Saturday, July 30, 2016


(1964) Directed by William Castle; Written by Robert Bloch; Starring: Joan Crawford, Diane Baker, Leif Erickson, John Anthony Hayes and George Kennedy

Available on DVD

Rating: ***½

“Today I saw a different Lucy. A woman who’s trying to look and act as if those 20 years had never existed. A woman who’s trying to re-capture her past. But for her, the past is dangerous.” – Dr. Anderson (Mitchell Cox)

“It was an asylum! And it was hell! 20 years of pure hell! But I’m not ashamed. I paid for everything I did. You’ll never know how much I paid...” – Lucy Harbin (Joan Crawford)

After participating in The Bette Davis Blogathon it seemed only natural to give Ms. Davis’ archrival equal time. Many thanks to Crystal of In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood for inviting me to contribute to The Joan Crawford Blogathon.

Producer/director William Castle, writer Robert Bloch and star Crawford joined forces for the suspense film Strait-Jacket. Unlike many of Castle’s most notorious titles (The Tingler, 13 Ghosts, The House on Haunted Hill, etc…), Strait-Jacket didn’t arrive with elaborate gimmicks, although the trailer promised “Strait Jacket depicts axe murders.” As Castle aficionado/filmmaker John Waters remarked, casting Joan Crawford was the biggest gimmick of them all. It’s hard to believe she wasn’t the first choice to headline the film, but when Joan Blondell suffered a disfiguring accident, Castle needed to re-cast the part. He begged Crawford to star in his film, and she doesn’t disappoint.

Crawford, who was 58 at the time Strait-Jacket was filmed, plays 40-something Lucy Harbin, freshly released from an asylum. In the opening scene we witness the incident that sent Harbin off the deep end. When she catches her two-timing husband (Lee Majors) and his lover in bed, she murders both with an axe, which her young daughter witnesses. Instead of being substituted by another actress, Ms. Crawford plays her younger self (probably at her insistence). The results are laughably incongruous, but this is one of several instances in the film when you must suspend your disbelief. Scenery chewing and over-the-top dialogue aside, Crawford creates another riveting performance. While we’re laughing at all of the histrionics, we feel for Lucy’s predicament as she tries to pick up the pieces of the life she lost. She can’t get those 20 years back, and she wants to move forward, but the past has a nasty habit of catching up, as two people who cross her path end up dead.

Diane Baker does a fine job as Lucy’s grown daughter Carol,* and manages not to be upstaged by Crawford. Carol has spent the past two decades living with her aunt and uncle on a farm, and spends her spare time sculpting.** She does her best to integrate Lucy back into her life, but must contend with her ambivalence about being saddled with the burden of being her mother’s keeper. She’s also wary about how Lucy will be perceived by her fiancé Michael’s (John Anthony Hayes) wealthy parents. As Lucy’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic (in one squirmy scene, Lucy attempts to seduce Michael), Carol finds herself attempting to cover up her mother’s tracks.

* Baker was a last-minute replacement for the role, after Crawford demanded to work with a different actress. According to Baker, “I was brought in there fast. It’s like somebody wanted me there yesterday.” (From featurette, “Battle Axe, The Making of Strait-Jacket”)

** Fun fact:  In one scene, Lucy admires a bust of herself as a young woman, created by her daughter. The bust, which was provided by Crawford for the production, was commissioned when she was an MGM contract player, circa 1930s.

While the two leads were solid choices, the same can’t be said about all of the casting decisions. At Crawford’s insistence (and due to her ties to Pepsi), PepsiCo’s vice president Mitchell Cox appears as Lucy’s psychiatrist from the asylum, Dr. Anderson (his performance is about as wooden as you’d expect). He stops to check on her on the way to a fishing trip, and is met with resistance from his former patient. On the other end of the acting spectrum is George Kennedy in a small but memorable early role as the scruffy farm hand Leo. He soon learns a little knowledge is a dangerous thing after he gets too snoopy, and ends up on the business end of an axe.

Strait-Jacket doesn’t come close to Psycho in terms of suspense or story, but that doesn’t stop it from being good kitschy fun. Mr. Castle knew how to entertain us and push our buttons, and does both with suitable aplomb. Strait-Jacket is another notable entry in the curious sub-genre of thrillers that Joan Crawford and Bette Davis dominated in the early to mid ‘60s, including Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) and The Nanny (1965). It might not represent Crawford’s finest hour, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of either.

Monday, July 25, 2016

July Quick Picks and Pans – Netherlands Month

Amsterdamned (1988) This might be writer/director Dick Maas’ masterpiece. In this case, “masterpiece” is a relative term, but who cares when you’re having this much fun. Not unlike his earlier film The Lift, the premise is suitably ridiculous, but Maas runs with it, and takes the audience for a ride. Huub Stapel stars as Eric Visser, a policeman on the trail of a diving suit-clad serial killer who stalks his victims in the canals of Amsterdam. The film really delivers on the action, with a car chase through the city’s narrow streets and a boat chase in the crowded canals. Red herrings abound, keeping you guessing until the very end. Those looking for more cerebral fare are advised to look elsewhere. Everyone else should be tickled by this high-energy romp.  

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD (Region 2)

Black Book (aka: Zwartboek) (2006) After the disasters of Showgirls and Hollow Man, director/co-writer Paul Verhoeven returned to his native land to direct this World War II tale, based on real-life individuals. Set in The Hague, Netherlands, Black Book focuses on Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten), a young Jewish woman who joins the Nazi resistance movement, and falls in love with an SS officer (Sebastian Koch). Verhoeven doesn’t present things in black and white, but illustrates how war can blur the lines between good and evil. It’s a well-acted, polished effort, but I couldn’t help but feel somewhat disappointed by the results. Considering the director’s pedigree, it’s surprising the film wasn’t rougher around the edges, or that it didn’t push the boundaries a little further.

Rating: ***½ stars. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Black Out (2012) Director Arne Toonen borrows a page or two from Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie for this darkly comic crime thriller. Raymond Thiry stars as Jos, a former career criminal, who’s turned the straight and narrow path until he wakes up next to a dead man. Suddenly, on the eve of his wedding, he’s in debt to a Russian mobster and an octogenarian crime lord for 20 kilos of cocaine, and can’t remember the previous 24 hours. He returns to his underworld ties to attempt to retrace his steps and locate the missing drugs. Black Out features some amusing, quirky performances, including Simon Armstrong as the aforementioned mobster (and former ballet dancer), Willie Wartaal as a dog groomer, and real life sisters Katja and Birgit Schuurman as mob enforcers. You might excuse Toonen if you feel you’ve seen the story a bunch of times before, since the film is so briskly paced and often funny.

Rating:  ***½. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix Streaming

Borgman (2013) I can’t decide whether this bizarre film by Alex van Warmerdam (he also plays a small role) was good or crappy. Perhaps, like Schrödinger's cat, it simultaneously exists in two states. A homeless man, Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijvoet), weaves his way into the life of a family, preying on the sympathy of a neglected housewife (Hadewych Minis). I won’t go into the details of what he does, or the shady people he’s working with, but suffice it to say nothing good will result from anyone who crosses Borgman’s path. Bijvoet is excellent as the enigmatic title character, but the film raises far too many questions than it answers. It was nice to speculate about the overarching intent of the ambiguous scenes (which seemed to channel David Lynch at his most unfathomable), but as the end credits rolled I was left wondering what the hell it was all about. Your guess is as good as mine.

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Vanishing (aka: Spoorloos)

(1988) Directed by George Sluizer; Written by Tim Krabbé and George Sluizer; Based on the novel The Golden Egg, by Tim Krabbé; Starring: Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu, Gene Bervoets, Johanna ter Steege and Gwen Eckhaus; Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Hulu

Rating: ****½

“There is an urge in the human being to want to know; so you can want to know, let’s say, on a philosophical level, on an intellectual level, on an emotional level… on the fundamental human level, and I think that’s very important when she disappears… The film plays on those different kinds of wanting to know…” – George Sluizer (from 2014 Criterion interview)

Netherlands Month continues with a look at the Dutch/French co-production The Vanishing, a cerebral, nerve-rending meditation on loss and evil. French director George Sluizer initially collaborated with author Tim Krabbé to adapt his book, but Krabbé was eventually kicked off the project after differences of opinion over the material. The resulting film gradually builds in intensity as we explore the lives of its main characters, reaching a crescendo with a staggering conclusion. Sluizer couldn’t secure a distributor for his bleak film, which eventually debuted at the Sydney Film Festival a year after it was completed.

Rex and Saskia are traveling from Amsterdam through the French countryside when their car runs out of gas. They make an impromptu stop at a gas station/rest area, and Saskia suddenly disappears. Rex’s only clue is from one of the attendants, who claims to have seen her leave with another man. Three years pass with no further evidence as to her whereabouts. Appearances on French television and posting numerous flyers in the vicinity yield nothing, except for a series of postcards from an individual who claims to know what happened to her. The Vanishing is unique among mysteries. Unlike many other films in the genre, the question isn’t who committed the kidnapping and presumed murder (this is established early in the film). Instead we’re left to speculate how it was done, and why.

Johanna ter Steege, in her first film appearance, makes a memorable impression as the mercurial Saskia, playful, but with a hint of sadness. Saskia explores her fear of isolation and abandonment as she discusses a recurring dream, being trapped inside a golden egg, floating in nothingness. While ter Steege’s character only appears on screen for a short amount of time, her memory hangs over the film like a specter, and drives Rex’s motivation to find her.

* According to an interview with ter Steege, she wanted to leave the production after her contentious experience with temperamental co-star Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu. Sluizer intervened to patch things up between the experienced actor and the novice actress.

As he’s introduced in the film, Rex (Gene Bervoets) isn’t a very likeable person. When their car runs out of gas in a narrow tunnel, he abandons his girlfriend. As he walks away, accompanied by her desperate pleas not to leave, there’s a smirk across his face. We see the other side of their ambivalent relationship when he tries to apologize in the following scene, but the damage has already been done. It’s debatable whether they could have possibly lasted together, but any future they planned was lost at the rest stop. Three years later, he’s still obsessing over Saskia’s disappearance, unable to put it behind him. There’s a huge part of his life that ended when she vanished. He agonizes over the occurrence, and can’t bring himself to move on, faced with an inner dilemma he can’t resolve (“Sometimes I imagine she’s alive somewhere far away… Either I go on living and let her live or I let her die and find out what happened.”). His perpetually conflicted state of mind puts a strain on his relationship with his current girlfriend, Lieneke (Gwen Eckhaus), who feels like a fifth wheel, compared to Saskia.

The story shifts back and forth in time as we observe the other key player, Raymond Lemorne (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) meticulously practicing his plans, down to the last detail. Everything is calculated, down to his pulse rate and exact measurements of a drug he prepares for the abduction (he works as a chemistry teacher at a local school). In a darkly comic scene he goes through an elaborate pantomime, attempting to get everything just right, and failing miserably. He walks through the entire process: luring his intended victim to his car, opening the door, surreptitiously manipulating the vial of poison, and knocking her out. As portrayed by Donnadieu, Lemorne is a complex portrait of a sociopath, but to label him as evil would be too simple. He has a real life as a teacher and a family man. His wife and younger daughter suspect he has another woman in his life, but they’re only half right. He’s not a charming villain, but an ordinary man with an extraordinary mental defect. He commits a horrible act, not because of some deep-seated compulsion to kill, but as someone acting out a hypothetical conundrum to its logical conclusion. Lemorne exhibits equal capacities for good and terrible deeds, suggesting evil is relative. Is he a monster? To the outside observer or Rex, yes, but certainly not to his wife and daughters, who see him as a somewhat aloof and mischievous, albeit loving husband and father. He’s fascinated by Rex’s tenacity, banking on his insatiable curiosity – not knowing is a powerful motivator.

By the time we reach the devastating, unforgettable ending, we’re left to speculate if monsters are defined simply by their deeds, or their terrible thoughts. There’s a fine line that separates Rex from Lemorne. The protagonist has a cruel streak, while his adversary possesses an equal capacity for decency. The Vanishing suggests it’s only a small defect in our psyche that allows us to take the leap from mere ideation of awful acts to reality. The Vanishing disturbs us on several levels. It illustrates how obsession and curiosity, taken to an extreme, can be to our own detriment, and the world is a very dark, dangerous place. But Sluizer doesn’t let us off the hook so easily,* hinting at some greater truth about society. Perhaps there are bad people and bad deeds out there, but only because it’s something that’s inherent in each of us.

* In a 2014 interview for the Criterion Collection disc, Sluizer remarked, “I don’t mind disturbing the audience, but ‘disturbed’ means that you are obliged to think about what’s right and what’s not right.”

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Lift (aka: De Lift)

(1983) Written and directed by Dick Maas; Starring: Huub Stapel, Willeke van Ammelrooy, Josine van Dalsum; Available on DVD (Region 2)

Rating: ***

“A lift doesn’t move on its own – or does it?” – Police Inspector (Siem Vroom)

The ‘70s and ‘80s were the heyday of films depicting inanimate objects that developed sentience, including such titles as Killdozer (1974), The Car (1977), Christine (1983), and Maximum Overdrive (1986). Netherlands-based filmmaker Dick Maas threw his hat in the ring with 1983’s murderous elevator film, The Lift. Like those other movies, he takes an exceedingly dumb premise, and treats it with the level of seriousness usually devoted to a Merchant Ivory production.

According to a recent interview, writer/director Maas (who also composed the film’s synthesizer-laden score) acknowledged Stephen King’s short story “The Mangler” as a source of inspiration for The Lift, and modeled his movie’s structure after Jaws (Source: UK Horror Scene interview by James Simpson). Instead of Brody versus a hungry shark, however, it’s Felix versus a rogue elevator. Maas set his man-against- machine thriller* in a high rise commercial building, featuring a lone elevator repairman who’s determined to uncover the truth about a series of seemingly random accidents. First, a group of obnoxious restaurant patrons nearly suffocate, then a blind man falls down the shaft, and a night watchman is decapitated. Clues lead to a shady electronics firm called Rising Sun, which supplies the microprocessors for the computer-controlled elevators.

* Maas remade The Lift as an English language film, The Shaft (aka: Down) in 2001, suggesting there’s still life left in the killer elevator theme.

As preposterous as The Lift may seem at times, Maas has his finger on the pulse of some of our deep-seated fears about elevators. Most of us give little thought to the technology behind such a common means of conveyance, or the possible (if remote) inherent dangers if something goes wrong. If we stop to think about it, the mind reels with a multitude of possible scenarios, however unlikely they might be: power outage, a cable snaps, trapped between levels, or becoming caught in the closing doors. Not everyone relishes the idea of entering an enclosed space, if only for a few moments. Even if we’re not inclined toward claustrophobia, becoming an unwitting captive might stretch our comfort levels. We might choose to take the stairs if it’s only a few floors, but in a high-rise building, it’s unlikely we’ll choose to traverse multiple flights. 

For a film with such a low-brow premise, The Lift features some surprisingly solid performances, including Huub Stapel (who would go on to appear in other Maas films) as Felix Adelaar, Josine van Dalsum as his thankless wife Saskia, and Willeke van Ammelrooy as a persistent tabloid reporter. Felix is an elevator repairman suffering from a malaise after 10 years of marriage. He becomes obsessed, to the detriment of the rest of his family, with discovering the cause of several fatal incidents involving one of the elevators that he maintains. In one of the film’s many stretches, we’re supposed to accept that Felix would go to such extraordinary lengths to conduct a full-fledged investigation of the strange goings-on surrounding the deaths. As a result, he seems out of place in his own movie, occupying a role that would normally be reserved for a police detective. By comparison, the actual police inspector character isn’t given much to do.

Beyond the premise, Maas invites us to suspend disbelief on numerous counts. When things start going haywire in the office building, it’s hard to imagine why everyone didn’t just follow the movie tagline’s advice, and “take the stairs,” instead of continuing to place themselves in harm’s way. When Felix’s wife eventually leaves him, he doesn’t spend much effort to set the record straight regarding her accusations of adultery with a snooping female reporter. To make matters worse, the film is a little too coy about Felix’s relationship, with the final scene implying there is more going on than we’ve been led to believe. Also (MINOR SPOILER ALERT), it’s never adequately explained why an elevator company would need super-advanced experimental organic-based chips that self-replicate or why such chips would develop self-awareness or become murderous. Even if we’re willing to accept the circumstances around the other accidents, it’s hard to buy the cringe-worthy final death scene, which places a quasi-supernatural spin on the film and stretches the film’s logic to the breaking point.

As ridiculous as the story gets, Dick Maas raises valid concerns about our fear of technology and progress – as things get more complicated, it’s easier to screw them up. While The Lift won’t win points for plausibility, it’s effective enough within its own boundaries. What it does, it does fairly well. More than 30 years onward, I still can’t believe someone made this film, but I’m sort of glad he did. If we permit ourselves to step outside our rational selves for a moment and let The Lift take hold, it might just make you think twice before stepping into the next elevator.