Saturday, September 23, 2017

9/23/2017: Party for Satan

Black Roses (John Fasano, 1988)
I can't believe I never saw this as a kid. The VHS would have dropped during my seventh grade year. It's got heavy metal, demons, possession by rock music, gratuitous nudity, 30-year-olds playing teenagers, class discussions of Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson, a rare acting role from Lou Ferrigno's wife Carla, the drummer from Vanilla Fudge, and a guy yelling "What the fuck?" before being eaten by a demon emerging from a hi-fi speaker. What more do you need? (BTW, Vincent Pastore, famous for playing "Big Pussy" on The Sopranos, plays the guy who gets munched by the speaker-demon.)
Black Roses is about a metal band called, you guessed it, Black Roses, and all the teens in the sleepy little town of Mill Basin are shocked and stoked that the band is bringing its unremarkable but energetic blend of shredding and power balladry to the school auditorium for a week of warmup shows before its tour hits the big cities. Unfortunately for Mill Basin, the big-haired rockers are Satanic demons in disguise, and they only came to town to do two things: rock and possess every teenager. The Mill Valley moralists are up in arms over a metal band coming to town, but Black Roses win them over during the first night's performance with a Richard Marx-style soft rock ballad about pining for childhood days in the old hometown. Appeased, the adults leave, and Black Roses start rocking much harder and begin Operation: Possess Some Adult Teens. The only suspicious grownup is cool English teacher Mr. Moorhouse. You know he's cool because he has a mustache, wears blue jeans instead of dress slacks, and raps with the teens on their level about Whitman and Emerson. Can he save the day before the headbanging minions of Satan control every teen in the town?
Black Roses is silly, no great shakes visually, and 100% fun. I'm looking forward to checking out director Fasano's other metal-themed horror movie, Rock 'n' Roll Nightmare, starring novelty rocker/bodybuilder Jon Mikl Thor, frontman of Thor.

Seven Footprints to Satan (Benjamin Christensen, 1929)
Danish director Benjamin Christensen made the incredible early horror film Haxan, but I didn't know he also made a few horror films in Hollywood until watching this rare silent, thought lost for years until a print turned up in Italy. Seven Footprints to Satan adds more comedy and Hollywood razzmatazz and a silly happy ending to the proceedings, but fortunately it's perverse and weird, too. It doesn't come close to the magic that is Haxan, but few things do.
Creighton Hale plays James Kirkham, nephew of millionaire businessman Uncle Joe (DeWitt Jennings). James is a bit of a doofus, living off his uncle's fortune and planning an expedition to Africa to discover the world's first civilization even though, as his uncle puts it, he's never even explored the garden in his backyard. Joe and Eve (Thelma Todd), James' fiancee, want James to drop his foolish idea because he's a nerd who will probably get killed, but James is determined to become a famous explorer before marrying and settling down. Everyone's plans are pushed aside, however, when James and Eve are kidnapped during an antiquities auction at Eve's place and whisked away to a strange mansion full of weird and grotesque servants of Satan. James and Eve get into one bizarre situation after another attempting to escape until finally encountering Satan himself. Christensen's film starts with a fairly generic visual style and grows more expressive as the film continues, culminating in the seven footprints scene of the title. I've only been able to find this film on YouTube in a less than stellar print, but it's worth watching if you're interested in silent horror and/or Christensen.    

Saturday, August 26, 2017

8/26/2017: Bad Places

The Last Warning (Paul Leni, 1929)
The final film of Leni (The Man Who Laughs, Waxworks, The Cat and the Canary) before his untimely death that same year from blood poisoning, The Last Warning is a return to The Cat and the Canary's whodunit blend of horror and comedy amidst stylish visuals and animated intertitle experimentation. This time, the murder at the center of the mystery is of a Broadway actor, mysteriously killed mid-performance, and the cast, crew, and theater owners who are all suspects. When a mysterious new co-owner reopens the theater and reassembles the original cast and crew for a revival of the play, things get weird. This is Leni in master entertainer mode, and though the film is not a staggering work of art, it is a fun, playful, and exciting visual experience with an almost postmodern approach to film style. A worthy career finale for Leni. I suspect he would have been one of those directors to successfully transition to sound films, but, alas, we will never know.
BTW, the cast list for this movie reads more like a list of 1920s character names than a list of actors. Check some of these names out: Laura La Plante, Montagu Love, Roy D'Arcy, Burr McIntosh, Mack Swain, Slim Summerville.

Blood and Lace (Philip Gilbert, 1971)
I'm a fan of this bizarre psycho-sexual horror oddity with a delightfully offbeat cast and unusual screenplay. Blood and Lace is director Philip Gilbert's only movie (his only other directing credit is an episode of a British quiz show), and his visual style is pretty crude and pedestrian, but Gil Lasky's weirdo script and the actors bringing it to life are anything but pedestrian. Teenage girl Ellie Masters (F Troop's Melody Patterson) wakes up in a hospital after surviving the arson of her home and the murder-by-hammer of her sex worker mother and one of her mother's johns by a large man with a "horrible face." She is soon placed in a group home for orphans run by the very strange Mrs. Deere, played by Hollywood legend, and one of my favorite actors, Gloria Grahame, and her pervert alcoholic handyman Tom Kredge (Len Lesser, best known for playing Uncle Leo on Seinfeld). Meanwhile, a detective, Calvin Carruthers (Vic Tayback), thinks something is up at the Deere home and starts sniffing around, though his motives are suspect thanks to his unhealthy obsession with Ellie. A very young Dennis Christopher is also in this film as a teenager living in the group home.  The whole thing is a swirling mess of insanity, murder, hidden motives, sexual urges, manipulation, double- and triple-crosses, and deception (and that's before the hammer-wielding weirdo with the horrible face shows up again), and it's funny, weird, suspenseful, and wraps things up before it starts wearing out its welcome. Lead character Ellie Masters is a far cry from the usual young women horror film leads. She's smart, sophisticated, has everyone's number but is also full of secrets, manipulations, and hidden motives of her own. She's hardly the virginal goody-two-shoes who survives by hiding and screaming. This movie is weird and fun and manages to overcome its lack of visual elegance.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

7/30/2017: Black Lace, Black Room

Blood and Black Lace (Mario Bava, 1964)
After the baroque Gothic horrors in black and white and vivid color, respectively, of Black Sunday and Black Sabbath, Bava went full swingin' 60s for Blood and Black Lace. Set in a high-fashion design company, Black Lace is about a mysterious figure in faceless white balaklava, hat, and trench coat murdering the company's catwalk models, one-by-one, possibly because of a diary written by the first victim containing scandals and secrets. Everyone living is a suspect; hidden alliances and rivalries form, disperse, and reconstitute; the diary moves from person to person, all with his or her reasons for hiding it, destroying it, or turning it over to the police. The body count stacks up, in colorful, stylish, suspenseful, and creepy ways. Bava's film is a rush of pure entertainment, color, suspense, humor, violence, and style, with a great opening credits scene. I liked it a lot.

The Black Room (Elly Kenner & Norman Thaddeus Vane, 1982)
Here's a weird, weird take on both the vampire and voyeuristic killer stories, and a West Coast companion film to Andy Milligan's Blood, reviewed here a few months ago. I'm going to try to describe the story in one sentence. Here goes. A married Los Angeles businessman wants to spice up his sex life, so he secretly rents a room (a black room lit only with candles) in the Hollywood Hills from a creepy brother and sister and uses it for his one-night stands (or one-afternoon stands), while the brother takes photos from behind a one-way mirror (which the businessman knows about) and then kidnaps the women with his sister in order to drain their blood and infuse his diseased blood with their youthful essence (which the businessman does not know about). Things heat up when the businessman's wife, a woman whose life is devoted to serving her husband and children, finds out about the room and starts expanding her own sexual and societal boundaries there, much to the chagrin of her sexist husband. (OK, two sentences.) The film is low budget but doesn't look cheap, and the actors aren't slick but they serve the material well. (The film features early-career roles for Linnea Quigley and Christopher McDonald.) It's not entirely successful and has a handful of clumsy or awkward moments, but overall, the movie is creepy and unusual and has its own style and point of view. I was pretty fascinated by it.
The Black Room is mostly unknown today, but in the '80s, it was singled out by decency crusaders in England as a "video nasty," one of my favorite British expressions. Much like Tipper Gore and company's crusade against explicit lyrics in pop music in the States, England's wealthy prudes with too much time on their hands targeted violent horror and exploitation movies on VHS, dubbing them "video nasties" and trying to get them banned. There's even a Young Ones episode about it. It goes without saying that this is a pro-video nasty web site. See you next month, and stay nasty. 

Sunday, July 2, 2017

7/2/2017: Xenophobes and Jilted Lovers

Black Rain (Ridley Scott, 1989)
This American-cop-in-Japan action/thriller is a colossally dumb slice of xenophobia, but it has plenty of novelty value. It's not much more than a souped-up version of a bottom-of-the-barrel Steven Seagal movie, but it answers a few unasked questions in ways that entertained me against my better judgment, such as what would it look like if Michael Douglas played Steven Seagal playing a cop, and what would happen if we threw several million more dollars at the material and got Ridley Scott to direct it? Michael Douglas looks like he's having fun playing against type as a dick-swaggering macho American loudmouth action hero, and Scott makes Japan look like Blade Runner, full of neon and streets glistening with rain and imposing city skylines at night and smoke and futuristic menace. This is one of the last gasps of the big dumb Reaganite '80s action movies before self-awareness and irony and intentional camp crept in, presented much more stylishly than usual but still plenty troglodytic. Considering how much Japanese culture has influenced American culture in the last few decades (and vice versa), the movie is primarily of use as a fascinating and extremely dated time capsule. The movie regards Japan as a curious oddity ("isn't it strange that every place is not the United States?" the movie asks at every turn), and even commonplace activities like karaoke, eating noodles with chopsticks, and removing shoes before entering a home are portrayed as the height of absurdity and strangeness. The moral of the movie is that Americans are normal, everyone else is weird, and other cultures are improved by becoming more like us. Long story short, Trump is not an anomaly. I enjoyed this movie against my better judgment, probably because it is truly too stupid to be offensive, benefits from Scott's eye, and embraces the formulaic fun of '80s cop and action movies, but Blade Runner it most definitely is not.

The Last Performance (Paul Fejos, 1929)
I'm a huge fan of director Paul Fejos' 1928 film Lonesome, a visually daring, formally inventive, charming romance about two lonely young working-class people in New York City who meet and fall in love on Coney Island on a holiday weekend. The Criterion Collection's recent release of Lonesome includes a much darker Fejos film, The Last Performance, as an extra on the second disc. The Last Performance is not quite as assured as Lonesome, but it benefits from Fejos' formally daring eye and has a great leading performance from Conrad Veidt. The story is a proto-EC Comics tale of jealousy, revenge, and violent comeuppance against a theatrical backdrop. Veidt plays Erik the Great, a Hungarian magician and hypnotist with some spookily occult powers. While performing in the States, he meets and falls in love with one of the performers, the teenage girl Julie (Mary Philbin), and he plans to announce their engagement on her 18th birthday (not creepy at all, right?). Complications come from Erik's assistant, Buffo (Leslie Fenton), who secretly loves Erik (this is conveyed visually, not verbally, because it's 1929, and homosexuality does not exist verbally in 1929 American films, but you better believe it exists visually in many, many, many American films), and a young thief who becomes part of the show when Erik and Julie take pity on him and who falls in love with Julie. I won't reveal the rest, but it involves 12 swords. I believe this may be the first film that includes a judge telling a court that a surprise request to testify is highly unusual/unorthodox but that he will allow it, and my copy of The Overlook Film Encyclopedia of Horror tells me this is the first film to contain an improvised zoom shot. I strongly recommend buying or renting Lonesome and checking out both that film and this one.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

6/4/2017: "We, meaning you and I"

West of Zanzibar (Tod Browning, 1928)
If you visit this site with any regularity, then you know I'm a big Tod Browning fan. His silent films in particular have a weird, modern poetry that exists right now, hundreds of years ago, and outside of anything as inevitably dull as time and fashion. He's one of the greats. Unfortunately, West of Zanzibar is a rare Browning silent that, despite its many narrative and visual strengths, reminds the viewer that the man who made it and the culture he made it for have pretty fucked up attitudes toward black people. (I don't have to convince anyone that white people are still crazy in 2017.) Browning, like all people, is flawed and a product of his time, but it's disappointing to see someone who had such unusual understanding and empathy for women and marginalized people on the fringes of society unable to extend that empathy to the African characters in this film, who are presented as menacing savages, foolish believers of superstition, the Other, and a threat to pretty white women. These are a lot of hurdles to jump over to enjoy the film, and I understand anyone who can't do it, but I'm able to compartmentalize and carry a lot of contradictory opinions around while engaging with a piece of art or entertainment in ways that are hard for me to do with the other parts of my life. Browning, as usual, tells a very unusual story about people on the low rungs of show business, with lots of strange, dark turns, beautifully disturbing images, and all-too-human performances, especially from Lon Chaney, Mary Nolan, and Warner Baxter. It's never dull, always fascinating, but dated in ways that Browning's other films aren't. Worth a watch if you're a fan of Browning, Chaney, or silent films in general, but also worth skipping if you're getting your fill of racism from modern politics.

Blood (Andy Milligan, 1973)
Where do I begin with Andy Milligan? His films are not like other people's films. Imagine some unholy combination of John Waters, '30s and '40s horror, community theater, and Warhol, and you're sort of in the ballpark but not yet on the field. Minnesota-born army brat Milligan, after his discharge from the navy, moved to New York City and opened a dress shop. Involved with costume design and direction for off-Broadway theater, he eventually started making his own movies, starting with gay sexploitation films before moving into horror. He made most of these films in New York, but he also lived in London and made a handful there. He died of AIDS in Los Angeles in 1991. His films have a reputation for being terrible, but only by conventional, small-minded people with narrow ideas of what movies are supposed to be. Blood is about an arranged marriage of convenience between Dracula's daughter and the Wolf Man's son, their gaggle of strange assistants, and some blood-drinking plants that they grow and cultivate to keep Dracula's daughter alive. It was shot in the dilapidated mansion Milligan called home in Staten Island. The film is almost camp, almost serious, almost bad, almost great, and always delightful. It is not like anything else, and I love that about it. One of Milligan's caregivers in the last year of his life was his biographer Jimmy McDonough, who wrote the fantastic and offbeat Neil Young biography, Shakey, as well as biographies of Russ Meyer, Tammy Wynette, John Fogerty, and Al Green. I think I need to read that book. Milligan is poorly served on home video, but you can see a lot of his work on YouTube.   

Sunday, May 7, 2017

5/7/2017: Replicans and Replican'ts

Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982)
Blade Runner is a great movie, and it took me a stupidly long time to realize it. I always thought it looked fantastic, but my feelings toward it after my first two or three viewings were that it was soulless, cold, distant, deliberately confusing. But something about it made me keep trying, and somewhere in that third or fourth viewing, it finally reached me. (It doesn't help that so many versions -- the theatrical cut, the overseas theatrical cut, the "director's" cut, the final cut -- exist). Of course it's distant. It's a film about a man who may or may not be a humanoid replicant trying to destroy four humanoid replicants while he falls in love with a woman who may or may not be a humanoid replicant. I was wrong, however, about it being cold. Though the film is not a bucket of warmth and light, or a crowd-pleaser or attempted crowd-pleaser in the way most of Scott's other films are, it has great emotional resonance buried under its surfaces, especially as corporations increasingly program and direct human behavior (hello Facebook, the site where each human voluntarily and for no pay turns him/herself into a brand and a content generator for a business's profit (disturbing side note -- Zuckerberg (possibly a replicant himself) seems to be positioning himself to run for office -- RESIST! RESIST!)). Besides the corporate stuff, the film is a visual poem to the person we imagine ourselves to be, the person we were who exists in our memories, and the person we really are. Ridley Scott has always been a talented stylist, but Blade Runner is one of the few times in his career where style and substance met. I'm also a big fan of Alien and Thelma & Louise, but his other stuff ... ehhhh, not so much. Still, I'll always have a place in my heart for him because of the few times he hit the bulls-eye. Blade Runner still looks better than any science fiction or neo-noir film that followed and is a permanent rebuke to the tragic joke that is CGI.

Blackout (Doug Adams, 1988)
And now for something completely different. Obscure '88 psychological thriller/slasher horror oddity Blackout is a mostly terrible movie, but it never stops being fascinating. The people in this movie don't talk or behave like any human beings have ever talked or behaved in the history of humanity, but the movie doesn't seem to be creating this weirdness on purpose. The replicants in Blade Runner were much more human than the weirdies in this turkey. Blackout unfolds like a film created by aliens whose only exposure to human beings were two episodes of a soap opera, fifteen minutes of a slasher film, and an hour of random channel surfing. My favorite bit of dialogue: "You're being spiteful." "I'm not being spiteful. I hate spite!" Runners-up: "I'd give my soul to plant a kiss on his grave." And "My father and I don't really get along. Philosophical differences. He's a white supremacist." And "What, you think he's up in the attic watching my dirty movies?" "Those are your dirty movies?" "Hey, a guy's gotta live." And about 50 more truly weird lines. The plot is a complicated bit of weirdness about a young woman returning to her childhood home in search of her missing father. The home is currently occupied by her weird mother (who hates her) and her weird uncle (who likes her) and the weirdness between the two siblings. Weird. Director Doug Adams (not the Hitchhiker's Guide author) never made a film before or since (his only other IMDB credit is as a "chute cowboy" on the crew of the rodeo movie 8 Seconds, if that's not just another guy with the same name), but one of the screenwriters is Joseph Stefano, whose biggest claim to fame was writing the screenplay for Hitchcock's Psycho. We're a long way from Psycho here. Adams mostly makes his film look like a flat '80s TV show, but there are a couple of effectively suspenseful scenes that use expressive colors and lighting. The rest? Ehhh, not so good, but definitely not boring. Blackout is currently only available as a used VHS tape (yes, I still own and sometimes use a VCR.)

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.