Thursday, February 28, 2019

February Quick Picks and Pans

The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) In this thriller with a paranormal twist, photographer Laura Mars (Faye Dunaway), known for her controversial photos, watches as her models are killed off one by one. The twist is that she sees their deaths before they occur, through the eyes of the killer. The exceptional cast includes Tommy Lee Jones as a sympathetic police detective, Brad Dourif as a chauffeur, Rene Auberjonois as her temperamental manager, and Raul Julia as Laura’s deadbeat ex-husband Michael. Irvin Kershner (working from a John Carpenter co-penned script) keeps things suspenseful until the end.

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Prime

Tales from the Hood (1995) Why did I wait so long to see this? Director/co-writer/co-star Rusty Cundieff serves up four macabre stories in his Amicus-style portmanteau film. Three hoods searching for a drug stash in a funeral home meet the creepy proprietor, Mr. Simms (Clarence Williams III), who spins a series of tales about bigoted cops, child abuse, a racist political candidate, and gang violence. The best segments involve a young boy dealing with a monster in his house and a political candidate who must face the demons of the past (in the guise of a vengeful doll). It’s funny, surprisingly touching, and just as socially relevant as when it was originally released.  

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

The Death Kiss (1932) Bela Lugosi stars (in an underwritten role) as film producer Joseph Steiner in this comic whodunit (based on a novel by Madelon St. Dennis). An actor is fatally shot on a movie set, and everyone is a potential suspect. David Manners plays Franklyn Drew, a professional mystery writer turned amateur sleuth. He teams up with a dimwitted studio cop (Vince Barnett) and tests the patience of a jaded police detective (John Wray). As Drew gets closer to uncovering the killer, it becomes apparent that he might become the next victim. Meanwhile, he courts starlet/suspect Marcia Lane (Adrienne Ames), while trying to prove her innocence.  

The Death Kiss is lightweight and breezy, filled with a dash of romance, suspense and copious amounts of hit-and-miss humor. Manners is quite charming as Drew, and it’s nice to see Lugosi not playing a bad guy for once. Watch for some cool hand-colored scenes (burning film in a projector, yellow flashlights).

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray, DVD, Amazon Prime and Kanopy

Enthiran (The Robot) (2010) High-powered action goes hand-in-hand with lively musical interludes in director/co-writer Shankar’s Tamil language sci-fi/romantic comedy/musical. It’s a silly, captivating blend that’s equal parts Terminator and Bollywood. After 10 years of labor, Dr. Vaseegaran (Rajinikanth) invents Chitti, an android that learns to feel emotions. Things go a bit too far when Chitti (also played by Rajinikanth) has the hots for the inventor’s fiancée, Sana (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan). To complicate matters, the inventor’s mentor has evil intentions for the android, implanting a new chip in Chitti. Things get out of hand when the android becomes a rogue killing machine and kidnaps Sana. Can the inventor stop the mad robot before it’s too late? Tune in to find out. Arguably, Enthiran outstays its welcome with its nearly three-hour length, but then again, how else could you fit all the funky song and dance numbers?

Rating: ***. Available on DVD and Amazon Prime

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Two Thousand Maniacs!

(1965) Written and directed by Herschell Gordon Lewis; Starring: Connie Mason, William Kerwin, Jeffrey Allen, Shelby Livingston, Jerome Eden, Gary Bakeman; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ***

“They couldn’t tell what we were. We were outlaws in a sense, and yet we were making so much money out of these pictures, no one could understand it. With this picture we legitimized the genre movies, and that may have been the reason that subsequent to Two Thousand Maniacs, the flood began.” – Herschell Gordon Lewis (from DVD commentary)

Thanks to Rebecca Deniston from Taking Up Room for hosting the So Bad It’s Good Blogathon, featuring bad movies and the bloggers that love them. Like frozen custard or fried foods, many of us gravitate toward stuff that can’t possibly be good for us, but we’re powerless to resist. Such is the case with the filmography of Herschell Gordon Lewis, showman extraordinaire and purveyor of such fine cinematic achievements as Scum of the Earth (1963), Something Weird (1967) and The Wizard of Gore (1970). Two Thousand Maniacs!* is the second in Herschell Gordon Lewis’ notorious “Blood” trilogy (which started with Blood Feast and ended with Color Me Blood Red), filled with shocks, thrills, dubious acting and drenched in gallons of fake blood.

* Fun Fact #1: The group 10,000 Maniacs took their name from the film’s title.

The film cribs its basic premise from Brigadoon, with a town that springs to life for a celebration, then vanishes into nothingness. Since this is H.G. Lewis after all, and not Vincente Minnelli, instead of singing and dancing on the Scottish Highlands, there’s murderous Civil War-era hillbillies in the southern backwoods. The small town of St. Cloud, Florida stood in for the fictional burg of Pleasant Valley, Georgia, population 2,000,* and shooting wrapped in 14 days on a budget of $62,000 (three times the production cost of Blood Feast).

* Fun Fact #2: According to Lewis, the original title was Five Thousand Maniacs, but due to the diminutive population of St. Cloud, it was revised.

Six travelers on a road trip follow a detour off the main highway, and wind up in the sleepy southern town of Pleasant Valley, where it happens to be their centennial celebration. The strangers are the guests of honor, but it’s all one big set-up. We learn that the town’s denizens are commemorating an incident in 1865, when the population of Pleasant Valley was wiped out by Union soldiers. It becomes an opportunity to settle the score by singling out and exacting revenge on the six unlucky northerners. Why only six? Who knows? If you’ve seen or heard about Blood Feast, then you know some of the characters are fated to die in a variety of gory ways. One is drawn and quartered, another is rolled down a hill in a barrel studded on the inside with nails, while yet another unfortunate individual becomes the victim of a precariously balanced boulder made of papier-mâché. The gore effects are suitably cartoonish and over the top, which only adds to the entertainment value.

If you’re expecting meticulous attention to period detail, this isn’t that kind of movie. Two Thousand Maniacs! sports enough anachronisms to make you dizzy. Essentially, the locals showed up in whatever they were wearing, and called it day. Most of them appear in 1960s era garb: dresses and colorful button-up shirts with jeans and loafers. The 1865-era residents also seem casual about modern inventions such as telephones and automobiles. In one scene, the locals pursue two survivors in an old pickup truck – never mind that the truck didn’t exist in their era. Similarly, the motel where the guests reside features telephones from the 1920s. Lewis never addresses these inconsistencies in his DVD commentary, so I’m assuming he didn’t think audiences would care.

The acting ranges from awful to surprisingly good, with the usual bunch of semi-professionals (from local theater groups) and non-actors you’d expect from an H.G. Lewis film. The worst offender is Gary Bakeman for his non-stop mugging as one of the town’s co-conspirators, Rufe. On the other end of the spectrum, the movie’s best performance belongs to Jeffrey Allen as Mayor Buckman. He’s convivial and welcoming one moment, and badgering and abusive the next. His genteel charm is a front for his bloodthirsty intentions. Somewhere in the middle is former Playboy model Connie Mason (a returnee from Blood Feast) as northerner Terry Adams.

The music by The Pleasant Valley Boys will test the limits of your appreciation for bluegrass (it doesn’t take much in my case), especially the infectious main tune (and I mean infectious), “Rebel Yell” * which is about as welcome as an STD. The song’s “message” is heard, loud, clear and stupid, reminding us in the chorus that, “The South’s gonna rise again” (Let’s hope not). If that’s not enough to make you cringe, gratuitous Confederate flags abound in virtually every scene. The art direction must have been: “when in doubt, add more flags.”  Another cringe-worthy element is an early scene where some sadistic brats torture cats for fun (thankfully off-screen). Their ringleader, Billy (Vincent Santo) has a comeuppance of sorts when he falls for one of the oldest tricks in the book – two of the escaped northerners promise him candy if he helps find their car keys.

* Fun Fact #3: H.G. Lewis had the dubious honor of singing/reciting the main vocals for the song, mainly because he didn’t want to pay anyone. The cast and crew provided the “yee-haw”s.

Two Thousand Maniacs! fits neatly into the sub-genre of rednecksploitation, imagining the horrors that might occur when 1865-era Confederacy sympathizers clash with 1960s Northerners. It’s wish fulfillment for some and a nightmare for most. How you react to this, I imagine, depends on what side of the Mason-Dixon line you hail from. It’s no surprise that it did solid box office in the South,* although its generous use of stereotypes doesn’t do the South any favors. If nothing else, the movie capsulized suspicion and ire toward the North, while avoiding some of the more volatile issues regarding the Civil War (i.e., there’s not a single African American in the film). While H.G. Lewis’ film still packs a punch, it opened the door for gorier, more disturbing fare in the 1970s. It’s absurd, offensive and certain to make you think twice about taking that next road trip. It might not be everyone’s jug of moonshine, but if you’re into cartoonish redneck shenanigans, you can’t go wrong with Two Thousand Maniacs.
* Lewis was quick to point out in his commentary that the film also performed well in Canada.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

The Company of Wolves

(1984) Directed by Neil Jordan; Written by Angela Carter and Neil Jordan; Based on a story by Angela Carter; Starring: Sarah Patterson, Angela Lansbury, David Warner, Stephen Rea and Micha Bergese; Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Prime

Rating: ***½

“The one thing we did not want…for it to be logical in a linear way, which might have caused problems for some people, but I wanted some surreal elements that kind of come from nowhere, because the story is structured around a young girl’s dream, and I wanted elements that were as unexpected as things that happen in a dream; this strange reality that didn’t actually have to be symbolic of anything…” – Neil Jordan (from DVD commentary)

I’m honored to contribute to the Adoring Angela LansburyBlogathon, celebrating the marvelously enduring actress and her many contributions to cinema, stage and TV. Thanks to host Gill Jacob from RealWeegieMidget Reviews for the invite, and for hosting another exceptional blogathon. The guest of honor, Ms. Lansbury, reminds us it’s not the screen time that counts, but what you do with it. Her relatively sparse appearance in The Company of Wolves belies the impact her character has in the film.  

In a thematic shift from his first film, director/co-writer Neil Jordan’s second directorial effort (working from a story by Angela Carter, who also co-wrote the screenplay) delves into the realm of fairy tales and fantasy, steeped in psychosexual imagery. Jordan cited several key influences for the film, including Grimm’s fairy tales, the artwork of French illustrator Gustave Doré, German expressionism, and Corman’s “Poe Cycle” of films. Anton Furst’s (Full Metal Jacket, Batman) lush art design and animatronic effects by Christopher Tucker (The Elephant Man) enhances this modestly budgeted film.

Jordan described The Company of Wolves’ story structure as a “Chinese box,” comprised of stories within stories. Most of the film is set in 18th century rural England, bracketed by a framing story set in the 20th century. As we enter the alternate dreamlike fairytale world, a porcelain Granny doll and stuffed animals spring to life. Our modern-day upper-middle-class protagonist, Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson) endures rites of passage, and learns about the true nature of men, as relayed by Granny, now flesh and blood (Angela Lansbury).  

We’re introduced to various aspects of fairytale lore, such as never trusting a man whose eyebrows meet in the middle. Granny admonishes Rosaleen not to stray from the path, lest she succumb to some unspecified calamity. For her, the path is the straight and narrow, a virtuous road that’s only becomes corrupted by wolves and her indiscretion. Shots of frogs throughout the film appear to signify harbingers of some fantastical transgression. In one scene, Rosaleen climbs a tree and encounters a nest. Inside the nest she finds bright red lipstick (evocative of blood and lust) and eggs that hatch to reveal baby dolls (fertility). The wolves* (a combination of real wolves, dogs and animatronics) featured throughout the film linger in the shadowy woods, a constant reminder of the dangers that await her if she dares to venture away from the acceptable route. Eventually, curiosity prevails over Rosaleen’s fear of her budding sexuality. The film suggests it’s the natural order of things for adolescents to discover their sexuality. Part of their rite of passage is to embrace or deny that inherent aspect of growing up. Despite all admonitions and cautions, it’s a natural, inevitable process, and a personal journey.

* Not-So-Fun Fact: According to Jordan’s DVD commentary, the filmmakers originally secured four wolves for the project, but only ended up with two for the shoot. In one instance, one wolf ate the other.

Angela Lansbury, Jordan explained, brought a duality to the role of Granny, displaying nurturing and motherly aspects, but also presenting a darker side. She warns Rosaleen about the hidden dangers of men (“The worst kind of wolves are hairy on the inside, and when they bite you, they drag you with them to hell.”). Only Lansbury could make requesting a kiss on the cheek seem simultaneously innocent and sinister as she spins her cautionary tales. The stories build to a climactic retelling of the classic Little Red Riding Hood fable. It should be no surprise concerning Granny’s eventual fate, but it’s handled in a way that reminds us everything’s in a dream world with its own set of rules and logic.

Jordan hired a combination of veteran actors and novices for some key roles. First-timer Sarah Patterson stars as Rosaleen and dancer Micha Bergese as the Huntsman (a wolf in man’s clothing), was chosen for the physicality he could bring to the role. The film featured seasoned actors as well, including David Warner * as Rosaleen’s father, and a fun little cameo by Terence Stamp as The Devil,** who appears (in an anachronistic, 20th century turn) in a white Rolls Royce.

* Interesting (but not particularly fun) Fact: David Warner suffered an accident in which both legs were broken, making it difficult to walk and stand for long periods of time. As a result, Jordan incorporated many opportunities for the actor to sit or lean on the set pieces, such as chairs, tables and a bed.

** Fun Fact: The filmmakers originally wanted Andy Warhol for the satanic role. Although Warhol was reportedly interested in performing it, a recent assassination attempt left him afraid of travel, and he insisted on shooting his part in New York City.

The Company of Wolves was marketed in the U.S. by Cannon films as a horror movie, rather than the dark, surrealistic fantasy that it was. Baffled American audiences probably didn’t know what hit them when they watched it during its theatrical run. The perceived bait and switch seems to persist to this day, but if you think more Labyrinth and less The Howling, you’ll do fine. Its trancelike properties, purposeful ambiguity and leisurely pace might put some folks off, but it promises to reward and challenge on multiple viewings.