Wednesday, November 30, 2011


The fight to keep 35mm print production from disappearing continues. On November 15 Julia Marchese, one of the faces you see every time you buy a ticket to see a movie (projected in 35mm) at the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles, posted an online petition in support of resistance to the apparently inexorable industry movement toward the elimination of traditional 35mm prints for theatrical exhibition. For Marchese, and for many who attend the theater regularly, the concern goes beyond a mere question of technology. “The human touch will be entirely taken away,” she writes in the petition’s statement, and then goes on:

“The New Beverly Cinema tries our hardest to be a timeless establishment that represents the best that the art of cinema has to offer. We want to remain a haven where true film lovers can watch a film as it was meant to be seen — in 35mm. Revival houses perform an undeniable service to movie watchers — a chance to watch films with an audience that would otherwise only be available for home viewing. Film is meant to be a communal experience, and nothing can surpass watching a film with a receptive audience, in a cinema, projected from a film print.”

So far, after not quite 15 days, the petition has gathered upward of 5,300 “signatures,” just over halfway to the intended goal of 10,000, at which point the petition would presumably find its way to the desks of Those It May Concern at the various studios, all of whom will be free to consider the passion behind it or disregard the petition as a blip of protest from a minority of selfish Luddites who refuse to understand and accede to the inevitable march of progress.

And that progress does indeed march on. As Jen Yamato reported in her piece for Movieline on the downshift in 35mm print production, studios like 20th Century Fox have already begun movement in some Asian markets to phase out distribution of 35mm prints to theaters in favor of an all-digital exhibition format. She quotes Fox International’s Sunder Kimatrai as having said, back in August of this year, that “the entire Asia-Pacific region has been rapidly deploying digital cinema systems” and that “over the next two years we expect to be announcing additional markets where supply of 35mm will be phased out.” And if that isn’t convincing enough, John Filian, president of the National Association of Theater Owners, had this rather definitive statement to deliver in his annual state of the industry address to attendees of Cinecom, NATO’s inaugural convention gathering in Las Vegas back in March 2011:

“Based on our assessment of the roll-out schedule and our conversations with our distribution partners, I believe that film prints could be unavailable as early as the end of 2013. Simply put, if you don’t make the decision to get on the digital train soon, you will be making the decision to get out of the business.”

What else needs to be said, right? In the face of a digital tide like this one, the complaints of 10,000 folks who claim to care about the aesthetic difference between 35mm and digital projection are likely to have the cumulative amplification akin to the tiny residents of Whoville shouting at the top of their lungs from a speck of dust while dangling over a vat of boiling oil. The dire implications that the elimination of 35mm prints will have for the very concept of revival cinema, which is already withering in the face of the explosion of new media options for watching films, likely won’t amount to much more than a hill of beans to studios who, if history can be trusted, can’t be expected to be concerned about much more than their own financial solvency and the practical expediency of the digital conveyance of their product.

And the importance of that practical expediency extends not only to the owners of revival houses, who are faced with the very real possibility of the flow of available product for their specific programming needs being shut off at the spigot, but also to the owners of those small town movie houses in rural areas far outside the immediate dollar-sign-impeded gaze of the studios. I’ve spoken to several owners of theaters in rural areas of California and Oregon in the past year, many of whose theaters are operating at a near-zero profit margin on equipment that was outdated 30 years ago, who have all worried to me openly about the increasing cost of rentals as well as the specter of being put out of business by a industry-wide switch to digital that they can’t afford to make. Last Picture Show-like images of shuttered hometown movie theaters all across the country are already too prevalent, and a forced paradigm of digital conversion is likely to ensure that the rural landscape will be dotted with even more corpses of once-vital movie palaces that will have been abandoned not only by audiences in favor of the cozy confines of their home theater systems, but also by the very studios whose product they still sought to present to the few who still cared to buy a ticket.

Suppose it were desirous and within the budget of a theater like the New Beverly Cinema to proceed with the conversion to digital projection, even one in which the current 35mm film projection system could be maintained. The viability of a theater like this would still depend on the availability of 35mmand digital access to those vast film libraries, which, even if they continued to exist at their current volume, are likely to become even less available to small exhibitors as the economic viability of dealing in “niche” programming becomes increasingly devalued. Sure, it makes sense for studios to keep their claws on existing 35mm prints now, because there’s still a shekel or two to be squeezed from their existence in the marketplace. But once these geniuses, all foresight and no historical perspective, become convinced of the economic righteousness and solidarity of the move to digital that they initiated, it’s not hard to imagine the ascension of an even more cavalier attitude toward keeping those expensive underground vaults (and the staff required to maintain them) occupied with such an anachronistic duty as preserving film history on quaint, outdated chemical film stock.

After all, 35mm film decomposes, but digital is forever, right? Well, the answer to that ostensibly rhetorical question is, um, not quite. Arthur Wehrhahn, spokesman for the Celeste Bartos Film Preservation Center, which recently participated with Turner Classic Movies in a festival presentation of 14 restored films, has felt the need to make crucial clarifications on the subject. In a piece written for the Museum of Modern Art’s Inside Out blog in March 2011, Wehrhahn expressed concern about the way digital is frequently perceived as a magical solution to issues surrounding film preservation:

“In this era of digital storage and viewing of moving image materials and films, I’m sometimes afraid that the public at large will think that the problems of preserving films have all been solved—or worse, rendered irrelevant. I feel this most acutely when I speak with younger people, from schoolchildren to 20-somethings, and they’re stunned when they realize that we have to preserve and protect film materials. I find myself explaining that, despite every new wonder of electronics or digital format that comes along, the best source material for older works is still the film itself.”

(See Wehrhahn’s video presentation by clicking here.)

Yet production of 35mm films, for archives and for rentals, remains an increasingly low priority for the studios. As I said in my own response to Yamato’s piece on Movieline, when we've finally done away with 35mm projection in revival houses that rely on these vaults for programming, is it so far-fetched to imagine those same penny-pinching studios citing economics as an excuse for not making available all but the most "popular" classic film titles? In the near future, in the name of short-sighted number-crunching, a double feature of 99 River Street and The Blue Dahlia at a place like the New Beverly will be a long-forgotten pleasure, with only Turner Classic Movies to remind us of the theaters and the programs we once took for granted.

Not everyone is convinced that going digital is necessarily all that bad an idea however. Friends and acquaintances of mine who live in small-to-medium-sized markets outside of major cities in California and New York, where the issue of revival cinema is moot, are pleased as punch to see the spiffy, bright, crud-free imagery that conversion to digital brings to their stadium-seating-style multiplexes, and to the crappy cracker-box cinemas that have limped along without much change since the ‘80s. (Whether they remain equally pleased by the same 10-15 movies that will be available at these mainstream movie houses is another question, one with which most moviegoers are well familiar.) But even some who have access to great revival programs like those available in Los Angeles and Austin, Texas are unconvinced that the potential loss of 35mm exhibition is all that significant. Yamato’s piece inspired several passionate comments, like this one from “Sunnydaze”:

“I love the New Beverly and have some great memories. One being when I saw Kubrick's The Killing and realized while watching with an audience that it is a comedy. But the experience would have been the same had it been digitally projected. The audience was what made the difference, not actual film.”

And this from a respondent named “Joshua”:

“Audiences aren't there to see how much money is being saved and if they can tell the difference between digital and print, they don't care.”

Finally, a reader going by the handle “Rainestorm” seemed to most calmly and tersely drive in the final, arguably inarguable point in the debate by leading off his response with this statement:

“Film exhibition is dead. It's been dead for years and people have been selfishly and cruelly keeping it on life support rather than letting it move on. Sentimentality for dead technology is fine as long as you're the one footing the bill. Asking someone else to keep it breathing just for you is ridiculous…. Seems as though this outcry is misplaced.”

Realistically, it does seem to be asking a bit too much of a corporate-owned studio to suddenly develop a sensitivity to concerns that are more convincingly couched in arguments based on sentiment than on dollars. Yamato herself admits in the piece that the plea for preservation of 35mm is largely sentimental and not practical. But she goes on to make an important point about film culture as it exists in the Internet age where metropolitan revival and repertory cinemas serve to provide support for studio catalog sales on home video and pay-per-view in markets that reach far beyond those urban epicenters. “If a curious neophyte without access to local revival houses downloads a classic film onto their iPod because they read a blog about a screening halfway across the country or the world,” Yamato asks, “hasn’t repertory cinema done its part?”

In fact, the most potent outcry is one that is based not on aesthetic preference but on preservation of cinema history, and there is no compelling reason why art and commerce need necessarily be at odds here. Reader Ant Timpson points out that there even seems to be little economic sense for studios to resist continuing to strike archival prints designated specifically for revival programming. “They'd make their money back within the first 20 bookings,” Timpson argues, not to mention holding cultural value in the cause for preservation. But it’s no comfort for film fans if it’s left up to almighty market demand instead of historical or artistic worth to determine which titles the studios deem worthy of preserving on 35mm, from where shall come further digital copies. Only the titles that have been determined to be the most commercially viable are likely to be available in digital formats, thus limiting what can be shown in cinemas and exposed to future generations. For these films to mean anything to anyone down the road, is it not crucial that people be able to at least have the option to see them in environments considerably more enveloping, and less distracting, than their living rooms or on airplanes? Comparing the dollars-and-cents cost of actual preservation to the cost of the loss of these films in terms of cultural heritage, it seems that one is (or ought to be) far more heavily weighted than the other.

Even so, one suspects that the point of view of Rainestorm, again expressing her/his thoughts in the comments thread beneath Yamato’s original piece, is not in the minority, certainly not from a studio perspective, and maybe not even from the audience’s. “This is the old art versus commerce argument and commerce will always win, as it should,” she/he writes, and then continues:

“Commerce is a reflection of artistic merit and popularity. After all, if only a small minority declare something to be art, does that make it so? That, too, is an old argument. Not every book that's been written, not every song that's been sung, not every piece of art that has ever been created or viewed has been preserved.... and that's how it should be. Too much variety has the undesired side-effect of diluting even the most meritorious work of art.”

Forgive me if I say that this rather strident pronouncement sounds a lot like the wolf of cultural elitism hidden under a populist sheepskin. In an art form where art and commerce have always coexisted uneasily, why exactly is it that it should be so that commerce wins the argument between the two? Because the concerns of those who stand to make money off of a work of art, or a work of simple entertainment, are so much more important than those who created it, who attempt to preserve it, who insist upon its original, intended form? Of course monetary concerns must be considered. But we live in an increasingly greedy world of Hollywood product, where a nonsensical business model has created a “Can you top this?” mentality of blockbuster filmmaking in which modest aims are often drowned amidst the crashing waves of bloated, attention-grabbing, lowest common denominator hubris. Why is it that the short-sighted financial aims of studios, in perpetual genuflection toward Mammon, have taken precedence over a movement to preserve a vital part of film history that would, in comparison, demand but a pittance? Surely these efforts comprise but a fraction of the budget of a studio holy grail like the digitally gratuitous Transformers franchise, each sequel costing more and demanding more in order to perpetuate the escalating model of excess, each sequel crowding out smaller, perhaps worthier films in the marketplace and now, apparently, crowding out the studio’s own history as well.

I would certainly agree that it is not enough to qualify a piece of work as art if only a small minority says it to be so. (The writer makes sure to point out that this too is an “old” argument, as if to imply that it having simply been expressed already is evidence of its invalidity.) On any visit to any museum in the country, or to any film festival you care to attend, you ought to find yourself surrounded with paintings and sculptures and films that do not, despite their endorsement by the museum or the programming staff, qualify as either masterpieces or even art. But as obvious as it may be that a simple minority proclamation toward art is not evidence of the actual thing, we must also hold in skepticism that proclamation’s opposite, that because a work or a movement has the ringing endorsement of the majority, as expressed in ticket sales or dollars spent to create and distribute it, we should automatically give it the benefit of the doubt in the argument over validation via commerce versus art any more than we would be quick to bestow the imprimatur of art upon an unworthy subject.

Rainestorm then goes on to suggest a sort of law of natural selection as it might unreasonably apply to the stewardship of film culture. It sounds pretty self-assured to proclaim on behalf of everyone that “not every book that's been written, not every song that's been sung, not every piece of art that has ever been created or viewed has been preserved.... and that's how it should be.” Such a cavalier response to the vagaries of the history of all arts again smacks of an elitism that suggests that only certain works of art are even worth the effort of preservation. Are we to leave preservation to the whims of chance? Of ambition (or lack thereof)? And if the effort to preserve is to be undertaken, who is it that decides which works are art and whether or not they should be well kept or simply discarded? These are questions that are best left unconsidered if you’re rushing to make a statement like, “Too much variety has the undesired side-effect of diluting even the most meritorious work of art.” Isn’t this attitude precisely the opposite of the one taken by most film preservationist movements?

The attitude of film preservation has at its core the notion that every bit of film that can be saved from any era has its worth, its value, its important historical context. I was lucky enough to see a largely forgotten Warner Brothers-Vitaphone picture from 1932 the other night, an ensemble comedy-drama from 1932 called Central Park. No one has fallen all over themselves rushing to make great claims for this John G. Adolfi–directed picture as a work of art. But it has got a lot of the fizz and pop one expects from early Warner Brothers talkies, as well as some anthropologically appealing footage of Central Park and New York City as it existed during filming, the kind of footage probably once thought of as disposable, without value, and of increasing interest the further we pull away from that period of history. And it also has plenty of evidence of the seductive star power of Joan Blondell, who never carried her Photoplay popularity to the great heights one might have reasonably expected, given the effortless charm she displays in this movie. Are we to blindly accept the queasy proposition that it’s okay if a movie like Central Park falls to the wayside and gets trampled into silver nitrate dust by history just because to have it out there makes it more difficult for the masses and the historians and critics to discern art for all the multitude of choices diluting our sensibilities?

Thank you very much, but I’d at least like to have all the historical evidence before me in order to be able to decide for myself. That’s why film preservation, and the continued availability on 35mm of even the most marginal films from any era, studio or country, is important, for the sake of film history and encouraging further generations to appreciate that history, as well as the continued survival and health of venues like the New Beverly Cinema, the Cinefamily, the American Cinematheque, the Alamo Drafthouse, the Film Forum and all the other houses dedicated to presenting the full spectrum of cinematic art and entertainment. The effort to preserve 35mm as at least a viable option in the increasingly digital 21st century may be a sentimental, selfish impulse, but it is also one that places value on something other than the instant gratification of profit, a goal of greed that is even more fleeting than the chemical composition of that precious celluloid. It’s one that believes wholeheartedly, simply, in the audience’s sensitivity and receptivity to the movies as an art form.

Pauline Kael, in her 1974 essay “On the Future of Movies,” wrote the following, and it’s worth considering in light of the possible future of 35mm film distribution:

“Perhaps no work of art is possible without belief in the audience—the kind of belief that has nothing to do with the facts and figures about what people actually buy or enjoy but comes out of the individual artist’s absolute conviction that only the best he can do is fit to be offered to others… An artist’s sense of honor is founded on the honor due others. Honor in the arts—and in show business too—is giving of one’s utmost, even if the audience does not appear to know the difference , even if the audience shows every sign of preferring something easy, cheap and synthetic. The audience one must believe in is the great audience; the audience one was part of as a child, when one first began to respond to great work—the audience one is still part of.”

You can keep the momentum going by signing Julia Marchese’s “Fight for 35mm” petition right here.


Thursday, November 24, 2011


All things considered, objectively and subjectively, 2011 hasn’t been the best of years for me and my family, and I have it on good authority that many on this planet might be feeling the same. Humanity has been flushed of a couple of fairly significant faces on the international terrorism scene-- for that we should all be thankful, even though their deaths are far from comforting simply because the hydra has many heads. And it wouldn’t be wrong to hold out hope for some kind of economic recovery even as the shape and function of the world changes faster than a desert sandscape, but a cursory glance at the spiteful deadlock of the two-party system and the Republican presidential campaign so far doesn’t exactly inspire much confidence in the health of independent political thought on the grand stage in this country.

Those things being said, I still find myself heartened by the things in my life I have to be thankful for on this day, which is dedicated to the expression of such sentiments and, of course, rampant overeating. If I may, in the short amount of time I have before the turkey carving and before the general post-meal torpor takes away any ambition toward writing and tucks it away until tomorrow, I’d like to just mention a few of the things that have made life worth living for me this year. Beyond number one, there is no ranking order, just unbridled appreciation.

1) My immediate family, including my parents and parents-in-law. But most especially my daughters, who are growing so fast that I can barely stand to look at pictures of them when they were smaller, much more like babies than growing girls and, in Emma’s case, a young woman. I marvel at their beauty, at their humor and their resilience, and the way they challenge me to look at the world not necessarily through their eyes but with eyes that can accommodate their own visions. And I live for the unexpected hug or kiss or touch of the hand that seems directed by a very acute interior knowledge of just when Dad needs it. My wife is the source of that beauty, and it is humbling to see just how much of herself she gives to these children and to me every day. I often don’t appreciate that sacrifice the way I should, and my greatest understanding of her interior struggles comes when I recognize that I can’t really understand them at all. I can only offer my shoulder and my heart, and she does in return, and that’s all we can really hope or ask from each other. I’m so thankful to have her to lean on, and it should go without saying, but I’ll say anyway that I love them all beyond reason. I can only hope to be the man they need and deserve in their lives.

2) My life as a would-be teacher. Two years after I completed my graduate program, I’m still holding out hope that somewhere, hopefully in Oregon, and sometime soon there will a teaching job for me. I still substitute teach here in Glendale, and each time I do I come home exhausted. But the connection the kids and I have made since I started subbing five years ago is strong, and it gets renewed every time I see them make a connection in class or burst out laughing, and there’s nothing like seeing a group of them streak across the playground just to say hi or give me a hug.

3) The movies. In any shape or form, truth be told, but especially being in the dark with a house full of like-minded souls who come not to show off their own knowledge or superiority to what’s on screen but to revel in the special love between an eager audience and a movie rich with treasures ready to be reaped. To my mind, there is still no better place to experience a movie at than a theater, but especially at the New Beverly Cinema, where so many wonderful moments in my movie world have happened. I’ve been there far less frequently this year thanks to the many tangles of everyday life, but I still treasure the little corner of heaven Michael Torgan and company have reserved for us all like no other place in Los Angeles.

4) Getting older. It’s a very underrated experience, even given the practical realities of diminished health and increasing irrelevance in a youth-oriented society. But I wouldn’t trade the wisdom I’ve gained over time (such as it is) for a clean slate and 30 years wiped off the clock under any circumstances.

5) The rain. (Thanks, Lauren Kessler.)

6) My DVR. I finally got one this year, and it’s been a real joy, especially since it’s been more difficult for me to afford going out to the movies in 2011. Hand in hand with the gratitude for the DVR goes an equal appreciation for the bounty with which I fill its hard drive, plundered from the wondrous vaults of Turner Class Movies, of course (The only essential TV channel), and also the MLB Network and the various high-definition movie channels provided by my satellite subscription. As Slim Pickens said in Blazing Saddles, I am impressed!

7) My bike.

8) The Oregon Coast (and several points eastward too).

9) Good beer.
And just about the time in my life when I probably shouldn’t be drinking it too much.

10) All the people I’ve met exclusively on the Internet, with whom I interact largely through e-mails or on those modern marvels of social networking, Facebook and Twitter. Writers, thinkers, lovers of life and all genuinely smart as a closet full of whips (Shh!), you have filled my life with so many new perspectives and joined me in confirmation of some many shared interests, and I look forward to (and am perhaps addicted to) touching base with you every day. I genuinely feel as though you have all expanded my world in the best possible way.

11) The Scrabble app on my new Android phone.

12) The ability to read and to write
, and also the precious little time I have to actually indulge in either or both. This year productivity on the blog has taken a real hit, but I am heartened by my small sliver of readership and their apparent acceptance of this decline as not a signal of my lessening desire to write but instead of my lessening desire to write about things I don’t feel a strong compulsion to write about. Not that I ever much felt the need to crank out stuff that I didn’t feel strongly about, but these days when you see something on SLIFR, whether you like the piece or not, you can at least be assured that it’s meant something to me to write it, to grapple with it, to get it out there. Such are, I suppose, the joys and the latitude of writing with only your own editorial guidance, and with no monetary compensation. I’m eternally grateful that when I do write what I want, there seems to be some few readers out there, my kind of readers, who are there to appreciate it.

I’m also grateful for having had the opportunity this past summer to read Vincent Bugliosi’s book Divinity of Doubt. It’s a book that I can fairly say has changed my life, helped lift a very heavy, lingering shroud of Catholic and fundamentalist Christian-inspired guilt from over my hunched shoulders, guided me to see through the many fallacies inspired by extremist thought on the part of believers and nonbelievers, helped me embrace agnosticism and, strangely enough, made me less fearful of the possible truth of the abyss. If you’re interested at all in examining the history and belief system of religion in general, Christianity in particular, from a logical perspective, I recommend this book without reservation.

13) Being part of the Horror Dads, the Muriels Association and the SLIFR Tree House.

14) The loyalty and love of my best friend and those friends closest to me… You know who you are. Your creative energies, boundless enthusiasm, intelligence and capacity for love and understanding and generosity boggle my tiny little mind every day. I shudder to think where I’d be without you all.

15) …and for the recent reconnecting (via Facebook, usually) with several old friends and classmates who I never knew as well as I could have/should have in the past. We are getting the chance to get to know each other again, as adults, not dumb, clique-bound kids, and the experience has been a real blast.

For all these things and so much more, I am sincerely grateful. On those days when I’m trudging through the valley it’s easy to feel defeated. But during those low times whenever I conjure thoughts of any of the above I am heartened and lifted up. Who could complain of such a life?

Happy Thanksgiving!


Wednesday, November 09, 2011


The sleazy, claustrophobic, catch-as-catch-can transience of the carnival world, with its ever-changing roster of freaks, geeks, disappointed con men and women with few options, clinging to shreds of dignity and eyeing a better life while digging themselves deeper into the one from which they want to flee, seems a naturally cinematic subject. Yet there are surprisingly few movies that have ever captured the symbiotic push-pull of vibrant show-biz fakery and dark personal obsessions that lurk behind the curtain, beyond the barker’s call. Somewhere between the boy’s wish-fulfillment of Toby Tyler and the mind-wrenching funhouse mirror reflections of Tod Browning, Tobe Hooper and Rob Zombie, Edmund Goulding’s film of W.L. Greshman’s Nightmare Alley (1947), from a script by Jules Furthman (reportedly quite faithful to the novel), captures the attraction of the fairway for the suckers and the sham artists running the games, as well as the desperation to trade the sawdust floors of tented arenas for brighter, shinier halls where the sheep waiting to be fleeced have thicker wool and far deeper pockets.

Watching Nightmare Alley today, it’s plain to see that while the divide between the carnies and the upper classes awash in dough is as marked as ever (maybe more so), the desperation for recognition, for reward, is no longer a simple symptom of poverty. But in 1947 it must have been quite a shock to see a handsome star like Tyrone Power give himself over to a role for which audiences wouldn’t have been expected to have much empathy. Power’s opportunistic Stan Carlisle is so thoroughly at home amongst the shadows and hidden compartments of the carnival setting that it’s almost a surprise to hear that he has aspirations beyond it. However, his eagerness to expand his talents to more sophisticated scams for more sophisticated targets soon sucks in both the essentially good-natured Zeena (Joan Blondell) and the relatively innocent Molly (Colleen Gray) into a world where the lies get bigger, thornier, more perverse, and the inevitable fall back to earth is all the more devastating.

Cinematographer Lee Garmes brilliantly conjures the film’s first half in chiaroscuro patterns and recesses formed by the impermanent tents and wagons, all of which coexist almost subconsciously with the ballrooms and theaters of the slightly less compelling second half. But Nightmare Alley’s central power lies in the faces of its actors, the carnival life lived as painted in creases on their faces, in smiles and banter meant to hide the truth, in haunted looks and, conversely, averted eyes. Joan Blondell is smashing as Zeena, accidentally widowed by Stan’s (subconscious?) enabling of her alcoholic husband. She carries the weight of an entire disappointed life in her big, beautiful, forlorn eyes.

As for Power, he couldn’t have been, and probably never was better than he was in this movie. Critic Charles Taylor observes about Power’s towering performance that the actor conjures Stan’s essence in that “he manages always to look away from anyone declaring any tenderness for him… His gaze is always fixed on where he’s going.” The commitment which Power, Goulding and Furthman show toward Gresham’s concept of Stan’s corruption is that which Hitchcock could not follow through on in flirting with villainy for Cary Grant in Suspicion. The blasphemous blackness in Stan’s heart is given near full reign down the darkest nightmare-fueled alleys in the film; it sticks its chilling effect in our hearts like a stake pounded into soft ground, a stake meant to anchor a carnival tent in place long enough to provide cover while the movie takes us for all we’re worth.

(Nightmare Alley screens Wednesday afternoon at 4:30 p.m. at the Lloyd Rigler Auditorium at the Egyptian Theater as one of AFI Fest 2011 Artistic Director Pedro Almodovar's personal selections for the general program. Information on the entirety of offerings at this year's AFI Fest, as well as information on how to obtain free tickets to screenings throughout the festival run, can be found by clicking here.)


Friday, November 04, 2011


A night flight through a darkened wood opens Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1960) with a heightened pulse—a woman races down a deserted highway eyeing her rear-view mirror, fearful of the intent of cars approaching from behind but also keeping an eye on the passenger in the back seat. Soon the passenger, hidden in a too-big trench coat and hat, slumps forward, and the movie begins its steep descent into the interior of a twisted morality well worthy of being cloaked in a dark forest of secrets. A French-Italian coproduction released in Europe in 1960 (the same year Psycho was released) but not seen in the U.S. until two years later, Eyes Without a Face plays like a Grand Guignol fairy tale with imagery that, unlike the unforgiving slashes and sharp angles of Hitchcock’s landmark, seeps into the viewer’s subconscious with poetic assurance and smears the boundaries of our sympathies at the same time.

In an isolated mansion somewhere in that darkened wood a surgeon (Pierre Brasseur) familiar with past glories has instigated an escalating series of skin graft experiments in a desperate attempt to restore the face of his young daughter (Edith Scob), horribly disfigured in a car accident. The surgeon kidnaps young Parisian girls to use as unwilling epidermal donors with the help of his devoted assistant (Alida Valli), a former patient whose own successful facial reconstruction has blinded her to her savior’s madness. Given the elusive, seductive strangeness of the movie’s surrealist mise-en-scène, 21st-century viewers might be surprised at the film’s notorious centerpiece, a shockingly clinical surgical scene in which Franju’s camera barely glances away from the horrific procedure being performed, and then only to scan the landscape of moral conflict glistening like cold sweat across the faces of the doctor and his helper. But perhaps even more unsettling and ultimately frightening is the degree to which Franju allows us access not only to sympathy for the victims, but also for the daughter, whose dawning realization of what her father is doing might be as devastating as her own disfigurement, and even for the surgeon and his assistant, their genial manner and misguided, sincere love for the girl incapable of coexisting with their heinous deeds.

The movie is a masterpiece of raised goose flesh. Even during the film’s most ostensibly placid moments Franju burrows under our skin with image and sound— over unadorned tracking shots of the girl moving aimlessly through the empty halls of the house a faint, insistent, inexplicable barking can be heard, soon revealed as coming from the basement of the house, where the doctor’s very first victims are still penned. If Eyes Without a Face ends on a note of release best suited for a fairy tale it is a grim tale indeed, tainted by blood, destroyed loyalties and the prospect of a bleak future of isolation, as if a masked, faceless sleeping beauty had escaped the evil queen and made her way into the woods to find only suffocating darkness where magic should reside.

(Eyes Without a Face screens Saturday afternoon at 1:30 p.m. at the Lloyd Rigler Auditorium at the Egyptian Theater as one of AFI Fest 2011 Artistic Director Pedro Almodovar's personal selections for the general program. Almodovar has cited Franju's film as one that has influenced his career and in particular his new film The Skin I Live In. Information on the entirety of offerings at this year's AFI Fest, as well as information on how to obtain free tickets to screenings throughout the festival run, can be found by clicking here.)


Tuesday, November 01, 2011


Ladies and gentlemen, faithful readers of SLIFR, the impossible has happened-- a day late for the party, perhaps, but it has happened nonetheless. After missing out entirely on the past three quizzes, I’ve managed to muster the energy and resources to take on Dr. Anton Phibes’ Abominably Erudite, Musically Malignant, Cursedly Clever Halloween Movie Quiz! Even though this is a Halloween-oriented quiz, I feel justified in my tardiness because I don’t believe anyone stops watching horror movies simply because Halloween is over. They may want to take a break, sure, but the subject remains of interest into November. This is my arrogant assumption, however, and while I beg the good doctor’s forgiveness that I couldn’t get my paper turned in before the commencement of trick-or-treating, I hope he and you will accept it in the evil and nasty spirit with which it was intended and conceived. After all, I am Satan! Here, then, are the things this quiz, and some of your answers to it, made me think about. Hope your Halloween was a gore-ious one!


1) Favorite Vincent Price/American International Pictures release.

Well, if the wording were “best” I might well have to choose The Masque of the Red Death, which has spectacularly doom-laden atmosphere and the best use of color of all of Price’s Corman/Poe pictures (courtesy of cinematographer Nicolas Roeg), or maybe even The Conqueror Worm, though it’s a severely unpleasant, almost suffocating movie to sit through. But no, the word is “favorite,” and since this is the case there can be only one choice for me. I hope everyone will understand that I am not sucking up to the host of this here quiz by choosing The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971). Phibes may not even be Price’s best performance, AIP or not, but it’s got gore, humor, music (that organ theme played over the opening credits has been permanently, pleasurably burned into my brain), a wonderful supporting cast and visual panache to burn. But most of all, it was the gateway movie for me to all the other Vincent Price/AIP pictures—it was only after Phibes that I really started seeking out all those other movies I saw stills from so often in Famous Monsters of Filmland. My mom drove me and a friend to a neighboring town to see Phibes the weekend it opened during the summer of 1971 as a birthday present when I was 11 years old, and it made an impression on me that surpassed any horror movie I’d yet seen in a theater. (I was already a veteran of several Hammer films and The Fearless Vampire Killers… courtesy of my local movie house.) My own daughter, currently also age 11, watched a DVD of it yesterday as a preamble to an evening of trick-or-treating, and when I told her I was terrified when I saw it at her age for the first time she looked at me like I was a demented old man. She liked the movie but could not understand how anyone could find it terrifying. And I thought to myself again how glad I was that I’d grown up during a time in movie history when a picture like The Abominable Dr. Phibes could still be scary and fun for a mass audience, and that I got to see it when I did.

2) What horror classic (or non-classic) that has not yet been remade would you like to see upgraded for modern audiences?

First of all, I don’t have a philosophical objection to remakes. The fact that 9 out of 10 remakes bring nothing new (or, worse, the same old “new” thing) to the table doesn’t change the fact that every once in a while a movie like Let the Right One In will inspire a Let Me In, and now all of the sudden we have two great movies to enjoy. The problem that I have with this question is that I can imagine even the duller candidates for refashioning that I might think of would probably be preferable to what they might be turned into by some young filmmaker trying to make a splash and a career by revamping a well-known title. What are the odds that if someone tried redoing, say, The Green Slime it would retain any of the kind of cheesy energy that makes the original fun to watch to this day? The remake would have to be all post-Alien serious and grim and excessively gooey in order to past muster in the age of Marcus Nispel and Alexandre Aja. That said, as much as I think the originals are better than fine as is, I probably would line up to see what CGI miracles could be conjured for Tarantula and/or The Incredible Shrinking Man, but only with the caveat that they be approached straight, without gimmicks or wink-wink-nudge-nudgery. But I think the best answer for me here, since we’re already in the neighborhood of creatures made giant, and men made small, would be to see a movie made of H.G. Wells’ The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth that stayed true to Wells’ vision and didn’t just use it as an excuse to see Ida Lupino and Marjoe Gortner being chased by giant chickens.

3) Jonathan Frid or Thayer David?

David had an amazing, imposing presence and an unforgettable, drawn-out thickness of speech that made his every utterance a mini-event. (Forty-five years after the fact, I still find myself referencing his Ben Stokes from Dark Shadows whenever I talk about “mmmmy worrrrrrrrrrkkkk…”) But Frid was the staked heart and vaporous soul of that seminal horror soap, embodying everything that was great and terrible about it all in one iconic presence. His Barnabas Collins was, improbably, one of the great tragic vampire characters in pop culture, primarily because Frid knew how to let us in on Collins’ pain and empathize with it; he managed the balance between seductive appeal and moral repellence with welcome grace. Unfortunately, he was also often at sea as an actor. The show was shot live to tape, usually in one take, and frequently Frid’s eyes would dart with desperation toward the cue cards. (David Edelstein, in his review of this past summer’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark wrote: “…Dark Shadows scared me, although mostly because Jonathan Frid could never remember his lines and the pauses were hair-raising.”) He was a much more solid presence in the theatrical feature House of Dark Shadows and its sequel Night of Dark Shadows, where he knew that there was at least a budget that would allow for a second pass. I look forward to Tim Burton’s take on Dark Shadows, but it will likely never replace the original chills of the TV series, most of them generated primarily by Jonathan Frid.

4) Name the one horror movie you need to see that has so far eluded you.

“Need to see” is a loaded phrase, but since I’m the one who loaded it I have little choice but to bite. The horror movie that I most “need to see” which has, despite two chances to experience it theatrically in the past three years, continued to elude me is Eugenio Martin’s Horror Express (1973). Fortunately, the movie is slated for a splashy blu-ray release on November 29, so hopefully I won’t have that “need” for much longer.

5) Favorite film director most closely associated with the horror genre.

I haven’t seen as much Bava as I’d like (Blood and Black Lace would be an excellent fall-back answer to question #4); I don’t much care for the Lucio Fulci I have seen (though I’d go to bat for Don’t Torture a Duckling any day); and though he has made some of my favorite suspense/horror movies-- The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Cat o’ Nine Tails, Suspiria and especially Opera among them—Dario Argento’s output is just too inconsistent and voluminous (I haven’t seen but a fraction of his filmography) to make him a serious candidate. So I’ll have to join the ranks of several respondents here and name David Cronenberg as my favorite director associated with horror, though he hasn’t made anything like a straight horror movie since 1986-- unless you count eXistenZ which, to my mind anyway, has more to do with Naked Lunch (or Videodrome) than with Rabid. Cronenberg’s body horror oeuvre was always about muddying the waters between horror and science fiction too, but we can pick that nit another time. Cronenberg it is.

6) Ingrid Pitt or Barbara Steele?

Barbara Steele has one of the great faces not only of horror movies (especially when punctured by an iron maiden), but of the movies, period. Her standing as a horror cult icon would be cemented by Black Sunday alone, but I came by my appreciation of her as an adult armed with the knowledge of what she’s done and her impact on the genre. Between the two women, there’s really no contest for me: it’s got to be Ingrid Pitt, who was an object of this young boy’s fixation with the erotic aspect of horror from the first time I ever saw a still from The Vampire Lovers up until and beyond her death not quite a year ago. Boris Karloff and Forrest J. Ackerman and Jack Arnold explained to me why horror was for boys, but Pitt made this boy reluctant to wake up from his nightmares, and she made a very good case for a man’s interest in the creatures of the night too. Steele did too, but for me Pitt did it first, and best.

7) Favorite 50’s sci-fi/horror creature.

It may have more to do with my affinity for the movie, but the first thing that came to mind for this category is the rather imposing looking beast from It! The Terror from Beyond Space, and after a few minutes thinking about it I can’t think of one that scared me more. Ricou Browning’s Creature is the icon, but It! is the shit.

8) Favorite/best sequel to an established horror classic.

Well, I think the answer most on everyone’s mind to answer the “best” part of the formulation is probably the right answer, and that would be The Bride of Frankenstein. But we quiz takers have also been granted the option to answer in terms of “favorite,” and although Bride would certainly be in the conversation in that category too, I have to admit that the last few years have made a very comfortable and secure place for Seed of Chucky to reign in my estimation for this category. (I also like Alien 3 and Psycho II a lot.)

9) Name a sequel in a horror series which clearly signaled that the once-vital franchise had run out of gas.

Oh, the choices! I seriously can’t remember even a frame of any Freddy movie past Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, so I suppose the fourth one, whatever the hell it was called, might be a good candidate. (However, just three pictures later Wes Craven's New Nightmare proved that there was something left in the tank after all.) Friday the 13th was running on the fumes of other, better movies to begin with, so I won’t bother there. And I know this will be regarded as heresy, but I’m not sure I even hold Halloween itself in very high regard these days, to say nothing (and I mean nothing) about its many redundant follow-ups. (I might give Halloween III: Season of the Witch points for at least not being about the Shape Otherwise Known as Michael Meyers.) So let’s go to a series that actually meant something to me—I call out Peter Sasdy’s Taste the Blood of Dracula as the first signal that Hammer’s take on Dracula was getting wobbly. I actually like Roy Ward Baker’s Scars of Dracula, with its amplified gore and cleavage quotient, which was released a mere six months after Taste in both the U.K. and the U.S., near the end of 1970. But even this Hammer fan had little patience for Alan Gibson’s lackluster Dracula A.D. 1972, which in my 13-year-old eyes became the final nail in Christopher Lee’s coffin as far as Dracula was concerned. I’ve never had much desire to revisit Dracula A.D. 1972 or The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973; also directed by Gibson) since the first and only times I saw them nearly 40 years ago.

10) John Carradine or Lon Chaney Jr.?

“They gotta burn!!!!” John Carradine’s immortal reading of that line in The Howling is quite literally unforgettable, and I’m glad for it. But so is Lon Chaney Jr.’s sleepy, sad-sack presence as Larry Talbot in the Universal Wolfman series. (My best friend Bruce Lundy a.k.a. Blaaagh ‘round these parts does a devastatingly funny Chaney impersonation.) Neither of the actors represents any particular kind of zenith in the horror genre for me. Both made plenty of bad ones (Billy the Kid vs. Dracula or Indestructible Man, anyone?), yet both had long careers as Hollywood utility players in just about every genre of movie except maybe the musical. So my totally random choice, based on the fact that he shared screen time with Maria Ouspenskaya, is Lon Chaney Jr.

11) What was the last horror movie you saw in a theater? On DVD or Blu-ray?

Theatrically: Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block (2011), a wonderful mash-up of Night of the Comet-style sci-fi and Stephen Frears-style social commentary (Sammy and Rosie Meet the Monsters?)

DVD: Tales from the Crypt (1972), a personal favorite, a Horror Dads Halloween pick and my daughter Nonie’s go-to Halloween viewing choice this year. Good girl!

DVR: Strait-Jacket (1964) As a friend of mine suggested, this is Joan Crawford looking into her crystal ball and channeling Faye Dunaway’s brutal impersonation, which was still 17 years away, into a William Castle-directed Psycho knock-off (written by Robert Bloch) in which the big reveal is apparent about six minutes in. Not enough style to cover up with dead spots between relatively gory decapitations, just the spectacle of a Hollywood great trying to make a silk purse out of a pretty thin sow’s ear with a very sharp ax. And to think, Trog was still waiting in the wings. The best thing about Strait-Jacket comes after the end credits:

12) Best foreign-language fiend/monster.

Someone has already mentioned Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu as Raymond Lemorne in George Sluzier’s original 1988 Dutch version of The Vanishing (Spoorloos), and I think even the titular and quite awesome nasty from Joon-ho Bong’s The Host (2006), both of which popped on my radar when I wrote this question. But the more I thought about it, if I was going for giant monsters I’d probably have to put Ghidrah ahead of his South Korean cousin, and if Donnadieu’s existential pervert is great (and he is), then in acknowledging one of his primary sources I’d find myself landing on the true answer, which has to be Peter Lorre as the miserable miscreant Hans Beckert in Fritz Lang’s M.

13) Favorite Mario Bava movie.

Black Sunday (1960) on a rainy day or otherwise inclement day. For the sunnier times, I default to A Bay of Blood (1971; a.k.a. Twitch of the Death Nerve). I also have a major soft spot for Planet of the Vampires (1965). My favorite non-horror Mario Bava? A tie between the delirious Danger: Diabolik (1968) and the thrillingly silly Four Times That Night (1972), featuring an extraordinarily lovely Daniela Giordano.

14) Favorite horror actor and actress.

Well, I don’t think there can be any doubt that Peter Cushing is my top pick. Though he had credits like Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet (1948) and Edward Dmytryk’s The End of the Affair (1955) already under his belt, it was The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) that really made him, even more so than favorite costar Christopher Lee, the face of Hammer, indeed, the empathic face of a generation’s worth of horror films. His Frankenstein and Van Helsing are indelible creations, but also he appeared as Sherlock Holmes for Hammer, as well as in terrific movies like Island of Terror, Torture Garden, The Vampire Lovers and Asylum (and even in a little chamber drama the cognoscenti refer to as Star Wars). His best, most emotionally challenging work came as the morally ambivalent Gustav Weil, whose rigid religiosity comes under fire by an evil generated from within his own family in Twins of Evil (1971), and as the doomed Arthur Grimsdyke in Tales from the Crypt (1972). Both films were made in the wake of the death of Cushing’s wife Helen Beck and are informed by the man’s devastating loss, from which it is said he never fully recovered. And of course his portrayal of Baron Frankenstein in 1969’s Frankenstein Must be Destroyed remains the definitive, quite unsympathetic, quite powerful realization of that iconic character.

It’s rather more difficult to choose a female counterpart to Peter Cushing’s influence and legacy in the horror genre, because I don’t really think there is one. (I invite any and all submissions pointing out the obvious candidate that I am just not remembering.) The comparison would be, I think, at best unfair to simply say Ingrid Pitt or Barbara Steele, though those might well be the choices to which I would gravitate. If I were to point to a single performance, however, it might just be Hye-ja Kim as the genre’s most overprotective Mother (2009), a performance and a movie which seem both too grand and too specific to be described simply as being from the realm of horror, though by the end of the movie that’s the terrain in which they both most definitely reside.

15) Name a great horror director’s least effective movie.

I won’t go the John Carpenter route, despite the many possible candidates in his filmography, because I don’t think of him as a great horror director. A good choice for me might be Mario Bava’s Baron Blood (1972), which has a neat premise but takes an awfully long time to fulfill it. But ultimately I’ll choose Dario Argento, whose Mother of Tears (2007) is flat-out asinine, more resembling the work of an Argento parodist than the real thing. Daughter Asia is awful in the lead, and no amount of copious nudity on the part of a tearful, leather-clad Mama Witch can overcome the gasp-inducing, self-serious silliness that this movie, part three of an incoherent trilogy of which Suspiria was the first installment, doles out like cheap Halloween candy.

16) Grayson Hall or Joan Bennett?

I understand that Bennett probably has the more refined résumé-- The Woman in the Window, Scarlet Street, The Woman on the Beach, Suspiria-- but she always read, especially as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard on Dark Shadows, as a bit of a cold fish to these eyes (in other words, exactly as she was probably intended). On the other hand, Grayson Hall, as Dr. Julia Hoffman, Barnabas Collins’ reluctantly sympathetic consort, was brittle, anxiety-ridden, perpetually on the brink of apoplexy, and therefore a much more compelling counter to Bennett’s relatively static presence in the halls of Collinwood. Reader David Robson writes of Hall in his Dr. Phibes quiz answers:

“There's a scene toward the end of the first Barnabas arc where Julia is beset by low-tech, ghostly visions. It's basically Grayson Hall just riding a fucking crazy train - for ten glorious, unbroken minutes, the only thing you saw on ABC was Grayson Hall losing her shit. I would LOVE to have been in the studio the day that scene was shot.”

Whenever I hear the trumpet stings soaring like ravens above the eerie calm before the gathering storm of Robert Cobert’s Dark Shadows musical score, for some reason I always think first of Hall over the entirety of the series’ vampires, witches and werewolves. Add to that the bit of info gleaned from IMDb that Hall was “known for sometimes outré performances on Broadway” and you get the sum of an endorsement from me. Advantage: Grayson Hall.

17) When did you realize that you were a fan of the horror genre? And if you’re not, when did you realize you weren’t?

No moment of epiphany to speak of here because it honestly seems like I always was a horror fan. My earliest memories of fear associated with horror or suspense come mostly from TV—being terrified by a guy named Ray who used to be a recurring character on General Hospital when I was about age 4; a vivid memory of a gigantic seaweed creature enveloping the Seaview in its deadly tendrils on Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea from around the same time; a kids’ game show (I was about five, I’d guess) called Shenanigans which often had contestants entering a dark “haunted house” and having to snatch a prize from the clutches of a very scary-looking monster. I also remember seeing The Jungle Book when it was first released (1967) and being frozen in my tracks on the way back from the concession stand by the frightening trailer for Wait Until Dark. (Way to program previews for appropriate audiences, Tower Theater, Roseville, California!) But it was probably getting hooked on Dark Shadows when I was about seven years old that really cemented my fascination with monsters and the horror genre. My first issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland was only a year or so away…

18) Favorite Bert I. Gordon (B.I.G.) movie.

It just has to be Village of the Giants. I first saw it back in 2005 during a semi-drunken weekend of movie viewing with my best friend, and it really made an impression. Here’s what I wrote about it for SLIFR way back then:

“Gordon is the distinctive auteur of the "things get real big and go on a rampage" school of science fiction-- from the early '50s through the mid '70s he made 11 mostly terrible movies that featured some sort of creature, or creatures, usually made gigantic and very angry by ill-advised scientific tinkering or atomic-age disaster. His The Amazing Colossal Man and its sequel, War of the Colossal Beast, are iconic science fiction cheapies, excellent encapsulations of the ups and downs of a very prevalent theme in B-movie science fiction of the time. The director usually wrote his own scripts, often in collaboration with others, and the Colossal pictures were no exception. But Gordon, along with co-screenwriter Alan Caillou, would go to the well of a very different science fiction master for inspiration when it came time to craft this 1965 masterpiece of young hoodlums who grow to be 30 feet tall and become no less the authority-flaunting thrill-seekers for it. Yes, the hep cats frugging in strange fringed bikinis and furry swim shorts behind the opening credits of Village of the Giants may be the swingin'-est thing happening during this sequence, but it's by no means the strangest. No, that status goes to the moment when this credit pops on screen over all that frugging and wild surf music: "Based on the Novel The Food of the Gods by H.G. Wells" !!! At that moment it ought to have been pretty damn clear that we're not in for Merchant/Ivory-esque tortured fidelity to the original text with this particular literary adaptation, though for Gordon Wells' novel clearly was a major work-- he would "adapt" it again in 1976 for American International Pictures, this time calling it The Food of the Gods and focusing exclusively on giant rats, chickens, et al, leaving the juvenile delinquent populace to frug (or whatever we juvenile delinquents did in the mid '70s-- I forget) at their normal size.

The opening credits are followed by a scene of unleashed carnality so astonishing that I was forced to put down my cheese sandwich and put off further chewing until after it was finished. The camera pans over to a wrecked car that's been run up on an embankment just before the cameras rolled (Mr. Gordon was, as you may have guessed, a budget-conscious filmmaker fond of such shorthand imagery). Inside are six teens, three guys, three girls, and as they stumble out of the wreckage it becomes clear that they are not, as you or I might be, stunned in the aftermath of a car crack-up, but instead somehow turned on by it. They're downright giddy, in fact, and contemplate hoofing it to the nearest burg so they can channel their energy into further wild adventures traveling around the countryside causing trouble for various locals. And then, before they start easing down the road, a couple of the chicks start dancing, man, in that insinuating way that seems strangely familiar, kinda like what we saw under the opening credits, and before you know it they've got the guys shimmying like it's a roadside edition of American Bandstand, and everything's getting wilder and wilder... and that's when they start rolling around in the mud and tossing great huge clumps of it at each other in the wildest pre-Jack Valenti scene of barely sublimated orgiastic not-exactly-sex that I can remember ever seeing.

And that's just the first eight minutes. How can the movie ever hope to match or surpass it? Well, the fact of the matter is, it can't, really. But the good news is that it doesn't matter, because Village of the Giants comes pretty fully loaded with energy, a couple of pretty decent tunes courtesy of the Beau Brummels (and inexplicable musical numbers by some generic crooners that are on the opposite end of the scale from "pretty decent"), plus scene after scene of enlarged creatures (a pooch, a duck and a common household tarantula, for starters) attacking or otherwise interacting with a dazzlingly unimpressed citizenry. Gordon isn’t interested in any highfalutin existential ideas that might steer this romp toward becoming a reverse of Jack Arnold and Richard Matheson’s The Incredible Shrinking Man. As the SCTV film critics might have said, he just likes to see things blow up real big.

Then there’s the cast. That’s bombshell Joy Harmon and co-bombshell Tisha Sterling as the two JD babes, Mickey Rooney’s son Tim as another of these teenage blights on society, and Beau Bridges, supremely blissed out in that Dennis Wilson-warm-California-sun kind of way as the leader of the pack. Just imagine how formidable these ruffians become when they ingest the mysterious “goop” concocted by the precocious “Genius” (essayed by little Ronny Howard, in a characterization remarkably similar to that of his indelible Opie), which causes them all to become 30 feet tall and drunk with their newfound power over the law (and all the weaklings they used to lord it over anyway). But that’s not all. “Genius” has an older sister, Nancy (generically appealing good girl Charla Doherty), whose boyfriend Mike (ex-Disney icon Tommy Kirk) heads the resistance against these ginormous bullies, with help from best buddy Horsey (The Rifleman’s own Johnny Crawford), bohemian babe Red (soon-to-be-famous choreographer and ‘80s one-hit wonder Toni Basil) and the local sheriff (played by Tyrell Corporation CEO and Overlook bartender Joe Turkel). And prefiguring a career of attaching himself to his son’s projects, there’s even a brief appearance by Rance Howard, though I can’t for the life of me remember in what context he appears. When all these folks gather for a community picnic, the main course of which is the aforementioned giant duck, skinned and roasting on a spit smack in the middle of the town square, I turned to Bruce and proclaimed that Village of the Giants could end right now and still be the automatic winner of Most Unabashedly Fun Movie of the Weekend in my mind.

The movie is full of obvious and on-the-cheap optical effects employed to grant the newly gigantic beings their oversized grandeur. And one in-camera trick, a sneaky perspective shift that tricks you into thinking you’re actually seeing the teen giants growing (and then shrinking) is actually pretty resourceful and effective—it’s a low-tech harbinger of that shot in Jaws, and so many subsequent thrillers, where foreground and background move in opposite directions along the Z-axis, creating a dolly effect with no actual camera movement that leaves the subject of the shot queasily adrift in the middle of the frame.

But no special effect or trick shot in Village of the Giants ends up having half the impact of Tommy Kirk’s hairdo, a wildly elevated ducktail that exposes the aging teen star’s hairline impairment and retreats from his eerily appropriate duck-like facial features to such a degree that I began to irrationally (perhaps it was the hour—there was no tequila imbibed this night) suspect that some unholy alliance of the movie’s hairdresser and his own body had conspired to make the actor look as smarmy and Anatidaen as possible. This graphical connection between the “teen warrior” (no surprise that Kirk was actually 24 when the movie was filmed) and his oversized foes—especially that big quacker—lend his sleepy-eyed battles a fuzzy sense of familiar set against familiar—you know, like a cockfight, only with mad ducks. (Maybe I did have something to drink after all…)”

19) Name an obscure horror favorite that you wish more people knew about.

I’m not convinced that either of them are exactly obscure, but far more than just we horror geeks should know of both Ravenous (1999), director Antonia Bird’s gonzo riff on the Donner Party, and Gary Sherman’s literally underground thriller Raw Meat (1972; a.k.a. Death Line). These are two movies that give cannibalism a very good name—just don’t try it at home, kids.

20) The Human Centipede-- yes or no?

No, thanks. If only Tom Six were as smart and/or talented as he thinks he is. Unfortunately, he’s just cynical. And not so smart.

21) And while we’re in the neighborhood, is there a horror film you can think of that you felt “went too far”?

Well, logic would dictate that The Human Centipede would be the natural choice here. But ironically, I actually don’t think it goes too far, in the sense that it is outrageously banal and, as I suggested in the piece linked above, the director plays his most outrageous cards rather coyly. He isn’t at all wise or intuitive enough to figure out a way to turn his juvenile scatological fantasies of violation and degradation into something even remotely close to the most grandiose claims of the movie’s supporters. My candidate would be Takashi Miike’s notorious “banned from cable” episode of the “Masters of Horror” series entitled Imprint (2006). I happen to be among those who think Miike’s Audition is a genuinely great movie, and it’s no stroll in the park, even for someone who has seen an awful lot of grisly things in horror films and every other sort. But Imprint struck me as a terrible wallow in truly ghastly images of torture and violation of the body. It only runs about an hour, but that’s enough time for Miike to cross the line more than once in this tale of a man (Billy Drago, truly awful) who visits a brothel and spends the night in the company of a disfigured woman whose tragic tale of her own history gets worse as the man prods more secrets from her than she is initially willing to reveal. This is the sort of cinematic provocation—yes, Miike is a very bad boy-- that can seem shallow and tiresome in something like Ichi the Killer. But here Miike accesses real pain; unfortunately, it’s not in service of much beyond testing the audience’s limits for scenes of needles being driven under a woman’s fingernails and into her gums, not to mention the recurring motif of hideously aborted fetuses. My own personal experience with the loss of my son 14 years ago may not make me the ideal audience for Imprint, but if there is such a thing I’m not sure who it might be.

22) Name a film that is technically outside the horror genre that you might still feel comfortable describing as a horror film.

If it’s not demeaning to suggest it, I’d nominate Taxi to the Dark Side. But if we’re limiting ourselves to fiction film, then Salo: The 120 Days of Sodom seems a good choice. I also found Beverly Hills Chihuahua downright bone-chilling.

23) Lara Parker or Kathryn Leigh Scott?

I think this is the first “either/or” comparison in the history of these quizzes in which 100% of the vote (so far) has gone to one subject over the other. But, unlike my preference for underdog Grayson Hall over favorite Joan Bennett, I cannot, out of sincerity or perversity, swim against the tide this time. I liked Kathryn Leigh Scott’s Josette duPres on Dark Shadows just fine-- Scott played Barnabas’s long-dead lover and her reincarnation, Maggie Evans Collins. But the young boys gravitate to the luscious bad woman almost every time, and Lara Parker’s petulant, seductive Angelique, Barnabas’s tormentor down through the centuries, was sex incarnate for those of us who hadn’t quite figured out what sex was yet. Parker was fun to watch, impossible not to watch, as all grand villains should be. And, as has been pointed out more than once already here, she was in Race with the Devil (1975). Case closed.

24) If you’re a horror fan, at some point in your past your dad, grandmother, teacher or some other disgusted figure of authority probably wagged her/his finger at you and said, “Why do you insist on reading/watching all this morbid monster/horror junk?” How did you reply? And if that reply fell short somehow, how would you have liked to have replied?

The disdain I felt from many of the adults surrounding me regarding my love for horror movies was often inseparable from the disdain over my passion for movies in general. Such devotion to what was viewed essentially as disposable entertainment was not comprehensible to the more practical-minded adults that lived in my hometown. (The one glorious exception was my Grandma Rina.) And most flatly disapproved of my interest in horror and science fiction—I remember my dad blowing his top at me once when he overheard me describing the blood rushing from the elevators in The Shining to a younger cousin, as if I were force-feeding the kid mental rat poison. Back then I couldn’t have, and didn’t, articulate exactly why I loved the monsters—I just knew that I enjoyed the vicarious thrill, the sense of being temporarily unsettled that often came with trips into the mindscapes these movies conjured. Later I would see how horror movies could often go beyond simple jolts and shivers, how the genre could be adapted for all kinds of metaphoric and subtextual use. But when I first loved horror movies, it was enough for me to know that they were for a certain kind of viewer only, and being that certain kind of viewer made me part of a club, a club whose members all understood without having to explain it to anyone, least of all themselves, why such frightening stories and imagery made them so unaccountably happy. So often, before I made friends later in adolescence who shared my passion, horror movies felt like movies made just for me. And I liked them because I liked them.

25) Name the critic or Web site you most enjoy reading on the subject of the horror genre.

Though I have been accused of including this question in order to troll for praise (facetiously, I hope!), I don’t particularly think of myself as particularly well-versed or experienced in the genre, and I certainly don’t think of myself as an expert writer about it. No, for the kind of intelligent expertise I enjoy when reading about horror movies only one source I’ve discovered has been able to fill the bill for scholarship and smart writing: Arbogast On Film. I need not say more. If you’re a horror fan and you don’t know this site, you should get familiar, and quickly. As for spending time in the company of great fellas who also happen to be articulate lovers of the genre and parents who hope to raise similarly devoted chillun, it has been a great pleasure and privilege to be part of the occasional gathering of the Horror Dads over at TCM’s Movie Morlocks. Richard, Greg, Jeff, Paul and Nicholas all know a hell of a lot more about horror than this self-professed Famous Monsters lifer could ever claim to know, and I enjoy their friendship and their fertile brains (chilled, with garnish) more than I can express.

26) Most frightening image you’ve ever taken away from a horror movie.

There are many, of course, but this one, one of several in this movie alone, is for the ages. Grown men will weep and gnash their teeth. I know, because I was one of them while I was watching Audition for the first time.

And this one has to count because I had nightmares about it before I ever even saw the movie.

27) Your favorite memory associated with watching a horror movie.

Again, many to choose from, but my favorite, primarily for the way it plunged me back into a state of irrational terror that I hadn’t felt since I was a much younger child, came courtesy of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. I had caught the movie a couple of times—perhaps uncut, probably not—on late-night weekend Sinister Cinema broadcasts out of Portland, but I had never seen it projected. So one Saturday night during our sophomore year at the University of Oregon best-pal Bruce and I drove out to a cineplex on the western outskirts of town where they were showing NOTLD at midnight. The place was packed and the crowd, though certainly up for a good time, wasn’t excessively rowdy—we all settled in to the movie’s bleak apocalyptic vibe with little effort.

And about 15 minutes in, about the time poor, unfortunate Barbara (Judith O’Dea) and poor, unfortunate Ben (Duane Jones) start boarding up the doors and windows of that dilapidated house, some kid who obviously either couldn’t afford a ticket or was determined by the management to be too drunk to let in through the box office started shouting and banging on the exit door near the bottom of the screen from outside. This went on for several minutes, but rather than take it as an intrusion the audience seemed to dig the extra frisson of dread the would-be intruder was adding to the show, their general whatever vibe no doubt attributable to adventures in weed that they may or may not have indulged in before the movie started. In fact, Bruce and I were probably one of the few people in attendance not chemically enhanced in some way, yet for some reason I took on the paranoid characteristics of a dissolute hophead and began my own personal freak-out. The movie was getting to me all on its own, and now here’s this guy outside banging on the door, yelling incoherently. He could be a zombie. Yeah, he probably is! Jesus Christ! STOP IT, MAN!!!!! JUST STOP IT!!!!!!!

Sure enough, the banging stopped after a few minutes and we were left with only the movie to scare us out of our wits. And how it did. Even though I had seen it before, the movie went about the business of rattling the audience in that special way familiar to anyone who has already survived seeing it. But the guy outside got to me, and for the duration of the show, while the house was being besieged by the flesh-eating undead, I kept coming back to that bastard outside. What if the movie ended and we all shuffled out into a world where there’s hundreds of these goddamned soulless beasts between us and our cars, just waiting to tear us limb from limb or, worse, offer us up a simple flesh wound that would ignite our own lust for bloody and unwilling long pig? By the time the movie ended, I was driven into such an irrational fear, sparked by the movie and the special interactive fun that took place during the screening, that I actually cringed as we passed through the exit door, into the lobby and out into the parking lot. Which was curiously zombie-free. To this day I don’t know if I was purely relieved or if perhaps some part of me was slightly disappointed. Whatever it was, thanks for the memory to George A. Romero and especially to that poor besotted door-banging interloper, whoever you are!

28) What would you say is the most important/significant horror movie of the past 20 years (1992-2012)? Why?

It might be Audition (1999), simply because Takashi Miike’s movie crystallized the artistic value of extreme violence in a horror context and made way for countless imitators, from Japan, South Korea and, of course, the United States, many of whom frequently made the mistake of assuming that the gore was the point (a misstep also often taken by Miike himself in his prolific career). Several of the movies that have come in this one’s wake which have taken advantage of the boundaries Miike pushes here, movies that are themselves simply an excuse for an onslaught of violence, tend to forget that for the first hour Audition resembles an earnest relationship picture rather than a horror film… which is why it is so profoundly unsettling when Miike finally yanks the rug out from underneath us. For me Audition is significant not only for the ways it uses violent imagery, but for the way in which it has managed to prove that doing visceral horror right depends a lot more on the brains and intuition of the filmmaker than it does the proficiency and expertise of the effects houses.

29) Favorite Dr. Phibes curse (from either film).

I like Phibes’ elaborate interpretation of the Curse of the Firstborn that ends the movie, but my favorite is actually the Curse of the Locusts, from the boiling of Brussells sprouts, to the laying down of the map approximating the nurse’s position in bed, the close-ups of the drill going through the floor, the green goo sliding through the tube stuck through the floor/ceiling and dripping onto the nurse and the furniture in her bedroom one floor below…

the locusts being fed through a larger tube which also penetrates the floor/ceiling…

and the final result.

30) You are programming an all-night Halloween horror-thon for your favorite old movie palace. What five movies make up your schedule?

The Horror Dads did this subject up right for Halloween, but we only got to pick one movie each for our fest. Here’s what I’d choose if I programmed all five pictures myself, in the order in which they would be shown:

Those oughta keep you awake all night. And just try sleeping afterward...


POSTSCRIPT: Behold Satan and Daughter of Satan, the winners of the New Beverly Cinema Halloween Costume Contest! Best Halloween ever? Just maybe!