Monday, November 19, 2007

And so it begins!

My MIDNIGHT MARQUEE/MAD ABOUT MOVIES Blog starts today.  My goal is to rant and rave—and inform—about anything on my mind pertaining mostly to the world of movies.  But I won’t limit the blog to discussions of movies alone.  My interests travel to other areas as well.

Of course I welcome any comments about what I post, and comments can be directed to me at midmargary@verizon.net

HOSTEL PART II and the Boundaries of Horror

Some call it torture porn, the sub-genre of modern horror cinema that includes the HOSTEL and SAW franchise series.  And many consider it the demise of horror cinema, as we know it.

The same outcries occurred when H.G. Lewis’ BLOOD FEAST was released in 1963.  People were also up in arms when the garish color Hammer horrors such as CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HORROR OF DRACULA reached American shores in the late 1950s.  Even foreign movies such as EYES WITHOUT A FACE and all the EuroTrash efforts of the 1970s caused a stir in a similar way, overflowing with excesses of nudity, sexual excesses or violence.

Today movies such as HOSTEL PART II are condemned for taking the horror genre too far into dalliances that make the audience want to shower from the guilt rather than recoil and scream from the on-screen horror.

Imagine the following sequence … a naked girl, formerly introduced as an ugly duckling, a girl protected by her more beautiful girlfriends, is suspended from the ceiling of a torture dungeon, her mouth bound to muffle her screams.  She wiggles and writhes, her dangling outstretched neck vulnerable to the potential bloodbath to be.

Entering this torture dungeon are those otherwise model citizens, all of them rich, who use their blackberries and computers to bid for the right to torture a specific victim to death in special Euro-warehouses reconstructed as individual torture chambers armed with power tools and surgical instruments.  Here the winning bidder pays hundreds of thousands of dollars for this perversity, to be alone with the victim and literally have his or her way with the human sausage-to-be.  The only rule is that the torturer must kill the victim, or the torturer dies.

A beautiful woman enters the chamber, and she at first wears a robe before disrobing and sitting in the stone tub, romantically lit by a ring of candles.  At her grasp are sharp-bladed tools on long wooden poles that can be used to terrify at first (sharp metal against soft flesh) and then cut the dangling victim hanging above.  First this Countess Dracula wannabe slashes the back of the victim, spraying her face, shoulder and chest with blood from the bleeding victim above.  The woman in the tub is aroused and excited as more and more blood dips down.  In this rhythmic orgy of bloodshed, the torturer finally uses a scythe-like tool to slit the victim’s throat, causing rivers of blood to descend and completely cover the torturer’s body as she strokes her body and rubs the blood all over.

Perversity?  Horror?  Pornography?  Is this the face of the horror cinema 2007?

Yet director/screenwriter Eli Roth, in those sequences outside this death chamber, concocts tension, psychological horror and even beauty.  HOSTEL PART II features a mesmerizing and brilliantly photographed sequence at a Slovakian spa (actually filmed in Iceland) where the two surviving beauties (unaware of the fate of their third friend) cream their faces and soak in the shallow, steaming waters.  One by one every human being seems to disappear, and the lone girl of our focus, Beth (Lauren German), is left alone in the waters.  What moments before had been viewed as soothing and comforting suddenly becomes haunting and fearful.  Beth dons a robe and flip-flops and runs, and even before she sees any type of threat, she flees in terror, trying to escape an environment that formerly offered ultimate soul renewal.  In sequences like these and others, the cinematography of Milan Chadima shines.  Even his Countess Dracula torture dungeon sequence is artistically photographed and lingers as such in the viewer’s mind.

In another earlier sequence, the three intended female victims are attending a nighttime Slovakian Harvest Festival, populated with locals in costumes and others who carry balloons that are more eerie than festive. In this Hitchcockian world with an underbelly of putrid decay, one of the girls is seduced away from safety by a male admirer who offers her a private romantic boat ride that ends up with her abduction and savage beating. 

The film also traces the psychological makeup and history of two male torturers, both before they enter the dungeon and during.  Interestingly, the alpha male who craves the killing experience before entering the dungeon becomes the craven coward during, as he accidentally cuts into his victim’s face with a circular saw.  However, his more tentative friend, once donning the butcher’s uniform and operating within the squalid walls of the torture dungeon, becomes the psychologically powerful male who now thinks he can regain his manhood by defiling his female victim.  This role reversal is quite interesting and becomes one of the subtle strengths of the movie. Even when we are ready to dismiss the movie as torture porn, aspects such as these, and others, make us realize that Eli Roth is in fact operating within a richer artistic template (although a twisted one).

And that’s the entire point. 

HOSTEL PART II is deftly handled in the arenas of scripting, direction, cinematography and acting.  The double death sequence during the film’s opening sequence, where the male survivor of the first HOSTEL is murdered twice … the first in a horrifying nightmare and the second in a nightmarish sequence of reality, his head severed and shipped to the secret society’s leader, impresses us with the horrifying technique at play.  This opening sequence goes to show the scope of this torture cult, fueled by the wealth of the rich … worldwide.  Even in rural isolation after severing ties with all friends and relatives, this cautious survivor is killed at a moment’s notice by the network that sees and knows all.

HOSTEL PART II is too well made to be dismissed as exploitation.  Eli Roth has concocted an unsettling brew of visceral and atmospheric horror that quickly gets under the skin.  Those sequences in the dungeon are perverse and unsettling, but those sequences are brief and most of the movie occurs with our three female victims (Lauren German, Heather Matarazzo and Bijou Phillips) being lured away from the safety of their East European vacation (by a beautiful female artist’s model) and sent into the jaws of danger in a world too horrible to describe.  Yes, director Roth does allow too many excesses (such as the penis dismemberment sequence in the dungeon), but too much good stuff exists in the movie for it to be dismissed as trash or filth.  This is no H.G. Lewis guts-and-gore drive-in programmer.

The question remains—what other taboos exist in the horror film genre that haven’t already been exploited, and after they are, what envelope remains to be pushed?  Is the horror genre simply an excuse for filmmakers to gross out its audience with atrocities that metaphorically become Leatherface’s hammer blow to the skull?  Even with Eli Roth’s talent and technique, is this the best direction for the horror cinema to take?  Or has the genre backed itself into a wall from which it cannot escape?

November 23, 2007
MAN MADE MONSTER and Lon Chaney, Jr.

In 1941 Universal released its most revered horror film of the decade, THE WOLF MAN, and cast Lon Chaney, Jr. in the starring role that made him a horror film icon.  However, for me, Chaney, Jr. was wrong for the part of Lawrence Talbot.  First of all we are led to believe that this hulking mid-Westerner is the son of petit Claude Rains, he with the proper British accent.  Even though Larry Talbot admits to being raised in the States, the side-by-side image of father and son seems utterly ridiculous.  Almost in every sequence Chaney, Jr. is playing attitude, whether it is the “wolf” romantically stalking heroine Evelyn Ankers or the average Joe fearful of the beast he has become.  Chaney hardly ever seems natural and the artifice of his craft (and limitations) is always too apparent.  Chaney’s performance shines in one aspect … he is a gifted stunt man who plays the heavily made up Wolf Man to perfection.

However, just released on DVD comes a movie that captures Lon Chaney’s strengths as horror icon actor, MAN MADE MONSTER, his first featured role for Universal and the movie that most likely opened the gates allowing him to be selected to play Larry Talbot in THE WOLF MAN.  Unfortunately, what works in MAN MADE MONSTER does not work in THE WOLF MAN.

MAN MADE MONSTER is a 59-minute B programmer and Chaney, Jr. plays the character “Dynamo” Dan McCormick, a rather dull man who performs as the Electric Man at a traveling carnival, pretending to absorb massive jolts of electricity, gleefully admitting most of his act is an illusion.  At the film’s beginning, Dan is the only survivor of a bus that slides into an electric generator killing all passengers and the driver.  Taken to kindly Dr. Lawrence’s (Samuel S. Hinds) house for testing, Dan is offered free room and board to allow the doctor to study his immunity to electrical charges.  Dan even has a crush on Lawrence’s daughter June (Anne Nagel), but Chaney is mostly attracted to the household dog, and most of the time he teaches the dog tricks.  It is only when Lawrence is called away for a week to a medical convention that Lawrence’s diabolical assistant Dr. Rigas (Lionel Atwill) begins shooting massive doses of electricity into the kindly Dan, rendering him a zombie between treatments.  At the end of the experimental week, Dan is glowing with electrical power with sparks flying out of his fingertips whenever he goes to touch an object (such as a goldfish bowl).

Lon Chaney, Jr.’s performance works in MAN MADE MONSTER because Dan is the type of marginal citizen (he lives the Carney life admitting his act is mostly hoax and deception) who quickly agrees to allow Dr. Lawrence to experiment on him, as long as he has a place to stay and a free meal.  Barely employable and being employed in a shady sideshow profession, Dan’s simple-minded performance, always polite and affable, focuses upon a character who allows himself to trust strangers too easily. He is strapped to a medical table as apparatus is attached to his wrists, high voltage coursing through his body, such an act akin to the homeless person who makes money selling his own blood.  Dan’s personality is straight up and he simply gets by with a smile and folksy charm.

Playing such a simple character in THE WOLF MAN does not work when you also happen to be the son of British upper class “Sir John.” This just does not seem realistic. Lawrence Talbot as a ladies man, pursuing with confidence the highly desirable Evelyn Ankers and constantly flashing his cocky smile, also does not seem believable.  Even though the Ankers’ character is provincial and works in a quaint village shop, Lawrence Talbot seems too oaf-like and transparent to win over her charms.  Chaney, Jr. is far from being the dashing romantic lead and his part screams out for an actor who can play the haunted, tortured aspect of the character as well as the romantic elements, realistically.  Lon Chaney, Jr. was simply miscast in THE WOLF MAN because he is basically giving the same performance in both movies (he just cleans up a little better as Talbot).   His down-on-his-luck “Dynamo” Dan performance works in MAN MADE MONSTER, but as the son of Sir John, his Lawrence Talbot seems an over-achieving failure.  On screen we believe Lon Chaney, Jr. as Dan McCormick, but we never believe his Lawrence Talbot.  Suspension of disbelief is simply too much to ask in this instance.

Just consider the three phases of Chaney, Jr.’s Dan McCormick in MAN MADE MONSTER.  We have the happy-go-lucky guy just out for a free meal; we have the lethargic, zombified Dan in between electrical treatments who looks gaunt and haggard; and we have the electrified monster, the former human being, who now has sunken dark eyes, shriveled up skin and a look of absolute menace as he stalks his victims, without emotion.  Chaney, Jr. is especially good playing the monster and in this film his entire face is clearly seen (through John Fulton’s electrical glow effects) and his performance is stronger because audiences see his face and eyes.  Chaney’s Jr.’s presence on screen truly catches sparks here.

Unfortunately for the horror film genre, Lon Chaney, Jr. was never intended to become a mainstream star, especially a dashing leading man type.  B programmers and second tier productions would have been his forte (this never hurt Roy Rogers or Gene Autry), and such a statement is not meant as an insult.  Knowing one’s limitations is the secret of Hollywood success.  What worked so well in the B programmer MAN MADE MONSTER failed miserably in the higher profile THE WOLF MAN, and Chaney, Jr. and THE WOLF MAN were worse off because of it.

November 26, 2007


When it comes to classic Hollywood Westerns, the 1950s became the artistic pinnacle for the genre.  And two titles always vie for the distinction of being perhaps the finest example of the Western genre, each the product of two distinguished directors:  THE SEARCHERS, directed by John Ford, and RIO BRAVO, directed by Howard Hawks.  I won’t solve this debate today, but I will add my two cents to the mix.

First of all, both films showcase directors Ford and Hawks at the top of their game, and both feature lush Technicolor photography that only adds to the mythic vision of the old West.  Each movie features an iconic starring performance by John Wayne and insightful supporting character performances.  The scripts of both movies are carefully rendered and inspirational to other films in the genre that followed their wake.

To me, THE SEARCHERS is the superior film because it features the richer screenplay and the deeper psychologically based character interplay.  The iconic John Wayne plays his most ambivalent role (and greatest performance ever!), that of Ethan Edwards, the prodigal son who returns to his homestead to visit his brother and his brother’s wife.  Just with a glance here and there, Ford establishes the fact that Ethan had an affair with his brother’s wife, yet nothing is ever verbalized.  When the reverend (a bravura supporting role by the always dependable Ward Bond) questions Ethan about his actions both during the Civil War and afterwards, Edwards is evasive and defensive, leading viewers to sense immediately Ethan’s flawed nature, harboring a dark past.  Here is a battered man trying to come home and reconnect with his family.  But before he is able to settle down, renegade Comanche, led by beefcake villain Henry Brandon as Chief Scar, burn out the homestead, raping and murdering his brother’s wife, the oldest daughter and of course killing his brother.  The youngest daughter Deborah is kidnapped by the tribe and will be raised as a Comanche, a sexual violation of the worst kind to Ethan. As the title makes clear, this movie is segmented as a search for the missing child, and whether Ethan wants to rescue the girl or kill her, his pursuit is relentless, obsessive and almost without reason as the search expands into half a decade.  To balance out Ethan’s dark side we have the youthful Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), stepbrother to Deborah and also a half-breed Comanche who manages to entertain Ethan with his youthful exuberance and mistakes.  Ethan, Martin’s mentor, actually learns tolerance the more exposed he becomes to the young man.  And their rich relationship forms the emotional core of the movie.  Each man learns from the other, in equal portions.

RIO BRAVO, on the other hand, is much lighter in tone even though innocent people in saloons are gunned down at point blank range.  But under the direction of Howard Hawks, RIO BRAVO is more a buddy film, establishing what it means to be a friend.  Referencing HIGH NOON, John Wayne plays sheriff John T. Chance, the man who arrests Joe Burdette for murder, he the wicked son of the man who runs the town. Chance attempts to keep Joe safely in jail until the judge arrives to try him.  John Russell plays the town kingpin Nathan Burdette, who hires professional gunmen to control who enters and who leaves the dusty town.  And all his hired guns are paid gold coins to kill Chance.  Even when rancher and buddy Pat Wheeler (Ward Bond again) comes to town with his herd of cattle and crew, Chance refuses help from his friend because Wheeler, who’s not good enough with a gun, will get innocent people killed.  Before Wheeler is allowed to feel any rejection, he is murdered cold-bloodedly in the street by one of the professional gunmen.

So who stands with Chance?  His former deputy Dude went off the deep end (because of a failed love affair) and has become an embarrassing drunk and the town buffoon.  Also the elderly and gimpy Stumpy (Walter Brennan, at his feisty best) stands shotgun at the jail, threatening to blast anyone who enters or tries to escape.  And that’s all that Chance has or even wants.

Entering the town by stagecoach is professional gambler and former saloon girl Feathers (a sexy Angie Dickinson), who falls for the flawed Sheriff Chance even before he knows what hit him, and she in many ways covers his back and offers him shelter and protection.  But their outward relationship remains a rocky one.  Ambivalent young gun (a cattleman who worked for the slain Wheeler) Colorado Ryan (Ricky Nelson) tries to remain neutral, but when the guns start blazing and he has to make a moral decision, Colorado decides to side with Chance, the drunk and the cripple. 

All this action builds up to the explosive climax just outside of town where Chance has to exchange the wild Joe Burdette for Dude.  But the audience never gets to feeling too nervous, because the wily Dude pushes Joe to the side as they each walk across the street and the two men fight it out as the guns start blazing.  And with Stumpy hiding out in a shed full of dynamite and slowly but surely blowing up the house in which Burdette and his men are taking refuge, the action is more predictable than fearful and audiences realize that Burdette does not stand a chance.

So which film is the best?

I stated I prefer THE SEARCHERS, but I must admit that sometimes the mere action-packed plot and camaraderie of RIO BRAVO wins me over.  Are you more in the mood for a rip-roaring Western or would you rather experience a complex, darker visioned Western?  Simply stated, it’s whatever mood you happen to be in at the moment.  Both films are classic and well worth seeing.  RIO BRAVO is more fun but THE SEARCHERS resonates emotionally and becomes a far richer film experience.

Both films have strengths. RIO BRAVO features Dean Martin’s performance as the fallen-so-low Dude, who slowly but surely controls his shaking hands and once again proves his dependability to the sheriff. Chance never lost faith in his friend (when Dude sold his guns for a drink, it was Chance who bought them back, unknown to Dude).  Even the non-actor Ricky Nelson creates an interesting characterization of a young man forced to take a moral stance when he would rather remain non-committal.  And Walter Brennan is simply Walter Brennan, but at his energetic and comedic best.  Suspense is generated frequently as Chance and Dude parole the town at night, realizing that half of the people they see are hired professionals out to kill them.  In one sequence, perhaps the best in the movie, a gunman is forced out of a barn by Chance and runs into the saloon, nicked by a quick shot from Dude.  Dude, who hasn’t entered the saloon by the front door in years, asks Chance if he can go in the front with Chance covering him from the rear door.  Inside, Dude shakes the gang down but cannot find the wounded man from the barn.  Just when the bartender and gang/town citizens begin to laugh at Dude for coming up short once again, the bartender offers Dude a glass of whiskey, but Dude notices a few drops of blood on the bar.  Whipping his gun skyward, he fires and kills the wounded man who is hiding on the balcony above the bar, his dead weight flopping down from above.  Dude, earning respect at long last, forces one of the baddies to stick his hand into a spittoon to fetch a coin he threw there to embarrass Dude.  Smiling, Dude exits triumphantly with Chance.

THE SEARCHERS features many shining moments, too many to mention here.  Simply the magnificent photography of Monument Valley, the Calvary in the forefront and the Comanche in the rear, produce a rich tableau of visual beauty.  Climatic sequences discovering the Comanche camp and finding the now-grown Deborah after such a long search are emotionally rich, especially after Ethan recognizes the scalp of his brother’s wife on a pole proudly shown him by the tribe.  The sequence where Ethan has the decision to shot Deborah or lift her up and take her home is an emotional powerhouse.  And that final shot of everyone going back into the house, everyone except Ethan, becomes symbolic of his inability to remain part of this makeshift family.  What works best in THE SEARCHERS are those sequences where little (or nothing) is verbalized and the subtlety of photography or acting creates a rich, emotional core.  Such as the sequence at twilight in Ethan’s brother’s home, where the father looks out across the plains and sees subtle signs of the impending invasion.  When the eldest daughter lights a lantern, her mother yells for her to put out the light, the eldest child understanding the unspoken meaning behind those words. Her face erupts into horror and fear … and then she screams. In John Ford’s world of THE SEARCHERS, visual poetry replaces the literal and the movie becomes a textbook example of subtlety in cinema.

Both films contain flaws.  THE SEARCHERS is often criticized for its breaking-the-solemn-tone wedding that ends up with a good old-fashioned comical fistfight, refereed by the reverend.  Even Shakespeare featured comic relief to break the tension.  Also the sequence with the faithful Indian squaw Look and the way both men make fun of her and mistreat her makes many audiences uncomfortable, especially when she gives her life to save Ethan and Martin.

In RIO BRAVO we fail to have one strong villain (no Chief Scar here).  The John Russell figure is more an imposing symbol of power rather than a hateful villain.  Too many of the hired guns dilute the obvious fact that the movie is missing one focal villain to hate.  Many people think the Ricky Nelson performance sticks out like a sore thumb, but personally, I like what he creates in the ensemble cast (even the musical interlude with Martin and Nelson works for me).  And the climatic confrontation at the end seems a little too easy and ends much too quickly, without enough of a sense of imposing danger for our heroic team.

Bottom line, for anyone who loves movies, RIO BRAVO and THE SEARCHERS are classics that must be seen, whether you are a Western movie fan or not.  These are great movies, not just great Western movies.  And they illustrate two contrasting directorial styles and two different yet effective ways of creating a classic vision of America’s Old West. And need we add that John Wayne’s performances in each have never been better.

December 1, 2007

BOB DYLAN and the Newport Folk Festival

When it comes to iconic artists inventing and reinventing themselves, musical visionary Bob Dylan is striped bare in director Murray Lerner’s THE OTHER SIDE OF THE MIRROR:  BOB DYLAN AT THE NEWPORT FOLK FESTIVAL 1963-1965, just released to DVD. Lerner’s 1995 DVD release FESITVAL included some Dylan footage, but was primarily an overview of the Newport Folk Festival, 1963-1965.  Supposedly THE OTHER SIDE OF THE MIRROR was made from outtake footage from the first documentary.  The question to me is, why did Murray Lerner sit on this explosive Dylan/ Newport footage all these years, the official release not coming until 40-plus years after the events passed?

John Ford’s movie masterpiece, THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, tells us when fact becomes legend, publish and remember the legend.  This becomes the only explanation why Dylan’s footage at Newport was unavailable for so long.  This documentary, if released decades ago, would have distorted the Dylan legend with less fanciful facts!  And Dylan’s legacy machine would not have approved!  When anyone speaks about touchstone moments in the mythical career of Dylan, we always hear of the kid from Hibbing who snuck away to New York City to hit the folk scene and meet his mentor Woody Guthrie.  Or we hear of the motorcycle crash-era Dylan, who entered a reclusive period of intense creativity. Or here, the Dylan who appeared at Newport donning leather jacket, an electric guitar and played with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band (minus Butterfield), to be booed off the stage, only to return sadly, with tears in his eyes, to perform an emotional “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue.”  The legend of Dylan, the rock’n’roll legend specifically, was created at the Newport 1965 concert where Dylan, the social-minded folkie, ripped open the door to raw electric blues and surreal lyrics, assaulted the senses, and never looked back.

Why would footage of this concert, including songs from both the electric set and the encore folk set, sit on the shelf for so long unless the Dylan legacy makers wanted such footage suppressed?  Does it make sense otherwise?  Of course, when the concert footage finally saw the light of day in 2007, Jeff Rosen, Dylan’s manager and archivist (of the music and the artist’s legacy), is listed as executive producer.  Hum, the Dylan publicity machine now approves that the time is right for the footage to be released.

It all makes sense.  While some of the history involving the concert and related events (such as Pete Seeger’s anger at Dylan going electric) hasn’t been captured in this footage, the footage reveals that the facts of the concert are in partial conflict with the mythology that resulted.  The common history was that Dylan was uniformly booed and he returned to the stage with tears in his eyes.  The concert footage does document booing, but it also registers some cheers and polite applause.  When Dylan leaves the stage he does so abruptly, and when he returns, it appears that sweat dots his face, not tears.  When he performs his final acoustic set he seems very much under control and not emotionally rattled.  He is the consummate professional realizing that he shocked the Newport folk community, who supported his earlier efforts, and that he needed to placate things by doing a few acoustic songs.  In many ways this concert performance was a good-bye, but not exactly a bitter one.

But Jeff Rosen and the Dylan legacy makers realize that releasing this footage decades ago would have dispelled the romanticized vision of the activities that supposedly occurred that weekend.  The truth would have eaten the legend alive and spit it out.  The less than fire-forged facts revealed by the documentary footage would not be as explosive or as emotionally gut wrenching as the myth.  So for whatever reason, historical footage of such an iconic pop cultural experience never saw the light of day until now, only after other printed sources began to argue for the more truthful revisionist facts of what actually occurred at Newport.

The concert footage showing Dylan during three years of the festival is utterly revelatory, showing a well-scrubbed Dylan gradually morphing into the shaggier legend created during his electric set in 1965.  Even if these facts do not support the popular legend, the facts are pretty incredible to behold.  This documentary is a classic and one for the ages.  Within three brief years, the shy kid became a musical icon, and this documentary showcases that truth (without narration or fancy editing).  THE OTHER SIDE OF THE MIRROR is honest to the bone.

December 9, 2007
DARIO ARGENTO’s Twisted Visual Poetry and Dream-Reality

When it comes to the first 40 years of horror cinema, few would dispute the auteurs who carved greatness:  James Whale, Edgar Ulmer, Tod Browning, Val Lewton, Jacques Tourneur, Robert Wise, Terence Fisher, Mario Bava and Alfred Hitchcock.

These innovators directed classic horror movies that will stand the test of time.

But when it comes to the last 40 years of horror cinema (the 1970s onward), classic horror film auteurs become harder to find.  We have a few worthy entries from George Romero, but we also have too many irrelevant contributions.  John Carpenter started with a bang with HALLOWEEN, but he too soon settled into a B niche market that included mediocre product (THE FOG; VAMPIRES; GHOSTS OF MARS; THEY LIVE; etc.) and only one other classic—THE THING.  Wes Craven faired better than most with at least one classic horror film per decade (THE HILLS HAVE EYES; A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET; SCREAM), but many mediocre entries exist as well.  Stuart Gordon had one bona-fide classic to his credit with RE-ANIMATOR, but lesser works followed in its wake.  

For me, one name rises above the rest with the most consistent horror film body of work, stretching from the 1970s to the current day.  Not to say that Dario Argento hit creative pay dirt every time, but his best work are among the finest horror films of the modern era.

So what do I consider to be among Argento’s best work? 

In the 1970s Argento debuted as the master of the giallo subgenre masterminded by his mentor, director Mario Bava, with THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE and FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET.  While these two films are very good, they only led to his classic giallo of 1975, DEEP RED (PROFONDO ROSSO), which happens to be one of the best horror films of the modern era.  This is Argento’s first classic.

For those who feel horror movies should have supernatural undertones, we only need to look to 1977’s SUSPIRIA, his first entry in the “Three Mothers” series, a series concluded only this year with MOTHER OF TEARS.  SUSPIRIA, perhaps Argento’s most popular work, becomes his second classic horror film.


Frequently criticized for style overpowering substance, for focusing on misogynic themes and the abuse of beautiful women and for operating in a world where narrative story telling is sublimated by haunting dream reality, Argento’s work alienates both audiences and critics alike. But one strength of Argento’s body of work is his lack of humor (the bane of Wes Craven and others) and his emphasis on unrelenting horror.  Argento favors his terror straight up, undiluted, without a wink or a smile.

Argento’s style ultimately becomes substance, and his gonzo visuals tied to dreamy narratives make for classic horror cinema. At its best, the visuals of horror movies approximate our nightmares and few filmmakers have captured nightmares on film as well as Argento.  Hardly any directors manage to frighten their audiences any longer.  Today’s horror auteurs seem to be heavily into gooey visual effects and gross out splatter that nauseates more than terrifies.  While Argento never avoided blood and gore, his movies attempt to do more by getting under the skin to creep us out, to force us to jump up and scream.  Many of his movies are scored by the cinematic rock group Goblin, or scored by individual members of that band.  Unlike the orchestrated movie music created by James Bernard, Bernard Herrmann and Jerry Goldsmith, the music of Goblin is atonal, screechy and assaults our ears much in the same manner as Argento’s visuals assault our eyes.  What a perfect marriage of sight and sound!  When Goblin’s work first appeared in SUPSIRIA, audiences were naturally taken aback because this type of film scoring had never been attempted before. Our eyes or ears seldom get any rest during an Argento film.

In Argento’s world death and murder become erotic at times, but such morbidity is always beautiful to behold.  Argento’s camera likes to see beautiful women held in peril, slowly teased by the threat of intense violence, skillful cinematography revealing the deathblow when bodies are dropped and hanged, throats slit and sharp penetrating blades or spikes thrust into warm, innocent flesh.  And of course the blood gushes crimson red.  Women have their heads held down in scalding hot water and the flesh melts from their faces, the camera usually underwater recording the bulging eye demise in all its intensity.  At times weird little demonic toys pop out of nowhere, giggling and laughing, only to throw the audience off balance to the actual terror that strikes from the other side of the room or from behind.  A captive woman has her eyelids pinned painfully open so she must observe all the carnage to be.  Other victims think they are safe within the confines of their sequestered apartments, only to look through the keyhole to encounter a slow-mo bullet heading directly for their brain.  Often times, in the Hitchcock tradition, innocent witnesses see female victims attacked and killed in a bloody manner, only to be unable to intervene by nature of a locked entrance or the distance between them being too far. In Argento’s world young women see their relatives die painfully, such imagery will haunt them psychologically for the rest of their lives.  Too often the villain appears to have been killed, only to suddenly return at the most unexpected of times.  Even our best friends are not always to be trusted, as calmness turns to crazed intensity as one former friend tries to drown his buddy in a bathtub that he just filled with water.  Even victims who appear to have escaped death often find themselves the victim of a swooping blade that flashes forth just when the danger appears to be over. And, in the pulse-pounding finale, two people, one insane and the other an innocent victim, fight to the death, handcuffed to the tracks, as a speeding train barrels toward them, both men trying to retrieve the key to unlock the handcuffs that bind them to the tracks.  And the list goes on.

Imagery and suspense, such as the above, occur over and over in Argento’s body of work.  When watching an Argento film, I generally like to be alone so I can become totally absorbed in his world, allowing myself to be manipulated by his cinematic mastery.  Yes, Dario Argento’s films are obsessively quirky, warped and unsettling, but when the films are created with such masterful style, the maestro must be given his due.  As stated, not all his movies succeed as well as his best, but even the lesser works of Argento are interesting and contain two or three dynamic sequences of pure terror, justifying their existence. And dare I say that the lesser works of Argento generally trump the best work of most other modern auteur contenders.

When it comes to any of the prominent directors of the past 40 years (including the new kids on the block such as Eli Roth), no one offers a body of work as consistently powerful, shocking and mesmerizing as the work of Dario Argento.  His films frequently sacrifice linear narrative (and logic) for visual poetry, but somehow at the movie’s finale, most plot threads have been neatly tied up and the spectator leaves the theater feeling spent (emotionally and physically) yet totally satisfied.

Myself, I would never wish to live in any of Dario Argento’s twisted yet beautiful cinematic worlds, but, in two-hour doses, the intensity and the thrill of such short visits become its own reward.

December 23, 2007

The Enduring Legacy of Christmas Movies

The Christmas season is marked by ritual.  Presents to purchase, meals to prepare, parties to plan or attend and, most importantly, Christmas movies to pull out and watch again.  Movies have the ability to touch the heart, stir emotions and create that cozy sense of nostalgia.  But what exactly is the appeal of watching these well-roasted holiday chestnuts year after year?

Let me examine a few holiday favorites and create a rationale why each specific movie has such a far-reaching appeal.  Think about it!  Not every Christmas movie speaks to people in the same way, and we watch movies for different reasons.  Let me explain.

Take my favorite, the 1951 SCROOGE, cinema’s finest version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, starring the wonderful Alastair Sim. Why is the 1951 Brian Desmond Hurst-directed version the greatest version?  Besides the performance by Sim, this version explores all the psychological nuances that the other versions skim over.  For instance, we learn of young Scrooge’s abandonment by his father, leaving him at private school during the holidays (he appears to be the only child remaining).  We learn of Scrooge’s deep love for sister Fan and the devastating loss he feels when she dies giving birth (causing Scrooge to always dislike his nephew Fred, whose birth he blames for his sister’s death).  We learn of the love he feels for his mentor Fezziwig and how he ruthlessly wrestles the business from the man, after the almighty dollar becomes his god.  We see Scrooge fall in love and lose his love, due to his overwhelming obsession for making money.  We see Scrooge’s resentment when he is asked to visit his dying partner Marley during office hours, refusing to leave his workplace until the workday is done.  Such insights enrich the overall character of Scrooge, and while the screenplays are all very similar using the bulk of Dickens’ dialogue, somehow the 1951 version probes a little deeper and produces a more resonating product. 

But we return to this classic year after year because it allows us, through the three ghosts, to view our own life subjectively, from other people’s points of view.  First we encounter the Ghost of Christmas Past and that ghost allows us to remember that inner child within us with awe, innocence and enthusiasm.  Almost as though the childhood “us” is an entirely different individual.  The corrupted, bitter Scrooge is reminded of the child he once was and he fondly remembers what he could have been.  With the arrival of the ghosts of Christmas Present and Christmases To Be, Scrooge is allowed to see how his actions affect the lives of others and what others think of him when he is not in their presence.  In other words, Scrooge is able to become that “fly” on the wall and hear the bitter truth.  Secretly we all crave to know ourselves in such a manner and have the opportunity to reinvent ourselves, before it is too late!

Take another Christmas film, the 1947 (with Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle) MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET.  The reason for returning annually to this favorite is to witness how Santa Claus would be greeted if he lived in our regular day-by-day world.  And the film’s major thesis is that Santa Claus actually exists and how difficult it increasingly becomes to believe in his magic in a hardened, cruel world.  Ever since we all encountered the personal disappointment, as a child, of learning that Santa Claus is not real, that he’s little more than Dad with a maxed out checking or credit card account, we have been attempting to validate the well-rounded elf’s existence.  And no movie does a better job of proving the reality of Kris Kringle than MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET.  We may believe in the spirit of Christmas, but believing in the jolly old elf in the flesh is quite a different challenge.

Perhaps the most significant Christmas movie for baby boomers is Bob Clark’s
A CHRISTMAS STORY, a movie that takes place during the late 1940s but better reflects the middle and late 1950s, where the heart of the Christmas season occurred at major downtown department stores whose picturesque Christmas display windows were the envy of every adult and child.  Most parents dragged their children to sit on the knee of their local department store Santa, and every child was terrified to confront the keen Mr. Claus, who was keeping a list and checking it twice. Such omniscience from Santa caused chagrin for children everywhere.  Clark’s movie captures this apprehension and his Santa Claus is a living horror, with his mechanical “ho, ho, ho” and his giant red boot shoving children down the sliding board.  Every kid growing up in the 1950s looked forward to the arrival of the department store Christmas catalogue and thus began the process of gawking at every page and circling Christmas desires (that Mom and Dad could relay to Santa, of course).  Clark’s movie captures the magic and nostalgia of the baby boomer Christmas experience better than any other.  Those of us who grew up in the late 1940s, the 1950s and even the early 1960s regard this movie as a literal childhood experience revisited, with even the not-so-pleasant memories glowing (including the ruined turkey dinners, encounters with bullies and sucking bars of soap as a result of getting into trouble with our parents). 

For people who grew up more recently, CHRISTMAS VACATION and our seasonal encounter with the Griswold family upgrades the nostalgic Christmas experience for the next generation, when the corporate worker anticipated his Christmas bonus check as salary (during the Yuppie greed period when money ran thick).  Every family wanted an in-ground swimming pool and Dad fantasized over half naked women plunging into the pool.  Parents visiting the urban Christmas tree lot and haggling over the best price was replaced by the urge to go out to a forest to cut down an actual tree.  Family get-togethers involving the extended family coming over for Christmas dinner (families who would fly in or even jam into the RV and drive cross-country) became routine.  The ritual of putting Christmas lights all over the roof, each neighbor trying to outdo the other, is spoofed to an outlandish degree here.  But once again the appeal of movies such as CHRISTMAS VACATION is to return us to those more innocent times of our youth, to relive past memories of Golden Christmases.

And finally, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE does an about face on the Dickens’ A Christmas Carol scenario by adding some darker tones.  In Frank Capra’s masterpiece, his protagonist George Bailey (James Stewart in one of his best performances) lives a life of disappointment, where everyone else goes to college and travels around the world, everyone except him.  Becoming despondent at the film’s climax over the threat of bankruptcy and scandal, Bailey goes to the local bar, gets punched in the face by a patron and considers suicide, thinking he is worth more dead than alive.  However, Bailey’s guardian angle, Clarence, shows George a world where George never existed and demonstrates how much worse off people would be (both the town citizens and his own family … or potential family) had he never lived.  George sees that his younger brother would have died and not rescued all the people he saved during World War II.  His first boss and friend Mr. Gower, the town druggist, depressed over his own son’s death in the war, would have poisoned an innocent customer and become the town drunk.  People who would eventually afford their own home, with George’s help, would remain homeless.  Wife Mary would be an old spinster librarian, living alone.  Bedford Falls would become a slum, controlled by the evil Mr. Potter, who lives only to make money at other peoples’ expense.  And the list goes on.  By being forced to see a world that he is not part of, George Bailey sees all the ways in which he influenced people for the good.  We too need to feel that our existence has a purpose and that we each bring joy and purpose to those whose lives we touch.  And thus the reason for revisiting IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE once a year.

Somehow Christmas movies allow people to reinvent themselves and validate their reason and purpose for being on the planet.  Very few film genres allow us to experience such an epiphany of emotion on a regular basis, and just as batteries need to be recharged, people need that same spiritual and psychological renewal as well, at least on a yearly basis.  Truly, the magic of Christmas is intensified by the magic of Christmas movies.

Have a very Merry Christmas yourself!