” But the film works on its own merits. Parker knows what he wants and he gets it. He plays with the contrast of movie-movie gore (the idea that what we’re seeing is a special effect) and the “real” gore assaulting our characters by shifting our perspectives time and again, and he blurs the line between on-screen and off-screen reality, at least for these characters. Features commentary by Parker with writer David J. Schow and producer Robert Meyer Burnett and the shot-on-location featurette “It’s Not Real Until You Shoot It: The Making of The Hills Run Red,” which is a bit disorganized but captures the excitement of the creators (like Parker, they create trailers and DVD featurettes for other people in their day jobs) getting to make their own feature.

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Review: Halloween

[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]

A thing that bugs me about the vast majority of contemporary films is, they rarely give the feeling anyone cared much about framing them. The movement away from studio (i.e., factory) filmmaking has had a lot to do with this. Advancements in film speed, equipment mobility, and other such factors that ought to have been unqualifiedly liberating have had the counterproductive effect of encouraging slovenliness rather than responsible flexibility. A movie can get made anywhere now, one place is as good (i.e., workable) as another—and somehow that extends to frame-space as a “place” too. Throw in careless labwork (we waved byebye to real Technicolor several years ago) and you’ve got smeary colors and big, fuzzy grain to help reduce definition, and definitiveness of vision. It’s hard to maintain faith that a given movie had to look the way it does, because it could just as well have looked, well, a little different.

People won’t be talking about this as they leave their naborhood moviehouse, but one reason John Carpenter’s Halloween is so successful a marrow-freezer is that Carpenter appears to have set out to reinstate scrupulous, meaningful framing all by himself. In fact, except for its shamelessly (and irresistibly) zingy music score (by the director), Halloween achieves its considerable power almost entirely through visual means. There’s not a lot of scenario—make that screenplay—to deal with; indeed, the least satisfying thing about Halloween is its attempt to arrive at some scriptoral accounting for its ultraweird dispenser of mayhem, an Omen-era, cosmic-evil reading—”He” really can’t be stopped—that rings too familiar. At the same time, the nonending ending Halloweenreaches has a validity missing from more flagrantly copout conclusions where the filmmakers more or less simultaneously ran out of running time and ideas of what to do next. For Carpenter’s direction has undercut the idea of a world with any secure breathing-room, let alone a sanctum for salvation.

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Kubrick’s Shining

[originally published in Film Comment, July-August 1980]

Camera comes in low over an immense Western lake, its destination apparently a small island at center that seems to consist of nothing but treetops. Draw nearer, then sweep over and pass the island, skewing slightly now in search of a central focus at the juncture of lake surface and the surrounding escarpment, glowing in J.M.W. Turner sunlight. Cut to God’s-eye view of a yellow Volkswagen far below, winding up a mountain road through an infinite stand of tall pines and long, early-morning shadows; climbing for the top of the frame and gaining no ground. Subsequent cuts, angling us down nearer the horizontal trajectory of the car as it moves along the face of the mountainside. Thrilling near-lineup of camera vector and roadway, then the shot sheers off on a course all its own and a valley drops away beneath us. More cuts, more views, miles of terrain; bleak magnificence. Aerial approach to a snow-covered mountain crest and, below it, a vast resort hotel, The Overlook. Screen goes black.

the-shining-family-moment
A country drive with the Torrance family

Did Stanley Kubrick really say that The Shining, his film of Stephen King’s novel, would be the scariest horror movie of all time? He shouldn’t have. On one very important level, the remark may be true. But that isn’t the first level people are going to consider (even though it’s right there in front of us on the movie screen). What people hear when somebody drops a catchphrase like “the scariest horror movie of all time” is: You joined the summer crowds flocking to The Amityville Horror, you writhed and jumped through Alien, you watched half of Halloween from behind your fingers, but you ain’t seen nothing yet! And a response: OK, zap me, make me flinch, gross me out. And they find that, mostly, Kubrick’s long, underpopulated, deliberately paced telling of an unremarkable story with a Twilight Zone twist at the end doesn’t do it for them—although it may do a lot of other things to them while they’re waiting.

So Kubrick, who is celebrated for controlling the publicity for his films as closely as the various aspects of their creation, is largely to blame for the initial, strongly negative feedback to his movie. Maybe he didn’t know, when The Shining started its way to the screen several years back, that the horror genre would be in full cry, the most marketable field in filmmaking, by the time his movie was ready for delivery. But he could have seen that, say, a year ago. And still he pressed on with the horror sales hook, counting on it—along with his own eminence—to fill theaters, and to pay off the $18 million cost of the most expensive Underground movie ever made.

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Halloween: Seattle Style

Rotten issue 3
Rotten issue 3

In his latest video report, Seattle Times writer Mark Rahner heads into the “Twilight” Zone to raise a little hell in Forks—the rural Washington town that is the setting for Stephenie Meier’s popular teen-vampire books and films. You can’t afford to miss the result, here at the Seattle Times website.

And while we’re on about Mr. Rahner, check out the comic book series Rotten, co-written by Rahner and another Parallax View colleague, Robert Horton.

The comic, and its authors, will be celebrated at a “Rotten Halloween” Party to be held at Northwest Film Forum Thursday night, October 29. Details at NWFF website here.

Limeys in Lotusland: “The Loved One” Reappraised

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Shortly after World War II there occurred a meeting as potent, in its own way, as the confrontation of Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolf Man: Evelyn Waugh went Hollywood. M-G-M had purchased the film rights to Brideshead Revisited and its eccentric author had a tedious time arguing with producer Leon Gordon and writer James Kevin McGuinness as to how it should be filmed. In the end, everyone gave it up as a bad job, the movie went unmade, and Waugh returned to Somerset. But the stopover in Tinseltown had one major by-product, which appeared in 1948: Waugh’s short, scathing novel about Los Angeles, its weird ways, and in particular its burial habits: The Loved One.

As the book accumulated celebrity, Hollywood forgave and forgot in its usual way, and snapped it up for filming. Waugh himself at one time had plans to work on a film version with his friend Alec Guinness (England’s only major international film star of the time) playing Dennis Barlow, the not-very-innocent abroad who is the novel’s central character. It was also a pet project of Luis Buñuel’s (ah, what might have been!), but, despite these eminences, a film never seemed to get made.

The Loved One
The Loved One

Finally, in 1964 or thereabouts, Metro and Filmways put together what must have seemed a classic example of the great Hollywood artform, the deal. The director signed for the film was the then exceptionally hot Tony Richardson, fresh from the $40 million grossed first time round by Tom Jones (which had been forecast throughout the industry as a certain money-loser, even on its slender budget) and from the Oscar ceremonies. Inked instantly as screenwriter was the Bad Boy of American letters, the outrageous humorist Terry Southern, who was also hot as a result of co-scripting Dr. Strangelove, a significant breakthrough in terms of black or bad-taste humour.

They could do no wrong. Richardson demanded and, unusually for those days, got final cut privileges. He refused to film in a studio, although bits of Culver City turned up as location. He went a million or more over the already sizeable budget. Stars came and went. Christopher Isherwood, like Dennis Barlow a minor English writer who’d come to California (and stayed), came in to do extra scripting – an ominous sign, as he was unlikely to have forgiven Waugh for caricaturing him so contemptuously in his 1942 novel Put Out More Flags. Martin Ransohoff, of Filmways, and Robert H. O’Brien, of M-G-M, got nervous, only to find themselves in the ignominious position of being barred from the film. Richardson wouldn’t even let them see the rushes. They offered to buy him out, as they couldn’t get him on his contract. He, brimming over with cheek, offered to buy them out. Now, no one, not even a foreign Oscar-winner, can do that to a studio head and get away with it unless he can be absolutely certain of delivering the goods and making big bucks on top. Here the English flyboy came unstuck; and it is not unreasonable to say that he has been unstuck ever since. The Loved One was perhaps no end of fun as a play-with whilst the filmic ball was rolling. But when it came to hammering the rushes into some sort of final shape, the limey wunderkind found himself with an inchoate mass of celluloid. With observable difficulty, he and three editors finally turned it into an exhibitable movie (opening in the U.S. late in 1965), only to find it widely hated. The public did not come, and it cannot be said that M-G-M was in any way keen to persuade them to.

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Dragons and Tigers at VIFF 2009

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Seattle boasts the biggest film festival in the United States, in terms of both audiences and films shown. But Seattle filmgoers are also lucky enough to be within easy driving distance to the Vancouver International Film Festival, one of the five biggest festivals in North America. Coming on the heels of Toronto, it boasts a sampling of highlights from Toronto and Venice as well as a spotlight on Canadian cinema, an annual spotlight on French Cinema and the Dragons and Tigers series, one of the best collections of new Asian cinema in North America with a special focus on young talents and new filmmakers.

Thirty features and documentaries were screened in the “Dragons and Tigers” sidebar, with eight of those films in competition for the “Award for Young Cinema.” The competition can be a mixed bag, but it almost always offers promising talent and fresh filmmaking ideas that otherwise would be unseen on North American screens and it’s my priority every fest. Most of the films are scheduled for the first week, which due to unusual conflicts (yes, there are some things more important than movies) I missed this year. But I did catch up on a few re-screenings including the winner of the Dragons and Tigers competition.

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The Reckless Moment: Max Ophuls’ Masterpiece of Middle Class America

The thirty-second year of the Seattle Art Museum’s annual Film Noir Cycle, “the granddaddy of the world’s film noir festivals,” opens with one of the most unheralded masterpieces of shadowy American melodrama: The Reckless Moment (1949), directed by continental stylist Max Ophuls (shortened to “Opuls” for his American screen credits). Known for his visual taste and elegance, his ravishing style and his delicate portraits of impassioned, impossible love in a world of fickle lovers and social barriers, the Austrian director came to America (like so many European artists and intellectuals) in the early years of World War II and (again, like so many fellow film artists) struggled to find his place in the Hollywood system. He only directed five films in his ten years in America (one of which he was fired from before completing). The Reckless Moment was his last before returning to Europe.

Joan Bennett as Lucia Harper in her suburban home
Joan Bennett as Lucia Harper in her suburban home

Set in post-war suburbia, in a seaside bedroom community outside of Los Angeles, The Reckless Moment is a mix of crime drama and what Hollywood once called a “women’s picture,” a label they applied to almost any film that took a woman’s perspective. One-time ingénue Joan Bennett makes a confident transition to the role of Lucia Harper, a wife and mother holding her family together (two teenage children and a retired father-in-law) while her husband is working overseas. She’s a modest woman but a defiantly protective mother who doesn’t flinch when confronting the oily gigolo who has seduced her increasingly assertive and independent minded daughter, Bea (Geraldine Brooks), and puts herself in harm’s way to cover up the man’s death and a potential scandal. When that only brings on blackmailer Martin Donnelly (James Mason), a darkly attractive and quietly menacing Irish thug who demands thousands of dollars for incriminating love letters, she discovers that she is essentially powerless in this society to secure a loan or to get money without a husband at her side.

Ophuls shot the film on an obviously small budget (Bennett’s star had faded and it was only Mason’s third American film) for Columbia, which specialized in the budget-minded first run picture. The film is rife with strains of “goony” dialogue, unnatural exclamations, one-sided phone conversations whipped through at a sprint and other conventions of studio pictures. Ophuls masterfully shapes it all into a portrait not just of suburban middle class security shaken into chaos when it collides with big city corruption, but of the social prison of middle class family.

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Review: The Great Santini

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Orion’s The Great Santini has been sitting on the shelf for about a year now and seems unlikely to move off it unless pay-TV pops for it.* The second (surely there can’t be more?) directorial effort of screenwriter Lewis John Carlino (The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea was the first), the film seems unsalable in the present Hollywood scheme of things. It is, for one thing, a small movie, without the sort of topical hook that might lend it the opportunistic urgency to make a distribution and publicity push worthwhile. It is also a hopeless mess. Its central showpiece and only detectable raison-d’être is Robert Duvall’s tour-de-force characterization of Marine super–fighter-pilot and congenital bad-/hardass “Bull” Meechum—an extension (whether or not it was so intended) of Duvall’s Col. Kilgore (Apocalypse Now). The film gets underway in Spain, 1962, with a demonstration of Meechum’s superior aerial tactical skills, then a demonstration of his hellraising skills at a party jointly celebrating his air team’s besting of their Navy rivals and his own transfer home to assume his first squadron command—and incidentally rejoin his devout Southern Catholic wife (Blythe Danner) and four offspring. Bawling mock-serious—but also deadly-serious—orders at the familial troops, he packs them up at 0300 hours to drive to Beaufort (that’s bewfert), S.C., and settle into his new billet. The rest of the movie enlarges on the dynamics of life in a Marine household, with especial attention being paid to the relationship of Meechum—self-styled The Great Santini—and his 18-year-old son (Michael O’Keefe). Son resents the hell out of Dad, and drops an occasional hint that he may not sign on for an obligatory four-year tour after he’s completed college (he’s currently a high-school senior); but their relationship is also fiercely loving—as, indeed, virtually all Meechum’s relationships appear to be, one way or the other.

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Review: Rough Cut

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

A gas burner fills a huge balloon with hot air, sending it adrift above a palatial estate, whose lawn mills with partying rich folk: a suitable image to begin Rough Cut, a lightweight entertainment that insists on consorting with only the richest tastes. Don Siegel is poaching on Blake Edwards territory here, and we don’t need Burt Reynolds imitating Cary Grant, or David Niven imitating himself, to remind us that the line that links To Catch a Thief with Rough Cut cuts straight through The Pink Panther. Counterpointing the Big Caper—which really doesn’t get underway until past midfilm—is the burgeoning love of Reynolds’s Jack Rhodes (even the name implies a kinship with Hitchcock—Grant’s John Robie) for rich kleptomaniac Gillian Bromley (Lesley-Anne Down). The film is at pains to make her as icy and unpredictable as her Grace Kelly/Claudia Cardinale counterparts, but the effort is strained by a script bankrupt for new ideas. Gillian says, “I steal things … because it’s exciting and dangerous,” and Jack proceeds to assure her that it’s “to fill a void in your life.” They don’t imply that she’s sexually unfulfilled, they just say so; and the sex motif is carried through with a string of double entendres that are hopelessly lame, not because they aren’t appropriate to the characters and the situation, but simply because they are so old and unfunny. A line like “I have to go now, something just came up” no longer draws snickers or even hohums, but dumbfound amazement that someone would still think it clever. The plot itself so slavishly follows genre formula that the “surprise” ending is tipped off well in advance, even though its justification is confined to a single comment on the part of … well, the operative character.

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Review: The Changeling

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Perhaps it’s looking back from the vantage point of a cinematically uninspiring summer that makes The Changeling seem such inoffensive fun. The qualities that The Changeling can boast—a clean, controlled look, a handful of chills, the feeling that the filmmakers are not about to shortchange us even if they’re not going to be particularly inventive—are exactly the qualities missing from the disappointing slew of first runs that turned up during June. ‘ll disclose, too, a reason I was predisposed toward liking The Changeling: I’m in it. When music prof George C. Scott, having relocated in the Great Northwest after his wife and child were killed in an accident, begins his first day as lecturer, well, I’m one of his students. (Dead center, middle aisle, red flannel shirt—can’t miss me.) Anyway, if I were to write a negative review, I had the perfect lead-in: I happened to find myself in the men’s room at the same time as the director, Peter Medak, and—OK, the world may as well know—after he went to the bathroom he didn’t wash his hands. Writing this dump job I could glide into the observation that yeah, that’s the way he makes movies, too, and is The Changeling ever untidy…. Then Medak had to go and ruin my opening by making a slick, effective movie.

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Review: Zulu Dawn

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

It comes as no surprise that Douglas Hickox directed hundreds of commercials before starting on feature films: he has means, but not ends. When it comes to assembling the departments of a large unit into some semblance of professional order, or arranging a succession of individually striking, or at least flashy, images, Hickox knows how to operate. But in the metaphysical areas of film art he is deficient; and he is by no means sure how to tell a tale straight, either. If a script is good, Hickox isn’t bad; but if it’s bad, he’s no good, at least not where it counts. Piling on what he hopes will be taken for virtuoso displays of technique, and cover for a storyline going to hell, is simply no substitute for narrative tightness, logical plot and character development, lucid exposition or a fluid sense of movement; and we haven’t come near the realm of ideas yet. Arresting compositions here and there in Theatre of Blood, or a brisk way with crowds of extras in real, busy places in Brannigan cannot, for a single instant, blind one to the embarrassing fact that Hickox has made a terrible mess of the plots and the people. Set-pieces interest him but whole movies, it would appear, do not.

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Review: My Bodyguard

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

The critical adulation that greeted last year’s Breaking Away was symptomatic, in retrospect, not so much of a need to return to intelligent “little” films as of an acclimatization to the smallness, safety, and literary limitations of the TV movie. Breaking Away’s strong suit wasn’t anything particularly cinematic, but a witty, entertaining script that tended to carry the viewer through a series of artificial crises. The same is true of My Bodyguard. Alan Ormsby’s dialogue—however unlikely in the mouths of 15-year-olds—is nothing if not clever. But Tony Bill, in his directorial debut, always opts for the safety of the TV-approved crisis-and-resolution, and the trite-and-true device. The story of the close relationship between a small, smart rich kid and a slow, gentle giant of a student who becomes his protector against bully extortionists in a Chicago high school unfolds in nothing more inventive and honest than a series of tired-since-the-Sixties montages. First, rich kid pursues giant through unfamiliar streets; second, rich kid and giant seek—and find, in cutesypoo voicelessness—the last part needed to complete the motorcycle giant is working on as a dream project; third, rich kid and giant ride motorbike through a positively idyllic downtown Chicago; and fourth, rich kid loses giant and tries to find him in a nocturnal search through, again, unfamiliar surroundings. Interwoven with this basic device is an irrelevant subplot in which Ruth Gordon typically overdoes her eccentric-old-lady shtick, and the closest we come to a connecting thread between the two is the notion of the old lady as a foil to the gentle giant: old person “afraid not to live” counterbalances young person afraid to face life.

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Review: Coal Miner’s Daughter

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

The very title of this film, and of the Loretta Lynn autobiography on which it is based—in turn, from a song of hers—underlines some of the tensions within the movie: Coal Miner’s Daughter rather than, say, The Loretta Lynn Story implies a reliance on another for purposes of self-identification. It also suggests a nostalgia for one’s roots: a longing for a home is very important in Coal Miner’s Daughter.

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Review: Coal Miner’s Daughter

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Coal Miner’s Daughter is an American success story in the best biopic tradition, whose virtues lie in John Corso’s superb production design and in several strong performances that gently mix humor and romance with the darker side of human relations. The title of the film pays lip service to the importance of her father, Ted Webb, in the life of country singer Loretta Lynn, but the promise of that kind of psychological insight is never borne out in the film itself. Levon Helm’s strong, sensitive portrayal of the astonishingly young yet prematurely old coal miner Webb keeps him in our memories (particularly his walk, straight and proud, yet stiffened by his trade and growing a little frail) for longer than screentime actually allows him; but the latter part of the film is devoid of any clear link to Ted. The real center of the film is Mooney Lynn (Tommy Lee Jones), who gets us right into the film by betting, in the opening sequence, that he can drive his jeep to the very top of a high, steep slag heap, and, of course, winning: the same way he wins the affections and the hand of young Loretta (Sissy Spacek), and the same way he drives her to the top of quite a different heap—only to find himself confronting the syndrome of the male housewife.

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Review: Fame

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Whether Fame will tally up as a hit of this flabby movie summer is not clear at this moment, but the film is having some kind of success. In Seattle the picture opened soft and swiftly built, through word-of-mouth, to better-than-average b.o. Moreover, a portion of every audience can be relied upon to burst into applause after the concluding “I Sing the Body Electric” number, in which all (save one) of the featured students in one graduating class of the New York High School of the Performing Arts step forward, rise into frame, are cut to or panned to for their consummate, energy-into-organicity moment in the limelight. It should be what the whole film has been building toward: the culmination of its hither-and-yon camerawork and cutting, the certification of the purposiveness of its dynamics, the triumphant affirmation of the glory of the individual as part and parcel of a surging communal celebration. And excuse me but I’m going to fwow up because, beautiful as these notions may sound, they are not fulfilled by the conclusion, or legitimately anticipated by any element, of Fame. Keep Reading