Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Something Wicked This Way Comes

(1983) Directed by Jack Clayton; Written by Ray Bradbury; Based on the novel by Ray Bradbury; Starring: Jason Robards, Jonathan Pryce, Cheryl Ladd, Pam Grier, Vidal Peterson and Shawn Carson; Available on DVD

Rating: ****

“Sometimes the man who looks happiest in town, with the biggest smile, is the one carrying the biggest load of sin.” – Charles Halloway (excerpt from Ray Bradbury’s novel Something Wicked This Way Comes)

“Tasteless fare, funerals, bad marriages, lost loves, lonely beds; that is our diet. We suck that misery and find it sweet…” – Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce)

Note: This is an expanded version of a capsule review that was posted during the early days of this blog.

Upon its release, Something Wicked This Way Comes received a less than enthusiastic reception from critics, who decried it as too dark for kids and not compelling enough to hold the attention of adults. Home video guides (including my beloved Psychotronic Video Guide) similarly dismissed the film as nothing special, which always seemed unjust to me. The film falls within Disney’s transitional period between the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, when the studio struggled to find its feet among its competitors, adding more “mature” fare to its stable, such as The Black Hole, Tron and The Black Cauldron. While none of these titles were big successes from a critical or box office standpoint, they have earned a loyal fan base. On the other hand, Something Wicked This Way Comes never quite garnered this same following. I had the pleasure of seeing this at the now-vanished Mann National theatre in Westwood, California, and although I was a little older than the two main characters, it left a lasting impression.

Directed by Jack Clayton (The Innocents), with a screenplay by Ray Bradbury (adapted from his 1962 novel*), Something Wicked This Way Comes depicts a 1930s Norman Rockwell-esque town turned on its ear. Underneath the town’s idyllic exterior lies a foundation of fear, regret and despair. James Horner’s effective score does much to elevate the tension, effectively communicating the shift from light to dark. Told through the lens of two pre-teen boys, Will Halloway (Vidal Peterson) and Jim Nightshade (Shawn Carson), we witness the strange metamorphosis that occurs after Mr. Dark’s Pandemonium unexpectedly appears one autumn night. 

* According to Bradbury’s 1998 afterward to his novel, Something Wicked This Way Comes originated from an unpublished short story “The Black Ferris,” which he developed into a screenplay for Gene Kelly to direct.

Jason Robards is instantly likeable and relatable as Will’s aging father, Charles Halloway, who proves it’s not youth, athletic prowess or bravado that make a father, but experience and wisdom. Although he’s older than the other parents in town, he keeps a young perspective, possessing a mischievous quality. At times, he seems more of a co-conspirator with Will than a parent. While he spends his hours as a librarian, buried in books, he enjoys living vicariously through Will’s exploits. His darker side harbors regret, which he keeps close to his chest, stemming from an incident when his son almost drowned. He’s at a point in his life where he has more years behind than ahead of him, and he must struggle to find peace with that grim reality.

Jonathan Pryce exudes a subtle menace as the as the carnival’s proprietor Mr. Dark. One by one, he seduces the townspeople with the false promise of fulfilling their respective hearts’ desires. Will and Jim’s teacher Miss Foley (Mary Grace Canfield) longs to return to a time when she was young and pretty. Mr. Crosetti (Richard Davalos) the barber, dreams of being surrounded by lustful, adoring women. Ed, the bartender (James Stacy), an amputee, wishes to be whole again. In one of the most haunting scenes, Mr. Dark tempts Charles with the promise of restoring his youth, only to take the years away, casually tearing out pages from a book. As the scene plays out, we can feel Charles’ anguish and exhaustion, as Mr. Dark saps his life energy.

There’s much to like about the film, with its pervasive sense of dread, but at times the film threatens to wallow in ersatz nostalgia. The all-too-obvious movie set town appears a bit too much like a Norman Rockwell painting, and the kids manage to never say anything more harsh than “darn.” With so many talented performers, the weakest link is the two young leads. As he appears in the film, Jim Nightshade is underwritten, hardly the free-spirited rogue depicted in the novel. In all fairness, Carson isn’t given much to do, but his bland performance doesn’t add much life to the character. Peterson is serviceable, but not exceptional as Will. Thanks to Robards, his best moments are when we see father and son together.

Bradbury’s story evokes a simpler time that never existed, yet you somehow wish it did.  The odd mixture of sentimentality with the macabre seems to be a strange brew, but it’s oddly endearing. There’s no magic formula that determines why some movies succeed while others are doomed to relative obscurity, but it’s clear audiences weren’t quite ready for a melancholy kids movie that dared to include adult themes. Re-visiting the film in the theater many years later* reinforced my original assessment. Movies aimed at kids didn’t necessarily have to be all kid’s stuff. Something Wicked This Way Comes at once embraces youth, and is a poignant meditation on what it means to grow old. It’s sobering to reflect on the fact that I’m now closer in age to Robards than the young lead actors in the film. But this just reinforces the need, as in Charles Halloway, to find peace with who I am. Far from mere kid’s stuff, indeed.

* I was lucky enough to catch the film several years back at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, and share the experience with my son. I’m sure Charles would have approved.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Motel Hell

(1980) Directed by Kevin Connor; Written by: Robert Jaffe and Steven-Charles Jaffe; Starring: Rory Calhoun, Paul Linke, Nancy Parsons and Nina Axelrod 
Available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Rating: ***½

“There’s nothing cruel, what I’m doing here. I treat most of my stock better than farmers treat their animals. I don’t feed them chemicals or hormones. When you consider the way the world is today, there’s no question that I’m doing a lot of ‘em a big favor.” – Farmer Vincent (Rory Calhoun)

I’m ecstatic to take part in the Things I Learned from the Movies Blogathon, co-hosted by the dynamic duo of blogathon hosts, Kristina of Speakeasy and Ruth of Silver Screenings. Seriously, I have no idea how they manage to come up with so many fantastic blogthon ideas, but I’m glad they keep doing it. Today’s offering is a not-so-guilty pleasure from 1980, blending horror and comedy into one diabolical stew.

Motel Hell tells the story of Farmer Vincent (Rory Calhoun)* and his sister Ida (Nancy Parsons), who run a backwoods motel, along with a successful smoked meat business.** Why do customers come from far and wide to taste his unique treats? Is it his secret blend of herbs and spices or patented smoking process? Nope, Vincent incorporates another exotic, yet readily available ingredient. What could you possibly learn from horror movies, let alone one with such a far-fetched, gruesome premise? Allow me to illuminate you, dear reader, on the wealth of lessons to be gleaned from Motel Hell.  

* Fun fact: According to director Kevin Connor’s DVD commentary, Harry Dean Stanton was considered for the role of Farmer Vincent, but turned it down.

** Queasy fact: The pig carcasses in the smokehouse were real.

Lesson number one: Read the list of ingredients when trying new food. For the benefit of this discussion, I’ll assume you don’t have any food allergies or dietary restrictions, so you’re not already meticulously verifying everything that goes into your stomach. After watching Motel Hell, maybe you should. Whenever you’re in a strange place with suspect food preparation methods, you might consider pressing the establishment for a few more details. If you can’t find an ingredient roster, or they’re not forthcoming, maybe it’s best to pass on that snack. And remember: just because that food’s locally sourced from an independent proprietor doesn’t mean they’re above cutting corners (witness the film’s best line, delivered by Calhoun in the final scene).

Lesson number two: Always consult your AAA ratings (or CAA ratings, for those readers north of the border) before checking in for the night. As a veteran of many road trips, I get it. You’re a weary traveler looking for someplace to rest your head for the night, and that little place looks inviting enough. Heck, the sign even says “Motel Hello.” But dig a little deeper underneath the surface, and looks what happens when you let your guard down. In one scene, a kinky couple checks in for the night to do who-knows-what to each other with who-knows-what, and Farmer Vincent doesn’t bother to have them sign the registry. Truth be told, they were really obnoxious and too self-absorbed to see the red flags, but they didn’t deserve their fate. In another scene, Farmer Vincent places a bumper sticker (crookedly, I might add) on a family’s station wagon. Excuse me? Did I ask you to place that tacky thing on my car? I think not. Unless the business is paying you to advertise for them, kindly decline.

* Not so fun fact: Sable Ranch in Santa Clarita, California, which stood in for the Motel Hello and was the site for many other productions, burned to the ground this past summer in a wildfire.

Lesson number three: If you plan on snooping around, use the buddy system, for cryin’ out loud! When a curious health department inspector suspects something fishy about Farmer Vincent’s establishment (spoiler: it has nothing to do with fish), he returns to investigate what’s behind a locked gate. What’s in that secret garden with the weird noises? Bring a colleague. And watch your back every now and then.

Although Motel Hell was British director Kevin Connor’s first American film, it wasn’t his first indoctrination into horror. Connor made his auspicious directorial debut with the Amicus portmanteau film From Beyond the Grave (1974). Even if the premise stretches credulity, he treats the material with a deadpan perspective. Calhoun and Parsons are excellent as the leads, who view their profession as fulfilling a higher calling. If anyone could have benefited from the aforementioned lessons, it’s Vincent’s naïve fiancée Terry (Nina Axelrod). Instead of getting involved in a dubious May-December romance, she should have asked more questions, and kept an eye on his disapproving sister Ida. Alas, live and learn.

Okay, Motel Hell probably won’t change your life. It does, however, illustrate the time-worn adage that you are what you eat. You can also do more with comedy and horror to say the sorts of things we wouldn’t dare say in a straightforward drama. Many of us give little thought to the food we stuff down our gob, or how it got to our table. While this movie might not turn us all into vegetarians, we might be inclined to take a moment to pause and think about what we eat, and where it came from.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The Masque of the Red Death

(1964) Directed by Roger Corman; Written by Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell; Based on the story “The Masque of the Red Death,” by Edgar Allan Poe; Starring: Vincent Price, Hazel Court, Jane Asher, Patrick Magee and Skip Martin; Available on Blu-ray (import) and DVD

Rating: ****

“Famine, pestilence, war, disease and death! They rule this world.” – Prince Prospero (Vincent Price)

“As a young filmmaker, I was watching every type of film I could find, but for the Poe films I studied the work of Alfred Hitchcock and of Ingmar Bergman, plus some of the German expressionist directors of the 1920s.” – Roger Corman

The so-called “Poe Cycle” of films, directed by Roger Corman and starring Vincent Price represented a new era for American International, known mainly for low budget drive-in fare. By contrast, this series was lavish by the company’s standards, with higher production values, filmed in color, and costing twice as much as their typical movies. Another difference, according to Corman, was that the titles were intended for theatrical release on a single bill, not as a double feature. Of course, changing this paradigm required that the titles delivered on their own relative merits, but deliver they did. The Masque of the Red Death is no exception, distinguishing itself from its esteemed stable-mates as the most visually inventive of the series.

Corman originally planned to make Masque of the Red Death the second Poe film, after House of Usher, but delayed the project due to concerns about comparisons to Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Fortunately for us, he decided to go ahead with the film a few years later, which combined two of Poe’s short stories, blending the eponymous tale with “Hop-Frog.” The bulk of the source material was incorporated into the third act, with Corman and the writers tasked to create a story around the first two acts. While both stories were unrelated, they feature masquerade balls and involved nasty members of royalty receiving their well-earned comeuppance.

Vincent Price fits the role of Prince Prospero like a glove, endowing his character with the right balance of refinement and treachery. Prospero resides in his castle, away from the squalor of the surrounding village and the impending threat of the Red Death, a deadly plague that’s sweeping the countryside. He shelters a chosen few in his fortified abode, believing his pact with Satan will protect him from the plague. Hazel Court also shines as Prospero’s mistress Juliana, who pledges her undying allegiance as one of the Devil’s handmaidens. She barely contains her animosity toward Francesca (Jane Asher), a village girl abducted by Prospero for his own devious ends. For her part, Asher is easy on the eyes, but vexingly passive. With her perpetual doe-eyed expression, Francesca exists in a state of perpetual befuddlement, a mere pawn for Prospero.  

The film boasts a strong supporting cast, including Patrick Magee as the sadistic nobleman Alfredo. He serves in Prospero’s court, taking sadistic pleasure witnessing the misfortunes of others. You can see the wheels turning inside his head, as he sees himself usurping his benefactor’s position. Skip Martin is excellent as the dwarf court jester, Hop Toad (changed from Hop Frog in Poe’s story), who patiently bides his time while plotting revenge against the cruel nobleman. Corman’s one casting misstep is 7-year-old Verina Greenlaw as Hop Toad’s wife Esmeralda. Corman claimed he couldn’t find a little person suitable for her role, so he cast a child instead and dubbed a grown woman’s voice. Needless to say, the results are less than convincing.

From the lavish costumes to the candles, The Masque of the Red Death employs color to full effect, ensuring AIP founders Arkoff and Nicholson got their money’s worth for the added expense. Lensed by a young Nicolas Roeg, and featuring superb art direction by Robert Jones and set design by Daniel Haller, the film looks like a much more expensive production. Poe described seven different colored chambers in the castle, but four appear in the film. You could probably write a decent thesis about the significance of the colors, but if I had to fathom a guess, I’d say yellow for the innocence of youth, purple for decadence, white for purity and black for the void of Prospero’s soul.* The intentional use of color seems to have also influenced Corman’s decision to cast two redheads, Court and Asher, in the lead female roles. A final nod to the story appears as a mysterious red-cloaked figure who crashes Prospero’s masquerade party (“There is no face of death until the moment of your own death”).

* What the colors really mean is anyone’s guess. Try it. It’s fun!

As befitting any feature film based on a poem or short story, The Masque of the Red Death strains a bit to stretch the material to 90 minutes. But what the film lacks in plot, it compensates in theme and atmosphere. Either by accident or design (and with a little help from Mr. Poe), Corman has crafted a populist tale. It illustrates the folly of those at the top who attempt to remain distanced from the rest of society. Even Prospero, with his wealth and influence can’t avoid his fate forever. The plague is the great equalizer, and Death will have its day.

Monday, October 3, 2016

The Once Over Twice: Martin

Available on DVD (Out of print)

Rating: ****

“Martin’s an honest guy. He’s right up front with everything.” – George A. Romero

“I’ve been much too shy to ever do the sexy stuff; I mean do it with someone who’s awake. Someday, maybe I’ll get to do it awake, and without the blood part.” – Martin (John Amplas)

Today’s review is sort of special, not just because it kicks off Horror Month, but marks my blog’s sixth anniversary. Yep, I’m still here, and there’s no sign of stopping anytime soon.* With this in mind, I’m proud to continue my ongoing mission to discuss little-known gems that have slipped through the cracks. The decade between Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead was hardly a dry spell for George Romero, who continued to hone his craft as a low budget filmmaker, and test his storytelling boundaries. Arguably his best effort during this period was his unconventional take on the vampire genre, Martin.

* And they said it wouldn’t last (By “they,” I mean the nagging little voices in my head, but they don’t have a vote).

As in Romero’s earlier productions, he employed many local actors from his native Pittsburgh. The lack of household names, born more out of necessity than anything else, provides a certain level of veracity to the film. Likewise, the 16 mm cinematography, filmed in real locations as opposed to sets, lends Martin a gritty, documentary-style feel. Our feet are planted firmly in reality, leaving us more willing to accept whatever is thrust upon us.

John Amplas anchors the film with his low-key performance as Martin, a troubled young man with some very unusual nocturnal habits. Although he’s 20-ish, he claims to be 84 years old. In lieu of fangs, he uses a tranquilizer-filled syringe to subdue his victims, and razor blades to take their blood. He doesn’t regard drinking blood as a means of sustenance as much as a compulsion. We’re introduced to him in a disturbing opening scene, as he stalks a woman on a train, and subsequently breaks into her cabin. He proceeds to drug her, straddle her body in a ghoulish mockery of sex, and drink her blood. As she bleeds to death, he rearranges items in her cabin to make the murder scene look like a suicide.

Martin’s predatory behavior stems from his delusions. He lacks any supernatural powers (which he never claims to possess in the first place),* yet, he’s convinced he’s lived many decades and must feed on human blood. After he gets a phone in his room, he takes up calling in to a late night radio show, confessing his predilection as a vampire. The host (voiced by cinematographer Michael Gornick) humors Martin and refers to him as “The Count,” but sees him as a ratings boon. Martin’s radio conversations might fail to convince anyone else that he’s a supernatural predator, but they reveal his inability to relate on a meaningful level with other people (“In real life, you can’t get people to do what you want them to do.”). His detached affair with a bored housewife (Elyane Nadeau) represents a brief glimmer of normalcy in his life (“That’s why you’re so nice to have around, Martin. You don’t have opinions.”).

* In his DVD commentary Romero asserted, “I don’t believe he’s a vampire in the supernatural sense.”

In one of the few artistic flourishes, Martin appears as a full-fledged vampire in a series of black and white sequences. He’s an idealized version of himself, confident and sophisticated, seducing young women in their bedrooms. We also see the fantasy flipside, as he’s pursued by angry villagers.

Martin’s nemesis is his superstitious elderly uncle Cuda (Lincoln Maazel), who insists on referring to his nephew as “nosferatu.” He believes in a generations-old family curse from the Old Country, and that Martin was born before the turn of the century. Martin’s cousin Christina (played by Romero’s future wife Christine Forrest) sees him as mentally ill, and attempts to intervene on his behalf. Cuda shrugs off his daughter’s skepticism, asserting the nosferatu’s strength is that no one believes. While Christine sees only illness and paranoia, Cuda is on a one-man crusade to rid the world of the perceived family curse. At one point, Martin contradicts his uncle’s superstitions by biting into a bulb of garlic and grasping a crucifix, but despite all of the evidence to the contrary, he’s still viewed as a menace. On the surface, Martin’s uncle could be viewed as similarly delusional, but another interpretation suggests he’s bound by a sense of tradition and a strict adherence to ancestral lore.

Romero appears to suggest we are blinded by our preconceptions and superstitions to the point where we can’t see the facts in front of us. The film leaves just enough ambiguity about Martin and his uncle to wonder “what if,” even if the evidence suggests there’s nothing beyond the ordinary. Martin speaks to our disconnect in modern society, where fear and suspicion commonly override reason. Even if the folklore isn’t real, the traditions are very much alive and well. By extension, these traditions and folklore could have spawned from mental illness along with the fears associated with it. As the movie draws to its inexorable conclusion, it doesn’t matter whether Martin’s a real vampire or (as most of us would likely conclude) mentally unbalanced. His fate remains the same.