There is, floating on the waves created in the Los Angeles film community by the announcement of the possible cessation of the film program at Los Angeles Count Museum of Art (which has, for the time being, being granted a stay of execution), a barrel lined with silver and full of good news for filmgoers seeking alternatives to yet another Oscar-baiting autumn. Truisms of capitalism, like the elimination of one’s competition opening up a greater percentage of the marketplace to the survivors, don’t exactly tell the whole story in the revival movie landscape, at least as it is configured here in Los Angeles. After all, this is not Kurt Russell vs. Jack Warden in a battle to drive the other used car lot/repertory cinema out of business so that the surviving dealership/screen will be the only one on which you can buy/see that 1976 piece of shit Buick/Taxi Driver-Mean Streets double feature. As sympathetic and curious audiences tend to flow from one venue to the next, there’s a community feeling built around the passing on of high and low cinema to unfamiliar new generations as well as old friends of film history. When one or more venues do well, it serves the heightened profile in the general community, as well as for those already in the know, to generate word and anticipation about what is going on not just at one theater, but on the landscape as a whole. The unspoken, unofficial goal is to create, if you’ll forgive me, a true cinefamily of moviegoers throughout the Los Angeles area, a network of invested, excited, interactive viewers who see these theaters not only as exhibition venues for all the distant corners of cinephilia, mainstream and obscure, favorite, forgotten and failed, but also places of refuge from the dull, insistent rhythms of Hollywood release schedules.
How nice it was this past Friday night, for example, to not think twice about whether or not to check out the meager pickings among the weekend openings, but to instead be able to soak up a double feature on witchcraft and Satanism consisting of a 1947 Danish masterwork and a twisted 1928 “documentary” about witchcraft and devil worship that looks for all the world like a lurid Goya or a carving depicting Satanic rites come to hellish life. If I thought for a minute that cinema night life began and ended with the picture ads and listing for theater chains in the Los Angeles Times Calendar section, I’d have missed out on an unnerving, enriching and eclectic night at the movies.
With that in mind, I want to try to create an overview of just what the lucky Los Angeles viewer has at her or his fingertips during the remaining days of September and through the month of October (And just ask anybody who knows about this scene and doesn’t live here, even New Yorkers, if you don’t believe we’re lucky.) I’m even going to throw in some titles on the studio fall release schedule for compare and contrast purposes, of course, but also to reassure anyone who might believe that have some crusading desire to put down or deemphasize Hollywood offerings. (I can’t imagine anyone who has read even one post of this blog before today harboring such a delusion, but I suppose it’s possible.) I do apologize for not having this piece ready a week earlier, so as to make more mention of some of the great offerings that have already passed by in September. I was deep into writing my original piece last Sunday night and, because of distractions and frustration and my own blurry-headedness, I accidentally deleted it. Arrrgh. Then yesterday, when I probably should have been doing something a little safer (like writing), I instead took my daughters to a water park while the Mrs. opted for a matinee of District 9, and I ended up with a sore rib and a swollen, banged-up knee after losing my floatie and tumbling head over heels down a seemingly endless tube of torture called “Tiki Falls.” (Something fell, but it wasn’t Tiki.) So there went my Saturday night writing session, lost in favor of watching a Dodger game while practicing shallow breathing with my leg propped up, a package of frozen peas mashed against my kneecap. At this rate, if I finish this look at September before September actually passes I’ll feel I achieved something worth achieving. Onward!
Since LACMA is fresh on the mind, let’s start on the Miracle Mile and see about the kind of resource to world cinema we could find ourselves missing come next September, should the museum draw the curtain on its cinema program. Currently running at the Bing Theater is a series from the award-winning Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo in conjunction with the exhibition Your Bright Future: 12 Contemporary Artists from Korea. The series, entitled Cigarettes and Alcohol: Eight Film s by Hong Sang-soo, began this past weekend with screenings of the director’s latest film, Like You Know It All, as well as The Day a Pig Fell into the Well (1996), Woman on the Beach (2006), and Woman is the Future of Man (2004). The series on Hong, whose films, according to LACMA’s program notes, “have the precision and sly wit of Rohmer, the attentive gaze of Ozu, the pervasive alienation of Antonioni, and mordant flourishes worthy of Buñuel,” continues Friday, September 18, with Turning Gate (2002), Hong’s biggest Korean box-office hit, at 7:30 p.m., followed by Tale of Cinema (2005) at 9:40 p.m. Saturday brings the series o a close with The Power of Kangwon Province (1998) at 5:00 .m., followed by the Los Angeles premiere of Night and Day (2008) at 7:30 p.m.
LACMA also extends its look at Korean cinema to include other forces in film from the East by making available rare screenings of two classics of Asian cinema. The final film from Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu, An Autumn Afternoon (1962), depicts the dignified resignation of a elderly man to the modernization and dehumanization of the society around him. It screens Friday September 25 at 7:30 p.m. The next evening, September 26, brings to LCAMA, courtesy of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office of Los Angeles, a brand-new 35mm print to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s masterful epic A City of Sadness (1989), the story of a single family set against the most chaotic period in Taiwan's history: a four-year period that witnesses the final days of Japanese occupation, chaotic mass migrations from the mainland, and the rise of martial law. It screens at 7:30 p.m.
LACMA’s traditional Tuesday afternoon matinee series is in full swing as well, with terrific offerings like Michael Curtiz’s The Sea Wolf (1941), with a screenplay by Robert Rossen and starring Edward G. Robinson, Ida Lupino and John Garfield (Sept. 15); Charles Walters’ The Glass Slipper (1955), a musical adaptation of Cinderella starring Leslie Caron, Michael Wilding and Keenan Wynn (Sept. 22); and a blind Audrey Hepburn beset by drug smugglers Richard Crenna and Alan Arkin who mean her no pleasantries in Terence Young’s 1967 adaptation of Wait Until Dark.
For more details on these programs, visit the website for the LACMA Film Series schedule.
Currently underway a little further toward the ocean, at the Billy Wilder Theater inside the Armand Hammer Museum in Westwood, the UCLA Film and Television Archive has an excellent overview entitled African American Film Pioneers. According to UCLA’s liner notes written for this program, pioneers like writer-directors Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams were forging ahead where no man of their color had ever worked, creating subtle and complex portrait of black social life where only stereotypes and indignity had existed before (and continued to exist alongside their efforts. But by mid-century, the dream of a black-controlled cinema fostered by Micheaux, Williams and the many other writers and actors, including cowboy star Herb Jeffries, who shared this vision had fallen prey to market forces and the production, distribution and exhibition of African American films became effectively white-controlled for some time afterward. “African American Film Pioneers” features rare prints, including some recent restorations, in celebration of the African American pioneers who had made a decisive difference in the development of a black perspective in film history.
This past weekend featured glimpses into an African–American film past including Micheaux’s Murder in Harlem (1935), Within Our Gates (1920) and Body and Soul (1925), the latter starring Paul Robeson, and Spencer Williams’ The Blood of Jesus (1941). And this past Monday UCLA offered up an intriguing a Micheaux/Williams double header. The first, Oscar Micheaux’s Birthright (1938), the director’s second adaptation of T. S. Stribling’s novel (after a silent version in 1924) concerns the struggle of a Harvard graduate to found a school for Black children in his Southern hometown. Starring Laura Bowman, Tom Dillon, Columbus Jackson, Birthright is perhaps Micheaux’s most politically critical and engaged movie. Rounding out the bill was Spencer Williams’ The Girl in Room 20 (1949), which follows a young woman (Geraldine Brock) on a difficult journey moving from her rural Southern home into the less welcoming environment of a Northern city.
That’s a lot to have already missed, but there are many treats and rarities still to come in this series. Saturday, September 19, marks a departure in the African-American Film Pioneers from the stark urban melodramas and social realism of the series initial entries, emphasizing the versatility of director Spencer Williams, who demonstrates his range and his light touch with two genial comedies. The first, Juke Joint (1947), stars Williams himself as one of a pair of con men who take rooms in a boarding house while impersonating two actors and end up coaching the landlord’s daughter for an upcoming beauty pageant. The writer of the liner notes for UCLA’s program assures us that the movie is “hilarious” and that “the broadly-drawn characters are as lovable as figures from a Eudora Welty short story.” But Frank Miller on the Turner Classic Movies site suggests that although the movie captures the spirit of African-American film of the time “using a loosely constructed plot as an excuse for comic scenes and musical numbers,” he also notes that the movie typified the problems that beset African-American, or “race” films as the dream of a black-created cinema began to fade from view in the post-war era. Says Miller: “the film's low budget and largely untrained cast were typical of the later race films, which had begun to wear out their welcome with critics in the African-American newspapers. Even the most generous reviewers found the picture's flat acting and flubbed lines (the budget was too low for re-takes) hard to ignore. Far from an alternative to Hollywood's stereotyped depiction of black Americans, the film simply perpetuated the images already rife in the white media. Moreover, the practice in many race films of casting light-skinned blacks in the leading roles and dark-skinned blacks as villains and buffoons was beginning to draw fire in the ethnic press.” As ether a simple entertainment or a painful historical record, Juke Joint sounds fascinating. It plays alongside Williams’ Dirty Gertie from Harlem, U.S.A. (1946), another comedy from this late period starring Francine Everett, Don Wilson, Katherine Moore and adapted by screenwriter True T. Thompson (who collaborated with Williams on Juke Joint) from a story by W. Somerset Maugham.
Finally, the big treat of the series for me comes on closing night, Sunday, September 27, when UCLA screens two keen “race” westerns starring genre superstar Herb Jeffries (who is billed in both films as Herbert Jeffrey). The first, Harem Rides the Range (1939) features Jeffries as a upstanding cowboy who helps save the daughter of a murdered homesteader from the clutches of swindlers out to take her land. Jeffries gets to croon some tunes along with his musical posse the Four Tones and knock it around with his sidekick Dusty (Clarence Brooks) in this terrific B-western directed by Richard Kahn and written by Spencer Williams. And the second feature is more of the same—in The Bronze Buckaroo (1939), written and directed by Kahn, Jeffries goes sleuthing after a kidnapped rancher. The Four Tones get more play here as well. But the real treat will be the scheduled appearance of Herb Jeffries himself who, at age 97, is perhaps the last link to this nascent age of black cinema. Coincidentally, I just ran across Jeffries in an old 1969 episode of The Virginian, and I was struck all over again how easily he commands the screen, a true genial presence whose moral authority (even in the role here of a feared gunslinger whose appearance in town gets the resident of Medicine Bow in quite a lather) and skill at listening and responding to his fellow actors is a marvel to behold. For those who manage to get a ticket for this rare evening, being in the presence of Mr. Jeffries will be an honor indeed.
Also on tap from UCLA this month is a series, appropriately enough, devoted to the season of returning to the books. Titled ”School Days”, the five film program runs the gamut from the complicated, conflicted portrayal of college life in the 1960s as seen in the rarely screened (and newly restored) Drive, He Said (1970), Jack Nicholson’s directorial debut (from a script he wrote with Jeremy Larner, based on Larner’s book) starring William Tepper, Karen Black and Bruce Dern, which was filmed on the University of Oregon campus a slight eight years before my own arrival there, not to mention the filming on campus of another movie about campus life in the ‘60s. Drive, He Said screens on Friday, September 18. Sunday, September 20 finds Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman (1925), rolling through the Billy Wilder Theater, followed on September 25 by a great double feature— Clara Bow in Dorothy Arzner’s The Wild Party (1929), Paramount’s first sound feature about hijinks at a women’ college, which butts up against the hurricane force of the four Marx Brothers set loose on Huxley College in 1932’s hilarious Horse Feathers, directed by Norman McLeod. (My daughter and I have a date for this one.) Finally, “School Days” wrap up (but only on the big screen) with Vincent Minnelli’s Tea and Sympathy (1956), featuring Deborah Kerr, John Kerr, Leif Erickson, Edward Andrews, Darryl Hickman and cinematography by the great John Alton. The movie plays down the controversial themes of homosexuality and adultery which marked the Robert Anderson play from which it was adapted, but Minnelli still manages quite a feat of sympathy himself in this story of a “sensitive” prep school student befriended by a neglected older woman.
For details on other events and programs at the Billy Wilder Theater, including the September/October Archive Treasures showcase and upcoming series like “Footsteps and Fog: British Film Noir” and “The Haunted Archive” (two rarities from the Amicus vaults for Halloween), click here.
In Hollywood and Santa Monica, where the American Cinematheque’s two houses, the Egyptian and the Aero, call home, there are lots of treats still left for the month of September as well. Four of Stanley Kubrick’s most popular films are welcomed back to the Egyptian’s big screen, where they should feel quite at home. On Thursday, September 17 you can see 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968); Friday, September 18, the Egyptian gets a chill with The Shining (1980); and on Saturday, September 19, settle in for an unsettling pair of Kubrickian visions of possible futures, Clockwork Orange (1971) and Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964).
That same Saturday, September 19, if you show up in the afternoon, say 3:30-ish, you’ll be treated to an entirely different vision of bustling humanity, this one with a perfect touch of melodrama courtesy of director George Cukor and an all-star cast headed by Greta Garbo in the enduring classic Grand Hotel (1932).
The following week, “eclectic” is the word at the Egyptian. Wednesday, September 23 features a double bill of the dazzling, and lunatic, 1977 horror film Hausu (House) from Japanese director Nobuhiko Obayashi, followed by Goke: Body Snatcher from Hell (1968; Hajime Sato). Then Thursday night, September 24, it’s off to Blake Edwards’ The Party (1968) with party-crasher Peter Sellers in an I.B. Technicolor print, doubled with Danny Kaye in Norman Z. MacLeod’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947). Friday night, September 25, is family night at the Egyptian, where Jerry Beck will bring tow Max Fleischer classics to the big screen in 35mm-- Mr. Bug Goes to Town (1941) paired with Fleischer’s legendary Gulliver’s Travels (1939). Both films are, as the Sellers/Kaye double feature the previous night, part of the Egyptian’s salute to Technicolor. And the weekend wraps up Saturday night, September 26, with two of the best 007 adventures of the’60s-- On Her Majesty’ Secret Service (1968) directed by Peter Hunt and starring George Lazenby, Telly Savalas and Diana Rigg, plus vintage Connery Bond via 1963’s From Russia With Love, directed by Terence Young and featuring Daniela Bianchi, Lotte Lenya and, of course, Robert Shaw.
For more details, including times and tickets, go to the Egyptian’s master calendar.
The Aero has a two-day Karl Malden tribute on tap for September, featuring the actor and frequent co-star Marlon Brando doubling it up in On the Waterfront (1954; Elia Kazan) and Brando’s directorial debut One-eyed Jacks (1961). This pairing plays September 18, Friday. Then, on Saturday, September 19, you can see Brando and Malden together again (oh, yeah Vivien Leigh and Kim Hunter too) in Kazan’s brilliant adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire (1954), along with Malden facing off against Carroll Baker in Kazan’s Baby Doll (1956), based on yet another sizzling Tennessee Williams story.
And on September 24-27, the Aero theater exclusively presents, in association with Irish Film Board and E.L.M.A. (European Languages and Movies in America), the Los Angeles Irish Film Festival.
Please refer to the Aero master calendar for more information on specific screenings, show times and ticket availability.
Poster designed by and courtesy of Marc Edward Heuck
If it somehow escaped your attention up to this point, you should take notice that the Cinefamily, housed inside the Silent Movie Theater, has established itself as a vital organ in the Los Angeles repertory cinema scene and has done so in swift fashion. Where others may have tried with less than sturdy results, the Cinefamily has made a name for itself in local film culture as reliably unreliable, confident in their ability to conjure an atmosphere where the craziest kung fu-splatter-ghost comedy can co-exist with genuinely obscure items and rarely-seen favorites plucked from the oeuvres of masters and journeymen and brainless hacks alike. And the “family” part of the title is no hollow swipe at cleverness—in addition to the already welcoming atmosphere the Silent Movie Theater naturally provides, Hadrian Belove and the rest of the folks that make up the staff of Cinefamily invite film fans and potential customers down to the theater each month for a calendar folding party, after which is screened some randomly chosen crazy film as a reward for all the hard work. It’s through events like these, their holiday-oriented BBQs and movie parties and much more that Cinefamily really does make their patrons feel like family. (Those calendars are brilliant bits of promotion and film literature themselves, with exceedingly witty and informative liner notes,) And though the month of September is now officially halfway over the dam, there are still plenty of treats to delight viewers before the 30th arrives. The Cinefamily even scheduled a little bit differently than the av-e-rage bear.
For example, Wednesdays in September have been devoted to a series of silent Alfred Hitchcock films, some of which you may have seen on DVD, but none of which have any greater impact than on the big screen. This coming Wednesday, September 16, Hitchcock’s first modesty budget thriller, The Ring (1927) unfolds its stylishly Expressionist-influenced boxing melodrama with hints aplenty at the greatness that would manifest in the director’s later career. And on September 23, perhaps Hitchcock’s most well-known silent, 1927’s The Lodger, the director’s biting take on the Jack the Ripper mythology, gets a well-deserved big screen outing. The movie stars British idol of the day Ivor Novello, who appeared as a character (played by Jeremy Northam) in Robert Altman’s Gosford Park.
Moving down the days of the week to Thursday, the Cinefamily devotes the penultimate day of the work week in September to the bands of the ‘60s British Invasion on film. September 17 you can see David and Albert Maysles alternatively exhilarating, ambivalent and ultimately horrifying Rolling Stones document Gimme Shelter (1971), followed the next Thursday, September 24, by something very special. In conjunction with Videotheque, the Cinefamily presents a collection of rarely seen clips of popular and obscure British Invasion bands to round out the edges of a screening of John Boorman’s early feature Catch Us If You Can (1965), in which the mold set by A Hard Day’s Night is broken and refashioned with surprising emotion and depth by, of all entities, the Dave Clark Five. If you’ve never seen it (and I haven’t), this one comes highly recommended by those who can tell the difference between this and, say, Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter..
The Friday series in September has been devoted to British Gangsters, and there are still three doozies on tap for the remaining two weeks. Director Nicholas Winding Refn brings his acclaimed, soon-to-be-released-in-the-U.S. crime thriller Bronson to the Silent Movie Theater on September 18. Refn will be there in person to introduce the screening along with the imposing star of Bronson Tom Hardy. And the very next night, Saturday, September 19, Refn returns with two fascinating films to start out the Early Saturday program. First, Gambler, a very personal documentary exploration of Refn's travails in the Danish film industry, followed by Bleeder, the second part of his acclaimed Pusher trilogy. Refn’s appearance and films are sponsored in part by the Danish Film Fest. The following Friday sees a couple of modern British gangster classics paired up for probably not the first, nor likely the last time—Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren in John Mackenzie’s The Long Good Friday (1978), followed by Peter Medak’s twisted, twisty take on The Krays (1990), created in collaboration with playwright Philip Ridley (The Reflecting Skin) and starring Gary and Martin Kemp as Ronnie and Reggie Kray, and also Billie Whitelaw in yet another memorable Freudian-soaked performance.
Saturdays hold plenty more gold at the end of the Silent Movie Theater rainbow before September ends. The final presentation in the “Lighter Side of Ingmar Bergman” series is unveiled Saturday, September 26 at 7:00 p.m. when Bergman’s brilliant and moving adaptation of Mozart’s The Magic Flute (1978) screens. If you have kids who are musically inclined, you should really take them to see this.
The program that follows on that Late Saturday is, well, different, and you might consider getting the kids out of the auditorium as quickly as possible. The 1981 Hong Kong horror flick Devil’s Express helps get the Cinefamily warmed up for the October season in fine style. To hear the Cinefamily’s liner notes writer tell it, Devil’s Express is nothing less than “the worm-puking film to beat all worm-puking films… Worms, worms and more worms. We're talking a fixation of wormy sliminess so obsessive and lingering it borders on pornographic. This must set some kind of record for onscreen slimy, buggy gross-outs and grotesque black magic bug-outs. Coughing up worms, worms coming out of severed limbs, and guess what happens when you open up a chest cavity for surgery -- it's filled with squirmin' worms!” Mmm, worms. But the Cinefamily horror griddle will have already been warmed when the Silent Movie Theater screens a Joseph Zito double header, The Prowler (1981), featuring Tom Savini’s magical gore effects, and Zito’s contribution to the Jason Voorhees saga, Friday the 13th—The Final Chapter (1984). More gore, just no puked-up worms.
And perhaps the craziest item on the Cinefamily calendar this month comes up on Saturday, September 19 at 10:00 p.m. It’s a program called ”Turkish Ripoffs”, and rather than try to describe it to you myself, I’m just going to give it over gain to the Cinefamily liner notes:
“Turkey is truly the wild, wild Middle East of mondo macabro. Here you find the outlying reaches of world exploitation, where the heroes are macho men who can beat you up with just their moustaches, and the copyright infringement flows as freely as the currents of the Bosphorus River. From the wholesale plundering of battle footage from American sci-fi smash hits (with which to mash into their own space operas), to the endless cavalcade of scene-for-scene, shot-for-shot, unauthorized remakes (Turkish Exorcist, Turkish Death Wish, Turkish Young Frankenstein) -- the bandits of Turkish cinema were unstoppable. These films were lawless, shameless, and hilarious. Infinite ambition and infinitesimal budgets lead to cheap remakes that resemble a high school theater version of Apocalypse Now; to make up for their poverty, these filmmakers upped the sadism, mayhem, and titillation to their tastes and our delight. Tonight, we offer a seminar in the finer points of Turkish film facsimiles, complete with scene-for-scene comparisons, provocative clips, thoughtful commentary, and a movie in which Spider-Man shoves a woman's head into the blades of a motorboat's outboard engine.”
Be sure to consult the Cinefamily master calendar for the full word on other programs, prices, and tickets, which can be purchased directly on their website.
Poster designed by and courtesy of Marc Edward Heuck
Speaking of warm-ups, the New Beverly Cinema has made sure Halloween has arrived early and with considerable punch this year. Already in September I’ve been lucky enough, thanks to Michael Torgan and the gang, to catch an incredible witchcraft-themed double bill as well as a screening of an influential horror comedy in the presence of its Oscar-winning makeup effects creator and a very entertaining feature documentary on the making of that film. First, Carl Theodore Dreyer’s searing, agonizing Day of Wrath (1943), an emotional, visually austere drama of accusation and betrayal that tells of the paranoia over witchcraft in early Christianity. (The film itself was created amidst the shadow of the Nazi occupation of Europe, which was underway when the film was made.) The performance of Anna Svierkier as the old woman who is burned at the stake to divert attention from a pastor’s indiscretions, is remarkable and devastating, as is the film. Day of Wrath was paired with Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages, (1928), a one-of-a-kind oddity, part documentary, part docudrama, part black comedy which purports to illustrate the history of the phenomenon of witchcraft and devil possession and cast the attendant strange behaviors in a more modern (circa 1928) psychological light. The version I saw is a slightly shorter one, scored with a Jean-Luc Ponty soundtrack of a screeching, melodious jazz violin-centered combo, intertitles edited out and instead read in the sonorous, off-kilter tones of William S. Burroughs. But whatever version you see will still feature the movie’s bizarre, gooseflesh-inducing visuals, which invoke the starkly agonized hellscapes of Goya and the prevalent style of depicting weird, sexualized satanic rites in elaborate wood carvings. (There is an awful lot of devil’s ass-kissing going on in art from this period, apparently.) The movie is singularly haunting and unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
A mere three days later the New Beverly played host to a screening of John Landis’ popular and influential An American Werewolf in London (1981) on the eve of the movie’s release in the posh, extras-laden Blu-ray format. The packed house ate the movie up, but at the risk of seeming like a party pooper, Landis’ movie has never really done it for me. In direct comparison, I think The Howling is a much more complicated, visually striking and tonally successful mixture of horror, horror history and bloody comedy than Werewolf, and I happen to like the transformation Rob Bottin served up better than the one that won Rick Baker (who was in attendance Monday night) an Oscar. Don’t get me wrong—Landis’ movie is loaded with terrific actors, like Lila Kaye (the Slaughtered Lamb’s imposing barmaid); David Schofield as the pub’s very serious dartsman (“You made me… miss!”); the late, great, bullet-headed Brian Glover, who presides over the pub’s self-serving fear of the moors (and who tells a hilarious “Remember the Alamo!” joke); Griffin Dunne as Jack, the murdered friend who walks the earth in limbo trying to convince his werewolf pal David (David Naughton) to kill himself, break the lupine curse and send him and all of David’s undead victims to their final rest; John Woodbine as the doctor who eventually comes to believe David’s wild stories of being attacked by a creature; and Jenny Agutter, tentative, curious and vulnerable as the nurse who falls in love with her doomed patient—they’re all wonderful.
But the movie has a smugness about it that is all too typical of Landis’ work as a whole. I’ve always felt that Landis’ movies, beginning with The Blues Brothers, somehow lost spontaneity and warmth in a attempt to mix the director's heavy-handed deadpan approach with the grotesquely over-scaled action and his penchant for droll comic set pieces. The much-celebrated claims of Werewolf as a pioneering sort of mix-and-match of supposedly incompatible elements—comedy and horror—ignore the fact that comedy and horror have always existed on similar planes. The kind of nervous laughter that comes after effective scares was certainly not originated by Landis here, and the James Whale pictures The Bride of Frankenstein and The Invisible Man ought to be evidence enough that comedy and horror have always been rather complimentary soul mates. The fact that they are not particularly well integrated in Landis’ picture, as opposed to the aforementioned classics, should not be taken as evidence that they somehow “work,” or work better than they ever did before. It’s just that the contrast is much more obvious, and that clash, emblematic as it is of Landis’ less-than-light touch, is what creates the laughs and sometimes kills them.
There are terrific set pieces that Landis conjures— the opening on the moors is terrifically well sustained, and the murder in the Underground station, climaxing with the brief glimpse from the top of the escalator of the wolf as it approaches its victim, is probably the best moment of directing in Landis’ career. And his instincts for using music to ironically set off or mordantly, emotionally underline the action is often very effective—Sam Cooke’s “Blue Moon” gliding underneath the agony of Rick Baker’s transformation, which still looks good after all these years, is a stroke of genius. But too often the movie feels truncated, clipped, and the supposedly emotional climax, after the ridiculous excess of the gory Piccadilly Circus-meets-The Blues Brothers antics, is undercut by Landis’ relatively inept staging and editing. (Just how is it that the firing squad of officers which shoots up the snarling werewolf, trapped in a dead-end alley, manage to avoid gunning down Agutter, who stands between them and the wolf several yards into the darkness?) And finally, I have to say that as likable an actor as he is, David Naughton is weightless as the Lon Chaney stand-in. He never convinced me that the tragedy of his situation ever hits home for him, and his bubbly TV mannerisms don’t serve him well in his more serious moments. The entirety of his performance hasn’t a fraction of the pathos and fear and bitter comedy found in a single line reading from Griffin Dunne, when the actor makes his first undead appearance in the hospital, throat torn out, and flesh dangling, to try to convince his friend of their horrific dilemma. “The supernatural, the powers of darkness… it’s all true,” he intones to David, as if he, the undead corpse, still cannot believe it himself. Dunne finds the balance between the laughs and the horror, but Naughton and Landis do not.
In truth, Paul Davis’ accompanying documentary Beware the Moon, featured on the Blu-ray, is actually more entertaining than the movie which it serves to immortalize. Davis narrates from various locations made famous by the movie, and his script reveals his conviction, which is obviously shared by a lot of people, that the movie is some sort of landmark, a classic. I think that’s clearly not true, but if you grew up loving the movie you won’t mind Davis, or the many people he interviewed for the project (everyone who is still living participated), insisting on it over and over again. A measure of self-congratulation is par for the course for a project like this, but the fact that it exists doesn’t dilute the fascination of listening to those involved tell the story of how the movie was made. Landis himself is so consistently funny and entertaining being interviewed here, as he always is in these kinds of situations, that I was left hoping against hope that for his film Burke and Hare, currently in production for the Ealing Studios in London no less, he will somehow finally be able to overcome the torpor that usually enshrouds his movies and translate this irreverent raconteur vibe to this new project. (Maybe something of the subject of his last movie, the hilarious documentary Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project, will rub off.) Whether or not you buy the coronation of An American Werewolf in London a some sort of horror classic, there’s still enough in Beware the Moon to make you stand up and cheer Davis for making a behind-the-scenes documentary that is actually a solid piece of work on its own.
But that’s all in the past. As the New Beverly finishes out September it’s clear that, of all the revival choices available in Los Angeles, the New Beverly may still be the most consistent in terms of making available the classics of film history right alongside the vital new American and European cinema and the energetic trash classics and would-be classics of the ‘70s and ‘80s. The Cinefamily has its eclectic mix of oddities, rarities and obscurities, UCLA has its vast archives from which anything might emerge, and LACMA is still, for the time being, focused primarily on the modern masters of world cinema. It is apparently the New Beverly’s call to provide a time capsule back to the way films and film-going was when there was a vibrant collegiate film culture operating in this country, and to be even a small part of that kind of happening is invigorating to me as a regular there, as I hope it will be for anyone who has the chance to step through its doors. If you don’t believe me, look at what’s coming up in the next two weeks:
September 15 and 16 brings the atom-conscious noir sensibility of Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1951) matched up with Irving Lerner’s radioactive City of Fear starring Vince Edwards.
Marco Ferreri’s rarely screened Dillinger is Dead (1969) stars Michel Piccoli as a man who discovers a revolver wrapped in a newspaper sporting the titular headline and chronicles the strange twists his life takes as the gun begins to overwhelm his consciousness. Some consider Dillinger is Dead to b Ferreri’s masterpiece. Screening with the Ferreri film is Louis Malle’s strange 1975 film Black Moon, frequently described as anAlice in Wonderland for the apocalypse. I have never seen either film, so I hope the stars align so that I might be able to freak out with them in the friendly confines of the New Beverly.
Just in time to serve as an unintentional tribute to the late Patrick Swayze, Phil Blankenship has programmed an all-day Truck-a-thon for September 19, beginning at 4:00 p.m. with C.B. Hustlers (1978), followed by Thunder Run (1986), Jonathan Kaplan’s terrific White Line Fever (1975) starring Jan-Michael Vincent, Kay Lenz and Slim Pickens, Road Games (1981), a taut thriller from director Richard Franklin starring Stacy Keach and Jamie Lee Curtis, and finally Patrick Swayze, Charles S. Dutton and Randy Travis keep the dirty side down in Black Dog (1998), directed by Kevin Hooks. Those stalwarts who make it to feature #5 will undoubtedly raise a toast in memory to the late actor, whose spirit as it was embodied in films like Black Dog, Point Break and of course Roadhouse will undoubtedly live on as long as Phil is programming midnights there. I only wish the day could have been long enough for Sam Peckinpah’s Convoy (1978), or even better, Chuck Norris’ mind-boggling Breaker! Breaker! (1977). What’s your 20? Truck-drivin’ heaven on the 19th, good buddy.
Hitchcock returns September 20-21 with Cary Grant and Grace Kelly outshining all that French Riviera real estate in To Catch a Thief (1955), followed by know-it-all Jimmy Stewart and his screeching bride Doris Day mucking up the Albert Hall for Hitch’s remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956).
September 22nd’s Grindhouse Night brings two Asian board-smashing, continuity-cremating classics from the ‘80s to the New Beverly screen: Tsui Hark’s loony Dangerous Encounters: First Kind (1980) and the wildly popular Aces Go Places II (1983). Kung-fu kick it if you have to, but just take it easy on those new seats, okay?!
More noir courtesy of director Robert Siodmak cuts a swath through the silver screen on September 23-24. First, Burt Lancaster and Yvonne De Carlo sizzle in Criss Cross (1948). It’s paired with one I’ve never seen before, 1947’s Phantom Lady starring Franchot Tone and Ella Raines.
And more Malle, albeit of a less fantastical, hallucinatory quality than Black Moon, makes a return to the New Beverly on September 25 with return engagements of the director’s achingly personal Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987) matched with the equally emotional Lacombe, Lucien (1974). If your experience with Malle is limited to My Dinner with Andre or Atlantic City or Pretty Baby or Vanya on 42nd Street, you owe it to yourself to acquaint yourself with these movie and a director whose modest style is quite out of fashion these days, and perhaps more compelling for that.
A couple of spectacular double features end off the month in high terror and tantalizingly lay down the groundwork for a month of horrors to come in October. Beginning on September 27 and running three days, through the 29th, a welcome opportunity to get lost in the bone-chilling, subzero nightmare of John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982). I know, I know, it’s on Blu-ray, but anyone who has ever seen this movie on the big screen will tell you that there is no substitute for the experience of getting sucked into the surreal abstractions embodied by Rob Bottin’s landmark effects work, particularly as they contrast with the insinuating stillness and existential dread of Carpenter’s visual style. I said after seeing the movie in 1982, amidst indifference, bad reviews and the uber-summer of E.T. that someday this movie’s day would come. Those days are now. Attached to the program is a minor Carpenter effort, the genuinely loony Prince of Darkness (1987). This one has a growing cult following that swears by its satanic green goo, S.O.P. lunatic-mode Donald Pleasance performance, and an appearance b Alice Cooper as the leader of some sort of blue-collar zombie gauntlet putting the hurt on a band of scientists fighting demons in an abandoned church. If nothing else, the movie looks damned good and should be fun as a chaser after the more unsettling frequencies of the first feature.
Finally, the New Beverly has pulled a Quentin Tarantino two-fer out of their hat to end the month of September, and if you’re a fan of the director’s last two movies, you’ll want to take note. Phil has secured a special midnight screening of Inglourious Basterds for September 25. But even more special than tat is the one-night-only engagement (September 30) of the extended version of Death Proof. This is the two-hour version with which you’ll probably already be familiar from the separate DVD release of the Grindhouse second feature. It screened at Cannes, but has never been seen theatrically here in the United States, so this one chalks up as one of those can’t-miss situations that seem to pop up with alarming regularity these days at the New Beverly. (I will not start taking them for granted, I will not start taking them for granted…) Plus, as if that weren’t enough, if you didn’t already know firsthand what all that chatter Zoe Bell and Tracy Thoms deliver regarding the white Thunderbird was all about, Richard Sarafian’s Vanishing Point (1971), the evening’s second feature, will settle all your questions. It’s a double feature just as good, in its own way, as the one composed for Grindhouse itself. And don’t be surprised if certain individuals connected to the production of the Tarantino films show up for the Basterds and/or Death Proof screenings. This is based on no official information from the New Beverly, only on my tingling Spidey sense, which has been known to be wrong. But what if it’s right?
The L.A. revival cinema scene has a great October planned, including a lineup of horror classics and oddities that will, if you live here, make you thankful for your Southern California residency, and make you consider taking a month-long vacation to Hollywood if you don’t. Stay tuned for a look at the Horrors of Repertory Beach and Much, Much More coming in two weeks to this very blog.