Posted in: by Ken Eisler, Contributors, Film Reviews, Horror

Review: Black Christmas

[Originally published in Movietone News 38, January 1975]

“The Film Funding Corporation Limited in association with Vision IV” has produced a serviceable-enough Canadian low-budget shocker in Black Christmas and pitched it at the end-of-year trade. Unless I’ve missed some subtle subtext, the tie to Christmas is tenuous: an establishing shot of wassail seen through the windows of Gothic-looking Hart House, University of Toronto (decked out with Christmas lights and disguised as a sorority house in the college town of “Bedford”), and an advertising campaign built around a Christmas wreath gift-labeled “Season’s Greeting’s” and enclosing a still of a polyethylene-wrapped corpse propped in a rockingchair. One question about this campaign teases my mind more persistently than any puzzle propounded by the film itself. Did the merchandiser who dreamed it up personally place the apostrophe before that plural s in “Greetings,” as unselfconsciously as if he were scrawling the words on a wrapped Christmas gift in the sanctity of his own home; or could FCC Ltd./Vision IV in fact be trying to hip us, via their use of this endemic seasonal illiteracy (see also: Greetings from the Smith’s, The Smith’s Live Here, etc.) to their extraordinary concern in Black Christmas for the exact social detail?

If I could only resolve this question of intent, I suspect it would help with other questions in the body of the film. Such as: when the roster of missing persons keeps swelling at that sorority house, and the bodies of murdered women are piling up in the attic, and conscientious, intelligent Lieut. Fuller (John Saxon) finally takes charge of the investigation, is his elementary failure to have the house thoroughly searched a sophisticated Hitchcockian reversal of audience expectations (1ook how sober and competent this cop seems … you assumed he’d be a great detective, didn’t you? … horse on you, chaps!)? or does it merely reflect the filmmakers’ helplessness in the face of the tact that one peek into the attic would reveal the dead bodies, the extension from which the killer has been making wildly obscene phone calls after each of his depradations within the house, and maybe the killer himself, thus ending the film? Similarly: when director Bob Clark hits us over the head for 85 minutes with the same soundtrack red herring, an ominous twang of piano strings, and then, in the last five minutes, unashamedly exposes his own dishonesty, does he expect us a) to retrospectively erase the sounds, and visual clues, too, that he has attached to shots of the killer at work? b) to laugh with him at this clever imposture? or c) to forgive him almost anything just because he transmutes a trick ending into cinematic gold? I confess to c. The conclusion is beautiful: a meld of fading sounds, shadows, and reflected lights; a smooth, slow travelling shot, a high overhead; a cop warming his hands outside the darkened, hulking Hart House; a sedated girl lying on the bed in a pitchblack room; silence; a phone ringing.

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Posted in: by Claudia Gorbman, Contributors, Film Reviews

Review: Roma

[Originally published in Movietone News 23, May-June 1973]

Roma is a product of Fellini’s self-indulgence. He puts everything he’s loved about Rome, and himself, upon the screen, in semi-documentary style, with the only unifying factor being a weak autobiographical framework. It’s like a big home movie shot by lovingly nostalgic professionals. The color is exquisite, and many of the individual segments are unforgettable. For instance, at one point we’re treated to an ecclesiastical fashion show, complete with red-carpeted runway, announcer, lively organ music, and increasingly fantastic outfits modeled by nuns, priests, bishops, and a pope (whose robe comes with flashing lights). During scenes of Rome of thirty years ago, a rather insipidly handsome actor plays Fellini as a young man, making his way through lusty dinners in a piazza and even lustier evenings in whorehouses. There’s a graceful transition from past to present in the film—showing much of the director and his crew in the later parts—ending in a nocturnal zoom through the city by a motorcycle gang. Apocalyptic? Who knows? Fellini never gets further than suggesting bits of meaning; one gets the impression that that isn’t his point. Unfortunately, nothing seems to be his point, less so than in The Clowns, Roma, a conglomeration of episodes—visually fascinating as they may be—leaves even seasoned Fellini lovers a little cold.

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Posted in: by Ken Eisler, Contributors, Film Reviews, Horror

Review: Private Parts

[Originally published in Movietone News 25, September 1973]

Anybody out there remember, by any chance, Michael Powell’s 1959 flick Peeping Tom? (A disingenuous question, that: he who see Peeping Tom, he remember it, all right all right. Repress the mother, yes, possibly; but forget it? No—as they say—bloody way.)

Well, freak fans, it’s arrived at last, will you welcome please, a good hand now, folks, here he is, Son of Peeping Tom. No, correction: let’s try to get this right: Peeping Tomasina.

Not all that good a hand, though. We haven’t equaled the original yet, not in toto. For starters, the opening stinks. (The opening scene, that is, not the stylish titles.) And the ending is no rose, either; it smells, in fact, just a little like … bad faith. Well, bad judgment anyhow. Or plain laziness.

Still, Paul Bartel’s new feature Private Parts picks up one hell of a head of steam once it gets going. And if some (that word again!) freak of local distribution should cause it to drop suddenly (translation: “be dumped”) into an unsuspecting Seattle theater this year, you might do worse than soldier through that poorly-directed, -written, -scored and -acted opening for the sake of its later felicities.

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Posted in: Contributors, Film Reviews, Guest Contributor

Review: Electra Glide in Blue

[Originally published in Movietone News 27, November 1973]

Film directors have come from many backgrounds, in the past more so than today; but with Electra Glide in Blue a new source has been tapped. James William Guercio is a prominent record producer. The influence of his background in the recording industry becomes immediately apparent when, in the first several minutes of the film, we witness a “suicide” while a weepy piano tune plays on a hand-cranked phonograph. Guercio has a feeling for music and film, and he blends both into an expressive statement. Certainly one of the most poetic of these expressions is a chase scene which begins slowly, the characters in floating telephoto shots seen through waves of heat rising from the pavement and the sands of the Arizona desert; with the addition of music to the soundtrack it becomes a ballet that moves inexorably toward its climax.

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Posted in: by RC Dale, Contributors, Film Reviews

Review: American Graffiti

[Originally published in Movietone News 27, November 1973]

American Graffiti begins with a shot of Curt, a recent high school graduate, driving up to Mel’s Drive-in, and it ends with Curt watching a white Thunderbird from his airplane seat as he goes off to college. Structurally speaking, therefore, the film revolves around him and his problems as he tries to decide whether or not he’s really going to get on that morning plane and leave behind him his familiar southern California hometown and its ways of life. But in between these two structural goalposts, it’s very hard at any given moment to assign Curt or anyone else the role of principal protagonist, since Lucas deliberately and very effectively plunges us into the seethingly mobile and unstable world of smalltown late adolescence à la 1962, whose coalescence and flux he creates through dispersion of characters and intrigues, crosscut to join them back together. The method is both daring and difficult since so many sets of characters pursuing their various goals could very easily get out of hand, resulting in real narrative chaos. But Lucas and his editors triumph handily over the perils and end up creating an admirably controlled narrative that describes a chaotic evening without ever descending into chaos itself.

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Posted in: by RC Dale, Contributors, Film Reviews, Musicals

Yes, We Have No Bananas: ‘The Gang’s All Here’

[Originally published in Movietone News 29, January-February 1974]

I was particularly looking forward to this film for two big reasons. The picture, recently revived by a New York distributor who claims to have reopened a Technicolor lab to obtain a genuine oldfashioned imbibition-dye print, offers the combined interest of showing us Berkeley both working in color and directing a musical all the way through. Would this be the flowering of his art, for which his decade of choreographing and directing black-and-white production numbers at Warners had served him as apprentice years? Only a few of those Thirties musicals—most notably the Lloyd Bacon–Berkeley Footlight Parade—had any sort of allover rhythm to them, and one could otherwise always feel the terrible jolt whenever Berkeley left off and the “story” director picked up the narrative. What a treat it would be to see Berkeley doing his stuff from beginning to end in a sustained narrative laced with chromatically spectacular production numbers!

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Posted in: by RC Dale, Contributors, Film Reviews

Review: Sleeper

[Originally published in Movietone News 29, January-February 1974]

Sleeper is the funniest new film I’ve seen in years. Taking Off was the last recently made film that left me laughed out, and Sleeper reduced me to complete helplessness. In it, writer-director-actor Woody Allen projects himself into the year 2173 as a result of having been frozen for preservation some two hundred years earlier. The picture abounds in delicious detail, almost entirely of a satirical nature, but I’ll pass up the temptation to cannibalize his wit by recounting any of it, and talk instead about the progress his career is making.

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Posted in: by Ken Eisler, Contributors, Film Reviews

Review: Macunaíma

[Originally published in Movietone News 29, January-February 1974]

The allegedly quintessential Brazilian film begins solemnly, from the absence of color. The screen is black. No sound, no music, nothing. Finally, in white letters, something to lip-read: a preamble heavy and hackneyed as the baritone of the late, great Lowell Thomas…. In the depths of the Brazilian jungle, bla bla bla … all is utter silence, bla bla bla … except … An ungodly shriek rends the air and the audience’s eardrums. Sudden extreme closeup of ancient hag—ugh, what a mug on this old party! Medium shot: the crone (wait, maybe it’s a man, outlandish drag)—she—he—bends clumsily. W-a-a-a-a-w! Grande Otelo (an adult actor), fullgrown and black as the ace of spades, thuds bawling onto the turf; and Macunaíma, with a cry of comical outrage, is born.

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Posted in: by RC Dale, Contributors, Film Reviews

Review: The Last Detail

[Originally published in Movietone News 30, March 1974]

One of life’s great delights is surprise, and this surprising picture gives great delight indeed. For me, the chief element of surprise comes from The Last Detail‘s constant manipulation of my expectations in terms of genre. Ordinarily, when I sit down to a film about which I know nothing beforehand—the case with this picture—the first shot or two tell me, among other things, what genre the film will belong to. Any given genre carries its own set of conventions governing characters, treatment, resolutions, tone, and any number of other ingredients, so part of my pleasure comes from watching the filmmakers elaborating, working, and fulfilling those conventions and my expectations. But The Last Detail doesn’t do that at all; instead it quite resolutely refuses to submit to genre conventions while playing deftly on our expectations like a graceful bullfighter executing countless veronicas as we rush by him time after time trying to pin him down to earth. In other words, one never knows quite where this film is going until it has reached its end, and even its ending defies any genre convention that I’m acquainted with.

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Posted in: by Ken Eisler, Contributors, Film Reviews

Review: Group Marriage

[Originally published in Movietone News 30, March 1974]

Group Marriage serves up the Stephanie Rothman exploitation-flick mixture pretty much as before: half commitment, half indifference. But whereas I enjoyed her Student Nurses, this one left me cold. It’s partly the actors, I think. The student nurses and their beaux, however shallowly characterized, looked like fairly lively, attractive people. But who could identify with Group Marriage‘s crew of plastic Angelenos? The three men of the film’s group marriage are a jock lifeguard, a piggish young male chauvinist who markets glibly “sick” bumper stickers, and a spineless social worker who mouths jargon and wilts under the situation-comedy glare of his blowhard supervisor. The three women are not exactly charismatic, either, though one of them is endowed with a token knack for fixing car motors and another is represented, unconvincingly, as a lawyer. Rothman introduces us to the third in a blind-date–type scene that might have been directed by some arch-M.C.P.—Dean Martin, say. The bumper sticker entrepreneur has been led to expect a “dog”; when she walks in and he lays eyes on her breasts, he instantly goes ape. Bo-o-o-ing! She remains throughout the movie merely a pair of big tits. For all Rothman’s nods in the direction of women’s liberation, no attempt is made (if you want to get heavy about all this) to raise her consciousness, nor that of the pig kid; yet both are viewed as interesting, OK people.

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