Saturday, March 11, 2017

Ch-ch-ch-changes

Hey friends. This blog is 10 years old, and I've written 250 movie reviews for it. I've enjoyed doing it, but it's time for a change. When I started it, I gave myself the schedule of writing a long-form post at least twice a month, so I've essentially given myself homework every other Saturday for a decade. I can tell that I'm starting to repeat myself and sometimes phone it in, and what used to be enjoyable is turning into a bit of a chore. My temporarily insane work schedule and my life and the world are making it hard to keep it going in the same way. Instead of calling it quits, though, I have decided to post once a month and make the posts shorter. I'll be covering two films at once. Here's the first batch in the new order. I may go back to the original posting schedule at some point in the future, and I may not.

The Fall of the House of Usher (Jean Epstein, 1928)
This Edgar Allan Poe adaptation by French director, avant-garde theorist, literary critic, and novelist Jean Epstein was co-written with Luis Bunuel, who would go on to become one of the greatest directors in world cinema. Epstein is pretty great behind the camera, too, as this film and The Three-Sided Mirror prove. Though Epstein and Bunuel give the story a more subdued conclusion than Poe's, the film as a whole is a surrealist nightmare of romantic decay, full of elegant, gothic rot and a gauzy, waking dream-state atmosphere. It's a creepy film that looks and feels outside of time. It's a bit hard to find these days, but well worth tracking down.

A Blade in the Dark (Lamberto Bava, 1983)
This delightfully bonkers Italian slasher film, directed by Lamberto, son of Mario, is visually perverse and thrilling and narratively as stupid as a box of tennis balls, with some of the most ridiculously odd, poorly translated-into-English dialogue of the '80s. It's like they translated each line, word-by-word, with an Italian-to-English dictionary, ignoring things like slang, common usage, and words with multiple meanings. (Sample dialogue: "Is this all the whiskey you possess?" "I like musicians. They're good in bed. How are you in the feathers?" "Don't begin with me. Please, don't begin with me. I told you not to begin with me." The lead character calls his girlfriend a "vacant nerd." A woman says she's scared of spiders. "That's not a spider, that's a cockroach." Camera clearly shows a spider.)
It's a pretty good setup for a slasher film. A film composer writing the score for a horror movie holes up in an isolated Italian villa to work, but a series of bizarre murders may or may not be happening inside the house. Many red herrings ensue. Bonus progressive points: the character of the horror movie's director is played by a woman, and she is presented without condescension. It's a given in this film that women directing movies is perfectly normal and no big deal. (We're still waiting for that to be true in the real world, or at least whatever simulation of the real world we're currently living in.) Minus progressive points: (SPOILER ALERT) the killer is a man in drag who has both male and female personalities (played by the director of Cemetery Man, Michele Soavi). I've often found this trope effectively scary in slasher films, but I also think it's exploited a lot of our inherent societal prejudices and made things tougher for trans people in the larger picture. I don't think it's presented in bad faith here, and this movie, despite being very silly, has a much more interesting approach to gender than most slasher films, but life is complicated, and I don't know where I'm going with this, so sentence ended.
P.S. One of the actors in this film has one of the great names: Stanko Molnar.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

#250: Blackenstein (William A. Levey, 1973)

Following the financial success of 1972's Blacula and independent studio AIP's decision to dump its plans for a Frankenstein followup and instead make a Blacula sequel, an eccentric criminal lawyer who had always fantasized about becoming part of the movie business decided a black Frankenstein movie was his ticket into showbiz. He started writing the screenplay, contacted an aspiring director friend who had yet to make anything, and the plans for Blackenstein quickly turned into action.
That writer/producer was named Frank R. Saletri, and he had a wild, weird life story, even by  fringes-of-Hollywood standards. Saletri was a successful criminal lawyer who ran his law practice from his Hollywood home, a mansion resembling a castle formerly owned by Bela Lugosi. (Johnny Depp owned it for a while, too, in the 1990s.) Unlike most high-powered criminal lawyers in large cities, Saletri didn't socialize with his fellow attorneys, instead preferring to hang out at the Hollywood chapter of the Cauliflower Alley Club, a social club for retired professional wrestlers and boxers, actors who portrayed fighters in films (including Sylvester Stallone), and rich guys like Saletri who were obsessive wrestling and boxing fans. He especially liked to show up when celebrities were hanging out and get his face in as many pictures as he could. Saletri considered himself a ladies' man, took pride in his mustache, and enjoyed flying single-engine planes and doing pro bono work for his fellow American Legion members.  
Blackenstein was Saletri's only film as writer/producer, and his next project, Black the Ripper, never got off the ground. Saletri was murdered in his home from a single gunshot to the head in 1982, and the crime remains unsolved. Family, friends, and law enforcement believe it was someone he knew because there were no signs of forced entry or burglary, and Saletri had no known ties to drugs or crime outside of the clients he represented. He also owned several guns, knew karate, and had three large dogs, so he probably had his guard down. Adding to the strange details, Saletri had the locks changed in his home and took out a large life insurance policy just a few weeks before the murder.
His aspiring director pal Levey's story was a happier one. After Blackenstein, Levey somehow managed to work for another 20 years as a director, and his credits include crime drama To Be a Rose, Wam Bam Thank You Spaceman (a film about aliens traveling to Earth to impregnate Earth women, of course), teen party movie Slumber Party '57 (starring a young Debra Winger), the self-explanatory The Happy Hooker Goes to Washington, roller disco masterpiece Skatetown, U.S.A. (starring Scott Baio, Flip Wilson, Ron "Horshack" Palillo, Ruth Buzzi, Patrick Swayze, and Billy Barty), early Jean-Claude Van Damme action-thriller Monaco Forever (Van Damme plays a character known only as Gay Karate Man), Mickey Rooney-starring family film Lightning, the White Stallion, and Ron Palillo-starring motorcycle gang/magic crystal horror film Hellgate. His last film to date was 1991 inmates-are-running-the-asylum kidnap thriller Committed, again starring Ron Palillo.
I guess I have to talk about Blackenstein now. It's not very good. It can be dull. No one in it seems to have any idea how to make a movie. Despite all that, it has a weird fascinating quality that is hard to describe, it's short, and it contains one of my favorite lines of dialogue: "He won the Nobel Peace Prize for solving the DNA genetic code." Sometimes, it even stumbles into an accidental avant-garde experimentation.
Blackenstein begins with young doctor Winifred Walker (Ivory Stone) arriving at the castle-like mansion (Saletri's actual home) of experimental surgeon Dr. Stein (John Hart). Dr. Walker's fiance Eddie (Joe De Sue) lost his arms and legs in a landmine explosion in Vietnam and is currently in a VA hospital in Los Angeles. Winifred has just moved to Los Angeles from New York to be with him, and she convinces her former medical school professor Stein to give her a job in his home/hospital/laboratory and take on Eddie as a patient. Stein has had some success regenerating limbs in his weird lab, the set of which contains some props from James Whale's 1931 version of Frankenstein.
Unfortunately for everyone, Dr. Stein's creepy assistant Malcomb (Roosevelt Jackson) falls in love with Winifred, and when she politely declines his advances, he switches the DNA serums of Eddie and another patient. The switcheroo causes Eddie to Frankenstein the fuck out, and he (slowly, very slowly) sneaks out at night to wander the streets and rip the arms off and the entrails out of anyone unlucky enough to cross his path and dumb enough to just stand there and not run away, which is oddly almost everyone (again, Blackenstein walks extremely slowly). The notable exception is a nightclub comedian who is taking a smoke break in the alley while the singer and band perform. When the police question him, he says, "This sounds crazy, but I saw a 12-foot shadow." The cop: "So, what did you do?" The comedian: "Man, I got the hell out of there."
The performances range from passable to atrocious, with the majority of the cast never appearing in another movie before or since. Joe De Sue was a client of Saletri's hired for his size, and he gives possibly the least emotive performance in cinema history. Another member of the cast, Liz Renay, who plays one of Blackenstein's victims, was also a client of Saletri's. Raised by Christian fundamentalist parents in Arizona, Renay ran away from home at 13 and ended up in Los Angeles, where she won a Marilyn Monroe lookalike contest and became a showgirl. She later dated notorious mob boss Mickey Cohen, and she served two years in Terminal Island for perjury during Cohen's tax evasion trial. After her release from prison, she became a Vegas showgirl and was married seven times. Saletri defended her in an indecent exposure charge after she became the first grandmother to streak down Hollywood Boulevard. (I don't know who was in charge of investigating that statistic.) Renay died at the age of 80 in 2007.
Everyone connected to Blackenstein seems to have a more interesting story than the film, but, like a lot of amateurish B-movies, it holds a weird, fascinating charm. I also like how a couple guys with no experience decided to make a movie and actually did it. And there's a progressive aspect to the movie, too, before all the Frankenstein killing business, in which a young black woman and an old white guy can work alongside each other with mutual respect and skill. This jumps out more than usual in our current political climate where old white men are trying to destroy everything for the dispiriting old reasons of greed, spite, stupidity, authoritarian power, and racism.