Sunday, April 18, 2021

Tarantula

Tarantula Poster

(1955) Directed by Jack Arnold; Written by Robert M. Fresco and Martin Berkeley; Story by Jack Arnold and Robert M. Fresco; Starring: John Agar, Mara Corday, Leo G. Carroll, Nestor Paiva and Ross Elliott; Available on Blu-ray and DVD 

Rating: ***½ 

Dr. Matt Hastings (John Agar): “But what if circumstances magnified one of them in size and strength, took it out of its primitive world and turned it loose in ours?”

Professor Townsend (Raymond Bailey): “Then expect something that's fiercer, more cruel and deadly than anything that ever walked the earth.”

Tarantula on the Highway

What is it about the Arizona desert* that makes it the ideal setting for a bug movie? Phase IV (1974) and Kingdom of the Spiders (1977) are two notable examples that exploited the arid, unforgiving climate. As these films, and today’s featured title, would have you believe, the vast desert landscape is the perfect place to conceal something terrible under our very noses. Universal International’s** fourth collaboration between producer William Alland and director Jack Arnold (after It Came from Outer Space, Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Revenge of the Creature) was based on co-writer Robert M. Fresco’s*** original script for Science Fiction Theater episode, “No Food for Thought.” The most significant tweak to the original story was to add a giant spider. Produced on a modest $334,000 budget, Tarantula utilized real footage of a live spider, in lieu of stop-motion animation or puppetry, (with the exception of a mock-up of the big creature’s face, used for close-ups). 

* Fun Fact #1: Tarantula was actually filmed in the California desert, in the town of Apple Valley, where the cast and crew had to contend with temperatures reaching 120 degrees (Fahrenheit). One scene features a prominent geological formation called Deadman’s Point, which was duplicated in miniature for a rockslide. 

** Fun Fact #2: According to David Schecter, while the music is commonly attributed to Herman Stein and Henry Mancini, much of the score in the film was a hodge-podge of various snippets from the voluminous Universal library. Among the components “borrowed” from other films were cues from This Island Earth (1955) and It Came from Outer Space (1953). 

*** Fun Fact #3: According to an interview with film historian Tom Weaver, Fresco claimed that he was forced to give Arnold co-credit for the story, although Arnold supposedly didn’t write any of it. 

Deemers, Hastings and Sheriff Andrews

Genre movie stalwart John Agar stars as small-town family physician, Dr. Matt Hastings, who suspects something’s rotten in the state of Arizona. He’s called in by the local sheriff to examine the body of Eric Jacobs, a man who collapsed in the desert. The corpse’s distorted features indicate acromegaly (erroneously referred to as “acromegalia” in the film), which usually develops over years instead of days. Signs point to the esteemed Professor Gerald Deemer (Leo G. Carroll), who employed Jacobs in his home-based laboratory.*/** Deemer is tinkering with a hormone, which accelerates aging and results in rapid growth. Although he views his research as a possible solution to world hunger, it’s not so good for Jacobs, or a second lab assistant, Bob Lund,*** both who succumbed to the serum’s deleterious side effects. Lund blames Deemer for his disfigurement, attacking the scientist and throwing the lab equipment into disarray. In the ensuing scuffle, Lund smashes the glass to an enclosure for one of the test subjects, an enlarged tarantula, enabling the critter to escape.**** As a final insult, Lund injects the professor with a dose of his own medicine, ensuring that he’ll meet the same awful fate.  

* Fun Fact #5: Professor Deemers’ home was the “Dabney House,” on Universal’s backlot, built for the 1948 film Tap Roots. It was also featured, with different backdrops, in genre favorites This Island Earth (1955) and The Creature Walks Among Us (1956).

** While we’re on the subject of Professor Deemers, what’s the deal about scientists with home labs? As countless movies would lead you to believe, every scientist worth his or her salt is independently wealthy, with their place of research conveniently situated within their own home.* Naturally, it’s all the better to carry out ethically dubious skullduggery on the sly, free from reliance on grants or the prying eyes of pesky university/government officials.

*** Fun Fact #4: If you feel a sense of déjà vu while watching this movie, your perceptions aren’t entirely unfounded. Stuntman Eddie Parker appears three times in the film, as Deemers’ lab partner Eric Jacobs, the sole ground crew who meets Dr. Hastings’ plane, and Paul Lund, his second lab assistant.

**** The mind reels, wondering what would have happened if one of the other lab animals had made their way out instead, such as an oversized guinea pig (nope, they didn’t use a capybara). I’m sure I speak for others when I state that Attack of the Giant Guinea Pig is something I would like to have seen.

Deemers and Tarantula

As with most super-sized creature movies, a healthy suspension of disbelief is required. In the real world, spiders (and other arthropods) are limited in size due to several factors. Chiefly, the gargantuan tarantula depicted in the film* wouldn’t be able to absorb enough oxygen with its current breathing apparatus, and its exoskeleton would be too heavy and unwieldly. And speaking of exoskeletons, considering the spider’s rapid growth, you’d think there would be several molts lying around. In another bit of artistic license, the tarantula roars, but we’ll let this slide.  

* Fun Fact #6: According to Weaver, five tarantulas were cast for the role of the titular creature, although the film’s pressbook apparently claimed a much larger number were used.

Deemers and Steve

Tarantula stays a cut above many of its giant bug contemporaries, because it never forgets that while we’re obviously here for the spider, the human characters* count. Director Arnold and crew takes a moment to get to know the characters as three-dimensional people, not simply props for exposition or a means to move the plot along. Hastings is an affable individual, as friendly as he’s inquisitive. Carroll lends a touch of class to the production, as a man deeply invested in his work. Stephanie “Steve” Clayton (Mara Corday), is pursuing her master’s degree in biology, and knows her stuff but has her work cut out for her, navigating the male-dominated academic and professional landscape depicted in the film. Character actor Nestor Paiva provides a welcome face, and adds some subtle humor to the film, as local sheriff, Jack Andrews. Hank Patterson also provides some levity as Josh, the hotel manager/resident busybody. The movie keeps things interesting, thanks to some snappy dialogue. When the dubious sheriff dismisses Hastings’ professional opinion over elder scientist Deemers, Hastings replies, “There’s nothing like the safety of prestige.”

* Fun Fact: Watch for a young Clint Eastwood, in a small role, as a jet fighter pilot. You almost expect him to ask the giant spider if it feels lucky (spoiler: He doesn’t, and it’s not).

Stephanie "Steve" Clayton

It wouldn’t be 1950s sci-fi without some unfortunate old-fashioned misogyny, lobbed against Steve. When Hastings learns about her professional aspirations the doctor comments, “Give women the vote and what do you get? Lady scientists.” When she finally meets Deemers, her new employer, the professor states that he didn’t expect his new assistant to look like her (not exactly a great beginning to their professional relationship). Even the big spider is part of the boys’ club. In a scene reminiscent of King Kong, the pervy arachnid sneaks a peek into Steve’s bedroom window while she’s in her jammies, just before it demolishes the house.  

Tarantula and the Town

Compared to the titular monster in Jack Arnold’s earlier movie, Creature from the Black Lagoon, the giant arachnid doesn’t have much personality, mindlessly roaming the desert and consuming everything in its path. Unlike King Kong, I don’t suspect many folks would shed a tear for the errant arachnid. What makes the film tower above much of the competition is its three-dimensional characters, dialogue and heart, keeping this from being a by-the-numbers exercise. Perhaps just a shade behind Gojira (1954) and Them! (1954), Tarantula remains one of the best giant critter movies of the ‘50s, or any decade.

Sources for this article: DVD commentary by Tom Weaver, Dr. Robert J Kiss, and David Schecter; Science World article, “Why Aren’t SpidersBigger?” 

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Phase IV

 

Phase IV Poster

(1974) Directed by Saul Bass; Written by Mayo Simon; Starring: Nigel Davenport, Michael Murphy and Lynne Frederick; Available on Blu-ray and DVD 

Rating: **** 

Note: This article is an expanded version of a capsule review, originally posted in November 2014. 

Ant Towers

“They’re not individuals. They’re individual cells. Tiny, functioning parts of the whole. Think of the society, James, with perfect harmony, perfect altruism and self-sacrifice, perfect division of labor organized for preordained roles. Think of the building of elaborate, complex structures according to plans they know nothing of, and execute perfectly. Think of their ability to evolve and adapt in ways that are so beautiful and still so unknown. And all contained in one simple form. So defenseless in the individual, so powerful in the mass.” – Dr. Ernest Hubbs (Nigel Davenport)

Dr. Ernest Hubbs & Michael Murphy

For the bulk of recorded history, humankind has been complacent about our position in the grand scheme of things, confident in the assumption that we are the dominant life form on Earth. But what if another creature, unassuming in its diminutive size, was poised to usurp our throne? Saul Bass’ cerebral science fiction film, Phase IV asks us to reconsider how we rate in the universe, compared to the ants.* Bass, best known for creating the memorable title sequences for many classic films (including Psycho and West Side Story), made his one and only outing as a feature film director with this movie.

* Fun Fact #1: Need further proof? The total population of ants is estimated to number 1 quadrillion, and the largest colony (consisting of Argentine ants) occupies a 3,700-mile stretch of land along the Mediterranean.  

Aftermath from Pesticide

The opening narration informs us that unspecified “events in space” have upset the balance of life on Earth, leading to a profound shift in ant behavior. Cut to an abandoned housing project in the arid Arizona desert,* where the resident ants have successfully supplanted the human population. The desolate landscape sets the stage for a research project to observe the insects and their activities. An entomologist and his assistant, a statistician, collaborate to determine what the ants are planning. While the humans scratch their heads, they remain under the ever-watchful eyes of the colonial insects, perched within their unfathomable, monolithic towers.    

* Fun Fact #2: Many of the sequences in the “Arizona” desert were actually filmed in Kenya.

Dr. Hubbs, Kendra and James

The three primary characters represent a rough, albeit imperfect cross-section of society.  Lead researcher Dr. Ernest Hubbs (Nigel Davenport)* parallels the ants in his single-minded pursuit of information, suspending emotion and compassion in favor of logic. His callous demeanor provides a stark contrast to the more balanced approach from his younger colleague, James Lesko (Michael Murphy). Lesko regards deciphering the ants’ patterns as a sort of game. Unlike Hubbs, however, he retains perspective about the stakes that are being played, as well as the human cost. In a scene when their compound is under siege, Hubbs resorts to releasing a powerful toxin against the ants. While fleeing their farm, a farmer and his wife (Alan Gifford and Helen Horton)** are caught in the crossfire, succumbing to the poison. Despite the fact that the pesticide caused their deaths, he’s more concerned with the ingenuity of the ants, as opposed to their lifeless bodies outside. After they rescue the couple’s teenage daughter Kendra Eldridge (Lynne Frederick)***, Lesko is ready to pull the plug on the project, but Hubbs is opposed to anything that would compromise his research. Compared to the two scientists, Kendra is an innocent, caught in the middle. Although she seems the most likely target for the ants and their abstruse schemes, all of them are being manipulated in oddly unique ways.

* Fun Fact #3: According to the DVD commentary, Davenport read for the part of HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey

** Fun Fact #4: And while we’re on the subject of wayward artificial intelligence, Helen Horton, who appears briefly as Kendra’s grandmother, later provided the voice for the computer, MU-TH-UR 6000 (aka: “Mother”), in Alien (1979). 

*** Fun Fact #5: Per the DVD commentary, Linda Blair was once considered for the part of Kendra.  

Ant

Phase IV effectively depicts the hidden world of the ants and their society, providing a glimpse of an intelligence we can scarcely comprehend. The massive colony operates as a massive solitary organism, singular in its purpose, with every member committed to its goals, unfettered by emotion or mercy. While the pesticide released by Hubbs seemingly stops the colony dead in its tracks, it only proves to be a temporary setback. In one scene, the worker ants slowly and methodically move the deadly yellow congealed poison. They execute their plan little by little, with cold, unrelenting precision and the end goal continually in mind. Individual deaths don’t matter in the grand scheme of things, only the survival of the colony. The design of the desert research facility itself mimics the twisty chambers of the ants’ lair, with the scientists navigating the labyrinthine rows of equipment.

Ant

Few would dispute that Phase IV’s claim to fame is its stunning, immersive macrophotography by Ken Middleham (who previously worked on the 1971 pseudo-documentary, The Hellstrom Chronicle), affording viewers an unprecedented insect’s eye view. The ants scurry about in their tunnels, revealing a place as alien as anything our minds could imagine. The filmmakers never make the claim that no insects (or arachnids) were harmed in the making of this picture, as Phase IV unflinchingly illustrates the often brutal, merciless aspects of the ants’ lives. Dick Bush’s cinematography expertly complements Middleham’s images, with an emphasis on shapes and symmetry. In the film’s opening shot, what appears to be a field of stars pans out to reveal grains of sand. The shot gradually transitions to space, suggesting there are worlds within worlds. In another scene, the camera lingers on the enigmatic towers created by the ants, the angular tops turned toward the sky, in a crude mimicry of human faces. One of the film’s most disturbing images shows ants crawling out of a hand (also used in the film’s poster art) recalling a similar shot from the surrealist film, Un Chien Andalou (1929), by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí.

Ants

As a result of studio meddling, Saul Bass’ original, dystopian-flavored ending was scrapped in favor of a shorter, more ambiguous conclusion. The hallucinatory sequence, once thought lost, can now be found on the UK Blu-ray from 101 Films, providing an interesting alternate, if not necessarily better, conclusion to the story. With or without the original ending, Phase IV remains a thoughtful exploration of a mystery. In the best tradition of 1970s cinema, the film raises more questions than it answers, reveling in its ambiguity, and unabashed in its downbeat implications. But what’s pessimistic for humankind is optimistic for ant society (Are the ants ushering in a new stage of human evolution, or are we simply a vehicle for the ants’ evolution?). It’s a science fiction movie that trusts the intelligence of the audience to fill in the blanks. Phase IV suggests that we don’t have all the answers, and success, as well as failure, is a necessary part of science. 

Sources for this article: 101 Films Blu-ray commentary by Allan Bryce and Richard Hollis; Ants.com; BBC Earth News, Ant Mega-Colony Takes Over World,” by Matt Walker 

 

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

March Quick Picks and Pans

The Flesh and the Fiends Poster

The Flesh and the Fiends (1960) Director/co-writer John Gilling’s lurid dramatization of Burke and Hare’s real-life exploits is consistently compelling, remaining one of the best versions of the tale. George Rose and Donald Pleasence play the notorious pair of ne'er-do-wells who supply Dr. Robert Knox (Peter Cushing) with a supply of cadavers for his anatomy class. In order to meet demand (and line their pockets), they resort to more unsavory methods to procure the bodies. Cushing is at his icy best, as an amoral physician who believes the shadowy means justify the ends. The filmmakers do a nice job depicting the grimy streets of early 19th century Edinburgh, and balancing the sordid details with the ethical issues. At its heart, the film examines the value of life versus the value of medical breakthroughs. It also raises the age-old concern about class versus conscience, and how money and influence can sway judgment.

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

Butcher Baker Nightmare Maker Poster

Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker (1981) The highlight of this better-than-average psychological thriller is Susan Tyrrell’s off-the-rails performance as an aunt who takes enmeshment to the extreme. Billy (Jimmy McNichol), a 17-year-old high school student, dreams of getting a basketball scholarship, and going off to school in Colorado. It’s too bad his clinging aunt Cheryl (Tyrrell) has other ideas. After she kills a handyman in “self-defense,” Billy becomes prime suspect for the murder, and hounded by a hateful, homophobic police detective (Bo Svenson). The bodies pile up in a spectacularly bloody climax that has to be seen to be believed. It’s a head-scratcher in the best way (Fun Fact: Watch for Bill Paxton as a 26-year-old high school student). 

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray (all-region import), DVD (out of print) and Shudder

Santo and Blue Demon Against the Monsters Poster
 

Santo and Blue Demon Against the Monsters (Santo y Blue Demon Contra los Monstruos) (1969) Santo and Blue Demon may be rivals on the wrestling mat, but outside the ring, they’re an unstoppable crimefighting duo. They might have just met their match when a mad doctor brings his own army, including Frankenstein’s Monster, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, a trio of vampires, and a bunch of henchmen (with blotchy green face paint). Friends become foes when the twisted genius creates an evil duplicate Blue Demon, for the sole purpose of destroying El Santo. Sure, it’s unabashedly silly and predictable, but who cares when it’s so much giddy fun? Was there ever a doubt that Santo and Blue Demon would prevail? Watch and enjoy.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD

The Wagons Roll at Night Poster

The Wagons Roll at Night (1941) Humphrey Bogart stars as Nick Coster, a hard-nosed owner of a traveling circus/carnival who believes that business and family doesn’t mix.  He reaches the end of his rope when his little sister Mary (played by Joan Leslie, who was 16 at the time) falls for earnest young lion tamer Matt Varney (Eddie Albert). At times, The Wagons Roll at Night seems like two different movies, ultimately preferring to focus on a love triangle between Mary, Matt and Nick’s fortune-telling girlfriend Flo (Sylvia Sidney). The mix never quite satisfies, falling short of the gritty depiction of circus life that it wants to be. Albert’s character is too bland, and Bogart does his best with an underwritten, role. It’s a near miss, worth seeing once, if only to ponder what could have been.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Announcing the Christopher Lee Blogathon

 

The Christopher Lee Blogathon

Note: As my friends on Twitter can attest, it’s been a bit of a rough week, with my family’s beloved cat, Buster, missing. Despite this unfortunate setback, I have decided that “the show must go on,” so I can give everyone ample time for the following event…***QUICK UPDATE: Buster has been found, and is alive and well!*** 

Christopher Lee - Dracula

After a year-long blogathon hiatus, Yours Truly and blogging partner extraordinaire, Gill Jacob of Realweegiemidget Reviews, are hosting two (you read it right) blogathons in 2021. Although you’ll have to wait a little longer for the second announcement, today we’re officially unveiling the Christopher Lee Blogathon!

There are few character actors that have garnered the same level of respect and awe as Sir Christopher Frank Carandini Lee. With nearly 300(!) film and television credits to his name, Lee has lent his distinctive gravitas to virtually every genre: horror, science fiction, drama, comedy, musicals (yes, musicals!), you name it, he’s probably done it. Christopher Lee’s life encompassed much, much more than film. Descended from Italian royalty, the multilingual thespian served as a real-life World War II spy with Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) (aka: the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare), and even recorded two heavy metal albums. …And that’s just for starters.

Christopher Lee - Scream of Fear

 Not sure where to start? You can find a list of Mr. Lee’s voluminous filmography HERE

Oh, and don’t let the “blog” in blogathon scare you. We will cheerfully accept submissions from your podcast, YouTube channel, Facebook/Instagram post, bawdy limericks, cave etchings, whatever. Still scratching your head for a topic? Feel free to reach out and bounce your idea off us. We promise not to bite (although I can’t vouch for Count Dracula)!

Christopher Lee - Gremlins 2


What: The Christopher Lee Blogathon 

Who: Hosted by Yours Truly (Barry P.) and Gill Jacob 

Where: Cinematic Catharsis and Realweegiemidget Reviews 

When: May 21-23, 2021 

How: Please read the rules below, and send me your post request (review, podcast, etc…) via email (barry_cinematic@yahoo.com), Twitter (@barry_cinematic), or by commenting below. You may also contact Gill by commenting on her post, or through her blog’s Contact Me page. Be sure to include your preferred name, along with your blog’s title.

Christopher Lee - Sleepy Hollow

The Rules… 

1.     You may review ANY of his film or TV appearances. Or if you want to review books or topics about him that’s fine with us as well.

2.     Because Mr. Lee has such a large number of appearances in his filmography, NO DUPLICATE MOVIE OR TV SHOW TITLES WILL BE ALLOWED. If a specific title has already been claimed, you may only include that title if it’s part of a list or retrospective review. If you choose to write about Christopher Lee, tell us what your topic will be. We won’t accept posts that are uncomplimentary or disrespectful to him.

3.     Review choices may be requested as a comment on this page or you may contact me through the methods listed above.

4.     Add your Twitter username so we can promote your post.

5.     A full list of blogs and review choices will be posted on a separate page and updated regularly.

6.     Only original, never-before-published posts will be accepted.

7.     Limit TWO blog posts per participant, please.

8.     Send a link of your post(s) to me or Gill on one of the days of the blogathon. Note: We will be publishing all links on both blogs.  

9.     Please also note: Gill and I have already claimed the following titles below: 

Barry at Cinematic Catharsis – The Pirates of Blood River (1962) 

Gill at Realweegiemidget Reviews – The Devil Rides Out (1968)

Christopher Lee - The Lord of the Rings

One more thing:

If you plan to participate, or just want to show your support, please grab one of the following banners to display on your blog:

Christopher Lee Blogathon - The Devil Rides Out

 
The Christopher Lee Blogathon - To the Devil a Daughter

                                           

The Christopher Lee Blogathon - Dracula: Prince of Darkness

                                  
The Christopher Lee Blogathon - Dracula

We can’t wait to see your submissions. Put on your thinking caps, be creative, and above all, have fun!

 

Christopher Lee - The Man with the Golden Gun


Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Tales that Witness Madness

 

Tales that Witness Madness Poster

(1973) Directed by Freddie Francis; Written by Jennifer Jayne; Starring: Jack Hawkins, Donald Pleasence, Georgia Brown, Suzy Kendall, Peter McEnery, Joan Collins, Kim Novak and Michael Petrovitch; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: **½

“Up until now, apart from the patients, I’m the only person to have seen the truth. I was prepared for it. Of course, I wanted to see it. I don’t know how such a revelation would affect the mind of another human being.” – Tremayne (Donald Pleasence)

Joan Collins

Much appreciation to Gill Jacob from RealWeegieMidgetReviews for inviting me to the Joan Collins Blogathon, celebrating a talented thespian who’s worked in virtually every genre, playing antagonists and protagonists with equal panache. Collins made a memorable appearance in the 1972 Amicus portmanteau, Tales from the Crypt (“And All Through the House” segment), returning the following year to the horror anthology format (albeit not an Amicus production) with today’s selection.

Tales that Witness Madness was helmed by noted cinematographer/director Freddie Francis (although this time around, he left the cinematography chores to Norman Warwick) and written by Jennifer Jayne.* The framing story, set in a state-of-the-art maximum-security psychiatric hospital, bears a superficial resemblance to the Amicus anthology, Asylum (1972). Both films introduce us to the various patients, and the circumstances that led to their institutionalization. In this movie, Jack Hawkins (in his final film role)** stars as an official evaluating the facility and its director, Dr. Tremayne (Donald Pleasence). 

* Fun Fact: Jennifer Jayne, credited as Jay Fairbank, was no stranger to Amicus portmanteau films, having appeared in Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965). 

** Interesting Fact: Due to an operation for throat cancer in the late ‘60s, which rendered the actor speechless, Hawkins’ lines were dubbed by Charles Gray.

Paul

The first segment, “Mr. Tiger,” features Paul, a young boy (Russell Lewis) with an unusual imaginary friend, a bloodthirsty tiger. It’s not too difficult to discern why he retreats into a fantasy world, to escape the awful reality of his self-obsessed, constantly squabbling parents. Scanning around his well-furnished room, it’s clear that his material needs are met, but at the expense of everything else. Despite his mother’s (Georgia Brown) admonitions that Paul is a sensitive boy, his father’s only reaction is to toughen him up (“I’d bless the day he came home with a dirty face and a bloody nose.”). Instead of attempting to understand Paul on his terms, his obtuse parents believe Paul’s friend is simply a ploy to disrupt their lives.

Tiger Drawing

“Mr. Tiger” works best as a metaphor for childhood neglect, faltering only when the invisible tiger in the room makes an appearance. It’s a letdown when we finally see the big cat, through the magic of some sloppily edited footage of a real tiger that’s probably three counties away, and a fake animal head that wouldn’t have passed muster as a plush toy – proof that some horror is best left to the imagination.

Penny Farthing

In the second story, “Penny Farthing,” Timothy (Peter McEnery) an antiques dealer, acquires a selection of knickknacks, including a vintage penny-farthing cycle and a portrait of his long-deceased Uncle Albert. As we soon discover, the spirit of his dead relative is alive and well, transporting him back in time (via the ancient cycle) to a point in Albert’s Victorian past. There are some amusing touches, with Albert’s picture changing expressions, and the sound of a tuba that precedes each supernatural event, but these are only moments in a tale that seems more silly than scary.

Bella and Brian

The third segment, “Mel,” is an improvement, featuring our woman of the hour, Joan Collins, as Bella, a frustrated housewife. She reaches the end of her rope when her husband Brian (Michael Jayston) drags part of a tree into the house, presumably so he can transform it into some piece of artwork. Brian becomes infatuated with the weird tree trunk, which has some distinctly feminine curves. Bella, however, is less than enamored with the dirty tree sitting in her living room (“It’s about as attractive as a petrified forest.”).

Bella and Tree

Collins, who’s made a career out of playing more than her share of villains evokes our sympathies this time around, as her character is forced to compete with a tree for her bland husband’s affections. It’s easier to swallow that some flora would develop sentience than a man would choose a tree over his wife (especially if she’s Joan Collins), but I suppose there’s no accounting for taste. “Mel” is an appropriately unnerving entry, which explores the Freudian implications of its weird little premise.

Kimo and Mother

“Luau,” the fourth and final story, is the longest, and most troublesome, from a thematic standpoint. Auriol (Kim Novak), a literary agent, invites her star client, Kimo (Michael Petrovitch) to her house for a surprise luau, although we learn the surprise will be on her (the pork isn’t pork, if you catch my drift). Prior to his arrival, Kimo has made an oath to his dying mother. As part of his rite of passage, he must perform a ritual sacrifice. Much to Auriol’s chagrin, he sets his sights on her “teenage” daughter Ginny (Mary Tamm).

Luau

“Luau” ticks all the boxes for Xenophobia Bingo: Handsome man from an exotic, vague locale? Check. Strange customs from said region that involve an offering to the gods? Check. A virgin daughter, just ripe for the picking? Check. Shadowy henchman with false charm? Check (I’ll assume you’ve used your Free Space to get five across).

Auriol

On the one hand, this segment comes closest to evoking horror, with its cannibalistic theme. On the other hand, if you’re looking for an authentic representation of Pacific Islander culture, you’re liable to find more veracity at Disneyland’s Enchanted Tiki Room attraction. I suppose it has something to say about family enmeshment and emotional blackmail, but it gets its message across in the most circuitous, ham-handed way, reducing a culture to an over-glorified fraternity pledge (do this terrible thing or terrible things will happen). In the end, the scariest things about this segment are the culturally insensitive depictions of native Pacific Islanders and Kim Novak’s polyester outfits.

Dr. Tremayne

Tales that Witness Madness attempts to wrap everything up in a neat little package, with Tremayne accounting for the bizarre events. He calls himself a “detective,” who’s the only one fully versed in each case. Due to the patients’ distorted perceptions, their minds are affecting the outcome (His pseudo-psychological explanation is that “…truth manifests itself as belief, devoid of reasoning…”). Needless to say, his little spiel fails to convince his superior (Who would’ve thought that bad science with no discernible controls would backfire?).

Joan Collins

Although Tales that Witness Madness never quite gets out of the starting gate, it’s not without its fleeting moments. Joan Collins sparkles in her brief appearance, and it’s always great to see Donald Pleasence playing an authority figure with questionable sanity (It’s undeniably fun to see him playing a psychiatrist, five years before his iconic role as Dr. Sam Loomis in Halloween). It’s too bad the film promises more terror than it delivers. Perhaps some more accurate titles might have been Tales of Mild Unease or Tales of Slight Distraction, but it’s a diverting enough way to spend 90 minutes. Of course, you could just watch Ms. Collins in the superior Tales from Crypt instead.  

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Beauty and the Beast (aka: La Belle et la Bête)

 

Beauty and the Beast Poster

(1946) Written and directed by Jean Cocteau; Based on the story by Madame Leprince de Beaumont; Starring: Jean Marais, Josette Day, Mila Parély, Nane Germon, Michel Auclair and Marcel André

Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: *****

“To find trees where there are none, or something where it shouldn’t be, such as a hat off a head in one shot but on again in the next, are, as it were, cracks in the wall through which poetry can penetrate. Those who notice such spelling mistakes are the real illiterates and cannot be moved by fantasy anyhow. Such details have no importance.” – Jean Cocteau (from Diary of a Film, by Jean Cocteau)

Belle and the Beast

Fairy tales stand apart from more conventional stories because of their timeless quality, passed down from generation to generation. They reside on their own plane, a kind of universal language that’s understood and enjoyed by young and old. When or where they take place isn’t relevant, compared to the lessons they teach us about human nature. Beauty and the Beast (aka: La Belle et la Bête) begins, fittingly enough, with “Once upon a time…” In his introduction, writer/director Jean Cocteau invites us to enjoy his film with the innocence and wonderment of a child. Beauty and the Beast, which Cocteau described as “a fairy tale without fairies,” was years in the planning, and filmed from late 1945 through the first half of 1946. He utilized real-life locations for the exteriors (which gave the film a more expansive feel), while the interiors were filmed in sound stages around Paris. An 18th century manor house in Rochecorbon* served as the home for Belle and her family, and the exterior of a sprawling estate in Raray became the Beast’s castle. The production suffered numerous setbacks, including the illnesses of Jean Cocteau** and cast members Jean Marais and Mila Parély, multiple power outages, and budgetary constraints that necessitated the use of several different film stocks. It’s a testament to Cocteau’s vision, chronicled extensively in his Diary of a Film, that he never lost his way.    

* Fun Fact #1: For his location shoot in Rochecorbon, Cocteau was plagued with constant flyovers from a local military airfield – the anachronistic drone of the aircraft (and their presence in the sky) would have undoubtedly taken viewers out of the fairy tale world.

** Not-So-Fun-Fact: Cocteau suffered from numerous ailments throughout the course of filming, including facial rashes, boils, a tooth abscess, and painful sensitivity to the studio lighting. At one point, some of his symptoms became so severe that he was hospitalized for a few days, followed by several days of recovery, bringing production to a temporary halt.

Belle and Family

Belle (Josette Day)* spends her days caring for her merchant father (Marcel André), and being subservient to her two cruel, narcissistic sisters Félicie and Adélaïde (played by Mila Parély and Nane Germon, respectively). While she toils away with the housework, they dress in the finest clothing, acting like royalty, even though the family fortune has been squandered. Her brother Ludovic (Michel Auclair) mocks her sisters for their haughty ways, while he wastes his hours with his friend (and Belle’s potential suitor) Avenant (Jean Marais).** One fateful evening, Belle’s father, too destitute to pay for a room at an inn, is forced to ride through the forest alone at night. He encounters an enchanted castle, where he spends the evening. During a walk in the garden, he picks a single rose for Belle, which incites the sole denizen of the estate, a fearsome Beast. The enraged creature spares his life, in exchange for one of his daughters. Despite her father’s protests, Belle selflessly volunteers to go in his place. Anyone familiar with Madame Leprince de Beaumont’s enduring story, or its many incarnations and permutations, will know the rest.

* Fun Fact #2: According to film historian Arthur Knight, Josette Day was so frightened of the Beast’s horse “Magnificent,” featured prominently in the film, that Cocteau used a double for her riding scenes.

** Fun Fact #3: In de Beaumont’s original story, Belle had three brothers, which was changed simply to Ludovic for the movie. Avenant served as Belle’s sole suitor, in place of multiple (unsuccessful) suitors in the story.

The Beast

Cocteau found a fitting Beast/Avenant/Prince in his lover/muse of several years, Jean Marais. The triple role was especially demanding as the Beast, which required enduring the extensive makeup by Hagop Arakelian.* Despite the limitations imposed by the makeup (which restricted what he could eat, and often placed him into a foul temper), Marais’ passionate performance shines through. With his face obscured, he conveys pathos with his eyes and emotes through body movement. 

* Fun Fact #4: Marais’ Beast makeup required five hours to apply, and his scenes sometimes demanded that he stay in makeup for up to 15 hours at a stretch (a feat that would likely have tested anyone’s patience).

Belle in the Castle

The film’s design required ingenuity from Cocteau’s dedicated team of craftspeople, accomplishing so much with so little. In his film diary, Cocteau lamented that there wasn’t a budget to shoot the film in color. Black and white, however has its own magic. Per his instructions, the castle interiors were based on the works of French illustrator Gustave Doré. The imagery, particularly in the Beast’s castle, resembles pencil sketches or charcoal drawings, effectively mimicking what you’d expect to find in an old storybook. The monochromatic images contribute to the ethereal nature of the subject matter, with the results resembling a waking dream. In one scene, Belle traverses one hallway in slow motion, as if in a somnambulistic trance. In another part of the castle, she glides through a corridor as though she were floating on air. The sets incorporate surreal touches, including candelabras held up by disembodied arms jutting from the walls, food and drink that serves itself, and ghostly caryatids, whose eyes follow Belle’s every movement. Cocteau also employed old-fashioned trick photography (dating back to the films of Georges Méliès) to depict the impossible, as when Belle’s tears become diamonds. With its emphasis on visuals and pantomime, Beauty and the Beast could just as well be a silent film. In many cases, the dialogue (which Cocteau confided was something he didn’t enjoy writing) is almost incidental.  

Beast and Belle

Contrary to what we’re led to believe, it’s not the beast who’s ugly. Rather, it’s others’ distorted perceptions of him, fueled by avarice, envy and ignorance. It takes Belle’s patience and compassion to see the beauty inside (although truth be told, I never thought he looked ugly in the first place. His supposedly dreadful appearance is something we have to accept on faith alone). Similar to the roses the Beast cherishes, the film is a respite from the awful realities of the world. It’s an exquisite work, told with finesse, humor, and above all, the heart of a child. Cocteau understands the conceits of the fairy tale, working within its confines, which requires the complicity of the audience. The more one tries to peek behind the curtains to explain away the machinations of the film or reveal the magic, the further they stray from the mark. Beauty and the Beast is a simple story, wonderfully told, by a master at the top of his craft. It’s a fitting film, if ever there was, to combat the cynicism of an adult in these complex times. 

Sources for this article: Diary of a Film by Jean Cocteau; Criterion DVD commentary by Arthur Knight

Thursday, February 25, 2021

French February Quick Picks and Pans

 

Port of Shadows Poster

Port of Shadows (1938) Jean (Jean Gabin), an AWOL soldier, hitches a ride to the port town of Le Havre, with the intention of assuming a new identity and hopping on a cargo ship bound for Venezuela. In a short span of time, he meets new friends (including a dog who stays glued to his side) and a few enemies. Things become complicated when he encounters Nelly (Michèle Morgan), a young woman with a checkered past, and it’s love at first sight. Marcel Carné’s sublimely bittersweet film (based on a novel by Pierre Dumarchais) explores the ephemeral nature of joy, contrasted with the crushing pitfalls of life. Jean Gabin is superb in his compassionate portrayal of a tough guy with a soft spot for the downtrodden. Port of Shadows is an unforgettable film that’s alternately heartbreaking and life-affirming. 

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

Orpheus Poster

Orpheus (aka: Orphée) (1950) Jean Cocteau’s modern interpretation of the Greek Orpheus myth stars Jean Marais as the title character, a beloved local celebrity (In this version, he’s a poet instead of a musician). He becomes so engrossed in his work that he scarcely notices his pregnant wife Eurydice (Marie Déa). When she suddenly dies, the remorseful protagonist must bargain with Death (María Casares, in a winning performance) and the underworld, to bring her back to the realm of the living. Unfortunately for Orpheus, the trade-off is that he can never look upon her face again. Cocteau’s film is endlessly innovative, working with what must have been a miniscule budget. It’s a novel spin on a classic tale, told with humor and aplomb.   

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

Playtime Poster
Playtime (1967) Writer/director/star Jacques Tati takes audiences on another outing for his venerable, perpetually baffled character, Monsieur Hulot. It’s hard not to admire this wildly ambitious film (one of the most expensive French productions at the time), boasting elaborate sets and complex choreography of its many players. The film, set in contemporary Paris, features an ultra-modern office building that seemed to be designed with humans as an afterthought, a trade show full of useless inventions, and a new restaurant that’s falling apart at the seams. Tati’s intricate orchestration of the many characters, sight gags (which wouldn’t have been out of place in a Keaton or Chaplin film) and detailed set pieces is truly a sight to behold. Tati’s film left me awestruck by the accomplishment, but for all its cleverness, I felt distanced (which might have been the point) by the plotless story (taking place over the course of a day) and drawn-out scenes, bordering on tedium. Ultimately, I admired Playtime more than I enjoyed it. It’s a bold attempt in filmmaking, which deserves to be seen at least once, although loving it might be a stretch.

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

The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec Poster

The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec (2010) Writer/director Luc Besson’s fanciful fantasy/adventure film, set in 1911 and based on a series of comics by Jacques Tardi, is a briskly paced romp. Louise Bourgoin stars as the free-spirited title character, a novelist/adventurer-extraordinaire, seeking a cure for her twin sister’s ailment (also played by Bourgoin). Her perilous quest takes her from the pyramids of Cairo to the streets of Paris, dodging all manner of cutthroats and authorities along the way. Besson, who described Blanc-Sec as “basically the grandmother of Indiana Jones,” follows in the footsteps of Spielberg’s films, with a movie that’s assuredly light on substance, but loads of fun (Who doesn’t want to see mummies walking around Paris or a pterodactyl soaring over the city?). It’s too bad that (as of today), there’s no sequel planned, since it would have been the basis for a good series.  

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

The Swindle Poster

The Swindle (aka: Rien Ne Va Plus) (1997) Isabelle Huppert and Michel Serrault star as Betty and Victor, a pair of small-time grifters. They make a living preying on unsuspecting rubes, moving from town to town in a motorhome and shifting identities. They find themselves over their heads when they acquire a briefcase with 5 million Swiss francs (roughly $5.6 million USD) from a naïve businessman (François Cluzet). Huppert and Serrault have good chemistry together, but considering the subject matter, writer/director Claude Chabrol’s film seems insubstantial. Except for one particularly nasty scene, The Swindle lacks bite, and the plot doesn’t have nearly enough twists and turns. Also, considering the events that precede it, the ending is a bit forced. It’s diverting enough, but it could have been so much better. 

Rating: ***. Available on DVD and Kanopy

The Shiver of the Vampires

The Shiver of the Vampires (aka: Le Frisson Des Vampires) (1971) Okay, I would probably be the first person to admit that I don’t “get” the appeal of Jean Rollin’s films, outside of the fact that he knows how to present appealing visuals. Newlywed couple Isa and Antoine (Sandra Julien and Jean-Marie Durand) plan to honeymoon at a castle owned by Isa’s cousins. Their enthusiasm is dampened, however, when villagers inform Isa that her cousins recently died. As we soon discover, they’re not quite as dead as we were led to believe. Jean Rollin’s moody, erotic vampire film is well shot, with a flair for artsy angles and a nice use of color. As a horror film, it lacks any moments of dread or suspense, the story meanders, and the characters are generally unlikeable (the cousins are obnoxious twits). On the other hand, if all you care about is watching pretty women alternating between diaphanous, pastel-colored nightgowns and varying stages of undress, then be my guest.

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