Saturday, April 8, 2017

4/8/2017: Laughing Men and Black Gestapos

The Black Gestapo (Lee Frost, 1975)
An intriguingly oddball blaxploitation film, The Black Gestapo is more successful in concept than execution. The plot is pretty unusual. Set in Watts, the film is about The People's Army, a black power community activist organization that models itself after the military and has its own hospital. Tension exists between the group's leaders, Gen. Ahmed (Rod Perry), who wants to work within the system and avoid violence, and Col. Kojah (Night Court's Charles Robinson), who sees the need for direct revolutionary action, including violence if necessary. When some white gangsters start leaning too hard on black businesses and selling dope in the neighborhood, and a couple of their goons rape a black nurse, Ahmed gives Kojah the go-ahead to organize a small group to run the gangsters out of town. Kojah succeeds but turns mad with power, becoming a gangster and drug lord himself, and the stage is set for a People's Army civil war. As a historical curiosity, the film is fascinating, but the directing and acting are pretty amateurish, and the director spends too much time dwelling on sexual violence against women in ways that let you know he's getting off on it at the same time that his story is condemning it. That director, Lee Frost, had a lengthy career in exploitation, and his two best-known films are probably The Thing with Two Heads, starring Rosey Grier and Ray Milland, and moonshiner revenge Southernsploitation, Dixie Dynamite, starring Warren Oates.

The Man Who Laughs (Paul Leni, 1928)
The mid- to late-1920s was a golden age of silent film, when poetic vision, technology, and technique had advanced together, and visually stunning masterpieces were numerous, before early sound made things clunky, stagy, and awkward again for a few years. The Man Who Laughs is one of these masterpieces. Based on a Victor Hugo novel, The Man Who Laughs combines elements of horror, comedy, romance, tragedy, swashbuckling adventure, historical costume drama, German expressionist influence, and the sad clown and life of the traveling performer stories to create a thrilling classic Hollywood entertainment. I saw this years ago and admired it without loving it. I don't think I was in the mood for a silent film then, because this second viewing really bowled me over. It's a gorgeously composed movie, full of great images and scenes (director Leni also made Waxworks and The Cat and the Canary), and producer Carl Laemmle's goal of making a film that blended the tones of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was mostly achieved, though all three of those films stand on their own. Besides the composition, this is also a film of great movie faces, particularly Conrad Veidt's in the title role.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

3/11/17: 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.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

#249: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Dario Argento, 1970)

What a hellish nightmare of a week for the United States and humanity in general. The presidency turned into a white supremacist authoritarian dictatorship in a single week, and this country's worst impulses have become blazing neon signs. This is just a silly horror movie blog, and I won't be commenting much on politics in this space in the uncertain weeks, months, and years to come, but I fucking hate Donald Trump, his cabinet, the Republican Congress and everything they stand for and won't stand up for, and the weak-ass Democrats who are voting for his cabinet picks and not fighting for their constituents and a better future, and I'm sad, disgusted, angry, and worried. Being a straight white guy, I've had and probably still have plenty of blind spots and ignorance, and I'm in the demographic that is the least endangered by this administration's policies, but I want a world that welcomes and includes everyone and gives everyone a place at the table and a chance to participate and succeed in as even a playing field as we can get. I don't understand anyone who doesn't want these things. The only thing keeping me from total despair right now is that most Americans don't support this monster, either. Movies, music, books, (some) family, and friends have been a big help, too. Please, in any way you can, support the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, and any other local, national, and global organizations fighting the good fight. And support your local arts, too. This could be a better world. It's on us. Rant over. Now an artless, awkward transition to this week's movie. 
Dario Argento's first film as a director, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a lot less visually opulent than the horror classics he would soon make, but the seeds are definitely there, and a handful of scenes and images prove he had incredible imaginative skill from the beginning. This first film keeps one foot in the real world (or at least the movie version of the "real world"), especially compared to the baroque, hallucinatory dreamworld that most of his '70s and early '80s work inhabits, but it's packed with great movie faces, suspense, weirdness, and some pretty jaw-dropping set pieces, as well as 1970s Italian horror standard-issue sexism and homophobia that has aged pretty poorly.
Before he got the chance to direct his own films, Argento spent four successful years as a screenwriter, which seems a little odd to me. I love peak Argento, but I find his writing the least interesting thing about his work. He has great story ideas (one of which became the basis for one of Sergio Leone's greatest westerns, Once Upon a Time in the West), but his dialogue is pretty clunky and is generally perfunctory and expository, meant to keep the plot and narrative together and moving forward. I don't watch Argento for the sparkling writing. I watch him for his insanely awesome cinematic eye. His action sequences, shot compositions, odd visual details, eye-popping colors, and spectacular sense of where to put the camera and how to move it for maximum impact, these are the reasons why I'm an Argento fan. At any rate, he worked on the screenplays for comedies, westerns, gangster films, war films, sexploitation films, dramas, and psychological thrillers before putting his unique stamp on the horror genre as a director.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a fascinating take on an Italian subgenre most popular in the '60s and '70s that Americans call "giallo." In Italy, giallo is a broader term applied to any thriller. "Giallo" means "yellow" in Italian and was used to describe thrillers because postwar Italian mystery paperbacks often had yellow covers. Americans use it in a more specific way about a specific type of Italian horror film that is easier to recognize than describe. The characteristics of giallo as an Italian subgenre are as follows: A black-gloved killer murders beautiful women in particularly violent ways, usually with a knife, presented in highly stylized scenes and shots and accompanied by progressive, experimental music scores. The hero is often a witness to one of the crimes. Visual impact and formal inventiveness are prioritized over narrative coherence and logic. Characters generally behave in strange, illogical ways. These films tend to be misogynistic, but fortunately most of them don't include torture or rape and instead place their scares in menace, atmosphere, and suspense.
Argento's Plumage contains all the elements I mentioned in the previous paragraph, though the narrative is far more coherent than most of his subsequent films. Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) is a struggling American writer preparing to move back to the United States who witnesses something strange while walking home one night. In the first of the film's many impressive visual sequences, Sam sees a woman struggling with a man in a black coat, hat, and gloves through the window of an art gallery. The woman is stabbed, and the man runs away, but not before hitting a switch and trapping Sam in the entrance to the gallery. He's surrounded on all sides by glass, and he can't get inside the gallery or back out to the street. Meanwhile, the woman is crawling on the floor, bleeding. Sam finally gets someone's attention, and the police and medics arrive in time to save the woman.
After a stretch as a suspect in which his passport is confiscated, Sam soon becomes a confidante to the detective working the case, helping him track down leads and growing more and more obsessed with catching the would-be killer, who has also been stalking and murdering a string of other women throughout the city.
Many intense, visually expressive scenes follow, including a chase through the streets that leads to a parking lot for buses and a hotel conference room full of ex-boxers having a union convention, the killer attempting entry into a top-floor apartment, an eccentric painter trying to make a sale who has walled off the entrance to his home, and a wild trio of scenes concluding the film. Argento was a gifted natural from the beginning, and he'd only get better from here (and then much worse, but I'll pretend his last several years never happened). Besides his own gifted compositional skills, Argento is masterfully aided here by the legendary Ennio Morricone, whose score is strange, intense, beautiful, and in some scenes, a kindred spirit to the electric improvisational music Miles Davis was making at the time. I like this movie, and even though some of its creakiness and stereotypical attitudes revealed themselves even more on this second viewing, its strengths did, too. A solid, scary film.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

#248: The Unknown (Tod Browning, 1927)

It's been a real pleasure to see several Tod Browning silent films in recent months. One of that rare breed of director to make great films in both the silent and sound eras, Browning's silents are so perverse, funny, modern, and visual, so present, that I don't miss the dialogue. I don't feel like I'm taking a history lesson or looking at something archaic or outside my experience. Browning's silents float outside of time.
The Unknown packs a whole lot of weirdness, action, and beauty into its short 63 minutes, and Browning fills the film with great, memorable faces. Like a lot of Browning films, the principal characters are carnival performers and/or criminals, and there is much unrequited love, disguising of identities, outlandish schemes, and wonderful little details that great directors sprinkle throughout their work. 
The film opens with a performance by the traveling carnival, owned and operated by the brutal Zanzi (Nick De Ruiz). A man with no arms, Alonzo (Lon Chaney), assisted by little person Cojo (John George), uses his feet to light and smoke cigarettes, remove his cape, and throw knives at a lovely young woman, Zanzi's daughter Nanon (an early role for then-22-year-old Joan Crawford). Following this act, the strongman Malabar (Norman Kerry) comes out and lifts heavy weights and bends unbendable objects.
Both Alonzo and Malabar are in love with Nanon, but Malabar comes on too strong and alienates Nanon, much to Alonzo's delight. Nanon hates being touched by men, to the point of terror, so the only man she trusts is the armless Alonzo. The film implies that Zanzi has been sexually molesting Nanon, leading to her fear. (Kudos to my wife for pointing this out. It sailed right over my dim head.) Nanon gives an impassioned speech about how men have been putting their hands on her for her entire life, and Zanzi goes into a rage when he finds out Nanon has been spending time with Alonzo, whipping the armless man and verbally berating him. How did I miss that?
We soon learn that Alonzo is not the kindhearted fellow we think he is, and Malabar is a more sensitive guy than he first appeared. Alonzo has been using a corset to pretend he has no arms in order to avoid the police. He and Cojo are responsible for a string of robberies, and it is also implied that Alonzo has some murders in his past. The elaborate ruse is a clever one, for Alonzo has two thumbs on his left hand. He becomes obsessed with possessing Nanon, and his evil plans become even more evil when Nanon begins working through her fears and growing closer to Malabar, who begins to understand the source of her fear and drops the overbearing approach. Wild and crazy events ensue, including murder, blackmail, bizarre surgery, wild horses, and treadmills. 
Every one of these characters is more fascinating than the stereotypes they would have been in a lesser filmmaker's movie. Browning spent years working in carnivals, circuses, and the theater before his film career, and he always presents these characters as multidimensional people. Cojo's height is never used as a gimmick or a plot point, and it's his facial expressions and opinions that are Browning's focus in his scenes.
If you only know Joan Crawford as the tough older woman from baroque horror and melodrama, her status as a gay icon, or Faye Dunaway's delightfully cartoonish performance in Mommie Dearest, you'll get a whole new aspect of her here. It's such a treat to see her before she became a movie star and cultural symbol, though her charisma and screen presence are already fully in place. No wonder everyone in this film falls in love with her. She has a great screen rapport with Lon Chaney, too, who I've already written about many, many times on this site. He is, as usual, awesome. I love this movie.