Saturday, December 08, 2018


Those who have more than the cursory knowledge of the history of British royalty of which I  possess have made it clear Yorgos Lanthimos’s new movie The Favourite is bollocks as a historical document. This is a claim that is most likely true, and frankly, I don’t have a problem with that-- I doubt the director of Dogtooth and The Lobster, to name two of Lanthimos’s previous warm-hearted crowd-pleasers, does either. I suspect he’d propose that sticking to the facts is a job better suited to schoolteachers than a director possessed with the desire to get to a different sort of truth. And anyway, historical veracity, such as it exists in Hollywood and international cinema, has never been a guarantor of much of anything beyond great cinematography and costumes, and often of a certain stuffiness of attitude which suggests the filmmaker’s concern with nutritional value has supplanted her/his need to tell a good story—the upcoming Mary, Queen of Scots would seem to be in contention to continue this grand tradition, if the humorless trailers are any reliable indicator. But in The Favourite Lanthimos’s own tradition of observing humanity as if it were a series of specimens under glass finds a rich and satisfying expression by embracing the machinations of political power within the court of England’s Queen Anne in the manner in which they have been conceived in the script, written by historian Deborah Davis and UK TV scribe Tony McNamara, as something akin to a reimagining of All About Eve  with powdered wigs and crinoline dressing up all the similarly pretty poisons of interpersonal intrigue.

Anne herself, as embodied by the magnificent Olivia Colman (herself now in waiting to replace Claire Foy as a more mature embodiment of Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown), is in any given moment a figure of immense sympathy, comedy, tragedy and volatility, one for whom her subjects clear as wide a path as their servitude will allow. She’s crippled by gout, insecurity and loss-- the 17 children she’s had to bury are represented in her court by a litter of bunnies on whom most of her sympathies are projected. (Anne's actual husband, Prince George, is a nonfactor here and merits nary a mention.) The one person allowed into the inner chambers of Anne’s vulnerabilities, the one person who sees her both as queen and confidant, as well as someone whose power is there to be constantly measured and influenced, is Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), who uses the access allowed by her long-standing friendship with the queen, which extends back to their childhoods, to act as a sort of shadow empress, manipulating Anne’s confidence to extend an increasingly unpopular war with France headed up by her husband against the complaints of Parliament. Davis and McNamara use hints from historical correspondence between Sarah and Anne to posit that Sarah’s manipulations extended from political and psychological into the sexual, which makes an even more teasingly ambiguous puzzle for the audience as to precisely the quality and temperament of Sarah’s sympathies and her pique, and Weisz occupies those ambiguities with her customary brilliance.

By the time young Abigail (Emma Stone), Sarah’s disgraced young cousin, arrives at court, she’s already been subject to a variety of humiliations. Her father has sold her into servitude to pay off a gambling debt, and she sees her royal connection as a path to betterment, and her cramped coach ride to the castle ends with the young woman face down in a puddle. When Abigail complains of her befouled clothing to a chambermaid-- “This mud stinks”-- the maid assures her that the stench is what passes in the realm for political commentary, and that assessment rather not-so-tidily sums up the movie’s own superficial deferral of political analysis in favor of interpersonal wriggling. (“This Mud Stinks” also provides the title of one of the chapter headings by which the movie has been rather neatly punctuated, all of them bearing similar headings cheekily derived from the movie’s dialogue.) Abigail’s forthrightness with the maid also portends her own ambitions to regain her dignity via a manipulative streak to rival her cousin’s, and soon she supplants Sarah in the queen’s affinity, and in her bed chamber, an act of personal redemption that seals her fate in royal amber.

When one thinks back on the plethora of historical dramas that have been afforded audiences throughout the history of movies, the word “fun” doesn’t come up too often, even given that the definition of the word is necessarily elastic when it comes to what might float your boat in the cinema—The Scarlet Empress and Lawrence of Arabia are both boatloads of fun, if you ask me, and of course your mileage may vary. But The Favourite has to be one of the most purely, devilishly fun movies ever to set itself up in the post-Barry Lyndon era of naturally lit, impeccably detailed dramas of corrupt or corruptible aristocracy, its picaresque qualities doing a gender switch into Abigail’s ambitious and questionable methods of social climbing, then subverted and redistributed into a framework of ostensible male power where the women pull all the strings, nowhere more prominently than amongst themselves. 
The actresses are all exemplary—Stone is the real lead, her wide-eyed countenance always impishly masking, and sometimes unexpectedly revealing, the depth of her personal ambition and her seething anger at the degradations she’s suffered, and she’s rarely been as nimble, as playfully barbed as she is here. But Weisz is easily her match—no one in the movie, or maybe even the movies has a dry stare as penetrating as hers-- and Colman will be even more of a revelation for anyone who stumbles into The Favourite unsure of who she is than she will be for those of us who know her well. (In my book, she entered the realm of greatness by her sarcastic reading of the word “mu-u-urder!” in Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz, and she has any number of similarly brilliant moments here.) But those like me who had difficulties with some of his past films, like The Lobster  or The Killing of a Sacred Deer, should be prepared to be surprised by Lanthimos himself too. He pleasurably betrays the conventions of the stately dramatic tradition by ensuring that his movie is constantly on the move, paced at times like a farce and punctuated with duck races and anachronistic dances and spine-tingling outbursts of outrage. The whole enterprise comes decorated with harshly funny language and a recurring dalliance with a fish-eyed visual scheme that suggests this detached, almost scientifically inclined dissector of human nature has not entirely abandoned his penchant for putting his characters under a microscope. Yet The Favourite has a peculiar spirit that his previous films haven’t—one can see the existential prankster of Dogtooth at work here, but this time, yes, he’s having fun, and he’s figured out a way to make sure his audience does too.


Sunday, November 25, 2018


Film fans in the Los Angeles area are getting a special treat this coming Friday evening, when Joe Dante’s marvelous 2010 3D thriller The Hole screens at the TCL Chinese Theaters. 
The event marks the official launch of the new multimedia brand Untold Horror which, according to the project’s press release, “was conceived as a brand dedicated to answering the question that genre fans often ask: ‘Whatever happened to that movie?’ The documentary series will explore the tantalizing projects that were announced but died in development hell, uncover the compelling unannounced projects by our favorite artists that fans have never heard about, and discover just what it would take to bring some of them back to life.” 
All of which makes The Hole a perfect jewel with which to introduce a project with such a trajectory, being itself a movie which was highly anticipated, and then largely beloved by those who were lucky enough to see it on a big screen in 3D, all before it ended up disappearing into the bog of indifferent and inept distribution to which many a good movie has often found itself consigned throughout movie history. 
The screening, which commences Friday night, November 30, at 7:30 pm, will include a special Q&A session with Dante hosted by fellow horror fan and Trailers from Hell guru, director John Landis (An American Werewolf in London, National Lampoon’s Animal House). You can purchase tickets directly from the TCL Chinese Theater website or through Fandango.
The review of The Hole which follows was originally written after I first saw the film in 3D at a screening back in 2010, when the movie’s fate in the marketplace was already being sealed, and it contains some references which most definitely anchor it to a specific period of time. It’s my hope that the review also aptly conveys my enthusiasm for Dante’s achievement and will inspire you to come out Friday night to take advantage of a rare opportunity and see a terrific movie the way it was meant to be seen.


Joe Dante’s The Hole (from a script by Mark L. Smith) doesn’t explode off the screen like a Gremlins firecracker or dabble in gory genre-referential antics in the way that made The Howling and Piranha such high-end, low-down fun. And there’s little evidence in this latest film of Dante the satirist who created such tonally disparate films as Small Soldiers, Matinee and The Second Civil War with a spirit of liberal social engagement that makes watching them feel like discovering a really well-spiked punchbowl. It has been observed that Dante, one of the movies’ most naturally, piquantly visual filmmakers (Gremlins 2: The New Batch felt like a great, feature-length Mort Drucker panel), makes movies that already feel as though they’re in 3D. So why bother? Dante answers that question by choosing to use the newly vibrant technology on a small-scaled story (boiled down to its essentials, it’s Three Kids and a Creepy Basement) which allows him to explore 3D not so much as an effects-enhancement tool but one which can be used to expand the boundaries of the story’s emotional pull. (Fans of Dante’s penchant for referencing other films needn’t worry, though; at least one joke involving a certain glove-bound Peter Lorre movie had the audience I saw it with chuckling with appreciation.)
Dante has often spoken of Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder as a major influence on how to take what is essentially a chamber piece and artistically enhance it so that the 3D brings out elements of character and emotion that might not have been so direct or accessible otherwise. Here Dante takes a ‘80s horror movie template (the movie The Hole most superficially resembles is the 1987 low-budget hit The Gate) and lends his directorial authority, his mastery of space and pace and the frame, and now what quaintly used to be referred to as "stereovision," to enrich the film’s basic structure. The story involves two young boys and their overworked mother (Chris Massoglia and Nathan Gamble are the boys, Teri Polo is the mom) who have made another in a series of apparently frequent moves, this time into an old house in a small town that the oldest boy (Massoglia) finds unbearably dull. They eventually meet up with a girl from next door (Haley Bennett) and the three of them discover a locked passage which, when opened, reveals an apparently bottomless hole in the basement from which all manner of terrifying things, seemingly directly related to each of the children’s most profound fears, begin to emerge. 
But more so than with the references and inspiration of other directors and films, I was struck by the way the movie beautifully resonates with one of Dante’s own movies-- Explorers. Both share a dark, often cluttered, yet somehow shimmering color palette and a slightly heightened reality--the steps down to that basement never seemed so long as when there’s a ghastly, cackling jester doll at the foot of the stairs, just like the hometown vistas of Explorers, on which a drive-in movie theater seems surrounded by nothing but the most beautiful of night blue. The sullen, introspective Dane, as played by Chris Massoglia, seems a direct descendant of Jason Presson’s troubled Darren, who in Explorers gets involved with a scheme to build a homemade spaceship and send it off in search of the source of a series of strange interstellar signals as a reasonable alternative to spending another night at home with his alcoholic father who, it can reasonably be presumed, indulges in a regular schedule of violent, emotional abuse.

There are even images in The Hole that resonate for me with the perversely funny conclusion of Explorers, when our earnest post-Spielbergian heroes realize they been called on their adventure by a couple of alien kids who know nothing of Earth culture other than what they’ve picked up from TV transmissions floating in the void. The party is crashed by a rampaging monster who resembles the alien kids, but who is even bigger than they are. The creature is back-lit, framed by a giant doorway, and he flails his multiple arms in an angry display that confuses everyone but Darren, who recognizes the parental rage right away. “He’s their dad,” he mutters with bemusement, as all remnants of the glowing Spielberg vision of alien visitation delightfully evaporate into space mist. The Hole turns that moment of bittersweet comic recognition into a terrifying tableaux from which Dane must escape with his dignity and his sanity intact.
Leave it to Dante to achieve, with funds approximately equal to that of Avatar’s toilet paper budget, what James Cameron, for all of his movie’s overwhelming immersive grandeur, could not—he takes a story which in other hands could have come off as dangerously thin and imbued it with an impish illusion of depth that comes to mirror that of his characters. And there’s something about the way Dante stages the characters moving around in their environments—that basement full of dark corners and barely illuminated objects which might not be what you think they are, but also the more genial, everyday ones like a kitchen or a bedroom, or simply a small-town street—that allows you to experience those environments not as 3D stunts but as something approaching natural, in the way that the eye experiences objects in three-dimensional space. Cameron achieved this too, but there was always something just a little too dazzling and computer-generated going on to constantly remind you (if those 10-ton glasses didn’t already) that for all of its Z-axis verisimilitude, Avatar was just a movie. The most complimentary thing I can think to say about the stereovision aspect of The Hole is that, in the scenes not designed to showcase the technology, it’s easy to forget that the movie is in 3D. But unlike, say, Wes Craven, whose My Soul to Take betrayed no awareness of how to use 3D to the story’s advantage (or much awareness of anything else, like being scary, for that matter), Dante seduces the viewer into an intimacy with these characters—we really do feel as though we are somehow sharing their space— by using the stereoptic qualities of the image to heighten our response not only to the mounting horror, but also to how the characters live their daily lives.
This sensitivity to the relatively mundane works joyous wonders on making the grand 3D moments even more effective. It also helps that Dante displays astonishing acuity with the 3D image-- The Hole was staged and shot in 3D; no afterthought conversion job, this. And because we haven’t been constantly dodging Ping-Pong balls and other objects flying at us for the first half hour, when a particular 3D image resonates, it does so in a big way. For instance, the moment we stumble upon the lair of Bruce Dern is a real eye-popper. Dern is the requisite town oddball with more knowledge of that hole than one would think safe. He also seems to be haunted by his own hole-inspired fear, that of the dark, which is why he lives in a warehouse surrounded by hundreds of lamps. Our first exposure to this glittering, haunted warehouse has some of the same effect as seeing hundreds of fireflies flitting before your eyes—the lamps seem to go on forever—which just makes it more chilling when they suddenly all turn off.)

It seems that gazing into that basement hole leaves one susceptible to one’s emotional closets being cleaned and the fears contained therein being trotted out for a final showdown. At precisely the point where the air usually begins to leak out of similar movie enterprises, Dante manages to invest his movie with the kind of emotional urgency that should be the envy of, but seems quite beyond, most of the current crop of Hollywood shockmeisters. Bennett ends up climbing the tall tower of a dilapidated roller coaster to confront the demon that most plagues her, and the sequence is genuinely unnerving; the imagery has a primal terror to it that is made richer by the use of 3D, and by Dante’s sensitivity to how 3D can be used to accentuate not just depth, but height. Yet the sequence is triply effective because we never lose sight of why that climb is so important to Bennett’s character, a tribute to Dante’s mastery not just of technology but of inspired storytelling. And the movie’s climactic sequence, in which Massoglia faces down his greatest fear—the one that has kept his family on the move from city to city for so long—Dante finds ways to employ dazzling puzzle-logic imagery to make us feel as though we were seeing how a terrified, and newly empowered boy might envision the interior of his own confused mind. 

The Hole belongs in American cinemas—it premiered to acclaim and solid box-office in Britain and all over Europe this past fall. Yet the very 3D technology that assured it would be made has now become a hindrance, not so much in securing a distribution deal (of which it has none as of this writing) as in finding screens on which to play it. In the time between the movie’s conception as a 3D project and its completion, the post-Avatar glut of 3D product (and most of it is truly mere product, not movie magic) hit its zenith, making it difficult for an unassuming horror movie like The Hole to secure a technologically enabled place to spin its tale. One can only hope that with European exposure (including raves at the Venice Film Festival) and occasional screenings like the one where I saw it, as the closing night attraction of a 3D film festival here in Los Angeles last month, word will begin to circulate about the quality of this picture and some executive with as much movie love as business savvy will get it to the marketplace as soon as possible.

The film has been described as “modest,” and compared to many of the bloated movies that do find themselves on a release schedule, I suppose it is. But modesty here has been taken as a signifier, even in some of the movie's most positive notices, of second-tier achievement. The Hole is not a game-changer; it will not redefine cinema. What The Hole is, however, is not only a reminder of how much fun it can be to work up a serious crop of goose pimples; it’s also a reminder, especially for the suits in power, that Joe Dante is still making wonderful movies and that someone who is as talented as this guy shouldn’t have to wait seven years in between projects, only to find his latest afloat in exhibition limbo. The movie is flat-out terrific, capable of sending chills down the spines of youngsters and the not-so-young-as-all-that-anymore—my 10-year-old daughter was as riveted as I was—and it really should be playing this Halloween at a theater near you.

(This piece was originally posted at this blog on October 30, 2010, as "Joe Dante's 3D Ace in The Hole.")


Saturday, November 17, 2018


Every so often the stars align in such a way as to allow a perfectly inert and “nonproductive” weekend spent in the company of four, or five, or maybe even six movies, the sort of cine-bliss-out designed to decompress the mind and spirit after a particularly insistent week of breadwinning. Back in the salad days, when all thoughts were ostensibly devoted to expanding one’s horizons, this sort of motion picture marathon was known as a typical college weekend. But similar opportunities come far less frequently 40 years later, and when they do, they’re usually accompanied by at least four or five loads of laundry (one per movie, maybe) demanding to be sorted and folded. Thanks to the largely unplumbed depths of my DVR queue, I stumbled into one such marathon last Friday night, and it was a doozy, an entirely unplanned, thematically linked four-picture blast that would have been a honest-to-God B-movie treasure trove if you’d stumbled upon it buried in the movie ads of the local paper. A drive-in all-nighter, perhaps, the likes of which were plenty common back when drive-ins and long theatrical shelf lives were themselves common, when spasms of second-and-third-run programming cropped up every Wednesday or Friday like unkillable weeds. Four big action hits! Show starts at dusk! $5.00 a carload! And I never left my recliner!

It all began innocently enough with a thirst to revisit an old favorite— Burt Reynolds as Gator McCluskey in the 1973 moonshine classic White Lightning. Hal Needham had been a stuntman and stunt coordinator for years before doing this picture—he’d even worked with Reynolds before, as his stunt double on several episodes of Gunsmoke and on his previous outing, The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing, and he did both duties on White Lightning. But this first of two Gator adventures (the second was Gator, from 1976) isn’t a lark like Smokey and the Bandit, the booze-running comedy Needham and Reynolds would make together four years later. Sure, it has banjo-scored car chases, vigilante revenge, and all the rest of the trimmings that helped make it a big hit in theaters and drive-ins 45 years ago. But under the guiding hand of director Joseph Sargent (whose next movie would be the greatest New York City movie ever made, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three) White Lightning emphasizes humid, laconic Southern atmosphere and understated malevolence, beneath the culture and its institutions and often presented at a simmer instead of a boil, that eases the movie right under your skin. Reynolds’ Gator gets himself legally sprung from prison to infiltrate a corn whiskey-running operation when he finds out the fella heading it up, corrupt sheriff J.C. Connors (Ned Beatty), is the bastard who murdered his brother. 

That execution starts the movie, a brutal sequence in which Connors presides over the slow drowning of Gator’s kin. Sargent sets the tone with no comment, observing two canoes and four men gliding through the swamp, the sheriff’s deadpan countenance unmoved behind cheap wire-rimmed glasses as he blasts a hole in the hull of one boat and watches its bound-up occupants slowly sink. The setup and delivery of the scene are truly unnerving for the quiet alone, and Beatty, who with one exception barely raises his voice throughout the movie, is probably the scariest of any in a long and storied line of villainous Southern movie sheriffs because of his good-old-boy reserve—there’s no hospitality beneath the mask, only seething contempt and his conviction that his status within the law gives him the right to express it. White Lightning is a cut above the usual batch of drive-in firewater—it has the burn of excitement you’d expect from that title, but like its namesake, it doesn’t always go down easy.

I followed White Lightning with a movie I’d always wanted to see which had eluded me for decades, The Moonshine War (1970), and that blunt title that pretty much says it all. In 1932, a Northern federal treasury agent (Patrick McGoohan) decides to cash in before the imminent repeal of Prohibition and tries to muscle in on the Kentucky moonshine operation of an old army buddy (Alan Alda). But when his pal won’t cut him in, McGoohan incorporates the influence of another acquaintance, a glad-handing gangster (Richard Widmark) and his psychotic second-in-command (Lee Hazlewood), to press Alda into cooperation. When Alda and his very reluctant neighbors, who are in fact his competition, dig in… well, that title does imply a certain expectation of shoutin’ and shotgun fire on which the movie is happy to deliver. Directed by Richard Quine (whose previous pictures, like Bell, Book and Candle, The World of Suzie Wong and the marquee-strangling Oh, Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad seemed an unlikely lead-up to a tale of rotgut-fueled intrigue such as this), The Moonshine War goes about its business without a lot of stylish to-do, but it is, however, an adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel which happens to have been adapted into screenplay form by Leonard himself, and therein lies the potent spirits which provide the perfectly legal pleasures the movie has to offer.
Widmark, in particular, thoroughly enjoys gnashing his choppers on Leonard’s blunt, snappy, occasionally florid turns of phrase. This creepily insinuating psycho is a great mid-to-late-period role for the wonderful actor, and Widmark feeds off the unexpected enthusiasm and facility of Hazlewood, the heralded songwriter and musician whose only significant appearance as an actor this is. The two make a blackly funny pair whose overarchingly friendly demeanor can and will, as Leonard would often have it, take a hard right turn into decidedly less welcoming territory. The Moonshine War is also a haven for earnest actors and their bad Southern accents, but the prime offender is not, as you might guess, Alda as a backwoods Kentucky moonshiner. His casting, given the 20-20 hindsight of his reign as Hawkeye Pierce, seems sublimely odd, though I thought he comported himself surprisingly well on the linguistic front. It’s the Irish, neutrally-accented McGoohan who you gotta watch out for—you haven’t lived until you’ve heard him wrap his Celtic tongue around a mouthful of Yankee R’s.

The next serving in my intoxicating run of movies devoted (at least in part) to the desperate glories of running illegal liquor came from revisiting an old favorite-- Michael Schultz’s Greased Lightning (1977), a high-spirited take on the story of Wendell Scott, the first African-American stock car racer to ever win a NASCAR race, with Richard Pryor in the starring role. If anything, this movie has just gotten better with age (much like Schultz’s previous picture, Car Wash). It captures Pryor just as his status as a full-on movie star was consolidating, before bad choices, in movie projects and certain other lifestyle options, would begin to take their toll—he’s genuinely magnetic. My friend Odie Henderson, film critic for, recently marveled to me that in 1974 Warner Brothers wouldn’t insure Pryor to get on a horse for Blazing Saddles, yet here they were four years later sticking him behind all manner of high-speed vehicles, fleeing the police and later in pursuit of glory on the race track—that’s Hollywood. (You can read more of Odie on Greased Lightning and the career of Michael Schultz at his blog, Big Media Vandalism.) 
Schultz marks Scott’s achievements with a customary stylistic modesty, but within that modesty he serves the material well, with dignity, spark, good humor, and gravity enough for the audience to register its social significance without being beaten severely with the good-for-you club of history. And though the pendulum has lately swung back toward inclusion and representation in American movies, it’s still kind of thrilling to see a movie given over to a cast populated by the likes of Pryor, Cleavon Little (a de facto Blazing Saddles reunion!), Richie Havens (yet another musician in a supporting role who, unfortunately, doesn’t make the mark here that Hazlewood did in The Moonshine War), Beau Bridges (The Landlord himself!), and memorable, if brief turns from Bill Cobbs, Vincent Gardenia and, in a nod to the politics of the day, SNCC founder and Georgia senator Julian Bond and Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson. But the movie’s real revelation is Pam Grier, at the tail end of her reign as the queen of blaxploitation and just about to hit the streets of Fort Apache the Bronx. Grier’s role as Scott’s patient, supportive wife Mary, isn’t distinctive on paper, but loosed from the sexy, leather-clad, tough-as-nails Foxy Brown persona Grier positively glows, and the part gives her a brief chance to expand as an actress in ways which she couldn’t be perceived in the movies that made her an icon. In Greased Lightning she allows us a glimpse of the star that would find her way to glory through Elmore Leonard and Quentin Tarantino as Jackie Brown. Of course, she’s still subservient to Wendell Scott’s story, and Pryor’s pleasurable dominance as an actor, but in this delightful movie Grier provides an electrical charge of lightning that’s all her own.

I saw Lolly-Madonna XXX (1973) in a theater when I was about 13 years old, and its harsh view of humanity and the futility of violence really knocked me for a loop. Before last weekend, I hadn’t seen it since, and as the fourth part of my impromptu firewater foursome I approached revisiting it with eager anticipation, but also with a bit of trepidation, wondering whether my perceptions of it as an adult would reveal it to be less than the movie squirreled away in my memory. Turns out Lolly-Madonna XXX is another adaptation of a well-known novelist—Sue Grafton wrote The Lolly-Madonna War (as the movie was known in some markets) in 1969, years before embarking on the Alphabet series of crime novels that would secure her fame and fortune, and like Leonard with The Moonshine War, she also wrote the movie’s screenplay (with Rodney Carr-Smith). 

The X’s in the film’s title don’t refer to the markings on a moonshine jug. In fact, the illegal production of corn liquor is, like in Greased Lightning, only the incidental catalyst to the events the movie is really interested in—the destruction of two mountain families, the Feathers and the Gutshalls, by their own hands. Instead, the alphabetical markings are kisses attached to the signature on a note from a fictitious nymphet, Lolly-Madonna, which is delivered as a prank by the rambunctious Gutshall boys to distract the Feathers from the tending of their still, the better for them to move in and bust it up. But when some of the Feathers run across a young woman at a bus stop, they assume her to be the nonexistent Lolly-Madonna and kidnap her, intending to use her as a bargaining chip in the escalating Feather-Gutshall war over claims to an assuming meadow that sits between their properties. The furious decay in relations between the two clans can’t help but carry echoes of the confusion of conflict in Vietnam, one that was raging full on when the novel was written and when the film was made. But as directed by the significantly underrated Richard C. Sarafian (whose previously film was the inadvertent counterculture touchstone Vanishing Point), Vietnam is never pressed into the foreground, and it certainly doesn’t work as an extended metaphor; yet its presence in Lolly-Madonna XXX feels organic, inevitable, unavoidable, and it lends the film its sense of tragedy without ever becoming an overt ingredient in its dramatic strategy. 
Lolly-Madonna XXX also boasts, like Greased Lightning before it, a dream cast of established veterans and up-and-comers that would, if there were any justice in Hollywood history, warrant placing it in the vicinity of legend—the Feathers are comprised of no less than a remarkably restrained, yet seething Rod Steiger as the doomed Feather patriarch, besotted by tragedy, and the horror that he loved his son’s dead wife maybe even more than his son did; plus Jeff Bridges, Scott Wilson, Katherine Squire, Tim Scott, Ed Lauter and a pre-The Las Detail Randy Quaid. Over on the Gutshall side of the holler, there’s Robert Ryan as the timid father figure, torn by a sense of morals and his ineffectual ability to fulfill them—this was the great actor’s penultimate appearance, followed by his grand embodiment of Larry Slade in John Frankenheimer’s adaptation of The Iceman Cometh, also in 1973, and his Pap Gutshall is a worthy warm-up to that glorious performance. But there’s also Tresa Hughes, Kiel Martin, Paul Koslo and Joan Goodfellow as the rest of Gutshall family, and newcomer Season Hubley as the unfortunate traveler, the would-be Lolly-Madonna, who ends up with a front-row seat to the destruction of two families. 

Critic Michael Atkinson wrote eloquently about the film and its unenviably precarious position in the marketplace of the early ‘70s for, and he notes:

The end product is earnestly doom-laden, and inescapably an artifact of its era, a time when movies were freshly subject to a grungy grain-alcohol cocktail of social protest, youth culture empowerment, international cinephilia, low-culture realism, and prole restlessness. Which is to say, Lolly-Madonna XXX, as with so many films of the Nixon-'Nam days, could never be made today…”
Which might also be why it is so little-known today. But the movie retains the power it had for me when I was a kid, and then some. It is as grungy and mean as Atkinson suggests, but also sensitive to moments of beauty—when one character waxes about how he never wants to leave his mountain home, Sarafian and cinematographer Philp Lathrop provide ample evidence to justify that sentiment, and like that character the movie stays put on the Feather and Gutshall land for the duration because, you sense, it believes this place is the world.
Unfortunately, the movie would never really make its mark, caught as it was in the distribution limbo of an MGM headed by notorious casino builder James Aubrey, who presided over the studio’s erosion in the early ‘70s, and hobbled by a passel of negative reviews. If ever an unheralded early ‘70s film were ripe for rediscovery, Lolly-Madonna XXX would seem to be one, and its availability on disc from the Warner Archives and streaming on Amazon Prime (where I saw it, in it a surprisingly well-preserved wide-screen transfer) is all the encouragement you should need to make it the cornerstone of your very own moonshine-centric film festival. 


Saturday, October 27, 2018


The cry came forth from a dark corner of my living room as it usually does this time of year, as it does sometimes during other parts of the year too. It was my wife, shrieking from the depths of her soul, articulating a cry of despair and disbelief: “You’re watching this again??!!” As the familiar strains of James Bernard’s magnificent score rose from beneath the blood-red Warner Bros.-Seven Arts insignia and the subsequent and equally scarlet opening credits, my wife didn’t even need to look up from her book to realize what was happening. It was the week before Halloween, and therefore time for my in-the-neighborhood-of-annual dose of Terence Fisher’s masterful, terrifying Hammer classic, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969), the fifth in a line of gloriously lurid reiterations of the Frankenstein myth, the pinnacle of the series for the studio, and a movie I’ve long considered to be my favorite horror film and certainly one of my favorite movies, period.

Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed is a high point not only for Hammer, but also for the great movie star and Hammer icon Peter Cushing, who wrings maximum effect from this most acidic and horrifying interpretation of the good Dr. Frankenstein, all vestiges of “good” having been leeched out of him in the years narratively separating FMBD from the previous installment, Frankenstein Created Woman (1967). And it’s also a career peak, one of many, for the film’s director, the estimable and often under-appreciated director Terence Fisher, whose tenure in the Frankenstein series produced at least two, perhaps three inarguable classics, of which Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed is certainly the most brilliantly sustained, downright scary and, of all things, the most unexpectedly moving.

This year’s viewing came courtesy of a nifty Warners Blu-ray issued in 2015 which shows the movie off in a spiffy and revelatory way, and I highly recommend it to the movie’s legion of fans as well as to those who may as yet be unfamiliar with the particular pleasures this movie serves up. In celebration of both the Halloween season and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, I offer this assessment of the achievements of Fisher, and Cushing, of composer James Bernard, Freddie Jones, Simon Ward, Veronica Carlson, screenwriters Bert Batt and Anthony Nelson Keys, and everyone else involved in bringing this brutal extension of Mary Shelley’s legacy to the screen. The following piece originally appeared on my blog, Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, in 2007, and it is resurrected here, in much the same fashion as the unfortunate doctor who becomes the subject of Baron Frankenstein’s hubristic pursuit of pioneering brain transplant surgery, in a form only slightly altered...


Director Terence Fisher began his 21-year run at Hammer Films in 1952 with a film noir entitled The Last Page (aka Man Bait), but in 1957 he kicked off a fruitful 17-year stretch by doing nothing less than fleshing out the template for the studio’s greatest financial and artistic successes, which would send them all on an impressive run of lurid yet stately horror films whose budgets were rarely betrayed by their production values. Hammer began life in the mid-30’s, the inspiration of two father-son pairs, James and Enrique Carreras and Will and Anthony Hinds. These were filmmakers/businessmen who specialized in under-the-radar low-budget fare which touched on all tones and subject matter, but they would find the greatest success since the studio’s inception when they released 1955’s science fiction thriller The Quatermass X-periment (known in the U.S. as The Creeping Unknown). In the wake of a successful sequel, Quatermass II (aka Enemy from Space), Hammer wisely decided to focus more or less solely on horror and science fiction output, and thus the legendary eye of a genre hurricane was truly born. The studio embarked upon what would ultimately turn out to be a reinvention of the Universal horror film stable-- their first four efforts, The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Horror of Dracula (1958), The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958) and The Mummy (1959) were all directed by Fisher, and all four starred the venerable team of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. And Fisher would turn out to be the director whose style and career would become the most closely synonymous with Hammer horror.

By the time he made Frankenstein Created Woman in 1967, Fisher had revisited the well of the vampire twice (1960’s highly-regarded The Brides of Dracula, with Cushing’s Van Helsing battling David Peel’s incarnation of the blood-sucker, and 1966’s Dracula: Prince of Darkness which brought Lee’s sophistication back to Bram Stoker’s vampire, this time sans Cushing), and the director seemed ready to do something different with the Frankenstein formula. He and screenwriter Anthony Hinds delivered a brilliant genre-twisting and gender-bending idea: Frankenstein, still up to his usual existentially inspired hijinks, has a body—that of a beautiful young woman—whose skull ends up housing the brain of a wrongly executed man. But the brain is loath to cede its identity, and soon the woman begins a campaign of vengeful murder visited upon those who caused the young man’s fate. There’s some rather neat (for its time) consideration of crossed-gender behavior thrown in the mix as well, and the absence of an actual monster provided exactly the right downbeat note to keep the level of inspiration in Hammer’s now four-film-old series running high. 

(The previous entry, The Evil of Frankenstein, was director Freddie Francis' first contribution to the Hammer monster cycle-- he had previously directed Paranoiac (1963) starring Oliver Reed and Nightmare (1964) for the studio. Evil holds up well enough, but it was largely content to rehash the familiar motif of the monster lumbering through the countryside, and as a result the movie is considered to be a more minor entry in the series, though it marks perhaps Cushing’s most benign interpretation of one of his two signature Hammer characters.)


Fisher returned for the fourth time to the continuing saga of Dr. Frankenstein in 1969. But something about staging the battle of the sexes within a body at war with itself seemed to have rather unhinged the good doctor. In previous episodes it was fairly well understood that Cushing’s Frankenstein, as misguided as his methods were, as blind as his God complex may have made him, had intentions that were almost always good, regardless of how much death and destruction were their result. But all that has changed by the time we first see Cushing in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969). Here, Fisher and scenarists Bert Batt and Anthony Nelson Keys waste absolutely no time putting whatever remains of Frankenstein’s altruistic tendencies to their final rest. If it was to be understood that Colin Clive’s obsessions to bring Karloff’s monster to life were put into perspective by the monster’s inability to control the impulses his damaged brain was sending to his stitched-together body, then Clive’s characterization of Frankenstein, even into the narratives of the first two sequels, at least retains some measure of sympathy due in large part to his own empathy for his creation. This was true of Cushing’s Frankenstein too, despite the more graphic stylization of the violence perpetuated by the monster, reflected in the violence with which Cushing's Frankenstein had pieced together his creation’s visage. But Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed opens with a memorable sequence that makes audience identification with the titular surgeon unlikely right from the start—Frankenstein, wearing a frightening rubber mask that looks like a Captain Company version of Dustin Hoffman’s old-man makeup in Little Big Man, stalks and decapitates a colleague with a spray of the brightest Technicolor red, then threatens to do the same to a wino who stumbles upon his storefront laboratory. Luckily, the wino ends up only with the victim’s head in his lap—he gets to keep his own—and it’s not long before Dr. Frankenstein must dump his current project and find other, more shadowy digs.

Cushing occupies Frankenstein here with an actor’s supreme confidence in his own ability to hold an audience. He knows the direction the character is headed is in one of irredeemable megalomania and condescension for those less intelligent than he, but he never winks or otherwise elicits anything resembling a plea for understanding. Instead, Cushing grabs the character by the throat and steers the ride to hell through some truly harrowing territory. His icy stare and vaguely regal air of superiority, mixed with a cunningly choreographed charm that morphs out of his sharp, angular features whenever the need arises, have rarely been put to better use than they were here. And few were better, in either timing or timbre, with the kind of florid speeches, here laced with seething anger and potential violence that were hallmarks of Hammer film dialogue, than was Cushing.

Frankenstein eventually checks in and lays low, under an assumed name, at a boarding house run by Anna Spengler (Hammer siren Veronica Carlson), where he berates the other residents for their dismissive attitude toward progressive science and his own experiments, conducted in concert with another like-minded surgical maverick, a Dr. George Brandt. He soon discovers that Anna’s boyfriend Karl (Simon Ward) is a doctor at the mental asylum where Brandt, gone crazy before he could reveal to Frankenstein the secret of successful brain transplantation, is being caged. Karl is also involved in procuring illegal drugs for Anna’s ailing mother, and Frankenstein uses that information to blackmail the couple into facilitating, and taking part in, the continuation of his shrouded surgical experimentation. It’s soon clear that Frankenstein’s motives go far beyond simple advances of science for the benefit of mankind. This mad doctor truly is drunk on the idea of pursuing success for his own name’s sake, but also in exercising that power in rougher, more salacious and sinister ways. Already acknowledging that murder is but a messy fly on his moral windshield, he also takes time out to assert his dominance over Anna (and Karl) by humiliating her as often as possible and finally, for no reason other than that he can, raping her. (This sequence, now restored to the recent DVD and Blu-ray  releases, was cut from the theatrical prints released in the U.S.) And he eventually forces Karl to help kidnap the dying Dr. Brandt from his cell and transplant Brandt’s brain into yet another body, that of one of the asylum’s directors (Freddie Jones).

Frankenstein Must be Destroyed was, of course, notable for the increased level of violence of its tale, an appeasement to clamoring Hammer fans made possible by the concurrent loosening of content standards both in the U.K. and in the U.S. at the time. (The MPAA had only recently adopted its rating system, which tagged FMBD with an “M”-- suggested for mature audiences—and later re-rated it the perplexing yet somehow equivalent “GP,” while it garnered an “18” certificate in Britain, limiting attendance to those over 18 years of age, the equivalent of an “X” in America.) I was ten years old when I saw FMBD in a theater, in 1970, and it marked the first time, I’m sure, that I’d ever seen a decapitation (implied) on screen before, followed soon after by a generous display of the bloody head. (Most horror fans my age probably witnessed their first full-on separation of noggin from shoulders courtesy of The Omen in 1976.) 

Upon seeing the film again as an adult, what its violence seems most notable for now is as another piece of evidence in the case for Terence Fisher as perhaps the genre’s most efficient, underrated and under-regarded director. Fisher’s style was lurid as the subject matter demanded—he took advantage of every rich color splashed onto the sets by Hammer art director Bernard Robinson and knew exactly how to maximize the erotic appeal of heaving bosoms traversed by a trickle of blood. But his hand as a director had a measure of stateliness, which is assuredly not a backhanded way of suggesting his camera was static or unresponsive. He knew, as the well-trained and observant directors of his time all knew, where to place the camera to emphasize the story and the effect that the actor was going after. His films are quickly, expertly paced without being over-edited or stuffed full of tricks meant to distract from the director’s lack of confidence. 

And Fisher, given that somewhat classic style, was never one to condescend to his material, even when, on occasion, it deserved derision. (Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, Hammer’s last Frankenstein, was a lesser effort, an inauspicious way for such an elegant director to end his career, but you’d never know it from the way he visually signed the film.) Fisher was unafraid of seeming callous and brutal due of the behavior of his characters. Yet he more often carried with on the violation of a cranium by hand drill or surgical saw just under the frame, without plunging the camera headlong into open cavities and gushing wounds, thus freeing the imagination to do its worst while the camera kept its sturdy gaze on the determination of the demented Frankenstein, or on the revulsion of his reluctant assistants. He combined and balanced directorial economy and lightning reflexes with the grand, velvety, bloody flourishes that were the bread and butter of the Hammer film in a way that other directors at the studio could occasionally approach but never truly match. 

Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed carries on with the downbeat, nihilistic horrors that were amplified and expanded in Woman, itself yet another instance, like its predecessor, of a Hammer Frankenstein film absent the iconographic lumbering monster so often misidentified by its creator’s name. Freddie Jones, not typically an actor associated with subtlety, is allowed to paint a portrait of exceptional pain as “the creature,” whose brain (that of Dr. Brandt) cannot process or accept the reflection of another man’s body, shaved bald and sporting a ragged stitch to hold his skull cap tight, in his mirror. And neither can Brandt’s wife, to whom he returns one night, unable to reveal himself for fear of her inability to understand what he is telling her about who he is. (He hides behind a changing partition as he speaks to her, and his pessimistic presumption turns out to be agonizingly accurate.) Jones draws us in deep, through his eyes welling with tears, into the tormented state of this doctor, once Frankenstein’s colleague, now a victim of the same arrogance he once perpetuated. This portrait, seething with confusion, rage and newfound empathy for those in his own past whom he subjected to callous experimentation in the name of a greater good, is among the finest in the entirety of the Hammer Films catalogue, a catalogue already not unfamiliar with good actors who choose to rise to the occasion instead of bend down to pat it on the head. It is Brandt’s helpless anger, illuminated by Jones’ heartfelt and committed portrayal, and Fisher’s sensitivity toward the character’s plight, that finally lifts Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, despite its rather clipped finish, above the usual fare and into the realm of the finest treatments and variations of the Frankenstein legend ever filmed.


Saturday, October 13, 2018


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