Tuesday, January 31, 2023

The Grant Mystique: Suspicion (1941)

Suspicion (1941)

By 1941, Cary Grant was THE movie star. Grant had cultivated a screen image based on charm, charisma, impossible good looks, and a refusal to take himself seriously. He was the ideal leading man for the age of the screwball comedy. But there was always something more to the Grant persona. Something darker. You saw glimpses of it in His Girl Friday, in which Hildy Johnson laments of Grant's vile Walter Burns, "I just wish you weren't such a stinker," and tells her fiancee of Burns's charm "he comes by it naturally; his grandfather was a snake." There were glimpses of it, too, in the callousness as armor against loss in Only Angels Have Wings. Even before his major stardom, there was Grant's antagonist opposite Fredric March in The Eagle and the Hawk, in which Grant played the most brutal character he was ever asked to perform. Alfred Hitchcock spotted it right away, and exploited Grant's potential as a sinister leading man in the first two films of their collaboration. In their first film together, Suspicion (1941), Hitchcock confronts the audience directly: could this man, this polished movie star, this easy light comedian, be a murderer?

Sunday, December 04, 2022

Cops and Robbers

G-Men (1935)
James Cagney in G-Men (1935)

While I was discussing gangster films with my long suffering partner a couple of nights ago, I asked her to name a famous bank robber off the top of her head. Her response was "Bonnie and Clyde." She could have named John Dillinger, I suppose, or Pretty Boy Floyd, or maybe even D. B. Cooper, but the thing about all of these names is that they are in the past, and all of them have been subsumed into American folklore. There have been countless films about these characters. The lion's share of these people lived during the Great Depression, and one of the reasons that they became famous, became folk anti-heroes of a kind, is because the economic calamity following the Wall Street crash of 1929 undermined the faith in American capitalism. Banks were villains to most folks. For a brief period, the idea that the United States might follow Russia into communism was more than just a leftist fantasy. It's more difficult to name famous bank robbers who worked after the Great Depression, because America successfully engineered a stable capitalist society from the New Deal and demonized bank robbers in films. Apart from D. B. Cooper, who is mostly famous because he was never caught and who remains an enigma, I couldn't name you a bank robber who worked during the last fifty years. Willie Sutton is probably the last great bank robber of the public imagination, mostly because he was famously quoted as robbing banks "Because that's where the money is." It's harder to rob banks these days, and most transactions are electronic anymore, but the twilight of bank robbers as folk heroes happened long before the advent of digital money.

Monday, October 31, 2022

Phone a Friend

I wish The Black Phone (2022, directed by Scott Derrickson) had the same ferocity as Sinister, the director's last horror movie. That film hinted at awful things for its whole length and then made good on those awful things in a way that was not reassuring for the audience as they filed to the exits. The Black Phone hints at awful things, too, but an alert viewer will realize that this is a different kind of dark fantasy film, one where the powerless must find power in themselves to overcome the monster. It's a Twilight-zoney film in which the whispers of other worlds are in contrast with the horrors of the mundane, but it's one that's reassuring in the end in a way that Sinister was not. I don't think I'm giving anything away with this, given the premise and structure of the film. It's a tense suspense film through its entire length, but it's only very occasionally scary.

Monday, October 24, 2022

When the Autumn Moon is Bright...

The Wolf Man (1941)

Every time I revisit The Wolf Man (1941, directed by George Waggner), I envision screenwriter Curt Siodmak upon writing the werewolf's rhyme leaning back in his chair and lighting up a big cigar. He was awfully proud of that bit of doggerel (if you'll pardon the pun). So much so that he puts it in the mouth of seemingly every character poor doomed Larry Talbot meets in the first half of the film. You know the one, right? "Even a man who is pure of heart and says his prayers by night, may turn into a wolf when the wolfsbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright?" You can't miss it. They repeat it for emphasis in the mouths of multiple characters.

The great flowering of horror movies during the early 1930s were seriously curtailed by the ascendance of the production code in 1934. Some of the films from the era went into vaults because they could not comply with the code (Freaks was unseen for 30 years), while others were cut into compliance on re-release, sometimes to the point of defanging them. King Kong survived the cuts well enough. Frankenstein perhaps less successfully (cuts demanded by the Kansas board of censors would have removed over half of the movie). James Whale famously foxed the censors while making The Bride of Frankenstein, complying with the letter of the code but not the spirit. After the Bride, horror movies began to fade, but Universal never forgot the mountain of cash its first wave of horror movies had amassed. And if they had, they were reminded when an LA theater booked a double feature of Dracula and Frankenstein in late 1938 to record crowds. That double feature spread throughout the country and its returns dwarfed the original box office of either film. Suddenly, Universal was back in the monster business. Son of Frankenstein was a success, so the powers that be wanted a new monster to add to the roster, and a new star to play him. They chose Creighton Chaney to be that actor, in part because his father was Lon Chaney, a name with which they could still conjure. They billed Creighton as Lon Chaney, Jr. and improvised a werewolf story around him. The result was The Wolf Man. It wasn't the first werewolf story Universal made--that would be The Werewolf of London six years earlier--but it's the one that assumed a place in the pantheon of the Universal monsters.

Friday, October 21, 2022

You Inherit the Flames

Hellraiser (2022)
Daddy worked his whole life for nothing but the pain
Now he walks these empty rooms looking for something to blame
But you inherit the sins, you inherit the flames
--Bruce Springsteen, Adam Raised a Cain

I don't know if Clive Barker was ever a Catholic, but if he wasn't, he sure expresses some of the baggage of Catholicism. The idea that the slightest slip from the path of righteousness, even if you don't know you've slipped or don't know the rules, will land you in eternal damnation is a thread that runs through Barker's The Hellbound Heart even without the trappings of the church. Barker transmits this theme to the Hellraiser movies more or less intact, though films subsequent to the first two Hellraisers are less rigorous in their exploration of this idea, if they're aware of it at all. There's a queer layer to this, given Barker's sexuality and, um, colorful history working at gay leather clubs in the 1970s. His Goth-bondage demons seem tailored to a queer man's self-loathing, where his demons flog not only himself for his deviance, but everyone around him. Sin, it seems, has collateral damage.

The new version of Hellraiser (2022, directed by David Bruckner) has a different set of sins and a different source of self-loathing for its protagonist, but the idea is largely the same. In the Hellraiser universe's framing, basic needs when taken to extremes will land you in hell, whether it's a need for kinky gay sex or for pharmaceutical kicks. All human needs are addictions of a sort. The sins committed by Hellraiser's explorers of the frontiers of experience are a stand-in for any "sin" you like, however small and trivial. The fallout for the people around an addict is usually more dire than for the people around a self-loathing gay leather boy. So, sure. Why not. But there's a downside to this idea. It takes a property that, for all its flaws, originated as outsider art and frames it as mainstream product. Addiction narratives are mainstream films--everyone in Hollywood makes addiction movies eventually. All queer films, even today, are outsider art. You see the dichotomy, right? And this transcends the relative production values and even the competence of the filmmaking. This film has the most technically competent director who ever came near the series not excluding Barker himself, and production resources that dwarf any previous edition, and yet this fails to pull itself away from its progenitors.

Friday, October 14, 2022

Bride and Doom

[•REC]3: Genesis (2012, directed by Paco Plaza) makes the same "mistake" committed by Halloween III: The Season of the Witch all those years ago: it departs from the tried and true form of a beloved franchise in order to create something new and different. This entry isn't the same variety of grim and apocalyptic one finds in its predecessors. Moreover, it departs from the series' found footage aesthetic after a lengthy prologue, and then has the gall to have a sense of its own absurdity. It laughs at itself. To an audience expecting more of the same from this series, I'm sure it was a disappointment. Me? I kinda dig it. There's something about watching a wedding go off the rails that appeals to me. I'm a hopeless romantic, sometimes.

Monday, October 10, 2022

Sunglasses at Night

I told a friend that Dario Argento's new film, Dark Glasses (2022) strikes me as what you might get if you fed his old film, Cat O' Nine Tails, into an AI filmmaking engine. It would be equally soulless, but maybe that's being unkind. Dark Glasses isn't the same kind of car wreck Argento was making when last we met. Whatever the new film's deficiencies, it is an absolute baller in comparison to his Dracula. Faint praise, I know. For a brief period at the start, I thought the Argento of the early 1970s was behind the camera. The opening sequence is creepier and more suggestive of a world out of joint than the entirety of the director's output this century. But it was not to be...

Friday, October 07, 2022

Childhood Trauma

Invaders from Mars (1986)

In retrospect, Tobe Hooper probably should have walked away from Cannon Films and Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus after the debacle of Lifeforce. Hooper still had cache after directing Poltergeist for Steven Spielberg, and the lingering reputation from the The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but his three pictures for Cannon were career killers. Cannon had a reputation for producing schlock while over-promising on the quality of their films and one has to wonder if that had something to do with the reception for the remake for Invaders from Mars (1986). There was a staggering amount of talent associated with this film, including Hooper, cinematographer Daniel Pearl, screenwriter Dan O'Bannon, special effects masters John Dykstra and Stan Winston, and a cast of familiar faces, even if there were no big, big stars. And the film itself? It's better than I remembered it being. Mind you, I didn't really understand this film when I first saw it when it was in movie theaters. I hadn't seen the original film as a kid, so I didn't feel its wavelength as a children's movie. Nor did I recognize how thoroughly it reconstructed the original film for the 1980s. I did have the feeling that it was a poisoned fruit from a poisoned tree, which is perhaps not really true.

Tuesday, October 04, 2022

Sins of the Fathers

"Henry, your sovereign, Is prisoner to the foe; his state usurp'd, His realm a slaughter-house, his subjects slain, His statutes cancell'd, and his treasure spent; And yonder is the wolf that makes this spoil" -- William Shakespeare, Henry VI part III

The Cursed (2021, directed by Sean Ellis) is a full-bore Gothic that seems more critical of wealth and power than is usual for the genre. I mean, speaking truth to power is baked into the form even going back to its earliest days, but rarely are Gothic works so explicit and up front with the sins that motivate their plots. Unlike more traditional Gothics, it doesn't conceal its sins behind a veil of plot. It is an inheritor of films like The Fog and The Nightingale in which the villains and their sins are laid bare. It turns the xenophobia of so much of the genre on its head, and shows us the true face of evil: rich white men protecting their stolen wealth from the peoples they stole it from. As such, this is a fantasy, because the villains in this movie get their just deserts. Maybe I'm just being cynical.

Sunday, October 02, 2022

Double Double Toil and Trouble

Hocus Pocus 2

October is upon us again and that means horror movies and the October Horror Movie Challenge. The first film I watched was Underwater, which I wrote about when it was in theaters. This was the second.

I was a grown adult when the original Hocus Pocus came out in 1993 and I never had children of my own, so that film was never part of my childhood. I saw it on television one year and charitably decided that it wasn't for me. I wasn't really planning to watch the sequel, newly released to streaming, but it's had pretty good notices--something the original item never got--some of them from people I admire. So in the wee hours of the morning on the first day of October, I clicked play. Hocus Pocus 2 (2022, directed by Anne Fletcher) is considerably better than the first film, at least, as far as I can remember. It's been a while. As kid-friendly spooky shows go, I could get behind this one if I had little ones of my own. Even as a bitter middle-aged woman, I can see its charms. I'm inclined to Halloween candy more than is probably good for me.

Monday, September 05, 2022

Wedding Jitters

The Invitation (2022)

The main villain in The Invitation (2022, directed by Jessica M. Thompson) looks like someone crossed Sean Connery and Udo Kier in a genetics lab, which for a film like this one is like flashing a big red light to warn the heroine (and the audience) to run away as fast as she can. She does not run away, alas, and gets herself ensnared in a Gothic mansion full of creepy aristocrats and even creepier family history. I sometimes wonder if the Gothic as a mode of filmmaking hasn't worn out its usefulness in the age of microchips and LED lights, and this film doesn't make a case for the opposite point of view. But I also wonder if it's just the filmmakers who make use of it. There's plenty of evidence on screen that the latter case is where the rot resides.

Friday, August 26, 2022

The Grant Mystique: Penny Serenade (1941)

Penny Serenade (1941)

On the Wikipedia page for Penny Serenade (1941, directed by George Stevens), there's a short section detailing a recent "AI colorization" of the film. Curious, I took a look. It looks about the same as colorization has looked for a couple of decades, now, which is to say it doesn't look very good at all except for in fleeting moments. It's in the wrong aspect ratio, too. This particular film is a prime victim for this sort of noodling because when the copyright came up for renewal 28 years after its release, Columbia Pictures neglected to renew it. Thus, it fell into the public domain. As a result, its presentation on home video usually has been awful, with countless editions available from fly by night video companies. Public domain is invaluable and necessary, but it is often a haven for philistines and grifters. Most PD versions of Penny Serenade are short five minutes of movie in addition to the usual defects. It's a shabby fate for a film that contains Cary Grant's first Oscar-nominated performance and a performance from co-star Irene Dunne that the actress herself felt was her very best. For what it's worth, the edition from Olive Films is excellent, sourced from primary materials and restoring the entire film. My screen caps for this post come from the Olive disc.

The story one finds in Penny Serenade follows the marriage of Julie Gardiner (Dunne) and Roger Adams (Grant), from their first meeting through tragedy after tragedy in which Julie loses her unborn child in an earthquake in Tokyo and becomes unable to bear another child. They adopt an infant daughter after a close inspection by the state, only to have her die of a fever. Roger loses the newspaper he owns, and the law refuses to allow them to adopt another child due to Roger's insolvency. Pleading with the courts. The shock is too much to bear. We meet them at the very end, as they are prepared to go their separate ways. The flashbacks that tell their story are keyed to music--they first meet in a music store where Julie works--and the film's vignettes are accompanied by well-known songs of the day (hence the title of the film).

Monday, July 18, 2022

The Films of Robert Aldrich: The Dirty Dozen (1937)

The Dirty Dozen (1967)

When I originally started to write about Robert Aldrich in the early days of this blog, I formulated a list of some of Aldrich's main themes and recurring story elements. Aldrich was a true auteur in so far as his private universe is distinctive and consistent across the entire body of his work. Aldrich had contempt for authority, a deep hatred of Hollywood myth-making, and a preference for protagonists who are individualists caught in a suffocating system. I also had the idea--maybe the main idea when I look at his films--that he made Gothics, and not just the pair of psychobiddy films he made in the early 1960s. One of the key films in my thinking is The Dirty Dozen (1967). On the surface it doesn't seem much like a Gothic film. It's a classic "men on a mission" film--at this point half a century later it's probably THE classic "men on a mission" film--which seems far removed from brooding castles and ghosts and madwomen in attics. But let's look at some of the elements of the Gothic: sublimated sexual derangement, confinement as a microcosm where personalities and psychological forces collide, a sense of encroaching doom, characters haunted by past crimes, a big house that is a character unto itself. Many Gothics--maybe even most of them--are psychoanalytic in nature. If we look closely at the elements of The Dirty Dozen, most of these hallmarks are actually there, including the psychoanalytic nature. This is the frame into which Aldrich slips his own private obsessions. The Dirty Dozen is one of the key works on his resume. Even if it hadn't been a gargantuan hit, it would be an important film. It was a gargantuan hit, though. It was the highest grossing film of 1967. Its success enabled Aldrich to form his own production company in order to keep working on more personal projects, at least until he found another gargantuan hit. It took him a while to find that next hit, and he went through The Dirty Dozen's capital--both social and commercial--in due course. But that, as they say, is another story.

Monday, June 27, 2022

The Future is Now

Crimes of the Future (2022)

There's a sense of the world moving on in David Cronenberg's new film, Crimes of the Future (2022). A lot of Cronenberg's films seem like they depict a world on the brink of collapse, but this one seems like it takes place afterwards, rather than on the brink. The director has watched the world tumble over the falls in the decade since his last movie, precipitated by many of the very things that make up the unease and horror in his earlier films: a pandemic, right wing conspiracies, unfettered capitalism, a brain-washing media landscape. The various apocalypses postulated in the director's earlier films are a fait accompli at the present historical moment. In Crimes of the Future the director says, "yeah, all that happened and this is the result: a world in which no one can feel anything anymore. "

Friday, May 27, 2022

A Hymn for the Red Planet

I bought a copy of The War of the Worlds (1953, directed by Byron Haskins) during a recent Criterion Collection sale. When my long-suffering partner saw it in my stack of loot, she said: "You'll be watching that one on your own." The ticking of the Martian war machines gives her nightmares. When I popped it into the player at home, that ominous ticking was the soundtrack for the menu screens. She threw up her hands and walked out of the room after ostentatiously slamming the door to drown out that sound. It's a fair reaction, particularly if you first encountered the film at a young age. It still resonates. Once you've heard it, you never forget it.