Black Sunday (Mario Bava, 1960). This week’s Creature Feature is arguably the most interesting movie I watched all week. I say that, even though I had trouble staying awake (which is appropriate, since Creature Features used to be on in the wee hours, and I frequently fell asleep while watching).
For starters, there are a bunch of different versions, and I’m almost certain the one I watched this week is not the one I grew up watching. The Italian original (La maschera del demonio) is unseen in the States, far as I know. Bava did an English-language version, dubbed, although the leads are English. This was called The Mask of Satan, and is the version I have on DVD. When Bava sold the film to American International Pictures, they re-dubbed it and changed the musical score, calling it Black Sunday. For TV, some other editing was done; this is the version I assume I watched as a kid. Finally (I think), there’s another version called La maschera del demonio that mixes the two soundtracks. Whew!
This was the first feature where Mario Bava got a director’s credit. He directed for another 20 years, and his films had a very distinctive look. He began as a cinematographer (following in the footsteps of his father), and maintained that distinctive look once he became a director by doing the camerawork for most of his films (usually uncredited). They tend to be style-over-substance, probably for the best when filming something like Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs starring Fabian.
There are unforgettable images in Black Sunday, most notably in the opening scene, when Barbara Steele has a mask with nails inside hammered onto her face. That kind of thing sticks with a kid, ya know? Truthfully, the entire picture is full of beautiful imagery (those of us who love Barbara Steele’s unusual look would include her as part of that imagery). Of course, the plot is largely incoherent. The basics are easy enough to follow: a woman burned as a witch comes back two centuries later to get revenge. But you don’t get the feeling Bava cares much about how the narrative gets from one place to another; he just wants it to look good, and he succeeds.
Still, I think this is probably the reason why I fell asleep when I was a kid, and why I fought to keep awake this time around. There’s the gruesome opening, there’s the atmospheric visuals, there’s Barbara Steele … many films have none of these things, so I’m not complaining. But if I’m honest, I have to admit that Black Sunday is kinda boring. It is definitely worth seeing once, and then perhaps watching it every few years once you’ve forgotten just how slow it is. There is an artist at work here, and that’s not often the case with these Creature Features. #738 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10. (Next week’s Creature Feature: Burn, Witch, Burn, an early-60s British film with Janet Blair.)
Cul-de-sac (Roman Polanski, 1966). This is not the Creature Feature of the week, although an adventurous programmer might slip it in when the bosses weren’t looking. (Polanski’s next two films, The Fearless Vampire Killers and Rosemary’s Baby, wouldn’t need such subterfuge.) Polanski seems to be having his version of fun in Cul-de-sac, which isn’t to say it’s a flat-out comedy. It’s a hodgepodge of things, crossing genres, taking chances, never settling for just one thing when four could do just as well. I found the film easier to admire than to like. It’s a bit like what Straw Dogs would look like if Antonioni directed it as a comedy. Donald Pleasence plays Dustin Hoffman, Françoise Dorléac plays Susan George, and Lionel Stander plays the villagers. Of course, the roles are flipped in more than one way; Stander is American and Pleasence is English, for one thing, and both fill fairly stereotypical roles relative to their respective countries. Dorléac reminds us that while her sister Catherine Deneuve may have been The Most Beautiful Woman in the World, Dorléac was arguably the most beautiful woman in the family. Plus, she was good at comedy. #938 on the TSPDT Top 1000 list. 7/10.
The Last Metro (François Truffaut, 1980). In 1980, Catherine Deneuve was still in her Most Beautiful Woman in the World phase (it lasted a couple of decades), which may have somewhat hidden the fact that she was a fine actress. Her work in The Last Metro won her the French equivalent of the Oscar for Best Actress (the film itself won ten César Awards including Deneuve’s, a record that has never been surpassed). The Last Metro is rather odd, in that it’s not very odd at all. It’s a thriller that downplays the thrills and a romance that sneaks up on you … the film that takes place during the Nazi occupation of France, but the slowly-emerging romantic triangle is what seems to interest Truffaut more than anything. (Some critics noted the film’s humor, although since I am humorless, I missed this.) Somehow it all works out. It’s not up to the standards of his finest work, but then, there aren’t many movies up to the standard of Jules and Jim. 8/10.
Paranoid Park (Gus Van Sant, 2007). The blank look that sits constantly on the face of the film’s central character, a skateboarding teenager named Alex, is a perfect expression of the guarded way teenagers often present themselves to the world. Alex has a secret, and the adults have no idea, because they don’t see the variations in his blank demeanor. (Alex’s teenage friends, on the other hand, know something is up.) There isn’t much else to Paranoid Park, though. Once again, Van Sant is simultaneously showy and lo-fi, and it doesn’t add up to much. At least he avoids the judgmental problems of Elephant. Van Sant’s willingness to try different projects is admirable, but for me, at least, the results are hit and miss. Paranoid Park is in the middle. #134 on the TSPDT list of the top 250 films of the 21st century. 6/10. For radically different takes from my own, see Manohla Dargis (here), Kim Nicolini (here), and Amy Taubin’s interview with Van Sant (here).
Dead Poets Society (Peter Weir, 1989). I avoided this movie for more than 20 years because I thought I’d hate it. Well, I didn’t hate it … I even liked the first half. Robin Williams gives (for him) a controlled performance, and it’s fun to see actors like Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawke, and Josh Charles at the starts of their careers. But the film took a melodramatic turn as it progressed, and I lost interest. There’s a love story that doesn’t get enough screen time to justify its presence. Worse, Leonard’s character throws himself into a love of acting that comes out of nowhere; that love leads to conflict with his parents, with tragic results. It might have worked better if the entire picture had been about this character, but as it is, the acting bug hits him too abruptly, making what follows ludicrous. An Oscar winner for best original screenplay (beating Do the Right Thing), and #749 on the TSPDT Top 1000 list. 6/10.
Distant Voices, Still Lives (Terence Davies, 1988). The most honest grade for this one would be “incomplete”, because I was unimpressed, but I also sensed that I might find the film more powerful on a second viewing. It’s an intriguing combination of English kitchen-sink realism and near avant-garde stylings. It is also, to quote one critic, “nigh incomprehensible” (yet moving, they add). If you are like me, you are old-fashioned when it comes to narrative, and so Distant Voices, Still Lives will befuddle at best. But Davies isn’t trying for a straightforward chronological series of events. The connections are emotional, the way they are when we reminisce. I admit I was lost half of the time, but that’s why it might look better to me on a second viewing, since I’d know more about what was going on. I doubt this would ever be a film that I loved, though; while some of the emotions are universal, others come across as purposely insular. This movie will never mean as much to me as it meant to Davies. #362 on the TSPDT Top 1000 list, and voted the 3rd-best British film of all time. A provisional 6/10.
“Duck Amuck” (Chuck Jones, 1953). Daffy Duck’s finest moment. This would make a good companion piece to Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. 10/10.