geezer cinema: beast (baltasar kormákur, 2022)

Beast is a so-so movie, and the decision when writing about it is whether to focus on what works or what doesn't. If I talk first about what's good, it will sound as if I liked it more than I actually did. If I talk first about what's not so good, it will sound like I didn't like it at all.

So ... to the good. Idris Elba is always a good thing, and here is in a mode we don't usually see: he's scared. He plays a widowed doctor who takes his two daughters to South Africa, where their late mother grew up. Elba and the two actresses playing his daughters (Iyana Halley and Leah Sava Jeffries) make a believable family, trying to put their lives back in order. The titular beast is also great, and the CGI is seamless ... you forget it's not a real lion. It's also nice that the Beast isn't an alien from outer space or a mutant created in a laboratory. It's just a lion, big, pissed off, but a lion nonetheless, and someone even scarier as a result.

And yet I didn't care for the movie. Part of the problem lies in those daughters. It's completely unfair of me to complain that their vocal fright at their predicament is annoying ... I'd be just as scared or more so ... but honestly, as some point I just wished the lion would eat those damn kids. Also, to establish the cranky independence of the elder daughter, she is constantly doing dumb stuff that puts her in danger. This adds to the thrills, but it also makes her character seem pretty stupid (when she clearly is not).

Beast is by the numbers, and is perfectly satisfactory as a Saturday afternoon time waster at home on the couch. I won't say more.

geezer cinema: jaws (steven spielberg, 1975)

Yes, again. The selling point this time was an new IMAX edition of the film. It was definitely worth it ... the sound in particular was awesome. Here is an excerpt from the last time I wrote about it, three years ago:

Pauline Kael told the following anecdote. "While having a drink with an older Hollywood director, I said that I’d been amazed by the assurance with which Steven Spielberg, the young director of Jaws, had toyed with the film frame. The older director said, 'He must never have seen a play; he’s the first one of us who doesn’t think in terms of the proscenium arch. With him, there’s nothing but the camera lens.'"

I thought about that latter quote while watching Jaws again. I'm not positive I understand the point, and it's likely we don't see the revolutionary nature of Spielberg's work because in the last 44 years, it's become the norm. Still, let me give it a try. Spielberg blocks his scenes for the camera, not for the stage. He uses the camera as an aid in that blocking. He doesn't simply tell the actors where to stand ... he tells them where to move within a shot, and then moves the camera to solidify what he wants on the screen. Sometimes you notice what he is doing, but other times, he makes what we are watching seem "natural", as if no one was actually directing. His skill at changing points of view allows the audience to feel a part of first one character and then another, along with the occasional omniscient angle. In the case of Jaws, credit is due to editor Verna Fields, but often, it seems that Spielberg is editing in the camera so there is nothing left to do in the editing room.

Jaws is one of four Spielberg films I consider classics, along with Close Encounters of the Third Kind (my favorite), Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T. Yet Jaws also changed movie history in what seems to me to be unfortunate ways. As Wikipedia notes, "Jaws was the prototypical summer blockbuster, regarded as a watershed moment in motion picture history, and it won several awards for its music and editing. It was the highest-grossing film until the release of Star Wars in 1977. Both films were pivotal in establishing the modern Hollywood business model, which pursues high box-office returns from action and adventure films with simple high-concept premises, released during the summer in thousands of theaters and heavily advertised." Jaws is a great film, and it wasn't the last great one of Spielberg's career. But this movie marks the beginning of the end of the "New Hollywood" era that began with Bonnie and Clyde. There have been many great American movies since Jaws, and however you define "New Hollywood", it still had plenty of life. But I've spent a lot of my life blaming Star Wars for what happened to Hollywood, and it's only fair to note that Jaws was there first.

"the telephone" (mario bava, 1963)

Many years ago, I wrote about a favorite horror movie from my youth, Black Sabbath. It was a 3-part anthology, hosted by Boris Karloff, who also appeared in one of the stories. I'm going to quote myself at length here:

One of the stories, “The Telephone,” is about a bisexual call-girl, Rosy, who keeps getting phone calls from her ex-pimp Frank, who has escaped from jail. Frightened, she calls her lesbian former lover Mary … they’re estranged, but Rosy has no one else to turn to, so her ex comes to her apartment. She gives Rosy a tranquilizer to help her sleep, then sits at a desk and writes a confession. She was the one making the calls, impersonating Frank … she heard Frank had broken out of jail and thought to scare Rosy, knowing Rosy would call her and she could come to her aid, bringing them together again. While she is writing her confession, Frank sneaks in, strangles her, then tries to kill Rosy. But Rosy has a knife under her pillow, and she kills Frank instead.

If you saw Black Sabbath when you were young, you might not remember this one in quite the same way. Turns out the entire episode was reworked for the American market. The lesbianism was removed … the estrangement now comes because Mary was with Frank and Rosy took him from her. Rosy was no longer a call-girl. Mary doesn’t impersonate Frank … Frank is the one calling Rosy, which is scary, because Frank died some time before this. The letter Mary writes, her “confession,” is now an admission that she will be calling a shrink for her friend, who is clearly deluded since she thinks she’s getting phone calls from a dead man. Frank shows up, kills Mary, Rosy kills Frank … and we get one last phone call, as Frank tells Rosy she can’t kill him because he’s already dead, and he’ll be calling her every night.

I go into such detail because the changes were so huge, yet were pretty seamless, i.e. I had no idea all of these years that I was seeing a different film entirely. Since the American version was dubbed, it was easy to change the dialogue to fit the new version. What was originally a noirish tale of love and revenge became a horror story about a ghost. As luck would have it, the version I saw was on MGM HD … and guess which version they have the rights to? Yep … I still haven’t seen the original.

Well, it turns out Kanopy has the original, called I tre volti della paura ("The Three Faces of Fear"). And I had recently recorded the film, and it was sitting on our DVR taking up space. So I decided to watch "The Telephone" in the original, and then again in the doctored American version. The above explanation is quite accurate. The American version also had a different soundtrack, provided by Les Baxter, that was more intrusive. Both versions had elements of suspense, but it was nice to finally see the original, with subtitles and its different plot.

african-american directors series: nope (jordan peele, 2022)

I guess after three successful movies, we've moved beyond the part where the co-star from a popular TV sketch show has become one of our most anticipated directors. Jordan Peele (Get Out, Us), is on a roll, working in the horror genre but never limiting his options. There is so much going on in Nope that people will be writing senior theses on it until the next Peele movie. But, as with his other films, Nope also works on the surface ... you don't need a degree in film studies and African-American history to like it. But it doesn't hurt to have something extra when the inevitable analysis comes.

Peele is not particularly specific about the deep dives in his movies. You could say he's vague. Or he just likes filling Nope with Easter eggs. It's an interesting approach, making a movie that is enjoyable and scary while leaving itself open to detailed examinations after the fact. I can imagine people wanting to see it more than once, which I think is unusual for a horror film ... you can only be scared for the first time once. The result is a film that is filled with good parts (including the acting and cinematography). It runs a bit long ... each of Peele's movies has been longer than the previous one (Nope is almost half-an-hour longer than Get Out), and while I understand Peele wanting to stuff all of his good ideas into his film, Get Out is not just his shortest movie, it's his best.

But I complain too much. Nope is another fine movie from Jordan Peele, a step up from Us, which was pretty good itself. Peele is now 3-for-3.

film fatales #145: bird box (susanne bier, 2018)

Bird Box has an unusual pedigree for a horror film. Danish director Susanne Bier was behind the Oscar-winning In a Better World and the Emmy-winning series The Night Manager. Bird Box is not your standard horror film; at times it seems a bit embarrassed about its genre, as if too many scares would be unseemly. The premise is good (people across the globe start committing suicide), and the beginning setup is strong. But things peter out rather quickly once the main characters gather together in a large house to protect themselves from whatever is out there (it's not explained, but if you look at "it", you see something marvelous and you kill yourself). Much of what follows is more a study of disparate people forced together than it is a horror movie. Which would be fine, but the characters aren't particularly interesting. Bier calls on a non-chronological presentation so she can fast-forward on occasion to the exciting stuff, perhaps because that's the only way to keep us wary, the way a good horror film does.

Plus there's a problem with the casting. Sandra Bullock is her usual fine self, but she plays a pregnant woman who eventually has her baby. Admittedly, Bullock looks younger than her at-the-time 54 years old, but not that much younger. It's not even a plot point, where we worry in part because she is having a child so late. No, it's just there, as if we won't notice.

The casting is good. Besides Bullock, there's Trevante Rhodes from Moonlight, and John Malkovich and Sarah Paulson and Jacki Weaver, as well as Lil Rel Howery and Machine Gun Kelly and BD Wong and Pruitt Taylor Vince and Parminder Nagra. To be honest, it's a bit surprising that such a cast and such a fine director don't make for a more lively movie. I kept thinking of the Quiet Place films, which are proudly frightening. You are scared shitless watching those movies, while Bird Box, with its intriguing premise, only offers scares in bits and pieces.

trilogy of terror (dan curtis, 1975)

This is the twenty-eighth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 7th annual challenge, and my third time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", and last year's at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21"). Week 28 is called "Anthology Film Week":

Wanna feel like you're getting your money's worth? Just watch an anthology movie! You're usually guaranteed at least three stories within one running time, though it's up to you to decide if it's better than the sum of its parts.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen anthology film.

The choices suggested in the above list stretched the concept of "anthology" a bit. Among the choices were D.W. Griffith's Intolerance, which tells four interlocking stories simultaneously, and Godard's Vivre sa vie, which has episodes but it not what I would call an anthology.

Trilogy of Terror was a TV movie that aired on the ABC Movie of the Week. That series had a few memorable showings ... Spielberg's first feature, Duel, was a Movie of the Week, as was Brian's Song, with James Caan and Billy Dee Williams. Trilogy of Terror came near the end of the Movie of the Week run. It teamed Dan Curtis, who created Dark Shadows, writer Richard Matheson (I Am Legend), who wrote the three stories adapted for the movie, and Karen Black, nominated for an Oscar for Five Easy Pieces, who was a busy actor in 1975, also appearing in The Day of the Locust and Nashville.

A lot of anthology movies are remembered for one episode in particular. Spirits of the Dead, a late-60s anthology of Poe stories directed by Fellini, Malle, and Vadim, is a standout primarily for Fellini's segment, Toby Dammit, starring Terence Stamp. Trilogy of Terror is no different in this regard ... the first two episodes are completely forgettable, but the third has become a cult classic. In it, Black (who stars in all three segments) plays a woman, Amelia, who buys a Zuni fetish doll as a present for her boyfriend. The doll comes to life and terrorizes Amelia. It's a combination of the claustrophobic setting in Amelia's apartment, concise editing, and Black's appropriate over-acting that makes it so memorable. I'm pretty sure I didn't see it at the time, but that little doll seemed to be everywhere, meaning I thought I'd seen it even though I'd likely only seen commercials for the film.

The plot of the Amelia chapter is ludicrous, but that rarely matters in horror, does it? It's reputation is exaggerated, but it's worth seeing, and it is so much better than the other two segments that it would be nice if you could just watch that final third.

manos: the hands of fate (harold p. warren, 1966)

This is the eighteenth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 7th annual challenge, and my third time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", and last year's at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21"). Week 18 is called "One-and-Done Week":

At least no one can say they didn't try. Though the reason behind some of these single directorial filmographies may be apparent upon viewing, there are certainly a number of filmmakers who left us wanting more after just one outing. A fun, grab-bag experiment.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film by a director who has only directed one film. Here is a smaller list with focus on notable names, and here is a larger compendium.

The story goes that Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway were fishing together, and Hawks told Hemingway he could make a good movie out of Hemingway's worst book, which Hawks said was To Have and Have Not. The resulting film was a hit. Maybe it came from a bad novel, but it had Howard Hawks as a director. It starred Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, with a supporting cast of everyone from Walter Brennan to Hoagy Carmichael.  At one point, William Faulkner came in to work on the script. Even coming from a poor source, Hawks and Warner Brothers could produce something fun.

Some 20 years later, Sterling Silliphant, who had written mostly for television and who later won an Oscar for Best Screenplay, met a man named Harold P. Warren. Warren, an insurance and fertilizer salesman, bet Silliphant he could make a horror movie all on his own. Silliphant took up the bet. Now, Warren wasn't Howard Hawks. Warner Brothers wasn't bankrolling the affair (Warren got the money together himself, eventually getting $19,000). With such a low budget, he couldn't pay the cast or the crew, so he gave them a cut of the hoped-for profits. Warren also saved money by directing, writing, producing, and starring in the film. With no budget for cast or crew, Warren wasn't going to get Walter Brennan or Hoagy Carmichael, so the rest of the cast was culled from local talent. The result, Manos: The Hands of Fate was no To Have and Have Not ... instead, it regularly makes Worst Movie Ever lists.

It was the only movie Warren ever directed ... I'm pretty sure it was the only movie any of the people associated with it ever made. It is godawful. It's not worth the time to list everything that is wrong with the movie. It's impossible to see any vision that Warren might have had, the way Ed Wood movies, bad as they were, often were recognizably Ed Wood movies. There isn't a single moment worth watching.

The film was mostly forgotten ... heck, it only had a few local screenings in 1966. But then it turned up as an episode on Mystery Science Theater 3000, and it became an "instant" cult classic. Even if you are not a fan of MST3K, you'll probably find their version more watchable than the original, Because the original was just that bad.

the ghost of yotsuya (nobuo nakagawa, 1959)

This is the eighth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 7th annual challenge, and my third time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", and last year's at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21"). Week 8 is called "J-Horror Week":

From Wikipedia:

"Japanese horror (also known as J-horror) is horror fiction arising from popular culture in Japan, generally noted for its unique thematic and conventional treatment of the horror genre differing from the traditional Western representation of horror. Mediums in which Japanese horror fiction is showcased include literature, film, anime, video games, and artwork. Japanese horror tends to focus on psychological horror, tension building (suspense), and supernatural horror, particularly involving ghosts (yūrei) and poltergeists. Other Japanese horror fiction contains themes of folk religion such as possession, exorcism, shamanism, precognition, and yōkai."

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen J-Horror film.

Yotsuya Kaidan has been called the most famous Japanese ghost story of all time, dating back to its first appearance as a kabuki play in 1825. It has been made into numerous films, starting in 1912, and Nakagawa's version is often considered the best. Nakagawa directed more than 100 movies in his career, including several horror films in the late-50s/early-60s. I came to The Ghost of Yotsuya as a beginner ... for me, it was just another Japanese horror movie, since I didn't have the cultural context the story carries with Japanese audiences. It was occasionally hard to follow, but in a good way ... it added to the supernatural elements in the film.

There are murders from the start, but the ghosts only emerge gradually. Much of the film is interesting, but without the horror aspect I expected. It's almost a character study for much of its running time. But when the ghosts come out, the supernatural horror moves to the front, building on what has come before. There is a visual splendor whenever the film moves outdoors, but most of the time, we're inside with the characters.

The Ghost of Yotsuya might appeal more to an arthouse audience than to one looking for gore and horror, but it succeeds on either level.

Among the choices of others for the Challenge was Kuroneko.

the raven (lew landers, 1935)

This is the fifth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 7th annual challenge, and my third time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", and last year's at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21"). Week 5 is called "Universal Monster Week":

The originators of the form here in American horror, the Universal Monster series offers up...scares? Well, they used to, anyway. For the most part, they're now fun novelties to look back upon and maybe even poke fun at if you're into that sort of thing.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Universal Monster movie.

There are a couple of Universal Monster films that are legit classics ... for me, the two James Whale/Boris Karloff pictures Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein top the list. There are other good ones, and at the least, Universal provided a base that ensured even the lesser pictures were OK. The Raven is one of those lesser movies, and to be honest, it's only borderline OK.

The plot is silly, designed solely to stuff the name Edgar Allan Poe into the picture. Bela Lugosi plays a deranged doctor with a Poe obsession, and that's pretty much the extent of Poe's influence on the movie.  Lugosi's doctor has recreated some of the torture devices featured in Poe's stories, most notably one from "The Pit and the Pendulum". Boris Karloff plays an escaped murderer who, via silly plot shenanigans, is forced to do Lugosi's billing (the doctor has a name, but face it, the characters are essentially "Lugosi" and "Karloff"). Some of the frights are scary enough, and the movie only lasts a minute longer than one hour, so it's not a burden to watch it. But Lugosi's hammy overacting is worse than usual, overshadowing Karloff's usual touching portrayal of a monstrous person. There is nothing here to excite anyone other than Universal completists.

 Other Challenge choices included The Incredible Shrinking Man.

revisiting the shining (stanley kubrick, 1980)

I've written a lot about Stanley Kubrick over the years, and what I've said can be easily summarized: he was great through Dr. Strangelove, started to fall off with 2001, and was erratic after that, nowhere near as great as his reputation. One thing I hadn't written about was The Shining, so I gave it another look.

I'd say it was better than I remembered, but I don't remember thinking poorly of it in the past. There are iconic moments, and a couple of them still work. It takes a while to get to the horror, but it certainly delivers in the second half. I don't think it's a classic, but it's a good movie.

The score by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind is very effective, and is one of the reasons the movie works as well as it does. Kubrick movies always look good, and The Shining is no exception ... Kubrick and cinematographer John Alcott make The Overlook Hotel ominous in a good, horror movie way. Garrett Brown, inventor of the Steadicam, gets a lot of use out of his invention, most memorably when little Danny is riding his Big Wheel around the hotel.

The acting is variable, as is true too often with Kubrick. Danny Lloyd, who played the kid, was only 6 years old, but his performance is the best in the movie. There are stories told that Kubrick protected the little tyke by never letting him know he was in a horror movie ("it's a drama, kid!"). If that is true, it's one of the few times I can think of where Kubrick looked out for his actors. Jack Nicholson is well-remembered for this film, but I think it's one of his lesser performances. It's true that Jack Torrance is going nutty, so Nicholson's overacting can be explained away. But a key flaw with the movie is that Jack seems a bit off from the first time we meet him, and he's over the top soon afterwards. If we are to accept the malevolence of the Hotel, Jack's descent into madness should be gradual, but watching it this time, I felt like Jack was pretty crazy before he got to the hotel.

And then there is Shelley Duvall. I liked her in many of her roles. I think she's awful in The Shining, but I'm not ready to blame her for that. As the character is conceived, Wendy Torrance, like her husband, is a bit off from the beginning. In Jack's case, it's burgeoning madness, in Wendy's case, it's an extremely neurotic interaction with the world. I'd be scared, too, if my mad husband was chasing me around with an ax, but Wendy is never "normal" ... Kubrick never lets us see what Wendy might have been like before Jack and the Overlook. Add to this the tales of Duvall's traumas making the film, and you have something disturbing in a way that goes beyond horror. (See the Hollywood Reporter article/interview "Searching for Shelley Duvall: The Reclusive Icon on Fleeing Hollywood and the Scars of Making ‘The Shining’".)

I don't know. If The Shining were just another horror film, I'd say it benefits from Lloyd's performance, the atmosphere of the Hotel, the music, and the excitement of the final hour or so. It's a decent horror movie, not as good as more recent efforts like Let the Right One In or The Babadook, to name two examples, but with enough scares and quality to warrant another look if you haven't seen it for a while. But the reputation of The Shining seems to be that it is a great movie by a great director, and I can't agree with either of those opinions. It's #84 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time, so I'm clearly in the minority (it is, in fact, only Kubrick's 5th-highest ranking film on that list).