I recommend The Babadook on a regular basis, especially as Halloween approaches, as I find it a superior horror film. I first saw it the year after it came out, and I'll mostly cut-and-paste what I said about it at the time:
The Babadook is an Australian horror film, the first feature from director/writer Jennifer Kent (an ex-actor). ... You could watch it as a standard horror film about a monster that comes from a book, and it definitely works on that level. But it is also ripe for detailed analysis, particularly from a feminist angle. ... The main character isn’t the titular monster, nor is it the frightened and disturbed young boy who initially seems to be its target. No, this is a movie about a mother’s grief, and [Essie] Davis plays the entire spectrum from holding-it-together to flat-out-losing-it in a moving and believable way. Kent’s eye is remarkable for a first-time director (with excellent work from Polish cinematographer Radek Ladczuk and book designer Alex Juhasz). She also worked hard to draw a strong performance from young newcomer Noah Wiseman, while also doing her best to avoid exploiting the child during emotionally intense scenes. The Babadook is better than a simple plot description might suggest, and I recommend it to most people (as the IMDB notes, it includes “Definite trigger warnings for anyone who had a violent or abusive relationship with parents”, so I can’t recommend it to everyone).
I was reminded of this movie a few months ago when I saw Hereditary. Both films are about grief, with strong performances by the lead actress. I prefer The Babadook, but your mileage may vary.
This one was originally called Dracula, but the title was changed for the U.S. market to avoid confusion with the Bela Lugosi version. (It was also released here on a double feature with The Thing That Couldn't Die.) It was Hammer Films' first of several Dracula movies, and an early example of Hammer Horror, coming a year after The Curse of Frankenstein.
Hammer was a staple of Creature Feature shows when I was growing up. You looked forward to them, because even the worst of them didn't suck the way something like The Corpse Vanishes did. Their Dracula had a lot going for it. Christopher Lee seemed born to play the title role ... eventually he played the Count ten times, seven of those for Hammer. Peter Cushing, another Hammer warhorse, played Van Helsing. The two had also starred in the Frankenstein movie, with Cushing as the Doctor and Lee as the Monster.
Hammer added decent production values to the horror genre, albeit with low budgets. They looked good, especially once we got a color TV. The best ones are the earliest, which were taken seriously both by the filmmakers and critics, at least as far as critics could go with the genre. (Dracula is #896 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.) Eventually, the budgets seemed to be smaller, and a certain camp quality crept in. (I remember watching Dracula Has Risen from the Grave once in a theater where the audience laughed throughout the picture, prompting the man in charge to stop the film and come out to berate the audience.)
Dracula isn't nearly as gory as you might expect. Hammer is known for adding more overt sex to their movies, and while censors in 1958 weren't going to allow much, Lee was clearly a much sexier vampire than Lugosi, and the scenes where he bit buxom women were sexy in ways you didn't see in 1931. There's a story about director Terence Fisher telling one of those actresses, Melissa Stribling, "Just imagine you've had the best sex of your life, all night long!"
The picture is rather slow, to be honest. Lee only appears on the screen for seven minutes. The atmosphere is appropriately unsettling, and Lee and Cushing are great. It's far from the worst Dracula movie you'll ever see. But neither is it a classic.
I'll mention a couple of other Hammer pictures. Quatermass and the Pit (released in the States as Five Million Years to Earth) may be my favorite, and I'm surprised I've never written about it. And there is no better example of how loosening censorship gave Hammer space for more sex than 1970's The Vampire Lovers, which did get a blog post after I bought it on Blu-ray.
A scene from Dracula:
And, for comparison, a chunk of the middle of The Vampire Lovers:
Hereditary (Ari Aster, 2018). Another entry in the "Movie That Is Praised for What It Isn't" category. Hereditary is getting great reviews, and a common thread is that it's not like Saw and its ilk. Richard Roeper: "'Hereditary' is one of those rare and treasured horror films that does not rely on 'Gotcha!' music stings, or rhythmic knocks on the door in the dead of night, or the cat jumping into frame during a tense moment." Justin Chang: "There are none of the gratuitous jump scares or pointless fakeouts that have reduced mainstream horror cinema to so much self-defeating gimmickry." Hereditary is more than just the absence of gratuitous gotchas, and there is a long, fine tradition of horror movies that affect us more by their emotional creepiness than by the standard tricks of the trade. Aster wants to be in their company, but Hereditary isn't up to the likes of Don't Look Now or Rosemary's Baby. Still, I admire his intentions, and I prefer to say the movie is reminiscent of Don't Look Now than to say the movie isn't Saw. There is much to admire in Hereditary, and Toni Collette's performance is impossible to ignore ... some people will think she's over the top, but no more than Jack Nicholson in The Shining. I was reminded of Drag Me to Hell, or rather, I wished I was watching Drag Me to Hell. That movie has fun with the common tropes. There is nothing fun about Hereditary. A better comparison would be The Babadook, and if you get one thing from this review, it should be that you need to watch The Babadook if you haven't already. Hereditary turns grief and family life into a horror show, and that's a pretty good trick. But if you go in expecting Drag Me to Hell, you'll be disappointed.
Tarzan and His Mate (Cedric Gibbons, 1934). Said by the ever-accurate Wikipedia to be "The first major instance of censorship under the Production Code" thanks to a nude swimming scene by Maureen O'Sullivan's body double. The scene didn't use a body double because O'Sullivan was shy ... rather, the double was Josephine McKim, like Johnny Weissmuller an Olympic Gold Medal winner in swimming, thus able to better handle the swimming "ballet". The real raciness comes not from the swim, but from the flimsy outfit O'Sullivan wears through most of the film (the closest thing I can think of to that outfit would be Jenny Agutter's in Logan's Run). There are topless "native" women early in the movie ... there is Weissmuller himself, a strapping, gorgeous athlete who wears even less than O'Sullivan ... there is the matter-of-fact way we understand that Tarzan and Jane sleep together. But what makes your jaw drop, even in 2018, is Jane's damn outfit. It certainly got someone's attention ... the next Tarzan movie, which was definitely post-Code, featured O'Sullivan in a much more modest outfit. Besides O'Sullivan, Tarzan and His Mate offers reasonable action scenes and a cringe-worthy treatment of the jungle natives. It's not as cheesy as most of the future films in the series, which is something.
The Incredible Shrinking Man (Jack Arnold, 1957). An acknowledged classic of 50s sci-fi. My memory was that the special effects were weak, and the philosophical conclusion silly. But I'm glad I gave it another watch, because I was wrong. Sure, the effects are not up to the standards of today, but they work in the context of the movie. We are regularly surprised by the gradual shrinkage of the man, and while his battles with cat and spider might be done better today, I don't think we'd do any more to improve the excitement. As for that "I still exist!" ending, it's not nearly as dumb as I remembered. Grant Williams does a fine job in the title role. The Thing from Another World and Invasion of the Body Snatchers are my two favorite 50s sci-fi movies, but The Incredible Shrinking Man isn't far behind. It's Jack Arnold's best film. #874 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 movies of all time.
Zombieland (Ruben Fleischer, 2009). This is an enjoyable zombie movie, with some of the feel of Edgar Wright's films. The zombies are MacGuffins ... this is actually a road movie, with Woody Harrelson playing the grownup. All four of the main cast are good (including Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, and Abigail Breslin), but it's Harrelson who walks away with the film as a badass with a Twinkie obsession. There's also a great cameo ... most reviews I've read tell you who the person is, but that seems wrong in a spoiler-ish way, so on the off chance you haven't seen this nine-year-old movie, trust me, you'll like the cameo.
Ah, Brian De Palma. It is almost impossible to talk about one Brian De Palma movie without talking about them all. For De Palma elicits extreme reactions from critics ... not that they agree with each other. I find myself in the middle, except I don't ... all I mean is, there are some of his movies I like, and there are some I don't, and I don't think any of his films are classics, nor do I think any of his films are worthless. But there's a big gap nonetheless between his best and his worst.
Since Pauline Kael gives me the tagline for this blog, I should start with her. She was an early and regular champion of De Palma's work ... in my mind, the best example of this is perhaps her review of The Fury, where she favorably compares De Palma to Peckinpah, Hitchcock, Spielberg, Welles, and Scorsese. David Thomson, on the other hand, compares De Palma to Leni Riefenstahl. It may be De Palma's great achievement that both Kael and Thomson's comparisons make some sense.
Where do I stand? I once wrote about Femme Fatale, "the only time this movie exists outside the world of Brian De Palma movies is when it's attaching itself to other movies ... it's never about real life". Dressed to Kill wouldn't exist, at least not as it turned out, if Vertigo didn't exist, and I don't think De Palma shames himself in the comparison (he's never made a movie anywhere near as great as Vertigo, but neither have most directors). The great set piece in The Untouchables doesn't just bring Potemkin to mind, it forces us to make the connection, which doesn't do De Palma any favors, except his version in The Untouchables is still undeniable.
De Palma was on a roll in the 1980s ... Blow Out, Scarface, The Untouchables, Casualties of War ... and Dressed to Kill is as good as any of them. Yet he began the 90s with The Bonfire of the Vanities, and as I look as his filmography, I realize I have never seen a single Brian De Palma movie from that decade, so I was apparently turned off by that point. In the 21st century, I liked Femme Fatale, and found Mission to Mars tolerable, but The Black Dahlia is the worst De Palma movie I have ever seen.
So ... Dressed to Kill. I think the best word to describe this movie (and many of De Palma's films) is "gleeful". De Palma is an expert at drawing reactions out of his audiences. Not everyone is happy about this ... they'll point to something like Angie Dickinson getting brutally slashed to death with a knife as an example of the director's misogyny, or just simple misanthropy. It's not that they are wrong, it's just that De Palma is so gleeful about the way he manipulates us that I often find myself admiring his work, even as I feel bad for liking it. It's unfortunate that Dressed to Kill resorts to transphobia (Sherilyn Connelly: "On a purely cinematic level, you're pretty brilliant ... On the other hand ... I would be perfectly happy if nobody ever watched you again, because you're deeply transphobic. So fuck you, Dressed to Kill.") There is no use denying this. Which is why you can compare De Palma to Welles and Riefenstahl at the same time.
Ironically, given that many people think Brian De Palma's films, especially Dressed to Kill, are so misogynistic, the person who comes off best here is Nancy Allen. As she does in RoboCop (from another controversial director, Paul Verhoeven), Allen brings a pleasing humanity to her acting. Dressed to Kill might be her best movie. (She was married to De Palma at the time, and he wrote the part with her in mind.)
Ultimately, your opinion about Dressed to Kill might reflect your thoughts when Angie Dickinson's character, having just had extramarital sex, finds her partner has a venereal disease. Either you find the use of the trope tired and offensive, or you think it's an eye-winking joke.
Dickinson is brilliant in this dialogue-free set piece:
And the scene to which De Palma plays homage. Note that in Hitchcock, the focus is on the man gazing upon the woman, while with De Palma, our attention is on the woman. We learn nothing about Kim Novak's character here, but we learn a lot about Dickinson's.
Many years ago, when we would have a party at our house, I got the idea of replacing all the light bulbs with colored, low-wattage bulbs. The idea, I would say, was to make the party more festive by adding color. The real reason, I wouldn't say, was that the low watts made it hard to see clearly, which meant I didn't have to be so careful about cleaning the house.
Val Lewton is a legendary film producer. Some years ago, Barry Gifford wrote an appreciation of Lewton that was given the title "The prince of Poverty Row", and that just about gets it. The story has been told enough times that it might actually be true, rather than apocryphal, that Lewton saved RKO in 1942 when he was put in charge of the studio's horror films. RKO, which had lost money on the Orson Welles classics Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, hoped to emulate the success of Universal horror pictures, like the franchises for Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Wolfman. The story goes that RKO gave Lewton $150,000 and the title Cat People, and told him to bring in a short picture that might make a little money. The subsequent film was RKO's biggest box office success for the year, which meant Lewton was given many more chances to work his magic, although as far as I can tell, he was still held to the $150k budget, and still had to work with the titles the studio gave him. (They never forced a plot on him, just a title.)
Lewton is admired for his ability to crank out artful films on a low budget within the studio system. Cat People is an excellent example of this. Ironically, the lack of money meant the movie was filmed in part on leftover sets from Ambersons. Many of Lewton's film are similar visually, and that similarity means Lewton is seen as at least partly the guiding force behind the films, rather than the directors, many of whom worked with him multiple times. I think the power of Cat People comes almost entirely from its use of light and shadow, which grew out of the low budget, so I would be remiss if I didn't mention the name Nicholas Musuraca, an amazingly prolific cinematographer who worked on several of Lewton's classic movies.
The swimming pool scene is often cited as the peak of the imaginative, inexpensive power of Cat People.
The scene was so effective that it was copied quite closely in the 1982 remake, although changing times meant that in the later version, Annette O'Toole managed to get her top off before she dove into the pool.
Cat People is a marvel to look at it, and its ability to frighten through suggestion was trendsetting. But I find myself agreeing with Kael, who wrote, "Lewton pictures aren't really very good, but they're so much more imaginative than most of the horror films that other producers were grinding out at the time that his ingenuity seemed practically revolutionary." I wouldn't go that far ... I think I Walked with a Zombie is very good, indeed. But for all its imagination, Cat People still suffers from things like weak casting (Kent Smith as the male lead, Tom Conway as always seeming not quite as good as his brother George Sanders, and Simone Simon, who admittedly works OK because she comes across as just odd enough to be an actual cat person). I do have a soft spot in my heart for Jane Randolph, whose last credited appearance came in a favorite of mine, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Director Jacques Tourneur helmed other pictures I prefer to Cat People, especially Out of the Past. Cat People is striking and important for film historians. But I don't think it's a classic.
To copy what I said at this time in 2015: “A summary, sorted by my ratings. I tend to save the 10/10 ratings for older classics, so a more recent film that gets 9/10 is very good indeed. Movies that are just shy of greatness will get 8/10. I waste more time than is necessary trying to distinguish 7/10 from 6/10 … both ratings signify slightly better-than-average movies, where if I like them I’ll pop for a 7 and if I don’t, I’ll lay out a 6. I save 5/10 for movies I don’t like, and anything lower than 5 for crud. This explanation comes after the fact … I don’t really think it through when I give the ratings. They skew high because I try very hard to avoid movies I won’t like … if I saw every movie ever made, my average might be 5/10, but I skip the ones that would bring the average down. Anything I give at least a 9 rating is something I recommend ... might sound obvious, but if someone is actually looking to me for suggestions, that limits the list to 15. So I’ve included links to my comments on those movies.”
8: 13th 20th Century Women Andrei Rublev The Dreamers Fat Girl Girlfriends Hail, Caesar! The Handmaiden Hell or High Water The Host I Walked with a Zombie Journey to Italy Klute Lady Bird Melancholia Okja Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid Persepolis Real Women Have Curves The Southerner Terminator 2 Them! Three To Walk Invisible Train to Busan Vengeance
7: 10 Cloverfield Lane 2 Days in Paris The Amazing Mr. X Bad Kids The Bare-Footed Kid Bedlam The Black Cat Blade Runner Doctor Strange Don't Breathe Drug War The Fly The Happiness of the Katakuris Gimme Shelter High Noon Ip Man 2 Jesse James Johnny Guitar Lifeline The Lobster Love Actually Marshall My Night at Maud's The Panic in Needle Park A Place in the Sun Punch-Drunk Love Road to Morocco The Set-Up Some Came Running Spielberg Stalag 17 Stalker The Thing To Catch a Thief Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives The Unknown Village of the Damned Wanda Wonder Woman
6: The Best Offer Biker Boyz Colossal Youth Cop Car Genocide Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Guess Who's Coming to Dinner The Haunted Strangler In the Heart of the Sea The Intervention Jesus' Son The Mad Monk The Maltese Falcon (1931) The Mirror Rudderless Shoot 'Em Up The Time Travelers The Vampire Lovers
5: Return of the Fly A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop Zabriskie Point
4: Anything Goes The Ghost Galleon The Screaming Skull
Two films, one a horror film from 1960, the other a recent documentary called The Bad Kids (Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, 2016). This was recommended by a friend who lives about five miles from the high school where the movie was filmed. Black Rock High School is a continuation school for troubled kids ... it's clear from the start that "Bad Kids" is meant ironically, they aren't actually bad. The style is a hybrid of cinéma vérité and more artsy documentary techniques. The star is the school's principal, Vonda Viland, who has a seemingly bottomless fund of caring that has only a little tough love. While the film looks at several students, a few get extra focus ... you might say they are the co-stars. You can't help but be affected by the lives of these kids, trying to improve their lives, lives that are impossibly hard. But despite the many scenes of the kids exposing their most raw emotions, we never really get to know them beyond the basics: he's the junkie musician, they're the teenage parents, she's the abused daughter. There is something universal about them ... I never came close to their level of suffering, yet I found myself thinking back to my own high school days and sympathizing with their plight. But the problems that landed these kids at Black Rock (poverty, family situations, drugs) are mostly just mentioned, as if the individual struggles are more important than the social milieu that fosters those struggles. And Viland is simply presented as a force for good in the lives of the students ... there are hints at what drives her, but they are never more than hints. I also wonder just how happy the kids were to be in the film in the first place. Does Joey, the talented musician who likes Voltaire but has a meth-head mother who drives her son into the same drug pit, enjoy having his personal troubles presented on film, as something to illuminate Black Rock for the viewers? The Bad Kids is effective as far as it goes, but it might have benefitted from a longer running time, perhaps even a multi-part television series. 7/10.
The other request was Village of the Damned (Wolf Rilla, 1960). This was an adaptation of The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham, starring George Sanders as Professor Zellaby. The Damned of the title are Bad Kids, born after an unexplained event causes several women to become pregnant at the same time. The children are born premature, grow at an alarming rate, and develop extrasensory mind techniques. They work as a group, they have creepy-looking eyes, and they are up to no good. Zellaby, who is the "father" of one of the kids, wants to learn more about their extraordinary abilities. There is little attempt to make the kids serve as stand-ins for regular troubled youth. Instead, we see them get inside the mind of a grownup to make him kill himself with a rifle. The solution is a bit more extreme than that practiced by Vonda Viland ... hearing that the Soviets have solved a similar problem by nuking the kids, Zellaby duplicates their "success" by blowing up all of the kids in his village (and sacrificing himself in the process). The kids leave quite an impression on the audience ... 50+ years later, my wife and I still remembered those creepy eyes. And Barbara Shelley, the immortal scream queen of Hammer Studios, is Mrs. Zellaby ... she doesn't have much to do, but it's always nice to see her. Finally, a special shoutout to Martin Stephens, who plays the creepiest of the kids. 7/10.
No one expects Return of the Fly to be any good. For one thing, no one expected The Fly to be any good, although it surprised a lot of people. The reason for a sequel was obvious ... The Fly grossed $3 million on a $700k budget. It was clear that there would be no point in making a sequel without Vincent Price, and when he saw the first draft of the script, he was impressed and signed on.
But this wasn't like The Terminator, where James Cameron showed he could make money on a budget of $6.4 million and so spent more than $100 million on the sequel. No, the powers that be at 20th Century Fox decided that Vincent Price should be good enough to make a profit. So the script was revised to make the film cheaper (too late, I guess, for Price to opt out). No one other than Price returned from the first film. The Fly was in color, but Return of the Fly was in black-and-white. And when Return of the Fly was released, it was placed on a double-bill with The Alligator People.
There were the usual "let's laugh at this cheap movie" things. The sequel took place 15-20 years after the first, and it was written so that the sets from The Fly could be used again. There was no real attempt to make the film look like time had passed ... Price didn't look any different, clothes and cars were the same. Brett Halsey, a handsome fellow and not a bad actor, played the boy from the first movie. And most of the plot was just a remake, rather than a sequel, to the first, i.e. man gets caught in transporter with a house fly.
And the Fly Head on top of Halsey (to be more accurate, on top of a stunt man) looked ludicrous, a real problem because we saw much more of the head than we had in the original. Not to mention Halsey had a Fly Head, a Fly Hand, and a Fly Foot, but when we saw the little fly of "Help meeee!" fame, it had Halsey's head but its own claw and foot.
Yet somehow, it works on a basic level. There's an attempt at a plot involving skullduggery, and really, no matter how cheap, there's something icky about becoming part man, part fly.
But I don't want to go too far. It's not very good, and there's no real reason to watch it as long as The Fly is out there. 5/10.